Is it time to remove Vancouver's viaducts?

Wed, 12 Aug 2015

Harleen Khangura

When I first entered the room where the City Conversations on the Future of the Viaducts was held, I remember thinking how the setting felt a lot more intimate than I had expected. But over the course of the conversation, the cozy, informal ambience made sense. As Michael Alexander (City Conversations’ Director) put it, City Conversations is less of a lecture and much more like a dialogue between the presenters and participants.

Last week’s event also saw a huge public turnout. It was clear that the topic was of great interest to the attendees, many of whom lived in the Vancouver area and would be strongly impacted if the viaducts were to be removed. People wanted to know more about the City’s plan on the viaducts and how it would affect them.

So what is the City’s plan for the viaducts and how could their removal benefit us?

The lead presenters of last week’s City Conversations were amongst the few who know the ins and outs of the Viaducts Project. They included Holly Sovdi, lead urban planner for the downtown area and Devan Fitch, lead transportation engineer for the Viaducts Project. George Chow, a representative from a grassroots organization named ReConnect Vancouver, was also invited to share his views on the viaducts.

The city hopes to replace the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts with a road-level street network. According to Sovdi’s presentation, the new roadways will be better able to accommodate 100% of present-day traffic volume that has changed significantly since the viaducts were first built, mostly due to more people turning to walking and cycling within Vancouver. He also provided a list of several other benefits of replacing the viaducts, such as:

·      Freed-up space for a larger Creekside park and affordable housing options

·      More transportation options, such as cycling, walking, and transit

·      Lower maintenance costs and more seismically stable roadways

·      Reconnected neighbourhoods

This presentation on the City of Vancouver's site explains the plans in detail.

The viaducts as a barrier

One of the ideas that came up throughout the presentation was how the viaducts acted as a psychological and a physical barrier for those living in the nearby neighbourhoods. Nothing brought home this point as strongly as George Chow’s personal story about his experience of living on Union Street, an area that was expropriated by the City to make way for the viaducts. What deepened his troubles even more was the long trek he had to make everyday to his school across the viaduct. If his personal story didn’t make it clear how he felt about the viaducts, then his last slide certaintly did.

What struck me the most about his story was how personal and powerful it was. The city officials had the data that showed us why removing the viaducts was important. But it was Chow who gave us a peek into what living in Strathcona, Chinatown, or Crosstown must be like, how daily routines can become difficult because of being disconnected from your neighbourhoods, and how replacing the viaducts could make travelling between these neighbourhoods so much easier and comfortable. 

But is the plan to replace the viaducts without flaws?

While the city mostly spoke about the need for replacing the viaducts, there were several questions that the public had about the plan, which was made most evident during the discussion. It was interesting to hear how people perceive the viaducts differently, mostly depending on where they live or how they travel around Vancouver. While Chow views the viaducts as a barrier, for several attendees, the viaducts are an easy and efficient means for getting where they need to go.

For instance, there were a few questioners who were concerned about how the replacement of the viaducts would impact the already high levels of traffic in the area. The city’s answer to that question didn’t seem enough to calm the concerns. They answered that traffic would be accommodated with more cycling lanes, walking lanes, and transit on the new roadways. However, the question remains: would travelling by cars within Downtown Vancouver would become more frustrating than it already is?

Another question is how much would the Viaducts Project cost? Again, the presenters didn’t have detailed estimations on the costs but did say that the value “unlocked” by the removal of the viaducts would exceed the cost. The lack of details provided made sense. The project is still very much in its preliminary planning stages, but I also couldn’t help but worry about how costly the removal of the viaducts would be as well as how that project would be ultimately paid for (a concern that was even brought up by one of the attendees). Given our recent experience with the transit referendum, it is not unlikely for people to be a little wary of costly government projects.

There is no doubt that the replacement of the viaducts has its advantages and is quite possibly even necessary given the many costs of keeping them. However, it is also evident that there are a lot of nuts and bolts of the project that need to be figured out and once they are, the public would like to know what exactly the city might be signing up for.


Harleen Khangura is a volunteer with the Communications team at SFU Public Square and a recent graduate of Simon Fraser University.