Our Traffic Disaster

Setting the direction for Thunder Bay's new transportation plan
Setting the direction for Thunder Bay's new transportation plan

Bike Lanes a Good Way to Pretend We Are Going Green

By Jim Mauro

Look around and you can see added paths or bicycle lanes scattered around the city. Attempting to reduce carbon emissions, the city embarked on a program of going green. Bike lanes were part of this program.

I was skeptical as to how effective bike lanes would be. Our climate is not very conducive to active transportation. I am sure there are a few who enjoy riding their bikes when the temperature is zero but count me among the majority that do not.

I am very familiar with our city’s streets. I believe I have a sense of what kind of traffic our city has and how effective we are at moving it. I recall the decision to put a bike lane on Victoria Ave. and wondering “what in the world were they thinking”?

I cannot recall seeing twenty bicycles in this lane since they were created. I never understood this bike lane when one block to the north lies the bike path along Neebing River. I believe this was created to demonstrate a commitment to the cause, as opposed to making a positive difference in our carbon footprint.

I am sure there are a few who use our bike lanes often if that is their only means of transportation and I would love to see bike lanes everywhere, but does the cost outweigh the benefit. Based solely on my observations alone, I would say yes. So was there another alternative available that would likely have had a far greater impact on our carbon footprint.

We have witnessed the extraordinary heat wave that engulfed much of the world. The planet itself was said to have been the hottest it has ever been. Even if you do not believe that mankind is the cause, the ongoing spewing of pollutants into our atmosphere cannot be a good thing. Many cities around the globe including Thunder Bay want to be better stewards of the planet but some of these policies may be more show than substance.

Returning to our local traffic, it has long been a frustration to see how we move vehicles in this city. If our goal was to prevent the flow of traffic, then Thunder Bay’s method has been a tremendous success. Stopping the flow of traffic seems to be our area of expertise.

Some will argue that we have a small city and that if you are required to take an extra minute or two to get somewhere, it is not a big deal. I understand the point, however if a trip should only take you five minutes but it takes you seven or ten, and it happens every day, it adds up. We are striving to be a green city don’t forget. Knowing I was going to write this article, I began taking note of intersections where the traffic lights impeded traffic flow.

I often find myself at the intersection of Arthur St and Edward St at approximately 6:30 am where the lights operate heavily in favour of Arthur. If you do not quite get there in time on one side of Edward, you will have to wait for another cycle for Arthur. Visit the left turn signal at Arthur and the Expressway for further confirmation of this phenomena. Some would argue that Arthur is a busy street, and that traffic needs to flow efficiently. Accepting that, how do we explain the lights at Arthur and Waterloo, changing for no reason, stopping approximately twenty vehicles on Arthur where there was no traffic on Waterloo. This happens frequently, and Waterloo is not Edward. It was great fun stopping on Arthur at Ford the other morning at 6:17 am for no traffic on Ford. Efficiency at it’s finest.

The lights at Mountdale Ave and Arthur are also wonderful, where they seem designed specifically to make you hit another red at the Expressway if you are travelling west on Arthur. Let’s not even discuss the design for the left turn arrows at the Mountdale intersection that turn green with zero traffic, or if there is traffic one way, keep the vehicles stopped in that same direction because the opposite arrow is activated. What is it about our traffic system that so many lights cannot function to move traffic effectively?

One day I was travelling north on Fort William Rd and did not speed to make the green. I knew what would happen. I hit the red at the Canadian Tire gas bar. The lights at this intersection are also ridiculous, but back to my Fort William Rd Journey.

Because I hit the red at Canadian Tire, I then hit the next red at the mall. Here is another set of lights operating to stop traffic, not move it. Anyone have an idea why these lights need to be functioning at 7 am because the lights changed for no traffic. The are likely on a timer, not on sensors. If that is the case, then put them on flashing after the mall closes. These lights should not be operating when there is no traffic.

Returning to my journey north on Fort William Rd, I then hit the red at Harbour Exp, the red at Central Ave, then another red at John St. Major league batters would love to go five for five.

That is a routine day in Thunder Bay. I thought my luck was changing when I hit the green at Bay St, but it was short-lived, because I then hit the red at the Marina Park entrance, the red at the crosswalk, and the red at the Marina overpass. I was batting 8 for 9. That little 4–5-minute drive was ten minutes. And that is only one car on one street.

Very early one morning, I was sound bound on Memorial at McIntyre Mall. There was traffic waiting in both directions, about 20 vehicles in total. We had already been sitting for the one car that needed to turn left onto Memorial Ave. The green arrows to turn left towards Home Depot and left into McIntyre Mall went on, only there was no traffic in either lane meaning we continued to sit and wait spewing fumes into the air unnecessarily. Then the green for south bound traffic came on, but not for north bound as they continued to wait for left turn traffic that was never there.

Keeping within this small geographical area, we have another set of lights at Wendy’s on Memorial. Why are these lights there? The only purpose they can possibly serve is to allow left turns onto Memorial or for pedestrian crossings. Here is a suggestion: prohibit left turns onto Memorial and use these lights solely for pedestrians. All traffic turning North Bound on Memorial can go to 11th Ave and use those lights or back to Harbour or Central Ave. To put up a set of lights for traffic that has several alternative routes only bogs down an already congested corridor. We can and should do better.

And speaking of unnecessary traffic lights, how about those at Robinson Dr. and River St. Why do we care that someone wants to turn left onto River St. Use Red River Rd to get to this area and put these lights on pedestrian activation only. It is okay to prohibit turns, give it a try Thunder Bay.

But back to our traffic lights. How much CO2 could be saved from going into the atmosphere if we created a traffic system that worked? A quick google search revealed this information.

If you idle for ten minutes, you will burn approximately ¼ of a litre of fuel. And one litre of fuel is approximately 2.3 Kg of carbon. Returning to my trip up Ft. William Rd, I estimated that the trip took five minutes longer than it should have. And this was just me, not counting the other vehicles on the road heading in the same or opposite directions all stopped unnecessarily by lights that often go off randomly. So, it is not unreasonable to think that in this city, you can easily waste anywhere from 30-60 minutes in a month (I believe I am being overly generous in my estimation). It would seem we need a lot more drivers using bike lanes to make up for this problem alone.

Are there other small steps we can take that may be easy, but governments seem unwilling to do? If green house gases are the scourge the government says they are, why continue to allow drive throughs for a cup of coffee? For those with mobility issues perhaps a handicapped sign would be a prerequisite, but the vast majority that use this convenience do not need it and the toxins just keep spewing into the air. Bike lanes are not going to solve this problem. At the same time, our federal government is charging a carbon tax to incentivize us to reduce our use of fossil fuels. Watching the line-ups at drive throughs demonstrates the fallacy of these sorts of initiatives.

I will keep this article just strictly to Thunder Bay lights. But there is so much more that can be done by governments if reducing trash and saving our environment is the goal, from forcing companies to use biodegradable packaging, to banning the use of any soaps that are not biodegradable.

Putting a carbon tax on products seems to hit those at the bottom of the economic ladder the hardest. If my natural gas goes up by $150 a year due to carbon taxes, am I going to turn down my heat. No. Will the man or women making a middle-class wage, raising their children, living pay cheque to pay cheque turn the heat down, likely. And will this initiative, really stop the very rich from using carbon producing sources for heat and light. For them it is a rounding error on a day’s pay and will have zero impact on what they consume.  But governments need to be seen to be doing something, even if that something is likely to have little or no effect.

I recognize that there are people in this city that need their bike to go to work or school. What can be done affordably and efficiently should be attempted but to pretend that all the bike lanes we have put in place reduce our carbon footprint and are an effective use of our tax dollars, is a fallacy.

During the last council, the former Mayor, who I know reasonably well, was able to get money in this year’s budget and for the following three years to address the traffic light problems in this city. I have been advised that this money was removed from this year’s budget. If true we will continue to live with what I describe as a mess of a traffic system. Just because it only takes 15 minutes to get up to current river, does not mean we should be okay when it takes 20-22 because we cannot fix our lighting system. While a small issue, how can any government be trusted to make good decisions when they cannot get the small ones right. Driving around this city reeks of decisions being made by flipping a coin instead of a strategic plan to move traffic through the city.

These are just some of the other lights I kept track of. I am sure all of you can come up with many examples also:

Arthur St at Franklin. Lights changed for Franklin for no cars. Fifteen cars idling for no reason

Lights at Arthur and Waterloo have the green arrows for left turns from Arthur with no traffic

Arthur and Selkirk. About 15 vehicles for Arthur stopped for no traffic on Selkirk, then the left turn signals for Arthur go green with no one in either left turn lane

Lights at James and Edward. Green arrow for left onto James but no one in that lane. Vehicles south bound on Edward just had to wait

Lights at John and Junot. No one in left turn lanes on Junot in either direction but only North Bound traffic was able to proceed. South bound had to wait

And finally, Central Ave at Tungsten. What they have done on Central Ave. being among my favourites(sarcasm) in the city. 6:20 pm on a Sunday. Zero traffic on Tungsten but lights stop the traffic on the four-lane street of Central

These were just a handful, yet we pretend we want to do something about the carbon going into the air. If we are not going to fix the lights in this city, then plant more trees. Trees capture carbon, cool cities and is likely far superior to bike lanes. Los Angeles to combat the heat problems within their city, is planting trees and looking at using a special paint for asphalt designed to reflect heat, not absorb it.

We want to pat ourselves on the back for going green, but we often fail to do the heavy lifting that is necessary. Well, before we pave any more bike paths, or re-paint any more bike lanes all in the name of reducing our carbon footprint, can we fix the lights first. If the money was removed from this year’s budget, it would suggest this is not a priority.

Fixing these lights will reduce our idling of vehicles, make our roads safer as drivers would slow down, it would reduce fuel consumption, and reduce our carbon footprint. Because if the goal is really to reduce our carbon footprint, the bike lanes are not cutting it. Just a thought.

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