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

What’s up with the Viaducts?

with 19 comments

Panel discussion SFU City Program April 7, 2011

There were at least half a dozen bloggers there last night. Once I get this finished, I am going to see how many of them have got their pieces up. Alexandria Mitchell was there but hasn’t blogged since February: Eric Doherty was there but is busy with other things: Paul Hillsdon too: Voony: OK I claim bragging rights for first to post!

UPDATE  April 14

In the interests of completeness – Vancouver Public Space Network now has a post which provides links to Blah City which I could not find, has no account of the meeting but does have a picture of the High Line, and Voony who says “I will blog on the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaduct, to eventually provide a “dissident” voice to the opinion expressed [by Stephen Rees or VPSN], but as a preliminary, I have gathered  data  I will eventually rely on to support my opinion” . VPSN also identifies Michael Geller, who was indeed sitting behind me, but seems silent on this issue so far. The Tyee was present too.

The panel was composed of five people, three of whom provided facts, and two opinions only. I regret that due to a late start and people talking for too long, I was unable to stay for the discussion session, so hopefully some of those who did stay will be able to fill in that gap in the comments section.

Peter Judd,  City of Vancouver Director of Engineering started his presentation with a review of the removal of the freeway in Cheonggycheon, Seoul, SouthKorea. That rehearsed material that was presented last week at the City Program by Dr Wang. I was not able to attend  that talk but will post a link to it here (in due course – SFU is a bit slow in getting its videos on line). The 14 lane freeway was a source of pollution and economic stagnation. Its removal resulted in a slight worsening of local traffic (+1.3%) but a 30% increase in property values. Congestion in the city as a whole went down, as did crime and – perhaps most surprisingly – local temperature, which fell two degrees C.

He then went through the history of the viaducts. The original Georgia Viaduct was built in 1915 to separate the traffic from the railway tracks: grade separation of railways and roads still makes sense. In the 1950s and 60s there were several downtown freeway proposals – but most never attracted funds except for the first section which replaced the Georgia Viaduct and built the Dunsmuir Viaduct. This removed the area known as Horgan’s Alley, a predominantly black neighborhood.

In 1985 a third viaduct was added for SkyTrain. This interweaves with the other viaducts, making removal possible (since SkyTrain carries many more people than roads) but also limits the options.

During the Olympics the viaducts were closed as a security measure – together with Expo and Pacific Boulevards. Together with Olympic lanes on other streets, there was considerable loss of capacity, with resulting congestion on Main, Hastings and Pender but in general the people showed both resiliency and adaptability. Overall the Olympic measures were a success.

Trends 1996 – 2011

  • Population downtown +75%
  • Trips downtown +15%
  • Vehicles entering downtown – 25%

It has to be acknowledged that much of this was due to land use changes which meant people could work and live in the same area. Putting housing near to workplaces makes eminent sense as people can walk to work.

Little W12th Street

The High Line at Little W12th Street New York my photo

There have been a number of relevant projects in recent years – he cited The Big Dig in Boston [a tunnel which diverted traffic] the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco [which fell down in an earthquake and was not replaced] the New York High Line [a redundant freight railway viaduct which is being converted into a linear park] and discussions continue about Alaska Way in Seattle and the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto.

Peter Witt SF Muni 1893 rear

The Embarcadero in San Francisco - there was once an elevated freeway here - my photo

The City of Vancouver has commissioned a study to look at traffic impacts as well as soil and structural issues. Mr Judd stressed “I am not a Transportation Planner”. His experience is that city engineers have always overstated the negative impacts of projects [that reduce traffic capacity] and underestimated the intelligence of the residents. He also noted that values are changing – there are growing concerns about both the climate and health impacts of car use. We should not trivialize the impact of traffic compared to the inconvenience that will be imposed on some individuals’ trip making. Transportation serves the city – not the other way round.

We should “develop a compelling vision of what we want the city to be – and don’t let the tail wag the dog.”

Dave Turner of Halcrow consulting engineers stressed that he was not a modeller but a Traffic Engineer and is skeptical of models since so much depends on the assumptions built into them. His work to assess the traffic impacts of removing the viaducts assumes that present policies continue. Increasing costs of parking, fuel or the introduction of road pricing would significantly reduce traffic demand, and Transportation Demand Management could also be used to change people’s behaviour. Halcrow looked at current activity in the area, future activity and three “most viable” options for removal.


360,000 people enter the downtown from the east every day. Only 46% of them are in cars. 42% are on transit, 12% cycle or walk. 24,000 are on Georgia and 19,000 on Dunsmuir: 130,000 are eastbound and the viaducts are the most heavily used of the routes. Inbound in the am peak, Dusmuir is near capacity – mainly due to the signalized junctions after the viaduct. There is some spare capacity on the other routes. A lot of the traffic is local and very little goes through downtown and over the Lion’s Gate bridge. 44% comes from the City of Vancouver, 22% from Burnaby and 12% from the North East Sector.

110,000 travel on rail transit every weekday, plus 11,000 on West Coast Express and 34,000 on buses – a total of 15o,000 from the east.

The capacity of Pender is nearly completely utilized at present: there is some capacity available on Hastings and both SkyTrain and WCE could carry more (though in that case it assumes that people would be willing to stand on what is currently an “all seated”, premium service). Walking and cycling are higher outside of the am peak and include a recreational element [note that he said nothing about the purpose of those driving trips]. Dunsmuir is an important link for cyclists with its segregated lane: most of those trips are within a 5km radius.

Trucks make up 500 vehicles on Dunsmuir and the same number east bound on Georgia: these are nearly all light trucks on local deliveries. The viaducts are designated truck routes.


Population and employment is expected to grow by 8% in downtown over the next ten years – slower than Vancouver as a whole at 15%. Both the Evergreen Line and a proposed Raid Bus on Hastings are expected to increase transit use: overall travel demand will grow by around 10% nearly all of which will occur on transit. Traffic demand on the viaducts is not expected to change. [Note that the model forecasts traffic volumes as a function of population and employment.]


Mark II SkyTrain 329/330

A forest of supports - Quebec at Expo - my photo

The viaducts and Skytrain interweave and are at different elevations which limits the options. They have identified three which are viable

20% reduction

Both viaducts terminated at Main Street: new ramps are constructed and a new surface route built to link Main to Prior. A new entrance ramp would also be built for pedestrians and cyclists. This could be done in five years,and has little impact on traffic. “It could be done easily, but does it achieve much?” Some drivers will be diverted but there would not be much impact on mode share.

50% reduction

The Georgia Viduct would be removed and Dunsmuir made two way. The segregated cycle path would be retained. This has more impact as 2 traffic lanes are lost [i.e. 2,000 vehicles per hour at most] so drivers divert to Hastings, Pender, Pacific and Expo. Journey times increase and transit is slowed. This will mean more transit passengers will transfer from bus to SkyTrain but again there will not be much mode shift onto transit. This option could be done within ten years.

100% reduction

Both viaducts would be taken down with cul de sacs to serve properties at the ends of both Georgia and Dunsmuir. The segregated cycle route would be lost, there would be significant impact on traffic and bus routes. Expo would be the most impacted. However, there would still be no large impact on mode share and the proposal may need some additional policies to promote transit use.

He stressed that the model is limited and he felt that in reality more people would change their behaviour.

Bernie Magnam, Chief Economist of the Board of Trade presented the results of a survey they had commissioned from Mustel on the impact of the Olympics on transportation in Vancouver. [The report he showed from Mustel appears not to be on the BOT web page. There is a pdf is of the IBM report presentation.] This survey was commisisoned after an on line survey mounted by IBM showed some skews in sampling.

87% of respondents had either a good, very good or excellent experience – and 43% changed the way they travelled. Of those one quarter continued with the change after the Olympics. About 46% reverted because they felt there was no need to continue. 41% of respondents changed only the route they drove.  24% used the increased level of transit service.

Prior                      During              Post

Car                       71%                        48%                   66%

Transit               46%                        68%                   50%

Walk (500m+) 41%                        46%                    43%

He commented that the increase in transit was a “carrot not a stick” which he felt worked better at persuasion.

Most “wants” identified by an open question were more frequent transit sergice and lower cost of travel. One significant benefit to users was the combination of transit into the event ticket: this was felt to be influential in the way that the queues were managed and was thought worth retaining at other events such as Canucks games.

Two thirds of drivers indicated that they were interested in viable alternatives (which experience with the Canada Line seems to endorse) and is roughly similar across all groups by age, gender and area – though he also noted that at present there is no transit acoss the Port Mann Bridge which he felt reduced the viability of transit for those south of the Fraser. He also commented that it was hard to load an exercise bike just bought from CostCo onto a bus. [But of course it is quite easy to ride a bike home from a local bike shop – and you will probably use it more often than an exercise bike – which will soon only be used as a clothes horse.]

Larry Beasley former City Planner “I have no facts – only opinions”. Up until a few years ago this conversation was not possible with city engineers. This change in attitude is fundamental. It is also not true in most other places – like Abu Dhabi where he now consults. The viaducts are a tiny part of an auto oriented system that “we didn’t get to build”. The viaducts are very convenient routes, but is that the very best use that can be made of that land? The use of the viaducts is going down, and they represent liabilities – they separate areas and activities. They do not integrate activities the way that conventional boulevards do. They cut of Gastown and Chinatown from the water [meaning False Creek]. They sprawl over a vast amount of land which is our most valuable commodity.

He wanted to credit Councillor Jeff Meggs for promoting the idea, and quoted Jaime Lerner: “Every city has to have a design”.

It was, he said, time to design our city – the eastern part of the  downtown core. Growth will have to be accommodated here to relieve pressure on Chinatown and the downtown eastside. In future downtown will spread as far as Clark Drive. It will extend from Waterfront to Mount Pleasant, with False Creek as its centre. “A continuous web of urban activity from Stanley Park to Clark”

The viaducts are at the centre of things. Their replacement with boulevards will distribute traffic, but also the development of mixed uses will take people out of the commuter trip. They will allow the protection of heritage areas, provide jobs and revitalize cultural activities. It will reenergize the development sector which is now stalled since nearly all the available land downtown has been developed.

It will be essential to look at both pedestrian and transit linkages – and should include funiculars and stairs. he also liked the idea of pieces of viaduct left as a greenway. It should be seen that there are 100s of acres available around Pacific and Expo Boulevards to be developed, and a new community could be built “around the old train station” [presumably he means Pacific Central on Terminal]

The new downtown of the future will be on False Creek flats. We should create a new urban design vision for the metropolitan core. “Get on front of this opportunity.”

He had two recommendations for the City

  1. make the decision to take down the viaducts now
  2. convene an urban design competition to bring in big ideas from everywhere

He finished by quoting Ray Spaxman: cities should not happen by accident – we should create a city by design.

Big Thom architect noted that he and Larry were the only people who did not have a slide show. He started by pointing out that other places where he works are not willing to be guinea pigs for urban theorists. Vancouver has to be the showcase of ideas for the rest of the world.

Politicians can only be as good as we are. “You are the people who care – and the politicians need to hear from you”. We also need to hear from the professors at UBC and SFU. “You are supposed to be the brain centres – where are you on the casino?” He sensed that there is a tidal change – even the casino is not a “done deal”. When times are hard  leaders emerge. Currently we are in a post Olympic hangover. Unlike Expo when we planned for what would happen afterwards, we were in such a hurry to get the games we did not think about what happens next.

He rattled off some figures very quickly speaking about “4m square feet of density” on 9.9 acres of land and “$400m of public benefits”. “There is no such thing as a free lunch so we need to show what we can do” [my understanding is that he was calculating extempore on what the usual development bonuses would make possible]

“How can you plan a city when you do ot have a long range planning department? The long range planner lost his job and now teaches at UBC.”

Put the pressure on its an election year.


I did make one contribution to the discussion before I had to leave. This rehashes what is in the earlier blog post about the constraints of our transportation model.

I also want now to reiterate what I know I have referred to many times. We have known for many years that traffic is not analogous to water – which if not accommodated, floods. It is more like a gas which can be compressed. Over time traffic expands and contracts to fill the space available. Just as road building induces new trip making, so reducing road capacity encourages the search for alternatives to trips. A meta-study of the “Traffic Impact of Highway Capacity Reductions” was published in February of 1998 ISBN 1 899650 10 5 copyright of London Transport and  the Department of the Environment and the Regions – authors: Cairns, Hass-Klau and Goodwin. This looked at 50 events where road capacity was lost.

“We conclude that measures which reduce or reallocate road capacity when well designed and favoured by strong reasons of policy need not automatically be rejected for fear that they must inevitably cause unacceptable congestion.”

That conclusion apparently did not reach North America – or the former traffic engineers of Vancouver and other cities of this region that I had to deal with. It is also worded in such a way that it doesn’t make for a good sound bite.

Last night I realised I would not get time to talk like this so I said that if we had an earthquake – as they had in San Francisco – we would deal with the loss of the viaducts as quickly as they had. I have no patience at all with options that delay the inevitable. Experience shows that  the fear mongers are wrong – and, I suspect, that they have been doing the same things about traffic as the tobacco lobby and the climate change deniers. The viaducts MUST come down – completely and quickly. The impact will be felt – and could be readily alleviated if we had a regional transportation agency that was allowed to do its job properly i.e. serve the people of this region.

The Olympics were a good lesson – but one that was quickly hidden. Transit was not just returned to where it was before – and it is being reduced further. The City of Vancouver does seem to have coped quite well with bike lanes on Burrard Bridge and Dunsmuir. It will cope with the loss of the viaducts – and much of great benefit can replace them.

I do not think that the viaducts are worth preserving: the example of the High Line is not, in my view, an appropriate one here. And last year I visited both the High Line and the Embarcadero – that’s where the pictures are from – and my view is that we are more like SF than NY. But let us see what the proposed design competition produces. I am not an urban designer. But I do know now as a certainty that the area will be better without these concrete viaducts, and there is very little to be said for retaining even small parts of them. Dammit they are ugly!

Written by Stephen Rees

April 8, 2011 at 12:35 pm

19 Responses

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  1. Some may see the land under the viaducts as “wasted” land that could be better used by removing the viaducts and reclaiming it. However that vision might be too limiting in thinking where the “ground level” should be.

    The new developments around GM Place that use the viaduct height as their ground floor, placing other amenities under the viaduct is an interesting model and one the City has already examined.

    For example, a long standing plan on the books is to put the eventual downtown streetcar barn under the viaducts, using the viaducts at the roof for this building. One could then build up on top of these new structures like by GM Place.

    Or use one of the viaducts as a dedicated transit-way, a nice way to get buses to the downtown core quickly bypassing traffic. And as mentioned the loss of cycling lanes, the viaduct is a very nice way to genitally get up the bluff to downtown height.

    Ripping down the viaducts isn’t the only way to get better land use out of this part of False Creek, let’s not limit our vision.


    April 8, 2011 at 1:29 pm

  2. I was at the discussion last night as well. I particularly appreciated your comments at the end.

    Most of the discussion after you left focused on two topics: the flaws in computer modeling and the need for community involvement.

    The major problem with modeling is that it compares two static conditions with no assumption of change (like fuel cost increases, improved p.transit, or changes in destination because of the new development). Larry Beasley said modeling offers no creative solutions, at best it only shows what can not be done. He said we should come up with beautiful design ideas first and then tune them using modeling analysis.

    One woman stood up and argued against top-down design for the neighborhood. She pointed out it was elite professionals that designed the freeway in the first place and it was grass roots community that stopped it. Larry Beasley said its not about top-down or bottom-up, that the two need to work together to optimize experienced creativity with local sensitivity and insight.

    Another gentleman said we do not need more glittering penthouses, but rather we need to rebuild the vibrant, affordable neighborhood that was lost to the viaducts, a new Hogan’s Alley. I think this needs to address the factors that make construction so expensive in this city, and the types of housing that dominate.

    Just a few stats I noticed missing on your post:

    Property value around the Cheonggycheon river wound up increasing 300%, not just the intial 30%.

    Between 1996 and 2011 jobs in Vancouver’s DT increased 26%.


    April 8, 2011 at 2:05 pm

  3. As a designer, the possibility to integrate the viaducts into a pedestrian and bike route that connects to adjacent buildings, is really exciting to me. Anomalous conditions in cities create landmarks and challenge the imagination. Vancouver also suffers an inability to get people above the ground floor into retail and public spaces. Adjacent buildings could be entered at the ground level, or from the elevated path. The outdoor path could also multi-function as public park space while maintaining road way or an express bus route underneath.

    I fear that a “grand boulevard”, as Beasley suggested, would wind up overly engineered for traffic. Just more of the same.

    In addition to the High Line, another elevated structure renovation to look at is the Promenade Plantee in Paris.


    April 8, 2011 at 2:27 pm

  4. The world is not perfect, while I agree the viaducts are ugly and form a significant barrier i am not sold on a complete replacement. That said we need to have a plan now for what to do when they need to be replaced and we need to acknowledge some trends will likely continue into the future (such as reduced auto trips downtown). Unfortunately I am did not attend and have not looked deeply into the background information but as a spacial thinker I would like to see maps of the various options including the land freed up by removing the viaducts (or for instance where ramps would go onto and off Main in the 20% option). We also need to carefully consider the area as a whole (aren’t there plans to trafic calm Pacific?). Belly rub opinion that could be changed is the 20% reduction to Main…as long as the connection to Main removes barriers



    April 8, 2011 at 2:53 pm

  5. Stephen- You win! I think you just put out a challenge to me- guess I better get blogging again!


    April 8, 2011 at 4:11 pm

  6. […] Nations [Vancouver Sun] Metro Vancouver to pursue arbitration on growth strategy [Vancouver Sun] What’s up with the Viaducts? [Stephen Rees's […]

    re:place Magazine

    April 9, 2011 at 10:28 am

  7. […] Dunsmuir viaduct, to eventually provide a “dissident” voice to the opinion expressed here or there, but as a preliminary, I have gathered the data below I will eventually rely on to support […]

  8. […] Rees, of course, has published the most comprehensive description of the evening.  His conclusion: I do not think that the viaducts are worth preserving …  But let us see […]

  9. […] Rees has published the most comprehensive description of the evening.  His conclusion: I do not think that the viaducts are worth preserving …  But let us see […]

  10. minor quibble – tearing down the Georgia viaduct would remove 3 lanes, not 2. If we are to tear one down, why not the Dunsmuir… A photo from 1971, showing the new Georgia, the old Georgia, and the start of the Dunsmuir in between


    April 11, 2011 at 10:51 pm

  11. […] on April 7th at SFU downtown. You will find on pricetag a list of links on it including one to the good report of the night by Stephen Rees. We gonna mostly refer to it to review some arguments mostly […]

  12. The Promenade Plantee in Paris WAS the inspiration for the New York High Line. It was built between 1987 and 2000. The first part of the viaduct has stores and workshops under its arches.

    I used to be against freeways going through a city until I went to Japan and saw the ELEVATED freeways that crisscross their major cities.
    They aren’t pretty BUT have allowed many areas to keep their uniqueness and tranquility.

    It was quite an eye-opener for me to see so many older private homes and small businesses right downtown Osaka and Tokyo (i.e. within the loop line railway that link the major neighborhoods of these 2 towns.

    The Vancouver viaducts as they are today are only are a short link between 2 areas at different levels. A link that is quite practical for many. Having Georgia East End turned into a cul-de-sac and forcing the vehicles that use them right now to go downtown and the North shore via Hastings would would be a traffic nightmare for most of the day.

    Unfortunately we don’t have enough rapid transit lines yet to have the luxury to close street that are obvious links between the North shore and everything South and East of downtown.

    As it is turning Granville in a transit mall for many blocks and closing off its North End by a parking lot instead of ending it right by the waters of Burrard Inlet, were big planning mistakes.
    Robson should have been, still could be, a pedestrian shopping street.

    Red frog

    April 12, 2011 at 5:32 pm

  13. […] the viaducts), Price himself, Blah City, voony and Michael Geller (Addendum: we forgot to include Stephen Rees in the initial round up. Sorry Stephen!)  An important theme of the evening was creating […]

  14. Though I wouldn’t be in favour of taking down either viaduct, if one is to come down and the other converted to 2-way traffic, I agree that the Dunsmuir should be the one to go – because Georgia is already a 2-way street and if you introduce 2-way traffic onto Dunsmuir, that traffic will either have to access Dunmsuir from Beatty (requiring a lot of turn movements (perhaps across bike paths), or the already constrained roadway will have to be converted to just one lane each way.


    April 15, 2011 at 12:10 am

  15. BTW – that’s a great photo of the Georgia visduct just after construction.

    One thing that the photo shows is that the lanbd in, around and under the voaducts can and has in the past been used, despite the presence of the viaducts (including during Expo 86). So is the “barrier” the viaducts, or Expo and Pacific Boulevards? Or is it just taking time to develop that part of the neighbourhood?


    April 15, 2011 at 12:18 am

  16. […] Stephen Ree’s blog What’s Up with the Viaducts? […]

  17. […] on the Viaducts When it came to illustrating the last blog post I did on this subject, I was surprised by how few images I had of them. I set out yesterday to correct that – on a […]

  18. Strange to see the pitchfork and torches rush to judgement here, and I’m curious as to just how many people actually live in the area as I do. I’ve personally yet to be convinced that the viaducts should be torn down — I’m wiling to listen, but I’ve yet to hear a conclusive reason yet.

    In none of the discussions about removing the viaducts does anyone mention that during game or concert nights at either of the stadiums, the traffic (especially that flows back downtown from the Cambie street bridge) backs up already. If you think that’s bad now, remove the viaducts and watch a number of little traffic jams build on those nights and secondary intersections never intended for that kind of traffic take on a tremendous change as they deal with the run-off. Planners seem very quick to suggest that Hastings street can bear the load to those East coming in and out as well, and there seems to be a very strong “just tell everybody to take the skytrain” motivation here as well.

    Its humorous to me that in almost any discussion of the viaducts the fact that their creation resulted in the eradication of “Hogans Alley” which is almost always always consequently then defined as Vancouver’s “black neighbourhood”, as if to subtly pin guilt to the viaducts that their creation was a hallmark of racism. Indeed, Hogan’s Alley housed many black CPR workers in the area, but there were many other races and lived in that area too. It had been a crime ridden area in the 20’s – 40’s, so we would be careful to award excessive nostalgia to the area as well.

    None of the voices in the pro-viaduct removal campaign recognize as building increases along Quebec Street and continues along South East False Creek in the next few years, that area will experience considerable population growth, and as downtown extends further east will the viaducts not serve even greater purpose than before in shuttling transportation effectively, won’t the viaducts be an effective route to and from downtown for many who live in the area and beyond?

    The idea that if one of the viaducts should be removed it be the Dunsmuir viaduct seems awfully short sighted. The Chinatown/Stadium skytrain track follows the Dunsmuir viaduct and that track isn’t going anywhere — unless somebody builds over top of it like the Vancity building on Terminal ave. The Georgia viaduct seems more likely to fall as it sits on real estate too prime for the dripping fangs of developers teeth not to bite into.

    At present my feeling on it I can’t see either being removed. Again, I’m willing to modify my opinion, but I just haven’t heard anything yet that swings my vote. Convince me.

    Aaron Chapman

    May 15, 2012 at 3:01 am

  19. […] is pretty much the stance I took from the start. Indeed what is really different is that the “viaducts could be demolished almost […]

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