COVID Place making
April 8, 2021

Our Real-World Experiment in Traffic

Imagine if some all-powerful researcher suggested that as a society we shut down a good part of the economy for a few months, close offices and work places, shutter restaurants, clubs and theatres, stop most sports and arts activity, make it possible to realistically work at home, and, just for extra impact, close the borders.  And then see what happens to traffic before and after, how it changes as we tweak the restrictions, and what new patterns emerge.

Which is exactly what we’re doing.

I’m surprised we’re not getting traffic updates like we do the weather, and what new patterns are emerging from week to week.  We actually do have that data, and the City of Vancouver has been good enough to provide some of it (and hope to add counts regularly on VanMap).

Here’s the data that shows the reductions in average monthly volumes of traffic year over year coming into the City, and then onto the Downtown Peninsula – from the start of the pandemic last year to just last month:

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Here’s a plausible scenario in which you’ll drive more – from Slate:

When the pandemic hit, Sheila worked at home. Seeking to minimize interactions with strangers, she avoided crowds and had groceries and essentials delivered to her house. But when the pandemic ends, finally, she’ll resume visiting stores and meeting other people, and her employer will blow the dust off the cubicles and reopen the office. For now, Sheila will return to work in person only three days per week, working from the ‘burbs during the other two. How might her teleworking travel differ from when she commutes in person?

Sheila obviously won’t be driving to or from work if she stays at home, but she’ll still take many other trips. Since she can’t exercise at her office, she instead drives to a gym four miles from her house. A lunch meeting is five miles away, and she combines it with a pharmacy run—generating a trip of 12 miles. At the end of the workday, she makes a final trip to a grocery store three miles away. If you do the math, she has now driven a total of 26 miles—more than when she went to the office.

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Michael Gordon, doing research in the bunker we call an Archives, came across “a proposal to declare the still-existing Kitsilano Indian Reserve a park – and excitement over a ’20 mile driveway’.”

The proposal was by the City’s de-facto archivist Major Matthews, as reported in the Vancouver Star in 1924.  His vision:

… a magnificent driveway twenty or more miles long, running out Georgia street, around Stanley Park, back over Beach avenue and Pacific streets to Burrard street, thence across the new Burrard Bridge (it hadn’t been built yet) to Indian Park (to be ‘acquired’ for park purposes) and Cornwall street and finally around Marine drive by the University and back over Granville street.

If this route were properly beautified and marked out by trees, where is the drive in the whole world that can best it?

Over time, Vancouver ultimately surpassed Matthew’s vision, extending the seawall around Coal Harbour and False Creek – not for a driveway, of course, but for the greenway we see today.  (Though if the NPA of today had their say over the design, perhaps they would have tried the Fairness Finesse, arguing that a seawall for only pedestrians and cyclists is unfair.  Anything less than a shared route for cars – Matthew’s Driveway – would discriminate against the disabled and seniors requiring easy access.)


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Councillor Tony Valente has been advocating for ‘complete streets’ even before he ran for council in the City of North Vancouver – a city laid our before the dominance of the auto (check out its City-Beautiful aspirations on Keith Road or Grand Boulevard) but succumbed to Motordom as a post-war suburban city (check out Third Street west of Forbes or, worse, Esplanade).

Esplanade was a particular target for Tony (who now lives on the arterial) in his advocacy for streets that could serve a variety of modes safely and beautifully.  He’s now seeing it come to fulfilment.

The changes, complete with separated bike lane, are part of a greater transformation of Lower Lonsdale – with some big changes, small indicators, and one that’s quite surprising.

Here’s a delightful touch on Carrie Cates Court at Lonsdale Quay – a glass-enclosed canopy for bike racks on a newly widened and well-furnished sidewalk in front of a mixed-use tower.  Check, check, check.

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We don’t have many Traffic Highs in this city, so those we do feel extra special.

Like the downhill slope on Nelson Street, from Burrard Street to the Cambie Bridge.

It’s so sweet when it all comes together: the car gliding with gravity, the right music at the right beat, no stalls, no swerves – and you hit every light!  Without changing pace or lane.  Just like it was meant  be.

That’s a Traffic High.  And since there aren’t many one-way arterials in this city, it’s almost impossible to get harmony when everything is moving and making left-hand turns.

But there’s a good chance we will get another soon – on the arterial that crosses Nelson at Richards.  It has an almost-finished separated bikeway that will be a real treat. Potentially a Traffic High.

Richards Traffic High 

There’s a perfect downhill slope on Richards from Dunsmuir to False Creek.  Once at a sustained speed, the cyclist won’t need to pedal much.  Thank you gravity and inertia.   If the lights are timed so that the bike can hit the signals without changing speed or stopping, well, that’s biking bliss.

For both cars and bikes it would be the Richards Traffic High.


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Why would we keep rush hour if there’s an option?  And as we’ve collectively discovered during the pandemic, there is.  We don’t all have to assemble in one place at the same time, whether by foot, car or transit, to work together.  Or all leave at the same time, particularly when workplaces will move towards more reservation and coordination systems.

There are still enough people who want to or need to gather at the same time for a rush hour of some kind to resume – and we may already be seeing traffic on some routes back up to about 80 percent. Then there are schools, which do demand that classes assemble at the same time and place.

There is also the question of whether transit (which has resumed to about 40 to 50 percent of pre-Covid demand) will see a movement of users convert to or go back to their cars.  That could offset any reduction from technology.

Now is the time to be watching and measuring – and then deciding what level of rush hour seems to be about right.  That may be subjective, but most likely people will decide for themselves whether there’s any need to all be in the traffic at certain hours when they could be productive at home or in flexible workplaces dispersed throughout the region.  I mean, duh.

In this Zoomy world, we can get the rush hour we want.

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