In Vancouver, Traffic Decreases as Population Rises

Can we all just pause for a moment and give Vancouver a standing ovation?

Vancouver prioritized the movement of people over cars, and it got more people and fewer cars. Image: ##http://www.pps.org/blog/what-is-walkability-how-do-you-measure-it-take-aways-from-this-years-trb-meeting/##Project for Public Spaces##

The perennial contender for the title of world’s most livable city has accomplished what Houston or Atlanta never even dream of: It has reduced traffic on its major thoroughfares even as its population has swelled. How did the city pull off this feat? The answer is intentionally, with smart policies.

In the 1970s, the people of Vancouver decided they wanted their city to be walkable and healthy. The city established a policy that it wouldn’t widen any roads to accommodate more single-occupancy vehicles.

Vancouver was in better shape than the average U.S. city to begin with, because it’s the only major city in North America with no freeways going through it. That meant the original street grid, constructed between 1880 and 1920, would have to suffice. To make that work, Vancouver worked hard to establish the kind of land use policies that would make living car-free a natural choice. The city prioritized walkable, mixed-use development and established a strong transit system with light rail, streetcars trolly buses, and rapid buses, as well as walking and biking connections.

And guess what? That strategy has worked exactly as planned. Vancouver officials recently trotted out traffic data to make the case for overhauling a traffic-heavy road by the waterfront into a street that prioritizes biking and walking while eliminating through traffic. The figures showed that on major streets, traffic has dropped 20 to 30 percent since 2006 — although the city has grown 4.5 percent percent over that time. Pretty neat trick.

Here’s the city chief transportation engineer, Jerry Dobrovolny, on the wider trend, as quoted in the terrific blog Price Tags:

We have seen a trend, a downward trend over the past 15 years – vehicles entering the city, vehicles entering the downtown, we have seen a downward trend on vehicles crossing the Burrard Bridge, we have seen a downward trend on vehicles entering and leaving [University of British Columbia].

So we’re seeing those continual drops city-wide.

Price Tags’ Gordon Price, a former city legislator in Vancouver, says every time a project is proposed for bikes or transit that reduces space for cars, there’s an outcry. “They keep predicting intolerable gridlock,” he said. “And it never happens. You can be in downtown Vancouver and it’s not congested.”

When you give people convenient transportation options that don’t involve driving, like Vancouver has, they will make practical choices not to drive, Price said. Vancouver isn’t the only place to demonstrate that transit-oriented growth can reduce traffic. Arlington County, Virginia, set off on a similar path in the 1970s, focusing development near Metro stations, and has seen traffic counts drop on major arterial roads even as population grows.

Vancouver’s newest street transformation — the creation of a waterfront biking and walking route by repurposing motor vehicle traffic lanes on Point Grey Road — got approved by the city council last week. While the project faced intense opposition from people who believe traffic will be shunted to other streets, experience shows that this type of change will help people get around the city without driving.

“It’s the kind of city you get when land-use matches up with transportation priorities,” writes Price. “And it’s the kind of city that’s healthier and … maybe even happier.”

“It’s the city we said we wanted – and the city we are getting.”

  • Anonymous

    “Still, much of our cities were built long before the era of professional real estate speculators”

    No they weren’t. Ever. The entire colonization of North America was based on real estate confiscation and speculation. The railroads and streetcar companies of the 19th and early 20th Century were heavily involved in the real estate business. Los Angeles and Atlantic City are two prime examples.

  • Anonymous

    At 22 million people New York is one of the largest metros in the world and it is geographically enormous. Of course commute times are long. That’s standard for any global city. Housing costs are high because demand exceeds supply. They must be doing something right.

  • Anonymous

    you mean a dramatic INCREASE in car-free households. The number of households in Philadelphia without a car grew by 62% or 6,920 households.

  • Anonymous

    Something is wrong with New York when it has an average commute that is 18 minutes longer than that of relatively transit-poor but gigantic Los Angeles and every other ultra car-dependent metro area in the country.

  • Anonymous

    Not really. Downtown LA is nothing of the job center that Manhattan is and few people in LA would even consider taking a job 50 miles away because the commute would take hours. That’s not really great for the regional economy of SoCal and everyone there knows it. It’s why they’re spending tens of billions to rebuild their rail network. 68 minutes on a train, reading, sleeping or on my laptop is far more productive than an hour idling in traffic just to drive 4 miles. It actually took me over an hour to drive to LAX from 4 miles away. I could’ve walked there faster and I would have walked it if it hadn’t been illegal to walk on the road we were on. It’s also taken me 2 hours to drive the 12 miles from Santa Monica to DTLA. People in LA just shrug it off. Short of some extreme situation that sort of thing is unheard of in New York. People in the NYC metro are willing to commute further because they’re not driving and because the commute times are reliable. Show up late to a meeting in NYC and everyone will be looking at their watch wondering what your problem is. Schedule a meeting in LA and no one is surprised if you’re an hour late.

  • Missing Vancouver

    Experience shows it won’t last in Houston. Sorry. You can’t build your way out of it. You have to rethink how a city works, not just build more freeways. We’ll check back with you in about 10 years.

  • Missing Vancouver

    Do you live in Vancouver Jonny? You can get anywhere in 20 min. in a car or 15 min. on a bike. It’s a grid system. If the road you’re on is ‘congested’, move over to the next one. It works great.

  • Anonymous

    I live in Chicago. We perfected the grid system. Moving over isn’t as easy as you make it out to be.

  • Joe R.

    There’s a HUGE difference between buying vacant land and building a railroad to encourage settlement/increased land prices, versus buying already built housing in bulk solely for the purpose of artificially inflating the price. In the former case, arguably at least the railroads contributed something (i.e. a transportation network) which justified profiting on the side from land holdings. In the case I mentioned, exactly what value are these real estate speculators adding? They’re not building any new housing because all they’re doing is buying and holding existing housing. They’re usually not encouraging others to build more housing because most areas where speculation is rampant don’t have much vacant land. All they’re doing is artificially inflating prices and making it hardly for those who want to buy housing to live in. Same thing with commodity speculators. And actually pretty much the same with stock brokers. These are different sides of the same coin-namely groups which extract money from society with adding anything tangible of of net worth. Or put another way, they’re participants in a shell game where the last one in generally loses big time. That’s exactly what happened in 2008. Those who got in on the tail end of the housing bubble thinking they too were going to make a killing lost.

  • Joe R.

    It sounds like LA could also benefit enormously from a decent bicycle network. I guess it all depends upon what you’re used to, but I’m amazed people in LA would tolerate such long travel times. If nothing else, I would think after enough people spent enough time sitting in traffic they would be screaming for alternatives. You’re right though-people in NYC would never tolerate that situation.

    It’s also worth noting that variability in travel times is far more important than average travel times. If your hypothetical commute in NYC is 68 minutes but the variability is only 5 minutes (typical of many subway commutes) then that’s a lot more tolerable than a 50 minute commute in LA which has a variability of 40 minutes. In NYC, you only need to leave 73 minutes before your arrival time to be assured of getting there on time in all but the most extreme situations. In LA you need to leave 90 minutes earlier, and on average you’ll get there 40 minutes early.

    I personally commuted to college for 5 semesters 64 miles each way. This wouldn’t have been feasible to do by car due to the extreme variability in travel times (and the fact that I couldn’t do anything else during the commute). It was feasible thanks to reliable rail travel which usually had a variability in travel time of less than 10 minutes. The trip averaged 2 hours. If I left 2 hours, 10 minutes before I needed to be there, I was rarely late. I mainly needed a 10 minute buffer to account for variability in local bus/subway travel times because the NJ Transit train left from Penn Station on a set schedule. Coming home I made the trip on average about 10 minutes faster because I usually had close to zero waiting time for the subway/local bus. Besides all this, I was usually productive for at least the hour I was on NJ Transit.

  • Transportation TO

    The article talks about the city of Vancouver, but the traffic
    reductions are being basically through its downtown, which is a small fraction of the overall urban area, that’s why it’s misleading. This is mostly due to an increase of residents moving into downtown, where their place of work is, which decreases the need for driving a car. What about the population that can’t afford to live downtown, i.e.: the large majority? Well, their commuting time, and traffic out of the downtown has increased.

    Rapid mass transit definitely helps, but also an increase on road capacity to serve the majority of the population who has no better option than to drive their cars to work.

    Urban transportation planning is about the acknowledgement of all realities within an urban area, not of a few in a specific, but less affordable, part of town.

  • Transportation TO

    Saying “you can’t build your way out of it” is like saying you can’t build enough schools on ever increasing urban density. Are you going to stop building schools, and try to accommodate more children per classroom? Or do you build more and deliver better quality of education?

    The same is applicable for roads. When you stop building roads, you end up squeezing traffic into formerly quiet residential roads, increasing the chances of accidents on pedestrians and cyclists. When you build a new highway, you create an incentive to use the new expressway capacity, but also end up removing traffic pressure on smaller roads.

  • Transportation TO

    Induced demand does create some incentive to use the new road capacity, but the people who already have a quick and convenient ride on transit, or bicycle, will stick with it. Besides, the new road, or expressway, ends up relieving traffic pressure from smaller roads. It’s all about what’s more competitive, in terms of time, money, and other considerations.

    The other phenomenon that occurs correlated to this, is that new highway – or rapid mass transit – capacity, brings along additional density, therefore increasing the usage of that new transportation capacity.

    A growing city should never stop developing new infrastructure, either transportation, education, water, etc. Otherwise, any one that gets neglected will end up being used in excess of capacity.

    Also, by increasing density, the price of land becomes increasingly unaffordable, which in turns creates urban sprawl that accommodates new affordable residential and commercial development. This brings us back to square-one, in terms of renewed road congestion.

    Urban planning is a delicate balance that needs to consider all urban realities, including the needs for new road capacity.

  • Missing Vancouver

    You don’t need a highway in a city, you need a local street serving all modes of transportation. Highways are for getting between cities, across states, across countries. When you build highways for cars in an urban or more often a suburban environment, you temporarily lower perceived congestion getting from dowtown big city to suburban pleasantville, supporting urban sprawl and drawing – guess what – more people, and their cars. You won’t find a lot of bus routes to bedroom communities with 2 houses per block. The shiny black lanes will eventually fill up again because the sprawl will continue until the next 4 or 8 lane freeway is built to offset the ‘worsening problem’. Then you get those really magnificent 16 lane parking lots that go on for miles. It really doesn’t work in the long term. You can check in with any major US city – but start with L.A. as they have some great experience in this regard.

  • Ian Turner

    Um, I think highways usually bring sprawl, which is the opposite of density.

  • DrewWho

    People always talk of these studies but I haven’t encountered anything definitive, just hearsay. Since the federal government put in new mortgage lending rules the Vancouver housing market has cooled. This tells me that the rich from China are not as big an influence as people from Canada in buying these condos. There are hot housing markets in other parts of the country (Alberta and Saskatchewan) and the province (Kelowna) but they have not been blamed on foreign investors. It is easy to focus on foreign buyers and lose sight of all the other people trying to buy out there (and probably blaming the foreigners as well). Do they not have an effect on the prices too? Do they not outnumber the foreign investors? What percentage of condo buyers are foreign? Without any hard data, in the minds of many it’s probably greater than 50%.

    Also, the Olympic athletes’ village did not sell out. In fact they had to sell the remaining condos at drastically reduced prices. Why didn’t the foreign investors snap all those condos up in the first place?

    There was also a scandal where real estate marketing employees were masquerading as Chinese buyers:

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/real-estate-firm-apologizes-after-employees-pose-as-buyers-in-news-stories/article8688210/

  • DrewWho

    Here’s a juicy quote from that link I just posted:

    “According to 2011 data by the Landcor Data Corporation, 75 per cent of those who purchased Metro Vancouver condos as investment properties are from Metro Vancouver. About 3 per cent are from the U.S. and 2 per cent are from other countries.”

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/real-estate-firm-apologizes-after-employees-pose-as-buyers-in-news-stories/article8688210/

  • Transportation TO

    Yes, you do also need highways to go across town, or you end up with too much traffic in small streets. The anti-highway mentality is what creates danger in our streets, because the main avenues are too congested. You can get away of highways in small towns, since travel times are short. But on large cities like Vancouver, you cannot force people to spend an additional 2 hours daily because you’re simply anti-highway. Mass rapid transit is definitely part of the solution, but highway are an efficient mode too. Different modes for different realities of people and their activities.

    As for sprawl, this is solely the result of unaffordability in dense urban centres, not of highways. Suburban highways are the result of sprawl, the other way around, since are the most efficient and immediate form to connect the new communities to the urban centres. You can’t expect to continuously increase density, at least not on a free society, since the majority cannot afford to do so, being Vancouver a clear example of this.

    As for L.A., it probably doesn’t have sufficient highway capacity, but it definitely doesn’t have sufficient mass rapid transit. It hasn’t accommodated the demand for the latter mode of transportation. A big problem here is the unjustified enormous costs to build mass transit in the US. There are a number of special interest groups that end up usurping the resources to build new transit, so these projects end up costing 3-5 times what it should. At this rate, becomes too inefficient to provide new mass rapid transit. We need capital and operational transit costs rationalization, and strict enforcement.

  • Transportation TO

    No, it’s the other way around. Sprawl is the result of unaffordable housing due to urban density, as Vancouver so clearly shows. This new sprawl, in turns creates suburban highways to connect them. Sure these new highways create new density along its path, but that’s how city grows. In this chicken and egg game it’s the new suburban development that brings the need for highways.

    In past decades suburbia grew out a of a demand for large lots of property. Today it’s not anymore, since the cost of maintaining a large house is too expensive, therefore the rise in demand for housing in the urban centres, and its costs. Lower income families have little choice but to buy outside urban centres.

  • Michigan Grandma

    The article did say population is up–also reversing the depopulation trend. Without high transportation costs those households can afford to spend more on housing.

  • Missing Vancouver

    I’m not sure who you’re arguing with TO – certainly not me. I did not say I was anti-anything. When you present this as an all or nothing discussion, us versus them, you really preclude a reasonable discussion about the topic. The picture of the world you are painting is really bleak – unbridled sprawl driven by lower real estate costs, highway engineers chasing sprawling bedroom communities, nefarious ‘special interest’ groups hijacking good transporation dollars for mass transit. Wow. I’ll stick a more enlightened and hopeful view of the world where land use and transportation are linked, and people who contribute to the decision making process are looking constructively about how healthy communities are built over time, with balanced choices that are not just viewed through the windshield of a car. I lived 6 years in Vancouver with a car, 6 years without, working, living, playing. The 6 years without were the healthiest and happiest of my life to date. I’ve been to Houston, I’ve been to L.A. I’ve been to Chicago. I’ve been to Toronto. I choose Vancouver. Sorry, its nothing personal,

  • Joe R.

    One key point you need to consider here is the fact that if you make driving faster, more people will do it. The converse is also true. Take your hypothetical scenario where you say no highway means two hours additional spent each day driving. That’s not what will happen. The reality is that the vast majority of people won’t spend two additional hours driving if there is no highway. They’ll either move closer to work, or take a job closer to home. Some additional trips will be made on local streets if there’s no highway, but most people do a cost-benefit analysis. It’s not worth having a lifestyle which entails two more hours each day spent in a car. People will adjust their lifestyles to avoid that amount of extra driving.

    This isn’t to say the case can’t be made for some urban highways. Cities need goods delivered, and highways allow delivery vehicles to make their deliveries much more efficiently. So yes, urban highways may be needed in large cities, but they should be restricted to delivery vehicles, buses, and emergency vehicles only. No private cars should be allowed because that only facilitates living in the suburbs and driving to work in the city. That’s a role mass transit should play. Remember it only takes a small number of cars in a city to make life miserable for everyone. Also, the land used for roads and parking means less land for housing.

    The main reason urban housing is currently expensive is because it’s in short supply. There are all sorts of reasons for this, but that’s the heart of the problem. Fix that first before deciding whether or not more highways are needed.

    As for sprawl, the reasons for it are complex, but without suburban highways there would be a lot less sprawl. There are limits to how much time most people are willing to spend in a car each day. At some point this time outweighs any cost or space benefits of less dense living. Highways reduce the time side of the equation enough to enable sprawl to spread over much larger areas. Without highways, suburbs might only be feasible out to about 15 miles of the city center (that’s assuming a 15 mph average speed on local streets and a one hour tolerance for commutes). With highways you could spread this radius out to as much as 50 miles. That’s over ten times as much natural landscape area paved over.

  • billy_brough

    Vancouver is such a pretty city. Notwithstanding all the interesting discussion on the merits of various roading infrastructure, I really want to know how long you had to wait to take that photo?! I’ve never seen “the Couver” with blue skies like that!!!

  • Anonymous

    There is zero correlation between density and housing costs. North Philadelphia is has some of the densest zip codes in the US and yet you can buy a 3 bedroom house for $60k. Ditto Baltimore, parts of Scranton, Pittsburgh, etc, etc.

    Vancouver has high housing costs because it has a limited supply of land. The ocean is to the west, the mountains are to the north and west and the US border is to the south. The supply of land has been restricted further to protect some farms and forests and to keep people from building in the floodplain. It’s also experienced rapid growth over the last 15 years in no small part because of its high quality of life relative to other Canadian cities. That is why Vancouver is expensive.

    Long Island is famous for it’s 80 miles of sprawl and is one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. Ditto the Boston suburbs. The Bay Area is nothing but one giant ring of sprawl with one small nugget of density (SF) in the middle and the housing costs are among the most expensive in the world. Again, absolutely nothing to do with density and everything to do with a limited supply of land in a part of the world that a lot of people want to live in. If you want to see a place with low housing costs and unlimited land look at Detroit or Houston.

  • Gerry McGuire

    The statement that vehicle use is on a downward trend is an outright lie. I saw the graph in a city report that made that same claim-there was a sharp one time downturn between 1998 and 2000 and the trend has actually been slightly upward since then. The conflict between cyclists and motorists downtown is intense, worse than it ever was because the separated infrastructure is balkanizing and sets people against people.

  • Gerry McGuire

    It’s photoshopped.

  • Gerry McGuire

    Less traffic is a lie-see my comment above.

  • Gerry McGuire

    You’re right, this article is full of half truths and untruths. It’s all about implementing Agenda 21. Look it up. Learn what it means for your community. Resist it.

  • Gerry McGuire

    No kudos to Vancouver-the picture painted in this article is completely false. I drive professionally in Vancouver and congestion downtown has gone from bad to worse. The claimed reduction is false, based on a one time dip almost fifteen years ago, vehicles coming downtown has been increasing for 12-13 years. New migrants tend to use transit more until they can establish themselves. Auto sales in the Lower Mainland are at record levels for the last two years. This whole article is one big lie.

  • Gerry McGuire

    The so called downward trend of vehicles coming downtown is a lie. Price is using an engineering report that does not actually show what is being claimed. There was a one time dip at the beginning of the fifteen year period, since then the numbers of cars coming downtown has increased. As a professional driver based downtown I can tell you congestion has a real economic, societal cost, and it is worse in downtown Vancouver now than it has ever been.

  • Gerry McGuire

    EXACTLY!

  • Dave

    Are you familiar with the Bay Area at all? There is some sprawl in the North and Far Eastern Bay Area, but that’s about it. The San Francisco Metro Area has 4 million people and is the second most densely populated metro area in the United States, behind LA. The San Jose Metro Area, which is directly connected to the San Francisco Metro Area, is 3 million people and is the third most densely populated metro area in the United States. This half ring around the San Francisco Bay is home to one of the most densely populated and largely populated areas of the United States. There is sprawl in the North Bay, but most Bay Area residents live in areas with a far higher population density than the national average.

  • spijim

    The average density of the SF MSA is 1,025 p/sq mi. That’s not dense. Like I said, it has a small, dense core and the rest of it is suburban. San Francisco = 17,620/sq mi. San Mateo Co. = 1,600/sq mi. Contra Costa = 1,300/sq mi

    In any case, my point was that there’s no positive correlation between density and housing prices. Housing price is a function of supply and demand – not density. In places like the Bay Area, Boston, NYC, supply is constricted through zoning at suburban densities over large areas of the metro.

    Also, LA is only more dense at the MSA level. It’s not more dense at the CSA level nor at the urbanized area level. Basically, LA sprawl is more dense than NY sprawl. Congratulations.

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