In the 1950s, Vancouver began to feel the pain of traffic congestion. The travel time contour map below, taken from the 1958 study Freeways With Rapid Transit, shows how bad it was. In rush hour it took a 15 minutes or less to get from corner of Georgia and Granville to anywhere in the dark green area - including across the Lion's Gate Bridge into North Vancouver. The line labelled "30" shows that it took 30 minutes to drive from Georgia and Granville to south Richmond, to Deer Lake in Burnaby, or to Deep Cove on the North Shore.
Freeways With Rapid Transit estimated that Vancouver's traffic congestion was costing between one and two million dollars a year in 1958. If nothing was done, the costs of congestion would increase to $50 million by 1976 - or $424 million in today's dollars. (That number is roughly similar to the estimated cost of Vancouver traffic congestion in a study released by the CD Howe Institute last year: between $500 million and $1.2 billion).
The Technical Committee for Metropolitan Highway Planning, the authors of the Freeways study, concluded that "The major deficiencies" of the 1958 transportation system were such that they could "only be solved efficiently and practically by constructing an entirely separate system of high speed facilities, called freeways." Rapid transit would never be the answer: "No form of transit can be devised which will be a realistic substitute for the freeway system."
The Technical Committee carried out an extensive analysis and sketched out the best route for Vancouver's highways - what came to be known as the "Sutton-Brown plan". There would be an eight-line freeway running through East Vancouver - close to where the Adanac cycle route runs now. It would swoop around the West End and across Stanley Park, where it would connect with a twinned Lion's Gate Bridge. Other freeways would connect with the Trans-Canada to the east and the Fraser-Delta highway to the south.
The Technical Committee commissioned an artist to visualize what the city would look like with a freeway running through the core:
So what happened? Why weren't the freeways built?
To understand political choices, one needs to know who makes the decisions, and what their interests are. In the 1950s and 60s, as now, the cities of the Lower Mainland were not amalgamated. Unlike Toronto, there was no Metro Council where municipalities came together and made coordinated decisions. Every city in the Lower Mainland was free to plan its own road network. Because local politicians were interested in getting elected, transport decisions were made with an eye to achieving the perfect balance between pleasing donors, delivering nice things to constituents, and keeping taxes and other charges low.
This basic political economy calculus explains why, for decades, the trans-Canada highway stopped just west of Boundary Road. In the 1950s and early 60s, the provincial government paid the full cost of freeways in every Lower Mainland municipality except for New Westminster and Vancouver. Knowing this, one can see just by glancing at a map of the proposed system why Vancouver’s freeway plans stalled. The greatest beneficiaries of the new highways would have been commuters, many of whom lived on the North Shore, or in Burnaby, Richmond, and other municipalities. But they didn’t pay, and had no say. The choice was made by Vancouver city councilors looking to please their constituents, who had little interest in financing roads that would primarily serve suburbanites, having parts of their property tax base appropriated and paved over to make freeways, and disrupting the fine folks living close to the Arbutus corridor. (Though on the other side, there were commercial interests that might have benefitted from making it easier for people to come and shop and work downtown).
The basic point is: incentives matter.
The story of how Vancouver escaped the freeway curse also demonstrates just how hard planning can be. Freeways really did seem like a good idea at the time. The best way to understand what the planners were thinking is to look at the pictures that captured their imaginations:
Reality was grubby:
It is unfathomably difficult to imagine “what if?” Transportation networks define the contours of a city. They profoundly change the way people live. The freeways that were built rapidly became congested in a way that 1950s planners failed to foresee. People fell in love with the automobile - and are falling out of love with it. That car one is so attached to, that feels part of oneself – rapidly becomes dispensable when it’s faster and cheaper to get around in public transit (or when it's so automated that it's no fun to drive any more).
Planners make transportation recommendations with little idea of the full consequences of various alternatives, yet the impact of their recommendations echo for decades. Most people who live and work in Vancouver today were not around to participate in the transport debates of the 1950s and 60s – yet their lives are shaped, for better or for worse, by choices made half a century ago.
Likewise, people 50 years from now will either bless or curse us today for the decisions we make.
Note: All of the pictures here come from the report "Freeways With Rapid Transit", prepared by the the Technical Committee on Metropolitan Highway Planning. I have scanned this report but have had difficulties uploading it. If you wish to obtain a copy, please email me at frances dot woolley at carleton dot ca.