Referendum Questions: Will the plan actually ‘cut congestion’?

The plan should cut transit delays but reduced road congestion is unlikely, without the imposition of road pricing

Yes forces claim the 10-year plan of proposed upgrades will “cut congestion” and the document itself says drivers will “spend less time stuck in traffic.”

The plan projects round-trip time savings once the projects are complete of 15 to 20 minutes per day for drivers on some routes, such as Langley to Metrotown or the North Shore to Tsawwassen, and 20 to 30 minutes for transit commuters.

But rarely do Yes campaigners make it clear that improvement is not compared to current conditions, but to the congestion that will exist 10 years from now if the proposed projects don’t proceed and after more population growth.

So will drivers face less congestion than they do today if they vote Yes?

Urban planner Brent Toderian says it’s safer to say the plan will prevent much worse congestion in the future without the upgrades than to claim it will cut road congestion below current levels.

“When they say it’s going to cut congestion it doesn’t necessarily mean our roads are going to be 20 per cent more empty,” he said. “What it means is we’re going to be able to move a lot more people in our region – to the benefit of our region’s success in every way we can think of – without being trapped by congestion and gridlock.”

The reality is any room freed up on the roads – whether it comes from building new lanes or by some drivers switching to transit as that alternative improves – is expected to fill back up and revert to the same level of congestion, a phenomenon called induced demand in planning circles.

But Toderian said while road congestion might not change noticeably from the plan’s investments, boosting the transit system’s capacity so it can carry more people will be crucial because of continued population growth, which is forecast to add a million residents over 30 years.

Since Metro Vancouver keeps adding residents – and there is no way to stop them from coming – it needs to ensure a growing proportion of us move by transit, while the number driving remains about the same.

“It won’t suddenly make the roads empty,” Toderian said of the plan. “But building more options prevents horrible congestion, as we’ve seen in other places where it’s irrational to be in your car but there’s no other option.”

He points to cities in China where people could walk faster than the crawling vehicles but nobody does because the poor air quality makes it too dangerous.

Punching new lanes of road through existing neighbourhoods to instead try to make more room for cars would be incredibly expensive, wasteful and damaging, Toderian said.

“When you build more capacity into transit, you’re moving people with a lot less public money and a lot less space,” he said.

More people and cars doesn’t just mean more time lost getting from point A to B in slow traffic, but also more delays looking for parking in increasingly full lots and residential streets.

The space required just to park the forecast 600,000 additional vehicles under a do-nothing scenario is estimated to occupy 22 square kilometres, equivalent to one quarter of Burnaby. (Blogger Matt Taylor makes more comparisons here.)

Other trends are also important, particularly the densification of the region along transit friendly smart-growth corridors that developers now prefer.

The plan projects that even without the new investments, the average Metro resident will drive 10 per cent fewer kilometres per year by 2045 than they do today.

That’s because over time more people will be in a position to walk, bike or take transit for more trips, or will have chosen to live closer to where they work.

The plan’s proposed upgrades would only cut per capita kilometres driven by another four per cent.

What really makes the difference in the mayors’ long-range plan out to 2045 – delivering a further 12 per cent cut – is an assumption that road pricing will be imposed. (See the plan’s ‘outcomes’ section.)

Apart from economic collapse, Toderian says international experience shows nothing can truly cut congestion other than some form of road user fees.

That’s borne out by the free flowing conditions on the Port Mann and Golden Ears toll bridges, compared to other congested free crossings like the Pattullo Bridge.

“What we’ve seen is the only things that actually drop congestion are pricing mechanisms – toll roads.”

While an actual cut in current road congestion is doubtful, much more bus service should go far to meet demand and reduce overcrowding and delays. The plan predicts the bus system pass-ups that now plague the busiest routes would be virtually eliminated.

Referendum Questions is a Black Press series exploring issues related to the Metro Vancouver transit and transportation referendum. Voters must mail in ballots by May 29 on whether they support the addition of a 0.5 per cent sales tax in the region, called the Congestion Improvement Tax, to fund billions of dollars worth of upgrades. Follow the links below to read more in this series.