Contrarian thoughts on predicted Pattullo chaos

While the rest of us brace for a month or more of commuting hell while TransLink repairs the burnt-out Pattullo Bridge, a few local thinkers on transportation issues offer an alternative view. No one doubts the short-term pain, but The South Fraser Blog and Stephen Rees suggest motorists will find alternate routes or change theirRead More

While the rest of us brace for a month or more of commuting hell while TransLink repairs the burnt-out Pattullo Bridge, a few local thinkers on transportation issues offer an alternative view. No one doubts the short-term pain, but The South Fraser Blog and Stephen Rees suggest motorists will find alternate routes or change their travel patterns given some time. Meanwhile, the temporary loss of that bridge might actually get us thinking differently about Lower Mainland transportation problems if we take the time for self-reflection.

Back in the day (and even still today), planners and people tended to look at travel demand as a liquid. If you plug-up the pipe, that travel would spill over and you would have a big miss. The current thinking on travel demand is that it’s more like a gas. It will expand or contract depending on the diameter of the pipe.

Source: Pattullo Bridge | The South Fraser Blog

Stephen Rees is thinking along the same lines:

When other places have lost critical capacity there have been cities that did manage to collect some data. And nearly all of it challenges the conventional wisdom. Traffic does not “have to be accommodated” – is does expand and contract to meet changing circumstances – because it is not just a simplistic mechanical formula – it is people who are creative and imaginative (even if the institutions do their level best to suppress that on that whole) and they do adapt quickly.

Source: Pattullo Bridge Repairs to Take 4 Weeks | Stephen Rees’s Blog

This is the ‘disappearing traffic phenomena’ (PDF link), which counterintuitively suggests that building new roads does not alleviate congestion for long. The reverse is true for lost transportation links, such as we’re experiencing now with the Pattullo closure. 

Flying in the face of conventional wisdom, new evidence shows that closing roads can eliminate traffic. A British study, released in March, 1998, is creating a buzz in transportation circles. The study found that closing roads actually cuts driving trips. The research team, led by Phil Goodwin of University College London, one of the Blair government’s key transport advisors, analyzed 60 cases worldwide where roads were closed, or their ability to carry traffic was reduced. On average, researchers found that 25 percent of the traffic vanished when a road was closed. And in some cases, the researchers found that an astonishing 60 percent of the driving trips disappeared.

Source  (PDF): Remove It And They Will Disappear: New Evidence Why Building New Roads Isn’t Always the Answer | Surface Transportation Policy Project

UPDATE: My co-author Jocelyn has been musing about these very same things on her blog. Click over if you want to hear her perspective. A sample:

What if it might actually be good to have some pushback on our road network, something that might actually communicate in a dollars-and-sense sort of way to the average citizen that living in Langley and working at a Yaletown legal office for a $20/hour is just not worth the 3 hours you spend each day fighting traffic, guzzling gas, and adding stress? That this negotiation we’ve been making ever since the internal combustion engine became cheap enough to put in every driveway, is a false one; that instead of saving you that money on your cheaper suburban home, it costs you value from your life by stealing time from your family, fuel money from your pocket, and potential from your environment.

Maybe we should just leave the bridge, or restrict it to commercial traffic or (gasp) pedestrians and bicycles. Maybe then we’d begin to see what happens when humans are confronted with the rare anti-vehicle economic pressure, and see what sort of ingenious lifestyle changes we dream up to solve the problem?

I’m just sayin. Not a bad thought experiment.

Another co-author, my husband Will, on the other hand, thinks the whole thing is a crock. Here’s his rebuttal on Jocelyn’s blog:

You are very wrong. Wrong Wrong Wrong.

More roads = more cars only if you also allow a dramatic increase in population on the other side of the road. Ergo, more population + more roade = more cars. But, less roads + equal populaton = same cars, moving slower, exhausting more, costing family time and money and delaying vital services.

More roads + equal population = faster commute times, less exhaust and gas purchases more family time and higher economic productivity. I am tired of the rose colouredly informed greenies blaming the population for having to get to work in the morning or not being able to afford a $650,000 house to raise their kids in. Vancouver police officers dont live in Vancouver, they commute. Why? Not because they hate David Suzuki. A condo in Surrey fits their budget and the VPD is not going to put a detatchment in Whalley to accomodate that. also has some thoughts on the unexpected benefits of the Pattullo closure from a New Westminster resident who has discovered a refreshing lack of gridlock in his neighbourhood now that there is no bridge traffic coming through.

I live in a neighbourhood that for decades has been negatively impacted by the Pattullo Bridge. For many New Westminster residents, the Pattullo simply represents thousands of commuters clogging up our neighbhourhood streets as they make their way to downtown Vancouver. I know it may not be popular to say this now, but there are likely some New Westminster residents who are quietly cheering the fact the bridge is closed.

Overnight, traffic gridlock on our local streets has all but disappeared. It’s quite eery actually.  A trip to the local pool for swimming lessons that might have taken 15 minutes by car, now only takes two. Simply amazing.

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Briana Tomkinson

Briana Tomkinson is a Montreal-based writer and original founder of Tenth to the Fraser. She really likes to write letters by hand.

Briana Tomkinson is a really valued member of the Tenth to the Fraser community. Interested in joining our pool of writers? Please see these submission guidelines.


  1. Why isn't the bridge deck being delt with @ the same time? I mean obviously the whole entire deck could be resurfaced in that time as well… Especially since no ones driving on it!!! But i guess waiting untill we get it up and inuse again we could shut it down right after, in the middle of summer, before the olympics to re-surface it, makes more sense!!! hahahahhahahah did I just say that?

    wow…is this canada?

  2. This contrarian thought it so mainstream. It is the dominant bloggosphere opinion that if you build more roads they fill with cars, if you remove roads, traffic congestion is relieved.

    It does not make sense at all. In a gas pipe, an equal number of molecules of gas travel down the pipe. With traffic, all else being equal, those cars still need to get from A-B, some will be lucky enough to be able to achieve their goals with transit or alternative methods but many will not and it will cost them and their families time, money and flexibility. It leads to more exhaust and a less health economy.

    In the longer term, neighbourhoods will atrophy, families will see staggering falls in property values, people will loose their jobs, cities will pull in less tax revenues and start cutting budgets, eliminating social programs, parks and rec, community gardens etc. Business will move out and the remaining residents will end up living in the shell of a town that may have been livable. WHere will they go? Well if they cant spend $700,000 for a 2 BR condo to house them and their 3 kids, they will move to Calgary where city wealth allows for a public transit system that runs on wind powered electricity.

    Less roads equals less cars with the same population? Wrong wrong wrong.

  3. Okay so here’s the thing. Remember when we had the transit strike? And how every newspaper did a community service and allowed free carpooling ads? WHY are we not doing that currently? Why is this any less of a reason? Why are those ads not a permanent fixture? I mean, I used to drive from New West to Burnaby every day at about the same time every day. I drive right past BCIT. But I never had a venue for finding a carpooler to share the ride with! We need to give incentives for carpooling. Free timmy’s coffee or SOMETHING. An HOV lane isn’t enough of an incentive.

  4. There’s the Jack Bell Ride-Share program, which matches people up online:

    Also Craigslist ads are free 😉

    But yes, I agree. It would be a useful community service for newspapers to facilitate ride-share arrangements for free.

  5. @Jenn Arbo – exactly. During the transit strike, my work at the time (coincidentally my current workplace as well) had a site-wide virtual bulletin board for ride-sharing. It was great, and I began to carpool 3 ppl from on-site I didn’t know previously. They took it down as soon as the strike was over.

    Will – I think your counter-contrarian grumpy old man routine is so mainstream. The current thinking about traffic expanding to fit the network is not blogosphere-generated, it’s actually the current thought in city planning research, based on experience and data from urban centres around the globe. There is nothing about Greater Vancouver’s development that suggests to us that the vehicle population of any area has declined when a new arterial connection to Vancouver was constructed…

    When they added an extra lane to the Port Mann bridge back in 2002 or so, they thought it would ease traffic into the city. On the contrary, traffic NEVER experienced a drop going westbound (the direction in which the extra lane was built). Same for the counterflow lane in the Massey Tunnel.

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