We Need a Sensible Bridge

10 lanes for $3 billion is a really dumb idea. Here’s why.

The Massey Bridge is a 10-lane mega infrastructure project conceived in 2013 by the British Columbia Provincial government to replace the ageing George Massey Tunnel which links Delta and Richmond over the South Arm of the Fraser River. A new crossing is needed, and there’s never been a better opportunity to take action and make the right choice for the future growth, economic vitality, and environmental stewardship in the Metro Vancouver region.

Building our way out of congestion doesn’t work.

The current crossing works well for current all-day traffic volume. Like all roads, during peak travel times there’s more volume than the road was designed to handle. Building 10 lanes on a new bridge is designing for a tiny part of the day when there is a surge in demand.

When a road is designed for the peak travel time, which is a very small part of the day, there’s a lot of waste involved. Graphic by Jeff Tumlin.

Congestion is an incredible opportunity to encourage people who have other transportation options to take advantage of them. It could be as simple as leaving earlier or later, taking transit, working from home, or opting to carpool. These are just some of my favourite options, and it makes room on the road for people who don’t have another option. There are other more cost-effective and less popular ways to manage congestion.

When we build our way of congestion, it also creates something called induced demand or latent demand. Induced/latent demand basically means: build it and they will come. Over-designing transport infrastructure is a short-term solution that will lead to more congestion down the road. It’s a perception thing; if driving looks to be the quickest option and you get to be in your own private car then people will shift their habits to driving. Younger commuters will develop habits the same way. As housing costs continue to rise and young families and professionals are continually pushed to the fringe in ‘drive until you qualify’ housing markets we’ll be talking about twinning the 10-lane Massey Bridge 50 years from now or sooner. The Spanish urban planner Joan Bousquets once told me that we’re planning for things that will last longer than any of our lifetimes— we need to get it right. 10 lanes isn’t ‘getting it right’.

There are bigger fish to fry. Namely, the Pattullo Bridge.

The Pattullo Bridge has one of two certain futures: replace or close by 2023. The Massey Bridge can survive another 50 years with proper maintenance. Building road capacity to fringe regional municipalities isn’t compatible with the Regional Growth Strategy and works counter to the goals we’re trying to accomplish together. If we continue to encourage development on agricultural land and further away from presently urbanised areas, it will exacerbate the problem of a missing critical mass to provide high-frequency (rail) public transit.

From past projects like the Port Mann Bridge and the Golden Ears Bridge, we know that it doesn’t make financial sense to do this kind of stuff. (Note the handy calculator at the bottom of that linked article). By building a massive bridge over the South Arm, we’re literally personifying insanity: doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.

The Mayor’s Council Plan highlights far more pressing concerns that need to happen before a Massey Bridge. Things like Surrey rapid transit and Broadway SkyTrain are much higher priority. If we’re going to look at seriously easing congestion, as a region, we need to manage demand and start rolling out comprehensive region-wide road pricing. If congestion is the problem, the solution is not one-off band aid fixes. Solving a regional issue like road congestion will require solutions on a regional level.

We can do so much better from a practical design standpoint.

The 10-lane design has dedicated transit lanes and shared paths, which totally excites me and is a step in the right direction. With a bridge deck that’s designed to be 57m high, only the most motivated people on bikes will opt to climb and cross into the extensive interchange of flyovers on the other side. The port authority wants it to be even higher, which has prompted speculation that there are alternative motives are being considered.

Say Hello to the new Steveston Highway and Highway 99 interchange. Photo by the Abbotsford News.

I’ll leave you with this project of Helsinki’s Crown Bridges. A bridge project that moves more people than the Massey Bridge for a fraction of the cost with a lower deck that’s actually possible to walk and bike over. Oh, and it’s only for light rail, bikes, pedestrians, and emergency vehicles.

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Alex Gaio

I'm an Urban and Regional Planning Student at Ryerson University interested in the nexus of transportation, public health, and environmental sustainability. I'm fascinated by sustainable, active transportation and its ability to tackle all three challenges. I'm a two-time American Public Transportation Association Scholar and Recipient of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute Undergraduate Scholarship.