The cost of a kilometre
The City of Ottawa was all pleased with itself in the email notice it sent on Friday updating us on the upcoming project to widen Strandherd Drive in Barrhaven.
And no doubt it will make some people happy. Especially people who mistakenly think widening a road leads to less congestion.
Look, I get it. There is nothing more frustrating than sitting in a car going nowhere. Cars are meant to be moving, and moving fast. A car that’s not moving is just a dumb, expensive, over-equipped metal box (or a terrible hotel room). It’s not good for anything else.
But. A few things.
First of all, in case you hadn’t heard, widening a road never leads to less congestion. Oh, maybe a bit at first, yes. But every single time you widen a road anywhere, you encourage drivers to use it more because — look! — it’s wider therefore it must move faster.
What happens when more people use a newly-widened road? You got it. Congestion.
And it happens every single time. It’s a well-known phenomenon called “induced demand”. Go ahead and Google it. Or read this. And what do you gain at the end of the exercise? A nice shiny wide road that cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars and… you’re still sitting in a traffic jam.
Out of curiosity, do you know how much the Strandherd Drive widening project is expected to cost? I do. I know it because the City told me in that email it sent Friday. Approximately $100 million. One hundred million dollars. For 3.3 kilometres of road. That’s roughly $30 million per kilometre, if I know my math. (That’s assuming the work is completed more or less on budget, which nobody ever guarantees, but let’s go ahead just for fun and believe that this one will be.)
I’m sure it will be a beautiful road, and yes, it will include some cycling lanes. But still, when you consider how much taxpayers gripe about the cost of bike infrastructure, to say nothing of transit, you might start pulling your hair out in frustration at the blithely insouciant way the same taxpayers agree to spend oodles on a car-centric project doomed to failure.
It’s almost as though driving cars made us irrational.
One hundred million dollars, in case you were wondering, is roughly one-fifth the entire OC Transpo budget.
In its 2018 budget, the City of Ottawa allocated $4 million dollars to improve the cycling network. Seen another way, a few metres of the new expanded Strandherd Drive represents all the money spent improving bicycle infrastructure in the entire city.
That’s because bike paths cost nothing by comparison to roads or LRT infrastructure.
According to this report from a few years ago, bicycle infrastructure costs between $20,000 and $1.2 million per kilometre, depending on the kind of infrastructure — between painted lines at the cheap end and road widening to add segregated bike lanes at the expensive extreme. Say we take as a working average $500,000 per kilometre for proper cycling infrastructure, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than road widening for vehicular traffic. We’re talking orders of magnitude cheaper.
They’re also a lot better for our health. Active transportation is associated with lower rates of obesity, diabetes and a host of other ailments that rob people of precious years of life. Toronto Public Health estimated “that levels of walking and cycling activity in 2006 prevented about 120 deaths in the Toronto population with an associated economic value between $130 million and $478 million. Here in Ottawa, as I wrote not too long ago in the Ottawa Citizen, if half the trips people make were done using active transportation modes (walking, cycling, transit), we could decrease the number of diabetes cases by as many as 1,620 over a span of 10 years.
I’m fairly confident a wider Strandherd Drive won’t be able to do that. When you start adding up the health-related costs of car dependency to those of road widening, you end up with extraordinarily expensive kilometres.