Think Anew, Act Anew

observations and opinion

For whom the road tolls

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Our dangerously beautiful new asphalt…

Like many in the Laurentian Mountains, our cottage property is steep, starting at a deep lake bottom and then clawing its way several hundred feet up hill at a sharp angle. To get from our porch to our dock requires five sets of stairs, some made of stone, most of wood, on a slightly bending path down terraces and among trees. And right in the middle of the property is a road.

The road is narrow in summer, narrower still as the snowplows pile up the white stuff in winter. It doesn’t look like much but on a map, you can trace our road as a faint thin line connecting two distant points on the same major highway – exits at both ends, albeit so far apart that we see little of the traffic. But we do see some of the traffic.

Laurentian roads, around here anywhere, are famously wretched. The story, repeated to me by an old hand the other day, is that back in the 50’s the famously corrupt and repressive regime of Maurice Duplessis decided to pave some of the gravel roads (probably to keep an election promise and to line some pals’ pockets). So they brought asphalt up, dumped it atop the gravel, flattened it out and moved along to the next stretch of road.

You don’t need to know much about road beds, asphalt or frost to understand why these so-called Duplessis roads didn’t work out too well.  Every winter they split, heave, collapse in tiny sinkholes and generally become rutted washboards of gravel and asphalt. It is brutal on a car’s suspension as the pock-marked pavement jostles and jars the bolts loose on passing vehicles. Our country roads are something of a misery to drive on.

The traditional “fix” for this has been to keep pouring glops of asphalt on the cracks and holes, an eternal patch job that guarantees employment to many construction workers and to car mechanics throughout the region. This perpetual cycle of lousy road work triggers predictable grousing among the taxpayers (“I bet we’d get better pavement if we weren’t Anglophones” etc etc) and of course, delivers crummy roads.

Which we kind of like. You see, even here in rural Quebec, where the idiocy of motorists is legendary, a rough road forces cars to slow down.  Sure, we pay for it with damage to our vehicle suspensions, but in return we get a slightly slower speed of traffic racing from point A to point B, on a road that cuts right through the middle of our properties. Some moron in a purple 1995 Honda Civic, with his ball cap on backwards and a cigarette in his mouth, is always going to go too fast. But most drivers ease up, a little. And if our road is terrible, which it is, some motorists will find a different road to take. Which suits us fine.

Which is why the recent arrival of a road crew here sparked concern. Unlike the half-assed patch job fixes we are accustomed to, this gang did a good job: huge pieces of equipment tore out the old stuff, actually put down a road bed and only then, laid on the thick black coat of new asphalt. It is beautiful, a thing to behold. And it is fast.

Overnight we have gone from grumbling about potholes to dreaming-up more traffic calming devices: those little posts in the middle of the road that force you to slow down, maybe some speed bumps, some additional “Attention aux nos enfants” signs?  Hopefully those and more.  We gave up long ago the notion that this road would ever be tranquil – that ended decades ago apparently – but we are not prepared to accept the idea that this road will be fast.

The problem with roads, of course, is that they exist in two dimensions: they are the place people have their homes, and they are the thing other people use to get somewhere. Any public roads department personnel that I’ve ever dealt with cares only about the latter group – every road is a channel for cars and the people who live there are just obstacles to the fast flow of traffic. When it comes to roads and traffic, it is the vehicles passing through who have the upper hand.

Which is, when you think about it, exactly backwards. We cannot expect to live in civilization without the inconvenience of strangers passing through, but whether out here in the mountains or downtown in the city, the residents of a place – the people who occupy it and pay for it, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year – ought to have at least equal priority to those who spend exactly 5 seconds traversing a stretch of asphalt on the way from one place to another. It is a perverse thing to see how commuters get literally a “free pass” to use someone else’s home as a disposable utility. Yet in most places that is the model of burden sharing we live with.

Good roads and efficient traffic movement propel economic activity of all kinds, ensure the rapid arrival of ambulances and fire trucks and get us to the restaurant on time for our reservation. But the obsession with that single useful function thing has led to the destruction of cities (the Cross-Bronx Expressway, to name just one hideous example) or compelled citizens to sink billions into creative vehicle pathways (Boston’s Big Dig, one of the costliest engineering projects in human history) to fix the horrors of a previous generation’s brand of highway.

And who paid for all this? Seldom has it been the people behind the wheel.  I love to drive and I like good roads but the truth is, it was the people who once had homes on Montreal’s Decarie Boulevard, or Ottawa’s Bronson Avenue, or Toronto’s Kingston Road, or…you name it, who paid most dearly for my convenient and pleasant driving experience (okay, “convenient and pleasant” may not be an accurate description of the Decarie).

Beyond the neighbourhood-destroying attributes of a fast road, come the daily hazards: the aforementioned Bronson Avenue in Ottawa, for example, runs from the city’s south end into Centretown. At the south end it’s a freeway, at the north end it’s a narrow urban artery. And at the choke point, inconveniently, there sits a university. Right there motorists ripping into town are required to slow down but they don’t: they keep ripping until the cars bunch up just north of the university, in a mass display of brake lights.

How many students, wandering sleepily towards campus in the morning or marching home in the early dark of the Fall term, have had a near-death experience crossing Bronson? Too many. And for some, it’s not a “near” death experience at all, but fatal.  It would cost almost nothing to put more stop lights on that road (I have proposed a railway crossing-style stop, complete with those neat little barriers that drop down to block the cars) but even Ottawa won’t do it. Why? Because it might – would – slow down the cars (which is the point, obviously). My city has chosen the comfort and convenience of transient commuters over the safety of the people who live, work and study in that neighbourhood. Your city probably has too.

It is perverse. A suburb dweller, who has chosen to buy a house at fraction of the cost of living downtown, paying lower property taxes, using brand new sewers and services subsidized by others’ tax money, gets to sleep in an extra ten minutes and then drive through several downtown neighbourhoods. Fast and for free. He will complain about the tie-ups and slowdowns commuting, but these are inconveniences he chose to endure in exchange for a considerably less expensive mode of life. Boy oh boy, will he complain. And inevitably, public roads staff will cook up a scheme to create more traffic lanes. Which, after the incredibly slow construction process is over, will benefit our suburban motorist not one bit.

You don’t need to be a Luddite, arrogant cyclist or hemp-wearing granola granny to see that our thinking about cars and roads and communities is utterly skewed. We keep widening roads to make it possible for more motorists to commute into cities, increasing traffic until it slows down that we have to widen roads to…and so on, and so on. It is stupidity on an epic scale, and that’s not even measuring the rather negative effects of all those cars and all that fuel burning into all those emissions.

The simple answers are right in front of us: we have to make it more difficult to commute by car, not easier. We have to give priority to transit and to commercial vehicles, which have legitimate economic and social purposes outweighing the convenience of individual commuters. We have to make people pay more for the ass-fattening comfort of cruising alone to work in a car. That means tolls on the roads and zone permits, such as those imposed in London some years back. Also, and this is hardly original and will induce eye-rolling no doubt, we need better mass transit. The cities which truly work, which have become truly great (New York, London, Paris and so on) have something in common: great subway systems. That’s not a coincidence.

North America, in particular Canada, has clung fiercely to a low-IQ ideology and methodology of moving humans and material around and about. It has involved pouring black tar into long strips, widening those strips, patching them and then widening them again. As cheap as it may be on a daily basis to operate such a transit system, it exacts extraordinary costs from everyone, except those actually getting the benefit of it. A thousand terrible decisions, public and private, erupt from bad policy choices. Isn’t it time we stopped being so damned stupid?

If I wish to live in a city with a million other people (which I do) or spend holidays on a mountainside only 15 minutes away from a world class butcher shop (which I do), then I must be prepared to pay enough for those privilege. But the truth is, I probably don’t pay enough. And you probably don’t pay enough, either.

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This entry was posted on August 4, 2015 by in Canada, City Life.
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