Eric Doherty: Traffic evaporation means we can reach B.C.'s new climate roadmap promise of 25 percent less traffic
In most ways, the CleanBC Roadmap to 2030 released by the provincial government on October 25th is a huge disappointment.
But the transportation section included a big surprise.
Instead of only the expected focus on electric cars, the Road to Transformation section calls for reducing “distances travelled in light-duty vehicles by 25% by 2030, compared to 2020”.
This is an apparent reversal of long-standing provincial policy of planning and building for ever-increasing automobile traffic volumes.
The Road to Transformation adopts an “efficiency-first model” that puts reducing distances travelled and mode shift (from private automobiles to public transit, walking, and cycling) at the top of the policy list, as shown in this graphic.
The Roadmap does not have a coherent description of how the province plans to reduce traffic by an average of over two percent every year between now and 2030. Instead, it states that this “can be achieved in part by supporting more compact urban planning in partnership with municipalities to increase active transportation and public transit”.
The day after the Roadmap was released, the provincial government also announced minor changes to legislation to make it easier for municipalities to approve more compact urban development in areas with good transit. This focus on land use is good and necessary, but residential and commercial land-use changes are slow and don’t reduce traffic volumes or greenhouse-gas (GHG) pollution on their own.
To get traffic volumes trending down requires a complete reversal of provincial transportation policy, which has focused on expanding urban highways and arterial roads to accommodate more traffic for more than half a century. An example of such a reversal is Scotland’s proposed transformation of their transportation policies, with the goal of a 20 percent reduction in car traffic over 10 years.
The science of induced traffic is well established: when you expand a congested road or highway, it quickly fills up with new traffic and congestion gets worse rather than better. And GHG pollution increases, even if public transit and active transportation are improved at the same time.
Currently, the provincial government has dozens of highway-expansion projects planned, ranging from the Keating Flyover in suburban Saanich (which might cost as little as $35 million) to the billion-dollar Highway 1 expansion in the Fraser Valley to the $4-billion plan to replace the four-lane Massey Tunnel with a new eight-lane tunnel.
None of these projects makes any sense if traffic will be decreasing by more than two and a half percent every year. Putting an end to highway expansion would allow these millions and billions to be reallocated to public transit, walking, and cycling.
More than 240 diverse organizations and businesses have signed an open letter that includes a demand that the B.C. government “reallocate infrastructure funds from highway expansion to transit and active transportation (cycling, rolling, and walking)”.
Recently, the Capital Regional District unanimously approved a policy calling on the provincial and federal governments to reallocate funding from highway expansion to public transit, walking, and cycling in Greater Victoria. If other regions follow suit, it could be hard for the provincial government to ignore its own climate roadmap and keep throwing money at highway-expansion boondoggles.
But reallocating money isn’t enough to reduce traffic and GHGs.
If we leave existing highways, roads, and parking lots as they are, traffic volumes will stay close to where they are even if transit is improved. That is one of the paradoxes of subways and elevated metros like SkyTrain: they provide great transit service without necessarily reducing driving.
The good news is that the principle of induced traffic works in reverse. When you subtract road space for cars, traffic evaporates. One of the most famous early accounts of evaporating traffic is Jane Jacobs’s account—in her 1961 bestseller The Death and Life of Great American Cities—of how after the road through Washington Square Park in New York City was closed, “cars just disappeared into thin air”. Traffic did not increase on the surrounding streets, as experts and the media had predicted.
Two decades ago, the accumulated evidence for traffic evaporation was summarized in a 2001 paper in the journal Municipal Engineer titled "Disappearing Traffic? The Story so Far". It says that when "reallocating roadspace from general traffic, to improve conditions for pedestrians or cyclists or buses...significant reductions in overall traffic levels can occur". In fact, large reductions in traffic levels are normal with well-planned projects.
In the past two decades, road-space reallocation for transit lanes, protected "bike and roll" lanes, pedestrian-priority streets, and wider sidewalks has become a normal and accepted part of climate action in cities like Paris, Seoul, and Mexico City. However, as Dario Hidalgo, a Bogotá-based civil engineer, notes: “While traffic evaporation has been well-documented for more than 20 years, most decision—and opinion—makers are still under the impression that reducing car lanes will make traffic worse.”
Sixty years after The Death and Life of Great American Cities became a bestseller, ignorance and denial of traffic evaporation is still commonplace. However, things are changing fast. In Paris, which was once choked with cars, traffic is down about 45 percent since 2001 and popular Mayor Anne Hidalgo translated her success in evaporating traffic to easily win France's Socialist Party presidential nomination. Even the conservative and oil-industry-linked International Energy Agency is calling for reducing “the use of cars in cities and overall car ownership levels”.
In B.C., Vancouver seems to be one of the few municipalities explicitly planning to evaporate traffic. Vancouver’s Climate Emergency Action Plan calls 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”.
Less traffic for livability and affordability, urban and rural
The CleanBC Roadmap to 2030 notes that Indigenous peoples are calling for improving public transportation with electric buses in B.C.’s Interior and other rural areas but does not commit to any specific actions. Reallocating money away from highway expansion could fund public inter-community bus service provincewide, as the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs is calling for.
To meet B.C.’s ambitious traffic-reduction target, this public bus network would have to be much better and more affordable than Greyhound ever was. Expanding and improving B.C. Transit’s modest BC Bus North network, using electric buses, is an obvious option. Passenger-train service on existing tracks is also needed in the longer term.
Frequent and affordable bus service between communities would make life more affordable and safer for people across B.C. People in rural areas and small towns spend a lot of money on long drives, and crashes on snowy highways are a serious threat. People in cities often pay to buy and insure cars primarily for visiting rural areas of B.C.
Reallocating road space in cities can make life more affordable, pleasant, and just. Car ownership is a huge expense, and walking, cycling, and rolling options throughout urban and suburban areas would relieve a financial burden for many. Protected bike-and-roll lanes, pedestrian-priority streets, and bus lanes make our cities more pleasant and healthy. The City of Victoria recently took steps to legalize the use of wheelchairs and mobility scooters on all-ages-and-abilities bike-and-roll routes, welcoming seniors and people with disabilities to access pleasant and affordable low-carbon transportation.
If municipalities and regional districts follow the lead of Vancouver and the Capital Regional District and embrace the reallocation of funds and road space, we could well see traffic volumes and GHGs declining soon. And life will become more pleasant and affordable.
Otherwise, the province’s pledge to reduce traffic by 25 percent by 2030 will just end up adding to the pile of missed and forgotten climate targets in B.C.