OP-ED: Five Ways to Fix Transport Woes

By James Fletcher

Everyone agrees that Vancouver’s transportation network is a mess. Unfortunately, there is little consensus on how to fix it.

The city’s last transportation plan came out thirteen years ago, and an updated plan is long overdue. Starting this fall the city will be seeking input on its new transportation plan. The plan sets out the city’s transportation policy goals and the main priorities for capital investment and service needs.

However, the city actually has very little control over transportation policy. TransLink, the regional transportation authority, is in charge of public transit and major regional roads and bridges. Vancouver’s influence on TransLink depends largely on the leadership and political skills of our local politicians.

The city does have control over its streets, bridges, traffic signals, land-use policies and capital budget for infrastructure. In these areas the city should be as bold and innovative as possible.

Vancouver’s ambition to be the world’s greenest city is pointless without decisive action on transportation, the largest source of greenhouse gases. With that in mind, what should the new transportation plan include? Here are five ideas:


1. A regional focus

As the metropolitan core of the region, Vancouver has to take up a leadership role on transportation issues. The city’s transportation plan must have a regional focus, based on the understanding that better transit options in the suburbs will ultimately result in fewer cars coming into the city, and cleaner air for the whole region.

Unfortunately, when TransLink was debating its budget and ten year operating plan last fall, Vancouver was silent on the issue. In the end, the TransLink council of mayors chose the status quo option which is clearly insufficient to meet the needs of a rapidly growing region over the next ten years.

In fact, even TransLink’s own documents acknowledge the plan does not provide enough funding to maintain service at current levels over 10 years. In effect, the region’s mayors have created the makings of crisis – in a few short years TransLink will be forced to either make dramatic service cuts or impose big tax increases. Leadership at the regional level is needed desperately.

Vancouver’s politicians should be outspoken advocates for investing in transit projects – not just for Vancouver, but for the whole region. You do not have to dig very deep in the suburbs to hear valid complaints that their transit needs have been ignored. For example, Port Moody has built a dense urban centre based on the promise that rapid transit would be built – yet the Evergreen Line keeps getting delayed while the traffic in the area becomes ever more congested. Vancouver should insist the Evergreen Line be built without further delay.

Vancouver should also support plans to introduce commuter rail service in the Fraser Valley as far as Chilliwack, and expansion of the West Coast Express to provide trains in both directions during the day – not just morning and afternoon peak periods.


2. Pedestrian and cycling infrastructure

One area where the city has shown it can make a difference is providing separated bike lanes on city streets. The successful trial of the Burrard St. Bridge bike lane encouraged the city to push forward with more bike lanes, including the newly opened Dunsmuir bike lane. Connecting up with the Dunsmuir St. viaduct bike lane and the Adanac St. bikeway, it provides a safe, separated bike route right into the downtown core. The mayor’s party deserves credit for keeping its election promise to expand the city’s bicycle lanes, but the city can and should go further. Building bicycle infrastructure is key to making cycling a safer and more appealing option.

Many cities in Europe have short-term bike rental schemes with hourly rates. Richmond has expressed interest in creating a bike rental program here. The city should partner with Richmond and other municipalities to create a regional bike rental program for Metro Vancouver.

Vancouver could also look down under for inspiration. Over the last 15 years Melbourne has transformed its downtown by facilitating the use of its alleys as pedestrian ways. Now lined with trendy boutiques, shops and bars, Melbourne has used its lanes to create vital, pedestrian-friendly urban spaces. Other cities, like Baltimore, are now using this strategy to revitalize their downtowns. Vancouver's city-wide network of lanes is an under-utilized asset and has great potential for increased pedestrian use. 

A car-free crossing for pedestrians and cyclists is an old idea whose time has come. Many cities around the world have iconic pedestrian bridges. For Vancouver, a city surrounded by so many waterways, it is a natural fit. Not only would such a bridge facilitate walking and cycling, it would quickly become a civic landmark and international icon.

The pedestrian bridge idea was revived by Think City board member Kera McArthur in 2008 as part of Jane's Walk, and last year architect Gregory Henriquez proposed a striking design. Although it was pooh-poohed by some bureaucrats and commentators, the concept has taken hold in the public imagination. Clearly, people want a more pedestrian-friendly urban environment. Will Vancouver take a bold step forward in this area?


3. Goods movement

Efficient movement of goods is crucial to the city’s economy. Transportation costs are an important component of the cost of doing business in the city but add no value to the final product or service. Therefore, facilitating goods movement helps to reduce costs for business and keeps companies and jobs from relocating to other cities. The city should look at the feasibility of creating road space dedicated for trucks and commercial vehicles.

A functioning example is Commissioner St., which takes much of the truck traffic to and from the port. Without this commercial-only route, a lot more port-bound traffic would be tying up east Vancouver streets.

Perhaps other rights-of-way, such as the Grandview Cut, could be re-engineered to allow more efficient truck access from Highway One to the city centre in a way that reduces the impact of heavy truck traffic on neighbourhoods? Negotiations with CN Rail would likely be lengthy and complex, but there is the prospect of a win-win solution that would improve the flow of goods and the livability of east Vancouver neighbourhoods.

At the very least, some dedicated commercial vehicle lanes on the city’s busiest streets could help to improve goods movement through the city.


4. Land use planning

Land use planning and transportation planning are two sides of the same coin. Unfortunately, in Vancouver they have rarely been coordinated effectively. Separate bureaucracies and political processes seem to ensure that major transit investments are considered separately from big development proposals.

Entire neighbourhoods, such as the area south of SE Marine Dr. between Victoria and Kerr, have been built without any new bus routes. The East Fraserlands plan talks about better transit as the area is developed but there are no targets or enforcement tools, just feel good statements. Transit service in the southeast corner of the city is sparse at best, and living without a car simply isn’t an option for many residents.

Mini-buses, or community shuttles as TransLink calls them, are far more efficient than an infrequent 40-foot bus in serving local neigbourhoods and feeding into the transit network. The city should make them a condition of major development approvals. In other words, show us your contract with TransLink before you get your development permit.

At the same time, the city has done very little over the past 24 years to foster higher densities around transit nodes such as the Broadway, Nanaimo and 29th Ave. stations. Land within 400 metres of each station on the Expo and Millennium lines and the new Canada Line should be automatically up-zoned for higher density development.


5. Citizen involvement

The city must do much more to engage the public in transportation decisions. People will use alternative transport options when they are well-designed and fit easily into people's lives. This means recognizing that our travel patterns are becoming more complex – and the days of planning for peak period travel to and from the downtown core are long gone.

The city's capital budget is a great place to start. Transportation projects are very capital intensive. Therefore, the city's capital plan which goes to referendum every three years is a key opportunity for the public to have an impact on transportation choices. Instead of working on the capital plan behind closed doors and putting the whole package to voters for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, city council should engage citizens in a participatory budgeting process. It's time people had a real say in how their tax dollars are spent.

Think City's Share the Road project in the Grandview-Woodland neighbourhood is another example of public engagement on transportation issues at the local level. Our survey asks people how they get around, which places they find inconvenient or unsafe, and what they would change. We ask participants to rate many different options, and will present the results to the city and TransLink.

If the city acts decisively in these five areas, Vancouver will be well on its way to being greener – and maybe even the greenest city.

James Fletcher is a Think City board member and the editor of the Think City Minute.

OP-ED articles do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Think City. To make a submission to the OP-ED section of the Think City Minute, please email editor@thinkcity.ca for details.

What about the feds?

I agree that the provincial government has been very effective in strangling transit while promoting the private car. But the real dollars should come from Ottawa. Canada has a $100 billion infrastructure backlog. Federal spending has been cut to allow regressive tax cuts which leaves our cities struggling for capital funds. As long as we keep electing federal and provincial governments whose priority is cutting spending, we'll end up with inadequate transit and infrastructure (not to mention fewer decent jobs and more mulitmillionaires who don't pay their way).

Transportation mess?

"Everyone agrees that Vancouver's transportation network is a mess." No, I don't. I think it's pretty good. Some parts are better than others, of course, but to say the whole network is a mess is wrong.

Smart Cards and Turnstiles

Don't blame "over paid", "out to lunch" TransLink staff for these stupid decisions. They are being forced to put these ridiculous systems in place by the car-loving provincial government.

I'm tired of the cop-out,

I'm tired of the cop-out, go-to place of always blaming TransLink. They have a great 2040 plan & are caught in the in-between politics of local/regional governments in Metro and the Province. While I agree with the possible solutions James raises, I disagree with blaming someone else and the premise that our transportation system is a mess. Senior levels of government need to know that the vitality of the lower mainland is at risk without an investment of money into this region. Thats what we need to collectively call for -and be willing to pay for.

Transportation Woes

Allow dogs on transit. If a dog cannot fit into a small carrier they are not allowed on transit, forcing pet owners who pay for licenses (city tax) to take motor vehicles or taxis.

Proposal: the formation of a

Proposal: the formation of a Private - Public Partnership. Island Group Transformation Partnerships Inc ( IGTP Inc.) Richard Shorten, Director (Former GM of Yellow Cab Victoria) and company. An umbrella corporation providing leadership to municipalities to provide door to door transportation for citizens in 100 % Hybrid vehicles. Cars, Limos, Mini Vans, Mini Buses, European Style tour buses, Electric Trolley Cars, light inter urban rail. Fares can individualized by client category and set by the Independent Public Board. 1) Geared to income - a costs that reflects their previous years T1 General tax filing income (line 150) as well as distance or time traveled. 2) Paid by client Secured Debit Cards that are scanned when entering transport then again at exit billed monthly to the clients account OR to government managed E.I. / Disability accounts / ICBC claim account. 3) All passengers are carried by a computer selected Car / Van / mini Bus etc. Vehicle. 4) These privately owned vehicles operate as licensed taxis do now with net profits or losses allocated to their account bi-weekly ($500-1500.00 is typical) Island Group T.P. Inc would strive to be an organization listed in the top 10 of the top 100 companies to work for in BC. Here is how it could work: Island Group T.P. Inc. Dispatches all vehicles within the system (and it will be capable of handling any commercial vehicles in the lower mainland region that is under contract) Existing computer dispatch systems like DDS have GPS and trip sharing fairness functions all built into the software and are computer controlled. Island Group T.P. would set strict high standards for all drivers and vehicles that are purchased and higher standards maintained. Maximum vehicle age of twelve years age - refurbished at years four and eight year intervals and totally recycled at twelve years. Individual owners have a ten vehicle maximum private fleet limitation. Transfer of individual car / or fleet ownership subject to Island Group TP prior approval. All existing taxis and municipal bus fleets are grandfathered and brought within IGTP Dispatch. IGTP may buy back shares of cabs and return the that vehicle's public license into the IGTP inventory. Municipal bus fleets (both express and collector models are kept until age retires them) they are dispatched by IGTP. Bus drivers contracts are honored and a $20,000 retirement bonus is offered. New owners and drivers of buses and similar vehicles assume the current terms and conditions offer by IGTP Inc. Here is what would happen; A Vancouver Regional Transit Passenger calls for a pick up with in a 15 minute window from wherever they are and are taken to their destination directly or to a HUB then on to their destination with NOT MORE than two transfers car to car to their destination. Virtually no tax payer involvement or investment and the creation of a new corporation - IGTP Inc. No tax payer investment in fleet.No government subsidies. An Independent Board sets the fares quarterly, improved from the situation now,

TransLink and cycling bridges

It's pretty obvious that the Mayors' decision on TransLink funding was a strategy to put pressure on the province rather than an abrogation of their duty to provide transit. TransLink, a child of the evil Kevin Falcon and the Liberals, must crash and burn to demonstrate the ineffectual model created by the people who are causing the real problem: the current provincial government. As for a separate bike/pedestrian bridge. Forget about it! Why spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a symbolic show piece when tens of millions could make cycling throughout the city a thouroughly pleasant experience. Don't we aleady get enough motorist/taxpayer backlash with the piddly hundreds of thousands currently being spent on bikle lane improvements? It's like you want cycling to fail. Please spend money on cycling improvements. But please please please do it wisely. Burrard Bridge was a classic example of how cheap cycling infrastructure improvements can be. One of our strongest arguments as cyclists is that cycling saves the taxperer money. Don't make that a lie with unecessarily expensive projects that will set cycling back. With peak oil upon us, cars will reduce their dominanace and free up far more road space than cyclists (and pedestrians and transit) will ever need. There's a reason old European cities could have such narrow streets.


The people in charge of organizing public transit in metro Vancouver are grossly over paid and completely out to lunch, as far as I'm concerned. They spend millions each year on transit cops and fancy ticket systems. They are poised to spend many millions more on a barrier system and cut back on service! I feel that public transit should be fare and barrier free. The cost should be born by the public purse (with of course a .5 or 1% tax on international currency exchange markets to swell that purse). Those of us who use transit deserve the break. No fares on transit would help to make poor, working poor, unemployed and other low income peoples' lives just slightly less stressful.

Thanks for this article,

Thanks for this article, James. As a writer without a car, I depend on public transit , which means public support for infrastructure. Thanks for including a focus on that aspect of sustainable transport - which sometimes veers to discussions exclusively focussed on cycle and pedestrian routes.

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