Dump the bumps

Some city planners herald "traffic calming" as the wave of the future.
And concerned citizens demand slower traffic, fewer large vehicles on
;their streets and limited access to streets where children play. In
response, municipalities put up stop signs, build speed bumps and road
barriers, and reduce traffic lanes on busy streets.

But traffic calming is not a panacea. In many cases it does not enhance
safety but threatens it. Vital public services such as fire, ambulance,
police, snow clearing and public transit are affected. So are local
businesses and the silent majority of road users.

To plan and implement traffic-calming measures is expensive --
projected costs for pilot projects under way in the Ottawa-Carleton
Region rang from $6-million to $18-million. Yet their effectiveness in
the Canadian environment is unproved, and their repercussions have
not been seriously studied. Most disturbing is the lack of design and
installation standards for calming structures.

Proponents of traffic calming cite studies from Australia and Europe,
but Canadian infrastructure, climate and transportation needs are quite
different. Here, snow clearing and icing are critical issues, public-transit
needs are different, and Canadians travel relatively long distances on a
regular basis. Foreign studies do not factor in the effects of proved
countermeasures, such as photo-radar, red-light cameras and strict
sobriety checks, more widespread in those countries than in
Canada.Indeed, the excessive use of calming devices may in the long
run prove counterproductive.

Stop signs, for example, were originally designed to control
right-of-way. By law, all vehicles, including bicycles, must come to a
full stop before proceeding. But stop signs are used to slow traffic in
many Canadian cities. From a safety standpoint, experts state that only
about one in 10 stop signs is necessary. As a result, rolling "stops" have
become a common practice for many drivers in these cities. Worse,
many drive right through without heeding the signs at all. More and
more, as stop signs proliferate on side streets, cyclists assume the signs
do not apply to them.

All this sets a very bad example for children, who grow up knowing
that people do not stop at stop signs. Safety experts fear so much harm
has been done that respect for the stop sign as a traffic-control device
is disappearing.

A delay of just one minute due to speed humps or congestion on
narrowed roads can mean the difference between life and death.In one
minute, a fast-burning fire can destroy a building. One minute can be
the window of opportunity for a critically injured child, heart attack
victim or other emergency. A criminal can escape the scene of a crime
in less than a minute. For fire, ambulance and police vehicles, every
second counts.

Snow clearing problems associated with blocked-off streets and other
traffic-calming obstructions will increase delays in winter, when many
home fires and medical emergencies occur. But there are summer
problems too. In July, 1999, fire gutted a house in Ottawa, leaving 12
people homeless. Iron posts designed to calm traffic impeded a fire
truck responding to the fire. Rather than waste precious seconds finding
a way to go around the posts, the truck pushed them over. This
prompted the Ottawa fire chief to reiterate his serious concerns about
;; the impact of calming structures on response time.

Designing roads to slow traffic down rather than to maintain a constant,
safe speed means higher costs to operate vehicles. And increased fuel
consumption, in turn, means more harmful emissions, such as carbon
dioxide, suspended particulates and other noxious air pollutants. Back
in 1991, the City of Toronto determined that removing 480 stop signs
would save 9 million litres of gasoline a year and eliminate 21,000 tons
of air pollutants, producing a 5.5-per-cent reduction in emissions by the
year 2005.

Studies on traffic calming do show reductions in traffic volume and
vehicle speeds on streets with such devices. However, they do not
assess to what extent traffic, speeding and collisions were diverted to
other residential streets or added to roads already congested. We must
solve problems, not just shift them.

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