I've seen one possible future for Vancouver and it's scary

Post by Daniel Fontaine in


Real Gridlock
Los Angeles is now in almost perpetual gridlock restricting people and goods movement

If any of you have been wondering why I haven't posted anything on the blog over the last couple of weeks, nor made appearances on the Bill Good Show, it's been due to the fact I took the family down the west coast to Anaheim for a trip to Disneyland. On the way down, we made pit stops in Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Let me first say that we had a great trip. For the most part, the Americans we met were friendly, generous and completely hospitable during our visit. However, as the co-editor of an urban affairs blog, it was hard for me to travel to three large American cities and not make some mental notes of how they compare to Canada's urban centres.

Although there are many interesting comparisons I could delve into regarding both Portland and San Francisco, I'd like to focus on my experience in Los Angeles - a city which by all accounts appears to be on the verge of a major transportation and economic crisis.

I've traveled to LA a half dozen times or so over the last couple of decades. It has always been a special place for me to visit as I alway enjoy Southern California's climate and its myriad of attractions. However, this most recent visit will likely be my last - at least for a really long time.

Twenty years ago LA was a busy city with a spaghetti network of interstate freeways that were busy, but you could always get around. Today, the urban centre known as Los Angeles is almost always in gridlock. Major roadways like the I-5 which cut through the city resemble more of a parking lot, than a major engineering marvel meant to keep people moving. I actually laughed aloud when I saw signs the engineers put up saying "maximum speed 65 mph".

We drove into LA at about 10 pm at night hoping that traffic would be lighter than during "rush hour". We were so wrong. Once we reached the outskirts of LA (about 30 miles away from the core) our speed quickly dropped from about 65 mph to only 35 mph. The closer we got, the slower it got. Eventually it was bumper to bumper once we arrived in Hollywood.

The so-called HOV lanes were useless as they are only in effect during designated "rush hour" periods [they are obviously still in denial that rush hour now last more than 60 minutes]. So despite the fact there were four of us in the vehicle, we were crammed in with all the other single occupant vehicles plodding their way along Hollywood 101 freeway.

"Where are all these people going at this time of the night," my wife asked me. It wasn't the last time that question would be asked over the five days we spent in LA. In fact, you couldn't help but feel like LA was on the verge of some transportation crisis. With simply no more room to expand their super freeways, how would they cope with even more cars being put on the road each year? Even if they did have the room to expand their freeways, clearly building more lanes wasn't the answer to their traffic woes.

Extremely poor planning decisions which encouraged the growth of suburban neighbourhoods is at the root of the transportation mayhem facing California's largest city. For as far as the eye can see, there are thousands of acres of single family homes sprawling North, East and South of the downtown core. The downtown itself is almost void of any life after 5 pm as only a handful of residential towers have been constructed to help bring people into the core. Most disappointing is that despite knowing what the pitfalls are, low density growth continues unabated throughout the region.

I do have some fond memories of Disneyland and my son enjoying his experience, however, I have far too many other memories of being stuck in LA traffic. In fact, on the day we left to head back to Vancouver, we actually had to wake up my son and 11 year old niece at 5 am and get on the road by 5:30 am in order to avoid getting stuck in gridlock on the I-5. I must say I did feel for the people who must get up by 4 am every morning in order to get to work on time in the LA basin. What a horrible existence.

On the long trip back to Vancouver, I had quite a few hours to ponder my most recent LA experience and compare it to the Vancouver region and its future growth plans. As a result, I can't help but look at plans to facilitate vehicle use by expanding the Port Mann Bridge, as well as other recent "shovel ready" road construction projects with a bit more skepticism. I can't help but look at the proliferation of new low density, car-dependent single family housing developments in the Fraser Valley and wonder if it will become our version of the San Fernando Valley. I also wonder if our visionary multi-billion transit plan will ever see the light of day.

I grudgingly admit that I am even looking at the recent lane re-allocation trial on the Burrard Bridge in a different light. If the future of Metro Vancouver really does look even a little like LA, and facilitating more vehicle use will get us there, then perhaps removing one lane on a six lane bridge wasn't so bad a decision after all. Dare I say it might even be time to retire our $35 dollar "www.gregorsgridlock.com" investment and prepare for the onslaught of "I told you so" emails. I've asked to put this topic on the agenda for our next backroom CityCaucus corporate executive meeting next Wednesday. I'll keep you posted.

So there you have it. I brought the family down to LA simply expecting a lot of good memories and a fun time in the sun, and I came back a changed man! There is no way on earth I would ever want Metro Vancouver to become even a tenth of what LA has become. As a result, I'll do everything possible to ensure that it never happens.


I'm wondering if the heat got to you?

There are some excellent local blogs (Stephen Rees and Gordon Price) that have repeatably mentioned that building lane capacity only invites congestion. A prime example was the opening of the Alex Fraser which was operating at capacity within 6 months, years before planned.

Many people leave their car behind to get downtown not because they love the company they meet on translink buses, but because of the inconvenience of driving downtown.

Or take the option of commuting downtown from Squamish, it's closer than Abbotsford, but the highway was never in a condition to be convenient. Now, even if growth on the North Shore is supposed to be limited, the mayors are worried about the Lions Gate back-ups because of increased commuting from the Sea to Sky corridor.

As far as the Burrard Bridge is concerned, the bridge was oversized compared to the bottlenecks controlling access at either end of the bridge anyway. This trial, if continued, will turn out to be a bargain compaired to the other options promoted, and the city probably saved more in legal bills by implementing the trial rather than waiting for one of the other options. And isn't that what you guys at citycaucus like, seeing the city save money?

good for you

a trip to LA will always male someone despise motordom

"make" someone . . .

Having been to LA several times and taken the exact same routes repeatedly, it still shocks me that a route which should take 15-20 minutes on paper takes 45 minutes at BEST and 4.5 hours at worst. Or should I say, worst so far.

I will never forget sitting on the bus on the freeway, being passed by rollerbladers.


Great post. Regardless of what is going on in Vancouver, before we decide if it's "right" or whatever else, it's useful to reflect and/or experience examples around us.

If there's anything I've learned about Vancouver, it's that we build up so much energy getting excited about what is going on in our little bubble that we lose sight of whether we have the proper big picture in mind.


nice freudian slip.
you know men and their cars.... *chortle chortle

The photograph you post is a highway with 5 lanes in each direction - interestingly, that is probably going to be a similar sight in Vancouver along highway one from Surrey all the way to 1st avenue.

Bravo, Daniel, for having the grace to change your opinion on an issue that has raised the emotional mercury of city residents to boiling!

You've struck on an important lesson, that more lanes do not equal less congestion. But more importantly, when considering city planning and initiatives such as the Burrard Bridge bike lane trial, we need to look beyond our day-to-day and ask ourselves what our long-range goals are for Vancouver.

Do we want a more livable city with healthier citizens who engage with each other daily and who help us achieve carbon-neutrality? Or do we want to facilitate a more car-friendly environment, with single-occupant cars producing greater pollution, longer commutes, road rage and greater alienation from our fellow Metro Vancouverites? The latter is unsustainable. If the running of a metropolitan area were a private business, we’d go bankrupt trying to accommodate the car traffic from our ever-expanding population.

Looking long term, we should note that bike infrastructure complements EcoDensity, while car infrastructure generally facilitates urban sprawl. We’ve already figured out the inefficiencies and negative effects to our environment and our communities of transforming farm and wetlands into suburban housing blocks disconnected from commerce and employment—in fact, California is perhaps the best case in point. So, as the City of Vancouver works to bring online its gentle density initiatives, so too should its bike infrastructure gain greater investment and consideration.

Truthfully, I love riding my bike in Vancouver. The infrastructure available to me on the Eastside is fantastic: I can commute to work faster via bike than SkyTrain and, with so many bike highways nearby, I have the distinct pleasure of being able to make cycling my primary mode of transport—and safely. While I chose to relocate to my current address for just this reason (plus access to the SkyTrain), others do not always have that luxury. And this is why I support the bike lane addition on the Burrard Street Bridge. I have cycled that bridge before and was thoroughly scared for my life. Making it safer can only but induce more residents to access it daily.

Now, I know people will counter that once the rains come this fall there won’t be enough cycling traffic to justify the lane, but I hope city council won’t be cowed. It will take several years for us as a city to become more bike savvy, more comfortable cycling through traffic, more adept with the rules of the road. Shucks, lots of people still don’t even own a bike. So we have to give it time.

And we have to give drivers time, too. They’re not the bad guys here. They’re just trying to get home after a long day at work. But I have faith that after a period of time, drivers will learn new routes that will get them home faster and without delay.

Want a more livable city? Support safer, more accessible bike infrastructure. For all. (I’m looking at you, Coquitlam.)

You've taken a brave stance, and as one of those who have posted to condemn some of the things citycaucus has written about the bike lane trial (though I have enjoyed occasional other pieces), I shall not be writing I told you so, but that I am impressed by your intellectual honesty and your ability to own up to it when you change your mind.

I agree that Vancouver can, and should, take a different path from cities like L.A. Did Portland provide any more positive examples, in spite of the City's freeways?

I wouldn't get too worried about Vancouver becoming another LA. The reason can be found in your own article: LA is miles and miles of single family dwellings and almost no high-density housing.

Metro Vancouver comprises many centres of high-density housing - downtown, Metrotown, New Westminster, Surrey's City Centre, etc.. Sure there are many single-family dwellings out there - there always will be, but when compared to LA, MV comes out far ahead in the housing mix.

And remember, MV is constrained by physical limitations to sprawl. Unlike LA, we've just about reached maximum sprawl, and densification is the only remaining path to growth.

the population of the GLA area is 18 million. Take everyone in Canada from Toronto east and put them all in one place and imagine the problem. While I hate LA traffic you can't bike from your job in LA to your home in San Bernadino any easier than you can bike commute from Abbotsford to Richmond. The one really ugly point in LA is the pathetic public transit where each city or county has its own bus company - its a mess.
I think the real LA lesson is this - why - with all the technology these days - do we not encourage more virtual workforces? I am a senior VP and manage a team of 30 folks in various capacities from my home. I have staff in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Tampa, North Carolina, Tunisia, Houston, Pretoria, Denmark etc. All of us work from home.
I know not every business can go completely virtual but I am sure many of our office jobs can be done at least partly from home. Even a call centre can be run from virtually from home offices with the right technology.
My virtual operation keeps office rent off my books and helps me recruit some of the best talent by offering a lifestyle other employers cannot. One of my recent Toronto hires had a 1.5 hour commute in his previous job because his employer insisted on everyone being in the office. That's time back into his life (adds up to 720 hours a year or 30 days), CO2 out of the air and one less car on the 401.
In addition the employee can write off some of their housing costs including mortgage interest.
Think of that the next time you get on your bike in November and arrive soaking wet at the office!

Great piece Daniel. There is a lot of work to do in this region. While we disagreed on Burrard, I suspect there is a lot we do agree about. EcoDensity, for example. Great work on that.


I hope to post some of my observations of both Portland and San Francisco in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

The auto and sprawl are heavily subsidized. Too many powerful interests profit from them and manipulate government policy. They will eventually consume everything. The only antidote is free public transit.

Great post!
If only the polticos in Victoria would open their eyes and make the same realization. Maybe we could redirect all the money going to Gateway and bridge expansion to public transportation. Another L.A. is not what I want Vancouver to become.

"low density growth continues unabated throughout the region" - that is the key to this article and the future of Vancouver.
I know that Vancouver has now set out boundries for a business sector - long needed. Streets like Hornby, Howe, Seymour, Richards, Homer, Mainland.....and the list goes on, used to be office space, now expensive condos. Where have the offices gone - Surrey industrial parks. Bad bad bad option. Especially if you have EVER had to transit to one of these hell holes.
So while we build a fancy new transit system, we do not build a system that gets you to industrial parks. Counter intuitive.
Now is the time for GVRD to change. Stop these industrial parks in the middle of no-where! Otherwise we will have LA.

You have seen no such thing. Even if you covered half of the GVRD in freeways you still will not get conditions anything near what is in Los Angeles. LA is a world class city with a large and diverse economy. 16 million people live in this region.

I hate to have to point this out, but all the talk of "urban" this and "world city" that do not change the fact that Vancouver is a cultural and economic backwater. Maybe 2 million people live in this region. There is minimal economic activity to speak of. There never will be. There will never be 16 million people and a massive economy in Vancouver so you cannot have seen a possible future for that City. The Canadian economy is completely centered (and entrenched) in Toronto. The small film industry in BC is not gonna get you there.

Traffic congestion is directly tied to economic activity. That is the reason you never hear about traffic in Boise Idaho.

It is far more sensible to compare Vancouver to Portland which is has comparable levels of economic activity and population. I realize that this doesn't make for as interesting an article, in part because neither city (portland nor vancouver) are that interesting. But that is the truth. The future is now in Vancouver.

p.s. way to regurgitate all the cliches about LA and pull the old "I won't let not let this happen to us" routine. Ain't gonna happen anyway so everybody can rest easy.

pps. I think Vancouver is a pleasant place. Not shitting on Vancouver here. Just find this article trite and played out.

try again: I agree.

And the elephant in the room is..... the approximately (a low estimate) 6 million illegal aliens who reside in California. A few years ago there was a "Day without immigrants" where they stayed home to protest US immigration policies. The freeways were WIDE OPEN and congestion free on that marvelous day.

I hope things turn around...I love BC and miss our visits there! From a visitor on the the outside looking in, the future does look scary! Eight years ago, Vancouver was clean, full of flowers, a stabile economy, much easier to navigate! Now, I see single family dwellings being taken down to replace with 20 story condo's (slight exageration), alleys full of garbage from the excess population, houses once worth $250,000 sky-rocketing to $800,000! These are signs of big trouble...watch the real eastate crash, public sewer and sanitation issues increase and the identity of what Vancouver once was deplete! I would not compare to L.A., but rather Hong Kong! When you have to start building only up and limited your parks to only Stanley, BEWARE!!!

Check out BCWineLover.com!

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