Opinion: Why a three-lane Broadway in Vancouver could work for everyone

Apr 4 2023, 7:27 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Lee Haber, a founder of Downtown For the People, a group advocating for a downtown Vancouver designed around people. He is a Transportation Engineer and Planner.

Ahead of the completion of the Broadway Subway, City of Vancouver staff are recommending that Broadway be reduced from six vehicle lanes to four vehicle lanes — as the curbside bus lanes that serve the 99 B-Line will no longer be needed — and that the space be reallocated for widened sidewalks and patios.

Though this would be an improvement over the status quo, it goes against the recommendation by the previous Vancouver City Council that bike lanes be included on Broadway. It would also be a missed opportunity to make this city more liveable.

However, there is a way to make Broadway a “Great Street,” as City staff have termed it, that works for everyone, if we think beyond the notion that vehicle lanes must come in pairs. There is a way that we can truly make Broadway a great street for people, with widened sidewalks, patios and yes, bike lanes.

Do we even need bike lanes on Broadway?

Before we talk about possible solutions, let’s examine whether bike lanes are even desirable on Broadway. I know that many people reading this are skeptical of putting lanes on Broadway, questioning their need when there are parallel bike lanes on 10th and 7th Avenues, only mere blocks away.

It is easy to view cycling as similar to public transit. You have routes, and people use them to get to where they want to go, and you only need public transit service every few blocks.

The problem with this view is cycling is more like walking than public transit. Just as most people aren’t willing to wander far from a sidewalk, most people will not cycle far from a safe cycling facility. Would you feel safe walking to a store blocks away without a sidewalk?

vancouver broadway bike lane options

Three options for the road design of Broadway. (City of Vancouver)

Bike lanes on Broadway would serve a different need than those on 10th and 7th avenues. It would allow people to use the most energy-efficient form of transportation humanity has ever invented to patronize those businesses, whereas 10th and 7th avenues serve more of a crosstown commuter purpose. Cyclists wouldn’t be the only ones who would benefit; people who use scooters and electric mobility devices would benefit as well. Maps also mask the significant difference in elevation between the parallel streets.

If we are hell-bent on maintaining four vehicle lanes, then there is insufficient space to accommodate both bike lanes and patios. However, there is no set-in-stone rule that Broadway needs to have four lanes. City staff did study a two-lane option that would accommodate both bike lanes and patios; however, they recommended against this, citing Vancouver General Hospital access, vehicle loading/unloading difficulties, and congestion.

However, City staff never considered making Broadway a street with three vehicle lanes. This solution would involve having a centre lane for vehicles turning left and one through lane in each direction. This would provide enough room for everything we desire for this street: patios, widened sidewalks, and bike lanes.

Will a three-lane Broadway increase congestion?

Traffic and congestion are things that many people get wrong, including engineers. I don’t blame the people who get it wrong because it is counterintuitive. It’s easy to view traffic like water through a pipe or blood through a vessel. If you block up or restrict the pipe, you increase the pressure.

You would think cars and roads work the same way, but the opposite is true: reducing vehicular space reduces pressure/demand. Why is this? It’s because traffic is caused by people using vehicles, and people are not inanimate drops of water or blood cells. People are capable of making and altering their decisions based on the circumstances and if people see a road is less convenient, they will choose a different option.

Is there evidence to support this counterintuitive view? Yes, in fact many. There are examples of freeway teardowns in Seoul, Korea and New York City, where the traffic on those freeways simply “evaporated” after they were demolished.

Traffic is incredibly elastic; it quickly adapts to changing circumstances. I believe this is because there are many ways people can adapt their behaviour, from choosing different routes, different modes, different times or different ways of grouping them together. (In Stockholm, about half of the reduction in traffic caused by their congestion charge happened because drivers consolidated trips).

If road capacity decreases by 50%, that doesn’t mean congestion will increase 2x. That is not how traffic works; it is more likely that traffic demand will decrease by 50%, if not more.

If you are still not convinced, consider that a good portion of congestion is caused by turning movements. The dedicated left turn lanes provided in a three-lane solution will allow traffic to move freely on the through lanes. This means that a three-lane street actually has only slightly less capacity than a four-lane street despite having one fewer lane.

iowa dot three lane road concept

Road concept with three vehicle lanes. (Iowa Department of Transportation)

Will a three-lane Broadway hurt business and hinder emergency vehicles?

Evidence from our Canadian neighbours indicates that the opposite would likely happen as both experienced significant increases in business with the arrival of bike lanes.

In addition, if you are worried that a 50% reduction in traffic lanes will mean 50% less business, consider that the Broadway Subway will have the capacity to carry over 40,000 people per hour or the equivalent of a 40-lane arterial roadway. Adding bike lanes with patios will not only make walking and cycling safer and more enjoyable, but with the arrival of the Broadway Subway, transportation capacity will increase by 250% over the status quo.

With Vancouver General Hospital only blocks away, efficient and quick access to emergency vehicles is a legitimate concern. However, the evidence shows that a three-lane Broadway will improve the ability of emergency vehicles to traverse the street.

Quoting the Iowa Department of Transportation: “Contrary to beliefs, a four- to three-lane conversion does not increase emergency response times. In fact, response times usually improve because emergency vehicles can utilize the center turn lane when responding to an incident. This avoids bottlenecks that can occur on four-lane roads when drivers in the middle lanes try to move over for the emergency vehicle but can’t.”

A three-lane Broadway is a solution that has the potential to serve everyone. It would provide room for patios, widened sidewalks and cycling, making it a truly complete street. Given that a three-lane street could improve emergency vehicle response, ignoring this solution could be considered negligent and irresponsible.

I acknowledge that even though putting bike lanes on major streets has been done successfully in many cities around the world, this is somewhat new for our city. Going with what is comfortable and habitual is not the path to greatness, it is the path to continued mediocrity.


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