Metro Vancouver divided by the Fraser River

The January 2012 release of Statistics Canada’s new census shows Metro Vancouver continuing to grow.  The region has added almost 200,000 new residents since 2006. Immigration, much of it from Asia, has fuelled the growth, with all of Metro Vancouver’s municipalities seeing increases. One of the largest centres affected by the B.C. government’s Gateway Program is Surrey, whose population grew 18.6 per cent to 468,251, an increase of more than 73,000 since the previous count. This real growth reflects projections contained in planning documents prepared before construction began on the Gateway Program, and seem to validate the B.C. government’s call for capacity increases, even in the face of opposition to such expansion.

The region’s traffic congestion is as much a by-product of actual growth as it is Metro Vancouver’s struggle to manage development and transportation requirements while maintaining its goals of livability and sustainability. The collaborative style of the regions’ regional government may only add to this already difficult task.

Metro Vancouver is governed by a council of 37 directors representing 21 municipalities, one electoral area, and one treaty First Nation covers an area of 282,000 hectares, including 50,000 hectares of rich agricultural land. With the Coast Mountains on the north, the Fraser River bisecting the area, growth has spread east on both sides of the Fraser River valley and south across the river’s former flood plains. Residential and industrial growth has been swift and substantial over the past 15 years, especially to the south of the Fraser River in Surrey and Delta.

1996 Livable Region ­Strategic Plan tries for balance

Governance within the region is at times complex. While Metro Vancouver’s mandate is to provide core services such as drinking water, sewage and drainage, solid waste management, parks and similar amenities within its municipalities, it does so with a focus on maintaining livability and sustainability. One municipality’s livability isn’t necessarily another’s, and debate and compromise often-slow action or trump solutions.

The master agreement adopted in 1996 to manage growth by Metro Vancouver’s forerunner (the Greater Vancouver Regional District) was called the Livable Region Strategic Plan. The strategy encouraged people to live close to where they work, control growth and limit sprawl by encouraging most residential growth in “Growth Concentration Areas” and supported medium- and higher-density development rather than spreading growth throughout the lower Fraser Valley. Among the objectives of the plan was the protection of green space between town centres, increasing transportation choice (transit, carpooling and cycling) while maintaining mobility for goods movement.

Transportation managed by another authority

Adding to the area’s cumbersome governance model, Metro Vancouver’s transportation system is operated by a separate authority. TransLink is responsible for planning, managing, and, through separate operating companies, providing service on 96 per cent of the region’s bus fleet. It operates an automated, elevated light rapid rail system known as SkyTrain that carries 250,000 riders per day, manages a 167-member transit police force and operates the Canada Line rapid transit from Richmond city centre and the Vancouver International Airport to downtown Vancouver.

TransLink also owns and operates SeaBus, three aluminum cat­amaran commuter ferries connecting downtown Vancouver with North Vancouver. Additionally, TransLink’s West Coast Express commuter rail extends 65 kilometres up the Fraser Valley, carrying 2,503,478 passengers in 2010. TransLink owns and operates a number of key bridges and associated roadways within the region.

Gordon Price, former Vancouver city councillor, now Director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, says that the Livable Region Strategic Plan’s main point was that expanding general-purpose traffic into the Fraser Valley “Would undermine the direction of the regional plan, of which Gordon Campbell was an author. It looks like his legacy will not be a more sustainable region, but just the opposite: a web of freeways from Squamish to Hope to South Surrey that will lock a generation into wasteful transportation modes and urban development at exactly the wrong moment in history.”

Outgrowing a 1990s strategy

Not only has population exploded and commuter travel increased, but commercial growth and related transportation requirements have proportionally expanded. In spite of a lack of appropriate transportation routes, the largest concentration of trade-related facilities is now located along the Fraser River in Delta and Surrey. This has led to heavy truck traffic on residential streets and key arterial connectors.

Analysis of recent employment growth once planned for localized centres shows that it is now dispersed across the region, while changing work patterns prove that employment with no fixed workplace is growing rapidly. Other changing social trends, including housing and lifestyle choices, have caused the region to evolve differently than envisaged in the 1996 Livable Region Strategic Plan. This growth is showing up as stress on the existing transportation network.

The location of fixed-employment growth is also a factor. The increase of industrial complexes, major port facilities and office parks along the Fraser River are not well-served by transit compared to the “town centre” model that was foreseen in the original planning. New commute patterns have emerged, no longer following the predominately ‘suburb-to-downtown’ nature of many metropolitan centres; people in Metro Vancouver are travelling in large numbers from everywhere to everywhere.

Echoes of the 1970s: NO to freeways

Opposition to the Gateway Program was foreshadowed in the 1970s when, Gordon Price recounts, “In a historic turning point, in the early 1970s, Vancouver refused to build any freeways that required demolition of its streetcar neighbourhoods. Instead, vehicle growth would have to be absorbed on existing streets – an arterial grid, the heritage of the street improvements of the 1920s, on which the trolley buses, successors to the streetcars, would also run.”

Appropriately, today’s SeaBus ferries, crossing the harbour from North Vancouver to Vancouver since 1977, were initially financed with the money proposed for the new freeway crossing of Burrard Inlet and its connectors along Vancouver’s English Bay beach. Price notes, “Political ideology changed at the same time, all civic parties proclaimed that there would be no expansion of the road system for single-occupancy vehicles. The new priorities put pedestrians first, followed by cycling, transit, goods movement and cars.

He adds that outside planners of the time saw Vancouver building something like the Los Angeles freeway system. “What they proposed for Vancouver would have laid concrete on elevated decks, in tunnels and trenches over and through much of the land now occupied by residential towers, parks and the seawall.”

­Traffic congestion is an active field of academic study, subject to the theories and hypotheses of urban planners. Some studies suggest that the levels of congestion a society will tolerate is usually a choice between the costs of improvements and the benefits of faster travel, and is linked to subjective lifestyle choices between car-owning or car-free households. 

Brian D. Taylor, Professor of Urban Planning; Director, Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies; Director, Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA, writes in his October 2002 paper Rethinking Traffic Congestion that short-lived congestion relief through capacity expansion is not proof that adding capacity is a bad idea.

 “When capacity is expanded on heavily used roads, reduced delay can prove fleeting. This leads some observers to conclude that widening roads is a waste of time and money. Others go further claiming that it makes things worse, since more people are delayed and more emissions are produced after the expanded facility fills up again with traffic.

But this analogy is misleading because it treats travel as simply a bad habit, and ignores the role of mobility in facilitating social interactions and economic transactions. While capacity expansion in areas of dense activity may fail to eliminate congestion, it may still bring significant social and economic benefit by accommodating more activity.”