First of all, let’s get this straight: this is not an advocacy for car culture. Among urban planning circles, it is widely accepted that you cannot build your way out of congestion and that public transit is key for building an efficient transportation network.
It is one thing to be against the expansion of an urban highway system, as the provincial government recently did with Highway 1 and the new Port Mann Bridge – and this will be followed up with a new gargantuan 10-lane bridge to replace the George Massey Tunnel, possibly by the end of the decade. Cue the effects of induced demand.
However, it is quite something else to demolish essential road infrastructure and when it is still in relatively fair condition and has decades left in remaining lifespan. Why is there now a sudden rush to demolish the viaducts?
Roads are not just for cars – they are also for buses, cyclists and pedestrians. They move people, not cars.
This is why the viaducts were given a renewed purpose when the municipal government installed a bike lane on the Dunsmuir Viaduct in spring 2010, providing cyclists with a safe and smooth incline route directly into the downtown Vancouver peninsula from the eastern suburbs.
In addition, the viaducts divert traffic from the local neighbourhood below, making it safer for cyclists and pedestrians.
Proponents for the demolition of the Vancouver viaducts – the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts – often point to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games as a test run for the eventual teardown of the structures.
During the Games, the viaducts and a section of both Pacificand Expo boulevards were closed to traffic for the security buffer zone around B.C. Place and Rogers Arena. Traffic that normally flowed through the viaducts was diverted elsewhere, with relative ease.
But the example used is often flawed considering travel and commute patterns changed during the Games, and there was an understanding with the public that the changes would be temporary. Residents across the region were working from home or taking holidays and university students went on an extended two-week break. Overall, traffic into downtown Vancouver on all routes was down by 35 per cent during the Games, according to the City’s data.
Taxpayers funded the construction of the viaducts more than 40 years ago and they will also be funding, directly and indirectly, the estimated $200 million replacement and beautification plan. Unless the viaducts are literally about to tip over and the cost to extend the lifespan and structural integrity is financially unfeasible, there is little reason to demolish perfectly sound infrastructure.
So why is the City of Vancouver pursuing a plan to demolish the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts despite all the reasons that point against such a plan?
1. A new barrier: a ground-level eight-lane road replacement
Following the proposed demolition of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, the entire major road network in the Northeast False Creek area will be replaced by a single ground-level eight-lane road, with curb lanes. This consists of reconfiguring and merging Pacific and Expo boulevards just east of Rogers Arena into one new widened Pacific Boulevard that leads towards a new arterial street to the east and Quebec Street with a turn.
The City of Vancouver has deemed the viaducts as a physical barrier for the area, but an eight-lane highway-width road on ground-level acts to do the very same – perhaps with even more pronounced separation effects given the volume of vehicle traffic that can be expected and that it is on the surface.
A new eight-lane Pacific Boulevard will replace the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts and Expo Boulevard.
Post-viaducts road network in Northeast False Creek.
The eastern end of the downtown peninsula currently has one of downtown’s best traffic flows, largely because of the existence of the viaducts.
It should also be noted that the removal of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts will not create a vast space free of any physical or visual obstructions.
A 200-metre span of the SkyTrain elevated guideway dips down to ground level in order to pass under the viaducts. But there are no plans to rebuild the SkyTrain tracks in this area as an elevated structure, nor would it be financially and operationally feasible to rebuild this stretch merely for beautification purposes.
The low-lying stretch of the SkyTrain guideway would be framed by the new eight-lane road to the north and the promise of parkland to the south.
SkyTrain guideway reaches ground level under the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.
2. A plan that is detrimental to the city’s cycling and pedestrian goals
If the demolition plan proceeds, the 43,000 vehicles that use the viaducts everyday would be forced to use alternative surface routes.
While much of the traffic will likely be rerouted onto the new Pacific Boulevard alignment, projections indicate paralleling arterial routes will take on much of the post-viaduct traffic volume burden. According to the municipal government, traffic on East Hastings Street will rise by 30 per cent and East Cordova Street by 37 per cent.
Bear in mind that the City recently designated six blocks of Hastings Street through the Downtown Eastside – from Abbott to Jackson streets – as a 30 km/h speed limit area.
Other routes into the city core such as the Cambie Street Bridge (via 2nd Avenue and Broadway), East Pender Street and even Gastown’s pedestrian-oriented Water Street are also anticipated to see some modest increases.
In addition, a new intersection at Main Street – at the eastern end of the new Pacific Boulevard – to replace the existing viaduct overpass, will see a traffic volume growth of 220 per cent over the volumes of what the Main Street viaduct overpass currently records.
On a whole, anyone who uses the new eight-lane road to travel from downtown to the eastern suburbs would have to go through five intersections controlled by traffic lights, including three new intersections along the new route. This is the same route that ambulances would have to take between the downtown core and the new St. Paul’s Hospital at the False Creek Flats.
Rendering of the new St. Paul’s Hospital at the False Creek Flats.
The new St. Paul’s Hospital at the False Creek Flats will be built at the eastern end of the viaducts.
The City insists travel times on the new eight-lane road will only increase by a maximum of three minutes compared to the viaducts, which does not have crosswalks and traffic lights.
It goes without saying that forcing all of this traffic into local streets goes completely against the City’s advocated cycling, pedestrian and road safety goals.
The Dunsmuir and Georgia viaducts provide a much-needed layered approach to road transportation and allow the entire neighbourhood below to become far more pedestrian and cycling friendly than the post-viaducts alternative being proposed by the City. It frees up road space on local streets for cyclists and pedestrians.
The viaducts were originally envisioned as a component of a regional highway system and as an overpass for the industrial lands and rail yards that once occupied the area, but the elevated roads have since become a critical bypass route for the downtown peninsula.
Not to be confused for a freeway, the 1.3-kilometre-long viaducts permit traffic to bypass a built-up area of the city and is one of downtown Vancouver’s three main freight truck routes (the other two routes are Expo and Pacific boulevards). It is also one of the few routes into downtown that trucks can freely use during daytime hours.
Short bypass routes are common in Asian and European cities and something that is often ignored by local urban planners is that these cities also have highly efficient road systems to complement their stellar public transit network.
Even with the reduction of single occupancy vehicles, freight, delivery, commercial and construction vehicles will still need a reliable access point into the city core. These are the same vehicles that make streets non-pedestrian friendly. This is why it only makes sense to funnel such traffic on the viaducts.
The downtown Vancouver peninsula is nearly an island, and it is connected to the rest of the eastern portion of the larger Vancouver peninsula and urban region by only a sliver of land barely over a kilometre wide. Unlike other cities, Vancouver does not have the space nor capability to build a continuous road network that circles the downtown core. In effect, the viaducts have become a fourth bridge into downtown.
In contrast to downtown Vancouver’s connections to the south with three wide bridges over False Creek, the viaducts are the only high capacity roads that connect downtown Vancouver to the east. It climbs up the steep downtown escarpment.
Instead of the controversial demolition plans, the City should be looking at ways to funnel east and west traffic onto the viaducts in order to improve the usage of local streets for local traffic and cycling and pedestrian uses.
3. A new steep wedge between B.C. Place and Rogers Arena
The City’s post-viaduct proposal includes extending Georgia Street down the escarpment from Beatty Street to Pacific Boulevard with the construction of a relatively steep four-lane ramp with a five per cent slope. The ramp will be built over Griffiths Way, the loading access lane way that separates B.C. Place Stadium and Rogers Arena.
But the concerns with this plan revolve around traffic management during an event night, especially when there are events happening simultaneously at B.C. Place and Rogers Arena – when there could be up to 80,000 people in the vicinity. Will crowds be mixing with the traffic? Will the artery’s ramp section have to be shutdown?
Essentially, the ramp will be an extension of the Georgia Street artery that brings extra traffic to an area that already sees traffic congestion during events. Traffic flow at the intersection at the bottom of the ramp will be managed by a traffic light, and drivers on this route will be required to make a sharp left turn onto Pacific Boulevard.
Renderings of the City’s proposed ‘gentle’ Georgia Street ramp between B.C. Place and Rogers Arena.
There is also a plan to create a large pedestrian walkway from the city core across Pacific Boulevard to False Creek that is separated from vehicle traffic. This walkway, dubbed the ‘Georgia Steps’, could be far more successfully implemented and integrated into the area without the ramp that directs traffic into the area.
Conceptual renderings of the City’s Georgia Steps, a pedestrian and bike pathway from the intersection of Beatty and Georgia streets to the edge of False Creek. This plan includes the viaducts.
4. “The viaducts are an eyesore”
What exactly has the City of Vancouver done to improve the surrounding area and the aesthetics of the viaducts? The answer is: nothing.
The land under the viaducts is not wasted land; the area is under-utilized due to a severe lack of imagination from the municipal government. The viaducts provide sheltered areas for our wet climate and the skatepark currently located underneath the viaducts at Quebec Street are examples of what can be built underneath.
It could accommodate civic plazas, park space, night markets, and even restaurants and shopping malls. The spaces between the viaduct structures could also be an opportunity for infill tower development, with commercial and offices on the lower levels and residential on the upper levels.
The skatepark under the viaducts at Quebec Street.
The cultural and arts district under the Granville Street Bridge at Granville Island is a prime example. Instead of the razing old warehouse and industrial buildings in the 1970s, the federal government decided to restore the historic buildings for other uses.
And just across False Creek from Granville Island on the north side of the Granville Street Bridge is Westbank Projects’ upcoming Vancouver House development designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. The development includes major investments to improve the public realm under the bridge deck, with public art installations, community and event spaces, and street front retail and restaurant spaces.
Vancouver House plans to transform the space under the north end of the Granville Street Bridge.
With the involvement of the private sector, a viaducts’ and neighbourhood revitalization project could be accomplished with relatively little cost to taxpayers with commercial development complemented by Community Amenity Contributions.
Furthermore, Concord Pacific’s planned development of the remaining vacant lands on the edge of northeastern False Creek would significantly improve the area, but this phase of the company’s community development project is the last on its development timeline, pending the outcome of the City’s current viaducts demolition study.
If the viaducts are retained, there is an opportunity to create a creative, distinct neighbourhood for the downtown peninsula – one that is unique from Yaletown, Coal Harbour and the cookie cutter glass condo vision being proposed.
Here are a few examples of how other cities around the world found other creative uses for their viaducts:
Berlin’s four-track Stadtbahn viaduct.
Paris’ unused viaducts repurposed for other uses.
Bike and pedestrian pathways under a Paris viaduct.
Parques de Palermo in Buenos Aires.
Recoleta in Buenos Aires.
Recoleta‚ Buenos Aires‚ Argentina
5. What’s wrong with the idea of excess road capacity?
The City says one of the cases for removing the viaducts is that the route is under-utilized. According to the City’s data, the viaducts have a capacity of 1,800 vehicles per lane per hour but carry approximately 750 vehicles per lane per hour.
However, any proper infrastructure planning involves building not just for current demand but also future demand, and allowing for excess capacity to accommodate any unplanned growth.
The region’s population will grow from 2.4 million today to 3.4 million by 2041, and the downtown peninsula will only continue to densify and expand eastward. This includes Northeast False Creek where 1,500 residential units and 1.8 million square feet of commercial and office space are planned. Under the post-viaducts plan, thousands of additional units could be added next to the expanded Creekside Park and the two city blocks east of Main Street where the viaducts end.
The viaducts should not be seen as a freeway but rather an east-west artery into the most urbanized area of the entire region. This is not about building more road capacity, but maintaining some semblance of a competent road system – a road system that already exists.
In addition, the new home of St. Paul’s Hospital is planned for a site situated at the easternmost end of the viaducts, making the viaducts a perfect quick and reliable route for emergency vehicles to access the hospital from the downtown peninsula.
And lastly, the viaducts could have other uses beyond their role for vehicles: After all, there is a bike lane on the Dunsmuir Viaduct which makes use of existing infrastructure assets.
6. The removal plan’s cost: a $200 million beautification project
In a 2010 report, the City indicated the viaducts are still in ‘good condition’ with a remaining lifespan of 50 years if proper rehabilitation and maintenance work is regularly performed. The maintenance costs were pegged at $20,000 annually for basic maintenance, $600,000 for barrier repair, $400,000 for expansion joint replacements and approximately $20,000 for asphalt repairs.
More recently, the municipal government performed a spectacular 180 with a greater emphasis on the seismic durability of the viaducts, based on the results of further investigative work.
The City now says the maintenance cost for a large elevated concrete structure like the viaducts is between five to ten times the cost of the same roadway built on the ground. According to its recent reports, the cost to maintain the viaducts has increased to $8 million to $10 million over the next 10 to 15 years – plus a one-time capital investment of between $50 million and $65 million to upgrade the viaducts to withstand a moderate seismic event.
Under the demolition plan, Northeast False Creek’s area of land that will be available for development will increase from 7.9 acres within existing allowances to 11 acres after the viaducts are demolished. The 3.3 acre increase is from the space currently occupied by the viaducts and other surface roads.
Even without the viaducts demolition plan, Creekside Park is slated for a relatively substantial nine-acre expansion funded by Concord Pacific. This plan includes a full restoration of the shoreline and the completion of the False Creek seawall.
In contrast, the post-viaducts plan would merely add 4.88 acres in green space and this includes the new park space created by shutting down Carrall Street between Pacific Boulevard and Keefer Street to turn the roadway into a park expansion.
At the very core, the entire plan to eradicate the viaducts is a city beautification project: Is it worth spending $200 million to open up space to build less than five acres of additional green space? What is the cost and benefit ratio of removing a critical piece of transportation infrastructure for more green space?
If the possible construction of social housing is a key rationale for the project, then the plan is undermined by the high tradeoff costs related to cutting off a transportation link into the city core. Social housing can be built anywhere else, including the existing infill sites, in a much more cost efficient way.
And more importantly, how will the project be funded?
The municipal government suggests some of the City-owned lands freed by the demolition could be sold to developers. As well, fees could be levied on the market residential developments in the area, but at the same time the City is also striving to designate much of the new land for affordable housing. Will the project need to tap into the City’s capital reserves? Will taxes need to be raised to fund the viaduct demolition?
As planned: The future of Northeast False Creek with an eight acre Creekside Park extension and the inclusion of the viaducts.
As proposed: The demolition of the viaducts to make way for a 14 acre Creekside Park extension.