The Globe and Mail has sought out columns from thought leaders in Western Canada, people whose influence is shaping debate, but whose names may not be widely recognized.
I have a small file called Extraordinary Statistics – stuff so hard to believe that hardly anybody does. Here are three facts:
- The number of vehicles coming in and out of downtown Vancouver in 2010 is about the same as it was in 1965 – though population and jobs on the peninsula have more than doubled.
- If you are between the ages of 16 and 24 and live in the City of Vancouver or at the University of British Columbia, and you have a driver’s licence, you're in the minority.
- A single SkyTrain station at Commercial and Broadway gets more traffic than YVR, our airport.
The trend towards what used to be called “alternative transportation” is not what's extraordinary (that’s what we’ve been planning for); it’s the speed at which it happened.
Back in the 1976, when engineers tried to imagine getting vehicle traffic down to 75 per cent of all trips, they couldn't even put a date on when that might happen. “Far Future” was the target. We passed that in 1992 when we thought that by 2021, if we ambitiously planned for it, car use could be brought down to 58 per cent.
In the city, we’re already there.
So now the goal is that by 2020, half of all trips will be by foot, bike or transit, and by 2040, two-thirds of all trips. Actually, it’s not really a goal; it’s a necessity.
All the growth in transportation demand in the city has to happen by modes other than single vehicle so that the current number of cars, trucks and buses will have enough room to get around efficiently. If the next million or so people all choose to drive, then we really do get gridlock since there isn’t enough room to handle an increase on that scale.
Another extraordinary statistic: A quarter-million vehicles in the next 30 years (projecting past growth) would be equal to a line of parked cars running 3,700 kilometres – from Horseshoe Bay to Sault St. Marie – sufficient to fill up every arterial in the region. It would require 66 square kilometres of parking space, at a cost to build underground of about $90-billion – 12 times the cost of all the transit we would need for the next decade or more.
From a planning perspective, the choice seems obvious: Continue to do what we’ve done so successfully (see statistics above). But publicly, there’s an extraordinary difference in perception.
We have next to zero tolerance for failure in our transit system if it happens even once or twice a year, while accepting the daily failure of a road-based system where every vehicle is a weak link. Each weekday, helicopters provide live images of accidents and back-ups; radio reports on the delays that affect thousands. That difference in perception is so ingrained we hardly notice, though it’s reflected in political strategy.
We as a region will be voting in the next year on whether to raise taxes to build more transit. We will not be voting on whether to build the new Massey Bridge across the Fraser. That’s a done deal: a $2-billion to $3-billion project that will increase traffic and put immense pressure to develop property to the south on the Fraser delta, land at or below sea level.
So consider two scenarios. As British Columbia becomes a carbon dealer to the world, we use that acquired wealth to build more vehicle-based infrastructure, which shapes our region around parking lots and arterials, and sprawls on to vulnerable lands. We vote down transit. We argue about bike lanes. We complain about gridlock.
Or rather, this. We capture the wealth from a carbon economy to accelerate the path we are already on: a more compact region that develops more choices in how we live and move; that accommodates already-changing, more active lifestyles; prepares for climate change by reducing risk and saving money; and offers some aspirational hope for the future while adopting and developing technologies, jobs and behaviours that reduce carbon.
It’s actually close to the choice we are going to be making in the next year. That decision on transit funding will determine which direction we take; it will be about who we are as a people, what we see for our future and whether we are prepared to pay for it.
The result, and the consequences, will be extraordinary.