COLUMN: Bailey bridge battle puts traffic on trial

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"New Westminster has its head in the sand."

This comment is uttered often. And always in relation to traffic.

It's said by people exasperated with how New West does its darndest to curb traffic, to make travelling through our city as unpalatable as possible. These folks live outside our 15-square-kilometres, and just want to get through our damned—their words, not mine—city.

And to them, the Bailey bridge is kind of the icing on the New West Nutcake.

What city clings to a one-lane bridge? Do they also plan to return to horse and carriage?

To many, yes, it's hard to explain.

In the tiniest of nutshells, New West says the bridge has been a local access road for Braid Industrial Park businesses to get in and out. Nothing more.

Coquitlam says it's an inter-city connector, which is why they've built the four-lane United Boulevard, which slams into the one-lane Bailey.

New West says increasing traffic volume there will be a nightmare, as it's an area with rail lines just steps away from the Braid-Brunette intersection, on which dozens of trains pass daily.

But now the one-lane connection will be no more. An arbitrator has ruled in Coquitlam's favour; a two-lane span will be installed.

And now we'll see who's right. Will there be more snarls, as the Royal City predicts? Or will it mean smooth sailing?

Either way, Coquitlam and the cause of more cardiac-arresting traffic wins. If the area bungs up, it will renew calls for a massive United Boulevard Extension flyover-type interchange in the area.

Which guarantees more traffic volume in New West—what the city's been fighting against all along.

Changing travel habits

Taking a step back, the Battle of the Bailey highlights a bigger issue.

Progressive traffic planners will tell you that building more roads, and bigger roads only encourages greater volumes and, in short order, the new wider roads fill up.

It's a futile cycle that we can't seem to shake.

And it's the most wasteful thing we could possibly do, in terms of money and resources. It creates more pollution, more congestion, more frustration.

Instead, we should do something like this—put a congestion charge on every bridge crossing the Fraser River during rush hour.

As soon as possible. Even just $1 or $2.

It won't generate a ton of money. But what it will do is shift discretionary trips.

Congestion charges have been introduced, with great success, in many cities around the world.

Stockholm, Sweden launched its program in 2006. A city built on islands, with many bridges, Stockholm has roughly the same population as Metro Vancouver.

Jonas Eliasson, one of the brains behind that city's initiative, said if you want to encourage people to change their behaviour, you create incentives. And don't worry about the details—people will figure it out.

"You shouldn't try to tell people how to adapt," he said in a 2012 TED Talk.

"You should just nudge them in the right direction."

Immediately, on the first day tolls kicked in, rush hour traffic dropped 20 per cent.

Not much of a drop, perhaps, but it was permanent and the impact was enormous. Just a modest change in volume meant the difference between gridlock and flow.

And when Eliasson surveyed drivers, asking what they were doing different, the results were astonishing.

People had no clue. To their knowledge, they hadn't changed their behaviour at all. Those who needed to cross the bridge during rush hour still did. But those with no urgent need to travel at that time altered their trips accordingly. Without even consciously thinking about it.

So what are we waiting for?

If we had introduced a congestion charge 10 years ago, we wouldn't have needed a new $3.5-billion, 10-lane Port Mann Bridge. Volume would have dropped such that a new bridge would not have been required.

Instead we'd have a small charge during rush hour, rather than a larger one 24 hours a day.

Want proof a congestion charge works?

Witness how much lighter traffic is on the Port Mann today.

It's true, many have switched to the Pattullo as a toll-free alternative.

But I'd argue that people making discretionary trips are avoiding the Port Mann during rush hour. Not due to traffic concerns, but because of the toll.


PHOTO: Would the Pattullo Bridge need replacement if there were congestion charges in place, or just refurbishment?

So how does this relate to the Bailey bridge?

After all, it's not a Fraser River crossing, but between two otherwise land-linked cities.

I'm not saying to toll the Bailey (though who knows, maybe that would help).

But the Bailey is linked to something bigger.

This conflict between New Westminster and Coquitlam is not just about a little bridge, but about how we want to deal with traffic. And how we want our cities to evolve.

So yes, if you assume the answer to congestion is more, bigger roads, New West sounds a bit crazy to cling to a one-lane span.

But when you look at it from the perspective of "nudging" human behaviour, so we save money, have cleaner air and maybe, live without so much traffic-jammed frustration…

Well, in that case, New West's brilliant.

Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.

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