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July 20, 2005

A Bridge Just Far Enough

If you want an example of what sets greater Vancouver apart from the cities south of the US-Canadian border, look no farther than this Vancouver Sun headline: Council votes to turn two of six lanes on Burrard Bridge into dedicated bike lanes.

Just for context -- the Burrard Bridge is one of just a few main access points to downtown Vancouver, and carries a significant amount of car traffic into downtown from some of the western neighborhoods. Vancouver tried a similar experiment in the mid-1990s, but it ended after just a week or so because of a public outcry over congestion. The same thing may well happen again.

So politically, this is a risky move. Which makes it all the more impressive: Vancouver city leaders are actually willing to take concrete and potentially unpopular steps to reduce the city's global warming emissions and promote biking and walking -- steps that seem completely outside the realm of political possibility in, say, Seattle or Portland. Even Seattle mayor Greg Nickels, who has won national recognition for organizing hundreds of the nation's mayors to speak up on global warming, has dedicated considerable political capital to rebuilding the Alaskan Way Viaduct--a massively expensive project that will, in all likelihood, increase the amount of greenhouse gases Seattle residents spew into the atmosphere. Sadly, the city's actions fall short of the rhetoric.

Compare that with this statement of on Vancouver city councillor Fred Bass:

"I became a city councillor because of global warming," Bass said after the vote. "And it seems to me that what we have here is a very feasible way of testing out whether we can mobilize people to walk and cycle and for people to leave their cars behind."

Definitely an experiment worth keeping an eye on.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink


Whenever the subject of alternative transportation comes up in discussions with my dad he always talks about the FACT (his emphasis) that “environmentalists want to take away our cars make us ride transit or walk.” This action by the Vancouver City Council will harden the opinions of people like my dad. (Although he might add bicycling to the list of environmentalist approved transportation methods)

The proposal is questionable considering it involves closing a general-purpose lane, usable by 91% of peak hour users, in favor of only 5% of the current users (9% if you count pedestrians). No matter how you measure this, it’s a take away. Taking away from Transit, Car pool, and single drivers and giving to cyclists. At a minimum a proposal involving a combination of HOV and widened sidewalks would seem more effective.

Planners should strive to give people more options – not less.

From Vancouver Sun Article:

Each hour during peak times, 8,000 to 9,000 people cross the Burrard Bridge:

Lone drivers 49%
Car poolers 21%
Transit riders 21%
Cyclists 5%
Walkers 4%

Posted by: Matt Leber | Jul 22, 2005 6:15:34 PM

I really do wish our lawmakers here south of the border would take some risks to try to improve things. But, anything that might move the common citizen out of his or her comfort zone is seen as politically risky. I mean, heaven forbid we should encourage people using transit or bicycling . . . . or even using alternative vehicles (like electric). :-)

Posted by: Kate | Jul 23, 2005 12:19:22 PM

Driving cars/trucks have been heavially subsidized for the better part of a century and we have seemingly endless resource wars and pollution for our trouble. It's about time a sensible government takes a chance like this even if it makes some people a little uncomfortable. I know where I'm going should my government start bumlbing towards a draft...

Posted by: Ron | Jul 23, 2005 6:59:01 PM

Matt, your Dad is correct when he says "environmentalists want to take away our cars and make us ride transit or walk." Or, at least, enviros want to make it less attractive to drive and more attractive to use alternative methods. When society has to bear the full costs--social, ecological and economic--of our private driving habits, we have a responsibility to influence those habits, especially as the costs become astronomical. They have become astronomical. Whenever possible, Dad should leave his car at home; it's his duty (and mine) to future generations of people and wildlife.

Posted by: Sam | Jul 25, 2005 10:06:09 AM

I agree with Sam and Matt, and what I wouldn't give to have ridership percentages similar to the Burrard Br on the 410 over the White River (our TPD & peak times are likely similar)! Crikey - if I made that happen in WA I could write my own ticket.

We have a long way to go down here, and framing this issue to make solutions palatable is very important, to obviate arguments like Dad's.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Jul 25, 2005 1:08:22 PM

I think Matt has some good points. The Council could have laid a real egg here -- and I just don't have the information to understand what the decision will do to actual commutes & quality of life, either in downtown itself, or in the neighborhoods from which people commute into downtown.

More than anything, I find it fascinating that Vancouver (or, at least, its city council) is willing to try a small-scale, non-traditional experiment with traffic management. That sort of spirit of experimentation is genuinely rare in US cities, even in the most "progressive" ones.

And recall that this is just an experiment, and an easily reversible one at that. If it's a bust, then the city hasn't spent a red cent on infrastructure -- not even to widen the sidewalks.

Another thing to note: this isn't necessarily an anti-car move. It could well slow down car traffic *into* the downtown peninsula. But that could make driving in downtown Vancouver itself more pleasant and less congested. Or, it could even turn out that it has no effect on congestion in the downtown peninsula -- any decline in cars coming into the downtown could be offset by an increase in people driving from place to place within downtown. (A perverse and perhaps unlikely result, though behavioral economics is full of such perverse effects.)

Ulitmately, this decision may have less to do with curbing car traffic than with promoting equity among neighborhoods -- and advancing the interests of the fastest-growing parts of the city. Twenty years ago, not so many people lived downtown, so there weren't as many people to be annoyed by all the car commuters coming into downtown and clogging the streets. Today, though, the downtown population is much larger, and they may have a legitimate beef about policies and infrastructure more suited to a time when downtown was mostly a place to commute to and from.

So, from the point of view of someone motivated by animus towards environmentalism, this probably seems like just a cheap jab at cars. But from the perspective of the 80,000 -odd residents of Vancouver's central area, this could be a long-overdue way of leveling the playing field -- a way of keeping streets and neighborhoods livable, rather than maintaining them as a thoroughfare for folks from other parts of the region.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Jul 25, 2005 11:30:47 PM

From the point of view of someone who lives in Vancouver, it's difficult to see how a large increase in gridlock downtown is going to benefit the residents. Anyone who knows the streets leading to and connecting with the Burrard Street Bridge knows that the closure of two lanes will bring traffic on a number of streets to a halt for a good part of the day and slow traffic down generally throughout the City. I predict that this "experiment" will go much the same as the attempt to close one lane ten years ago.

Posted by: Ian | Aug 8, 2005 11:17:06 AM

"No matter how you measure this, it’s a take away. Taking away from Transit, Car pool, and single drivers and giving to cyclists."

Thank god.

Posted by: mark | Sep 26, 2005 10:51:03 AM

I just can see the environmentalists literally forcing us to ban vehicles that allow "toxins" into the air. Hasn't anyone ever heard that most of a cow's bodily functions release the exact same materials? Perhaps we should attack them next.

Posted by: Ashton | Nov 21, 2005 5:29:36 PM

I can just see the auto and tire companies literally forcing us to use their products because they ripped up public transit. Hasn't anyone ever heard that many people were quite happy using transit? Maybe we should attack them next.

Think I'm kidding about the first part?

Posted by: Dano | Nov 21, 2005 5:50:48 PM