Taking a wrong turn on traffic planning: The Gateway Project will add roads and bridges and cars, cars, cars
Monday, March 6, 2006
by Dr. David Suzuki
More than 40 years ago, when I was a young geneticist eager to make my mark in the world, I took a job as assistant professor of Zoology at the University of British Columbia.
I could have started my career anywhere, but I came back to my birthplace because the city offered a quality of life that I felt was unparalleled.
Part of that quality of life is geography and part of it is weather, but a big part of it is due to the choices we made about what kind of city we wanted to be.
Back then, building massive freeways through the heart of a city was considered the modern thing to do. It was hoped that these freeways would allow for the easy transportation of goods and people in and out of the community. It didn't work out that way. Today, cities such as San Francisco are tearing down these freeways because they made traffic worse and led to urban sprawl.
The decision to avoid freeway expansion was not an easy one. It wasn't politically expedient. Many people wanted a freeway to "ease congestion."
But planners and politicians of all political stripes made a brave decision not to build a freeway through the city. Today, urban planners come to Vancouver from all over North America to see what we did right and Vancouver is routinely listed as one of the most livable cities in the world.
All this history makes the proposed Gateway Project especially strange. The plan proposes to twin the Port Mann Bridge and greatly increase traffic into Vancouver. Essentially, it's an old-school, 1950s-style urban planning model plopped into 21st century Greater Vancouver.
What feature of this project will, in 40 years, bring community planners here from all over North America to marvel at our foresight?
I think the answer is: not much. This isn't a thoughtful decision based on the best available information; it's a politically expedient decision that will trade long-term quality of life for short-term gains.
Artists' renditions of the twinning project show, laughably, almost no traffic. This is fanciful to be sure, because if there is no other realistic way to get from Vancouver's growing suburbs to the city centre except by car, then suburbs will be designed for cars and car commuters.
That doesn't just have repercussions for those living in the city, who will indeed face more and more traffic and pollution, but also for those living in the car-dependent suburbs.
Just ask people living in places like Houston, Texas, where residential suburbs are cut off from shopping areas and work places. In Houston you literally have no option but to get in your car and drive to the coffee shop, to the video store or to the grocery store because there are no sidewalks.
The communities are entirely dependent on cars and roads that feed into an ever-expanding, perpetually under-construction and over-budget freeway and tolls system.
Despite Houston's continual freeway expansion, the city still suffers from terrible traffic congestion, and now has smog that rivals, and even surpasses, that of Los Angeles -- a city more than twice Houston's size.
And Houston is just one of dozens of large cities that have become trapped in the cycle of trying to expand freeways to accommodate growth. Anyone who has been stuck on the sea of asphalt that is the 401 in Toronto knows about the gridlock that can result.
Cities around the world that have tried the Gateway model have failed. Here's a small sample.
From a report presented to the U.S. Transportation Research Board: "Widening and building new highways actually causes, not relieves, traffic congestion in Cincinnati and other major U.S. metropolitan areas. This study estimates that up to 43 per cent of traffic in Greater Cincinnati is caused just by expanding the area's road network."
From The Sydney Morning Herald: "Sydney's reliance on cars is costing more than $18 billion a year through congestion, accidents and air pollution, and threatens to stunt the state's economy."
From The Economist: "What is the price of America's love affair with the car? According to a recent 'urban mobility study' from the Texas Transportation Institute, it adds up to $63.1 billion a year (plus another $1.7 billion if the latest petrol prices are included) in wasted time and fuel."
It's a vicious cycle.
As isolated, sprawling suburbs grow, they become harder and more expensive to service with any sort of public transit. This drives more people into their cars, which feeds into more roads, more cars, more gridlock and longer commutes.
But it isn't too late to change. The GVRD's Livable Region Strategic Plan has evolved over 15 years of hard work to develop a strategy that will help keep Greater Vancouver one of the best places in the world to live. Freeway expansion is not part of this plan.
Key to the plan is the availability of commuter options. To give people more transportation options and reduce gridlock, the Livable Region Coalition (composed of sustainable transportation advocates) has proposed a series of measures, all of which cost substantially less than building another bridge for cars.
These measures include: developing bus and high-priority vehicle lanes and giving traffic-signal priority to these lanes; developing passenger light rail services and commuter trains to town centres, and increasing the existing bus and SkyTrain fleet size and frequency.
This last point is crucial. If public transit is not convenient, people will not use it. Getting people out of their cars and onto buses and trains means building a system that works, with quick and convenient ways to get from our homes to our workplaces. That means buses no more than every 10 minutes on major routes. It means express services and room to breathe.
Only then will people leave their cars at home. And when you remove single-occupancy vehicles from the roads, it frees up more space for the movement of freight. By following the Livable Region Coalition plan, we could start reducing gridlock in as little as two years, (the Gateway plan will take at least seven), and for far less money.
B.C. Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon is right about one thing: Doing nothing is not an option.
We absolutely must develop better ways of moving people and goods around the Lower Mainland. But the Gateway plan will reduce our options for the future by increasing our reliance on cars for commuting.
Fifty years ago, courageous Vancouver city councillors looked ahead and saw what a freeway system through the heart of Vancouver would do to the livability of the city and the quality of life of its residents.
Now, we are facing another decision. Let's make one that gives us more transportation options and helps us build healthier, safer communities.
Let's ask ourselves once again: What kind of city do we want to be?
David Suzuki is the chairman of the board of the Vancouver-based Suzuki Foundation.