‘Idea of a car-free areas is to encourage residents to try sustainable options such as public transit and non-motorised modes’

The following letter was sent to and published in Guelph Today and Guelph Mercury Tribune (Note the Mercury Tribune version was edited down by the newspaper for space.)

Dear Editor

The term “car free” has been thrown around at lot lately in regard to the Seasonal Patio Program. But do we understand the term? The term “car free” can encompass an array of different restrictions on vehicles.

In between a traffic-calmed area and a completely car-free city is a range of other possibilities that vary by both the spatial and temporal nature of the vehicle restriction. Rather than encompassing the entire city, a vehicle ban may be limited to a particular district or street. Vehicle restrictions may also vary by the time of day, day of week, and even the season.

The principal idea of a car-free areas is to encourage residents to try sustainable options such as public transit and non-motorised modes. If the quality of these alternatives is lacking in terms of delivery, then it will only harden future resistance to change. Positive car-free areas typically not only address the provision of alternative modes but can succeed in creating an atmosphere that leaves residents with a feeling that something quite special has occurred.

Car-free shopping and dining streets are perhaps the most common examples of car-free areas.

These streets typically allow some exemptions from restrictions. Shops may be given special delivery hours to bring in goods and products. In some instances, transit vehicles are permitted to share the road space with pedestrians and cyclists. This integration is known as a “transit mall” Such integration provides residents with a high level of convenience and accessibility.

The presence of transit vehicles may be seen by some as dampening the quality of the car-free experience; however, there are instances where the addition of transit does not appreciably deter the quality of the public space. In such cases, the volume of transit vehicles is sufficiently low to retain the high-quality ambiance of the street environment.

Since car-free areas allow greater pedestrian freedom of movement, people will tend to be less aware of the occasional transit vehicle. Extra precautions like reducing the speed of the bus or adding barriers in select areas can help avoid accidents with pedestrians and cyclists.

Whether separation between the two areas is required most likely depends upon the volume of persons being moved by transit. If the buses are operating on higher frequencies, then separation may be the realistic option. On the other hand, if volumes are much lighter than this, then a shared space arrangement, in which transit, bikes, and pedestrians share the same space, may be appropriate and safe.

Public Transit and Active Transportation are two mutually dependent concepts. Transit depends upon a high volume of customers and pedestrian zones are ideal feeders into the transit system. Likewise, public transit supports pedestrian zones by allowing access without the need for a private vehicle. Transit essentially frees up a considerable amount of urban space that would otherwise be required to move an equal number of persons by private vehicle. Both concepts also have large economic spin-offs.

Improving integration can provide many benefits, ranging from increased ridership to safer streets, and it can generally be accomplished for far lower costs than other forms of infrastructure. Improving active transportation access to transit can also improve equitable access to transit for both low-income people and people with disabilities.

A car-free downtown can easily become complete streets projects when transit and active transportation infrastructure is treated as an integral element. This approach should be rolled into the Downtown Secondary Plan as it can both ensure that transit is easy to access by walking or cycling and serve to create continuous corridors for cycling and walking.

Combining a car-free initiative like the Seasonal Patio Program in conjunction with a temporary “transit mall” can create a mutually supporting package that provides a definitive alternative to driving. Toronto’s King Street Transit Priority Corridor is one of hundreds of different examples that include patios.

Our downtown core can be turned into a safer and enjoyable destination for all users.

If we want to pedestrianization more of our downtown streets, especially to enjoy patios and entertainment, then effective integration of Active Transportation and Guelph Transit needs to be a priority not an afterthought.

Thank you.

Steven Petric
Chair, Transit Action Alliance of Guelph

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