Thirteen years ago, Vancouver set an explicit policy of not creating any more road space for cars – a policy that has earned it admiring attention abroad and some alarm at home that it was going to strangle itself economically.
This fall, city councillors, as they debate a new long-term transportation plan, will be contemplating something even more radical: A road diet to reduce the space for cars, especially single-driver cars.
“I hate to ring the bell on reducing the road space but the trend has been clear that we are not seeing the increase in other modes that we expected,” Councillor Geoff Meggs said this week.
“We were supposed to get to a 10-per-cent cycling goal by now but we’re only at 3.7 per cent. It may be that some major reallocation is necessary.”
In advance of that, Vancouver has been pushing on several non-car fronts, as it attempts to make life better for walking, cycling, bus-riding, car-sharing, skateboarding and taxi-riding streams of traffic.
Councillors approved a generous $25-million, two-year plan Thursday to improve its bike network and kicked off discussions about a master cycling plan for the next 10 years, with more millions to be spent on that. They also reduced parking rates for two-wheeled vehicles such as electric bikes and motorcycles.
On Tuesday, councillors okayed spending $2-million to enhance “pedestrian collector” routes in the city.
In the past month, city planners have started work on creating a separated bike path through downtown Vancouver. And that’s after having created lanes protected by concrete barriers on two bridges leading to the downtown peninsula, including the heavily used Burrard Bridge.
That move was expected to be controversial. It was until it opened and then opposition vanished.
“It just happened. I could almost feel the end of an era,” said Councillor Andrea Reimer. “That was a strong signal to me that we’re ready to move to a new level in talking about sharing the transportation network.”
That new level will be front and centre as councillors update the city’s 1997 transportation plan this fall, to make it more coherent than the patchwork of efforts of the last few months.
Ms. Reimer said she expects the reduction of road space for cars to be prominent in the debate.
The controversy over streets is part of an international trend to re-examine what to do about a valuable piece of real estate in cities.
“We were a little bit shocked when we were told that about 30 per cent of the city is paved,” Ms. Reimer said.
Vancouver isn’t unusual. It’s even doing a little better than the average. Urban-planning research has found that roads typically account for about 35 per cent of a city’s total land area.
The days when cars had free rein in that era are long over. Planners and city politicians look at which stream of locomotion should get priority and where.
They are also looking closely at how much room cars take. They require 140 square metres when they’re travelling, 37 square metres when they’re parked. And, Ms. Reimer said, one recent calculation she heard was that there are four parking spots for every one of the 1.5 million cars in the region.
“If you could figure out a more efficient use of allocating all this pavement, you could do all kinds of things,” she said.
But it will undoubtedly be difficult figuring out who will get what proportion of space.
Vancouver residents have heard a lot about cycling in recent months, but cyclists are only one of the groups tussling for a share of the pavement.
Taxi drivers, who formed a new lobbying group this week, are conducting an energetic campaign to get access to bus lanes.
Pedestrians don’t have a lobby group, but many councillors say they need to get more attention.
“It’s worrisome because we’ve achieved some of the cycling improvements lately, not at the expense of cars, but at the expense of pedestrians,” Mr. Meggs said.
And businesses everywhere are going to be campaigning to ensure that there’s enough room built in for commercial traffic.
Charles Gauthier, the executive director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, said businesses downtown are concerned that the city doesn’t seem to be following its own policies any more. The downtown got its own separate transportation plan in 2002 that specifically spelled out no removal of street parking, no removal of road space.
That seems to have been abandoned as planners map out a Dunsmuir Street bike lane that takes away space and parking.
“Where is the master plan?” Mr. Gauthier said. For downtown businesses, taking away road space has a definite practical consequence because it makes commercial deliveries more difficult.
Vancouver’s dilemma is going to be figuring out the right solution for all those interest groups. But it doesn’t look as though it will have a serious political fight.
Councillor Suzanne Anton, the city’s lone representative of the centre-right party, said she hasn’t heard a lot of complaining so far about bike lanes and doesn’t expect to hear an outcry when even more road space is reallocated.
“I think people will be okay with it if it’s a system that works for them.”