Opinion: Vancouver City Council's ideas to reduce car traffic are out of touch with reality

Jun 16 2022, 5:28 pm

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Philip Tsai, who is a financial coach and writer. He gets to his work in the Broadway Corridor by cycling and public transit and occasionally driving.

Imagine if you were conducting a survey on driving in Metro Vancouver and you asked people who chose the car as their primary method of transport, “Why did you choose to drive rather than taking transit or biking? List all the reasons that are applicable.”

What kind of responses do you think you would get?

For most respondents in this hypothetical survey, the most popular answers would be a combination of the following: “It takes too long,” “I don’t live near any good transit lines,” “I live too far away to bike,” or “it’s just inconvenient.”

This is why it’s entirely baffling that recently, Vancouver City Council voted 9-2 in favour of adding bike lanes to the Broadway street redesign plan, which is related to the existing construction of the Broadway Subway. City Councillor Christine Boyle with the OneCity party introduced the amendment, which could potentially see Broadway narrowed down to one lane of traffic traveling in either direction, based on her push that bike lanes should be accomplished by reducing road space beyond what is already planned by City staff. She said that “it really is about a decrease in private vehicles. The intention here is that there are fewer personal cars.”

broadway plan bike lanes

Broadway concept of two vehicle lanes, with bike lanes on the curbside space and added pedestrian sidewalk space retained. (City of Vancouver)

Okay, city councillor, colour me curious; how exactly would punishing existing drivers reduce the number of private vehicles?

The truth is, most people would love to walk, bike, or use transit in order to get to work if it was possible. No one wants to be a part of traffic and sit in their cars, paying for the exorbitant costs of vehicle ownership.

Unfortunately, for most drivers, commuting with their vehicles is a necessity not only for their work but to enjoy the great outdoor offerings of the Lower Mainland as well. Isn’t that why we’re here? Yet, vehicle owners are being punished for it, regardless. The fact of the matter is, the new Broadway Subway is not going to eliminate the need for a vital east-west arterial road, which Vancouver sorely depends on.

What will actually happen is that cars will simply move to another parallel road, just like what’s happening at this very moment.

As construction on the new Broadway line ramps up, parallel roads within a few blocks of Broadway such as 4th, 12th, and 16th Avenues are seeing the spillover of traffic. We should be fair to Boyle, however, since technically speaking, the addition of bike lanes to the Broadway street redesign (which could leave a single lane in each direction based on the constraints of her intent) would indeed reduce the number of personal vehicles on Broadway only. If the intent was to reduce the number of cars on Broadway only, while disregarding the impact on other parallel roads, then yes, this addition of bike lanes would make sense. If the City councillors and mayor who voted “yes” understood the impact of this design amendment, we should be asking why they are okay with the impact on other roads, as long as Broadway sees fewer personal vehicles. Hopefully, common sense prevails when city staff, with the vital input and approval of TransLink, return with street design options and clear tradeoffs.

broadway plan bike lanes

Broadway concept with four vehicle lanes, plus bike lanes on the curbside space and a status quo width for pedestrian sidewalks. (City of Vancouver)

It doesn’t need to be a win-lose, either-or scenario. It’s safe to say that many bike riders also own vehicles, and many vehicle owners are bike riders themselves. So why can’t we have good east-west routes for bikes and cars? Put protected bike lanes on other streets parallel to Broadway, so not only do bikers have a more pleasant, safer ride, drivers can have an easier time getting across town, and local businesses will see more potential customers.

Why is the solution to make Vancouver more bike-friendly so often about punishing driving, rather than being about incentivizing riding?

Not the first-time car commuters are punished

We might recall when City Council started considering a road toll on vehicles entering the city’s core areas, also known as a congestion tax or mobility pricing.

This was brought up as another method to achieve two goals: to reduce congestion based on similar fees in cities such as London and Singapore and to generate additional revenue due to decreased gasoline usage.

While yes, it is likely to force certain people to avoid driving, it punishes commuters who have no other choice other than to drive, such as those who live in the suburbs. There will be improved SkyTrain and other improved public transit services later this decade, but it is far from being the solution for everyone.

It’s lucky for us that the BC NDP seems to be averse to mobility pricing, as it eliminated the toll on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges.

The comparisons to world-class cities also forget a couple of key factors: these world-class cities actually have world-class transit systems, which make public transit much more feasible and reasonable for all commuters, along with proper housing density, which in itself is a behemoth of an issue that has always been inadequately addressed by City Council.

The matter of road tolls is expected to return in 2023, after the election, for the next city council to decide.

The need for more homes in the core of Metro Vancouver

It seems that City Council has always been reluctant to address one of the elephants in the room, which is the difficulty in adding new homes to Vancouver.

Yes, having more and better transit within central Vancouver is fantastic, but we also want to make sure there are going to be enough people to maximize its use. There is no sense building infrastructure locally if there aren’t enough people living around the area to use it.

It’s important to acknowledge that the Broadway Plan as a whole will add an estimated 50,000 residents and 40,000 jobs to the area over the next few decades. While this is again, a great catalyst for the growth of Vancouver, it still doesn’t address the necessity of driving for many. In fact, it’s likely that the need for driving will go up, as surely these new future Broadway residents will want to travel elsewhere also.

This raises the question: what else has the City Council done a lot to encourage more housing density in Vancouver? Ask any Vancouverite and you may get a hearty chuckle.

Ask anyone who has recently tried to do a simple home renovation, and you get a frustrated rant because even simple renovation permits are taking a long time.

It is, in fact, such an issue that even the City of Vancouver has a dedicated page updating us on the problem. You’ll see on the page that by their own admittance, “Staff are processing more than 35% more applications across all permitting streams compared to May 2021, despite the number of new permits and licence applications doubling over the same period.” This statement seems oddly self-reaffirming, when it’s essentially saying that “Applications have gone up 100%, and our processing speed has gone up 35%.”

Climate change shouldn’t be the only justification for policy-making

Environmental issues have been a continually rising concern, as they should be. However, the downside is that we start to see decisions reinforced by “it’s good for climate change action,” so frequently that it’s become somewhat taboo to question anything as soon as “climate change” has been brought up.

Despite the importance of the environment, we have to be careful that our decisions are actually made in a way that benefits the environment — and that they are actually meaningful when you zoom out and look at Vancouver’s place in the world.

Boyle has been a long-time proponent of “climate emergency,” but in her fervor to have Vancouver participate in global climate action, we still need to look to data-driven decisions when it comes to policy and apply it appropriately, and weigh it with other local factors and tradeoffs within the City’s direct control and responsibilities.

Building new transit will be environmentally beneficial, but will shuffling commuting vehicles to parallel streets, away from Broadway? Many don’t believe so. Without a true reduction in driving demand, it will remain very difficult to reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

At the end of the day, we all want to see real progress on the reduction of vehicles and congestion, and to see the realization of a more bike and foot-friendly Vancouver.

The solution should not lie in punishing those who face long commutes from the suburbs by making their commutes more costly and more time-consuming; such suggestions are indicative of a narrow and short-sighted focus.

Instead, we need a multi-pronged approach that involves many factors including but not limited to, more housing density, more efficient use of tax dollars, and more timely responses from the City, along with decision-making coming from the regional level in order to deal with this regional challenge.

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