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 email@example.com for details.