Anthony Downs in Vancouver / Surrey

March 12, 2007 at 10:47 am Leave a comment

The GVRD and the City Program hosted U.S. urban theorist Anthony Downs (Stuck in Traffic) last week. Sun writer Doug Ward went on a tour with the Brookings scholar, and here’s his story from Saturday, March 10, 2007:

Even with the best transit plans, a U.S. traffic expert says, the GVRD will continue to be plagued by road congestion because that’s part of what makes a city.

Barring an economic implosion, future population growth means the Lower Mainland will become even more car-dominated than it is today, urban guru Anthony Downs says

One of the most influential traffic experts in the world says gridlock-weary residents of Greater Vancouver shouldn’t be deluded by ambitious plans for gleaming new rapid transit lines and bigger fleets of new buses.

Barring an economic implosion, says Anthony Downs, future population growth means our region will become even more car-dominated than it is today.

The most a revamped TransLink can do is slow the rate at which our highways and arterial roads become more clogged.

But Downs, who visited Vancouver this week, says we still have to make an effort to fight back against the lure of the automobile.

Governing bodies such as TransLink and the Greater Vancouver Regional District should expand road capacity, charge tolls on some lanes during peak hours, fund more transit and create more affordable and compact communities.

The 76-year-old American thinks it’s a fine idea for a new transportation authority to develop land around transit hubs as proposed this week by the provincial government.

He favours comprehensive regional planning managed by elected regional governments with real power.

But the elderly sage from the Brookings Institute, a think-tank in Washington, D.C., attaches a caveat: Traffic congestion is here to stay.

You can control its rate of growth. But you can’t get rid of it. There is no silver bullet.

All of which Downs said this week while on a tour of downtown Richmond — an area where planners envision the emergence of a town centre with a forest of highrises, new office buildings, diversified retail and accessible transit.

Downs was being guided along No. 3 Road by Chris DeMarco, a planner with the Greater Vancouver regional district. DeMarco told Downs about the GVRD’s attempt to concentrate future growth in Richmond’s city centre and seven other city centres across the region.

She pointed to early construction of elevated guideways of the Canada Line along No. 3 Road.

And she pointed out to Downs that she could see six buses moving down the busy street — evidence that people are willing to embrace transit.

“I see a lot of cars too,” countered Downs, ever the realist. “How many cars do you want to count?”

As they drove away in a regional district-owned car, Downs cautioned that the GVRD’s Livable Region Strategy and other pro-transit strategies are well and good — but that gridlock won’t disappear.

“Once you have congestion on your road system, it is very difficult to eliminate it.

“But what you can do is make it get worse more slowly.”

In 1992 Downs published Stuck In Traffic, a landmark book in which he outlined his principle of triple convergence — a dynamic which frustrates efforts to curb peak-hour congestion by pouring more asphalt.

Adding capacity has three unintended consequences, according to Downs. Drivers shift from alternative routes and begin to use the new, wider highway. Motorists who previously drove at off-peak times go back to driving at rush hour. And people using transit opt to commute by their car.

“Traffic will move much faster at first during rush hour but pretty soon the word gets out,” said Downs. Drivers will converge on the expanded route and once again cars will move at a crawl.

The upside is that the newly improved road will be able to carry more people at peak hours. “There are benefits but eliminating congestion isn’t one of them.”

Planner DeMarco said that Stuck In Traffic “was an important book because it confronted people with the fact that congestion is a function of a successful city.”

Stuck in Traffic argued for a comprehensive carrot-and-stick approach to traffic planning, said DeMarco. The carrots including better road systems and transit, and the sticks including tolls and other ways of influencing behaviour.

DeMarco said Downs’ broader perspective influenced the development of the successful U-Pass program for most post-secondary students in the GVRD.

Stuck in Traffic also shaped the perspective of DeMarco and other planners who successfully urged the city of Vancouver in the mid-’90s against adding more road capacity in its transportation plan.

In the Downsian universe, congestion isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Only prosperous and vibrant regions, after all, have congestion. Want to get rid of congestion? Have a recession. Or move to Hornby Island and play hacky-sack.

Living with congestion is an essential element of metropolitan life. Congestion allows the vast majority of us to move to and from work or school at the same times most days.

Downs made this point during a speech at Simon Fraser University when one student asked if it wasn’t time for politicians to restrict use of single-occupant vehicles.

“I think the idea of increasing the use of transit is an intelligent policy and could produce an alternative to single-occupancy vehicles,” said Downs.

“But let me say right off the bat: The idea of getting rid of congestion altogether is a delusion. Traffic congestion is an inescapable result of the way we organize society. It’s not going to go away — in fact, it’s going to get worse.”

Congestion, said Downs, is a solution to society’s needs rather than a problem.

“It’s a means by which we achieve other objectives that are more important, such as having a wide range of choice of where to live and work.”

Downs told his SFU audience that the GVRD predicts there will be 400,000 new jobs in the region by 2031. Even if 25 per cent — or 100,000 — of these new jobs were serviced by better transit systems, that still leaves 300,000 new employees driving to work in the region.

(Currently, only about 15 per cent of all commuting trips take place on transit.)

Clogged expressways are not a North American phenomenon, said Downs. While many European cities have excellent transit systems, they also have auto congestion. So do most urban centres in the developing world. Car travel, he added, accompanies rising incomes — just look at the mad rush to buy cars and build highways in China.

“Around the world, as people’s incomes rise and the population goes up, people buy vehicles.”

Greater Vancouver’s population rose from 1.9 million people to 2.1 million between 1996 and 2006. During the same time, the number of cars in the region jumped from 1.06 million to 1.3 million.

But policy-makers who warn that congestion is threatening the GVRD’s international competitiveness should relax, says Downs, because gridlock is growing faster in most other major metropolitan regions.

Which brings us to Down’s take on the GVRD’s Livable Region Strategic Plan and its goal of expanding transit and reducing the growth of auto travel while absorbing a projected 750,000 more people in the next 30 years.

Before flying to Vancouver for two speaking engagements, Downs read GVRD planning documents — calculator in hand — so that he could better address the question: What is to be done?

Downs doubts the GVRD can reduce the use of cars if the region’s population jumps by the forecasted increase.

The region’s residents now use cars for 70 per cent of commuting and over 80 per cent of all travel, said Downs.

He noted that the number of vehicles registered in Greater Vancouver rose by 55,000 between 2002 and 2003 while the population rose by only 31,200 — or 1.7 vehicles for every additional newcomer.

Transit now only accounts for about 15 per cent of commuting trips and so far cannot efficiently serve low-density neighbourhoods in many suburbs.

To make matters worse, he added, the developers of office parks are avoiding the GVRD’s eight regional town centres and moving out to low-density office parks where land is cheaper.

Land costs pose a dilemma for urban planners everywhere who want to concentrate jobs around transit hubs, said Downs.

“To concentrate jobs in growth centres means you need to control land there.

“You need some way to control the owners’ ability to raise rents because when you force offices and housing into specific areas, you drive up the price of land.”

Affordability of housing is a key challenge for the GVRD as it tries to control future growth and limit sprawl further east, said Downs.

He suggested that the region consider inclusionary zoning, an approach which requires developers to make a certain percentage of the housing units they build (usually 20 per cent) affordable to low- and moderate- income households.

Downs said inclusionary zoning could work in the GVRD if homebuilders are given off-setting benefits such as density bonuses and other regulatory breaks.

Inclusionary zoning, he added, works best if the rules are enforced by a regional authority and applied to all municipalities.

“If you leave affordable housing in the hands of local governments, it won’t work because local governments are dominated by homeowners interested in maximizing the value of their houses and so are afraid of having low-cost housing near them.”

GVRD planner DeMarco said that hundreds of municipalities in the U.S., especially in California, use inclusionary zoning.

The practice is among the methods being considered by the GVRD as it develops its regional affordable housing strategy.

Downs said attempts to control future growth will require a regional government capable of over-riding the wishes of individual municipalities.

“If you are going to do high-density stuff you need a unified plan where the housing, office, transit and highways go. And the plan can’t be based on maximizing the tax income for each of 21 municipalities.”

In the end, no matter how efficient our transit system or compact our communities, our roads will still be crammed with cars, says Downs.

We’ll still be stuck in traffic — it seems — but perhaps not quite as deep.

dward@png.canwest.com

© The Vancouver Sun 2007

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