End of Blacktop Politics – Peak Car Use in Vancouver

For the past 40 years, the car has been king and BC politicians have been promising shiny, new (and expensive) highways, bridges, and expressways to get elected. It’s been known as ‘blacktop politics‘, and although it never delivered on its promise of congestion-free commuting, it has never been a losing strategy for politicians.

But that’s beginning to change. There are two transportation visions being floated for the Lower Mainland. Premier Christy Clark and the BC Liberal government think expanded highways are the future. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and city council think expanded public transit, encouraging people to walk and cycle, and discouraging car use is a better plan.

It’s a big shift, but there are reasons to think the era of the car is coming to an end. Car use has peaked in many western countries, driven by high gas prices and young people who would rather spend their commute on a bus with their cellphone then behind the wheel of a car in traffic. In Downtown Vancouver, current traffic volumes are the same as they were in 1965!

The Sightline Institute has been documenting peak car use in the Pacific Northwest with a series of posts entitled Dude, Where Are My Cars? The most recent post shows that traffic on the Port Mann Bridge peaked in 2005, and yet the Liberals spent $3.3 billion building the widest bridge in the world (10 lanes, 65 meters) to replace it. Now, Premier Christy Clark is promising to expand the Massey Tunnel, which saw volumes peak in 2004. (Data from Ministry of Transportation – missing two years from 2000-2001).

Vancouver (and the region) has a growing population, and people are still commuting and traveling, they’re just using public transit and cycling instead of a car. Transit use is at an all-time high, and there’s a huge latent demand for new rapid transit projects. The Canada Line is years ahead of its ridership projections, averaging 110,000 passengers a day. Cycling is the fastest growing mode of transportation in Vancouver, and 4.1% of all trips are now done on a bike (1.9% in Greater Vancouver).

Politicians need to realize that our transportation future is not in wider bridges or bigger tunnels, but in more trains and bike lanes. There is a world-wide shift occurring away from the car. In Italy, last year more bikes were sold than cars for the first time since World War 2. In Australia, vehicle use is at the same level as 1992 and people are questioning the governments spending on highways. It’s time we start building for the future.


  1. My trips from Surrey to Maple Ridge on the 509 and 595 buses make good use of the PMH1 route and the Golden Ears Bridge, both of which are projects adamantly opposed by urbanists like Stephen Rees and Vancouver City Hall.


    • There are good reason to oppose those projects. They suck money out of the transportation budget that could otherwise be spent on expanded public transit. In January 2008, Kevin Falcon promised $14 billion transit expansion, but that never happened and instead the money was spent on bigger bridges and highways.

      A key part of the Port Mann Bridge was supposed to be improved public transit, but the money was never committed and although over $3 billion has been spent on the bridge, no funding is available for rapid bus service.

      The Golden Ears Bridge is real mess. Translink operates that bridge (it was a P3 project) and is losing $33 million a year because the traffic volumes are well below the forecast. The Port Mann Bridge is supposed to be paid for by tolls, but it is unlikely that it will meet it’s projections either, and the government has already announced it is cutting tolls in half to spur use of the new bridge.


  2. Well, as I just said my bus uses the PMH1 project, if not the bridge proper, then the widened highway. It also uses the Golden Ears Bridge.

    You mention that toll revenue on the GEB is below forecasts. How does cost recovery on that project, and PMH1, compare to the ability of either Skytrain or RAV projects to cover their costs, including capital?


    • Um, I thought the point of public transit was to provide transit that anyone can access, not create a for-profit venture. Public transit and public roads are public services — they’re not supposed to ‘recover’ their costs any more than the healthcare system or welfare are supposed to.

      Talking about recovering costs is the wrong discussion. Bridge tolls* are supposed to serve as a disincentive to driving (and thus contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, ie global warming), while public transit provides an alternative that is ideally cheaper. If anything, the costs of bridge tolls should provide more funding for public transit rather than just “recovering costs” of the roads — which is NOT the case for either PMH1 or the GEB, where the tolls go towards paying off the private ‘partner’ in the P3 that both these projects are.

      Of course, all of this becomes quite elementary when we drop the assumption that everything is a business venture and equate “makes money” to “does a good job”. Some things aren’t supposed to make money, people — some things are necessary and need to be provided as services, at subsidized (ideally no) cost to the end user =/


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