By Michelle Martin
Published September 25, 2011
Twenty years ago, I worked in Mississauga at a job that required the use of my personal vehicle to visit various work sites, some of which were in newer subdivisions comprised of crescent roads and culs-de-sac in which I frequently became lost when I was new to the position.
By contrast, the Toronto neighbourhood where we lived was so navigable and well-connected to Mississauga by various east-west routes that I never even used the QEW to go to work.
After leaving easy-to-navigate New Toronto for a quick and easy commute along the Lakeshore or the Queensway to start a shift, those curvy suburban streets drove me nuts, wasting my time and my gas.
These days, I typically don't have to be frustrated trying to find an address among roads to nowhere unless I am picking up a son or daughter from a Stoney Creek mountain location. We live on a lower city street with an early 1900s grid design, and never even considered a cul-de-sac address when we moved to Hamilton.
I was reminded of those Mississauga driving adventures while surfing over Arts and Letters Daily to an article in The Atlantic which points out that the humanly intuitive grid design that was largely abandoned in American neighbourhoods had been used in world cities for over a thousand years. Its abandonment has led not only to more driving and less walking and biking, but also, according to one study, more traffic fatalities:
In their California study, Garrick and Marshall eventually realized the safest cities had an element in common: They were all incorporated before 1930. Something about the way they were designed made them safer. The key wasn't necessarily that large numbers of bikers produced safer cities, but that the design elements of cities that encouraged people to bike in places like Davis were the same ones that were yielding fewer traffic fatalities.
These cities were built the old way: along those monotonous grids. In general, they didn't have fewer accidents overall, but they had far fewer deadly ones. Marshall and Garrick figured that cars (and cars with bikes) must be colliding at lower speeds on these types of street networks. At first glance such tightly interconnected communities might appear more dangerous, with cars traveling from all directions and constantly intersecting with each other. But what if such patterns actually force people to drive slower and pay more attention?
-- Emily Badger, Debunking the Cul-de-Sac
My husband, on his daily commute to the suburbs of Burlington, observes that many rush hour commuters drive dangerously on the main arteries by speeding, following too close while flipping the bird, and running yellow lights.
He hypothesizes that they do so because of latent frustration at having had to drive around in circles to get out of their neighbourhood and onto one of the north-south routes that leads to the QEW or the 401.
Another aspect of grid design that contributes to its superiority is the ease with which a person can keep track of cardinal directions and note landmarks at various corners in the grid.
A neighbourhood that is more navigable is more fault tolerant - you can find your way back more easily if you become lost - and so safer, as well as more inclusive. Not everyone has the money to walk around with a smart phone that has the Google maps app and a GPS, just as not everyone can afford a car.
In the same Atlantic article, Badger refers to the concept of "location efficiency," described by Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighbourhood Technology. We all need to get to where we need to go in a manner that is efficient, pleasant, and suits our budget, whether we walk, take transit, or yes, drive:
What is harder to measure is the value of simply being connected - to where we want to go, but also to each other. Bernstein's location efficiency data speaks to some of this. He's even found that foreclosure hotspots tend to be focused in places with the least location efficiency - in spread-out subdivisions, where a family already stretched to the limit can go broke driving 10 miles each way for a gallon of milk.
Our own family simply would not be able to afford to get to all the places we need to go in a day if we always had to drive to them, let alone drive many kilometres for a milk run.
That's why we moved to an older, location-efficient neighbourhood in the first place.
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