1,342,750 People I Don’t Know

14 Billion or So

On January 14th, 2008 Premier Gordon Campbell and Minister Kevin Falcon announced a plan to spend $14 billion to solve the transit problem. That works out to $3261.06 for every man, woman and child in the province.

 I figure I can accomplish pretty much the same results for about $683.

When I explained this to Maggie we were sitting reading the paper and having coffee one Saturday morning.  “We can’t find a couch we like for $683, how do you expect to fix the transit problem for less than the price of a couch?” Then she fixed me in her steely stare and said, “And don’t even think about dipping into the couch fund!”

The couch fund is safe, but my solution is workable, and has historical precedence.

In  1996 they decided to fix Oak Street Bridge. At the time I was working downtown and commuting by bus everyday from Ladner down Highway 99, over the Oak Street Bridge, and then down Granville.

The construction project was huge. They re-laid the deck, fixed the expansion joints and added a median to make the bridge safer. It was scheduled to take several months. Closing the entire bridge was out of the questions, so they closed two lanes of the bridge at a time, and allowed traffic through on the other two.

As expected this caused an absolute rush hour disaster. If you thought traffic was bad before, imagine what it was like with only one lane in each direction. Gridlock was on a good day!

The solution was a flash of unintended brilliance. A highway engineer, or perhaps someone from Translink, took a can of paint declared that only buses were allowed in the fast lane. Highway 99 was divided – cars in one lane, and buses only in the other. In the first week commuting was horrible for cars, the line ups for the Oak Street Bridge extended all the way back to the Massey Tunnel. But for those of us on the bus, it was magical. Before the bridge construction it would take over an hour to get downtown. Without all of the single occupancy cars cluttering up things we were downtown in a half hour.

It was horribly frustrating for the drivers sitting in the slow lane, watching all the buses going by at full speed. It was so bad that the next Monday my regular bus was packed to the gunnels with new riders. By Tuesday it was so bad there were too many riders and the bus couldn’t pick everybody up. On Wednesday Translink responded by putting more buses on the route. By Friday bus ridership tripled, and still we were flying downtown in a half hour.

A brilliant, albeit unintended solution to the problem of traffic congestion.  Instead of making a bigger bridge, they made the bridge smaller. The smaller bridge didn’t create more traffic; it inspired more people to take transit, and commuting times dropped. Instead of spending an arm and a leg, they bought a couple of cans of paint.

A big part of my $683 solution to the transit “problem” is knowing what question to ask. The provincial government has asked the question “How do we move a lot of people?” Their answer is “Spend $14 billion dollars.” Perhaps a better question is “How do we build communities that allow people to stay within their communities; to live, to go to school and to work so they don’t have to commute?” Doesn’t it seem wrong to anyone else that 70% of people in Delta have to commute out of Delta to go to work?

Okay, so it might take more that $683 to fix transportation in the Lower Mainland. I just pulled that number out the air. But until we start asking the right questions, we will continue to come up with the wrong and very expensive answers to those wrong questions.

P.S. To finish the story of the Oak Street Bridge. As soon as the work was done, and the last barricades had been lifted, most folks climbed back in their single occupancy vehicles and cluttered up the roads again and commuting times bounced back up to an hour. Oh well. It was nice while it lasted.