Posted by: Rob | January 26, 2009

An Example of Poor Urban Planning

One of my pet peeves with urban sprawl is the entitlement attitude many municipalities have regarding the highways that run past or through them.

In the “olden” days the main drag in most communities seemed to always double as the thoroughfare for whatever highway was bringing people to or through these communities. And in those early days of motoring, that made sense. More often than not, the community was there first and, in a twist on “Field of Dreams”, it was a kind of “if you build it, they will come.”

Of course, as the decades passed the motorways evolved into something more adapted to rapid travel. At least as rapid as you could get, given the limitations of most motor vehicle operators and the resulting confluence with public safety requirements.

Travel times between major centres, especially in the wide open spaces of western Canada, tended to be reduced as by-passes were constructed around the bottlenecks of each and every little community straddling the highway.

And I like it that way.*

So when the reverse of this scenario happens, I find it a bit irksome.

And the reverse is exactly what is happening in the nearby “city” of Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta.

I’ve lived in the area since the mid-90’s and in all that time (and probably before that time) the city leaders have been obsessed with growth. The Fort (as it’s referred to) has pretty much always been sucking the hind tit in the area compared to other municipalities when it comes to growth.

Seems like they finally got their wish (at least until lately) when the all-out mad rush to exploit the Alberta tar sands was going to land some twenty new heavy industrial plants in the area. There was, of course, the heavy expectation of accompanying commercial growth to support all those new manufacturing facilities too.

And the people. So many people that the big boxes finally took notice too, but the big thing was going to be housing for the massive influx of workers (and consumers) to make all these new plants get built and then to run them.

Highway 21 comes up from Sherwood Park into the Fort. It’s a four lane divided highway. There’s an odd intersection with highway 15 coming out of Edmonton. I think 21 ends at the point and 15 continues on in a northeastly direction towards the manufacturing plants. It too is four lane and divided.

The highway through the Fort, at one time, ran alongside the city. There were a few lights where the handful of city streets connected up to allow the residents egress to other parts. It was a wide open highway. Wide open. The speed limit was 80 km/h (50 mph) – reduced slightly from highway speed in recognition, I guess, of the proximity to an urban setting and the occasional traffic lights.

That’s all changed now. Commercial and residential and recreational facilities have sprawled across the highway in more or less willy-nilly fashion. (Was there ever a municipal development plan for this?)

While as of this writing almost all of the once planned twenty odd oil sands upgrader plants have been shelved (postponed or cancelled) there has been sufficient work going on that traffic through the Fort on highway 15 and 21 has been pretty heavy, especially on weekdays during peak hours.**

So what happens when traffic gets congested? Yeah. People get impatient. Everyone tries to squeeze through as many of the traffic lights as possible before they turn red. And what happens when drivers behave like that? Yep. Wrecks. Lots of wrecks.

The fearless leaders of the Fort turned to a consultant and are now busily implementing the recommendations.

1) Reduce the speed limit from 80 km/h (50 mph) to 70 km/h (42 mph). Hmm, well that really helped things; the traffic jams became even more loathsome.
2) Add intersection traffic monitoring cameras to optimize the signal patterns to reduce traffic wait times on the primary artery and reduce traffic jams. Yeah, that worked real well…if the reverse effect was what you were striving for.
3) Introduce something called “traffic calming measures”. This is essentially pouring a bunch of concrete islands and narrowing the road widths at the intersections. This is supposed to give the highway a more “urban” feel. So, imagine the emotional contradiction you feel as you arrive in Fort Saskatchewan. You’re cruising a divided four lane highway with massive sight lines; a sense of wide open-ness you really only experience in Alberta or Montana. All of a sudden, in the midst of your wide open sight line is a traffic signal controlled intersection skinny enough that it really only belongs in a real city.
4) When all of the above do not work, install red light cameras to catch those errant drivers who are….well….just trying to get home after a long day’s work. I don’t know if this has helped or hurt the incidence of traffic wrecks. Typically there are those fearful of getting a red light ticket who will jam on their brakes when they really have sufficient time to clear the intersection and then cause a domino effect of mini collisions as the more astute drivers are caught unawares by the dumb bunny at the front of the line.
5) And if all of the above still do not work, then activate the “Speed-on-green” feature of the red light cameras, taking full advantage of the revenue potential of these quaint little devices.

The Fort Saskatchewan Record had a cover piece on this last item in the January 13, 2009 print edition. I was especially amused by the sidebar block on fines….

The province has amended the Traffic Safety Act to allow speed technology at red-light camera locations. Demerits will not be issued. The fines for those speeding at red-light camera locations are:

1 – 15 km over $57 – $89
16 – 30 km over $103 – $177
31 – 50 km over $187 – $351
Above 50 km over Mandatory appearance in court

It’s bad enough that it is the registered owner of the vehicle who is the lucky recipient of these tickets, but I wonder about the last one. So, you were not the driver of your vehicle the day that someone was driving it through this camera location at a rate greater than 50 km/h (30 mph) above the speed limit (that would be 101 km/h or about 62 mph), and yet you would be summons’d into court. To answer to what charge? Yes, your honor my vehicle evidently was photographed at that speed. But I was not driving it that day. So, what, exactly, am I guilty of? Owning a vehicle that can go that fast?

The ultimate in asininity.

Personally, I think that the Fort Saskatchewan city planners should have figured on building ramps across the highway to allow access back and forth between the two sides of its urban area, with a limited number of access/egress ramps to enter/exit the city, and let the flow through traffic just continue to flow through.

Sure that would have been more expensive, but it’s going to be just as, if not more, expensive to build a new by-pass around Fort Saskatchewan. An idea that is already being discussed.

* Naturally, I’m also the guy who loves the “pay at the pump” option at the gas station. Saves me the aggravation of going into the seedy little convenience store, waiting in line and dealing with the non-caring customer “service” staff.

** The Fort’s “investment” in photo radar is paying off handsomely, as I understand it.


  1. Ah, echos of the little towns in Kansas that paid their water bills with 1 mph over the limit tickets, especially to “furriners”. None of the suggestions of the experts make any sense. I like the thing they have in Vancouver where those types of intersections are controlled by a stop sign on the cross street, and a light that goes red on the main drag when there is a car at the stop sign. That way you’re not sitting at a red light on the main drag just for the halibut.

    South Coffeyville (Oklahoma – just across the Kansas state line) has/had a cottage industry doing just that with speed traps.

    That Vancouver idea sounds like a good one. I think the Fort tried to do that with the cameras but, apparently, the technology was too complicated for anyone to figure out.

  2. just paid $130 for getting busted doing 17 mph over the posted speed limit (52mph in a 25mph zone that quickly goes up to 45mph). guilty. but damn, it’s annoying…

    sounds like you’ve got a case of ‘revenuers gone wild’… in germany, they not only photograph the front/rear of the car to get the tags, but they’ve got a shot of the driver as well…

    That reminds of the time a photo radar photo of one particular driver was published in the paper. The driver was driving….with both hands, fingers laced, on the back of his head!

    Municipality dependence upon photo tickets for revenue is particularly irksome. It’s less of a fine and more of a tax. I’d like to see everyone drive on their best behaviour at these locations. See how long these expensive devices last if they’re generating zero revenue. Sadly, that’s not likely to happen.

    I’m amazed at how much time, energy, resources and innovation goes into creating things that are so…..useless (in an non-contributing fashion), rather than contributing to the greater good of humanity.

  3. at least there’s an attempt to keep the roads into the city. look at all the towns that have died because they didn’t build it, so no one came. but, still, i sympathize with the excessive zeal in prosecuting and fining.

    The people who populate a town need to look at the reason for the town’s existence. I’ve never believed that being a way-stop for travellers was a viable method of guaranteeing revenue to town businesses.

    The western Canadian prairies are dotted with tiny towns once anchored by grain elevators. As grain collection facilities have gone mega-sized and centralized, many (if not all) of the old wooden grain elevators have gone away. In some cases, the town – which was largely supported by the grain elevator anchor and related businesses – has gone away too.

    It’s too bad, but in the same breath I’ll say I’ve never understood some people’s deep emotional attachment to a place. (Can you tell I’ve moved around a lot?)

  4. Our “forward-thinking” local municipalities build roads up to the highways and then slap a light on it, once you get ten to twelve lights on the highway, in the morning and afternoon, ain’t nobody going fast enough to get a ticket. Overpasses or bypasses? They’ve never heard of it.

    I believe people go into politics because they hunger for power and the opportunity for personal gain with minimal effort. Intelligence and rational, critical thinking skills are not always a part of that package.

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