My current Business in Vancouver article:
The bets are in. The stakes are high. With billions on the table for the Canada Line and the Gateway project, we have two very different visions for our region.
The first, transit-oriented; the second, auto-dependent.
The City of Vancouver played its hand back in the early ’70s when it rejected freeways and said no to auto dominance. Instead, it made density livable. Transportation choices followed. The result has been called “Vancouverism,” and it is the face we will present to the world during the Olympics – the Vancouver of False Creek North, Coal Harbour, the Olympic Village, greenways, streetcars and sustainability.
The Gateway project, on the other hand, will spread auto dependence up the valley. The new bridges – Pitt River, Golden Ears and Port Mann – and their connecting arterials will lock another generation into a vision of Motordom from the 1950s: everyone drives and there’s always free parking.
Call it ADUP: auto-dependent urban planning. The main problem with ADUP is that it drives out choice. It allows for only one mode of practical travel and limits urban design to a narrow range of options best typified by the strip mall.
To see a small but dramatic contrast between urbanism and auto-dependence, go to the new Aberdeen Station on the Canada Line. Descend from the platform and be irresistibly pulled forward along the landscaped greenway that curves towards Yaohan mall.
Here the pedestrian has priority, the overhead guideway provides protection and it feels safe and comfortable.
But when you get to Yaohan – no sidewalks!
You You have no choice but to walk down the roadway originally designed when it was expected that everyone would drive and park.
So what’s likely to happen? Will pedestrians return to their cars to drive to Yaohan or will a new sidewalk be built to the mall? I’m betting “sidewalk.”
That small change will be indicative of the transformation that will occur up and down No. 3 Road as Richmond eventually accommodates 120,000 people within walking distance of its five stations, a population equivalent to the build-out of Vancouver’s downtown peninsula. That’s the win from the $2 billion Canada Line bet: a city centre worthy of the name.
Meanwhile, out in Motordom, they’re building the strip malls and big boxes wherever an expanded interchange is anticipated or, in the case of Langley, already there. Even when plans for the 200th Street corridor call for “sustainable principles,” stand-alone commercial development will trump mixed-use when, as happened last month, developers make the case that auto-orientation is the only feasible alternative.
Advocates for Gateway argue that traffic congestion and transit options can be addressed simultaneously. Problem is, once we’ve built the bridges and widened the highways, who really needs the transit? Yes, the extra lane for additional buses may be provided, but more problematically, who will pay for the service? The message we’re getting from senior governments is that they will happily pay for big roads and bridges, but only for small pieces of rapid transit and nothing for operations.
We know from past experience how our billion-dollar gambles are likely to play out. Rapid-transit will deliver on its investment by attracting growth to its stations, visible in the development that has sprung up along the SkyTrain lines and is already starting along the Canada Line.
We also know from experience that building more roads and bridges will likely fail to solve the condition it was meant to address: traffic congestion. We have no model of success to point to in North America, no place where ADUP has produced the kind of urban environment that we want to be more like. The only place where vehicle traffic has dropped in our region is in the downtown peninsula, where transportation choices work.
In the next few months, the provincial government will have to decide whether to support TransLink’s call for increased revenue. It’ll have to take another gamble. But given the near impossibility of supporting a new or increased tax for TransLink in this time of the HST, what are the chances? Will the Evergreen be delayed yet again while Gateway goes full-speed ahead? Will transit be cut just as the demand for it grows? The message couldn’t be clearer.
We may end up spending billions more on what we know will fail and starve success on what we know will work.
That’s just a bad bet. •