Back to the cul-de-sac. A follow-up to "Dealing with Congestion"


For a few weeks, I’m visiting my family back in London, Ontario. This means, for a few weeks I am living on a cul-de-sac in a subdivision surrounded by other subdivisions, close to an arterial lined with shopping plazas (I forgot that’s what we called them growing up), gas stations, drive-thrus, strip malls, an upscale enclosed shopping mall, and a big box centre. I walk the dog through the neighbourhood every day. We rarely see another person on sidewalk unless school is letting out. This place is clean. It is quiet. It is affluent. It is where I lived until I was 17 years old.

I am grateful to have had a happy childhood. I benefitted from great schools, lots of neighbours my age, opportunities to play outside, a sense of safety and community. Most of all, I am grateful that I spent so much time at my uncle's farm just outside the urban growth boundary by my neighbourhood. If me or my childhood peers wanted to move back to this area, it’s unlikely we would be able to afford it. Perhaps that will change in a few years as this still-growing area is incorporating more townhomes and apartment complexes. It’s the vehicle expenses I’d be most wary of.

But I do not want to move back. Growing up in such an environment taught me so much about the dysfunctions of auto-oriented development. Last week, we drove to visit my niece and nephew in a nearby city. It took 30 minutes before the landscape outside the car window transitioned from stroad and residential subdivisions to farmland. A lot of this city is stroad and subdivision. The downtown feels like a different city altogether.

Disconnected little kingdoms

It’s not convenient to get downtown from where I lived so growing up, I didn’t go much. To this day, I still feel like a tourist to downtown London. My brother, mom, and I went to one of the new restaurants that has built a following since us adult children had moved away. Our mental map of the downtown area was so weak that we had to consult Google to find the place and navigate the one-way streets. I feel more comfortable labelling the map of Toronto’s core (a place at least 10x the size of London’s) after 2 years of walking, biking, and taking transit than the city in which I grew up.

Dundas St, looking west from Wellington St. Notice all the businesses in this photo that no longer existOct 29,...

Posted by Vintage London, Ontario on Tuesday, October 13, 2015

There has been a shift in the city and many civic leaders are pushing urban development in a healthier direction. Much of that shift can be seen in the new energy downtown. Our former main drag in the 20th century (Dundas Street) has long struggled and been eclipsed by the main artery that leads to the university campus and my end of town. Dundas now has a renewed magnetism and fewer empty storefronts. The city is hoping to revamp the transit plan and make the leap from overgrown-small-city thinking to metropolitan planning. I am happy to see all of this. But it feels very distant from my sightline at the driveway of my parents’ place.

Whenever I come home, I wonder what it going to happen to all of the auto-centric regions of the city, each nicknamed after the their mall, high school, or arterial. How might they participate in the positive change driven by the city’s core? Is there any point in trying to retrofit these outlying areas or should the focus remain on more realistic fixes? Whatever is decided at a top-level, the change has already started. Along my parents' arterial, the commercial plazas are showing signs of the movement. A few national chain stores have been replaced by smaller regional companies with a more mainstreet feel. There are townhouses almost lining the road in some places. Lots of people ride the bus.

But the mall parking lot has never been more packed. Despite people having more third-place options available within a walk/bike than ever in my memory, everyone's still driving around. With increased construction of smaller homes, there are more people living here. There are more shops catering to newer demographics. The pattern of development here means this all translates into more vehicles on more roads.

It’s important for me to have this routine jolt back into suburban reality whenever I visit home.

Re: Dealing with Congestion

Chuck recently wrote about congestion as a watershed. In essence, we have regular vehicle traffic flooding of our arterial roads and highways because we don’t address the additional runoff from new developments at source.

For automobile flooding (congestion), the only way to deal with it and still have a successful economy is to address it at the source. We need to absorb those trips locally before they become a flood. Instead of building lanes, we need to be building corner stores. We need local economic ecosystems that create jobs, opportunity and destinations for people as an alternative to those they can only get to by driving.

As Chuck noted, in places and streets, congestion isn't a "problem" so much as an indicator of success. On roads (and stroads), which connect places, it indicates design failure. If Strong Towns intends to engage with the issue of congestion between successful places, or perhaps the issue of congestion within successful places that have overwhelmingly more cars than pedestrians, this stretches the limits of today's Strong Towns approach. Here are two follow-up conversations that I’d like to see this community engage in a more complete way.

1) If we believe that traffic issues must be addressed at source before flooding roads downstream, do we need to be in the business of what the New Urbanist community calls sprawl repair? The nature of the auto-centric pattern of development makes incremental and inexpensive improvements difficult in the sense that you almost need an overhaul before anything incremental can begin to work properly (actually reduce vehicle dependency). How does this complicate ideas of triage and incremental change?

2) Imagine that we follow the conventional wisdom to address vehicle runoff at source by incrementally creating walkable, mixed-use neighbourhood nodes. Done perfectly, this leads to what scholars and urban development professionals call a compact city with many nodes. When your population features multi-person households where at least two people work outside the home, chances are your housing location is based on the average commute between two workplaces and a school, or two workplaces and a shopping area (documented here). So even if you can achieve walkable nodes, the daily travel patterns of multiple people are extremely difficult to fit into one node. How does a Strong Town approach the challenge that modern life doesn't usually fit inside the node?