Johnson Street Bridge Victoria BC Canada

This website is one step of an awareness campaign. We are Victoria and Capital Region residents who believe the fate of the Johnson Street Bridge is an issue of vital importance, affecting our city's transportation systems, finances, and governance. Our goal is to provide a central information platform, with news and opinion from all sources, so citizens can make informed decisions about how to proceed with the most expensive infrastructure project in Victoria's history.

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Space is scarce: Self-explaining roads needed

The Johnson Street Bridge frustrates some drivers, and there’s no doubt that it’s awkward at best (and dangerous at worst) for cyclists. Cycling across the bridge East to West, you need sang froid to brave potential road rage from drivers who feel you’re taking “their” traffic lane (cyclists are supposed to ride in the center of the right-hand traffic lane when crossing the bridge, and cars are not allowed to overtake them: some drivers don’t understand this). And if you’re cycling West to East (coming off the Galloping Goose Trail), you face confusion over dismounting, walking your bike, merging with pedestrians, and so forth.

Last weekend, Mat shot the excellent video (above) of (mostly) bike and pedestrian traffic. In the scenes showing cyclists traveling West to East, viewers can clearly see many (most) cyclists disregard the sign to dismount and walk their bikes. Viewers of the video can also see many cyclists traveling East to West on that same path. Again: they’re supposed to dismount and walk if using the path, or ride in the car traffic lane to cross the bridge, then merge back on to the trail after crossing.

One other thing this video shows very clearly is just how many pedestrians and cyclists use the bridge.

In the discussions around replacing the bridge, a major focus to date is that replacement will solve the problem of “the approaches.”

“The approaches” refers to the complex arteries that converge on the bridge, and the allegedly “difficult” curve that cars encounter on the bridge’s West end.

There has been lots of talk of “improving the approaches,” with a focus on straightening out the curve to facilitate better traffic flow for cars.
Map of Johnson Street Bridge and main arterials in yellow
The supposedly problematic curve is the slightly blobby-looking bend to the left of the “A” balloon marker, at the bridge’s West end. It’s not a big deal – the bigger deal really is (1) how traffic is funneled on to the bridge at its East end, and (2) that the bridge is difficult for cyclists (and even the pedestrians who share their small space with them).

It’s true that cycling flow is also supposed to be improved if the bridge is replaced, but in the main, it’s clear that much of the money spent on improving and “ratonalizing” the approaches will be determined by car traffic. Not everyone agrees that’s the best place to spend our money, though. Statements like “Forget about the improved approaches, that’s a colossal waste of money” suggest that there’s some consensus around looking harder for better solutions – and maybe even asking if we’re trying to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist.

Here’s my question: are we proposing to remove a historic structure (the bridge) so that we can make the crossing better for pedestrians, cyclists, perhaps even rail, and also cars? Or are we proposing to replace the existing bridge because we’re operating from a more narrowly defined safety perspective that’s mostly car-centric?

If it’s the case that we’re operating on the latter principle, we should be asking if, first, there aren’t simpler and cheaper fixes (ones that don’t involve tearing the structure down or embarking on a massive new road building project), and, second, if new ways of thinking couldn’t teach us something about how to look at the problem.

It’s obvious that you can’t turn roads (including bridges) located in dense (and densifying) urban environments into highways, without tearing that urban fabric to shreds. If we say that our problem is that the road / bridge doesn’t behave like a highway (letting cars travel at relatively high speeds, unimpeded), perhaps we should be reframing the problem.

In Victoria, we might be getting to the point where we can apply that same reframing strategy to bicycle traffic. Instead of making bikes more like cars (giving them the equivalent of forgiving highways so they can travel with fewer cares and impediments), let’s see if we can’t get all stakeholders to share in a new strategy of self-explaining roads. In the middle of a densely built-up downtown, neither cars nor bikes should expect arterials that promise greater safety through more space dedicated exclusively to them.

A fast clip and unimpeded passage for cars is not desirable in dense urban spaces, least of on this bridge. At its East end, the bridge empties into Old Town, which is usually clogged with pedestrians. Foot traffic from one side of the street to the other benefits the businesses that line the street. Meanwhile, at its West end, the bridge drops travelers on the doorstep of the newly developing Dockside Green area, which bills itself as a model of sustainability with a focus on pedestrian and cycling infrastructure.

Space is scarce, and it has to be shared. That’s such a no-brainer, it’s almost painful to repeat it. Building better easements for vehicles (cars and otherwise) costs space. Straightening out roads, making them wider (supposedly safer) costs space.  What we could be doing on the Johnson Street Bridge, for much less money, is creating what the Dutch call the self-explaining road.

Forgiving Highways is a concept that designs roads to “forgive” mistakes made on the road. It seeks to smoothly redirect the vehicles that leave roads, and allow wide enough clear zones to bring vehicles to controlled stops if and when they leave the roads. Breakaway supports, burying the end of guardrail, clearing the roadside of unneeded obstacles, and flattening and rounding slopes and ditch sections became standard design as part of the concept.

(…)

[But:] The Dutch came to understand that the post-World War II world wide approach to making roads wider, straighter and faster simply doesn’t work on local and commercial roads in urbanized areas.(source)

And, a bit further down:

1. They rejected that wider, straighter and faster is better for non-freeways in urban areas.

2. They adopted a multi-modal approach to safety. Travel by bicycle or on foot is valued equally and bikeped accommodations are universal.

3. They are managing access to their “arterials” to a degree that many American access engineers would envy. The helps eliminate conflicts between mobility and local access, which destroys the capacity of our through roads and leads to substantial deterioration of safety. (source)

It’s about safety: the Dutch reduced traffic fatalities, and – since the Johnson Street Bridge is in need of repair, but is otherwise not a safety hazard – focusing on how to make it safer without tearing it down and replacing it with a highway-style bridge makes fiscal sense.

2 comments to Space is scarce: Self-explaining roads needed

  • Replacing the bridge and straightening the roads are two separate issues because either could be done without the other. I agree that it isn’t really necessary to straighten the road, especially considering how expensive it is. This wasn’t an issue back in January, but suddenly fixing the bridge is an urgent project. Apparently, it’s too expensive to just fix so it will be completely replaced, but there is enough additional money to straighten the roads. What is the motivation behind this decision?

    If the plan was just to straighten the road, people would reject it as an unnecessary expense. If the plan was to renovate the bridge and straighten the road, then people might reject the straightening portion of the project to save money. It only makes sense to straighten the road if the bridge is also being replaced.

    Since fixing the bridge wasn’t an issue until very recently I suspect that replacing the bridge is being used as a reason to spend a lot of money to straighten the road. Straightening the road will remove the perceptual distance between the recent building developments on the west shore and the downtown core, increasing property values and salability.

  • [...] not looking for a freeway surface. Note – the video included in Yule Heibel’s post on Self Explaining Roads includes the “sound” of the current Johnson Street Bridge, something well worth [...]