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Traffic backs up on a city street. (J.P. MOCZULSKI For The Globe and Mail)
Traffic backs up on a city street. (J.P. MOCZULSKI For The Globe and Mail)

Canada Competes

Three ideas to bust gridlock and get cities moving Add to ...

The Hyperloop, entrepreneur Elon Musk’s proposed ‘fifth mode’ of transportation, sounds cool on paper. But are futuristic mass people-movers the answer to the gridlock that is increasingly plaguing cities in Canada and elsewhere? We asked three very different kinds of creative Canadians for their ideas on how to beat urban traffic and get cities moving.

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Smart roads could make cars part of mass transit

Julie Czerneda

Science fiction novelist, four-time winner of the Aurora Award. Will conduct world-building workshops this fall at McMaster University, among others.

I build worlds for a living, and I turn to biology to launch my imagination. In my stories, I’ve built suburbs for herbivores who avoid eye contact, skyscrapers that are routinely demolished and rebuilt, and a hockey rink with ventilation designed for communication by scent.

Do our cities work? I drive the 400 highways. Short of inventing matter transporters or, in my favourite whimsy, restoring the soil layer of the planet for those of us that are sun-dependent by moving every bit of traffic but transit underground (along with anything we can automate), I say we should tweak the city’s circulatory system.

Our bodies differentially move materials: Oxygen travels inside blood cells to needy tissues while our intestines actively gobble nutrients from digested food. Our roads could, too.

The tech is already here to communicate with car systems. Major arteries could be true thoroughfares, with what needs to go fastest shunted to those lanes and accelerated; local users to the outside, ready to nimbly exit. Forget smart cars that want to drive for you (shudder). Let’s have smart roads take charge once you arrive in the system. Any problem, and a signal would slow every vehicle upstream the amount required simultaneously, before the flow grinds to an abrupt halt, eliminating the dreaded Slinky effect. Excess traffic could be guided via GPS onto alternative routes made ready by remote control of road signals and side streets, funnelling the load directly through as long as necessary. We’d drive ourselves where it’s fun, and turn our cars into components of mass transit to commute. I could get some reading done!

The key is to design based on us as living things, not the technology we use now. Pavement? It’s easy, not better. Stick driveways underground instead of waterways. Let nature in wherever and however possible, and our cities may become the best places to live on this planet.

Social traffic apps for all kinds of vehicles

Justin Raymond

President of Hailo Canada. The Hailo app, available in Toronto and other cities worldwide, uses GPS technology to match taxi drivers with potential fares.

While there’s clearly lots of room for ‘Big Ideas’ in this area (including fundamental rethinking of city planning principles), there are immediate solutions that technologies such as GPS, mobile and social media can offer that could make a real, immediate impact. There’s no reason why Hailo’s type of information-sharing should be limited to professional taxi drivers. Other mobile apps such as Waze are combining GPS and social media technology to help everyday people drive more intelligently and opt for public transport when road routes are congested. It’s early days, but the potential there to reduce congestion is huge.

Given these advancements in cars and taxis, it’s not hard to imagine a city or a third party developing a mobile app that provides truck drivers with real-time traffic, event and construction information so that they can take less disruptive routes through our city. The ‘social’ in this case could be provided by centralized traffic control, emergency services or city-contracted construction crews. And, of course, let’s not forget making the most of our existing public transport infrastructure. Apps like Transit App are using mobile technology to help reduce many of uncertainties and lost time associated with subways, streetcars and buses.

Gas station shrinks: ‘Do you really want to take that trip?’

Ben Katchor

Cartoonist and author of several collections, whose work re-imagines familiar urban environments. An illustration professor, he has also written several works of musical theatre.

I live in New York, so I’m aware of the paralyzing traffic conditions. I’ve written recent strips about what I see as the only two answers to the problem.

The first is learning to enjoy gridlock. The idea came after I was in L.A. and I realized that at a certain hour, people just go out onto the roads in their cars even though they know they’re just going to stand there. Why would anyone knowingly do that? And I realized that maybe they just like sitting in their cars, with the air-conditioning on and the radio. That’s one solution: stasis. The roads are just a place where you park and enjoy being in your car without going anywhere. You can turn the engine off instead of idling, but, even then, eventually you’ll run out of gas and you’ll be stuck there – and that scenario leads to roads clogged with cars that have run out of gas, which would lead to no more roads or private vehicles, and that’s okay with me.

The other strip is about having every gas station attendant trained to counsel people on whether they really want to go where they’re planning to go – and how if they just stayed home, there’d be less gridlock. A gas station seems like a good point of intervention, when you’re just about to fill up your tank. Your regular psychiatric therapist could do it, too, but it seems like a specialized intervention. You don’t need it in the general population, you just need it in the gas-buying population. And the gas stations would still make money. They’d still sell some gas, they just wouldn’t sell as much. Any destructive behaviour, if it’s limited, is still not as destructive. If only 100 people drove cars in New York, people wouldn’t be talking about gridlock.

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