Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘freeway

Repeat a lie often enough …

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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

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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Can Nothing Kill Highway Expansion?

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To its proponents and its supporters the idea of widening Highway #1 and the Port Mann has always been seen as hugely desirable. While they claim it would relieve traffic congestion, even they concede that it is, at best, a short term fix. But that is because, they think, the gold of property development along its route makes it worthwhile. But we are beginning to realise that this is in fact fairy gold. The conditions that once made low density suburbs worthwhile speculations are now gone – and probably for good.

The province released the news – on Friday afternoon, the best time to bury unfavourable stories – that its P3 with McQuarie bank and its partners has finally collapsed as unfinanceable. Falcon is of course not fazed by this and intends to proceed – using our money and not the banks – anyway. Of course the additional $3bn this will add to provincial indebtedness over th e next few years has not been in any budget or spending estimates.

I would argue that he does not have any authority to proceed. The project now bears little resemblance to its original proposal – or cost estimate. The world has also changed dramatically since then. Or rather many more people have now been forced to recognise the fundamental unreality of the assumptions they were then working on.

Oil is running out – and though cheap now, will not be for much longer. The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is not some vague commitment to the future but a desperate and immediate need. The idea that we can still truck fresh fruit and veg from California – which faces severe drought and has cut water allocations to farmers – is no longer feasible. Trade in containers from China is way down. Even – dreadful prospect – the price of local real estate is falling. None of the assumptions of the Gateway now hold true.

Yet Flacon still thinks we need his mega highway. And of course we never did – and need it even less now. We do need farmland, clean air and greenhouse gas reductions. We do need alternatives to driving. That means if we can borrow $3bn (and that seems doubtful too) we should not be spending it on roads but on transit. Many more buses – and bus lanes – as well as light rail. Low cost, easy to to construct, quick to deliver solutions that both meet the needs of the present better than freeways ever could but also allow for a denser, transit oriented region. That consumes less fuel, less land and provides a more certain future.

The BC Liberal party tried to pretend it was green with a feeble carbon tax and commitments to nonsense like the hydrogen highway. It is clear now that these ideas are barren. We must change course – and despite what they are claiming it is not at all too late to cancel the entire program and replace it with ideas that work.

The most bogus element of the current proposal is that the new Port Mann could carry light rail in the future. But it is fairly certain that is not intended to be built any time soon – and certainly not on opening day. There is no plan anywhere that shows what this light rail line would look like – where it would go on either side of the bridge. It has not been shown in any plan.

If the Province was serious about dealing with traffic congestion it wouldl have put traffic metering on the on ramps – signals that limit the amount of traffic allowed to join the crowded lanes just before the bridge. These are, oddly enough installed after the bridge already. A bus queue jumper lane could have been built on the hard shoulder northbound in Surrey years ago. One is under construction in Richmond now – so they know how to do it. They just don’t want to. They hope we won’t notice that what this project is all about as usual is property speculation. But Falcon seems not to have noticed that that bubble has burst too. Along with all his other delusions.

The saddest comment is that just before this inevitable announcement, carol James appeared to endorse the widening. A huge mistake. The NDP has now lost all credibility on transport and the environment. If these issues concern you the way they concern me we must turn our attention and our votes elsewhere.

If you really want a green alternative – you have to vote Green next time.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 28, 2009 at 8:18 am

Posted in politics

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The hub of car culture takes a turn to public transport

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The Toronto Star reprints something they credit to The Economist. Oddly enough I cannot find the original on the Economist web page.

It has some distinct echoes for us here. Once again Zev Yaroslavsky, the man who nearly stopped the subway with a ballot initiative, is talking about a neighborhood revolt against transit oriented development and “elegant density”. “Joel Kotkin, an urbanist at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., compares it to rewriting a DNA code.”

But there is not one mention of the transit system that created Los Angeles – the Pacific Electric – also known as “The Big Red Car”. In fact this has entered popular culture. Watch almost any black and white silent movie from Hollywood’s early days – most were shot outdoors and with no sets – and there will be a street scene with trolley or interurban car. (For the impatient the trolley footage starts a 6:52 – but it is worth watching the whole thing – trust me)

Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (spoiler follows) was about the plot to build freeways and destroy rapid transit

Judge Doom: A few weeks ago I had the good providence to stumble upon a plan of the city council. A construction plan of epic proportions. We’re calling it a freeway.
Eddie Valiant: Freeway? What the hell’s a freeway?
Judge Doom: Eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena. Smooth, safe, fast. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past.

Eddie Valiant: So that’s why you killed Acme and Maroon? For this freeway? I don’t get it.
Judge Doom: Of course not. You lack vision, but I see a place where people get on and off the freeway. On and off, off and on all day, all night. Soon, where Toon Town once stood will be a string of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food. Tire salons, automobile dealerships and wonderful, wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see. My God, it’ll be beautiful.

and the classic line

Eddie Valiant: That lame-brain freeway idea could only be cooked up by a toon.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 13, 2008 at 7:11 am

Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary

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Photo of Jane Jacobs by Alex Waterhouse Hayward

I have just finished reading the book that Jane Jacobs did not want written. She told her publishers to have nothing to do with people who wanted to be her biographer. She wanted to be read, not read about.

It is a fascinating story, and one that people who did not grow up with Jane Jacobs should probably know about. Alice Sparberg Alexiou is no hagiographer, and is sharply critical – especially of the things that Jane Jacobs did not write about. Which is possibly a little unfair, since no-one can be expected to write about everything. Jane Jacobs’ view of cities, and subsequently economies, was mould breaking – and were books that could not have been written by someone hidebound into academic ways of thinking or trapped within a discipline, like economics or town planning. She even found that she had “re-invented the wheel” when she used the device of dialogues in her later works: just like Plato did.

But what drove me back to the computer, which I had shut down some time ago, and made me write this, was reading the following near the very end of the book

“During the 1980s recession, Osbourne says, officials were beginning to realize that big projects like convention centres and stadiums did nothing to revive local economies.”

That is David Osbourne, author of Laboratories of Democracy and an expert on development economics who worked as a senior adviser to Al Gore.

I live in a City which is busting a gut to build a sports facility – the Olympic Speed Skating Oval – which is as close as a stadium as makes no difference and right next door Vancouver has a new convention centre rising out of its waterfront. Neither city, as it happens is in need of revival. In fact we are in the phase of severe overheating of the local economy when shortage of labour is our biggest concern, and costs are escalating rapidly. Both of these huge and very expensive buildings could easily become white elephants – as the demand for conventions and speed skating is, at best, uncertain. In fact Richmond is already increasing its spend rate to make the Oval more useful to the local community, even before it is completed.

The other hugely misconceived plan is the Gateway. Which will also have very little positive effect on the local economy, because it is designed to facilitate yet more imports, when, as the seminal economic works of Jane Jacobs show, cities grow when they replace imports with locally produced goods.

She was also not an adherent to any political philosophy and cannot be labelled either left or right wing – her ideas were too free thinking to be categorized in that way. But she was firmly against governments that do stupid things – like building freeways. She also said that before any freeway can be called dead it must be killed three times. Which means we are going to be at this for a while!

Written by Stephen Rees

January 5, 2008 at 10:57 pm