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The View from '56


Thoughts on the Short-Term Future of Transportation Planning

Gordon Price

A few years ago, the Ford Expedition assembling plant in Wayne, Michigan,
made more money in after-tax profits than the combined budgets of every
municipality in British Columbia. The number of SUVs sold in North America
has roughly doubled since 1996, now totalling about four million a year.
They are classified as light trucks (in order to drive through various
legislative loopholes) and are expected to soon surpass passenger cars as a
percent of the market.

If you want to know the future of transportation in North America, start
there. That's where most of the money has gone, and where people's
expectations reside - in big cars on big roads. The future, apparently, is
like 1956, only more so.

I choose 1956 for a reason. That was the year American President Dwight
Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act that funded the biggest
public-works project in human history. The Interstate Freeway System - over
40,000 miles of superbly engineered roads, criss-crossing the continent many
times over - changed everything in its path, from cities and regions to
popular culture. They were called 'freeways' for a reason: no tolls, no
stoplights, no limits.

Canada had a more modest program to build the Trans-Canada Highway. But
given the success of the car culture, both countries have imbedded in the
collective consciousness a set of assumptions, reinforced countless times a
day through advertising, that will continue to shape transportation policy
and funding priorities in the short-term future.

First assumption: 'As We Buy More Cars, Government Will Build More Roads.'
It doesn't matter so much who builds the roads (even if they're tolled) so
long as there's always the expectation of more asphalt.

At the personal level, when it comes to the purchase and use of vehicles, a
second assumption holds sway: 'There's Always Room for One More.' No one
goes into an auto showroom wondering if there's space out there for one more
car, nor would it be acceptable for government to say, hold on, we're full
up. With no upper limit on capacity; it's effectively infinite. You will
rarely get a planner or engineer to tell you what the ultimate capacity of a
road system should be; their job is to translate infinity into reality.

Thirdly - and this is the message conveyed in every auto advertisement -
'The Car Should Never Be Constrained by Other Cars.' The image of the open
road is iconic; free-flowing traffic is assumed to be the natural state of
affairs, if only our tax dollars were effectively used for their intended
purpose (back to Assumption 1).

That such an idyllic state of affairs is considered natural, much less
achievable, is rarely challenged, even though few places, if any, have ever
achieved it. Congestion, in fact, is far more the natural and inevitable
state of traffic, given the ceaseless number of cars flowing onto the
limited road space available, and the near impossibility of society finding
the resources and will to keep up.

In the Greater Vancouver Regional District, where 1.2 million vehicles are
already registered, another 26,500 cars and trucks per year flow onto the
roads. If we lined them up bumper to bumper, we would need a lane 120
kilometres long just to park them.

A city like Vancouver is lucky to lay a new kilometre of asphalt a year,
given the land costs, environmental constraints and neighbourhood issues
inherent in any road expansion. Add in the costs of major new infrastructure
like a bridge (measured in half-billion-dollar increments), plus the funding
of transit systems and alternative modes of travel, well, you get the idea.
Finding sufficient space to accommodate the growth in vehicles isn't going
to happen, regardless of people's expectations and politicians' promises.
Eventually, the car becomes the enemy of the car, and congestion is
inevitable. Yet we plan our transportation future on the assumption that not
only will sufficient space be provided, almost all of it will be provided at
no visible charge.

That's the fourth assumption about the car: 'The Next Trip is Free.' In
other words, the marginal cost of the next trip is practically zero - at
least so far as out-of-pocket expense is concerned. Save for the few places
where parking is priced or a road is tolled, no loonies need be expended to
drive somewhere, regardless of the amount owed on the car or accumulative
expenses incurred. The next trip seems to be free - and we love free.
Honest, apparent pricing of the car - call it Transportation Demand
Management - may work, but politicians call it suicide. It would be like
putting the GST on each car trip, and it would not be well received.

So important is the concept of 'free' - again, the 'freeway' - that we do
not even attempt to calculate the value of an increasingly scarce commodity,
vital to the economic functioning of our urban regions. That is road space.
We spend millions to build it, and then dispose of it as though it had no
price. The real cost, of course, is measured in time - in congestion - but
that is seen as the problem, not as the inevitable consequence of market
failure and flawed assumptions.

Further, we are betting that there will be all the cheap fuel we need to
power all those internal-combustion engines on all those free roads, despite
current geopolitical uncertainties. Those who have predicted an imminent end
to the Oil Age have not been treated kindly by history, as evidenced at the
pump where gas today remains cheaper in real dollars than it was in 1956,
cheaper per litre than bottled water. So it's not surprising that we assume
high-BTU, portable, ubiquitous, fluid fuel will remain abundant, even if the
Americans have to spend more on a military presence in the Middle East than
the value of the oil exported.

In one of those delightful coincidences that mark real life, in the same
year as Eisenhower was launching the freeway system, a man did indeed
predict the end of the Age of Oil - or at least the beginning of the end. He
was a petroleum geologist working for Shell Oil in Houston, named M. King
Hubbert. Using a combination of science and good guesswork, he predicted
domestic U.S. oil production would peak in the mid Seventies - not a message
Shell particularly wanted to hear. Debate raged on Hubbert's prediction
until 1970, for that was the year that U.S. domestic oil production peaked.
Using similar techniques, Hubbert's disciples predict world-wide oil
production will similarly peak sometime this decade, regardless of new
discoveries, and then things will get interesting.

Of course, most of us are technological optimists at heart: if oil becomes
expensive or scarce, we expect to switch to fuel cells, or whatever. But the
problem is not if but how - more importantly, how fast and at what price.
Since we have been kidding ourselves for so long about the real price of the
car, we are not in much of a mood to accommodate a sudden shift in reality,
nor grasp the economic ripple effects of fluctuating oil prices.

But what are the odds, after all, that something catastrophic to the status
quo of cheap roads, cheap fuel and cheap car trips won't occur? Regardless
of the obvious, that history is full of continuous surprise, we plan as
though nothing extraordinary will happen in the life of our transportation
plans, save for the introduction of some hopeful new funding mechanisms,
variations on existing technologies, and, oh yes, a bikeway here or there.

From a planning (and political) point of view, one can never plan for
Apocalypse. Imagine: "Our plan calls for a catastrophic series of events
during the life of the plan, the consequences of which will be ruinous for
the status quo. Assume, therefore, that after this point most of the
assumptions on which the plan is based are wrong." Can't be done.

The best bet, then, is to look around and find examples of what would work
if conditions did indeed change rapidly and the automobile could not remain
the dominant centre of our transportation universe. Then, when leaders are
desperately searching for options in the face of sudden change, you're ready
to go. Fortunately, there are a few places that look like they could handle
not only the disruptions of the future but also the conditions of the
present. One of them began in 1956.

Urban critic Lewis Mumford said of the American Congress that when they
approved the Interstates, they had no idea what they were doing. (Even
Eisenhower was shocked when he saw the actual construction of a freeway
through Washington, D.C.) The same, I expect, was true of the City Council
of Vancouver when they passed the first Zoning and Development Bylaw in 1956
and unleashed the forces of technology, modernism and money to transform the
decaying streetcar neighbourhoods that surrounded the downtown core. If
anyone had showed them what the West End would look like at the end of the
highrise boom in the 1960s, they would have been stunned.

About 40,000 people now live concentrated in a square mile, in what many
assume is an overcrowded neighbourhood, confusing overcrowding with
high-density. In fact, it works pretty well for the dominant income group -
lower-middle-income renters - who can afford higher than average rents
because their transportation costs are commensurately lower. The West End
still functions rather like the turn-of-the-century community it was built
as: a grid of narrow streets, with trolley lines and services no more than
three blocks away, where parking is limited and feet function as the
dominant mode of movement.

This combination of density and transportation choice is not that unusual.
Most urban populations have lived this way for most of human history. It's
just that we stopped building dense, mixed-use communities as, around 1956,
planning and engineering tried to accommodate the infinite needs of the car,
which itself facilitated the sprawl that the automobile needed. Vancouver,
given its confined geography, absence of freeways, reasonable transit,
limited parking and 30 years of traffic calming, has made a policy of
constraining the car and has coincidentally turned out to be one of the most
livable cities in the world. Actually, that is not a coincidence at all..

Nor it is for everyone. And no, it can't be done overnight. But it turns out
that people will switch from car dependence to transportation choice faster
than we reasonably expected. Recent figures show that as people substitute
walking trips for car trips, there is now less vehicle movements downtown
than half a decade ago, even as the population has increased by thousands.
In other words, congestion can decrease as density increases - but only if
there are constraints on the car, alternatives that work,and good land-use
planning and urban design.

People still drive their SUVs, even in the West End. They love 'em, even
though they're going to have a difficult time explaining them to their
grandchildren. ("Traffic congestion was awful, you were hostages to oil, the
world was getting warmer - and you went out and bought the biggest
gas-guzzler you could afford!?")

I wouldn't stop people from buying them. But I wouldn't be planning on them.

 

  Gordon Price, a former Vancouver city councillor, is a sustainable transportation advocate.