SAINT JOHN – What does car dependency look like? Travel Saint John’s MacKay Highway during rush hour and you’ll see. Every rush-hour, thousands of commuters pack the MacKay Highway, sometimes causing several kilometers of stop and go traffic. The four-lane, divided Highway connects the suburbs of Rothesay and Quispamsis to the city of Saint John. The Provincial government has promised to add two lanes, one in each direction, to ease traffic, increase safety and to speed the movement of commercial trucks travelling to and through Saint John; the MacKay Highway is part of Route 1, which connects New Brunswick to the Canadian-American border.
There are many reasons why adding lanes to the Highway is a bad idea. For me, three related issues stand out: induced traffic, the positive feedback loop that exists between road capacity and car dependency, and the suburbanization that results from highway expansion.
First issue: increasing road capacity increases traffic, a phenomenon known as induced traffic. Let’s consider traffic to be the absolute number of cars on the road and congestion to be the delays caused by all that traffic. Congestion happens when roadways begin to reach capacity. Heavily congested roadways encourage people to change their travel patterns to avoid delays — most people hate sitting in traffic. Drivers might change modes (walk, bike or take transit), they might choose a different route, change the time of their trip, or opt not make the trip. Regardless, there is a limit to the amount of traffic one road can handle. Increasing road capacity temporarily relieves congestion, making it faster and easier to drive. But over time, people change their habits and the result is more driving — more traffic.
You can see how this is a vicious cycle. Roads become congested and are expanded to reduce congestion. Roads become wider and more difficult to cross. Destinations become more spread out. When cities devote more space to cars it makes walking, biking and transit less attractive. Traffic slowly fills up the available road space, creating congestion, and further expansion appears to be the only solution. This is the second major problem: creating space for cars helps create car dependency.
Saint John isn’t growing but it’s planning a highway expansion. The City has been shrinking for decades. The regional population has been steady for twenty years. Why is there more traffic on the MacKay Highway? Suburbanization is the reason: Quispamsis and Rothesay are growing. Despite the heavy traffic, it’s still easy to live in the suburbs and work in Saint John. Commuters that used to travel within Saint John now rely on the MacKay Highway. This is the third problem: transportation options influence where people live and work. Easy commuting results in suburban growth. The City of Saint John is already struggling to provide basic services like safe drinking water and sewage treatment. Losing tax-paying residents to the suburbs won’t help.
There are no easy solutions to these traffic problems, other than expanding the Highway. Parking in Saint John is cheap, providing no disincentive to driving. Suburban densities are low; conventional bus service is not economically feasible. A regional express bus service is popular but hundreds of new transit riders have not decreased Highway congestion. The distances are too far to walk. There are few alternative routes to the MacKay Highway. Congestion pricing is a political non-starter.
While there are few short-term solutions short of Highway expansion there are many long-term solutions: reduce the amount of parking in Saint John; encourage more residential development in Saint John; support job growth in the valley so that not everyone has to drive into the city to work; allow higher density development in the suburbs so buses and other alternatives become more practical; invest in sidewalks and bike lanes so people can get to buses, carpools or vanpools without driving; continue expanding express bus services; provide incentives for flex-work and telecommuting. None of these are easy and none of them will be effective on their own.
A new strategy is required. Most cities will create more jobs, more businesses and more people and goods to move – more traffic. But will that traffic be cars, bikes, pedestrians or buses? The question that all regions must ask —and Saint John especially — is when do we stop building for cars? When do we look to alternative modes and congestion pricing? When do we encourage new patterns of development? When do we look to the future instead of thinking only about today? The answer to all these questions, for all cities but Saint John especially, should be now.
photo by Sean McGrath