My current column in Business in Vancouver:
Twenty buses in six years.
That was the extent of the commitment the Premier made as part of the Gateway project for service south of the Fraser. When the twinned Port Mann Bridge opens around 2013, there will be an express bus service running across it.
If you were a planner south of the Fraser, would you now want to reorient your community transportation plan? If you were a developer, would you now cut back on the number of parking spaces? If you were a home purchaser, would you change the location of where you buy so you wouldn’t need a second car? If you were a student, would you expect to get around by U-Pass?
Will twenty buses in six years turn the Valley away from car and truck dependence?
Obviously, no – not just that. But it could be a start.
In the meantime, for at least the next six years, most people in the valley south of the Fraser will reasonably expect to get around solely by car. Given that the biggest promise of Gateway is improved vehicle mobility, the fastest growing part of Metro will build itself out on that expectation. The Valley will be a northern version of southern California.
That’s the real consequence of Gateway: putting the pattern of car dependence in place.
For the next six years, we will design our built environment – our buildings, our streets, our subdivisions, our shopping centres – on the assumption that the car will be the No. 1 and only. A few places will be different: Surrey City Centre, uptown White Rock, Langley City. But most of the Valley will be designed for the guys who drive big trucks.
Six years from now, however, our assumptions might be different. Mother Nature is already starting to punch back. The reality of climate change – not the theory – is changing our expectations about the future. Add in peak oil, the geopolitics of energy competition, unexpected financial fall-out – and a fossil fuel-dependent transportation system, with no Plan B, doesn’t look to be as promising as its assumptions.
Even using current plans and projections, Gateway doesn’t pass the smell test, in part because it lowballs the carbon impact. The Sightline Institute in Seattle estimates every extra one-mile stretch of lane added to a congested highway will increase climate-warming CO2 emissions by more than 100,000 tons over 50 years. Gateway rather deceptively focuses only on ‘congestion-related’ emissions, resulting in an estimate that bares little relationship to reality.
But beyond that, Gateway’s model doesn’t take into account the changes induced by the project itself. And in the end, it’s not just about the road and the bridge; it’s about city building.
It’s hard to get an answer from supporters of Gateway to this essential question: what place in North America would you like Metro Vancouver to be more like? Calgary? The 905 Belt of Toronto? Is there any growing region that has solved the problem of increasing vehicle congestion by building more roads and bridges – and is that what we should be more like? Atlanta? Denver?
Examples given so far: none.
We’re going to need a few alternatives, and soon. Change is coming at us, and fast. If we stay on the present course, we’re going to be increasingly vulnerable as things turn ugly.
The Premier, showing the leadership that continues to outflank his critics, has called for us to shape a different reality: 33 percent less greenhouse emissions by 2020. Twenty buses, I assume, are a downpayment to start us moving in that direction – but it’s a very small downpayment indeed and a very long time in coming. There’s no reason why the queue jumpers couldn’t be built now. The problem for bus service is not the bridge; it’s the roads leading to it.
The Premier still has to define a much larger strategic direction for Gateway, as he did for the region when he was chair of the GVRD – a vision expressed in land use, in city building, in a valley that is less vehicle dependent, not more.
So much remains to be done – transit plans completed, land-use plans revised, serious resources committed – if planners, developers, home buyers and students are going to reach a different set of conclusions than the ones they’re getting so far from Gateway.