How to Solve Vancouver’s Congestion Problem


Okay. We get it. Vancouver is the most congested city in North America…
according to TomTom.

Here’s how they define congestion:


Vancouver’s congestion level* comes out to be 1.36.

For the purposes of this article, “congestion” will pertain to the definition above, and “Travel Times” will refer to car travel times unless otherwise specified.

The Ways to Solve Congestion:

Solution 1: Decrease Peak Hour Travel Times:

Method 1: Implement Road Tolling (AKA “Congestion Pricing”):

Road tolling is the single most effective way to deal with congestion, especially peak hour tolling. Cities such as Stockholm, New York, London & Singapore all have or want tolls. Plus, it’s the most fair and cost effective way to decrease congestion (and help the environment and generate cash).

Method 2: Undensify the Downtown Core:

Does Phoenix have any congestion? Yes actually, but only one third of the congestion that Vancouver gets (it’s the 5th least congested city in North America). And don’t forget that the Valley of the Sun has almost twice the population of Metro Vancouver. What’s your secret Phoenix?

The secret is that Phoenix has decentralized much of its industrial, residential & employment. Office parks are located across the region, and people who do commute to downtown come from all directions.

If Vancouver was really committed to reducing congestion, it would locate its office buildings away from downtown, and even prohibit new development downtown. For example, office buildings located on Marine Drive would be easily accessible to much of the region, especially SOF communities such as Surrey.

And when the demand for downtown peak direction travel is halted or reversed, congestion will decrease.

Method 3: Don’t invest in Alternative Transport:

Alternative transport such as public transit (buses & subways) or cycling is notorious for increasing population & employment density. When dense urban centres are created, more people will need to commute towards those centres during peak times (as described above).

Even though the average travel time will decrease (transit users will have shorter commutes), the magnitude of cars traveling to these centres will increase greatly, thus causing congestion. 

But won’t some drivers switch to transit?
Yes, but by the law of induced demand, there will be a greater number of new drivers clogging up the road than the ones who switch to transit.

Method 4: Increase Road Capacity:

Though this will have the short term effect of increasing the number of drivers (again by induced demand) and causing increased congestion in the short term, increasing road capacity will encourage car culture, decentralize uses, and decrease congestion in the long run. With increased ease of driving, companies will choose to locate away from downtown, and satisfy the requirements for “Method 2” above.

Note that increasing road capacity differs from building highways, which will actually increase congestion in the long term (think about Los Angeles). Increasing road capacity means widening our arterial roads and increasing lane widths to allow for faster traffic.

Solution 2: Increase Off-Peak Travel Times:

Method 5: Remove timed “Green Waves”.

Green waves are multiple timed traffic signals that turn green as you approach the each signal. The most effective green waves are located on Smithe Street downtown for vehicles coming off the Cambie Bridge.

Green waves are effective as long as there are minimal cars lining up at the intersection. Of course, during rush hour this is not the case, and green waves result in a line up of cars at every intersection.

The key to reduce congestion is to eliminate these green waves, so that off-peak travel times increase, and Vancouver’s congestion level decreases.

Method 6: Decrease the Speed Limit on All Roads.

Decreasing car speeds will make off-peak trips longer, reducing Vancouver’s congestion. This will have a minimal effect on peak hour travel times, because travel speeds in heavy traffic are generally significantly lower.

The most profound impact of decreasing the speed limit will be found on highways, because they frequently have the greatest difference in speeds between peak and off-peak times.

A speed limit of 50km/h on all segments of highways that are currently congested at rush hours will likely have a profound effect on reducing congestion.

The Best Solution:

Maybe you’re a driver who can now whine justifiably about our congestion problem, or you’re a politician who can finally can justify spending more on roads to reduce congestion, or you’re a Torontonian who can now mock our congestion problem. But is being the most congested city in North America really a problem?

The problem is that you think congestion is a problem. You hate congestion because once upon a time you were stuck in a traffic jam which made you late for a meeting. In fact, a little congestion is good for a city. Do you truly want Vancouver to become a decentralized city like Phoenix or an empty city like Buffalo? Yes, that’s a rhetorical question, but it’s true!

A little congestion encourages people to live closer to the city and consider alternative means of transport (like cycling or transit). Congested streets are better for retail (though they can’t compare to pedestrian streets) because drivers are more integrated with the urban environment. A little congestion on the streets is the result of vibrant cities where people live in healthy dense communities and have travel needs. Some people even say that congestion is good for the economy!

But Vancouver has too much congestion, and that’s why it’s the “most congested city in North America”!
Yes, driving in any major city at rush hour isn’t easy. But the congestion is just limited to a few downtown streets and bottlenecks. The vast majority of the roads in our region are free of congestion, and this is the true problem. Should Vancouver be a region that is livable and compact, or one that is auto-centric that sprawls far and wide?

Navigating Vancouver’s streets is a piece of cake, as any NYC cab driver would tell you. And if you really still think Vancouver is congested, then go to Los Angeles for a day. 🙂

*TomTom defines Vancouver’s “congestion level” to be 36%, meaning a 36% increase in peak travel times, or 1.36X the free flow travel time.

2 thoughts on “How to Solve Vancouver’s Congestion Problem

  1. The Tom Tom study only looked at 785 miles of roads in Vancouver, what about the other 5,164 miles of roads? Well those are outside the City of Vancouver which it didn’t even consider. This study is useless. It doesn’t consider the entire region!

    There were 9,574 km of road in Metro Vancouver in 2007 (more have been added since) Vancouver only has 1263 km or 13% of the regions roads.
    The study only looks at the City of Vancouver and not the region. So if our region is so congested why is our average commutes dropping? This was even before the massive freeway building seige of late, or even the Canada Line:
    Average travel time (minutes) for making the round trip between home and workplace
    Census metropolitan areas
    1992 1998 2005
    Toronto 68 76 79
    Montreal 62 65 76
    Vancouver 70 68 67
    Ottawa-Gatineau 57 62 65
    Calgary 52 64 66
    Edmonton 50 58 62
    Canada total 54 59 63

  2. You’re totally correct, Tim. The City of Vancouver as a ratio of its metropolitan area is probably among the smallest in Canada. Same problem goes with the Walkscore study, which also artificially elevates Vancouver’s rating.
    We seem to care about congestion because it apparently affects everyone of us, and the media makes a big deal of it.
    Yet the TomTom study doesn’t even measure congestion: it just assigns an arbitrary formula to calculate the difference between travel times at peak and off peak!

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