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(David Parkins)
(David Parkins)

Politics: Dispatch

Repurposing the viaducts Add to ...

When Sean Bickerton sent out New Year's cards this year to his wide circle of friends, he listed his top 10 wishes for 2010.

Among them: "Here's to having the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts come down!"

But immediately after Mr. Bickerton's card went out, there was a backlash. "I got a number of angry calls from friends who live out of Vancouver."

Mr. Bickerton, whose edge-of-Chinatown condo is two blocks from one of Vancouver's rare small chunks of elevated freeway-style road, had been encouraged by Vision Vancouver Councillor Geoff Meggs's suggestion that the city consider getting rid of them.

Doing so would turn his forgotten corner of the city into something that felt like a real neighbourhood, thought Mr. Bickerton, a music promoter and one-time council candidate who sits in the opposite political camp from Mr. Meggs - the Non-Partisan Association.

But Mr. Bickerton's friends reminded him that those viaducts are an important commuter route and getting rid of them would make their lives very, very difficult.

That clash between two basic desires that dominate Vancouver downtown life - walkable, bikeable urban neighbourhoods protected from cars, and a central city that needs to be accessible to 227,000 commuters a day - was played out this week on the political stage, as well as in Mr. Bickerton's life.

Vision Vancouver councillors voted Thursday in favour of a study to look at six options for the viaducts, from rerouting the traffic on them to existing roads below, to keeping them, to tearing them down. Even though they scaled down the original $700,000 cost of the study, which had sparked public concern, the decision wasn't made without some angst.

While many residents are excited about the new possibilities change would bring, there is also some concern about what it would mean to tamper with a major corridor and truck route that handles 35,000 commuters a day - a third of all the traffic from the east.

"We've just started trying to understand it, but we definitely would want to know what the impacts are going to be on our neighbourhood," said Leanore Sali, director of the Gastown business improvement association.

There's also worry about the economic impact if commuters have more trouble getting into downtown.

"A lot of people are saying, 'How is this going to work?'" said Charles Gauthier of the Downtown Vancouver BIA. "It worked to close them during the Olympics but that was when there was a 30-per-cent increase in transit."

This is a far more complex move than taking a lane of Burrard or Dunsmuir for bicycles, experts say. The Burrard bike lane was easily handled by Vancouver commuters because there was so much capacity on the Granville and Cambie bridges nearby.

That's typical for most of Vancouver: City engineers have always said Vancouver is remarkably resilient to traffic problems because it has such a robust grid. But the narrow neck of Vancouver to the east of downtown, where the city's oldest neighbourhoods are, is different. It doesn't have a lot of alternatives.

"What people have to understand about transportation is that it's very dynamic," said one local engineering expert, who didn't want to comment publicly because the issue has turned into such a political hot potato. "It works very well as long as there's capacity, but you have to be very careful if you take away any of that. You take down major structures and it makes a difference. Hastings is already a major bus corridor and it hasn't got much capacity. So where do you push the traffic through?"

It's not impossible, though. Many other cities have opted to take down viaducts and elevated expressways.

The idea has circulated for years in Vancouver, with architect Bing Thom as a particular champion. Last fall, Mr. Meggs, inspired by the planned shutdown during the Olympics, suggested the city look at closing them.

His idea had intuitive appeal. The viaducts, the only remnants of a failed attempt to build a freeway to downtown in the 1960s, cut off Chinatown from False Creek, create a dead zone on Main Street, and pull wads of commuter traffic through residential Strathcona. They also make it hard to plan urban activities in the land next to them.

Since then, staff have morphed Mr. Meggs's suggestion into six possible options, including rerouting Georgia and Dunsmuir down to Expo and Pacific Boulevards, closing Dunsmuir but not Georgia, or bringing the viaducts to the ground earlier on the east side so they would intersect with Main instead of passing over.

Even NPA Councillor Suzanne Anton, opposed to the study because it appears to set the city on an irrevocable path, said she can see the advantage of the last option because if would free up a valuable block of land that's now occupied by ramps.

Mr. Meggs maintains that the city is not committed to doing anything immediately, but the study will be useful for a long-term plan. Even in the short term, it will help with the city's current efforts to develop an official plan for the neighbouring Northeast False Creek district.

"It challenges the wider community to think about this and it's our last chance to do it as we plan this area."

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