It’s a real-world experiment in the resiliency of our transportation system, one we’re living through every day.
What would happen, an analytical traffic engineer might ask (knowing it would never happen), if we shut down the economy for a month, taking at least half the traffic off the road, and then gradually rebooted the system. Perhaps tweak some of the variables, like transferring 20 percent of transit passengers into cars, perhaps keep 20 percent of office workers at home. Let’s see what would happen.
We’re going to find out. Here’s The Sun‘s report:
According to TransLink data, March 27 saw the lowest traffic volumes, which were 58 per cent of that day in 2019. Volumes increased to 93 per cent of pre-COVID levels last week, compared to the same week last year.
“I think the concern is that (traffic) goes above what it was before. Of course, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think there’s reason to be concerned about that,” said Michael Brauer, a professor at the University of B.C.’s school of population and public health.
Here’s the the Daily Hive, with a map that shows moderate traffic congestion throughout the region.
While road traffic volumes have normalized, there is still a long way to go for public transit ridership to return to pre-pandemic levels. After experiencing strong growth in May, June, and July, the pace of ridership growth appears to have slowed down, with TransLink indicating systemwide boardings are now at 44% of normal levels — up from 40% at the end of July, and approximately 15% in early April.
Another visible bump in road traffic volumes and transit ridership could be experienced starting next week, when more employees return to work and the new school semester begins.
Here’s what everyone in the traffic management biz is really waiting to see: What percent of transit users shifting to cars will it take for our road and bridge system to reach ‘gridlock’?*
In one discussion I’ve had, the conversion is anticipated to be about 10 to 15 percent. But there are too many variables to make a prediction, particularly not knowing the reduction in vehicles as a consequence of unemployment, zooming and alternatives to rush-hour. Regardless, it wouldn’t take much of a shift from transit to vehicle to see the unpleasant consequences, particularly on the bridges and other choke points.
Metro Vancouver is particularly vulnerable because of the success of transit. When the City made a decision back in the `70s not to build freeway connections to the region or increase the capacity of the arterial road system for single-occupant vehicles, we knew we would have to increase the capacity of the transit system to handle growth both within the city and for those commuting to the core. And that’s what we did. While congestion never went away (it never does), we accommodated a million or so more people in the region without significantly increasing road space in the city. Indeed, we were able to prioritize other modes and offer choices in a way that increased both livability and economic vitality.
We never assumed we’d shift back to motordom – the car-dominant strategies of the 20th century. We never built more capacity to do so, with the exception of some new bridges and occasional road widening. But now we’ll find out what such a reversal would mean – as early as next week.
If intolerable gridlock results (it may not), then expect a heated to debate to follow. One side will maintain that common sense, economic survival, public preference and the need for Covid distancing strategies require that we accommodate the increased demand for car and truck space asap. Forget about transit-priority lanes, parking spaces converted to patios, and especially those bike lanes. Put it back to the way it was – and think about how to expedite traffic flows.
The other point of view will maintain that there is no economic recovery without transit recovery, and we need to focus on how to do it safely by, for instance, increasing the speed and capacity of transit to entice people back and not switch to cars. Or bring in road-pricing to give economic singles to prevent the worst outcomes.
To return to motordom, even reluctantly, would be like using the pandemic as an excuse to make us even more vulnerable to the climate shocks to come, at a price we can’t afford, with no reasonable likelihood of ever returning to a world just the way it was.
*’gridlock’ is a term properly meaning the complete halt of traffic as a result of at least four completely congested intersections. Most of the time we mean it as an intolerable delay caused by bumper-to-bumper traffic.