If the old line about ‘publish or perish’ is true for academia, I’m deeply appreciative to Bill Boei at the Vancouver Sun for giving me a little ink at the GVRD “Future of the Region” forum at the Wosk Centre last Monday. This one was on transportation.

The provincial government’s $3-billion Gateway project will commit Greater Vancouver to a car-dominated future, but it won’t solve traffic congestion, urban planning lecturer Gordon Price told a forum on the future of the regional district Monday.

“Gateway will fail. They know that,” said Price, a former Vancouver councillor who now head of SFU’s City Program.

“They will do it anyway,” he told about 200 community leaders and local politicians.

Price challenged the meeting to find an example of a city that solved traffic congestion by building more roads, but had no takers.

I doubt the Minister of Transportation will lose any sleep; he’s heard it all before, many times, and delights in affirming that Gateway is a done deal. None of the Ministry staff even bothered attending. But some of his presumed allies revealed a scepticism that was surprising:

Greater Langley Chamber of Commerce president John Campbell insisted the Port Mann Bridge must be twinned to keep traffic moving, but agreed with Price that would be only a short-term fix.

Specifically, Campbell acknowledged, about five years before the highway and bridges filled up again. Given that it may take longer than that to build this infrastructure (and generate additional congestion as a result), the Gateway Project may come in at a net loss.
Chris Newcomb, a director of the Consulting Engineers of B.C., went further: he said his organization thinks Gateway is a mistake. He then went on to what on to discuss what was clearly the consensus of the forum: the need for road pricing. By the end, no one had rejected it, despite qualms by some about the method of imposition and who would be effected. It’s a big deal when you get truckers, chambers of commerce, consulting engineers, environmentalists, academics and politicians all agreeing that, one way or another, charging appropriately for road space is part of our transportation future.

“We agree in principle with Gordon Price that road pricing is the solution we should be advocating,” Newcomb said. “We see the present direction as being wrong-headed.”

A $1-per-trip toll on Greater Vancouver’s major commuter routes would raise $300 million a year that could be used to build transit and bicycle networks, Newcomb said.

Alan Durning, director of Seattle’s Sightline Institute, was there too. (Disclosure: I sit on Sightline’s board.)

He said road pricing can include not only the obvious — tolls — but also car co-ops, car pooling and ride-matching programs in which users pay for each trip.

Durning said car owners tend to use their vehicles a lot because they’ve already paid for them. With a per-trip pricing system, they would have an incentive to walk, cycle, take transit or share rides.

“The future of transportation may be less transportation, not more,” he said.


  1. I always see critics of Gateway complaining that it won’t “solve” the traffic problem or that it won’t “eliminate” congestion or that the Port Mann Bridge will just get congested again.
    In my view, those are the wrong measures to determine whether or not the scheme is sucessful.
    It is unreasonable to expect a reduction in congestion when more and more cars are being added to the roads each year. This is akin to someone bailing a boat – are his efforts a “failure” because he hasn’t emptied the boat of water? or are his efforts “successful” because he has prevented the boat from sinking by reducing the effective rate of water entering the boat?
    Even when a twinned Port Mann Bridge bceomes congested again, the fact is that it will be carrying twice as many vehicles. That alone addresses its purpose – to increase capacity in response to population growth.
    An analogy may be made with another piece of infrastrucre – sewer pipes – if a sewer pipe reaches capacity it is replaced with a larger pipe. Sure, the larger pipe will be later reach capacity too (and all that sewage places a heavy demand on treatment facilities and the environment), but you don’t see people protesting the installation of new sewer mains and demanding that everyone adopt composting toilets – or even demanding the reduction of water use through metering.
    I think that the bottom line is that with population growth comes the need for bigger infrastructure.
    The 5 lanes on the Port Mann Bridge do not adequately serve the population to the south of the Fraser River – especially when the only alternative is many kilometers away. That’s probably greater than the distance between the Lions Gate Bridge and the Second Narrows and a population base 4-5 times larger.
    I find it ironic that the City of Vancouver refused to reduce the capacity of the Burrard Bridge for bikes (even by just one lane) when there would still have been 18 or 19 traffic lanes crossing False Creek plus 6 lanes on Main Street. The equivalent to the Port Mann situation is probably akin to removing one lane from the Burrard Bridge (yielding 5 lanes), closing the 8 lane Granville Bridge, closing the 6 lane Cambie Bridge, closing 6 lane Main Street and forcing cars to access downtown via Clark Drive (after removing the curbs lanes). The populations south of False Creek are probably comparable to the populations south of the Fraser and into the Valley.
    It’s another hypocritical situation that the City of Vancouver is in.
    It’s as if much of the region’s industrial growth has been pushed to the suburbs due to lower costs and Vancouver wants to prevent the suburban municipalities from building infrastructure to support that growth. It’s as if it boils down to a power play between the “have” and the “have not” municipalities.
    And for good measure, if you think that European cities don’t have large freeway projects, here’s a thread from SkysraperCity.com which has a number of photos of freeway systems both in Europe and in the U.S.:

  2. The idea that urban freeways are just like sewer pipes is just wrong. Bigger sewer pipes do not induce more s***, freeway expansions do create more traffic (and put more cars on the road). This is why you cannot build your way out of congestion; while many 60 year old sewer pipes still have excess capacity.
    The reason that Vancouver can consider converting lanes on the Burrard Bridge to bicycle lanes is that traffic volumes to downtown, and on many major roads, are declining at the same time as population increases. People are walking, cycling and taking public transit instead.
    As to the capacity of bridges, the highest capacity bridge in the whole region is the SkyTrain bridge to Surrey which is just downstream of the Port Mann Bridge. The unused capacity is equivelent to a 14 lane freeway. (TransLink only owns a third of the cars the system is designed for.)
    So why should we pay to build a new bridge beside an existing bridge with 14 empty lanes?

  3. If for no other reason, Gateway should be measured by its ability to reduce congestion because that is how it is advertised; as a solution to congestion. Its purported environmental benefits are based on cars traveling faster and hence polluting less, not on more cars traveling the same speed. The financial benefits are based on the idea of less time wasted sitting in traffic by both commuters and commercial vehicles, not on even more people sitting in traffic for the same length of time.
    Perhaps I’m misconstruing, but it seems like you are saying that is is impossible to avoid congestion with additional roads, but we should keep building them anyway. This would make sense if roads were the only solution to the problem, but the problem is one of efficient transportation and not just of vehicle travel.
    Regarding the claim that larger population requires larger infrastructure, it is instructive to look at the oft cited “third crossing” of the Burrard Inlet. The crossing was supposed to be vital to the economic viability of the north shore and downtown area, and would prevent otherwise intolerable levels of congestion. It turns out that people won’t tolerate excessive congestion, instead they find other ways. The third crossing was never built, and we are doing just fine.
    Building more roads & bridges between communities is a self fulfilling prophecy of one form of growth and transportation, truly a case of if you build it they will come. But if we don’t build it, what will happen? The traditional prediction would be stagnation and economic difficulty, but our city amongst others worldwide has shown that need not be the case. If done intelligently, cities will densify, people will choose to stay close to home for their shopping trips instead of traveling across the congested bridges, and if supported by good quality transit they will find ways of getting around even at large distances without their cars.

  4. The other important metric that we need to focus on is the cost-benefit analysis.
    Has the minister been forthcoming on requests for a full cost accounting of the proposed highway expansion? No.
    Will the investment make the Lower Mainland a more livable place in the long run? No.
    Are there other ways we could spend the $billions that Falcon and the BC Liberals want to spend on the expansion of freeways? Yes. But the minister does not want to discuss these.
    Are there other investments that have a greater capacity to shape patterns of land use that accommodate more people and reduce car dependency? Yes.
    Why then is Falcon – a communications consultant – driving our communities towards greater car dependency?

  5. I’m not advocating unrestricted highway construction – however, I think that road capacity should keep up with increases in population to maintain some baseline level of infrastructure.
    I think it is about providing connectivity between municipalities in the region.
    Even though the Skybridge provides excess capacity for passenger movements, the rapid transit system does not provide a practical solution for goods movement and for many commuters whose jobs are dispersed throughout the region. Greater Vancouver has a very diverse commuting pattern – which is exacerbated by multiple municipalities competing for job centres through the construction of office parks ill-served by transit. The following document shows that employment centres are becoming more dispersed – not more concentrated, presenting a challenge to the region.
    Slide presentation:
    Even though the Skytrain travels through a number of the reginal town centres, and these centres have attracted residential developments, they have failed in attracting job centres given the lower cost of locating in office parks. That change will require zoning changes at the municipal political level, but in the competition between municipalities in attracting a commercial tax base, planning principles seem to take a back seat to establishing a solid tax base to fund municipal programs.
    In addition, providing connectivity to Surrey from adjacent municipalities north of the Fraser River is important because Surrey City Centre is slated to become the second metropolitan core in the region after Downtown Vancouver. It would draw from both sides of the river, its south of river location being convenient for those also living south of the river. That growth won’t happen if there are access problems from the north.
    Connectivity across the Fraser River doesn’t need to be an expansion of the freeway – an arterial road bridge anywhere east of the Patullo Bridge would also provide connectivity between oquitlam and Surrey. Remember, that only 20% of trips over the Port Mann head to Vancouver. There is a lot of traffic using the bridge between adjacent municipalities – but because of the lack of river crossings, they are forced to divert their trips and are funneled onto the highway.
    In the present case, providing connectivity is also complicated because there are different municipalities on either side of the river – so not only is a bridge outside the budget of one municipalitiy, it is outside its jurisdition. That likely leaves either GVRD (GVTA) or the Province to spearhead a crossing. GVTA doesn’t have the cash and is focussed on the Golden Ears Bridge further east, an area also lacking in connectivity across the river. The Province wants to facilitate goods movement and Highway 1 is within the Province’s jurisdiction (arterial roads are not) – so it is not surprising that the governmental body with the available cash wants to build a structure consistent with its jurisdiction (i.e. the Province is not going to throw cash at a project taht it cannot control).
    As for the North Shore analogy, the North Shore is not in the “Growth Concentration Area” under the Livable Region Strategic Plan, and the projected population base there is significantly smaller than in northwest Surrey and Coquitlam, both of which are designated Growth Concentration Areas under the Livable Region Strategic Plan.
    If you look at the projections at the GVRD population workbook at the link below, the current 2006 North Shore population of 188,000 is only expected to grow to 220,000 by 2031. Compare that to the existing 355,000 in NW Surrey/N Delta growing to 496,000 during the same period. Add to that the projected growth of the East Surrey/Langleys from 171,000 to 302,000 during the same period and that is a whole different ballpark for connectivity over the Fraser River than for the North Shore. There is explosive growth south of the Fraser River.
    Slide presentation:
    The population base in the region is shifting eastwards and infrastructure built 40 years ago neither addresses nor accommodates that change.
    With the Port Mann Brideg, I guess the question is whether the most critical transportation link in a region of 3,000,000 people should be fixed at 5 lanes.

  6. Ron,
    Last time I looked, there were four bridge crossings (not including heavy rail) between “NW Surrey/N Delta” and Coquitlam/New West.
    As you note, the Skytrain bridge is underutilized. The bridge deck of the Port Mann is usually uncongested, allowing for effective bypass lane so buses can get from Surrey to Coquitlam. (Gateway’s consultants assume that this would be a cost-effective measure in their analysis).
    Transit priority across the Patullo and Fraser/Queesburough is also probably feasible and cost effective (although I have not researched the question yet).
    So the question is, why should we make traffic congestion worse by expanding a freeway when there are cost effective measures available that would improve mobility without inducing more traffic? Why would anyone look to freeways as the way to provide access to an emerging metropolitan core?
    If you think that a few office parks are a sufficient reason, look at the present percentage of total employment in office parks, it is of concern but is not large enough to make a big difference yet.
    PS are you at all concerned about the climate crisis? Should we be looking for ways to reduce GHG emissions? Or is everything looking OK through your rose-colored glasses.

  7. Ron’s reasoned and articulate comments will be very compelling to those favouring a twinning of the Port Mann Bridge and its subsequent highway expansion. I’ve been following the general discussion in the ether at Lrc-general@livable region.ca and feel that we need to more cogently and compellingly address comments like Ron’s. If we don’t, we may lose the battle.

  8. As I mentioned, increasing connectivity across the river doesn’t have to mean highway or freeway construction. I think that the projects on the table are a result of the government level able to fund a project.
    Of the four existing crossing in and around New West/Delta/Surrey:
    The Alex Fraser Bridge provides good capacity, but does not serve the same catchment area as the Port Mann Bridge without additional roadway capacity connecting across Surrey. The South Fraser Perimeter Road may allow diversion of Highway 1 traffic to the Alex Fraser Bridge – but this routing is not very useful for those headed to Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam or north Burnaby – plus, the Queensborough Bridge would need upgrading to handle expanded capacities. The Border Infrastructure Project may address some of those issues at the Queensborough Bridge.
    The Patullo Bridge is overcapacity, has substandard lane widths and cannot be expanded on the New Westminster side without community impacts. Absent a significant upgrade, it is not reasonable to put more traffic on that bridge. It currently provides the closest roadway bridge to the Port Mann Bridge.
    The SkyBridge has lots of capacity, but the problem is that the rapid transit system doesn’t go to where a lot of people are travelling to – at least not within the time constraints that people live with today. If Vancouver had a radial commuting pattern, it would be much easier to plan for commuter traffic – but we don’t. Even if employment growth were concentrated in the Regional Town Centres, there would still be some ability to utilize rapid transit to countercommute. That was the goal – but concentrating jobs in Regional Town Centres has been the biggest failing of the Livable Region Strategic Plan.
    For transit to work well, it must be convenient at both ends – i.e. a short walk to the station from home and a short walk from the station to work – or even a short drive to a park & ride lot and then a short walk from a station to the office. But the ability to provide that level of service to a dispersed population heading to dispersed job centres is difficult and you can’t expect everyone to be able to take transit under those conditions.
    The other bridge, the New Westminster rail bridge, is one of the biggest bottlenecks in the region, but it’s replacement with a new bridge or tunnel is years away. Without that connection, even commuter rail to downtown Vnacouver from deep within the Fraser Valley on the south side probably won’t happen (other than maybe an extension of Westcoast Express from Mission to Abbotsford).
    BTW – I live in Yaletown and walk to work downtown everyday. I use may car maybe once a week, so personally, I generate very little in GHGs – but I can still see a benefit to the economic health of the region by having a good baseline level of transportation links throughout the region.

  9. Here are a couple of joint MoT and Translink studies conducted in 2004 regarding travel patterns within GVRD and FVRD. They show a good breakdown of trips (both commuting and throughout the day) and reflect the dispersion of travel in the region.
    2004 Greater Vancouver Trip Diary Survey
    2004 Fraser Valley Trip Diary Survey
    A diagram on page 2 of this Gateway South Fraser Perimeter Road document shows the changes in commuting patterns graphically on a map of the region:

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