September 4, 2020

Our Real-World Experiment in Traffic Congestion

It’s a real-world experiment in the resiliency of our transportation system, one we’re living through every day.

What would happen, an analytical traffic engineer might ask (knowing it would never happen), if we shut down the economy for a month, taking at least half the traffic off the road, and then gradually rebooted the system.  Perhaps tweak some of the variables, like transferring 20 percent of transit passengers into cars, perhaps keep 20 percent of office workers at home.  Let’s see what would happen.

We’re going to find out.  Here’s The Sun‘s report:

According to TransLink data, March 27 saw the lowest traffic volumes, which were 58 per cent of that day in 2019. Volumes increased to 93 per cent of pre-COVID levels last week, compared to the same week last year.

“I think the concern is that (traffic) goes above what it was before. Of course, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think there’s reason to be concerned about that,” said Michael Brauer, a professor at the University of B.C.’s school of population and public health.


Here’s the the Daily Hive, with a map that shows moderate traffic congestion throughout the region.

While road traffic volumes have normalized, there is still a long way to go for public transit ridership to return to pre-pandemic levels. After experiencing strong growth in May, June, and July, the pace of ridership growth appears to have slowed down, with TransLink indicating systemwide boardings are now at 44% of normal levels — up from 40% at the end of July, and approximately 15% in early April.

Another visible bump in road traffic volumes and transit ridership could be experienced starting next week, when more employees return to work and the new school semester begins.

Here’s what everyone in the traffic management biz is really waiting to see:  What percent of transit users shifting to cars will it take for our road and bridge system to reach ‘gridlock’?*

In one discussion I’ve had, the conversion is anticipated to be about 10 to 15 percent.  But there are too many variables to make a prediction, particularly not knowing the reduction in vehicles as a consequence of unemployment, zooming and alternatives to rush-hour.  Regardless, it wouldn’t take much of a shift from transit to vehicle to see the unpleasant consequences, particularly on the bridges and other choke points.

Metro Vancouver is particularly vulnerable because of the success of  transit.  When the City made a decision back in the `70s not to build freeway connections to the region or increase the capacity of the arterial road system for single-occupant vehicles, we knew we would have to increase the capacity of the transit system to handle growth both within the city and for those commuting to the core.  And that’s what we did.  While congestion never went away (it never does), we accommodated a million or so more people in the region without significantly increasing road space in the city.  Indeed, we were able to prioritize other modes and offer choices in a way that increased both livability and economic vitality.

We never assumed we’d shift back to motordom – the car-dominant strategies of the 20th century.  We never built more capacity to do so, with the exception of some new bridges and occasional road widening.  But now we’ll find out what such a reversal would mean – as early as next week.

If intolerable gridlock results (it may not), then expect a heated to debate to follow.  One side will maintain that common sense, economic survival, public preference and the need for Covid distancing strategies require that we accommodate the increased demand for car and truck space asap.  Forget about transit-priority lanes, parking spaces converted to patios, and especially those bike lanes.  Put it back to the way it was – and think about how to expedite traffic flows.

The other point of view will maintain that there is no economic recovery without transit recovery, and we need to focus on how to do it safely by, for instance, increasing the speed and capacity of transit to entice people back and not switch to cars.  Or bring in road-pricing to give economic singles to prevent the worst outcomes.

To return to motordom, even reluctantly, would be like using the pandemic as an excuse to make us even more vulnerable to the climate shocks to come, at a price we can’t afford, with no reasonable likelihood of ever returning to a world just the way it was.


*’gridlock’ is a term properly meaning the complete halt of traffic as a result of at least four completely congested intersections.  Most of the time we mean it as an intolerable delay caused by bumper-to-bumper traffic.

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  1. “…Or bring in road-pricing to give economic singles to prevent the worst outcomes.

    To return to motordom, even reluctantly, would be like using the pandemic as an excuse to make us even more vulnerable to the climate shocks to come, at a price we can’t afford…”

    Hitting people with road pricing during an economic crisis would be fatal to any politician. And with increasing electrification of vehicles it is not a given this is a “price we can’t afford” in terms of the environment.

    Unsaid in all this is the looming exodus of people from the downtown core as the city fiddles while ramapant street disorder burns through neighbourhoods.

    1. If people won’t allow politicians to put a market price on roads then the market will respond accordingly. And I won’t feel any sympathy for those stuck in traffic. In the short term EVs are worse for the environment. In the long term, only curtailing the number of vehicles and getting more people onto transit and into walkable communities will solve all the other problems that SOVs create – even if they are electric.

        1. Interesting but highly dubious.

          A car tire weighs about 14kg. If they wore at a rate of over 5 grams per km they would wear out in just over 1000 kms – assuming that half the weight of the tire is lost in its life which is probably way too high. Even if half the pollution comes from the road itself it would only double that short tire lifespan. I think somebody got their decimal points in the wrong place.

          And of course part of the reason for the “increase” in tire pollution is the decrease in tailpipe emissions – not really an increase at all, only as a percent.

          Furthermore EVs barely use their brakes so those emissions will fall and fall further yet as increasing battery charge rates enable more efficient regenerative braking.

          But it still does highlight that though EVs are a necessary step in the right direction they are not the answer to our transportation issues.

  2. I think the frustration of sitting in traffic would outweigh the reluctance of office workers to either:

    (i) ride transit to the office;
    (ii) adjust when they drive in and out (earlier or later); or
    (iii) continue to primarily work from home or increase the proportion of time or which days they work from home.

    So I think things will ikely find some form of equilibrium before having to resort to extreme measures such as road pricing.
    There’s more flexibility in working arrangements now than there used to be, so the morning and afternoon rush hours probbaly won’t be as rigid.

    1. Here I sit in my old office building and yet another car alarm is blaring for no reason. Horns honk. Harleys rev. Tires send their ever-present torrent of hissing/rumbling noise. Sirens pierce the air two dozen times a day – their wailing heard kilometres away to impress their presence onto those a block away cocooned in their isolated steel shells.

      There would be no need for such loud and obnoxious sirens if it weren’t for all the other MVs.

      Road pricing is not an “extreme measure”. What we’ve had to put up with without road pricing is what is extreme.

    2. without bus lanes the option is to wait in a gridlocked bus or a wait in a gridlocked S O V——- with bus lanes enough drivers would choose the bus

  3. A most appropriate capture of Google traffic …
    Traffic backed up from the IWMB through to West Vancouver, as well as along Main and Low Level Rd. Also a small backup NB at the Massey Tunnel.

    One day the Massey Tunnel issue will be addressed, but it’s just another gridlock afternoon for the North Shore.

    And no, the $200M spent on the Mtn. Hwy /Mt Seymour interchange will NOT have a significant impact on either traffic leaving or crossing the North Shore. Doubt it will make it safer either, based on what we’ve seen so far.

    Coulda had 3 minute Seabus service and a bus fleet to support that service level instead. Of course, w/o a depot on the North shore, it too would be stuck getting over the bridge.

  4. Congestion. Well, it’s a made by humans wicked problem, isn’t it? We can’t blame nature for the problem, but we can observe that nature bears the brunt of the problem. We call the ultimate consequence: climate change. Many solutions have been proposed to solve congestion, many have been implemented, many more will be implemented in the future because congestion it seems will always be with us. Why, we might wonder, but then consider the scope of our ‘personal accommodations economy’ based in consumerism, materialism. Our life style expectations in the city drives buildings higher, skytrains longer, cars smaller, oil wells deeper, metal and mineral mines further into pristine lands. Congestion is a wicked problem most of us have chosen to live with rather than set out for the frontiers of nature all across the Salish Sea.

    1. I live in the city. Congestion is not a wicked problem for me as I essentially never personally experience it. You are correct that congestion is made by humans. Therefore it is a choice.

      High buildings do not cause congestion. Too many people driving causes congestion for people driving – and sometimes for people on transit. Get buses out of that stream and leave the congestion to the people causing it. Only then will people make the rational choices to switch modes or pay what it takes to reduce it.

      Spreading out around a greater region may (or may not) reduce congestion. But it comes with so many more environmental harms that it cannot be the solution to strive for. Jolson, you persist at ignoring the the impact of everything that comes with that sort of sprawl. Why?

      Only people who live off grid on large acreages, grow their own food, make their own concrete and nails and tools and solar panels and shoes and pencils and computers to post comments can avoid the increased transportation of goods and people that comes with sprawl. And even the most eco-friendly homestead will still disrupt natural ecosystems but over a necessarily much larger footprint. The roads, even gravel ones, will increase exponentially as the 500 people who live in a 1/4 acre tower spread out to a minimum 1000 acres to live off grid.

      If you like that lifestyle, go for it. It is not a desirable lifestyle for most nor beneficial in addressing our environmental problems.

      1. If we wanted to, we could rapidly build an entirely mixed economy city for fifty thousand people, say, somewhere among the coastlines of the Salish Sea. We could build this city three stories high using only local stone and mass timber applications from the local forest. This city could be designed as a walking city and electric cart city surrounded by forest with no outside connection to a road network. This will therefore be a marine city with passenger only ferry connections to the mainland. It will have a working waterfront, extensive commercial, retail marina activity, a fishing fleet, pleasure craft, sail boats, water taxis, floatplane docks.

        It won’t be labeled sprawl and it will eliminate congestion, it will respond to the climate crisis, and best of all it is actually possible with a large unemployed covid labour force standing by, looking for hopeful adventures.

        1. Jolson, you are advocating the very thing that you are against. And you need to mow down a bunch of nature to achieve it. Do we then tear down the current homes of those 50 thousand people just like you always say we shouldn’t?

          How about we evolve the city we already have into a more sustainable version rather than going out and building a new one from scratch on pristine wilderness. Why hide the “perfect city” out there somewhere where others can’t experience it? Like I said, I do not experience congestion. And by living the way I do I set a living example for others of how to live without it.

          Ideally we’d evolve toward more sustainable mixed-use walkable density only as existing houses reach the end of their practical lives. But even if they are deconstructed before then the new neighbourhoods will not involve removing yet more of the natural world.

  5. This is an apples to oranges comparison, so let’s not get carried away. The supposed 0.93 return of the previous year’s volume is a daily total average. It says nothing about AM or PM peaks, which is all anyone has ever cared about. These peaks have not yet returned, nor the so-called “problems” associated with slow-moving traffic. This is also still summer traffic.

    In 6 weeks when vacations are over and (hopefully) schools are open we’ll have a clearer picture of the new normal. Even if average daily volumes surpass pre-COVID levels, this won’t necessarily be a problem, so long as the same peak surges are not produced by armies of commuters all choosing to drive to and from their places of work at the same time. It’ll take longer for that to happen, as many commuters exercise greater flexibility to travel to work off-peak or not at all. When peak hour traffic does eventually return to previous levels, transit ridership will, too.

      1. These cars will be like all those bikes flying off shelves: in 6 months most will be back on the market. Fear of contagion will fade and when peak traffic hits pre-pandemic levels, so will the current advantages to driving to work. January will be a great time to pick up a very gently-used, $3k valued bike for a couple hundred bucks and a car for about the same.