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Freeways aren't a curse. They are a resource like fishing lakes, grazing land, water supplies, etc., that are subject to the tragedy of the commons. Let anyone use the resource for free, and its usefulness is destroyed. Charge an appropriate price for its use (with gas taxes, tolls, etc.), and the tragedy of the commons is avoided.

I was just talking to a friend who immigrated to Los Angeles from India. He said the first thing he noticed about LA is "It's ridiculous how easy it is to get around in LA. A trip that would take all day in India takes 15 minutes in LA." (thanks to the "curse" of freeways)

You can read here
the abomination that was in store for Québec City. We escaped some of the worst but La Vieille Capitale still has more freeway per capita than Los Angeles and even New York...

Vancouver didn't really escape the freeway curse. The Georgia Viaduct remains as a pretty big piece of urban engineering originally intended to provide the big east-west freeway a route into the downtown.

As for the rest --I think I'm going to go with the idea that it's complicated. I ride to work up from Kitsilano to Oakridge, which takes me along and beside the Arbutus Corridor (notorious in the last decade for a resident who pre-emptively rejected the idea that the Canada Line should use the existing railway easement on the grounds that it was "the wrong sort of neighbourhood" for a mass transit line) and then across the major north-south corridors that connect cross-Fraser suburbia to the downtown.

So, the problem is that, sure, you want to be able to build nice houses in Richmond, Delta, South Surrey and Tssawassen, and commute to work on them. The problem is that Vancouver's downtown is cupped under a ridge of high ground around Queen Elizabeth Park. On the one hand, the gradiant challenges rail and road builders. On the other, the elevation naturally attracted nice houses, which spill down the slopes towards Vancouver General Hospital. (I guess we know who the main population of high earners in this city are!) Granvill Street is (one of) our main north-south corridors, but it is most definitely not a freeway. Why, I can stop motion on it with a bicyclist controlled light at 37th, and I do, twice a day! (You're welcome, commuters.) I could meditate at length about the way it's all worked out, with the Arbutus, Granville, Oak and Cambie corridors, and the way that Burrard somehow managed not to become a corridor, but the key point is that the predicted congestion somehow failed to happen, without a massive freeway being cut through Shaugnessy.

Looking east, the idea of a freeway connecting downtown, via the Viaduct, with the Trans-Canada seems enticing. The Viaduct, laid through "colourful ethnic neighbourhoods" with gusto, was only the first step in an "urban renewal/rapid transit" plan. You'd think. And, then, again, something happened. Is it really a matter of funding formulas? If so, why didn't they get worked out? Or is it a question of work --and the elevated grades that this work would create-- disrupting the docks and their rail services? Or was there more resistance, quiet and intransigent, to the idea of bulldozing Chinatown than for getting rid of the African-Canadian community displaced by the Viaduct?

Finally, twinning the First Narrows (Lion's Gate) Bridge requires twinning the causeway through Stanley Park. Again, the city seems to have been intransigently opposed to the idea. Whatever happened on the North Shore, it would not have access to the downtown at the expense of destroying Lost Lagoon. Would commuters come the long way around the Second Narrows? Take the Seabus? Or bloody well find a job on the North Shore? Who cares --as long as we don't lose the geese!

Oh --and then there's the fact that a twinning was completely impractical from an engineering point of view. So there's that.

This isn't an isolated story, of course. You will note that there's no expressway erupting from the foot of the cliffs under Casa Loma into the Annex along Spadina. That, too, was a neighbourhood-comes-first resistance movement; but also one that reflects the fact that the costing of the utopian engineering scheme required never really merited examination.

In this last bit, I could go on about failure of nerve in the proposed Canadian megaprojects of the 50s and 60s more generally. It really seems as though piecemeal excuses and second thoughts were allowed to have their way, where the same kind of objections did not derail the interstate projects of America. Was it a lack of faith in Canadian economic growth trajectories, as much as anything else?


Thanks for writing. I agree, it's complicated.

"Is it really a matter of funding formulas?" You're right in that this wasn't solely about funding formulas. As important as funding formulas was the decision-making structure, which allowed Vancouver to actually say no. Am I right in thinking that Burnaby would have liked to have vetoed the recent widening of the trans-Canada, but couldn't?

What the funding formulas did, I think, was buy Vancouver time. Because of the funding formula, the downtown expressways didn't get built in the 50s and early 60s. Then by the time the proposals were revised in the mid- to late- 60s (the proposed bridge/tunnel from downtown to the North Shore, bouncing off Brockton Point) people had started to realize that roads didn't solve all problems, and opposition to them was stronger. Much as the Toronto has the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley, but opposition stopped the Spadina Expressway.

With regards to your question - why didn't the funding formulas get worked out? I'll answer it with another one: Why didn't the city of Vancouver vote Social Credit? All tied up in BC's complex electoral dynamics.

"where the same kind of objections did not derail the interstate projects of America" That would be a subject for a whole different blog post, but north/south trade patterns and low population density would, I'd guess, be part of the story. Though as for megaprojects - we did build one or two hydro-electronic dams, and don't forget the St Lawrence Seaway...

Mike -

Whenever I drive the Don Valley I'm torn between thinking "it's so terrible that what could be a beautiful urban wilderness is desecrated by this roadway" and thinking "this is such a fast way to get downtown" (I don't usually drive it in rush hour). So, yes, when freeways work they're pretty sweet.

The question is: if road users had to pay a toll that reflect roads' actual cost, how much would people still use the highways? I think I'm right in saying that the new toll on the Port Mann bridge has affected traffic volumes much more than the provincial government expected. And the 407 is pretty empty.

I'm not disagreeing with you about the value of road tolls - just pointing out that, if we actually charged tolls that approximated the economic costs of roads, we wouldn't be building a great many freeways.

Jacques-Rene - thanks for writing - we haven't had a chance to chat for a while.

I didn't know about Quebec City - thanks for the link.

"Why didn't the city of Vancouver vote Social Credit?" Not to be mean or anything, Frances, but my immediate thought was Grace McCarthy, and that .. guy, you know the one. Post-Secondary education? Pat McGeer! But they were all second wave, and the 1950s are a bit of a blur to me, and shouldn't be, with my blogging project --but, anyway, off I goes to Wikipedia, which now has a complete article on the 1953 general election that gave W.A.C. Bennett his first majority.

Sure enough, west-side voters are already warming up to Social Credit. Vancouver-Point Grey, Vancouver-Burrard, Vancouver-Centre, North Vancouver and Delta (including Richmond at this point?) all elected Social Crediters. It is true that the east side went CCF, and I suppose there's an argument that Victoria denied Burnaby and East Vancouver their freeway because they sided with the socialist hordes --but that doesn't explain the lack of action on the First Narrows, or a north-south freeway connector.

Also, when I talk about failure of nerve and Canadian megaprojects, I am taking an eccentric focus on British Columbia's central coast. Kitimat, Ocean Falls, Bella Coola --those are the places where I can just hear Canadian politicians of the 1950s saying, "Nothing's going to come of it, and we might as well not even try."

Eri: beside part or parcels of urban highways,not only did we build the Seaway but the Trans-Canada highway plus plenty of interurban "interstates", a world expo on an "invented island" with its own song
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPZKHI8K1YE (peppy version by Donald Lautrec)
or a pensive one by Renée Claude

and enough mega-dams that even more songs were written about them...and survive to this day (a Leonard Cohen cover of "La Manic" in 2012)
unless you prefer the original by Georges Dor

I lived and grew in that era and the last thing I remember is a lack of faith in the future. I saw schools and even universities built by the day...

Hey, a good number of us even try to build a new country...

Erik - o.k., I take your point on SoCreds in Vancouver. But that then raises the question - why did the funding formula so penalize the city of Vancouver and New West? Perhaps Vancouver votes were too expensive to buy with roads, because of the cost of building roads within the city?

Or perhaps Vancouver voters just didn't fancy roads all that much? Look at that highway map and think what's in it of a typical Point Grey resident - basically nothing. Perhaps a slightly faster drive to the ski hills on Saturday morning, but there wouldn't be any traffic to speak of on a Saturday morning anyways.

When you talk about the failure of central coast megaprojects - is this a good thing or a bad thing? I'm thinking LNG, for example.

Vancouver and New Westminster are historical cities with direct legislation from the Province dating back in the colonial days. Most of the municipalities where freeways run weren't "city" status when the freeways were built and had less self-government or local tax base.

Kelvin - I wondered if it was that. So it's partly the funding story, partly the self-government story, i.e. that Vancouver and New West had greater power to say no, and partly the self-interest story, i.e. that the highway wouldn't have shortened the commute from Shaughnessy downtown materially.

With regard to the Port Mann expansion, I can say as a person that has had many reasons to travel that route (intermittently, not as a commute) over three decades, that the new bridge AND the toll have been a boon.

Perhaps the toll has dampened demand, but $3.50 is a small price to pay for a route that no longer comes to a congestion-halt 7 days a week, 14 hours a day (seriously: in the early 1990s I would drive that route on a Sunday night after 9pm, and even then there could be a congestion halt on the freeway just before the bridge).

Ryan, and I personally really enjoy driving the 407 - allows me to completely avoid Toronto rush hour traffic when driving from Ottawa to Waterloo.

I also like going to the opera.

And in a way toll roads (at least in our present system) are like opera - they provide really nice things for people who are able to pay for them, with significant subsidies that come in part from people who aren't able to pay for them.

With the megaprojects, there's always two sides to the story. (Except LNG: stupid, stupid, stupid.) That's my weaselly way of suggesting that it's okay not to care about what would have happened to the fish of the Nechako River if it meant completing the Kemano II project. More hydroelectric power means less carbon being burned.

I understand that the Kemano Project that powers the aluminum smelters of the town of Kitimat with water diverted across the Coastal Range from the Nechako River is a very small deal compared with the St. Lawrence Seaway. I just want to take a tortuous path to a stretched argument-by-analogy in order to reach irresponsibly alarmist conclusions.

The argument goes like this: the Seaway, although long in gestation, got its effective start in World War II. World War II also saw megaprojects out here in the West, even if the example I would point to is the Alaska Highway and its tributaries: megaproject-by-farce. At the same time, rising global demand for aluminum was promoting hydroelectric projects here and there around the world, with local politicians getting into the act in search of economic development in underdeveloped regions.

Well, you can't get more underdeveloped than the basically unoccupied B.C. Central Coast, then and now populated only by extractive seasonal fishing camps laser-focussed on limited, economically viable exports. (Fish oil, tourism, whatever.) Plus Ocean Falls, Kitimat. (I'll leave Bella Cool out of this since it seems to be viable on its own.) Since the Central Coast also has enormous untapped hydroelectric potential, you would think that this would be a match made in Heaven, but in 1950 the Premier of British Columbia declined to build the Kemano Project for Alcan, leaving it to be built by the company.

This is my "loss of nerve." The project would be built anyway, Premier Johnson thought. Why take on the debt burden just to have control of the future of the resource?

The ultimate, downstream consequence of this --well, I could summarise but that would make things even more tortuous. Suffice it to say that the worst case scenario is Alcan giving up on the whole "making stuff" thing, shutting down Kitimat, and selling all the electricity it owns to the Google. Electricity for the cloud! And give Premier Clarke's LNG thing this: at least she's trying to find a way of using that electricity in place.

That's Kitimat: Ocean Falls, the then-actually existing industrial (pulp mill) town on the central coast that died a slow death in the 1970s at a time when new pulp mills were springing up all over the province, would have required about 90 miles of transmission line to hook up with the Kemano powerhouse. Such a connection wouldn't have been that important to Ocean Falls' business model --except that the line would have run along any road which would have connected Ocean Falls to the provincial highway system. Such a road would not have been cheap, but it would have saved the town and its industry, and it is a lot more feasible than the Alaska Highway. (Not that that's saying much.) Who knows? It might even have promoted development along its route!

So a set of negative decisions made in the 1950s --decisions not to bother with various expensive projects out in the boonies with uncertain downstream benefits-- doomed the Central Coast of British Columbia to near-depopulation much later. It's not the only region of British Columbia --or Canada-- to be all but depopulated in the last two generations, but there's a word limit to comments, isn't there?

As someone who works with the public in retail, I have these days a more than passing acquaintance with the diseases of age. Spoiler: that's because Canada is aging rapidly. One of the more tragic diseases of aging is adult diabetes. Now, here's the thing about adult diabetes: it's easy to miss in its early stages because the effects show up at the peripheries. Your toes start to die long after you become too stiff to get down and look at them, and long after the pains of aging make those symptoms easy to miss. That's why, all too often, doctors end up treating gangrene of the toes at a still-healthy heart. And why they're constantly admonishing us to start exercising regularly. I imagine that amputating gangrenous limbs is not fun.

That's Canada, today. The old person doddering around the grocery store on aching feet. Well, it's not Canada in the sense that it's just a stupid analogy. Countries don't get old, nor do they fade away, except by choice. Any time Canadian society and state wants to take up its RCAF 5BX and 10BX, it can. But the analogy at least works for this: we stopped bending over to take care of our toes in 1950. They started to die in 1980. When we look at bold megaprojects in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, we need to remind ourselves that this is the heart. The heart is not where the gangrene starts.

It's where it kills.

“And in a way toll roads (at least in our present system) are like opera - they provide really nice things for people who are able to pay for them, with significant subsidies that come in part from people who aren't able to pay for them.”

Freeways are not public goods - they are both rivalrous and excludable. There is no reason to think that we need public money for them. That the 407 takes significant subsidies, that's a statement of the capture of large government.

In this discussion on transit planning, I think there is a deeper lesson here - Hayekian humility. If planning something as "simple" as a transit system across a municipality is super difficult, perhaps we should have a little bit more humility when it comes to fiscal and monetary policy at the national and provincial level. I suspect that all the "experts" who help the government redistributing half the national income are not as hyper-competent as they think they might be.

> Freeways are not public goods - they are both rivalrous and excludable.

True, but natural monopolies with large fixed costs have some public good-like features. Ideally, congestion charges should be based on predicted demand, so that the freeway is never left underused due to the charge being too high. This would approximate true marginal-cost pricing, but the construction cost would still need to be defrayed by the city and provincial government. Defraying the entire cost with use fees would amount to taxing freeway use way too much, to save a tiny amount on all other taxes.

"I'm not disagreeing with you about the value of road tolls - just pointing out that, if we actually charged tolls that approximated the economic costs of roads, we wouldn't be building a great many freeways."

I wonder about that. The most common complaint about the 407 is that its owners are going to continue to make bucketloads of money over the next 85 or so years. Not sure that there isn't a deep pool of people eager to make bucketloads of money. That the highway is uncrowded is a sign of optimal pricing. It also doesn't receive subsidies (there is an allegation that they got a sweatheart price when they bought it from the province, but the province made money on that sale, so at most they can be accused of being lousy negotiators). Obviously, this doesn't apply to the newly build, publicly owned extensions in the east end.

I think one distinction you can make is between toll roads serving different functions. One category are toll roads like the 407 or the French highways, where they are serving an existing demand from Day 1 (moving people from one existing population to another). I suspect there's no shortage of people willing to supply those highways.

I think something like a DVP is in a different category, it's a toll highway that creates its own demand. You build a fast highway from the suburbs to downtown, all of a sudden, its cheaper (in terms of time) to live in the suburbs and commute downtown. Granted, you may get a similar phenomenon in my 407 or French Autoroute example, but I suspect it's less pronounced (no one is moving to Dijon because the highway cut an hour off your drive to Paris). And you can see the implications of that. Today, the DVP would likely be a highly profitable toll highway (even accounting for the original capital cost). But, I wonder, would it have been as profitable in 1961 (or whenever it was built), before there was enormous suburban demand for it? Would the owner be willing to lose money for 10 or 20 years while demand catches up to supply? Similarly, in the absence of the DVP, if you built a new one today, the demand is in place, but the demand will also have driven up land values, so the costs are higher.

Of course, given that the DVP was build in 1961, no reason why it shouldn't be converted into a toll road now.


Even if we accept the natural monopoly in this case you are left with three choices: a private monopoly, a regulated private monopoly, or a government monopoly. You need to pick your poison. There is little reason to think that a government monopoly is any better than a private one.

Bob -

Has anyone looked at the economics of converting the DVP into a toll road? I wonder who the winners/losers would be? My first worry would be that it would just divert the traffic onto streets around there, thus be an inferior policy to a congestion charge.

On toll roads: it's the cost of land that I'm talking about here when I'm talking about the subsidies to toll roads.

I remember once hearing a story (which may or may not be true) that a land developer once came to the City of Toronto and offered to build an express tunnel underneath the harbour to replace the Gardiner Expressway in exchange for the land that the Gardiner Expressway is on.

What did the developers of the 407 pay for the land that road lies on?

"What did the developers of the 407 pay for the land that road lies on?"

This is where paying attention to the lessons of Ken Binmore really matters. That land should have been auctioned in a similar way to telecom spectrum auctions. I suspect that that didn't happen. Capture is such a huge business.

Avon - "There is little reason to think that a government monopoly is any better than a private one."

Or any worse - Beer Store v. LCBO is a case in point. Competition matters much more than ownership.

"What did the developers of the 407 pay for the land that road lies on?"

The government (who was the original builder) would have had to pay FMV, either by buying it all up from its former owners (farmers, property developers, speculators, etc.) or, expropriating that which it can't buy, in which case it's generally required to pay FMV unless it expressly provides otherwise (which, for obvious political reasons, it never does, and certainly hasn't in the context of the 407). It was a big fight with the current 407 extension in the east end, since some property owners thought that the government's FMV estimates didn't reflect fair value and contested them (some, I think, won, though the awards weren't miles away from what the government had offered). There may have been some crown land in there which the government didn't properly account for (though, that part of the Toronto area is close enough to the city that someone would have bought in the last 200 years), but then I think the government made a fairly hefty profit when they sold the thing, so even accounting for that, it's not obvious that it wasn't economically viable in the first instance.

Now, Avon might argue that any compensation paid for expropriated land is inherently less than fair market value, but on the other hand, the property market around Toronto is deep enough with enough comparables that it's probably a reasonable first order approximation.

"Or any worse - Beer Store v. LCBO is a case in point. Competition matters much more than ownership."

On the whole, ownership matters. If the state owns the means of production, dissent is impossible. However, I take your point on the narrow issue of market equilibrium modulo one big difference, special interest capture. If for some reason an innovation comes along which breaks the natural monopoly, the government will use force (legislation) to stifle that innovation. The winners, know who they are, will not let the government surrender their rent easily. At least a private monopoly can't legislate on its own. Decades ago, Friedman pointed out just how hard it is to get the government to let go of well intentioned market interference when the reason for that interference disappears. If you have to pick your poison, an unregulated private monopoly is probably your best choice.

As for the Beer Store and LCBO, both are atrocious forms of government interference. There is no reason to create government monopoly power of any kind in this market.

> On the whole, ownership matters. If the state owns the means of production, dissent is impossible.

Well, that's ultimately a matter of competition too, isn't it? Regardless, perhaps the most commonly accepted approach to natural monopoly is to narrow down the portion of the market that really can't be expected to sustain competition, and ensure that everything else is supplied by a contestable market. Do this with constitutional-level policy if necessary, so that market inference after-the-fact by the government is expressly discouraged.

It was around 1999 or 2000, I think, when the Greater Vancouver area was going to implement a car fee to reduce congestion and plough the money into public transit. But suburbs threatened to leave the municipal arrangement and strike out on their own if the plan wasn`t killed. Indeed, people love their cars, too much, I think

I will point out to Jacques previous comment that the PQ government when first elected stopped all freeway construction in Quebec in its tracks leaving Montreal without a direct freeway link to Route 89 in Vermont(shortest route to Boston) to this day. Having said that Quebec still has one of the largest freeway networks per capita despite its fairly disjointed design.

Also to this day there is no direct freeway link between the Trans Canada Highway and the North South Rt99/I-5 corridor in BC. Vancouver Airport is notably on RT99 but lacks any direct access to the East West TCH.

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