For more than 60 years, transportation planners have tried to slay the dragon of congestion. With ever wider roads, freeways and management systems, our cities are drowning in traffic congestion and corresponding social, environmental and economic stresses. As Toronto's Board of Trade continually notes, Toronto is overrun with cars and paying a huge price for this congestion.
With history as our guide, we know that building more facilities only invites more congestion. Furthermore, in most of our central cities and suburbs, adding additional capacity can only be done at a huge cost and with a tremendous impact on the existing community fabric. The only thing that really works in big cities is getting more people out of their cars by focusing on moving people rather than vehicles.
With more efficient transportation, we can move more people per hour on a facility once solely dedicated to the private car. There are many compelling reasons to do this, from public health to environmental effects and convenience. In the end, though, the driving imperative will come from the inexorably rising cost of energy. But the best solution for drivers – those who have no choice or, for whatever reason, insist – is to provide a range of better options, including transit, walking and, yes, cycling.
One of the key transportation issues we've only begun to tackle is system efficiency versus system capacity. When we think about moving the highest number of people in the smallest available footprint, creating more space for walking, cycling and transit makes perfect sense. By focusing on making our existing systems more efficient, we can allow more people to travel on the roads, highways and transportation systems we've already built.
Every additional trip we take on foot, on a bicycle or by public transit frees up significant space for drivers, since the "footprints" of these other modes are so much smaller. The cyclist beside you is not the car in front of you; the bicycle locked to a ring at curbside means one less parking space is taken. Driver, cyclist and pedestrian are complementary rather than mutually exclusive categories. Most of us are all of these at different times. What's crucial is the proportion of time we use each mode, and creating communities where the car is needed for only certain types of trips. For other trips, we can make more efficient choices.
Recognizing this reality, cities around the world are finding innovative ways to share their rights of way. Cities such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen, London, Paris, New York, Montreal and Vancouver are rapidly making the shift to safe and efficient multimodal networks. More than a hundred cities now have bicycle-sharing programs such as Bixi. If we decide we want our system to be more efficient, we must also ensure it has the attributes that make the more efficient choices the attractive ones – and that comes through land use, system design, pricing and skillful urban design.
When we look to cities that are still being designed around the car – high and low density, from Los Angeles and Houston to Sao Paulo and Beijing – we see that people drive because the design of the system sends strong signals that that's the mode to use even when it means travelling ever longer distances over ever greater travel time.
On the other hand, when we look at cities that are designed for both people and place, we see people walking, cycling, riding transit and living more sustainable lifestyles. New York now has 220,000 daily cycling trips, and this number is increasing dramatically. We also see a decrease in confusion, frustration and bad behaviour by all users – drivers, pedestrians and cyclists alike. Copenhagen is zeroing in on a 50-per-cent use of cycling for its daily commutes, supported by innovative street designs that expand the range of those feeling comfortable to operate in mixed traffic.
By promoting alternatives and making safe and comfortable space for cyclists (and pedestrians) in shared rights of way, we make room for driving when it's needed. By trying to make it easier for drivers by "hogging" the right of way, we make it impossible.
Ken Greenberg is a Toronto-based urban designer and author of Walking Home . Trent Lethco is an associate principal leading Arup's planning group in New York.