Stephen Rees's blog

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

The Dead Freeway Society

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Sarah Mirk in the Portland Mecury covers the history of freeway expansion and contraction in the city that wants to become America’s greenest.

While other American cities have built, built, built, Portland’s freeway history is boom and bust: massive road projects were planned, mapped, and sold as progress by one generation, then killed by another. When current transit planners visit from exotic Houston and DC to admire Portland’s progress, what they are really admiring are the roads not built—freeways erased from the maps decades ago.

What struck a chord with me this morning was that she quoted Robert Moses, who was called in to Portland to design their first freeway plan. I happen to be reading “Wrestling Moses” at present, which describes the epic battle between Moses and Jane Jacobs. Quite extraordinarily Moses lost that battle – and a vibrant Manhattan we see now is the evidence of the extent of his failure.

There was, when I first came here, an odd sort of self congratulation. Vancouver was always very proud of stopping its downtown freeway – quite rightly. But the rest of the region – and indeed the north east corner of the City itself – is carved up by freeways. And while the roads lobby often recites the myth that “nothing has been built in twenty years” there was a steady pressure of stealth expansion – the addition of HOV lanes – and constant manoeuvring to ensure that nothing should get in the way of the traffic or the plans to build even more freeways. In fact expansion has been significant since the LRSP was signed with lost of piecemeal “improvements”and now the addition of the Golden Ears Bridge, the expansion of the Sea to Sky and now the major building projects on Highway #1 and the South Fraser Perimeter Road. None of these are in the City of Vancouver itself  – but that is sophistry. We remain, as a region, dominated by automobile use. The rate of spending on roads has always greatly exceeded that for transit – and other modes – and the share of trips remains almost constant.

Portland also is threatened by a major bridge expansion “the current six-lane I-5 bridge to Vancouver will become a 12-lane, $4.2 billion bridge called the Columbia River Crossing (CRC)” just like the new Port Mann.

“It’s another one of these roads that’s being espoused as ‘We have to have it in order to make everybody’s lives easier,'” says Ballestrem. “But it’s going to do the same thing that all these other big roads did. Building a bigger road is just going to encourage driving the automobile.”

[That’s] Val Ballestrem, education manager of the Architectural Heritage Center, who wrote his master’s thesis on Portland’s anti-freeway movement

And, of course, the same is true here. What seems to be different now is that those in power no longer fear anti-freeway movements. They have learned a lot from the success of Jane Jacobs in organising neighborhoods – not just in Greenwich Village but in Spadina too. Whatever restraints were built into the old processes have been removed. There is still a lengthy process, with much show of “consultation” and “extensive studies” but the end result was never in doubt. Proponents could claim very early on that is was all a “done deal” because they had already ensured that no other result was possible. It did not matter what the consultations heard, or what was in the studies, because there was no way to stop the project.  Which, of course, was what the “elite” had long ago decided.

Canada in general now seems to be completely out of step with the rest of the world. Peak oil and global climate change are now widely accepted realities. Most countries – even the United States – recognize that business as usual is not an option even as they continue to argue about who should go first and how much should be done. And the people who run large multi-national corporations, who have been practising deliberate deception on these issues, even seem to be reluctantly accepting that their business model needs to change. But somehow, BC seems to believe that the very real constraints of finite fossil fuels and the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb ever more carbon dioxide do not apply to us.

You might have thought that the loss of the forest industry to the pine beetle and the loss of the salmon fishery – which is primarily due to open net fish farms – both in recent years and both on the watch of the present administration – would at least introduce a note of caution. On the contrary, it actually seems to have encourage them to speed up the process. The P3 contract for the SFPR is not yet signed yet the “pre-construction” activity rushes on. The first pilings for the new Port Mann Bridge had to be put into the bed of the Fraser before the election, even though the project financing had completely fallen apart. All kinds of things – really important things that the BC Liberals promised were sacrosanct a few months ago like healthcare and education – are now being cut. But nothing it seems can stop the freeway juggernaut here.

When these new freeways open they will be eerily quiet. For one thing, the expectation that port expansion will bring vastly increased trade to Vancouver now seems very unlikely. Though no doubt the current flow of coal from Wyoming to China will continue and probably increase, that, of course, moves by rail. Gasoline is going to be very expensive – and the trivial impact of “alternative fuels” is unlikely to change that very much. Indeed, many of them depend on much higher prices to make them viable. As long as we follow the current economic philosophy that tries to keep wages and salaries as low as possible, and direct any and all benefits to only the wealthy, it is unlikely widespread car use will continue to be possible. Of course, it also likely that some will remember the wisdom of Henry Ford. He broke with other early twentieth century capitalists and paid his workers decent wages so they could afford to but and rive the cars they built. Writers like Howard Kunstler project that current trends in the US suburbs will see them become wastelands, but that, it seems to me, ignores the huge political debt that the current hegemony owes to suburban voters. These were the people who, in BC, decided that Gordon Campbell was the only leader to be trusted with the economy. Many left wing critics south of the line are disappointed with the lack of change in Washington since Obama was elected. That, it seems to me, reflects the reality of power. The ballot box can only do so much – and even then can be greatly influenced by the availability of lots of money.

It is more than likely that we will see a lot more building in the suburbs – preferably as close to the new freeway capacity as possible. A lot of farmland and green zone is going to be lost to subdivisions, office parks and shopping plazas – which is all that a lot of the development business understands. A few brave souls will make a point about green roofs and triple glazing, and driving a hybrid, but none of that will make very much difference. Any more than the hideously expensive carbon capture and storage will reduce the impact of the tar sands and the gas shales.

The saddest thing for me is that it need not work out like this. There is plenty of evidence now that denser, walkable neighbourhoods and really good electric powered transit produces very desirable places. That it is not that hard to produce a spread sheet analysis that will convince any investor that developments that reduce energy use are going to produce attractive rates of return as energy prices rise. It is also indisputable that a healthier society that is physically more active as part of daily life – when human power is a much bigger part of the energy used in transportation – reduces the biggest growing burden North America faces – health care costs. Is it too late to save much of the river delta? Complacency is certainly not going to help as the sea level rises.

But what can we do about it?

Written by Stephen Rees

September 24, 2009 at 10:41 am

Posted in Environment, Gateway, Transportation

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3 Responses

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  1. The planned new I-5 bridge on the Columbia River will have pedestrian and bike lanes and tracks for a LRT. I was in Portland and Seattle last week just to ride their respective new LRT lines and, as on every trip to both cities, was impressed by how easy it was to drive around their respective downtown core. Not to mention parking downtown for a few $ (the cheapest parking was in Portland–3 $ for 2 hrs in a parkade 1 block from Pioneer square).

    I hate to sound like a freeway poster boy but the fact is that European towns were only able to build extensive pedestrian areas in their downtown core AFTER their build freeways bypassing the town core (in the major towns it was a circular freeway around the whole town) to detour the masses of cars and trucks that were only passing through, not stopping, but had no other choice before as ALL the major roads–build centuries ago– linking one town after another automatically went smack downtown.

    Same thing in Japan where elevated freeways run high over the downtown core. As a result there are quiet residential districts of (tightly packed) single family homes and low rise buildings close to the centre of any major city in Japan.

    Europe and Japan have incredible transit systems yet they also have freeways. Obviously they are both needed, as shown on some long weekends when French and Japanese railways have thousands of long distance trains each with a full load, while freeways are equally packed with cars carrying(unusually) whole families.

    I don’t have a car by the way…and use transit in Metro Vancouver for 98 % of my trips. I did travel to the USA by car, with a couple of friends that I coerced into riding the Portland and Seattle LRT.

    Red frog

    September 24, 2009 at 10:13 pm

  2. […] Posted by viewfromthe44 under Uncategorized Leave a Comment  Courtesy of Stephen Rees, here’s your Friday morning piece of the big picture: All kinds of things – really important things that […]

  3. I travelled the province this September from Vancouver – Salmon Arm – Revelstoke – Fernie – Nelson – Penticton – Vancouver. I was surprised by the amount of highway “improvement” (aka widening) along that route. Interesting how the definition of improvement here never means coming up with a way to use existing road space more efficiently.


    October 7, 2009 at 12:04 pm

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