Alternative Road Allocations, Whitehorse

Levi Waldron
Published January 24, 2007

Case Summary

This case study examines the practice of converting existing four-lane roadways to multimodal two-lane roads, often referred to as alternative road allocations or "road diets," although this study avoids the latter rather value-laden terminology. The road space gained from the reduction in automobile lanes may be allocated to bike lanes, widened sidewalks, a treed centre median, or other uses. The common feature is the reallocation of existing automobile space. The loss of automobile space is usually made politically feasible by improvements in traffic flow efficiency, for example adding left-turn lanes, harmonizing automobile speeds, and eliminating lane changes, which maintain preexisting car traffic flow rates. This case study focuses on two alternative road allocations, Fourth Avenue and Quartz Avenue, in Whitehorse, YK.

Sustainable Development Characteristics

Alternative road allocations hold the potential to enhance transportation safety for all road users, reduce congestion and transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, encourage healthy active transportation, and improve aesthetic appeal of the roadway. The City of Whitehorse lists the following goals for its transportation infrastructure and education plan:

  1. reduction of transportation related greenhouse gas emissions;
  2. increased awareness and use of walking and cycling, particularly for downtown commuters;
  3. increased awareness and use of public transit and carpooling;
  4. improved safety for road users;
  5. greater use of cycling by city employees for business trips in the downtown area;
  6. greater public understanding of the linkage between transportation choices and greenhouse gas emissions;
  7. a healthier lifestyle for residents and visitors; and,
  8. reduced fuel consumption and congestion.

Critical Success Factors

Changing the status quo of existing road design priorities is a difficult and significant political risk. Acceptance by a sufficient majority of road users is critical both to implementing changes and keeping them in place, as evidenced by the rapid reversal of some of the redesigns in Whitehorse. In other cases, the redesigns have gained broad acceptance by ensuring that automobile travel times and volumes are unaffected or improved by the modifications. Alternative road allocations are not a technological "fix" to unsustainable transportation patterns; whether they remain in place and whether they provide an environmental benefit depends on the depth of government and public support for the principles and realities of sustainable transportation. To achieve substantial transportation sustainability improvements, they must be just a part in an ongoing process of incremental changes in attitude, habits, demand management strategies, and increased access to public infrastructure transportation choices.

However, for individual alternative road allocation projects to be approved and remain in place, some of the critical success factors are:

  1. an existing critical mass of support and demand for change from pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, and local residents who benefit the most from improved safety and aesthetics;
  2. minimal adverse effect on travel times for car users; and,
  3. the amount of parking along the roadway is unchanged or increased.

Essentially, to be politically feasible the alternative road allocation must be seen as a "win-win" situation, where some benefits to sustainable transportation users are realized without any sacrifice by automobile users.

Community Contact Information

Mr. Wayne Tuck, P.Eng.
Manager, Engineering and Environmental Services
City of Whitehorse
Telephone: (867) 668-8306
Fax: (867) 668-8386
Email: Wayne.Tuck@city.whitehorse.yk.ca

What Worked?

The Whitehorse alternative road allocation projects are part of a city-wide integrated greenhouse gas reduction strategy including other infrastructure changes, public education and outreach, and transportation demand management (City of Whitehorse, Stage 2: Detailed Proposal).

What Didn’t Work?

Upon completion of the Whitehorse 4th Avenue project, drivers along one stretch of road began experiencing delays during the evening peak period. One of the most disappointing outcomes of the alternative road allocation projects was the reversal of many of the project's important features only one month after completion. As a result of negative public feedback from some affected drivers, parts of the 4th Avenue project reverted to their former road allocation, including eliminating the separate bike lane in favour of designated bike lanes with on-street painted bike logos, and reversion to a four-lane roadway. The city is planning to widen the roadway to include a dedicated cycling lane in 2007.

Although surveys of improved recreational trails have indicated a 35% increase usage (Progress update of Whitehorse project), monitoring use of the new road system has proven to be challenging. This is due in part to the high variation in the number of people using alternative transportation, significant seasonal changes and limited vehicle traffic monitoring capacity (i.e., Whitehorse is not able to determine the number of occupants per vehicle). Thus, there is not yet an indication of whether the restructured roads and other efforts have produced significant changes in transportation choices.

Financial Costs and Funding Sources

Financial information for the Whitehorse project is from The Whitehorse Driving Diet (2003) and include only the actual costs of developing the infrastructure as the city did not include public consultations and other political expenses in the project's budget. The 4th Avenue alternative road allocation project, covering slightly more than 1km of road, cost $530,500 and was shared by the City of Whitehorse ($30,367), Yukon Electric and Yukon Energy ($50,000), and the Transport Canada Urban Transportation Showcase Program ($176,833).  The Copper and Quartz Road alternative road allocation project cost $63,000, shared by the City of Whitehorse ($42,000) and the Urban Transportation Showcase Program ($21,000). The Robert Service Way and 4th Avenue roundabout project cost $110,000, which was paid for by the City of Whitehorse ($73,333) and the Urban Transportation Showcase Program ($36,667). These funds were used for:

  1. re-painting existing four lane roadway to two lanes with a centre two-way left turn lane and bicycle lanes;
  2. retrofitting traffic signals to suit new road geometry;
  3. adding parallel parking bays where required;
  4. installing mid-block crosswalks with refuge islands where needed for major pedestrian crossing locations;
  5. upgrading street signs and pedestrian/cycling markings;
  6. removing existing curbs where necessary to expand intersection area;
  7. constructing new raised concrete curb centre island and approach splitter islands; and,
  8. landscaping of the roundabout islands and edges.

Research Analysis

The City of Whitehorse is using soft and hard measures to determine the number of people commuting by alternative means to the downtown core, as well as other benefits from the infrastructure changes. Techniques include vehicle counts using on-street tube counts, intersection loop counting systems, visual traffic counts, trail intercept surveys, trail counters and city-wide surveys (City of Whitehorse Showcase Description):

  1. measurement of walking, cycling and vehicular activity using combinations of visual observation and on-street tubes, intersection loop counting systems, trail counters and trail intercept surveys;
  2. transit ridership counts and on-board surveys;
  3. motor vehicle collision records;
  4. interview surveys with pedestrians and cyclists;
  5. travel surveys of area households and downtown employees;
  6. travel logs maintained by carpooling and Travel Smart participants; and,
  7. participation in special events.

It has been difficult for Whitehorse to assess changes in transportation choices, due in part to the high seasonal variation in the number of people using alternative transportation and to limited vehicle traffic monitoring capacity (i.e., Whitehorse is not able to determine the number of occupants per vehicle). While trail surveys have provided good data, they may not be the best measure for determining accurate modal splits as the majority of trail use is recreational rather than transportation-related.  A more conclusive follow-up report is expected in June 2007.

Detailed Background Case Description

Whitehorse is a small capital city of 21,000 people, with a downtown business centre and an “upper area” stretching several kilometres outside of downtown where about 2/3 of the population lives. Fourth Avenue and Quartz Avenue are two primary arterial roads connecting the upper area to the downtown, which were converted from four automobile lanes to two automobile lanes plus a two-way centre left-turn lane and bike lanes in 2004. A roundabout was also installed along 4th Avenue to reduce motorized vehicle delay, slow the speed of traffic, and improve the safety of all road users. The roads are also in the process of being beautified by burying overhead power and telephone lines, and upgrading the street lighting.

These projects are part of a larger process the the city began in 2002 to promote sustainable and active transportation. The process began with a public design workshop with city representatives, NGOs, and private citizens, which identified alternative road allocation options including replacing automobile lanes with bike lanes and installation of roundabouts. With further public consultation, these were incorporated into a city-wide transportation policy known as the Active Transportation Programme (Wayne Tuck, Personal Communication). At this point, the city made a successful application to Transport Canada's Urban Transportation Showcase Program. This program provided some capital funding for the infrastructure projects in exchange for being a showcase program and providing reports on the success and lessons learned from the program. Whitehorse's Active Transportation Program is multi-faceted, including (City of Whitehorse, Stage 2: Detailed Proposal):

  1. infrastructure changes to reduce barriers to active transportation;
  2. public education and outreach to promote greenhouse gas emissions reduction and information; and,
  3. transportation demand management programs to reduce the level of drive-alone travel.

All of the infrastructure changes outlined in the first stage of this proposal have been implemented. Actual construction on two alternative road allocations occurred in 2004, after another public consultation process just before construction. Upon completion of the lane reduction, drivers experienced delays along the downtown stretch of 4th Avenue during the peak evening rush. These delays may have been considered minor in many large cities, but caused immediate concern among drivers unaccustomed to such delays (Wayne Tuck, Personal Communication). Concerned drivers requested an emergency meeting of city council to review the changes, at which the city decided to revert two blocks of 4th Avenue to 4 lanes, eliminating the bike lanes for about 200 metres, but leaving over 1km of 4th Avenue in its new configuration.  As part of the decision, council planned to reinstate the bike lanes at a later time by widening the road to accommodate them in addition to the four motor vehicle lanes – a “win-win” situation. “Quite a few people” felt that council overreacted, and should have given people time to adjust to the new situation (Wayne Tuck, Personal Communication).

These projects are relatively recent, but the City of Whitehorse has completed an opinion survey of the opinions of residents, and has taken efforts to measure changes in transportation patterns as a result of the modifications.  Preliminary assessment of the success of these projects in meeting their goals are detailed in the Urban Transportation Showcase Program (2006) and summarized below:

  1. increased awareness and use of walking and cycling, particularly for downtown commuters: citizens survey in early 2006 found that "77% of citizens report that walking and cycling to the downtown core is good/excellent compared to only 49% in a 2002 survey and 47% in a 2004 survey";
  2. greater public understanding of the linkage between transportation choices and greenhouse gas emissions: citizens survey in early 2006 found that 96% citizens know about GHG reduction programs, with 68% reporting the they have made changes to their transportation means as a way of reducing their personal GHG contributions;
  3. improved travel time for cyclists, minor improvement for drivers;
  4. reduction of transportation related greenhouse gas emissions - not determined;
  5. increased awareness and use of public transit and carpooling - not determined;
  6. improved safety for road users - not determined;
  7. greater use of cycling by City employees for business trips in the downtown area - not determined;
  8. a healthier lifestyle for residents and visitors - not determined; and,
  9. reduced fuel consumption and congestion - not determined.

The 2006 citizens survey shows that the road transformations have improved residents' opinions of the walking and cycling-friendliness of these arterial roads and affected immediate aesthetic and safety benefits.  However, this and other alternative road allocation projects have been designed to have minimal or no inconvenience to drivers, and there is still a lack of evidence that this approach will have a significant impact on transportation choices. 

Creating a friendly street structure for cyclists, pedestrians, and transit users is an important aspect of increasing access to more sustainable transportation choices. Alternative road allocations are one aspect of the process for existing automobile-centred roads, but such projects are likely to meet stiff opposition from existing road users and be politically unpalatable if they try to change habits too quickly or without a broader recognition of the need for sustainable transportation and an integrated sustainable transportation plan. These initiatives are unlikely to achieve sustainable transportation targets such as Whitehorse's goal of significant greenhouse gas emissions unless they:

  1. build on existing initiatives;
  2. are part of an integrated strategy linking land use planning and transportation;
  3. are implemented in areas which already have enough support from local residents and businesses to pass the initiatives through the public consultation processes;
  4. have sufficient public commitment to their implementation and goals; and,
  5. are backed by the political will to maintain the project in the face of some negative reaction after implementation, which is inevitable even after extensive public consultations, and benefits are measurable and clearly communicated to road users.

In many places, the main barriers to implementing alternative road allocations are likely to be political will and public support, rather than actual infrastructure costs or technical challenges.

Resources and References

Interview with Mr. Wayne Tuck, P.Eng., Manager, Engineering and Environmental Services. January 24, 2007.

Urban Transportation Showcase Program website, Whitehorse case. (http://www.tc.gc.ca/programs/environment/UTSP/whitehorse.htm). Retrieved December 20, 2006.
Useful links:

Progress update of Whitehorse project

Road Diets: Fixing the Big Roads

Transport Canada website, St. George Street Revitalization: "Road Diets" in Toronto.

(http://www.tc.gc.ca/programs/Environment/utsp/st.georgestreetrevitaliza…). Retrieved February 12, 2007.

As the Alliance petitions the Governor and the General Assembly to join together to ensure that any and all revenue collected from highway users are invested wisely. One wonders what these TIGER Grants are going to be used for. The Department of Transportation has so far lined up TIGER Grants, or Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for St. Paul, Minnesota, Dallas, and a project in South Carolina. Dallas is getting street cars – it's anticipated that this might be a prelude to light rail projects, which are darlings of people that want public transport, but not as good as it could be. (The trolley systems used to be amazing, until GM manipulated congress to let them buy them out – thanks lobbyists!) It's basically huge payday loans essentially to our own economy, but one wonders when we'll see payoff.

This case study along with the other three case studies found within the Transportation section of the Case Studies in Sustainable Infrastructure link all speak to the need for public engagement in the form of acceptance of the project by residents, cooperation and partnerships between government, NGO’s and the public and specifically, as noted in this case study, “an existing critical mass of support and demand for change” is required.

Despite apparent support through extensive public consultation and despite the fact that this alternative road allocation project was designed to have minimal impact to drivers, the City Council decided to revert part of the road back to its original configuration upon drivers’ complaints of traffic delays following the implementation of this road reallocation initiative.

It would appear that in regards to aspiring to sustainable transportation infrastructure we are challenged with balancing the need for public support that demands the implementation of policies that only require incremental changes of behavior against criticism of policies that do not appear to be sufficiently influential in achieving sustainability targets or having a significant impact on transportation choices.

By converting the four lane roadways into multimodal two lane roads, we are allowing more traffic conjunction. The sustainable development characteristics is really essential for better road safety and the goals put forward by transportation infrastructure and education plan is practical to achieve