What Can We Do About Traffic?

“If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you get people and places.”

~Fred Kent, Project for Public Spaces

If you are of a certain age, and were sufficiently geeky, you played a bit of SimCity in your youth. This was an interesting game/simulation where you were mayor, controlling development and growth of an imaginary city. Your goal was to keep citizens happy, which meant ensuring they had places to live, work, and shop, while taxes, crime, pollution, and traffic were kept in check.

You didn’t have to play for long before you realized that you couldn’t build enough roads. No matter how well you ran your city, there was an insatiable appetite for more roads. They eventually ate up your budget and filled your neighbourhoods with pollution, but they remained choked with traffic and angry citizens demanded more. It was a no-win situation.

SimCity was just a game, but it modelled reality better than you may think. The world is rife with examples of cities that have tried to build their way out of traffic congestion, with the only constant being “the bigger the project, the bigger the traffic.”

img_Issue 1-04Currently leading the pack of bigger projects is the Katy Expressway in Houston, Texas. A mother-of-all-freeways, it expanded to 24 lanes in 2008 to, once and for all, “deal with Interstate 10 congestion”. Except only four years later, suburban expansion caused the Katy to be just as congested as before. After spending $2.8 billion on improvements, rush hour delays are now longer than before the project began.

The idea that expanded lanes result in expanded congestion is so well understood that transportation economists call it The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion. From Los Angeles to Atlanta to London, decades of building roads failed to slay the traffic congestion dragon, while sucking money out of tax coffers and annihilating communities unfortunate enough to be crowded out by an endless expansion of lanes.

Here in New Westminster, the City’s own polling shows 69% of residents think transportation is biggest problem the City has to solve, a feeling reflected in endless inter- net chatter and coffee shop conversations. Our twice-daily traffic “carmageddon” is the pet peeve of most locals. Somebody has to do something about it.

But what to do? And whose job is it? If building more lanes just builds more congestion, what’s the alternative? How can we suppose economic and population growth without more lanes to accomodate them?

One place to look for solutions is Vancouver. Coming off decades-long grassroots battles to prevent the expansion of freeways through established neighbourhoods, Vancouver’s then-Mayor Philip Owen and his council approved a transportation plan in 1997 that would see no more increase in road lanes. Road space would be re-allocated towards active modes like cycling and walk- ing, and investments would be directed towards making streets, sidewalks, and neighbourhoods safe and livable. Aggressive goals were set to have 50% of trips in the City by modes other than automobile by 2020 such as buses and bicycles. The policy was strong enough to be carried forward by the next three mayors, through shifts in what political parties were in charge, and was extensively updated in 2012.

The result? The 50% mode-share target was met and exceeded in 2014, six years ahead of schedule. At the same time, the City experienced unprecedented population and economic growth. People and goods are still moving in Vancouver (trips into and out of the downtown increased 22% in the first decade of the plan) but they are doing it in different ways, and much more efficiently (75% of trips in the downtown peninsula are now by foot –a Manhattan-sounding statistic).

img_Issue 1-01One person responsible for making it work is a name familiar to many New Westminster residents. Jerry Dobrovolny served three terms as a New Westminster Councillor, and still calls New West home. After ten years as the Transportation Manager for the City of Vancouver, he is now the General Manager of Engineering for the City of Vancouver.

“When you do the right thing — the logical thing — and your policy is solidly supported, it holds up against shifts in short-term priorities,” says Dobrovolny. He believes this principle is what helped Vancouver maintained its laser-like focus on sustainable transportation over more than a decade of political shifts in the city.

“Whether it is neighbourhood livability, sustainability, or economonic development, [Vancouver’s] solid transportation policy remained sound and met the goals of the day.”

Short version: Vancouver recognized the Fundamental Law, and built a policy recognizing that road building could not fix congestion in the time frames required to plan the growth of the city.

“Show me a city anywhere in the world where road building has worked for more than five years,” says Dobrovolny.

“When we invest in walking, cycling, and transit, and build compact mixed-use livable communities, people make rational choices, which means they switch way faster than any traffic modeler would think. [In Vancouver] the social change around travel patterns is happening much faster than anyone suspected.”

Being a New Westminster resident, and passionate about the community, he is quick to list off this community’s true strengths.

img_Issue 1-03“The walkability of New West is spectacular,” he says. “Old neighbourhoods were built at a walking pace, with sidewalks everywhere, the land use is right, and we have five SkyTrain stations. These add up to a good ‘bone structure’ supported by a true sense of community. Other cities around the region, and around the world, could never buy these things.”

To get the most out of these strengths, Dobrovolny suggests the City needs to emphasize the connections. “The challenges are the barriers that still exist. If they were easy, they would have been solved a long time ago.”

“The waterfront is already amazing, but a couple of connections are still needed. Columbia Street to the waterfront, like the 4th Street crossing. The pedestrian bridge to Queensborough… even a ferry. Think of the potential to connect communities. A few bold moves need to be made.”

One more challenge? “Not falling prey to this idea that we need to do our bit for the region and add another two lanes here, two lanes there.”

This concept extends to many efforts to ‘get traffic moving,’ such as removing pedestrian amenities like curb bulges, synchronizing lights, or increasing speed limits. Judiciously applied, they may make apparent improvement at one or two intersections, but are short-term patches that inevitably pile the problems up a few blocks along. Worse, they make our neighbourhoods less comfortable, less safe, and less livable. This threatens the very ‘bone structure’ that makes our neighbourhoods enviable, and actually removes the incentives for people to make more logical transportation choices.

For these reasons, the City of New Westminster developed a new Master Transportation Plan in 2014, one that reflects many of the ideas from 1997 Vancouver Plan, as updated in 2012. For the first time, New Westminster set aggressive mode-share goals, similar to those set (and exceeded) by Vancouver. For the first time, New Westminster has clearly stated it will no longer accommodate increases in regional through traffic, and will not add any new road capacity. Instead, it will focus on improvements that address safety and protect the livability of our neighbourhoods.

New Westminster will never be able to solve its traffic problem alone — regional solutions are required to provide local traffic relief, and this relies on regional leadership, which takes us back to that twice-daily carmageddon on New Westminster streets. The vast majority of those trips are not generated by people living, work- ing, and playing in New Westminster, but by people forced to use our surface roads because the alternatives do not exist.

“it doesn’t solve regional traffic problems trying to have McBride Boulevard flowing freely, or trying to have 10th Avenue flowing freely,” says Dobrovolny.

img_Issue 1-02The work Vancouver and New Westminster are doing is not occurring in isolation. There are regional development and transportation plans that bolster this approach. The Mayor’s Plan for Regional Transportation is a solid framework, as bold and visionary as Vancouver’s 1997 Plan in the way it sets challenging targets, and a new vision for how we move around the region. It is also supported by defendable policy work that applies modern planning principles and supports the Regional Growth Strategy. It remains to be seen if the regional leadership required to implement such a plan can sustain through shorter-term funding setbacks and shifting political winds.

We don’t need to rely on the algorithms of SimCity to see what works. There are real examples where traffic dragons have been slayed. Cities as diverse as Vancouver, Copenhagen, and Medellin are developing innovative transportation approaches, and are reaping the livability and economic rewards. Other cities like San Francisco, Portland, Minneapolis, and New York, are removing urban freeways and reclaiming their surface streets for public use.

These bold moves faced opposition, people suggestion the traffic was not only a sign of a growing economy, but was fundamental to economic growth. In every case, the opposite was found to be true. The community prospered as road-building budgets were freed up, traffic cleared, and streets became human places again.

New Westminster is moving forward on both fronts and is investing on removing local barriers and emphasizing neighbourhood livability. The City is also working with regional partners to promote regional transportation investments aligned with globally proven solutions.

These solutions are not immediate, and sometimes challenge our notions of how traffic works. They often are met with resistance; to quote Janette Sadik-Khan, the Transportation Commissioner who oversaw a re-imagining of New York City’s streets under Mayor Bloomberg, “When you push the status quo, it pushes back – hard.”

However, the rewards are there for our community. We can have quieter, cleaner, and calmer neighbourhoods. We can have the freedom to choose the modes of transportation that make the most sense for our daily trips. We can meet our regional goals for greenhouse gas reduction. We can save money, reduce our stress, be a healthier community. We can have streets where it feels safe to walk your children to school. The City and the Region need to be bold enough to push the status quo that got us in this mess.