The 90-minute solution

By Gene Miller, January 2015

If we’re going to invest in a pricey new McKenzie Avenue intersection, let’s charge commuters for stop-reduced driving.

To put you in the mood, I’d like to unload some overwrought consumer trivia about the price of English muffins. On Saturday, last November 29, a bag of six Dempster’s English muffins at Thrifty’s was $4.19, or 70 cents each. At Oxford Foods on Cook Street, a bag of six (a competitive brand of equal quality) was $1.88, or 31 cents apiece. A jumbo-pak of 24 at Costco was $6.49, or 27 cents the muffin. A 12-pack at the Wholesale Club on Viewfield Road in Esquimalt (a find in every way, if you haven’t visited before) was $1.97, or 16.4 cents per. To flip this around, had you bought 24 muffins at each store, you would have paid, respectively, $16.76, $7.52, $6.49 and $3.94. And it’s not like the Thrifty’s muffins were produced to the sound of Pan-pipes with south-slope-grown, artisan-milled, first-pressing, cruelty-free wheat. Same damned English muffins. 

And from teaching days, a lifetime ago, I remember an intellectually gifted student, Jeffrey, who, at 14, was endomorphically chubby, had an egg-shaped head, and wore thick glasses with one unhinged earpiece tenuously Scotch-taped to the lens frame. His nose ran constantly, and a bubbly archipelago of spittle sat perpetually at the corner of his mouth. He would laugh in noisy, otherworldly gulps at his own esoteric jokes. Classic bully bait, but the other kids loved him. What set him apart was not just these physical qualities, but also his tendency toward startlingly original expression. In his presence, you felt yourself a witness to the actual physical assembly, the coalescing architecture, of his thought. With no preamble, or any clue as to how long it had been in the making, or the why of it, out might come: “What if the bird in your hand is a sparrow, but the two in the bush are peacocks?” Such thoughts emerged from some tunnelling maze-work; were expressed with a precocious complexity; and, for a 14-year-old, bordered on the profound. It seemed an open question whether he would, in his adult life, go on to create the Z-Bomb or cure cancer. 

Keeping Jeffrey and English muffin value-shopping in but at the edge of the frame, let’s ponder the notorious congestion at the Trans-Canada/McKenzie Avenue intersection and its alleviation. 

The Times-Colonist’s Jack Knox acidly opened a November column: “It took 35 minutes to drive a 10-kilometre stretch of the Colwood Crawl on Wednesday morning.”

Which, incongruously, reminds me of the definition of a “kilomater”—five-eighths of a mom.

To call it the Colwood Crawl may evocatively title but mis-describe it—akin to calling a different collection of human behaviours “teen pregnancy” or “domestic violence.” That is, let’s not give the event a label without highlighting the choices—residential, lifestyle, mobility—of the people who are driving the many thousands of vehicles that actually cause the Colwood Crawl during each morning and evening commute.

Presently, the Trans-Canada/McKenzie intersection is the whipping boy, but if we spend something on the order of $80-100 million (provincial Transportation Minister Todd Stone’s numbers) for a fix, only to move the bottleneck a half-mile south to the next traffic light at busy Douglas and Saanich Road beside Uptown, what then? 

Let’s look at some creative responses other than big-dollar infrastructure spending. 

For example, people could quit their government jobs and take up organic farming in their Langford front yards. Or stay home and telecommute. Or government commuters (a significant percentage of the on-road total) could work 2 pm to midnight and drive counter-flow.

Or we could take the view that it’s only a problem if you call it a problem. We don’t call gravity a problem, just a fact of life. What’s wrong with people having to devote 20-30 minutes of their day inching along in bumper-to-bumper traffic, not as some form of moral shaming (nothing wrong with that, of course), but as a simple expression of how choices have consequences? I mean, if you move to the middle of the desert and then petition the government to deliver water, expensively, to your door, no one shows any sympathy. Everyone thinks you’re crazy and selfish.

Remember the old-style car-wash through which your vehicle advanced on a creeping chain of casters? Maybe those could be installed in a one-mile stretch of the highway roadbed, north and south of the McKenzie intersection, thus providing a distraction from the crawl and freeing drivers’ minds and hands for texting, cell phone games, the crossword puzzle, masturbation, knitting, computer work, or reading Focus cover-to-cover.

Alternatively, if we’re going to invest in pricey infrastructure, let’s charge commuters for the pleasure of a stop-reduced driving experience. Every car has unique DNA—a license plate—and I assume some road-embedded plate-reader or other programmable whiz-bang technology exists. Buck a trip, one way. Half the cost of a Tim Horton’s coffee. $10/week times 50 weeks times 50,000 vehicles (80-90,000 is the current count, including non-commuters) comes to $25,000,000/year. 

Your gas isn’t free, daily parking isn’t free, even the air in your tires isn’t free anymore; why should your trip be free? We don’t think of other car-related expenses as punishment or sin taxes, but simply the costs of driving. So, why distinguish? 

Revenue could be used first to repay the interchange construction cost and after payout be re-directed toward eliminating regional homelessness, which it would do in jig time.

I’m getting excited about this idea! Here we are, possibly the luckiest people on Earth, in count-your-blessings Victoria. Via this revenue plan, we could produce a funding structure for thousands of the most needy and least employable people in the region, allowing them to survive less off unpredictable community good will, state largesse, and the limited and uncertain income flow from refundable beverage containers, and more off the income generated through such a program of—dare I call it—wealth redistribution? 

The provincial Liberals would be all over this ideologically. It’s their kind of thing.

But if we go for pricey highway infrastructure upgrades, we have to discuss unintended consequences. A decade ago, you could quip about Victoria’s “rush minute” as cars streamed in and out of town during the commute. No longer true. Jim Hindson, a now-local semi-retired transportation and infrastructure professional who spent almost 30 years as traffic engineer and systems department head for the Hamilton region, has explained to me that while Ground Zero may appear to be the Trans-Canada/McKenzie nexus, under the same pressure is a much larger and highly stressed road “eco-system” featuring Saanich/Boleskine Road, Tillicum Road, Admirals Road/McKenzie Avenue, West Burnside/Interurban, Carey Road, Craigflower Road, and more. This whole system of roads is choked because in the morning people are coming from one road and, seeking shortcuts, going to many. And in the afternoon coming from many and going to one: the Trans-Canada Highway itself.

I learned the phrase “lane envy” from Hindson. He explains that if a road includes an underused transit/car pool lane, folks in the adjacent clogged lanes can barely control their frustration. They experience “lane envy” and they lane-hop, replacing morality with exigency—rules be damned and no mind the signage or the white painted diamonds. The empty transit lane takes on the persona of tone-deaf Marie Antoinette who, informed that the peasants have no bread, says, “Let them eat cake!”

Now, can we in essence package lane envy—that hatred of gridlock and love of the open road—and exploit and charge for it if we create expensive new infrastructure at the Trans-Canada/ McKenzie intersection? 

As you consider appropriate infrastructure responses, bear in mind that the daily problem at the intersection is really two 90-minute one-way problems, morning and evening. At all other times, the existing road capacity and traffic signalling is adequate to meet traffic needs.

So, is there a three hour/five weekday solution? Would an Admirals/McKenzie overpass with ramps down to and up from the Trans-Canada in appropriate places make enough of a difference? Might there be an elevated reverse-direction two-laner running above the median of the Trans-Canada with ramps as needed that could, with signalling, allow inbound morning and outbound evening thru-traffic to utilize the same two lanes to cruise over the McKenzie intersection?

How about we add extra lanes on grade? As Easterners can tell us, that works extremely well on Toronto’s 401 and many other highways where traffic volume quickly expands to exceed the added road capacity. Oh, and as the spaghetti interchange “postcard” included with this column suggests, you could get really jiggy with an infrastructure response and bankrupt the region.

I close by acknowledging I’m not a transportation professional, so I can’t competently answer these questions. But Minister Stone, as you study and weigh various scenarios, I implore you to keep the masturbation option on the table.

 

Gene Miller, founder of Open Space Cultural Centre, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences, is currently co-writing 50 by 20 with Rob Abbott. The two are also about to launch 50x20.com—a companion website dedicated to championing exceptional North American sustainability initiatives and accomplishments.