In the 1960s, glitzy freeway systems that funnelled cars into cities were all the rage across North America. They helped link metropolises with trucking routes and the ever-growing suburbs. They facilitated the flood of automobiles into downtown cores in the morning, and their retreat to sprawling new neighbourhoods outside of town later in the afternoon.
But Vancouver refused to join that freeway trend, and it was likely the most consequential decision its council ever made – to that point, anyway. It allowed the city to chart a different course, one that encouraged residential living in the central district. The concept became an urban-planning phenomenon known as Vancouverism, one since copied around the world.
Today, Vancouver once again finds itself at the crossroads of change.
Last month, Vancouver city council conditionally approved a Climate Emergency Action Plan designed to help the city meet its carbon-reduction targets for 2030 (and beyond). The plan includes policies to retrofit homes and buildings (with companies and residents picking up most of the costs) and to restrict parking on side streets, and it envisions 50 per cent of the total kilometres driven in the city to be undertaken by zero-emission vehicles.
The two most noteworthy aspects of the blueprint, however, include making neighbourhoods more environmentally sustainable and introducing mobility pricing. Both would radically change the city for the better.
Under the first measure, the city will aim to have 90 per cent of all trips taken in a city neighbourhood by 2030 to be on foot, bike or transit. (Currently the rate is about 54 per cent). This would be accomplished by creating more local amenities such as shops, parks, schools and community centres, so as to avoid long trips in the car to access them. It sounds downright utopian.
Mobility pricing is more contentious. It would place a levy on those driving in a designated area of Vancouver’s downtown core, in a bid to discourage trips by automobile. Given that almost 40 per cent of Vancouver’s carbon pollution comes from gas-fuelled vehicles, it’s a sensible policy.
Vancouver isn’t exactly breaking new ground here. Mobility pricing already exists in several cities around the world, including London, Stockholm and Singapore. But not surprisingly, the idea is receiving early push back in Vancouver on multiple fronts.
The business community, for one, is worried the scheme will kill commerce downtown. (It said the same thing about bike lanes. Never happened.) There is also concern that such a levy could place a financial burden on low-income and marginalized people. A majority of those who fall into that category are already heavy transit users, but this is something that would have to be closely monitored. There would have to be discounts (or possibly a means-based pricing structure) as well as exceptions, especially for vehicles delivering goods to businesses. They have no other transportation options.
Anyone who drives downtown regularly and pays the exorbitant parking rates that exist there can likely pay a few extra dollars a day in mobility pricing fees. That said, once the pandemic is behind us, it’s doubtful as many people will be travelling downtown to work after successfully performing their jobs from home for a year.
Of course, it would be far better if Vancouver’s road-pricing plan was part of a broader, region-wide initiative. That would be the fairest, most sensible, policy, and would have the greatest chance of substantially reducing emissions across Metro Vancouver. But politicians are risk-averse. They don’t want to lose votes. It’s far easier to set emissions targets far off in the distance, when our fearless elected officials are long gone and no longer accountable for the destruction for which inaction on climate change is already responsible.
Vancouver committed to reducing its CO2 emissions by 50 per cent of its 2007 levels by 2030. So far, it has cut them by nine per cent. It will need radical solutions to get them to the finish line; incremental reductions won’t get it done. So either city council gets serious about this and moves ahead with a bold climate agenda, or it concedes defeat and lets nature take its course.
The mobility pricing endeavour is still a ways off. A final report will be tabled in 2022, with a final vote a year later and implementation two years after that. So there is lots of time for this worthwhile plan to be blown off course by those advocating for the status quo.
I hope the city has the same trailblazing courage it demonstrated decades ago – the kind of gumption that laid the groundwork for Vancouver to become the envied global star it is today.
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