October 25, 2017

Burrard Bridge: Back Story

Don Luxton, the heritage consultant for the Burrard Bridge project, reflects back on how we got here – and how we almost didn’t.

There was no doubt the Burrard Bridge and its intersections were going to change.  That had been true since the 1970s when the expectation was that the intersections should function as much as possible like freeway interchanges – as did the Granville Bridge.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the City purchased the ‘Kettle of Fish’ restaurant and some adjacent land at the southeast corner of Pacific and Burrard in order to construct a separate exit ramp that would seamlessly join with Hornby, rather like the Seymour ramp does on the Granville Bridge.  An upgrade of the southern intersection maintained as much as possible the freeflow of traffic on curving arterials.
A capital plan passed by voters approved $50 million for reconstruction and seismic upgrade of the bridge – which was by now visibly deteriorating.  Pieces of concrete would fall off; rebar was exposed; sidewalks were eroding.
There was sufficient money to serve cyclists by widening the bridge with outriggers if council considered that a priority.  In response, the heritage community (being led by people like Don Luxton) sounded the alarm.  Such a change to the physical look of the bridge would hopelessly compromise one of the only art deco bridges in North America.
But one of the NPA councillors (yup, me) concerned with both changes in the look of the bridge and unnecessary costs for widening convinced a bare majority of his colleagues to at least try out an experiment: close one of the lanes for cyclists to see if that could work.
It didn’t.  The 1996 closure, pushed forward without sufficient planning and notification, was a media gong show.  Cell phones were just coming in, and affluent motorists, stuck in traffic, had time to call up the mayor’s office with their harshly stated opinions.

While the one-week experiment was a considered a failure (even though traffic, by the end of the week, had adjusted fairly well), it at least stopped any proposal for widening the bridge until further study has been done.  And boy, were there studies – seemingly endless ideas for different configurations and even additional crossings.
However, a study around 2000 of all the False Creek crossings concluded that cycling and pedestrian lanes were needed in both directions on each side of the bridge.  In the meantime, costs were escalating: outriggers went from $13 to $60 million in price.  But no decision was made – until a new council decided to try another lane-closure experiment:

By the time the Gregor Robertson’s Vision council tried new trial bike lanes in 2009, Price believes a few important things had changed.
The city had created a network of non-separated lanes on side streets, helping to support a growing community of cyclists who now wanted to use the bridge safely.
The engineering and planning departments also had a better understanding of how to integrate bike lanes without completely infuriating drivers.
And the people at City Hall knew that they needed to do a much better job of informing the public about the change.

  • CBC

All through the debate, Luxton and the heritage community were vocal in their insistence on not widening the bridge, reinforcing a change that was already occurring in the engineering department.  As Don notes, “Engineers are not monolithic in their thinking; they can be extraordinarily creative, given the mandate and resources.”
Finally they were.  The bridge would be have to be seismically upgraded, the deterioration addressed, bike lanes and sidewalks installed on both sides of the right-of-way, traffic capacity maintained, intersections redesigned for safety and separation – and all within in the original footprint of the span.
And of course, the heritage of the bridge enhanced, to bring it back more to the original look.  Except for one thing: there was no money to reinstall the decorative pedestrian lights and the posts on which they sat.

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