Stephen Rees's blog

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

A Reasonable Approach

with 7 comments

On Wednesday this week I watched the CBC Evening News and heard New Westminster Mayor Wayne Wright talking about the Patullo Bridge. Two things stuck in my mind. He thinks that tolls on the new bridge would be a good idea to limit the amount of traffic. And a cheaper bridge would free up some money to spend on more transit in Surrey.

Actually there was a lot more that the CBC did not cover. There is a 32 page report on the bridge that went to New Westminster council (that link downloads a pdf which is in two column format, that makes on line reading awkward and quoting tricky) and there is also a shorter Backgrounder – which is also a pdf which does not permit cut and paste at all. But that is where the title comes from

TransLink has identified the need to rehabilitate or replace the Pattullo Bridge in order to respond to risks related to its vulnerability in an earthquake, its structural integrity and the effect of river currents on its foundations.

Like all the bridges that the province downloaded to Translink. The Knight Street and the Canoe Pass bridge also were badly in need of rehabilitation. They were old and had been neglected. And when the big shake happens would almost certainly collapse. It was a cynical ploy. The region wanted control transit but the province wanted to get rid of some impending liabilities. So the deal to create what became Translink was that the region would get some more gas tax points (it was already getting 4c a litre for transit) but only f it took on some roads and bridges. So the transfer allowed some increase in transit service, but it also tied the authority’s hands. There would be a “balanced” approach. Translating that spin it meant more would be required for roads – and would be a priority – and there might be some left overs for transit.

I applaud the Mayor for recognizing what the rest of region seems to have difficulty acknowledging. Our problems are based on lack of accessibility brought on by over dependence on the automobile. That applies as much in Vancouver (the suburbs begin south of 12th Avenue) as in Langley. New Westminster is a bit different since it is small, compact and mostly developed before the automobile became the primary means of personal transportation. It also has five SkyTrain stations for its 66,000 people. And a great deal of through traffic on old narrow streets.

The Royal City Record agrees the approach is reasonable. But its editorial goes on to point out that reasonable and well thought out does not necessarily mean that is what gets built. While Christy Clark enjoys the photo opportunity of naming the new TBM for the Evergreen Line she does not actually want to see an increase in transit mode share. And that is what her other big announcement is going to stall – as Translink points out. The New Massey bridge is not going to help increase transit use. Surrey is not pleased with the idea of a tolled four lane Patullo and will continue to press for its preferred free six lane version. And given the impact of the widening of Highway 1, the opening of the South Fraser Perimeter Road and the chance that Vancouver will win the shoving match for rapid transit funding for its tunnel over their LRT one cannot really be surprised.

Of course, they are quite wrong in thinking that a six lane Patullo will actually help them. But then that is because no-one in this region seems to be able to grasp that traffic expands to fill the space available. No one has ever solved congestion by increasing road capacity. There are only two ways to cut traffic congestion – road pricing or economic decline. In fact I am not the only economist who has pointed out that traffic congestion is an indicator of economic success.

But to return to New Westminster. What the Mayor is pointing out is that cities are mainly places for people to live in. Not primarily places for cars to get through quickly. Indeed everything that has been done to “improve” traffic speed/flow has an adverse effect on every other aspect of life in cities. The introduction of the automobile has been decidedly deleterious to the quality of life in cities, and the most successful cities in recent years have been those that have been most effective in tackling that impact. Not because they focussed on traffic congestion but because they focussed on what makes cities work better for people. The common factor seen in all the current anti-transit, anti-bike, anti-Translink propaganda has been its uniquely narrow focus. It has been all about people who want to drive their own cars for all their own activities, no matter what that does to them and their communities. It is profoundly conservative in its focus in the sense of “there is nothing wrong with what we have been doing” perception. Like climate change denial, it actually gets stronger and louder in its denunciations of innovation the more that the demonstrable facts show them to wrong. And not just here either.

If you think that the real problems facing us are that gas prices are too high, that it takes too long to find a free parking space and that all government spending (except more prisons and newer war planes) is wasteful then everything I have written – or all of what Mayor Wright says – will fall on deaf ears. But if you think that we need to start rethinking how cities are organized and that reduction in car use is a good measure of success in that regard then a four lane tolled new Patullo actually seems a good idea. I cannot say however that I agree with his other suggestion of a another new bridge linking Surrey and Coquitlam. I think ten lanes ought to be quite enough.

I have cut and pasted some highlights below but I think if you are really interested you ought to read the full report – or at least the Backgrounder which I am unable to quote from

Problem Statement

The Pattullo Bridge may not survive a moderate earthquake or ship collision, the piers are at risk of being undermined by river scour and many bridge components have surpassed their useful lives.

Other Issues

When considering the best alternatives for the problem, it is an opportune time to establish the optimal roles for the crossing and also to address other issues with the current crossing, including:

  1. The Pattullo Bridge does not meet current roadway design guidelines, including for lane widths and curvature, potentially contributing to collisions.
  2. Pattullo Bridge facilities, such as sidewalks and barriers, and connections for pedestrians and cyclists, are inadequate and do not provide sufficient protection from traffic.
  3. During rush hours, travel demand on the roads leading to the Pattullo Bridge results in queuing and unreliable travel times for the movement of people, goods and services.
  4. Current traffic (including truck) volumes affect the liveability of adjacent communities due to air quality, noise and resulting health impacts, as well as due to neighbourhood traffic infiltration.


The preferred alternative will meet transportation, environmental and health objectives,


  1. Moves towards the regional goal that most trips will be by walking, cycling and transit.
  2. Minimizes single-occupant vehicle use and vehicle kilometres travelled.
  3. Minimizes emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and pollutants.
  4. Is capable of supporting neighbourhood liveability by minimizing and mitigating impacts, including during construction, and provides an aesthetically pleasing structure.
  5. Supports local and regional land use plans and economic development.
  6. Provides reliable access and predictable travel times for all modes, users, and for an appropriate level of goods movement.
  7. Provides a safe crossing for all modes, is structurally sound and meets current standards for seismic and ship impacts.
  8. Is cost-effective.

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The reality is that public money that is spent on the bridge will restrict the ability to fund other much needed projects such as the Light Rail Transit (LRT) system within Surrey. The City is supportive of reallocating capital cost saving from a rehabilitated 4-lane bridge project or a new 4-lane bridge project to the much needed rapid transit system in the City of Surrey.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 7, 2014 at 2:27 pm

7 Responses

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  1. I’ve been using the now 1-lane Burrard Bridge lately. The bridge itself features marvellously smooth flowing traffic and vehicles merging alternately with remarkable efficiency and courtesy. Of course the streets leading to the bridge are a parking lot and I’m glad my bus has its own lane. We’re still held up every block by right turns, vehicles attempting to join the queue from side streets, the perpetual police presence out front of St. Paul’s, etc. but it sure is better than what drivers are enduring. I’m surprised that more haven’t diverted to the 4 mostly empty lanes just 300m to the east, but I suspect the same principle applies: the bridge is free flowing, but Howe Street may be as bad or worse than Burrard and Pacific.

    It is my understanding that the same is mostly true in New Westminster with horribly congested streets leading to and from highways 91A, 99A and 1. It makes sense for city council to advocate for infrastructure and policy that won’t make the situation worse and could potentially make it better. Their proposal looks equally good from a regional standpoint both because adding more lanes won’t magically allow the road system to handle all that extra traffic and because they’re suggesting the money not spent on the bridge be spent on infrastructure in another jurisdiction.

    My only criticism of New West council is that they appear to be overstating the cost savings of 4 lanes versus 6.


    March 7, 2014 at 4:29 pm

  2. “A rehabilitated 4-lane Pattullo Bridge at the existing location, if tolled, would respond fully to the problem statement and objectives. TransLink has, however, made it clear that they will not support a 4-lane rehabilitation option due to perceived safety issues. The City has concerns with this decision due to the capital cost increment of $500 million or more between the rehabilitation option and the new 4 lane bridge option” p iv

    It seems that part of the barrier to the most reasonable approach lies with an unelected board that the minister has promised to demote to lesser decisions as the elected board is given more power. Seems like time for Stone to step in and insist that refurbishing the existing bridge and retaining four lanes be put back on the table.

    Eric Doherty

    March 8, 2014 at 3:13 pm

  3. I suspect they really haven’t made a strong business case for the safety arguement. I suspect the extra $500 million could result in a much better increase in safety if it was invested at problem spots around the region.

    Imagine the improvements in cycling and walking that could be made for that amount.


    March 8, 2014 at 4:15 pm

  4. The New West report has a very interesting comparison on the safety of bridges in the region. The Patullo is actually one of the safer ones. The Knight Street is far worse.

    Stephen Rees

    March 8, 2014 at 6:10 pm

  5. I find very interesting that there is a push in B.C. to toll all the bridges in Metro Vancouver, while leaving all the freeways toll-free all the way…..

    In other places tolled motorways only start quite a way from the downtown area of the major town and its suburbs in a region, allowing “free” car commute within the whole metropolitan area. There are also, of course, numerous lines of regional buses and trains that go relatively far away from a region capital.
    (If it was applied to B.C. numerous trains a day would go to the US border, Chilliwack, Langley, Pemberton.).

    At the same time, the major town in a metropolitan area has year-long car-free and car-restricted areas in its downtown core that are slowly extended, in order to make “life in the city” more pleasant. Even suburban towns and small towns farther away have their own car-free areas.

    Red frog

    March 13, 2014 at 12:42 am

  6. Very interesting post, Stephen. Here in Melbourne, Australia, we (well, many of us) are protesting over a massive freeway that is going to cost 6 – 8 BILLION dollars, called the East/West link. Your quote: “Of course, they are quite wrong in thinking that a six lane Patullo will actually help them. But then that is because no-one in this region seems to be able to grasp that traffic expands to fill the space available. No one has ever solved congestion by increasing road capacity”, could not be more apt. I find it astonishing that politicians still don’t know this when it has been common knowledge for so many years. My understanding is that on average traffic is better on more roads for approximately 3 months and after that it is the same level of congestion as before (only now you have more roads as well as more traffic). The 3 month rule seems to be regardless of the size of the road as well. The East/West link will however be a toll road, but that brings with it its own dilemma – if people don’t use it, how will the Government make it’s many back on what it cost to build in the first instance? You can read the glossy stuff (released by the Government) here: Obviously, it leaves out how much parkland and housing the freeway will destroy.


    March 13, 2014 at 6:57 pm

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