For a number of reasons, replacing the 4 way stop with traffic lights is a step backwards for Nelson. First, this is a waste of precious tax dollars. The government of British Columbia plans to increase trips taken by walking, cycling and public transit by 30% by 2030. To support this target, they have established another target of reducing kilometres driven by personal vehicles by 25% within the same time frame. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI) enjoys an annual budget of $9 billion dollars but only planned to spend $30 million on active transportation in 2022. $30 million for the entire province, likely, with a large portion of that directed to more urban areas and not rural locations like ours, is a tiny sum of money. At less that 0.5%. this figure is so small it’s literally a rounding error. It will be very difficult for the BC Government to reach these targets unless a significant portion of MoTI’s budget is reprioritized into public and active transportation. I suggest a 25% increase (or $2.25 billion) with a 15% increase (or $1.35 billion) for public transit and a 10% increase (or $900 million) for active transportation. If our government is really serious about making it easier to get around without a car, it’s going to have to invest in those other options. And we haven’t even got to the fact that the price tag for this traffic light installation has increased from $3.1 million to $4.8 million. We also need to be aware that once the lights are installed there are other perpetual costs to maintain them. Traffic lights consume electrical power 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Second, MoTI claims that traffic lights will improve safety. This is simply not true. We already know, from recent studies, that the more traffic congestion in an area the safer it is. I know it’s counter intuitive, but think about it. When you’re driving through an area where the lanes are narrow and there are lots of things happening, pedestrians crossing streets, cyclists riding on shoulders, we instinctively slow down and pay attention. We don’t want to hit anything. When lanes are wide and we have a green light, we just assume that all other traffic will stop for us. We speed up making it harder to stop when hazards do arise. We pay less attention because we are confident that our mode of travel has been prioritized. But people will still make mistakes which makes collisions at these locations all that more catastrophic. Urban designer, Hamilton-Baillie, says: “The thing about the signals being removed is that the driver is no longer being given a green light. And what the green light does is to communicate to the driver that you’ve got priority here – you should be going ahead and you should be angry if grandma is on the road in front of you.” The 4-way stop on Baker Street already functions as a shared space. If we were to prioritize people over drivers we could make it even better. Perhaps, even draw more people down to Railway station.
Third, traffic lights will not improve traffic flow. The four way stop at the foot of Baker Street may seem like a bottle neck but traffic does keep flowing. Yes, you do have to slow down and wait your turn but everyone is allowed to keep moving. Traffic lights can cause excessive delays, annoying drivers and encouraging disobedience of signals and diversion of traffic to inadequate alternate routes. Installing traffic lights prioritizes driving over all other modes. It gives priority to drivers yet does not actually improve flow. It decreases the safety of all other road users.
Finally, the installation of traffic lights requires more public space be prioritized for cars. The intersection is being enlarged as I write this. Land is expropriated from people for cars making way for slip lanes and traffic light posts. Auto infrastructure is a land use nightmare. Even if we do make it easier to drive into Nelson, where are we going to park all those cars? We don’t have enough space to house all our residents. We also need to account for air and noise pollution. By prioritizing cars, we undermine our personal health and make everything else more expensive. The only way to make Nelson a better place to live and visit is to prioritize other forms of getting around. That will require using more space for people walking, riding bicycles and taking public transit, not cars.
It is not a wise decision to replace the 4 way stop with traffic lights. For $4.8 million dollars we could do a whole lot better.