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The Vancouver Viaducts Debate: Part 1: Does removing a road mean greater traffic congestion?

Apr 15, 2011

by Stephanie Doerksen, VIA Architecture

The 50’s and 60’s were the heyday of urban expansion and economic growth in North America. Miles and miles of freeways were constructed and the resultant increase in mobility led to economic growth that went far beyond the stimulus cost of the actual construction. By the 70’s and 80’s the first generation of freeways were beginning to need maintenance and repair. The cost associated with this infrastructure continued, while the economic growth it brought about had already happened.

Recently a new trend has emerged related to freeway infrastructure in North American cities: highways are being removed for the sake of urban renewal, redevelopment and the economic prospects associated with better urban design and more sophisticated transportation networks. Cities like New Haven, South Bronx, and New Orleans are getting on board. Some of them are even receiving federal funding in the form of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants. (Ref. Planetizen article This recent NPR article summarizes some of the reasons for and objections to these US examples.

Here in Vancouver, the removal of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts has been a topic of conversation for the past two years, but the conversation has recently picked up steam – and widespread support. City Counsellor Geoff Meggs has been responsible for promoting the idea with the City, but other prominent urbanists such and Bing Thom and Larry Beasley are also in favour.

On April 7th SFU’s city program hosted a public forum on the future of the viaducts. Over 200 people packed the theatre, and the discussion was generally supportive. The remaining question seems to be how soon and how much of the viaducts can be feasibly removed. The following options were presented by Dave Turner, the City’s transportation consultant:

  1. 20% in 5 years
  2. 50% in 10 years
  3. 100% in 20 years.

The Vancouver Sun describes these options in more depth here.

As with most highway removal proposals, the major objections are the cost of implementing the infrastructural change and the potential for increased traffic congestion. In the case of Vancouver’s viaducts, neither of these poses a serious obstacle. Certainly, there is a capital cost associated with the work of demolishing portions of the viaducts, however, if they are left in place sooner or later there will be a cost associated with maintaining them or rebuilding them. At the moment the viaducts are considered to be strong and in good condition but, as with any infrastructure, they will deteriorate over time. Highway infrastructure, even on flat ground, is incredibly expensive to maintain. This article has some statistics on highway costs in the US.

In addition to the future savings in maintaining or replacing the viaducts, the cost of tearing them down would be offset in the present by the gain in developable land. (Bing Thom estimates several hundred million worth of real estate could be reclaimed). The potential to redevelop parcels of land currently occupied by the viaducts is a timely consideration, given the recent and somewhat contentious review of the NE False Creek Area Plan. Removing even portions of the viaducts opens up all sorts of new land use possibilities for the area.

potential redevelopment parcels

The second and possibly more ardent objection to removing the viaducts is the increase in traffic congestion it would cause. However, there is no evidence to support the theory that traffic congestion would increase. In fact, there is quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. The viaducts were closed for 21 days during the Olympics, with no noticeable traffic impacts. Granted, the Olympics were a bit of an extreme example and for residents of Strathcona and the Commercial Drive area it was a bit of a pain to have to detour down to Hastings or up to Pacific to get into town.

It’s important to note that in two of the three options that are currently being proposed, there would still be a local connection to the downtown core, but it would be a normal, at-grade road with traffic lights and intersections, instead of a giant overpass. In other words, it would not prevent local residents from accessing downtown via Georgia/Dunsmuir. As for drivers arriving from further east, according to Turner, neighbouring routes are not currently at capacity and could support an increase in volume. This was certainly borne out during the Olympic closures.

Turner noted that diverting extra traffic to neighbouring routes would result in some increased congestion, but that it would also encourage commuters to use transit or other transportation modes. While he’s right about the second part, there’s good evidence to suggest that even if the overall traffic numbers remained constant, removing one route would not cause increased congestion. It has to do with principles of network optimization and how drivers make decisions on which route is the most efficient. This article in Scientific American describes these principles and some recent research on traffic flow.

The best recent example of this is from Seoul, Korea. In 2003, the city demolished a six-lane freeway through the center of town and replaced it with a park. Sceptics were shocked as traffic flow in the city actually improved as a result.

Coming up: Part 2: Why should we remove the viaducts?