In their April 12 throne speech, the B.C. NDP government claimed that CleanBC is “North America's most progressive plan to reduce carbon pollution” and that “newly announced sectoral emission targets will keep government accountable”. But the B.C. NDP government has a big credibility problem, even beyond subsidizing the expansion of fracking for LNG exports and clearcutting forests for biofuel pellets.
Intense campaigning by the climate-justice focused Sunrise Movement, sustainable transportation group Transport For America, and many other groups has led President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to make shifting funds away from highway expansion to public transit a central plank of their climate-emergency response.
The New York Times notes that this “transformation is necessary to tackle climate change”, and that the Biden administration has already put a Texas freeway expansion on hold. Biden and Buttigieg are moving with the times as B.C.’s efforts are stuck in the past.
In March, B.C. announced "sectoral targets" for four sectors: transportation, industry, oil and gas, and buildings and communities. Transportation ended up with the least ambitious target range, at 27 to 32 percent below 2007 levels by 2030.
B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure has claimed that their urban-highway expansion projects have reduced greenhouse-gas (GHG) pollution since Gordon Campbell was premier two decades ago. For example, even now they claim that the $100 million McKenzie Interchange (only a few kilometres from the B.C. Legislature) will “significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions”. In the post-Trump era, this kind of climate misinformation is just not politically sustainable.
Induced demand means increased GHG pollution
Traffic quickly expands to fill expanded road space in urban areas. B.C.’s Minister of State for Infrastructure, Bowinn Ma, a licensed professional engineer, is very familiar with how widening highways increases traffic and the resulting GHG pollution.
Ma is one of the three ministers responsible for transportation in B.C.. The minister of transportation and infrastructure is Rob Fleming. George Heyman is minister of environment and climate change strategy and also now has responsibility for public transit and the major road network in Metro Vancouver as minister responsible for TransLink.
B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure has billions of dollars of urban-highway-expansion boondoggles under construction and in their plans. Their plan to widen Highway 1 to Abbotsford could cost a billion dollars, and expanding the Massey Tunnel from 4 to 8 lanes would cost well over two billion. Planned projects in the Greater Victoria area run into the hundreds of millions. That is, the B.C. government is planning to spend far more money increasing rather than reducing GHG pollution in the transportation sector. And, as minister Ma notes, widening highways makes traffic congestion worse.
When you make a car lane into a bus lane, a protected bike lane, or more space for pedestrians, people drive less, traffic "evaporates" or "disappears", and traffic speeds don’t change much.
Reducing GHG pollution at the speed needed requires that we reallocate a lot of road space to bus lanes, protected bike and roll lanes, wider sidewalks, and pedestrian-priority areas. This kind of climate action makes transit much more efficient and desirable, as well as making cities healthier and more pleasant. Better transit, safe sidewalks, and good cycling routes means that many families will be able to save thousands of dollars every year by choosing to own fewer cars.
Vancouver’s recently approved Climate Emergency Action Plan aims to make a lot of traffic evaporate in a hurry. The plan aims for reallocating at least 11 percent of road space to “walking, cycling and transit [to] greatly reduce dependence on fossil fuels through a reduction in vehicle ownership and kilometres travelled by vehicle”. Transit, walking, and cycling can move many more people than private vehicles in the same road space.
Vancouver is not alone. A contingent of leading cities—including Mexico City, Paris, and Seoul—are moving quickly to reallocate space and reduce GHG pollution. And these efforts are proving popular as people discover how much more pleasant their cities are becoming. The recognition of evaporating traffic is growing, even in establishment circles—a recent OECD International Transport Forum report recommends that cities “use road space reallocation to proactively manage traffic” and meet climate targets. This aspect of climate-mitigation science is backed by overwhelming evidence, and denying it is no longer tenable.
B.C.’s approach to climate action in transportation—to deny the need to actually reduce travel by private automobile—was common only a few years ago. But now more and more governments are admitting the obvious. For example, Scotland is now planning to cut car use by 20 percent over 10 years. Shifting to electric cars is extremely important, but the shift to fewer cars is also essential.
If we want fewer cars choking our cities, and healthier rural communities, people need convenient and affordable ways to travel to and from smaller communities as well as between cities without driving. A public highway bus network serving the whole province must be part of the CleanBC strategy.
Real climate action
B.C. must stop denying the overwhelming evidence for induced and evaporating traffic and join the jurisdictions that are taking effective climate action in the transportation sector.
The first step is to stop wasting money on urban highway-expansion projects that make traffic worse and increase GHG pollution. The proposal to replace the four-lane Massey Tunnel with an eight-lane tunnel costing upwards of two billion dollars is just the start of what needs to be rethought. Every region in the province has a list of highway-expansion boondoggles, and every region has transit and active transportation projects that are much better investments.
B.C.’s three ministers jointly responsible for transportation and climate policy have a tough choice ahead of them. Reversing decades of denial and shifting funding from highways to public transit won’t be easy. Neither will trying to push climate-destroying highway-expansion projects through in a province where alarm about the climate emergency has only temporarily been dampened by the COVID-19 emergency.
It is time for people who want real action on the climate emergency, and healthy affordable communities, to force these three ministers to make the right choice.