It's not our rush hour

By Gene Miller, February 2011

Self-interest should be the starting point for Victoria’s transportation planning.

Hop in the car. What? Oh, you don’t like the butt-warmer? Just turn that thumb-wheel to zero. Not that one, that’s for dashboard lighting level.

Where are we going? We’re just conducting a Wednesday afternoon experiment. What does your watch say? 3:41? Good. So, here we are turning onto Blanshard from Broughton, by the Royal Theatre. We’ll stay to the right because cars can still make left turns up until four o’clock. Hey, nice! It’s 3:43 and we’re just hitting our first red light at Fisgard at the arena corner. Less than a minute later and we’re cruising through Bay Street when the traffic light second-counter still says five…four; and it looks like we’re going to make it through the Hillside Avenue green also. Damn! The truck ahead of us had to pause for a pedestrian, and now the light’s turning yellow.

Traffic’s starting to thicken at Finlayson across all three lanes of Blanshard, and it looks like we’re going to miss a light cycle. Yup, it happened. Not too bad at Tolmie, but I can see the river of brake lights ahead, and I bet we’re going to be two lights squeezing through Cloverdale and maybe even three on the crawl through the long Saanich Road light near where Uptown shopping centre is taking shape.

Oh, wait a minute, we’ve been driving in Saanich for the last number of minutes, not Victoria. Oops! 

Do you need me to go back downtown and make the same northbound trip out Douglas Street instead of Blanshard, heading toward Uptown where Douglas becomes the Trans-Canada Highway? Or down Pandora toward the Johnson Street Bridge? Or down Bay to the Bay Street Bridge? Or out Quadra or Cook? Or up Fort or Johnson headed toward Oak Bay?

Do you want me to conduct the whole experiment an hour later, around five, if you think the traffic will be heavier then? 

Or would you like to take my word for it and come to the same conclusion I have come to: traffic in Victoria is not a problem and rush-hour traffic into or out of the city is not Victoria’s problem. It’s Saanich’s. Or the Western Communities’. 

Victoria, the city—even and especially the street network serving downtown and environs—is a brilliant demonstration of successful high-volume traffic management. So why is Victoria putting any energy whatsoever into the idea of a regional transportation plan?

All the people who journey into Victoria by car, vanpool, bus or bike are already doing so by exactly those means…without a regional transportation plan. In other words, there is already a plan. It’s called: people getting around. They come into town. They work for government. They work in offices. They work for businesses and in shops. And so on.

So, why would Victoria want to spend a penny or any political capital on a transportation plan or on new systems that will simply do what is already being done more or less successfully? Especially when the real problem isn’t in Victoria, but elsewhere? (By the way, you don’t have to take my word. Test this for yourself during morning or afternoon rush hours. Sure, traffic is heavier everywhere then, but there are no standstills, no gridlock, within the city itself.) 

You say: Yes, but people living in the Western Communities who work for government, etc. get stuck in long, unwieldy, rush-hour traffic jams in the morning and later afternoon. And I say: boo-hoo, my heart bleeds for them. They have to come into town because of work or professional obligations. Honestly, who cares if they drive their cars or crawl in on their nose hairs? Or if they don’t like the commute, let them dump their jobs with the provincial government and work in Langford. I understand Tim Horton’s on Goldstream Avenue is hiring. 

And if there was an express bus or rail corridor between downtown and Uptown in Saanich, this would benefit downtown how, exactly?

Look, I am neither a crackpot nor a Luddite nor a fool, so follow my logic. Everybody who needs or chooses to come downtown is currently doing so. All others are clearly avoiding downtown, and the presence of a high-speed bus or a light rail connection is not likely to make much if any difference, as in: “You want me to drive from my home to Uptown, park illegally, take public transit to downtown and back? For what? Why would I do that? For all that trouble, I’ll just stay at Uptown and shop, thank you.”

The problem is cultural and historical: We have been cultivating beliefs about the city’s centrality for a very long time, and old beliefs are very hard to shed. I’ve heard various theses, the most popular of which is that the dominating presence of the provincial government produces a lulling effect characteristic of company towns. It’s hard to become competitive, tough, practical and self-interested overnight. In my view, we could do worse right now than to act as if the provincial government were only visiting. 

Transportation? Economic development? There is no regional perspective. The political leadership in various municipalities is making hard-headed decisions pitched to their own local advantage. Here’s Saanich’s Frank Leonard in the local paper just before Christmas under the headline “Saanich mayor calls for better transit service.”

Saanich cannot afford to let plans for rapid transit on the Douglas Street corridor push its regular transit needs to the back burner, Mayor Frank Leonard says. “The 25-year plan for transit concerns me because it’s not recognizing the needs of the existing population,” he said.

“It seems to have a bias toward chasing not so much population growth but sprawl, in some respects—the population that’s on the outer reaches of the region going into new subdivisions as opposed to the density that a municipality like ours is providing within existing boundaries,” Leonard said. Leonard said existing neighbourhoods in Saanich need a better transit service.

Does Victoria itself have unmet mobility needs? Absolutely! Should self-interest be the starting point for Victoria’s thoughts about mobility needs and the investment of its stretched finances and limited administrative capacity? Absolutely! How should that be defined? Two simple ideas: convenience and service to Victoria citizens, and downtown economic development. 

To be clear, Victoria can have great success when it tries. One of the regrettably underreported triumphs of Dean Fortin’s mayoral leadership has been the enormous progress made in the provision of housing for various at-risk constituencies, including the homeless. A second is policing and downtown security. And regardless of where you stand on the Blue Bridge issue, there is no missing (or admiring) the mayor’s dogged campaign to win public support for City spending on a new bridge.

We need to harness that determination to create a modest but entirely achievable mobility revolution—some form or multiform of transportation to supplement big busses tied to their routes. Ideally, it would be a much more granular—the wifi of mobility—and come as close as possible to the convenience of a car and the responsiveness of a taxi, without costing any more than an hour’s downtown parking. Sort of the land-based analogue to the harbour ferries. Or maybe enclosed power-assisted pedi-cabs. Or taxis, using a different tariff strategy.

The idea, in any case, would be to enable Victoria to draw on the economic strengths of its dense population and the geographic advantages of its small land footprint. At a guess, there is no point within the political boundaries of Victoria more than eight minutes from downtown by vehicle; and to provide mobility convenience to this population so it can bring its shopping dollars and service needs downtown makes a lot of sense.

Actually, given success, such downtown mobility services might extend into the near reaches of Saanich. I’m sure Mayor Leonard wouldn’t mind.

Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.