Traffic jams for hours on end. Freeways cutting an ugly concrete gouge through the city centre. An epidemic of road rage. Pedestrians treated like second-class citizens.
Not our problem, thanks. When it comes to effective, sustainable transportation, most Vancouverites don’t know how good they’ve got it. City planners and a good number of politicians may pay themselves that most rare and immodest compliment about their city’s transportation system: it works.
Vancouver City Hall started detailed planning for our current success in the mid-1990s with sustainability in mind. Bike paths, greenways, parking bylaw amendments, curb enhancements, transit improvements, promoting dense development and a host of unspectacular yet effective ideas from the 1997 Transportation Plan were some of its elements.
Virtually all of the 70 specific initiatives discussed in the 1997 plan and in relatively contemporaneous transportation plans have been implemented, including linking the city with convenient and scenic pedestrian and bike routes, developing traffic-calming measures such as neighbourhood roundabouts and synchronization of traffic lights, and reducing the number of parking spots required for new developments. In fact, most of the Transportation Plan targets for 2021 have already been met or exceeded.
For example, while Vancouver’s population has grown steadily since the mid-1990s, along with tens of thousands of jobs, the number of vehicles entering and leaving our city actually decreased by 10 per cent from 1996 to 2006. And new trips to and within Vancouver are increasingly taken on transit, bike or on foot – in contrast to the rest of the region, where the number of trips by car is actually increasing.
Trips on foot are up 44 per cent over that same period, and cycling trips are up 180 per cent. Except for Montreal, Vancouver has more than twice as many people walking to work and shops as any other North American city. Each day, 50,000 cyclists take to our streets.
About half of commuters still take their cars to work, but compared to many other cities, that’s a positively triumphant statistic. Morning drivers in Edmonton and Calgary make up over 70 per cent of the trips.
Of course, there have been a few bumps on the way to building an enviable transportation system. For many other cities, a 20-per-cent increase in transit use over a decade would be a dream. But in Vancouver, transit bus usage is at around 98 per cent of capacity. SkyTrain is helping move 70,000 people a day.
As assistant city engineer Jerry Dobrovolny puts it, “You hear people talking about how we need to get more people taking transit, but that’s not the problem; the trick is to make sure we’ve got the capacity to take all the people who want to get out of their cars.”
When it comes to big-ticket transportation solutions like SkyTrain line extensions, City Hall is reduced to the role of lobbyist to TransLink and higher levels of government. For instance, a light-rail line for Central Broadway heading to UBC was in the 1997 Transportation Plan, but funding for it wasn’t actually announced by the province until February 2008. The line is the City’s number-one priority, but very preliminary planning for the long-overdue project is just starting.
But just in time for the Olympics, the new line seems to be a case of “What Vancouver wants, Vancouver gets.” The Liberals couldn’t ignore the province’s second-biggest employment centre outside of the downtown area for much longer. The new funding will also buy 500 new buses for Vancouver. And a new federal guarantee to TransLink of $49 million in fuel tax revenue each year means that the transportation authority can borrow to fund another half a billion dollars of transportation improvements a year.
No one really knows whether lobbying by Vancouver City bureaucrats and politicians was behind these funding windfalls, but there’s little doubt that Vancouver commuters could benefit big-time.
Vancouver’s enviable achievements in transportation are coming together just in time. Sustainability in transportation isn’t just a feel-good objective; rocketing fuel costs could cripple cities already dealing with spotty public transit and gridlock. There’s still work to be done and the City needs to keep moving.