As I was skimming the agenda for the City of Saskatoon’s recent Standing Policy Committee on Transportation (SPC-T) a late item was added just prior to the meeting on January 12 , 2015. It was an update on the plan for the University bridge refurbishment scheduled for 2015. In it the City detailed it’s plan to close the bridge to all but one lane, with that lane only open to eastbound traffic, weekdays from 6 am to 8 pm.
It doesn’t appear that the City considered any other option except for allowing the contractors bidding on this contract to include an alternate price and schedule if they were allowed a full closure. Potentially a viable option, if the work was completed quickly enough.
Another option crossed my mind, resulting a hurried email to all City Councilors on Monday morning, in the hope that at least some of them would read it before the meeting. Councilor Davies was the only one to respond and given his questions during the meeting he was thinking along the same lines.
Why not have the one open lane (as planned) restricted to Transit and emergency vehicles only, and allow both east and west bound on an alternating basis. Anyone who travels in British Columbia during construction season will be familiar with this concept. Access to the single lane could be controlled with temporary traffic lights, allowing east and west bound buses to continue to use the University bridge, at least during the weekdays between 6 am and 8 pm.
Emergency vehicles would also be able to use this route, and could easily be given priority over buses. Worst case scenario would be if a westbound bus had just entered the bridge and an ambulance needed to get to Royal University Hospital.
According to Google maps, the distance between Clarence Avenue and Spadina Crescent is 500 meters. Which means a bus traveling at 20 km/h would clear the bridge in 90 seconds. Then another 90 seconds or less for the ambulance to cross.
Imagine what the University bridge will be like with a single lane, eastbound only, and open to all vehicles. Invariably it will be congested every minute it’s open. It’s unlikely that no matter how smooth traffic is flowing it is doubtful that an eastbound ambulance would be able to cross the bridge anywhere near as quickly in mixed traffic. Especially if they have to wait through a couple of traffic light cycles at Clarence & College.
A bidirectional restricted lane would allow Saskatoon Transit to maintain schedules and routes that use the University bridge on weekdays between 6 am and 8 pm, when the vast majority of transit’s passenger load occurs. Based on the statements made during the SPC-T meeting it appears that the traffic engineers caught Transit by surprise when they were told this project would be a go for construction season 2015. Without the University bridge almost every route that crosses the river will have to be re-routed. Of the 18 routes that cross the river, 10 of them use the University bridge.
It would also help demonstrate how exclusive bus lanes can work in Saskatoon, if only for a short “pilot project”. Effectively Transit already has a semi-exclusive bus lane already. Many bus routes use Campus Drive instead of College Drive which has dramatically reduced the number of buses that get stuck in traffic on College Drive.
It could also demonstrate to potential “choice riders” that transit can be a viable option for them, if it is done right. If commuters living in Willowgrove or Lakeview could get to work downtown on Saskatoon Transit via a single restricted access lane on the University Bridge in 40 minutes or less and the drive to work either using Circle Drive north or the Broadway bridge is going to take them over an hour, some will choose the quicker option. Not to mention the cost of a bus pass is significantly less that the cost of fuel would be, even with falling gasoline prices. Quicker and cheaper? Sold!
Since westbound vehicular traffic will not have access to University bridge regardless, a bidirectional restricted lane will have no impact on this traffic. The only real disadvantage would be to the eastbound vehicular traffic. But lets be realistic. With only one lane available how many people are actually going to use it? I wouldn’t. It will be constantly congested and so much as a fender bender or stalled car will shut it down completely. I would avoid it like the plague, and I work downtown. Most of my co-workers who live in the North East area of the city already avoid University bridge. They go north on 2nd avenue to Warman road to access Circle Drive North bridge.
Another small advantage to the restricted lane option benefits both the westbound College drive traffic turning left to go south on Clarence, and the Northbound Clarence traffic turning right to go east on College. Without any regular vehicle traffic approaching from the University Bridge, these two traffic flows would be able to flow freely. The only time these flows would have to stop is when an eastbound bus or emergency vehicle was crossing the bridge to continue east on College.
I’m not really sure why the City proposed a single eastbound only, all vehicle lane as the only option during this project. It does not appear that a restricted bidirectional lane was even considered. The only thing I can think of is the City looked at their traffic counts for the University bridge and since the eastbound traffic volume is higher than the westbound they felt that the higher volume direction should get the one lane.
What they don’t really seem to have considered is that people are going to adapt and change their behavior. I have heard a metaphor that traffic engineers often treat traffic like water and streets like pipes. They instinctively want to push as much water through the available pipe as possible. But people (and traffic) are not water. Water cannot choose.