January 9, 2013

Department of Irony: Canadian Bridges – or, “No Peace for Port Mann”

Two items came in within hours of each other.

From Brent Toderian: Top 10 world’s best public spaces


6. Peace Bridge in Calgary, Canada, by Santiago Calatrava: The single-span helical footbridge gently arcs across the water, sheltering users with a glass roof along its 126 meter length. Adjacent to Prince’s Island Park in the downtown district, the structure will provide pedestrians and cyclists with connecting routes between the urban center and Memorial Drive.


From Scot Bathgate: Why Does This Canadian Bridge Keep Trying to Kill People?

Ever since it opened in September, this inanimate giant of cold steel has been waging bloody war against the puny humans who use it for their daily commute.

As much as I thought the Port Mann Bridge was excessive, I have some sympathy for its managers.  A bridge is a big, complicated piece of machinery – and screw-ups are always part of start-ups.  It’s true for a bridge as much as a rapid-transit line (remember snow and SkyTrain?)   But in an age of social media and instant branding, there’s also no patience.   



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I’m pleased to be using Price Tags as a venue for getting alternative visions out for discussion.  And if there’s one priority that we should be looking at for an alternative vision, it’s the Massey Tunnel – currently under public review by the provincial government.

If our leaders – whether provincial or regional – priorize yet another multi-billion-dollar piece of road infrastructure over all the pressing needs for rapid-transit, whether to service or shape growth – then something is seriously wrong.  Beyond seriously wrong. 

This would be a culture that is doubling down on denial, building more infrastructure – pipelines, highways, strip malls – at the very moment when hope for leadership on climate change has been lost and science is more definitive than ever that we are heading for catastrophe.  When, indeed, catastrophe is actually happening, and we need to prepare for an alternative future.

Instead, we build more of the same.

So, rather than despair, we need to offer alternatives.  Jack Becker sent me one today:


An Alternate Vision for the Massey Tunnel – Transit not Car Orientation

In the last few years, there have been a lot of large road and bridge infrastructures projects completed in Metro Vancouver and in BC, including the Port Mann Bridge.  It would be quite reasonable to expect that the BC road building and bridge building companies and their trade (advocacy) associations would use the same techniques as other companies in preparing their annual operating budgets.  They would look out to see where their revenues would becoming from in the next 5 to 10 years to keep their companies active and to making profits to their expectations.  

There are not that many big projects in the horizon, so it would be reasonable to expect them to encourage and advocate with the Premier, government ministers, and other politicians to create new road and bridge building projects to keep them busy.  Before elections, governments have been known to announce large projects with expectations that there may be local jobs associated with them as a technique to buy votes. 

So now, we have a George Massey Tunnel consultation going on.  Will there be an announcement in the months leading up to the vote?


My Vision For Southern Metro Vancouver

The vision is an alternative for building any capacity enhancements for Highway 99 and the George Massey Tunnel.  The vision sets up a scenario where the current three lanes in the tunnel would be sufficient for the next 50 years or so.  Commercial truck passage through the tunnel would speed up. The vision would also provide an opportunity for reducing car traffic on Highway 17 on the Island.

In this vision, the Canada Line would be expanded across the South Arm of the Fraser River and branch off to Surrey, White Rock, to the border.  The other arm would pass through Langley to the Tsawwassen ferry docks with a fast connection to Tsawwassen and the Port Roberts border. …



Monies that would be spend on the Massey Tunnel and Highway 99, beyond maintenance, could be redirected.  When the current ferries need replacing or major refitting due to age, the difference in investment cost to passenger-bike ferries could be redirected.  The difference in operating costs between the current ferries and passenger-bike ferries that would replace some of the schedule runs could be redirected. 

When the vision is built, then some of TransLink’s operating monies could be redirected to this lower operating cost transit solution.  This solution benefits from rapid transit economics of about half the operating cost per rider of buses.  Bus trips through the tunnel would be eliminated.  Current buses would become feeder buses to the rapid transit line.  Large buses could be replaced with community buses providing higher level of service at lower overall costs.


Contribution to the Transportation System

As the Canada Line has shown, people will make transition to transit when fast trip times and frequency of service are provided.  Those in White Rock and southern Surrey who use the Massey Tunnel with destination to Richmond, the airport and downtown Vancouver could then also make the switch to the Canada Line.  The same would hold for residents in Langley,

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From the Vancouver Metro newspaper:

Its historical significance and sheer wow factor is unquestioned.

But everything else about the new Port Mann Bridge is fair game for sustainable transportation advocates.

Gordon Price – Simon Fraser University director of the City Program and board member of the International Centre for Sustainable Cities – says the government missed a golden opportunity to promote smart regional growth when the 10-lane, $3.3-billion megabridge between Coquitlam and Surrey officially opens Saturday.

Instead the project promotes urban sprawl, car use and champions outdated, 20th century “motordome” thinking, flying in the face of emerging trends indicating decreased car use and more demand for public transportation.

“The most frustrating thing is that [the Port Mann] doesn’t do what they said it was going to do: reduce congestion,” said Price. “The claim is disingenuous when you pass on the opportunity to include rapid transit within the budget. When that happens, expanding the capacity for cars [without an alternative] increases the demand. If people can travel farther in the same amount of time from cheaper land, they will.”

The original Port Mann, which cost $25 million in 1964, opened the region up to expansion south of the Fraser River.

That growth strained the road network, creating a situation today where the old five-lane Port Mann Bridge is congested in both directions 13 hours of the day.

Price doesn’t dispute that a replacement was required and doesn’t doubt commuters will give the bridge plenty of use despite its tolls.

But he calls the final design overkill and unnecessary.

“Why do we need the world’s widest bridge when all the planners said eight lanes would do?” he said. “I doubt you’ll ever need all 10 lanes. It’s today’s Granville Street Bridge, which never reached its designed capacity and never will.”  …

Forecasting done last year by Steer Davies Gleave, for Port Mann operator Transportation Investment Corporation, showed that traffic volumes on the existing Port Man have steadily decreased from 2005 to 2010, by approximately 8,000 vehicles in that period.

A Frontier Group report on driving behaviour in the U.S. shows the average annual number of vehicle-miles travelled by people between the ages of 16 and 34 have dropped 23 per cent from 2001 and 2009.

While the recession is a factor in both cases, the Frontier Group states high gas prices, licensing laws, improved alternative transportation (public transportation, primarily) and changing attitudes about driving and the environment represent the start of a generational shift.

Meanwhile, increasingly aggressive urban planning on a municipal level emphasizing livable communities, public transit and non-vehicle infrastructure is dramatically changing driving behaviour.

The City of Vancouver, for example, has reduced traffic volumes in the downtown core to 1960s levels.

Price feels governments have been slow to react because leaders grew up in driving cultures and new statistics showing a shift away from that mentality are so dramatic “it’s easy to be skeptical”.

Yet around the world, recession, gas prices, greener vehicles and driving trends are starving tax-fueled highway departments of cash while privately-operated, tolled projects (such as Brisbane, Australia’s Clem 7 and Airport Link tunnels) are going bankrupt.

Locally, the Golden Ears Bridge, opened in 2009, has fallen well short of average traffic projections.

And that doesn’t factor in future transit improvements and the impact promising technologies, like driverless cars, may have on congestion.

“Something is changing,” said Price, who admits the mounting evidence is too young to form any concrete conclusions on.

Still, it begs the question: Are big-ticket highway megaprojects – traditional signifiers of economic development, regional growth and progress – like the Port Mann a dying breed?

“Bingo,” said Price. “I just heard someone mention the other day that even the Ministry of Transportation knows these are last big highway projects they’ll every be able to do in the Lower Mainland.”

So be sure to take a snapshot of the new Port Mann, it could be the last of its kind.

“Now that it’s built, we should celebrate it,” said Price. “Give the engineers full marks, it’s an impressive work of art.”

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More evidence of the decline in vehicle use:

 … .the Metro (Portland) travel behavior survey data shows … vehicle miles traveled (VMT) have declined by 26 percent per household since 1994. 

While the region has experienced a 4 percent decline in auto trips, the central city has seen an 18 percent decline in car trips and inner neighborhood trips have dropped by 13 percent.
And yet, that is not reflected in how the money gets spent: 
 From 1995 to 2010, the region spent $4.2 billion on roadway improvements, while spending $2.3 billion on other modes.
Decision-makers, particularly at the state and provincial levels, are as committed to Motordom as ever.  In fact, they seem, in the face of dropping traffic and rising temperatures, to be doubling down – whether hoping to spend billions on the Columbia River Crossing or on the Fraser.   Sightline continues its series – Dude, Where Are My Cars? – with a take on the Port Mann:  
… traffic on the Port Mann Bridge in Surrey, BC peaked in 2005, and then fell modestly but steadily through 2010.
A wider Port Mann crossing will likely be less congested than the current bridge, at least at first; and history has shown that free-flowing urban highways tend to attract new drivers. But it’s also tolled bridge—$1.50 each way for the first year, $3.00 and potentially rising with inflation thereafter—and tolling tends to reduce traffic volumes.   Toss in some uncertainties around oil prices, vehicle efficiency, land use, and government policy, and there’s just no telling what the future traffic trajectory might be.
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What is the difference in these two scenarios:

Scenario 1

There is signficant congestion on the main highway in the region.  Thousands of drivers have to spend a frustrating amount of time stuck in traffic.  And the cost is considerable.

Take the number of cars delayed in a day, multiply by the length of the delay and then further multiply by the value of the drivers’ time, and you come up with the cost of congestion. 

For instance, 50,000 drivers delayed by 10 minutes x $15 an hour = $125,000.  In a year of 260 workdays, that’s $32.5 million.  And that number (which is conservative) is used to justifty the capital costs of widening the highway to reduce the congestion.

Scenario 2

The transportation agency in the region is short of resources needed to expand the transit system.  But its political masters are loathe to increase taxes.  And so they demand an audit, determined to address the assumed inefficiencies in the agency before entertaining anything that could be characterized as a tax.

An independent audit is commissioned, and the report confirms that, indeed, there are ways to improve the efficiency of the system.  One way: increase the amount of time between trains on the rapid-transit line.  Another: reduce the frequency of or eliminate low-volume bus routes. 

It works out that 50,000 passengers would be waiting a total of 10 minutes a day – the same as for drivers.  But there is no estimate of the time value – because that value is assumed to be zero.  Actually less than zero.  In this case, delay = efficiency.  The more delay induced, the more savings to the agency, and the less need to raise revenues or build additional capacity.


In these two scenarios, time is treated completely differently.  In one, delay is a cost; in the other, delay is a saving.

Why is this?

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