Even the most powerful person in Canada is not immune to a May Long Weekend traffic jam.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was an hour late to his own speech in Abbotsford last month, after being held up on the highway coming from Surrey. When he arrived, Mayor Henry Braun apologized for the congested road.
“And everybody chuckled in the room,” Braun later recalled.
It was meant as a light-hearted reminder that the region requires federal funds to widen the highway and ease chronic congestion that can wreak havoc with the plans of tourists, workers and commuters.
“He saw first-hand the congestion on Highway 1 that happens almost every day,” Braun says.
It’s a sentiment held with near-complete consensus in the Fraser Valley: more lanes must be added to the highway to make room for people and goods.
But what if that’s wrong?
In March, the province committed its $113-million share for the second phase of the Trans-Canada Six-Laning-Fraser Valley Project, which will add a lane in each direction between 216 Street and 264 Street.
The next phase will see the highway widened to Whatcom Road, local MLA Darryl Plecas promised a business crowd in April, before his BC Liberal Party failed to secure another majority in the legislature.
But all that money will be a waste, according to Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s former planning director. Toderian, who now runs his own firm, says new lanes will fill up and congestion will not improve.
“If your goal is to have more people drive, then widening the highway will achieve that goal; if the goal is to lessen congestion, widening the highway will fail at that goal and it will be a very expensive failure,” he says.
Toderian says there is no avoiding the phenomenon known as “induced demand”: build it and they will come… in droves.
It’s a counter-intuitive concept, but Toderian says there’s good evidence for it.
At least one study, published in 2011 by economists Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner, appears to back him up. They found that when U.S. cities expanded freeways, traffic increased and congestion did not improve.
“The evidence shows that that’s always how it’s worked,” Toderian says. “So if you’re not convinced by evidence, there’s not much I can do.”
One needs only consult their own thinking and behaviour to understand induced demand, Toderian says. People employed in Metro Vancouver will move farther east if they think a wider highway will make commuting faster, and their neighbours will do the same.
“You have to recognize that transportation is not like water flowing through a pipe because water doesn’t change its mind,” he says.
So what’s the solution?
First, land use, he says.
If Abbotsford follows the spirit of its 2016 “Abbotsforward” official community plan, which Toderian helped develop, he says it won’t need a wider highway. If the city becomes more self-contained, the need to come and go from Metro Vancouver will subside, and highway traffic along with it, he says.
Abbotsford’s ambitious plan to develop a new city centre, increase transit accessibility and attract more employers is headed in the right direction, according to Toderian.
“But those efforts get eroded while, at the same time, you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too,” Toderian says.
Another solution Toderian suggests would be rapid transit between Metro Vancouver and Abbotsford, which could include a rapid transit bus with a dedicated lane.
“If you want to get people to rethink driving, then having a bus go by them on a dedicated lane while they’re stuck in traffic is the way to get people to rethink their trip,” Toderian says.
“Any solution that tries to spend public money to continue to move people using the same amount of space is destined for failure. The only systems that will work, or solutions that will work are solutions that move more people with less space and less public cost.”
That means prioritizing transit, walking and biking.
Another policy fix Toderian favours (backed up as effective by the Turner/Duranton study) is road tolling, an unpopular proposition that would disincentivize driving.
But the highway doesn’t just move people. Millions of dollars of freight are trucked up and down the corridor, including to and from the Port of Vancouver.
“A lot of times when people look at the highway, they look at it in terms of the commuters heading back and forth but really the major issue is the movement of goods and services,” says Allan Asaph, executive director of the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce.
The Abbotsford, Langley and Chilliwack chambers have jointly called for the provincial government to prioritize the Fraser Valley portion of Highway 1 “as a major economic enabler.” The provincial chamber has signed on, and the resolution will also be voted on by the national Chamber of Commverce in September. If it passes, it will be sent to the federal government.
Asaph says he is familiar with the concept of induced demand but feels the current infrastructure is so inadequate that room cannot be made for trucks simply by discouraging commuters from using the highway.
He did, however, agree that Abbotsford must concentrate on making the city more attractive to both live and work in, rather than becoming a bedroom community.
But, he says, part of that equation includes attracting new employers to set up shop in town by widening the highway.
“We’re not advocating that the expansion of the highway should be unlimited,” Asaph says. “Widening it to six lanes, at least is going to handle the current capacity.”
The assumption that new lanes will make space for freight is “equally untrue” as other arguments for highway widening, according to Toderian.
“The problem is: if you widen and it fills up with cars again, literally the freight doesn’t move any better,” he says.
Toderian feels policymakers aren’t hearing that message, though.
“The experts know this; The experts get this and they’re figuring out how to message it better,” he says. “The last people to either understand or accept this are often the politicians who are kind of addicted to ribbon-cutting when it comes to road projects. What they should become addicted to is ribbon-cutting for transit projects and walking and biking projects.”