Funding: Get Serious About Toronto Cycling, Part II

A couple days ago, in Part I, I described a way to create space for wider, safer, separated, arterial bike lanes by offering managed parking within a block to replace street parking displaced by those lanes. While no new parking spaces are needed, this still requires a modest amount of funding.

The same in-car equipment needed to manage all that extra parking is also able to selectively toll a single street. In Toronto, a small number of arterials such as Bathurst, Gerrard, St.Clair or Vic Park (better ones would be chosen by traffic planners), could be tolled during peak hours (drivers can avoid the toll by avoiding those few streets during those hours – so the system is voluntary, as is the 407). Streets tolled in this way would have dramatically less automotive traffic during peak hours (perhaps 80% less) and can then be used for bike lanes and RT (rapid transit). Those drivers wishing to take advantage of these routes to save peak-hour travel time might pay, say, 12 to 15 cents/km (i.e., less than the 407 fee of 18 cents or so). The revenue from these drivers would help fund the alterations needed to accommodate the bike lanes.

The beneficiaries of such a scheme would be:
  1. The TTC which would pay less per kilometer for such a RT scheme than they did for the St. Clair streetcar modifications.
  2. Transit users who can expect a significant timesaving due to less congestion on their route.
  3. Cyclists who will be safer.
  4. Parts of the new streetcar system that would be better in the company of more bikes and fewer cars.
  5. The people cycling on these new paths who will experience increased relative health benefits.
  6. Drivers who avoid this route and will experience less congestion because of increased bike use and increased transit use in the same travel corridor (even in winter, those cyclists that use these routes that revert to transit will likely use the transit in the same corridor).
  7. Some of the businesses along the route that will see more cycle traffic.
  8. The residents along the route who will experience a drop in pollutants
  9. Ontario, which would have an opportunity to test voluntary tolling programs in advance of their necessity due to falling fuel-tax revenue.
  10. Toronto, which would be able to add this program to their growing list of green initiatives to help them meet the promised 80% reduction in GHG (not much besides sleeping reduces GHG production more than biking).

How it works

A small telematics ‘black box’ is mounted on the windshield (just like a 407 ‘tolltag’). It gathers position information which it then turns into a toll amount (no position information leaves the ‘front-end’ system. When the vehicle is parked, the black box determines if any toll is owed for the prior journey (most roads are not payable), if it is payable a notice goes to a billing center saying how much is owed and to whom. An account (which may be “pre-paid/anonymous”) is then debited or a private, non-anonymous, account is charged. This is done without the ‘gantries’ that hover over the 407, because the positioning is done by GPS and the communication by build-in cellular. The black-box software that is used to be certain a car was on the road being charged for is sophisticated and involves a highly reliable form of GPS called financial-grade GPS for these kinds of applications. It is designed to be impossible to overcharge. The system is also designed so that it cannot be tracked (like a having a Garmin NUVI or a Tom Tom that only the driver can see. So security (anti-theft) features are not available on this system.

When the car leaves its parking spot, a similar determination is made to determine the parking fee for that spot, as described in Part I. Several other services, such as pay-as-you-drive insurance, loyalty rewards for parking, modality rewards for not driving during peak hours, and the like will soon be available.


Creating Space: Get Serious About Toronto Cycling, Part I

In a speech given 9 October 2009 at the National Club in Toronto, Yvonne Bambrick, Executive Director, Toronto Cyclist Union, presented an idea to replace street parking on one side of an oft-biked city artery (Queen Street) with a two-way bike lane.

For those of us who drive, we can imagine the loss of several kilometers of street parking to mean longer searches by circling for on-street parking, more congestion, and further walks to our favorite restaurants and shops as we park ever farther away from our destination.

For those of us who bike, the idea sounds fair. During peak hours, each bike takes either 0.83 cars off our congested streets or one rider off our crowded subway, while each parking spot adds one more car. Sounds exciting and sensible. But realistically the ‘cars-first’ habit of operating in Toronto society makes this idea seem remote at first blush.

Fortunately, there is a way to replace several kilometers of street parking and make Bambrick’s bike lane idea work – all while being kinder to cars and business along Queen street – or other similar arterial. It is possible to have more and safer biking in Toronto while improving automobile access and reducing congestion all at the same time. To do this requires a relatively modest change – miniscule in comparison to Metrolinx’s 25-year, $50B Big Move or the City of Toronto’s Herculean target of an 80% reduction of our greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In fact, such a modest move as I will describe below would contribute to both of these grander goals showing the world and ourselves that moving toward such changes is possible.

First, consider that there are more parking spots available than are publicly or freely accessible to visiting cars. This parking is in many hundreds of small segments (four to 20 spots) that may be privately owned by banks, shops, churches, service stations or is on-street one or two blocks off of the main arterial and is managed by ‘no parking’ signs, extremely limited availability, ‘one-hour free’ parking, being chained-off, or enforced by tire marking and ticketing. This ‘other’ parking produces little or no revenue for its owners or residents, generates a spillover enforcement problem and provides ‘free parking’ for those that know how to play the game. All parties except scofflaws and freeloaders lose in this scenario.

Private, dedicated-commercial and residential parking is managed this way for two reasons: (a) it is intended for the customers or employees of those businesses or for the residents of those streets, and (b) the cost in effort and equipment to rent those few spaces when they are not used for their primary purpose, using market pricing makes it infeasible to do so.

This second issue – management expense – is critical. I am told that in North America about 70% of all parking revenue is absorbed by infrastructure, enforcement and collection costs. Granted, some of this due to under-pricing, but some is also due to the sheer expense of the machinery and people required to take one or two dollars from you. Parking is painfully expensive to manage (and the transaction cost makes it painful to use!) - all of which helps keep underpriced, overcrowded street parking in place. A certain formula for non-livability, 20th century parking management is as physically inefficient as it is economically and socially inept.

This serves to ensure that there are very many spots or small lots that could be sold for short-term parking but are simply made unavailable because they are not profitable to manage and create a liability, loss or nuisance if used unmanaged.

It is possible, using new, anonymous, satellite-based, "smart meters" to manage those small parking areas in a way that protects the interests of visiting motorists, residents and business owners. Developed in Canada, these in-vehicle payment management systems require no curbside meters for parking and no 407-type gantries for road tolling. Such a system would be set up to reserve sufficient free parking access for customers and residents while charging market rates to non-customers and non-residents in replacement for the lost street parking.

Second, consider that the reason street-parking is often fully occupied for long stretches of each day and on each street is a supply-and-demand problem exacerbated by two, long-term, opposing municipal policies: constrain automotive infrastructure to reduce automotive use (see ex-Mayor Crombie’s comment in transcript) and keep on-street prices low to make sure street parking is affordable for visitors.

There are a lot of good reasons for both of these policies. But the unintended results include congestion, emissions (while circling), less room and less safety for bikes and less livability.

Making more market-priced parking available, both on-street and off-street, on existing pavement can:
  1. Benefit business both in attracting customers and in receiving payment for their unoccupied spots
  2. Make dedicated two-way bike lanes feasible without making parking less available
  3. Increase bike safety
  4. Provide new business for private and municipal parking operators to manage new parking inventory
  5. Improve the local funding base by keeping additional parking revenue in the community
  6. Provide income for churches and other charities that may participate.
  7. Provide a way to remove most costs from street parking operations.
  8. Reduce demand for sidewalk-crowding pay-and display machines
Parking management is one of the most underappreciated urban opportunities we have. Since 2002, it has been my goal to make it possible to charge on all (or many more) streets without curbside meter collection and enforcement, to provide MORE off-street parking by repurposing the private spots already built (i.e., without increasing land-use), by allowing these private lots to charge for use by non-customers. (Imagine a banking lot sign: 30 minutes free parking. For satellite meter users: 8 cents per minute after 30 minutes, 2 cents per minute after closing (5pm) and on weekends).

There is a dangerous tendency to set bikes against cars or drivers against transit users or even the CAA against Transportation Demand Management professionals. Such a Car-Wars mentality serves no one except unscrupulous news sellers. All modalities are appropriate and needed. We are missing only a balance. Addressing the combination of too little parking, underpriced-parking, wasted parking potential, and street-parking-at-the-expense-of-bicycle-access-and-safety is a place to start.

Next: Funding: Get Serious About Toronto Cycling, Part II


Wicked Problems: Part I, TRAFFIC CONGESTION

Peter Gorrie at the Toronto Star asserts that traffic congestion is a wicked problem. Is he right?

A ‘wicked problem’ is a phrase used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

Says Laurence J. Peter: “Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.”

The following comments prescriptively follow the opening chapter of a book by Dr. Jeff Conklin called “Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems”. While the architecture of the argument and indeed many of the passages forming the matrix of the discourse are Conklin’s, the assertions and analysis are mine. So, in a fundamental way, this series is jointly authored, but the blame for errors and weak assertions rests solely with me.

Wicked problems, according to Jeff Conklin, have six critical characteristics:

  1. You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a 'one shot operation'.
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.


Let’s look at congestion through the lens of Conklin’s six descriptive characteristics to assess whether Peter Gorrie is correct.

1. You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution.

Many solutions are proposed to solve congestion. More roads, more transit, fewer trips, car-pooling, higher density, eat local, telework, smaller cars, roundabouts, removing stop signs, synchronizing signals. The list is very long.

The innumerable ills of congestion are well described, and a great number of solutions have been offered, but we have not tried a solution that has taken hold and that shows more than a temporary or local relief such as the London Congestion System or continuous-flow intersections, respectively. Perhaps this is because the greatest determinant of congestion – an increase in the number of cars – continuously overwhelms our otherwise sensible, local solutions to keep up.

Every solution offered eases the problem a bit while exposing new aspects or another layer of the problem. A new lane invites more traffic. A new transit service or an HOV lane is underused. An increase in bicycle use creates a safety issue.

Perhaps congestion is not necessarily the problem we should tackle, but rather just a symptom of problem we could solve. So what is the problem? To say ‘too many cars’ states the obvious. To say we feel entitled to a private vehicle or that we ‘have earned it’ or prefer it to another mode of travel says why the problem is entrenched, but does not lead to a solution. To say we ‘ought’ to change our travel choices (carpool, bike, transit) moves only a small minority to change.

To say ‘driving is not correctly priced’ may help but that changes the problem domain completely exposing a host of other problems. I will return to this in Part II because it is its own wicked problem.

While there are thousands of papers decrying and detailing the problem of congestion there is no single agreed definitive statement of ‘The Problem.’ As a problem, traffic congestion is ill-structured, a complex and arguably evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints. Horst Rittel said, “One cannot understand the problem without knowing about its context; one cannot meaningfully search for information without the orientation of a solution concept; one cannot first understand, then solve.” Moreover, what ‘the Problem’ is depends on who you ask – different stakeholders have different views about what the problem is and what constitutes an acceptable solution.

This tells us that there is no ‘perfect solution’ or even one good (in every sense) solution to congestion.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

Since there is no definitive ‘The Problem’, there is also no definitive ‘The Solution.’ The problem solving process ends when you run out of resources, such as time, money, or energy, not when some optimal or ‘final and correct’ solution emerges.

For congestion, no ‘The Solution’ has yet appeared. It is hard to envision a solution that we would like that has the roads we have be enough for the cars we want to use.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.

They are only ‘better,’ ‘worse,’ ‘good enough,’ or ‘not good enough’ solutions to Congestion. The determination of solution quality is not objective and cannot be derived from following a formula. Solutions are assessed in a social context in which “many parties are equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge [them],” and these judgments vary widely and depend on the stakeholder’s independent values and goals.

I have yet to read any description of a solution to congestion in an online newspaper article or blog that is not followed by a plethora of varying opinions vehemently for or vehemently against. If you want to increase your facility for insulting other stakeholders, these comments are a great place to start.

4. Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel.

There are so many factors and conditions, all embedded in a dynamic social, political, geographical and economic context, that no two congestion problems are alike, and the solutions to them will always be custom designed and fitted. Rittel: “The condition in a city constructing a subway may look similar to the conditions in San Francisco, say, . . differences in commuter habits or residential patterns may far outweigh similarities in subway layout, down-town layout, and the rest.” Over time one acquires wisdom and experience about the approach to wicked problems, but one is always a beginner in the specifics of a new wicked problem.

Surely, transit works in some urban geographies, but not in others. Sometimes you can add a lane for cars or bikes, sometimes not. Sometimes what you can physically or politically achieve will have no impact in any case.

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one-shot operation.’

Every attempt has consequences. As Rittel says, “One cannot build a freeway to see how it works.” This is the “Catch 22” about wicked problems: you can’t learn about the problem without trying solutions, but every solution you try is expensive and has lasting unintended consequences which are likely to spawn new wicked problems.

Many solutions to congestion are large and expensive. Urban rail is a huge undertaking. Is it the best solution? Not all agree. Even if they did, what route should it take? How long should it be? Should it follow the majority path of current commuters or will transit-oriented development make it worthwhile to lay track where no one currently goes?

6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

There may be no solutions, or there may be a host of potential solutions that are devised, and another host that are never even thought of. Thus, it is a matter of creativity to devise potential solutions, and a matter of judgment to determine which are valid, which should be pursued and implemented.

Who can say that we have thought of all solutions to congestion? In any one location we visit, we might be surprised at a local solution. I was recently in Springfield Missouri, and was surprised to learn of the effectiveness of a continuous flow intersection. This system, which I had never seen before, is now projected to reduce gridlock delays by over 70% rather than the original 32% projected.

So, I would say Peter Gorrie was right.

See the entire whitepaper, here.


Americans Don't Like Being Tracked

Good that this kind of poll is being conducted. Privacy is complicated. It is critical, sacred, protected, violated, dangerous and for sale. A lot of what we worry about does not matter, but other things we don’t know about do. Online privacy is only one of many privacy issues, but because it is bigger, faster and invisible (to many of us) it may be more important than other potential infringements. I tossed my PC and moved to Mac because I was spending precious time each day running spyware and other malware filters. My time was more valuable to me than privacy – in that case. But I am also glad not to be watched – or watched less, because my IP address is still watched by site visits.

Privacy shields will continue to grow in importance. As we eventually move away from fuel taxes to charging for road use by miles traveled, devices to meter your road use will need to be designed so that your location information is private. The EU is looking at this now and privacy commissioners there are insisting that location data never leave your vehicle. Ever. If technology is designed to prevent that completely, then you can drive anonymously, as you do now (excepting that your license plate can be read by a camera). But that leads to a gap in auditability. That can be addressed by writing to your handheld for only you to read, but that could leave an opening for privacy infringement, however small.

Regardless of what is done technically – legislated or not – we must address the definition of privacy on the road as well as in cyberspace. Roads are public, your use is a privilege, but your trip’s time and route is usually seen as private except partially when violating a traffic rule or driving through a toll booth. Interesting distinctions.

Even internet-enabled meters for power use in your home carry potential threats. Every new wireless – or wired – technology has privacy threats, and we will only be using more such technology.

Consider that the best way to protect privacy may be to set a price on personal data. Imagine that you can ‘dial-up’ what to hide, delete, sell, publish and receive advertisements about. Any commodity with a price will be protected far more carefully than you now know how to protect your own privacy. That will all be very complex so you’ll need a trusted broker to sell/hide that data for you. And governments cannot operate this service.

Does poorly-managed privacy in a consumer society exacerbate the cost to the planet? In a consumer society the cost (waste) in selling to you can be reduced if corporations could target more accurately and you would be exposed to less nuisance (waste of time, junk mail, spam).

Privacy Commissioners have their work cut out.