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