Stephen Rees's blog

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

Repeat a lie often enough …

with 15 comments

Am I being a pedant? Or does my commitment to speaking the truth just keep getting me into trouble? I like Mike Harcourt. I have met him, and even “worked” alongside him: well they call them “workshops”. But he repeats a canard in his latest letter to the Vancouver Sun that irritates me

Vancouver … we are the only major North American city without a freeway (thank goodness).”

Vancouver Boundary

I just created the map above: I was surprised that the City Boundary does not appear on Google maps so I added a very crude dashed line along Boundary Road. The map area to the left of that line is the City of Vancouver. You will note that Highway 1 also known as the TransCanada Highway and “the freeway” is to the left of the line too. Vancouver does have a freeway. Not very much maybe and it just runs through the north east corner of the City and for some distance in a tunnel. But it is a freeway and it is well within the City limits.

Mike Harcourt was indeed instrumental in making sure that a freeway was not built through Chinatown – and downtown. Well done Mike. I salute you. But that does not mean that Vancouver is without any freeways at all.




Written by Stephen Rees

April 11, 2014 at 12:05 pm

15 Responses

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  1. I have read this claim several times, and you are correct that Vancouver does have a small portion of a freeway within its city limits.

    However, an alternate but related claim, that Vancouver does not have a freeway running through the downtown core, is correct. For this I’m thankful – a freeway of any type in downtown would be arguably more destructive to the city’s liveability than the portion passing through East Van.


    April 11, 2014 at 1:22 pm

  2. Yes I know that. But that is NOT what he wrote.

    Stephen Rees

    April 11, 2014 at 1:24 pm

  3. To be fair did it count as a Freeway before the tunnel?


    April 11, 2014 at 9:21 pm

  4. I used to believe the canard that a freeway across a downtown area would destroy it. Then I went to Japan, where they have elevated freeways, criss-crossing a city over some ground level streets.
    It looks ugly as sin, but at the same time takes away from these streets at ground level all the traffic that only go through for a long distance, without stopping…

    As a result there are still single family houses and low rise apartment buildings , small funky stores etc. in many areas of downtown Tokyo, Osaka (what I call downtown is the area within the railway line that circle the oldest areas of these respective towns).

    Not to mention that Tokyo, Osaka, London, Paris etc. manage to have a high enough density without having all these ever taller residential highrises that are “de rigeur” in Vancouver.

    Red frog

    April 11, 2014 at 10:02 pm

  5. Red frog–

    Two words for a port city with and without an elevated freeway in the core, along the water…

    The Embarcadero.



    April 12, 2014 at 10:53 am

  6. 1) we like to pretend we dont have freeways. 1st av and 12th av are effectively freeway extensions devoid of peds and commerce.

    2) Vancouver proper as far as politicians and media are concerned ends at Main anyway. So that piece of official freeway in the east is in the Burnaby.


    April 12, 2014 at 12:11 pm

  7. RossK
    Japan does have earthquakes…
    99% of the elevated freeways in the Kansai (Osaka region) did NOT get damaged during the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Neither were elevated lines for the railways and the automated LRT (a bit similar to SkyTrain but with rubber tires and safety walls on the platform to prevent people from falling on the tracks ).

    I was there days before the earthquake, then 8 months later, and it was easy to see what had NOT been damaged (I have a background in bridges, roads and buildings construction)..
    I know that the western TVs showed huge fires, a freeway that partly collapsed etc but in fact they were showing a few relatively small areas from different angles again and again.

    What I learned is that the destructions was hit and miss and totally depended on the soil in a specific area.

    Old buildings without earthquake prevention stayed up, while new ones, with all the bell and whistles, collapsed.
    Friends of mine lived in a 70 years old very plain wood house that stayed up, while the neighbours’ house in reinforced concrete partly collapsed, killing 2 people (the rest of that family was not hurt).

    An Englishman I talked to had minor damage in his medium-rise apartment building (the bookcases and wardrobes fell down). His store, in a small brick building from the 1930s, was shaken, the shelves and racks fell down, but the building itself was fine…I looked around it and didn’t even see a crack.

    Red frog

    April 12, 2014 at 8:50 pm

  8. I shouldn’t have call them “freeways” of course, as they are privately owned (some by companies that also own local railways, department stores, hotels etc.) and are tolled…

    Red frog

    April 12, 2014 at 8:57 pm

  9. If Toronto the only provincial capital without part of the Trans-Canada Highway not running through even a corner of it?

    W. K. Lis

    April 13, 2014 at 12:13 pm

  10. Red frog – My understanding is that the expressways in downtown Tokyo were built in the years surrounding the 1964 Olympics. At that point, wasn’t Tokyo already a well-developed metropolis with excellent public transportation? As such, they would have been overlaid onto a dense city, rather than spurring sprawl as they have in many North American cities (which were still developing in the 1950s and 60s).


    April 14, 2014 at 12:08 pm

  11. maximumheadway,

    Yes and no. The population of Tokyo was 10 million in 1964, and it now around 13.3 million (and is expected to decline, not increase, by 2100). The density is around 6000. Likely because many buildings in Tokyo 23 wards are stores, offices etc. therefore empty at night, then there are mostly low residential buildings, including lots of single family houses.
    There ARE tall residential high rises similar to those in Vancouver but they are a minority…they are favored by international companies to house their expatriate workers.
    Apartment buildings are under 20 stories for the most part (likely because these buildings do not have interior hallways but outside ones for safety reasons. Apartments have balconies on one side and these outside hallways on the opposite side).

    The population of the Tokyo metropolitan area has increased a lot. It is now around 37 million…
    Most of the housing is in single family houses tightly packed against one another, though in the oldest areas there are small gardens..and in each neighbourhood there are temples and shrines surrounded by gardens.
    This all means sprawl…Have a look at a map of the Tokyo transportation system…it is mind boggling..

    Note that the station names are in our alphabet not just on this map but in stations too..

    By the way the Kansai (Osaka area) has around 20 million people…it is my favorite area and it too has great transportation (so do London, Paris, Berlin…and even Toronto and Montreal, as they all built their systems when building railway sand metros was affordable). Osaka itself has 8 subway lines, an automates light transit, a monorail with 2 lines, an old tramway system with cute small trams, and of course lots of buses. There are also 6 different railway companies in the Osaka region..

    Accurate density figures are hard to find as in some countries the land area includes lakes, waterways etc. while in others it doesn’t.

    Take Paris. The city of Paris itself has nearly the same size as the city of Vancouver. Roughly 10 km in diameter. .
    But there are 2.2 million in Paris, versus 0.6 million in Vancouver. Paris density is around 21 370 people per square km. and housing is mostly in apartment buildings.
    Single family houses are a rarity and there are few high residential buildings. Most of the residential buildings are old and under 10 storeys (with an average of 6 floors and high ceilings around 3.5 to 4 meters).
    Recently build apartment buildings are 15 stories at most, with low ceilings of 2.5 meters.
    Paris is totally surrounded by a freeway..built on land once occupied by the last fortified wall (built in the 1870s!).

    The density in the Paris Metropolitan area goes down to 6700 in the “small crown” right around Paris, 455 in the “big crown” outside the small one, and ultimately 712 people per km2 for the whole of the metropolitan area.
    These are only numbers…one doesn’t feel any more oppressed in downtown Paris than in downtown Vancouver..except perhaps in the most touristy areas of Paris where it seems that 7 people out of 10 are tourists…

    I was born in Bordeaux-France and while that city cannot increase much in population as it is surrounded on all sides by other cities, these suburbs have sprawled a lot since my late teen years. Most of the woods and fields on the hilltops of the right bank are long gone.. replaced by residential areas where one MUST use a car just to go buy a bottle of wine…Most of the housing in Bordeaux itself–the area mostly within the 19th century boulevards–is made of 2-3 story buildings with a small garden in the back.

    Red frog

    April 15, 2014 at 12:46 pm

  12. Technically you are right Stephen, of course.

    But suburban East Vancouver is so far away from the inner city it may as well be on the moon.

    It is very hard to imagine this …

    …not being possible because enormous public expenditures obliterated the downtown waterfront instead with this…

    To those who feel the Trans Canada Highway and the new Port Mann Bridge are monsters, this is what was proposed in the 1960s to cut a wide swath through downtown…

    I believe this overall freeway plan would have bankrupted Vancouver…

    It was the dream of primarily one bureaucrat, the former director of planning who was fired very soon after mayor Art Phillips and his mixed-slate coalition with the handle TEAM were elected and killed the freeways in the nick of time. The only regrettable thing about that was they failed to follow through to the next logical step and build up transit.

    Both highways and transit were in the jurisdiction of the province at the time, and the NDP under Dave Barrett just ejected the highway-lovin’ Socreds from the seat of the BC government. The Phillips-Barrett duo could have built (or at least planned) a decent Lower Mainland rapid transit system in the early 70s, but all we seemed to get was the highly successful SeaBus.

    Building freeways is an exceedingly expensive activity. The 8-lane south leg would have divided Vancouver more than ever along Ontario Street and obliterated about 2,000 homes and 300 businesses between False Creek and the North Arm. You don’t hear much about that one when history focuses mostly on the freeway war that took place in Strathcona, which was only the first segment with many to come.

    Freeways lost. I suppose one can quibble about that, but when we only got 3.7 km at the eastern boundary instead of 20+ km in the rest of town, a part of which would have occupied the downtown waterfront that has since realized far higher human and land values and will give generations a much higher quality urbanism, there is a clear winner.


    April 15, 2014 at 1:03 pm

  13. Red frog – cheers for the very detailed response! That is indeed interesting that Tokyo sprawls so much, but at least it has impressively extensive rail systems to serve it. I haven’t been to Japan but I have visited Paris, London and Berlin, and used those systems. All were excellent. I got the sense in all of those cities that the downtown and inner areas had more even density (5-20 stories or so) compared to the massive skyscrapers we have in Vancouver, surrounded by low density housing outside much of downtown. It means that average density is much higher in cities like Tokyo (and Paris, London, Berlin), but more importantly, where there is sprawl, it is at least served by transit – not unlike the streetcar suburbs in pre-war LA. Much of our sprawl, is car-oriented, unfortunately.

    I found the Bordeaux region beautiful when I visited – shame that much of it is being lost to development. We are making much the same mistakes with the ALR here.


    April 15, 2014 at 2:10 pm

  14. Maximumheadway
    When I mention sprawl around Bordeaux I only mean– literally– the area right around the town of Bordeaux, better known locally as the CUB (Bordeaux urban community, made of 28 towns).

    The much wider area that is called by guidebooks etc. the Bordeaux region has not changed as drastically as the CUB (the later went from one single bridge to 5, with a 6th one coming soon–not counting the old rail bridge and the new one).
    The 5th bridge (it goes up for big cruise ships)

    It takes 12 minutes to go up or down

    The first bridge, opened in 1822

    Parts of the Airbus 380 have the squeeze under the bridge at low tide:

    Much of the wider Bordeaux region is made of vineyards, and quite a few of them are expensive cultural properties (in all the meanings of properties). There is also a forested area that is quite expansive, along the Ocean, and continue into the Landes is the biggest man-made forest in Western Europe.

    Not so long ago, before the price of some wines went through the roofs, the income from wood by-products was about the same as the income from all the vineyards.

    The metropolitan Bordeaux area has a population of around 1.1 million or 1/2 the population of Metro Vancouver.
    Yet there are 15 regional train lines from Bordeaux through the whole Aquitaine region (much bigger that the Bordeaux region). The later has also 64 bus lines from Bordeaux to about 370 small towns..A single ticket cost 2.50 Euros, even for a trip of 100 km.

    Red frog

    April 16, 2014 at 10:06 pm

  15. The updated Google Maps can display city boundaries. Search “Vancouver” or click on Vancouver in the map and you’ll see it outlined in red.


    May 10, 2014 at 7:52 am

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