It’s easier for Vancouver to remove a foot than for Seattle to amputate a leg. That’s the difference between Vancouver’s slow but steady move towards tearing down two inner-city viaducts and Seattle’s hand-wringing over the future of the much bigger Alaskan Way Viaduct. But either way, mobility will survive.
Vancouver council recently approved a $695,000 study to look at the options for removing the Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts between downtown and the east side of the city. They were built in 1972 as the first part of a stillborn downtown freeway system, replacing older structures built in 1915 to move traffic over industrial lands below. Since then, the Fight That Stopped The Freeway has become Vancouver’s signature moment, resulting in a freeway-free downtown, the city’s proudest non-achievement.
The viaducts in question mimic mini-freeways at the east end of downtown but fade to ground quickly — brief passing lanes between ground-level streets with 30 mph speed limits. They feed 40,000 vehicles a day through the “downtown neck,” about a third of all the traffic coming in and out of Vancouver’s downtown peninsula. That compares with more than twice the distance, twice the speed, and more than twice the traffic on the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
When the idea of tearing down the viaducts first came up, radio talk show host Bill Good says “the phone boards lit up with people saying it was a crazy idea.” The objections came from people who couldn’t envision what would happen to all that traffic. (In this case, the traffic will shift to a new ground-level boulevard.)
Those objectors used to include the city’s traffic engineers. I can remember their predictions of dire backups on the Burrard Street Bridge if one of its three lanes each way was turned into a dedicated bicycle lane. We now have that bike lane southbound on the bridge, and none of the predictions has come true. Similarly, downtown traffic delays from the recent conversion of a one-mile lane for cars on Hornby Street to a bike lane have been around 30 seconds.
As it turns out, the Law of Disappearing Traffic rules. That “law” states, simply, that when streets are blocked to cars, traffic will find another way. It was proven in Vancouver when the viaducts were closed for 22 days during the Olympics. "Nothing fell apart. There was congestion but the system functioned," Vancouver city engineer Peter Judd told The Tyee.com. "We always over-estimate the negative impacts and underestimate the resilience and intelligence of our residents."
The city’s traffic engineer Jerry Dobrovolny is equally confident about removing the viaducts: “We can mitigate traffic,” he says. “There’s no reason they have to stay.”
Based on the Olympic experience and two other significant, longer, traffic lane closures in recent years in Vancouver, city engineers have concluded that motorists facing these constraints will either accept minor delays, reroute to alternate streets, reduce the number of trips they take by car, or change the times they drive. In short, they get by. That has been proven when viaducts or freeways have been removed in San Francisco, Seoul, Abu Dhabi, and other cities.
As former city councilor Gordon Price says, “Every time we reduced traffic in Vancouver, the city got better.” Car traffic in and out of downtown has been steadily decreasing since the mid-1990s, while the number of overall trips is up by 25 percent. People have shifted to walking, transit, and cycling.
“But there’s one big issue,” he cautions. “You’ve got to have some transit to take up the difference if you’re going to take down the full viaduct.” Part of that would be the approved but stalled Evergreen Line SkyTrain to bring people in from the eastern suburb of Coquitlam. It’s currently awaiting approval of contentious new sources of regional funding — a fuel tax increase and a possible vehicle levy.
The next step is to tantalize those angry callers with the possibilities of a viaduct-free area — new parks, commercial buildings, a revenue windfall for the city, and, yes, some residential towers. “Think about the future, how the downtown is stretching in that direction,” says former city planner Larry Beasley, who describes the land under the viaducts as “the umbilical cord between the old downtown and where the new downtown will be.”
“All of sudden we have a potential for 20 acres of land we never thought we had, to do all kinds of extraordinary things for the city. In Abu Dhabi we removed a big viaduct — it opens up with light, air, spaciousness, potential for parks, development, community facilities.”
Architect Bing Thom, a big booster of the idea, talks about providing access to a new swimming beach on the south short of a cleaned-up False Creek, steps from downtown. Thom’s back-of-the-envelope estimate for cost of removing the viaducts and reconfiguring remaining roads and sewers is $100 million, plus unknown soil remediation costs. He talks about revenues of $150 million from selling city-owned lands, and $150 million in extractions from developers doing projects on the liberated land.
Beasley points out that there still has to be a place for cars: “You’re going to have to replace the viaducts with a grade-level old-fashioned boulevard. It’s not like there’s no connection anymore.”
Already two nearby neighborhoods are cheering on the viaduct removal: Chinatown and Strathcona relish the reduction in through traffic, a calmer connection to downtown, and more space for businesses and parks.
Councillor Geoff Meggs, who has been cautiously shepherding this idea along for two years, is encouraged by the growing support for his plan. “We’ve opened the door to a wider climate of understanding,” he said. “People are interested and intrigued.”
Removing the viaducts would eliminate all evidence of the city of Vancouver’s freeway fantasies of the 1970s. And the removal would come just in time for the opening of the new Fraser River Port Mann Bridge crossing and multi-billion-dollar Highway 1 freeway expansion, immediately outside the eastern boundary of the city.