Rethinking suburban roadscapes: building rapid transit greenways

greenwayimage

Image by Darnel Harris and Dennis Espino

Imagine a road that not only supported a range of modes of transportation, but also helped clean up our waterways. It's possible – and not all that difficult, according to Darnel Harris. Harris, who holds a Master in Environmental Studies from York University, took a long look at how active transportation, ecological preservation and infrastructure development can work together to produce more resilient communities. In a Q&A with dandyhorse, he says rapid transit greenways can help sustain suburban areas in particular.

What are rapid transit greenways are and how they would benefit people?

Rapid transit greenways use rain gardens as green barriers to separate people driving from people biking or walking along busy arterial roads. Since greenery and concrete protected barriers traditionally occupy different spaces in the roadway, this enables other options.

Reallocating this space, a three-metre-wide mobility pathway can accommodate two lanes of cargo bikes, scooters and velomobiles safely next to the sidewalk on both sides of the road. People driving will know the roadway is for vehicles only. Residents and businesses using cargo bikes will be able to practically and affordably move people and goods around the local area. People walking will no longer conflict with people who are unwilling or unable to bike alongside vehicles.

The rain gardens will reduce the risk of flooding and block pollution from reaching our waterways. Apart from being cost-effective to install, these carefully designed rain gardens will look good while limiting the need for new stormwater piping. They will also drive green job growth.

Where do you see rapid transit greenways working in Toronto?

No matter where you live in Toronto, you need to access your local schools, shops and community services. Safe routes for people walking and riding bikes or velomobiles supports low carbon mobility in Toronto. Flood protection barriers and a sizeable tree canopy help mitigate severe weather. While we need these approaches across Toronto, the large distances between housing, shops and community services in the suburbs mean we need practical and dignified ways to stay mobile. Fortunately, our suburban right-of-ways are likely wide enough to handle a retrofit without really impacting people driving or walking.

Why is it important that greenways are implemented as we invest in our suburban communities?

The low speed street design of the suburbs makes retrofitting them for cargo bike use fairly straightforward. Local streets are already ideal because traffic is infrequent and collector roads need cost effective adjustments that could be handled with bike lanes or bollards. Creating protected pathways along the arterial roads that tie suburban communities together would allow residents to go about their day lives in their community while using a bike in a safe and dignified manner.

Rapid transit greenways seem to connect infrastructure planning with environmental concerns. Why has it taken so long for us to think this way?

We have a history of planning to tame nature rather than trying to work collaboratively with it. Consider for example our approach to dealing with water. We built a stormwater system in Toronto to channel rainfall back into our waterways, rather than let it seep through the soil. That approach has caused severe riverbank erosion, allowed polluted runoff to make its way into Lake Ontario, and affected biodiversity.

Between 2000 and 2012, Toronto was hit with three storms that our previous models suggested should only occur every hundred years. Since our systems were generally built to handle storms that would occur every few years or decades, we need to rebuild our infrastructure. The sheer technical challenge and expense of replacing massive pipe systems at time when budgets are constrained has helped open the door to considering fresh approaches.

In Toronto, who would be responsible for building (and funding) rapid transit greenways?

The city of Toronto and the province of Ontario would both be involved in creating and maintaining greenways. The province is already investing in transit corridors through Metrolinx, and the new Greenhouse Gas Reduction Account has been created specifically to fund  green infrastructure projects.

Since the City of Toronto handles our stormwater management infrastructure, they could employ local residents to maintain the rain gardens. Since road reconstruction is required to create rain garden barriers, working them into our light rail transit projects cost effectively serves local and regional mobility simultaneously. Given that they divert large quantities of water and pollutants from the sewer system, building raingardens compares favourably to traditional sewer system approaches over the length of their life cycle.

Is there much support for this sort of project? What sorts of challenges or obstacles will greenways face?

Last February, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change issued a brief that expressly supported water management approaches which seek to retain water where it falls. The City of Toronto is developing a Green Streets standard, as well as moving toward the adoption of a stormwater surcharge that is increasingly popular across Ontario.

The City of Mississauga passed a law last year requiring all future capital road projects to consider using rain gardens where appropriate. People are enthusiastic for sustainable approaches that also support local mobility, since they want to live in healthier neighbourhoods more affordably. Enabling these approaches will help Toronto meet its climate targets.

The major political obstacles to greenways lie in the way we frame mobility needs and investments in Toronto. Very often we refer to the needs of drivers, cyclists and pedestrians – as if the same person who has a driver’s licence, isn’t already using a bike or walking! Most people fall into all three groups.

Just like the climate change debate, instead of making evidence based decisions about right sizing our mobility choice to the task at hand, we spend time, energy and money funding ‘wars’ with each other based on opposing cultural views – and getting little built.

If we embrace culturally pluralistic language that detaches practical mobility issues and reasonable climate adaption strategies from overarching cultural narratives, we will be able to more quickly implement novel strategies to respond to our changing climate.

Look for more from Darnel in our spring print issue available for FREE at our sponsor bike shops, and for purchase online and at independent book stores in Toronto.

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Related on the dandyBLOG:

Council approves bike lane pilot on Bloor Street

Vision Zero supported by public works: So why no love for Bloor bike lanes

Bike lanes on Bloor now one council meeting away from becoming reality

Bike Spotting: Talking Bloor Street bike lanes

From the Horse’s Mouth: Councillor Joe Mihevc goes all out for the minimum grid

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