Opposition to viaduct plans shows obstacles to removing 20th century infrastructure

This post builds on my report about some Strathcona residents opposing the removal of Vancouver’s elevated highways near the northeast of False Creek.

In communities across Canada and the US, infrastructure built for another time are reaching the end of their useful lives. While housing, libraries, community centres, pools and other pieces of public infrastructure are often far over-due for repairs and renovations to improve efficiency and accessibility, our mobility infrastructure particularly demands our attention.

On the one hand, governments are not making the capital investments needed to develop our walking, biking and transit infrastructure, nor are we adequately funding the maintenance and safe operation of existing systems. On the other hand, previous generations blasted roadways and motor vehicle infrastructure through our communities and supportive ecosystems that are today ill-maintained and ill-used (being either used at/above capacity because of poor land-use choices or under-used as people shift to safer, healthier, inexpensive low-carbon transport). Worryingly governments and business groups implement massive expansions of roadway infrastructure without responsible plans for long-term maintenance and operation that are sensitive to economic and environmental change.

The threat of climate change obviously worsens this situation.

Vancouver’s twinned Georgia and Dunsmuir Viaducts are an example of a 20th-century infrastructure project no longer suited for the mobility and other challenges faced by the City. In fact, it’s a question whether the short stretch of elevated highway – the only in Vancouver – was ever suited to the city, intended to be part of a regional highway system that was never actually built.

The City’s plans to bring them down are laudable. The proposed plan to introduce new connections in the area northeast of False Creek currently disrupted by the viaducts and vacant land. A new pedestrian and cycling “spine” is proposed, along with dedicated bike lanes and a bike “bridge”. The urban fabric would also be restored between Prior and Union Street, where the viaduct’s approach grade level, which is a significant barrier along Main Street today.

But residents in an adjacent neighbourhood (that long fought to bring the viaducts down) are now concerned that removing the roadways will unduly bring more commuting and shipping traffic through their neighbourhood.

Strathcona residents who oppose the current plans for viaduct removal have a clear ask for the City of Vancouver: deliver a traffic calming plan for their neighbourhood before the viaducts come down. The city says residents should not be concerned, that traffic will likely decrease, and future interventions to calm traffic are planned.

It serves as an interesting case study in the local politics of infrastructure renewal and removal. As cities transition from a motor vehicle-dependent shipping and commuting to safer, more responsible modes local impacts need to be anticipated and managed – by both municipal governments and community members.

Impacts should be distributed as equitably as possible – and also include consideration of past harms and intergenerational impacts. Strathcona was indeed hit hard when during the short-sighted urban “renewal” and highway-building plans forty years ago. Still, critical infrastructure renewal and removal projects must not be casually held up by NIMBY-ism or historic entitlement. So, when is community opposition legitimate? And when should an infrastructure project take priority over local opposition? Municipal governments run the risk of repeating the modernist planning mistakes of the twentieth-century, but community opponents risk stopping infrastructure and land use changes needed to build resilience and reduce harmful emissions.

You can read more about this in an article I wrote for OpenFile Vancouver: Strathcona residents now toughest opposition to viaduct removal


4 thoughts on “Opposition to viaduct plans shows obstacles to removing 20th century infrastructure

  1. Thanks for picking up on this issue, Mike. I would argue that the Strathconan response meets the test of legitimacy based on three things.

    First, the community’s reaction grew out of an apparent contradiction between one set of City Hall statements (i.e.: Prior St. traffic will be calmed and reduced sometime very soon and the Viaduct removal is a step along the way to that outcome) and another (viz.: the new and improved Expo Blvd extension will put two additional lanes of traffic onto Prior at Main). The lack of clarity on this issue is an own-goal for City Hall and the community ought to be applauded for noticing the gap.

    Speaking of gaps, second point, a six lane Prior is hardly going to ‘restore the urban fabric’ along Main Street. When Pacific Blvd was first proposed back in the build up to Transpo/Expo ’86, it was depicted on artist’s drawings as a massive pedestrian way with a nice boulevard in the middle. Some of us have seen this before: a friendly looking post-automobile landscape that is, in fact, a highway. That’s another cat that’s being belled here by Strathconans.

    Finally, it’s one thing to talk about the current flow of traffic along Prior and to describe the new routing as something that will inevitably be more benign … before we get to the meat of the question of how the False Creek lands will be used in a post-Viaduct age. If they become carpeted with condo towers (and the Concord Pacific display building on the Creek strongly indicates that will be the case), well, that’s a game-changer. No population predictions for the post-Viaduct space means that current traffic estimates are just smoke.

    I’d say that none of these concerns qualify as NIMBY-ism by any standard — they are each examples of engaged citizens asking tough questions.



  2. John, thanks for your thoughtful comment and for your engagement on this issue.

    I’ve worked to be objective in my writing on the Viaducts so I’ll be a bit more direct in my responses than I have been so far.

    I think the viaducts must come down. It is a set of infrastructure not built for our future mobility needs and investing in their maintenance and renewal would be wasteful and short-sighted. Keeping them up would also reinforce the over-use of inefficient and unsafe transportation choices and be at odds with the city and the province’s other objectives around emissions, transportation, and health.

    I also believe the concerns of Strathcona Residents’ Association are legitimate. (My blog post, I now see, could be read otherwise). Their request is very reasonable: deliver traffic calming before the Viaduct removal plans are approved. This can still happen. I hope Councillor Meggs or perhaps Councillor Carr — who attended the Prior Street event — proposes an amendment that directs City staff to do so when the plans are considered at Council.

    But, I disagree with those (like SRA Chair Johnstone) who say the Viaducts should not come down if the city doesn’t deliver a prior plan for Prior Street. I also think the argument that Strathcona is owed something — that if the Viaducts are to come down, Strathconans must be given something in return — is unhelpful and unlikely to accomplish much. Their contingent support risks reading like a “shakedown” rather than real engaged citizenship.

    A few quick points about various aspects of this:

    – While I am generally in favour of traffic calming, such changes can often be the most controversial and divisive in a neighbourhood. I don’t think a traffic calming plan will be as straightforward as presented by SRA and opposition to calming changes are also likely to emerge, especially if plans are rushed.

    – Re: your worry about the contradiction between future calming and increased lanes to Prior differs from the city FAQ. They write that the “total number of lanes connecting Prior during peak periods from the new Pacific will be the same,” whereas you say two additional lanes will be connected. Perhaps I’m missing something in the details here that others have picked up on?

    – Briefly about the “restoring the urban fabric” comment — I shouldn’t have copied the city’s language directly there. It clearly won’t “restore” anything, but it can create something new. The plan would eliminate the noise and visual disruption of the Viaducts at Main Street and restore full pedestrian crossings across Main at Union and Prior. It would also introduce an active street wall, similar to that on Pacific (I find Pacific quite nice to walk along on the stretches where there is a continuous street wall).

    – I disagree that carpeting the post-viaduct area with condos or secured rentals would be a game-changer for increased traffic. While I haven’t seen data, the argument that traffic would decrease is more reasonable to me than that it would increase. Vehicle use is declining in the core, and everywhere younger people are driving private vehicles less and less. Neighbourhoods adjacent to the downtown also have incredibly high percentages of people who walk and bike to work and I see no reason why that wouldn’t also apply here, especially if additional active transport infrastructure is introduced.

    Still, to have a traffic calming plan in place before the viaduct removal is not an unreasonable request and should indeed be taken up by city staff. But, a more forceful argument needs to be made that removing them without a traffic calming plan would somehow be worse than keeping them up. I simply don’t see how it’s better for Strathcona to keep the Viaducts up.

  3. To weigh in on this, I think removing the viaducts in the absence of any concrete Eastern Core Strategy is as egregious, reckless and short-sighted as keeping the viaducts up. You may read Strathcona’s position to support viaduct removal contingent on traffic calming as a “shakedown” but for Strathconans, we are playing the hand that was dealt to us. I’d add that the onus of engaged citizenship has been a monumental failure on the part of the city, who having precluded the community from any open houses, only came to the table with Strathcona when we called them out on it. Students of Vancouver history will recall that the viaducts and the highway it delivers onto Prior and Strathcona are one and the same. We are attempting to right a forty year wrong and continue the struggle of previous generations – a struggle made more poignant by the City’s rush to remove the viaducts now.

    If now is not the time to reroute the viaducts traffic (present or projected) off Prior, then when is? Do we wait another forty years? Do we wait until some development opportunity on the False Creek Flats forces another rushed City plan? What kind of council will Vancouver have in forty years? Or ten years? For that matter what kind of City will Vancouver be – might we someday see Vancouver as a Toronto style mega city where outlying suburbs call the shots on growth and transportation?

    The time is now. Prior Street was never designed for the level of traffic and speed it sees today. This issue is not so much future projections about traffic impacts – the issue is the status quo and the 15 – 25,000 high speed vehicles a day through a residential neighborhood.

    Regarding some of your specific points.

    – “rushed traffic plans” is precisely why Strathconans have mounted our opposition to the City’s proposal for viaducts removal (a sentiment shared by the business community and other stakeholders, I might add). The plan is literally half-baked : it addresses the physical viaducts, but not the transportation implications east of Gore (ie in and out of downtown)

    – six lanes vs four lanes: the Pacific Boulevard extension is 6 lanes, reduced to four via two lanes of street parking, ostensibly to allow for expansion if and when some sort of Eastern Core Strategy is developed. Strathconans are acutely aware of the ephemeral nature of street parking on a busy Vancouver arterial though. What was once 24 hour street parking on both sides of Prior was “temporarily” removed for Expo 86. Twenty-six years later it has yet to be reinstated.

    – as to restoring the urban fabric, ironically the only real improved accessibility would be for automobiles via a new extended Pacific to Prior. The Strathcona to False Creek access is already readily available to both pedestrians and cyclists by way of Union

    – the assumption that 10,000 new residents and 5.8 million square feet of new development in North East False Creek won’t bring additional traffic based on projected trends is a bit of a roll of the dice and assumes a significant amount of transit infrastructure that we don’t have the capacity for.

    appreciate the thoughtful comments here, Pete

  4. Pingback: Viaducts and more at Vancouver City Council « Steady City

Comments are closed.