It’s gratifying to see the bottleneck at McKenzie Avenue and the Trans-Canada Highway is now on the province’s radar screen. An overpass at that intersection would be welcome.
But don’t be lulled into thinking it will magically eliminate traffic congestion along the Island’s busiest highway. It takes more than increased road capacity to solve traffic problems.
Transportation Minister Todd Stone has invited public input on the province’s 10-year transportation plan, but says it’s already evident the McKenzie intersection is a prime candidate for a long-term fix. Anyone who experiences the Colwood Crawl — and that would include thousands of daily commuters — would love to see an interchange replace the traffic lights along the Trans-Canada Highway.
It would definitely be an improvement, but by itself cannot eliminate the traffic problems plaguing that route. Inbound traffic will breeze through the interchange faster, but will still have to wait out the lights at the Tillicum Road intersection. It could also create more congestion on Burnside Road. The problem is not solved, but relocated.
A new interchange would likely ease outbound traffic, but will not eliminate the snarls that regularly occur near the Millstream-Veterans Memorial Parkway interchange, the main access from the highway to Langford, Highlands, Metchosin and Sooke.
Increasing road capacity seems the obvious answer to traffic congestion, but many studies say otherwise. According to a book by U.S. architects and urban planners Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck, it has the opposite effect.
“The simple truth is that building more highways and widening existing roads, almost always motivated by concern over traffic, does nothing to reduce traffic,” the authors say in Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. “In the long run, in fact, it increases traffic.”
Better and bigger roads can solve traffic problems in the short term, but better and bigger roads also attract more traffic. If the commute is easier and takes less time, more people will choose to drive, which increases the volume and brings back congestion.
A recent University of California at Berkeley study covering 30 California counties between 1973 and 1990 found that, for every 10 per cent increase in roadway capacity, traffic increased nine per cent within four years.
“Build it and they will come” should be taken as a warning.
Traffic engineers sum it up this way: “Trying to cure traffic congestion by adding more capacity is like trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt.”
Urban sprawl in North America has been enabled by road systems. Increased road capacity eases the burden of long commutes, so people are willing to live at a greater distance from where they work. As more people make that choice, the traffic flow increases, creating a demand for more capacity.
Ideally, we would all live along public-transit routes or within walking or cycling distance from where we work. Fortunate are those who can make that choice; many can’t — factors such as employment availability and housing prices dictate otherwise.
So we need our roads, and those roads should be efficient and safe. But the long-term view should look beyond McKenzie to other intersections. It should include improved public transit that would persuade people to get out of their cars and off the roads. It’s too early to be building light-rail transit, but it’s not too early to start thinking seriously about it.
Building an interchange at McKenzie Avenue is an important step ahead, but it shouldn’t be the only step.