An Ongoing Series

Traffic in the Saugeen River Basin

January 1, 2008  #1

The dramatic growth of population in the Saugeen area has given rise to concern over future traffic congestion.  Even without further growth and development, summer days are rife with traffic snarls that people abhor.  Images of Toronto and Hamilton are brought to mind.  Here are a few examples of concern:

  1. A store owner on the main street in Port Elgin reports that his customers don't cross Goderich Street to his side because they fear the traffic and it's not worth it to go to the light and cross. He sees them pause and then just move on to their cars on busy days.  Port Elgin is no longer a place where people park and move freely to both sides of the road, if they are not nimble youths.

  2. A homeowner on Rankin in Southampton avoids Highway 21 and Rankin intersection and takes a longer route to go either north or south..

  3. Most locals use parallel residential streets to avoid congestion in Port Elgin in all seasons.  One of the prime streets used traffic will be increased when Wal-Mart opens the parkland at the end of Bricker to a new exit down Bricker.

  4. A left turn onto Albert Street (Highway 21) in Southampton is avoided by townsfolk and many times they turn right and then left to seek a parallel street to finally find a right turn onto Albert, wasting time and fuel.

  5. One homeowner on Albert Street in Southampton has about 8 seconds time to back out onto the street to go north, due to the proximity of the light.  She cannot go south and must seek another route to finally go south.

  6. People working near the light at High and Albert Street in Southampton complain of the fumes of stopped cars in the summer  on warm, still days.

  7. A long time runner in 'high summer' reports that he has to go to the High Street Light to cross on his daily run.  This does not occur now in winter.

Current Practice -- How Does the Town Decide?

The town of Saugeen Shores initiates traffic impact studies either on contract to the municipality or at the pleasure of developers.  (e.g. Wal-Mart and Tim Hortons).  These studies are done by professional engineering firms who do this as part of their professional services. 

They try to have their reports agree with present practices that are laid out by the Ministry of Transportation Ontario or MTO 

MTO stated goals are in part:

  • Improving public transit by making it more attractive to commuters;
  • Planning and investing in critical transportation infrastructure to maintain economic competitiveness;
  • Promoting road safety in order to remain among the safest jurisdictions in North America; and,
  • Enhancing public service and customer satisfaction by delivering efficient and innovative services to the public.

There is a strong and complicated network of agencies,  county and town governments involved in both the planning and execution of guidelines that have a historical impetus and rationale.  Much of this can be summarized as "we did this in the past:"  That is, they use current practice based upon past experience.  Sound good?

What is a Traffic Impact Study?

MTO's definition:

"A traffic impact study is a study of traffic needs and impact(s) that development will have on the surrounding networks"  (see MTO Document)

It's not a very satisfying definition because it uses the words it's trying to define in the definition.  Past experience tells me that people don't learn much from such definitions.  They add that impact studies must be done by a qualified firm.

So what do they do and how do they do it?  I won't be exhaustive here, but the engineering firms that are hired to do the work are commissioned by the government and many times by the developer to perform a very limited study with the funds agreed upon beforehand.  In other words, they don't spend more than they should to achieve a reasonable profit. Sometimes it is at the wrong time of year or time of day, but they have deadlines. The study requirements are quite simple when you boil them down.  They ask such things as:

  • Tell us that we've adhered to the MTO guidelines that include such things as what is the average number of trips that a household will take in a weeks time and will in fact a stop sign or light be required at intersection x with y because of a new development(s)? 

  • What is the traffic count on a certain day and time?

  • Do we need a lane widening here or there?

  • What is the average queue length and time for the studies duration?  Do we need to widen the road to alleviate the queue?

The surprising thing is that these studies are so localized and unscientific.  A recent study predicted it was valid until 2020!  Science usually asks what if questions and looks for a broad perspective.  Most importantly, science looks for ways to test their theories.

Traffic Impact Studies work a different way.  The reason is that they do them the way they've always been done. Nobody will get in trouble, if they do it according to the least common denominator of the guidelines and do it like they did it in the past.  They can always point to precedent.

The Engineering firm hires some part time workers (in many cases students) and asks them to perform car counts at certain points for a given length of time on a certain set of days or a day.  Sometimes they use car counting devices.

The firm takes this data and applies standard techniques to extrapolate the meaning to a broader outlook." We have 100 new single family units and they will generate x number of trips per day of a certain type".  These come from MTO guidelines.

If they are very good, they ask local people to give them hints about what things are really like, but this is rare.  The contracts are to be executed in a timely manner and to the MTO guidelines so that there is no mystery about them.  You get what you ask for and the firm or consultant always makes a set profit, if they have done it for a long time

Normally the studies are presented to the developer and/or Town or County Council and decisions are made based upon recommendations of the Town Engineer or somebody the decision makers trust.  County officials often are involved, but not for day to day things.  It is very unusual for the studies  to be questioned or read with interest or debated at council meetings.


What is Traffic Science?

Traffic Science is the detailed theory of how vehicles of all types and pedestrians move in space and time in an optimal manner with rules and constraints.

What is a Traffic Model?

A traffic model is simulation of real traffic conditions that can be predictive of the future.  It uses data compiled by interrelated traffic impact studies and counts.  Models are designed to answer what if questions and rely on Traffic Science mathematics and simulation techniques.  In the same way that NASA cannot guess about sending a camera to Mars and creates a model of the voyage, so to do Traffic Models predict what will happen with asked for and projected traffic loads.  You can ask:  "What will happen if the load at the new Wal-Mart is not 1250 cars per hour at peek, but 1600 cars?

Toy examples: You have to have Java on your computer and enabled to see these simulations.  If you don't then the still images will give you an idea of what I'm talking about.  So select either Java or No Java items.

Java Rectangular Grid Microsimulation of road traffic
No Java Jpeg grid Jpeg road traffic

How Can We View the Problem?

We are all familiar with being in the shower and having the cold and hot water mix just right, when somebody turns on a faucet in some other part of the house and we are either scalded or drenched with cold water.

A pipe system in a house is a rather simple system.  The cold water enters the house at a certain pressure and is routed to the hot water heater while some of it is always ready as cold.  The pipes have different capacities and we have multiple output possibilities, but only a single input flow.  We can graph the system on an engineering drawing and if we wanted, we could create a graphic model.  In large hotels or public buildings the firm designing the system does just that.

Our homes plumbing mimics a simple traffic system with only one flow source that is split into two distinct types and controlled by stop lights as output valves regulating the flow.  With all valves off, then we have no flow and the traffic is stopped.

Real traffic is much more complicated, but we can simplify it greatly by ignoring some aspects that are not troublesome.  We can keep the image of the copper pipes of different capacities and lots of valves, but in the larger case, we have lots of inputs and lots of outputs so the flow is more involved, but it can be brought under analysis.  You see that in the toy simulations that are hyperlinked above.

How Can Port Elgin and Southampton Be Helped?

The geography of the area has to be considered.  As we all know, our western approaches are from the great expanse of Lake Huron.  There are no possible approaches from that direction except by air or water.

Highway 21 is the main and really the only viable route to the north and northeast.  The Saugeen River dominates the area as it twists and turns from its headwaters.  Bridge construction and highway development would have to be to the east of the present north-south axis and main crossing of the Saugeen in Southampton.

At present there is not a single person in the community who knows with probable certainty if and when a bypass will be necessary.  The reason is that no model has been produced.  The only thing that has been done is a set of distinct traffic impact studies that do not refer one to another, which is hard to believe, but true.  The betting is not on if, but certainly on when.

Kincardine faced the same problem some years ago and turned it into a positive.  The route through downtown Kincardine was impossible to traverse in a reasonable time and the small town was choked by traffic.  The same will happen to Port Elgin for sure.  The bypass has produced stores out on 21 and away from the core of Kincardine, which now face their own problems, but at least they are not intolerable.

What will happen to Port Elgin and Southampton in the next five years?   The best estimate is that we will put a few million dollars into infrastructure support using the present routes.   The changes will include lane widening at intersections, lights and restricted parking in the tightest of areas.  Left turns will be restricted and bypass routes and escape routes will be outlined through residential areas. Pressure will be put on feeder streets and north-south slow speed limit streets such as the Shore Road, Huron, Grovesnor, Bricker and other well used residential streets.

It appears that a bypass is the only long term solution, but the question is when?


Models like the toy ones shown above can be constructed to mimic traffic flow for the next 15 years.  They are more complicated only in scope. They can adapt to the pressure and answer what if questions. 

A viable model needs to consider Highway 21 from the CAW Centre to the B-Line with a few feeder streets and the principal north-south relief streets included in the model.  We can ignore most of the small streets in the community and only consider their inputs and outflows as they feed the principal streets under consideration.

The model making software is available for a reasonable price and can be purchased by the Town with training.  An alternate approach is to hire a competent firm to do the initial model with training to keep it up to date for a couple of Town employees.

 In future updates to this article we will expand on what the model will do for the community.  We will also discuss ramifications of doing it just like we did in the past.  Please stay tuned.


Mike Sterling