Progressive politics, ideas & culture


Thoughts while stuck in traffic

This Magazine Staff

I’ve been spending some time in Seattle lately visiting an ailing grandfather which means I’ve been stuck, bumper to bumper, on the I-5 for literally hours a day. I’m talking about the commute between my grandfather’s house in north Seattle, the hospital and downtown, three places quite close to each other. Just the sheer number of cars that role through Seattle each day, all day, is quite astounding. Rush hour is especially brutal.
The on-ramps have stop lights to space the cars getting on, this can mean waits of up to twenty minutes when busy. Once you’re on, it’s six/eight/ten lanes of bumper to bumper in both directions. When you finally get off, whether in north Seattle or downtown, you’re stuck in even more congestion.
This brings me to the Gateway Project; the BC government’s plan to “improve” regional transportation, specifically the plan to twin the Port Mann bridge and widen Highway 1 into East Van (aka my back yard). I think it’s a horrible idea. Vancouver currently has minor (by North American standards) rush hours, which some think can be solved simply by adding more highway.

It was Jane Jacobs’ book Dark Age Ahead that introduced me (I’m young) to the idea of “induced demand” that more freeways mean more cars, hence more congestion especially around major off ramps. My place in East Vancouver already gets plenty of commuter traffic to begin with and would become unbearable.
But don’t worry about me, Jacobs’ main argument against highways is that urban neighbourhoods, the economic and creative heart of the city, are often destroyed or significantly altered by megaprojects like these. Imagine the harm it could do to the cultural life of Commercial Drive and Strathcona to have thousands more cars per-day inching through the Downtown Eastside. More traffic would then necessitate extending the freeway even further into the city. The last time we allowed something like this to happen, Vancouver’s only black neighbourhood was destroyed to create the Georgia Viaduct. I like to think that in this “post car, post racist” age, there are better ways to organize a city.
A vocal movement of people opposed to the project already exists, check out for more info. Similarly, the David Suzuki Foundation’s briefing document (highly recommended reading) suggests that highway construction is only a (very) temporary solution to traffic congestion and ends up doing far more harm than good.
The answer to the traffic problem, according to almost everyone who studies the issue, is light rail and more busses. The B-Line experiment–articulated express busses to the university and the airport–has been such an overwhelming success in terms of ridership and affordability, why not replicate it everywhere else?

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