In Vancouver, Driving is Declining while Population Increases

By Ryan McGreal
Published August 14, 2013

In early 2009, a proposed pedestrian scramble at York Boulevard and MacNab Street was unceremoniously removed from the York Boulevard Streetscape Master Plan. When I asked then-traffic engineering manager Hart Solomon (since retired) about it, he said it would be "inefficient" for automobile traffic and projected that during rush hour, traffic would back up to Queen Street at a red light based on then-current traffic volumes.

I challenged his use of current traffic volumes to project future impacts, pointing out that the city's goal is a significant reduction in automobile traffic. Solomon countered that his assumption was "likely conservative" because the base volume of automobile traffic would continue to climb and future rapid transit on Main/King would divert more traffic to York.

Solomon went on to argue that short-term changes should be evaluated based on short-term impacts, not on long-term goals (!), an approach that seems guaranteed to be self-fulfilling.

Solomon was simply not receptive to my argument that if we want to achieve long-term changes in how people get around, we need to do so through a variety of ongoing decisions to change the balance of priorities and incentives - and we need to start now to see changes in a few years.

I bring this up now because a new report out of Vancouver has indicated that traffic volumes have gone down on its thoroughfares even as the population has gone up.

In the 1970s, the people of Vancouver decided they wanted their city to be walkable and healthy. The city established a policy that it wouldn't widen any roads to accommodate more single-occupancy vehicles.

Vancouver was in better shape than the average U.S. city to begin with, because it's the only major city in North America with no freeways going through it. That meant the original street grid, constructed between 1880 and 1920, would have to suffice.

To make that work, Vancouver worked hard to establish the kind of land use policies that would make living car-free a natural choice. The city prioritized walkable, mixed-use development and established a strong transit system with rail, trolly buses, and rapid buses, as well as walking and biking connections.

And guess what? That strategy has worked exactly as planned. Vancouver officials recently trotted out traffic data to make the case for overhauling a traffic-heavy road by the waterfront into a street that prioritizes biking and walking while eliminating through traffic.

The figures showed that on major streets, traffic has dropped 20 to 30 percent since 2006 - although the city has grown 4.5 percent percent over that time. Pretty neat trick.

The trend has actually been downward over the past 15 years, as Vancouver has continually made both large and small transportation and land use decisions based around its goal of being denser, more walkable, and more liveable.

Meanwhile, over the same period Hamilton has continued to prioritize automobile flow-through over all other goals. Our transit spending and investment has declined, our streets have remained wide and fast, our land use policy has remained low-density and single-use zoned, and in an outcome that should surprise no one, our outcomes have remained stagnant.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted August 14, 2013 at 15:27:15

Not sure whether it's walkability's chicken or egg, but Downtown Vancouver's population almost doubled between 2001 and 2011.

The jump of 26,702 appears to represent almost half of the city's population growth during that period.

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By Today (anonymous) | Posted August 14, 2013 at 19:04:39

Ryan, while I appreciate the negative slant provide here to Hamilton, there are positives as others might suggest.

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