Confessions of a Pattullo Critic

Dear Ms. Myers,

Thank you for writing such a heart-felt and well-presented case for the Pattullo Bridge. You offer a genuine voice of people who use the Pattullo regularly. In community discussions about Big Things like the future of the Pattullo, people with differing opinions too often ignore the voice on the other side of the table, or worse, replace it with their own hastily-painted chariacture, whose opinion is not worth regarding… discussion is important.

So before I go on, I want to clear up one misconception about how one person (me) who thinks we don’t need to expand capacity on the Pattullo actually views the issue: I don’t want you to be “re-routed around the Royal City”. I want you to live in the Royal City. Or at least, I would rather you had better options for work, living, and commuting so the Single Occupancy Vehicle wasn’t the only option you had, or even the best option to choose. Cars are expensive, they are inconvenient, they are unreliable due to the vagaries and unpredictability of traffic. However, as you demonstrated, a car somehow became the best option for you. That is not your failure, that is a failure of infrastructure and community planning, failure of a hundred decisions made by people other then you.

Now I realize that last paragraph has me sounding like a radical anti-car nut with my head in the clouds, or even a holier-than-thou eco-facist, but let me try to convince you I am not. I own a car. Sometimes I use it to commute to work, a single occupancy vehicle when I do. I have cursed the intersection at the north end of the Queensborough at 7:30 am as much as anyone in this town. I know a couple on New West who commute to opposite ends of MetroVancouver daily, have two kids, and lives full of volunteer commitments, and do this without owning a car. I am not nearly that dedicated or organized. I make different choices, sometimes using transit, sometimes riding my bike, sometimes driving my car.

The problem with the car choice is that cars are bad for us. They make us less healthy, they make our cities less healthy. They cost us lots of money, they take up a disproportionate amount of our valuable urban space, and they damage the environment disproportionally with the benefits they deliver. They are by far the #1 cause of death for school-aged children in North America. They are, by almost any measure, a bad choice, yet here we are, both of us, and 400,000+ other people, making that daily choice to drive through New Westminster; all for good, rational, considered reasons. How did we get here? But first, why should anyone care?

“Increased traffic” is not a side effect, as you suggest, it is the main effect. The continued renaissance of New Westminster is not going to depend on a few of the 400,000+ commuters stopping to pick up a few groceries or noticing a new boutique on the way by, nor on 700 people filling the empty Waterfront Parkade spots. In the hierarchy of car-oriented retail, we will never compete with Coquitlam Centre, Lougheed Mall, or even King George Highway. Those days are gone: left New Westminster on the 60s, and are not coming back.

The future of New Westminster is in re-developing an urban environment where people want to live, work, shop and play. The 10,000+ people who live downtown, and the 500,000+ who are truly 20 minutes away by SkyTrain. For us to realize this future, we need a variety of good shops and entertainment opportunities (and that is coming along very nicely), and we need to produce a friendly, clean, safe environment inviting to people, not a space dedicated to the movement of cars and trucks. You know, a “fantastic place” to be.

You outlined the decision process that led to your workplace – home -commuting choice. Part of that choice of that was a cognizance of how long it would take you every day to drive to work. I have no idea how long it takes you, 20 minutes? 40? I will bet it is less than an hour. People who study commuting behaviors know that would be a safe bet, because very few people willingly choose to commute for more than an hour a day, regardless of the mode they choose. That has been true for centuries, and actually has a name: the Marchetti Constant.

As an aside, there is another factor here as well, and that is failed expectations. Especially when home-shopping, if we find a place we like, we tend to sell ourselves that the commute won’t be so bad. We often think of “central” as (to quote the radio ad) “20 minutes from everywhere”. Problem is, when driving in Vancouver, we are rarely 20 minutes from anywhere.

As an example, Tim Hortons are ubiquitous in this town, but if you stood up right now, got your coat and your hat, grabbed your car keys, walk to your car, wherever it is parked, get it started, drive to the nearest Timmy’s, find parking nearby, park, and walk to Timmy’s, (or sit in the drive-thru line, ugh) I’ll bet you the price of your doubl-double it is more than 20 minutes before you take your first sip. (Not fair to say “but I can walk to a nearby Timmy’s in 5 minutes”. Actually, if you say that, you are making my point that we unfairly justify the convenience of cars).

Back to the point, if your daily drive to work took an hour and a half each way, you would be much less likely to make that choice, to find that combination of home, work, and lifestyle acceptable. You would instead choose another home, another job, or another mode of travel. If that same trip takes 20 minutes, you are more likely to make that choice. This is, boiled down to the substance, what traffic planners call “Induced Demand”. This is the reason many people (including me) are afraid of the impact to our City of an expanded Pattullo Bridge.

The bridge now carries 60,000 or so cars per day. TransLink estimates a 6-lane bridge will carry 90,000 or so. Those extra 30,000 will be people who choose to use the bridge because it is the easiest, most convenient route. This choice will mostly not be made when they get into their car in the morning and turn on the traffic radio, but will instead be made the way you described it: when people are shopping for homes and doing that complex calculus about commute times, yard size, amenities, and price per square foot. Nothing makes that decision easier than the promise of a big new bridge that will solve traffic congestion problems once and for all. Hence “demand” for traffic lanes is “induced” not by bumper-to-bumper traffic lanes, but paradoxically, by the promise of empty traffic lanes.

Except, of course, the bigger bridge will do nothing to improve traffic congestion. Simple math says 90,000 vehicles cannot cross a 6-lane bridge any faster than 60,000 can cross a 4-lane bridge. Traffic will, as TransLink suggests, increase until the same state on congestion is reached as exists now ( see Marchetti Constant above). Of course, this will be limited slightly by the increased congestion on the surface roads on either end (see the Braess Paradox), not too mention that they really can’t be built to accommodate the increase. If they are, you can kiss that Livable City goal goodbye.

The promise of solving congestion by building lanes has always proven false in the past, there is no reason it will be proven true in this one case. This is why it is frustrating to hear people opine that New West has always been a “speed bump” where traffic grinds to a halt. The implication is that if we just build more lanes through New West, that problem will be solved. However, we can never build enough lanes (and if you don’t believe me, spend some time on Lougheed Highway anywhere it has seen recent expansion – if you have a few hours to spare).

Yikes. Went off on a lecture there. Let’s bring this back down to earth.

Your article shouldn’t be a “confession”, as that implies you have done something wrong. You made rational choices for yourself and for your family, with many of the confounding factors not within your control, what is wrong with that?

I ask you only to consider carefully what you want when thinking about the future of the Pattullo. Do you want a bigger bridge, or do you want a shorter commute, more predictability of travel times, and more time to spend with your family? Are you sure a bigger bridge will provide the things you want? Perhaps spending the same $800 Million on improved transit South of the Fraser, so people in Surrey have the same access that New Westminster enjoys, is more likely to address traffic issues on both sides of the Fraser. If nothing else, it will “induce” some of those 60,000 drivers to choose transit instead of the single occupancy vehicle, resulting in less of those negative affects cars bring to our communities.

Let me finish how I started, by thanking you for your article. Yours is an important a voice in the future of the Pattullo as is mine, or anyone else’s; We need the entire community involved in this discussion. But first, we need to convince TransLink that there needs to be a discussion. As things stand, TransLink has made a choice based on short-term thinking that contradicts their own master planning document , and the modern science of Transportation Demand Management. The results of that bad plan could make my home, New Westminster, a much less pleasant, more expensive, and less safe place to live, while failing at the promise of making your commute slightly shorter. Worse, their “consultations” have not included any real discussion of options or the needs of the community.

I happen to agree with you: tearing the bridge down is an extreme position, but so is building a bigger bridge and dumping that unsustainable traffic load on a City trying so hard to be a modern, compact, transit-friendly community. Presumably, somewhere between those two extremes is a viable compromise.

All I have heard New Westminster ask for up to now is a true consultation: the very conversation we are having right now, and that the decision on the fate of the bridge, the compromise, be based on what the Community decides. “Debate then Decide”, to borrow a phrase from the recent City open house.

Let’s hope your voice, and mine, will be heard by TransLink, and the Community makes the right decision.

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