Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Project will help reduce pollution

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Burnaby Now

How can you tell when Gordon Campbell is lying? His lips are moving.

He said that there have been concerns about the air quality impacts in Burnaby but that improving the transportation corridors will lessen the environmental impacts.

Except of course when you look at the government’s own submissions to the Environmental Assessment you realise that they based this forecast on the assumption that the total number and distance of trips in the future is exactly the same without and without the project. The project itself also forecast an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. And that only happens if you burn more fuel – which means more emissions not just of CO2 but common air contaminants as well.

What Campbell wants people to believe is that widening a freeway reduces traffic congestion. This is untrue. Whatever the short term effect is due to faster trips just after opening is more than offset by the new traffic that is generated by the facility. Traffic expands to fill the space available. Trips that are currently deterred by the prospect of having to deal with congestion will start to be made. More trips – and longer trips. This has always happened every time a new freeway or expressway is opened in urban areas. After years of freeway expansions people began to realise that the loss of neighbourhoods to construction of ever wider roads was not compensated for by any great advance in mobility. And most places then stopped building and widening freeways – and gradually urban areas improved and stabilised as a result. Some even grew vastly more popular and successful – downtown Vancouver being one of the few major cities in North America that was spared the destruction of a downtown freeway. Indeed we keep asking – and have yet had no answer – where has this policy ever worked? Just one example would do.

“We’re trying to create healthy, livable urban communities, places where people can work, live, play, where people can choose to walk to work. … You can’t do that if you don’t design your cities around that,” he said

And that means, dummy, no more freeways but build the transit first. You cannot walk to work in a highway oriented suburb: that is also why Surrey has a transit mode share of 4%. The so called “transit plan” would see SkyTrain reach Langley by 2030  – after more than 15 years of the impact of an expanded freeway. Yes we want “healthy, livable urban communities” and you only get those when you give people an alternative to driving – not encouragement to drive more. 

“Gateway is not just about a transportation strategy, it’s about wedding a transportation strategy with an urban development strategy. Surrey is going to be the second major city in British Columbia, there’s just no question about that.”

And if the freeway is widened, it will look much as it does today – only more so. More low density subdivisions, more plazas, more highway oriented development. Because you will never get transit oriented development until you build the transit. The “urban development strategy” here is simply to keep on repeating the mistakes of the past and expecting a different outcome. 

What the much expanded freeway will do is dump lots more traffic into the areas around the freeway exits. All those new trips generated by the vision of vast swathes of empty concrete have to start and end somewhere. So the street networks that feed and drain the freeway will see much heavier demand. If you think line ups on 152 Street in the early morning are bad now, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The citizens of Burnaby are right to be worried about where the traffic coming off Highway #1 will go – because it will go through where they live. The great thing about building roads is that it creates more demand which means you have to build more roads … and so it goes. That has been the history of North America in the last sixty years or more. 

Most people in this region recognize that every new freeway and bridge has resulted in more traffic – not less. Most people when asked recognise that we have under invested in transit in this region and think we should be correcting that mistake. The money spent on this one freeway project could bring light rail transit to most of Surrey and Langley. As Gordon Campbell himself noted with respect to the Canada Line – two railway tracks provide the same people moving capacity as ten lanes of freeway. (Actually most places that build rapid transit expect rather more than that.) So if that is true in Richmond why isn’t it in Surrey?

Written by Stephen Rees

April 29, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Posted in Gateway

7 Responses

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  1. […] routes on Burrard Bridge [CTV] Couple cries foul after motorhome crackdown [The Vancouver Courier] Project will help reduce pollution [Stephen Rees’s blog] B.C. election narrows to 3-point race, according to poll [CBC] Access to […]

    re:place Magazine

    April 29, 2009 at 6:27 pm

  2. Does that mean then, that a new road like a bypass that connects a suburb with a city will inevitably cause an increase in traffic in that village? I’m guessing it isn’t as black and white as human habits never are, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.
    I’m thinking aloud here, but does that apply to other transport modes in the same way? I can see that a direct transit link will attract more people than a connection to an interchange, but is there also evidence that a clear, well defined cycle lane from a village to a metro stop, would increase cycling transport share?
    Sorry to flood you with questions when you’ve other things on your mind, but I’m still trying to get my head around the interconnectedness of transport.

    Andy in Germany

    April 29, 2009 at 11:39 pm

  3. My remarks were specifically about freeways in urban areas – probably because I had been watching the last episode of “New York: A Documentary Film” which covered Robert Moses and his impact on that city.

    The by-pass is probably different- but much will depend on its design. Many villages in Britain initially welcomed bypasses as they did take through traffic off the main street. But that often was followed by a decline in local businesses and services. The loss of local bus services, closure of the branch post offices and the local pub all meant that rural areas became more car dependent.

    In the US many small towns have seen their centres decline too as commercial activity moved out of town to the cheaper sites and the greater passing traffic potential of the freeway on/off ramps. Most US Interstates have also avoided the “motorway service area” concept – so that new commercial development tends to produce “strips”.

    Near universal car ownership and use for every trip purpose in North America has reduced sense of place. Everywhere is equally accessible so there are no real centres where people gather and interact. Nearly everywhere is first and foremost a parking lot. Manhattan is one of the few cities where Americans feel they do not need to own a car.

    If the new cycling facility provides an attractive and safer route between where people are and want to be that will certainly help increase the bike mode share. Mostly cyclists do not want to be at risk of collision with cars – and most drivers are happier when this risk is reduced too!

    It is also the case that in urban systems almost any increase in vehicle capacity seems to fill rapidly. For instance, in Central London in the 1970s, the use of SCOOT to co-ordinate traffic signals improved flow. Faster traffic improved travel times at first – but soon began to attract more through traffic which otherwise would have had to use the circuitous alternatives. This continued until the average speed fell back to around 10 mph – which seems to be an almost universal equilibrium in urban areas. More recently, of course, congestion charges pushed through traffic back to the ring roads – but locals (exempt from the charge) could use their cars more. Overall general purpose road space in Central London was also reduced by the extension of bus lanes- as well as increased road work activity by the utilities, so initial improvements in vehicles speeds have also fallen. But undoubtedly people moving capacity was greatly increased and new pedestrian areas are improving London’s economy and urbanity.

    Urban areas should be about people – not their cars. When we designed places to make cars movement easier we failed – both to reduce traffic congestion and to protect urban vitality. This why the expression “livability” was used so often by those who opposed urban freeways. Now we tend to use the term “sustainability” but I still think livable should be an important objective.

    Experience with transit in North America was varied – and that showed the importance of design. More recently high gas prices and now a recession have made transit much more popular but also made it much harder to fund (because gas tax helps pay for transit). But it is true that when streetcars were replaced by subways – in Toronto and much of Europe – traffic in downtowns increased. In itself this has caused urbanists to re-evaluate the streetcar. Local accessibility is now seen to be the key – not so much the speed of longer distance trips within sprawling urban areas. Indeed “commuter rail”, designed to reduce peak traffic on urban freeways and other arterials is also now seen as a way to promote not reduce urban sprawl.

    Stephen Rees

    April 30, 2009 at 7:42 am

  4. Road building can be summed up 6 words “build it and they will come”.

    In 1986 a new bridge opened in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, an industrial park surrounded by a peat bog. It was connected to a low density residential community by 3 roads, one of which had a traffic light instead of on/off ramps.

    The north end of the bridge fed two new highways through mostly rural and low density residential areas. A traffic light dominated the north end of the bridge and the route through the residential area was also dotted with lights rather than on/off ramps.

    The bridge was built to accommodate 6 lanes of traffic, but barriers reduced the initial capacity to just 4 lanes. It was expected that 4 lanes would be enough for the 3 years it would take to finish the overpasses and ramps on the north side.

    Within 6 months of opening the bridge was full and the additional lanes open.

    Of course I’m talking about the Alex Fraser Bridge that connects Delta with Richmond.

    The same thing is going to happen in 2012 when the new Port Mann Bridge opens. By the end of 2013 the new, wider highway and all the roads feeding it will be parking lots again. People will react with shock that such a huge new facility could fill with cars so quickly. Those of us who study this sort of thing will say “I told you so”, but only get angry responses about 8 lanes ‘obviously’ not being enough along with demands to open the bus lanes to cars with just two people in them.

    Widening highways is a colossal waste of time, energy and money. If makes matters worse than they were before because it entrenches inefficient zoning, encourages wasteful behavior and uses up the funds that could otherwise be used for alternatives.

    I do wish that people who want to spend money wisely weren’t branded as anti-development tree huggers. *sigh*


    April 30, 2009 at 3:45 pm

  5. […] of Vancouver] Full text quotes: Gregor Robertson, Suzanne Anton, James Ridge [State of Vancouver] Project will help reduce pollution [Stephen Rees] INTERNATIONAL Energy 101: What Is a Smart Grid? [Inhabitat] Local foreclosures soar […]

    re:place Magazine

    April 30, 2009 at 5:23 pm

  6. Thanks fot the response Stephen. I had to go and think about it for a while…

    The latest madcap scheme of out local and regional governments is to have a new arterial route running from the Autobahn to the city of Stuttgart, tunelling under our village with an entrance by an industrial estate and then continuing down to the valley with connections at different towns. This is being sold as a way to reduce congestion, make the villages more livable and improve rental income for landlords.

    From your description I think it fits the American pattern, and as we have a lot of development in the village already it will probably increase car journeys. The village already has very high rent because it’s seen as a great place to live by emoloyees of Mercedes, Bosche, Porsche and several others: with connesction to a direct arterial route this will only increase.

    I’ll be going to a meeting next week sponsored by the Green Party to discuss this madness. It will be interesting to see what the local traffic planners think of the idea.

    Andy in Germany

    April 30, 2009 at 11:04 pm

  7. Stephen is right and the experience of rural France is similar to the one in the UK. Small towns and villages that have lost the through traffic due to a highway bypass have also lost many services. Folks in the big towns have pedestrian streets, bike lanes, rapid transit, trams etc. and a huge variety of shops near their homes while those in small places have hardly anything left (unless they have famous historical buildings or a unique geographical feature). It has become necessary for them to own a car in order to shop in a “hypermarket” 10-20 km away(some of the hypermarkets in France make our Canadian Super Store look like a small place) This has eliminated small businesses that used to come with their truck-store, either daily or every few days, around all the small neighbourhoods built away from a village or very small town, to sell bread or meat or fish or vegetables etc. This was a chance for farm wives to meet for 30-40 minutes.. and what about the village crier? he used to ride a bike all over the place stopping here and there, beat on a drum for 5 minutes until a crowd had gathered, and announce the latest news from City Hall!!! now even tiny places have the internet and e-mail the locals (I actually get one of these e-mail twice a month..)

    Red frog

    May 1, 2009 at 9:59 am

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