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Is Port Metro Vancouver a sprawl machine?

May 4, 2012

Here’s Port Metro Vancouver CEO Robin Silvester in an op-ed in the Sun, flying a balloon for highway expansion that would, once again, rev up the sprawl machine – in the name of, once again, international trade and alleviating traffic congestion.

We are also looking at transportation and logistics efficiencies that will  help reduce traffic congestion and emissions.

These include infrastructure improvements to mitigate bottlenecks and improve  the quality of life for residents where port activities and community  interact.

One such bottleneck is the George Massey Tunnel. When the tunnel was built in  1959, it opened up residential and business development south of the Fraser.  Now, 50 years later, it is frequently jammed with local commuter traffic,  Vancouver-Seattle traffic, land-border and port truck traffic, plus waves of  vehicles heading to and from BC Ferries.

The tunnel is also a marine bottleneck. It was not designed for the size of  ships used in modern day trade, which must access the Fraser River in Richmond  and Surrey. As a result, the tunnel is becoming a significant obstacle to  international trade on the Fraser.

Make no mistake: Vancouver, with one of the only natural, deep-water harbours on the west side of the Pacific, is fundamentally about being a port – a place where the wealth of half a continent is funnelled, a place of exchange with Asia and the world.  It is our destiny.

So, given our strategic importance, decisions about port infrastructure are of national, indeed international, concern. And that’s fundamentally why decisions about port growth are not controlled by the region, and why the people who live here do not have a veto.  Decisions are often made in rooms far away from here, by those able to mobilize huge resources, with a set of priorities based on the premise of continual growth.

And one priority is particularly relevant:

Eliminating bottlenecks and improving roads and road safety for trade and  community traffic alike is a port priority.

And that is the why the Port is one of the key enablers of sprawl, shaping a car- and truck-dependent region that trumps all other attempts to limit Motordom: the high-energy, low-density, car-dependent way of life that has characterized urban growth for most of the last century.

Nothing so well illustrates this worldview than the billions spent on Gateway, in all its manifestations: new bridges – the Port Mann; new roads – the South Fraser Perimeter; widened highways – No. 1 and the arterials leading to the border – all justified for improving goods movement, all facilitating urban sprawl.

But how land use is shaped beyond port operations is not a Port concern; that is the responsibility of municipalities and the region.  The Port, and the provincial and federal transportation ministries, are not charged with taking into account the externalities of their infrastructure.

They are, however, quick to criticize the region if it does not accommodate their needs, particularly the provision of industrial lands for truck-based operations.  There are disturbing signs that the constraints of the Agricultural Land Reserve might be overridden as developers option land with the intent to serve the Port’s needs.  And why not, now that enhanced access – notably the South Fraser Perimeter Road – has been thurst into the rich delta farmlands?

The Port does argue that lessening congestion will reduce greenhouse gases and commuter times, thereby benefitting the environment and the economy.  Or, as Silvester phrases it: ” transportation and logistics efficiencies that will help reduce traffic congestion and emissions.”

Yes, that’s one thing we’ve learned: new road-based infrastructure always helps reduce traffic congestion – surely the reason why, after a century of massive road construction, traffic congestion is so rare.

It’s an effective strategy, though.  Commuters, frustrated with the line-ups and delays, become the most effective lobby for road expansion, hoping against hope that they can save a few more minutes and frustration by backing the politicians who will sign off on the expenditure of  billions.  The expanded roads lead to more development, of course, and more traffic, eliminating the gains made by the expansion of the road in the first place.  The regional highways justified for goods movement become the main streets of suburbia, surrounded at every interchange by car-dependent retail malls and office parks.

What with the Tsawwassen Nation’s proposed mega mall, and the options being placed on adjacent agricultural lands so they can be paved over for warehouses and intermodal operations for new terminals and docks, those frustrated commuters from Delta may well be the advocates for the infrastructure that will bring to an end their pastoral way of life.  Once justified for port purposes, there’s little hope that regional or municipal constraints will be sustained.

The Port counts on that.

Again, Robin Silvester:

Planning processes are important, but what’s more important is the  collaborative action required to advance them. Not action decades from now, but action now.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2012 1:34 pm

    Chuck Marohn’s “stroad” concept is useful here.

    I have no problem with true roads, designed like “rail”-roads even if they’re “truck”-roads. They should connect point A to point B, with no distractions, intersections etc. Put BRT lanes on those too, which need a similarly limited number of turnoffs. Separate them from human habitations with fences and grassy hillocks.

    Don’t overbuild these true roads (one trucking lane and one BRT lane in each direction should do it) and don’t let single-occupancy vehicles clog them up. Importantly, toll the roads for their maintenance.

    The important thing is that our towns and villages should be complete communities with streets, not suburbs scythed with roads and stroads. As soon as you’re off the A-to-B road, you’re in a network of streets. Streets that can be easily crossed (“jaywalked”) to chat with a waving friend, are pleasant to walk, cycle and take the bus along. Streets that connect workplaces to homes to stores in a five minute walk.

    Keep the two concepts of road and street separate; demand complete communities.

    We who would seek to enlighten frustrated commuters must convince them of the value of mixed-use communities. If Delta were laid out as well as Kitsilano or Gastown, the economics of transit would work a lot better. Delta might have a skytrain station, and people would be commuting both ways.

  2. Agustin permalink
    May 4, 2012 3:22 pm

    How about Skytrain to the ferry at Tsawwassen to remove commuters from the George Massey tunnel?

  3. mezzanine permalink
    May 4, 2012 5:24 pm

    What about a new tolled crossing to replace the Massey tunnel, with transit lanes?

    • May 4, 2012 6:21 pm

      If Port Mann is a precedent, the actual transit the lanes would be used for will not get funded as part of the project. And afterwards, the promised transit is put on hold. No money.

      • mezzanine permalink
        May 4, 2012 8:07 pm

        IMO, the key here would be the tolling. The existing, funded highway coaches from translink would benefit from freer flow, passengers would not pay the toll directly, goods movement would still flow and we have a check for future car traffic growth.

        That being said, I hope (an expect) that the translink funding crisis is political theatre. Actual ‘hardware’ is being built (HOV/transit ramps at grandview, government and langely). It’s just the service that needs funding.

  4. Richard permalink
    May 4, 2012 7:31 pm

    Expanded roads will likely not result in any economic benefit. The more driving, the more collisions and according to Transport Canada and the AAA, the economic cost of collisions is around 3 times that of congestion. As well, around 20% of congestion is caused by collisions. For business, this is also the worst type of congestion as it leads to long, unpredictable delays.

    Thus, both for the economy and to reduce congestion, the priority should be on measures that reduce collisions. Transit, especially that which is grade separated is a good way of doing this.

  5. Sean Nelson permalink
    May 4, 2012 11:05 pm

    Tolls will reduce congestion, with the added benefit of actually raising money instead of requiring us to spend it. But improved, high-frequency transit has to be provided to give commuters a viable option to driving. Fortunately, to move an equivalent number of people it’s a lot cheaper to build transit than roads.

  6. Rod Smelser permalink
    May 4, 2012 11:52 pm

    When Anthony Downs visited here a couple of years ago he told an audience that Metro Vancouver would have to expand it’s freeway and highway system to some degree. The assembled audience did not want to hear that. It was if Downs had farted in church.

    • May 5, 2012 8:51 am

      No doubt there will be an expansion of the transportation system – but was Downs assuming the same level of vehicle dependence? Probably. But there’s a difference between expansion of the transportation system and expansion of the highway system – and what gets built as a consequence.

      Sent from my iPad

  7. Rod Smelser permalink
    May 7, 2012 5:25 pm

    Downs specifically said that some expansions of the road and highway system would be needed. He said that Vancouver planners were kidding themselves when they say they can resolve to do zero in that regard.

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