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2010 Games Traffic Plan a Permanent Roadmap?

Officials hope citizens will embrace public transit beefed up for Olympics.

By Geoff Dembicki 12 Mar 2009 |

Geoff Dembicki is a Tyee reporter with a focus on the 2010 Olympic Games.

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Canada Line train: lure to drivers?

When the 2010 Olympics hit town, parking restrictions, road closures and 24-7 priority lanes might make driving hard for Metro Vancouver commuters.

That could cause widespread anger and frustration, but VANOC and the city hope permanent improvements to public transit will get people out of their cars and into buses and trains -- during and beyond the Games.

When life returns to normal, will Vancouver be left with legions of commuters using sustainable transport options?

Or will people simply revert back to their cars, as one planning expert has argued? VANOC today unveiled its comprehensive transportation plan, a wide-ranging strategy that's meant to ensure athletes, spectators and media get from accommodations to venues -- and back -- in a timely manner.

Clearly, the logistics are daunting. During the Games, Vancouver will host up to 135,000 spectators each day -- the equivalent of staging 17 back-to-back Superbowls, VANOC's executive vice president Terry Wright told reporters.

And that's on top of an expected 6,100 athletes and officials, 10,000 accredited media and a 55,000 strong workforce.

Aiming to reduce car trips

To deal with the influx, transportation planners from VANOC, the city, the province and TransLink have taken aim at single occupancy vehicles. Their goal is reduce automobile traffic by at least 30 per cent during the Games.

In the downtown core, that means significant parking bans along major roads, 24-7 rush-hour restrictions and the closure of major arteries such as the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.

Across the city, vehicles will be prohibited from driving in dedicated Olympic lanes, which will be open to only accredited Games traffic and Translink buses.

Though the restrictions will clearly make driving harder for Metro Vancouver commuters, planners are looking at putting more people than ever into public transit to ease the crunch.

As part of the strategy, Translink will use a $17 million contribution from VANOC to permanently add 48 SkyTrain cars, 200 buses and a new SeaBus to Vancouver's transport infrastructure.

'Expanding transit is fundamental': city manager

With the Canada Line set to open by early fall, city manager Penny Ballem estimated total transit trips across Metro Vancouver will increase by one third during the Games. "Expanding transit is a fundamental part of our strategy," she said.

Planners will also promote biking and walking as alternative forms of transportation and encourage local businesses to promote ride-share and car-pool programs.

All that considered, the Games will likely see a major commuting shift from vehicles to transit and other options, but will that change endure? Wright certainly hopes so. "We want to create an opportunity for sustainable choices," he said. "Some of which we hope will hold post-Games and help with the long-term transportation challenges and livability challenges within the region."

'Shift tons of trips': UBC's Condon

Patrick Condon, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of British Columbia, told The Tyee that transportation is responsible for a whopping 30 per cent of the province's greenhouse gas emissions. And in that category, single occupancy vehicles are the biggest culprit.

At the moment, Condon said public transit accounts for only about 12 per cent of trips in the Metro Vancouver region, compared to 80 per cent by personal automobile. It's a sobering statistic that will have to be reversed if the province ever wants to meet its goal of reducing emissions to 80 per cent below 2007 levels by 2050, he argued.

"We're going to have to shift tons of trips that are currently by single occupancy vehicle into transit," Condon said.

The professor supports the added buses and trains in the 2010 transportation plan, but he's unsure the Games will mark a significant shift from personal automobiles to transit.

For one, many local residents will likely stay away from downtown or take time off work to avoid the commuting crunch, which will reduce their exposure to alternative transport options. And secondly, Metro Vancouver's reliance on personal vehicles stems in part from sprawling suburbs without access to effective public transit.

"Frankly, 17 days is not much," Condon said. "We have a much deeper set of problems than what would be influenced by the Olympics."

Arguing for light rail

Many of these problems could be solved with an extensive system of light rail, which is cheaper than Skytrain expansion and could turn arterials such as Kingsway and Scott Road in Surrey into vibrant, transit-centred communities, Condon said.

During the 2010 Games, a demonstration street car will run between Granville Island and the Athlete's Village at Southeast False Creek from February to March. Condon said the demonstration project would be a good way to stimulate sustainable transportation across the region.

"I would hope that the tram line is going to stay active," he said. "That would be positive legacy for the Games."

Ballem said the city has had conversations with TransLink about keeping and extending the line once the Games are over. But she added a final decision will depend on a variety of factors such as possible cost-effectiveness and ridership levels.

"It really needs to be put up against other key priority choices that we have to make in our transportation network across Metro Vancouver," Ballem said.

Asked if it is likely the Olympics could mark a turning point for transit use across Metro Vancouver, Ballem sounded hopeful.

"That would be wonderful," she said. "That's certainly a big goal for us... and the whole region would really like to see a legacy from this."

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