July 23, 2015

Politics and Engineering on the Burrard Bridge

Well, that only took two decades: Vancouver approves Burrard Bridge upgrade …

On Wednesday, after listening to contradictory, but equally impassioned, views about the potential impacts of the project to improve traffic flow, the Vision Vancouver councillors used their majority to approve it.

But it was an outcome that few would have imagined back in the 1990s – including me.  Richard Campbell passed along this fascinating coverage from the West End Times, dated August 4, 1993:


west end times

Click twice to enlarge.

As Margaret Macpherson reported, as a city councillor I was opposed to taking a lane from the bridge for cyclists, concentrating instead on the development of the Seaside route along English Bay – controversial enough, since it required elimination of vehicle parking and paving over parts of the greensward.

But three years later, a different story.

By then millions had been approved in a capital plan for upgrading the bridge, and the engineering staff had proposed a widening of the bridge deck to accommodate bike lanes – over considerable objection by the heritage community. At this point, I argued (and convinced a bare majority of council) to support an experimental closure of one north-bound lane for bikes for one week in March 1996 to see if we could save the cost of the widening and avoid altering the heritage character of the structure.

It was a disaster.

With a few hours on the first day, the traffic started to back up on Cornwall and Burrard, motorists were infuriated, and, since this was the beginning of the cell-phone era, they could immediately call the media and the mayor’s office.  After an emergency caucus, it was agreed to cancel the closure at the end of the week, and never talk of it again!  (By that time, of course, the traffic had sorted itself out, given a 9 percent reduction in volume, likely transferred over to the Granville Bridge.)

Didn’t matter.  The mistake was in choosing an east-side closure during the morning rush, concentrating all the congestion, which for many came as a surprise since there hadn’t been much coverage beforehand.  There were likely other factors – but it would take a long time before any such experiment would be tried again.

The best outcome was that a gun-shy council avoided proceeding with the bridge widening, instead devoting money to an expansion of the non-controversial bikeway network, which in turn created a constituency of cyclists that would both create the demand and provide support for the solution we have reached today.

The failed experiment, however, reinforced in the mind of the NPA that cycling was a loser issue for their constituency – a position they hold, in spite of electoral evidence to the contrary, today:

The three Non-Partisan Association councillors opposed the entire project, saying the city didn’t address all the issues and that staff appeared to be acting on the wishes of the Vision majority rather than what was best for the city.

“It seems we’re just Band-Aiding a problem that is getting bigger and bigger,” NPA Coun. Melissa De Genova said of traffic congestion. “I think there are huge holes in this plan.” …

Her NPA colleague Coun. George Affleck blamed Vision’s preoccupation with bike lanes on the bridge for why the city has increased safety problems at the Pacific intersection. He said such basic things as painting the superstructure were not included.

Vision councillors, however, said the bridge retrofit and intersection realignment are long overdue. Coun. Raymond Louie pointed out that a plan under a previous NPA government would have cost $60 million.

Sometime in the next month, the millionth cyclist is due to ride over the bridge this year – and work will begin to develop another separated lane on the east side, as part of a network of such routes through downtown.

Two decades ago, all of that would have been, if not unimaginable, so unlikely as to be considered crazy.

Welcome to crazy.

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  1. Seems that with every issue put before council (or the parks board or the school board) since the election the NPA further cements its status as our local civic wing of the Conservative Party of Canada/Liberal Party of BC.

    I almost voted for a few them based on the reputations of former members like Mr. Price. Glad I instead voted all Vision and Green and can’t see myself being tempted to vote them again.

  2. It just shows that with anything new, things must be done carefully and with thorough engineering or it will make the project look bad. Maybe back then they didn’t have the models (or whatever it’s called) to predict traffic flows or maybe there was even some sabotage of the plan, someone on the inside making sure that it’s done in a way to cause problems. I don’t know.
    Another thing it shows is that with any minority, you have to be involved in politics or the majority will just dominate and not give you any space to live. The resulting marginalization will make you do odd things just to cope with the situation. These odd things will then be pointed to by opponents as “proof” that the minority is irresponsible and/or undeserving of anything. And the cycle continues.

  3. Gord,

    Check out the article below – a record 12,000 people attended the Pride Parade in 1993. Compare that to last year’s 600,000 – welcome to the unimaginable!

  4. The role played by the City’s Engineering Department in all this is interesting as well. When the Downtown Transportation Plan was being completed in 2003 and then its details developed for 2006, the cost of the project to widen the bridge flanks was placed at a little under $20M. That’s what voters approved in a Vancouver Capital Plan at the time. Then that project got shelved when the Engineering Department’s bean counters said the cost would be something like $60M. Now the estimates are something in between: $35M. We can only hope the matter is finally settled, and we’ll have a 4 lane bridge with pedestrians and cyclists going both directions on the east and west sides of the bridge. Getting to where we are now has been way too difficult.

  5. Jeffrey – always good to have some insider perspective on such things. The recent history of the City is too easily forgotten. For example and a bit off-topic, the new planning initiative for the Flats is working from a “clean slate” point of view, as if the pervious 20 years of planning and policy never mattered. This seems to be a real pattern of willful ignorance.

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