Cars come last in transport planning

Different approach: A Vancouver SkyTrain. Picture: Supplied

About 50 years ago, two cities on opposite sides of the world faced the similar threat of a growing, car-dependent population.

Their responses could not have been more different.

Perth built roads.

Vancouver did not.

As a result, Perth now has an extensive network of major roads and freeways that ring and slice through the city.

Vancouver does not.

Instead, it has developed a public transport system that is the envy of the world.

At its foundation is a fully automated, driverless light-rail system that carries more than a million passengers a day.

But it also includes an extensive network of specifically designed buses, a competitive taxi industry, ferries of all shapes and sizes and even seaplanes that take off within a few hundred metres of the CBD.

While WA continues to commit billions of dollars to new road projects, Vancouver's 30-year transport vision - endorsed by a mayoral council last month - does not include a single kilometre of new asphalt.

By expanding its public transport system and making it easier for residents to walk and cycle, the vision's headline target is to create a community where half of all trips can be done by walking, cycling or public transport.

Work on achieving these goals has already begun.

Lanes of the Burrard Bridge, a significant river crossing similar in status to Perth's Narrows Bridge, have been taken away from motorists and given to cyclists.

There are plans to remove two 50-year-old freeway overpasses - the last significant pieces of road infrastructure built in the city - and replace them with big parks and affordable housing.

"Saying no to the freeways in the late 1960s and early 1970s was very likely the most important decision earlier generations of Vancouver leaders ever made," former Vancouver chief planner and urban design consultant Brent Toderian said.

"It set our city on the path of counterintuitive city-building.

"Since then we've built a huge amount of housing downtown, mixed-use and more compact communities and a much more walkable, public transport-friendly and increasingly bikeable city.

"It made our city more liveable, green, healthy and economically successful. Luckily, earlier generations rejected freeway thinking and our city owes them a huge debt of gratitude."

The refusal to build freeways was not imposed on Vancouver by its politicians.

It was the result of a massive public backlash.

In the late 1960s, the City of Vancouver started planning for a massive eight-lane freeway network that would cut through the city centre.

Its construction would have involved the wholesale demolition of neighbourhoods (mostly low socio-economic areas) and cost about $2 billion in today's money.

The first stage of the project, a six-lane elevated expressway known as the Georgia/Dunsmuir viaduct, was built in 1971.

It was the only section ever finished.

Criticism of the project, especially from residents who did not want to see their neighbourhoods destroyed, grew into a well-organised and persistent campaign that eventually forced the city to abandon the plans.

Former British Columbia premier and Vancouver mayor Mike Harcourt was a young lawyer at the time and represented the local residents in their fight against the freeway plans.

He said the protests showed that residents had the power to decide the sort of city they wanted to live in.

"Our success told the world, and particularly other cities in North America, that Vancouver was marching to a different drummer," Mr Harcourt said.

"Instead of just building freeways for cars, we wanted to make Vancouver a completely livable city.

"We decided to create genuine green zones around the city and allow residential zoning in parts of the city that were previously zoned for commercial or retail.

"We also reinvented suburbia, making it more compact."

The success of the campaign signalled a major shift in thinking for Vancouver's policymakers - a shift maintained in the decades since.

All city councils since the 1970s, regardless of their political persuasion or ideology, have confirmed the policy of no more roads - not even road widening.

Instead, funding and resources have been increasingly devoted to a priority list that puts pedestrians first, followed by cyclists, public transport users and then car drivers.

In 1997, the priority list was confirmed in the city's first transportation plan - a blueprint described by Mr Toderian as "a game changer".

Mr Toderian, Vancouver's chief planner between 2006 and 2012, said this decision "to prioritise rather than balance" the different transport modes had played a big role in the "design DNA" guiding the city's growth.

"Since cars aren't going to disappear anytime soon, Vancouver still spends a considerable amount of energy trying to make driving a greener and healthier proposition, with examples from electric vehicle charging station pilot projects, to policies and zoning incentives that have contributed to our incredible growth of car-sharing.

"But the private vehicle remains the last priority," Mr Toderian said.

"We are not anti-car and we rarely ban the car, but prioritising it last has had a dramatic effect on the way we design our city.

"Our model of city building understands the 'Law of Congestion' and proves that when you build a multi-modal city, it makes getting around better and easier for every mode of transportation, including the car.

"It makes our city work better in every way."

Mr Toderian is advising cities around the world - including Sydney, Auckland and Oslo - about city planning and smarter mobility.

He is due to visit Perth in October.

"Cities around the world have been catching up to our way of thinking, and some are passing us," he said.

"Many are rejecting new freeways and even tearing down existing freeways and reconnecting their cities to their waterfronts.

"Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Seoul, Madrid, Oslo and well over 100 more cities have shown this city-building boldness.

"Increasingly, it's not bold at all. It's just smart.

"Our work found what most cities now understand - that taking down big car infrastructure doesn't result in traffic congestion and gridlock if you're designing a multi-modal city."