The revolution in traffic

Fast-changing city sought a remedy for congestion: more roads, traffic lights and even roundabouts

The details have changed a few times - we've gone from horses and carts to streetcars, to cars and trucks and buses and bicycles - but there has been one constant in the history of the City of Victoria: What to do about all that traffic?

Various councils' answers to that question have helped the shape the city - and the way we live.

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In 1873, for example, city council drafted a bylaw that divided the downtown into areas that could be used for stands for horse-drawn hacks (for carrying cargo) and express wagons (for carrying people).

Drivers were also required to show good conduct and to treat their horses humanely. Failure to obey the bylaw would result in fines of $5 to $25, or imprisonment not exceeding one month.

The best guess is that the first motorcar in the city was owned by Dr. Edward C. Hart, who served for decades as the city's coroner. He brought his horseless carriage here in 1903, and within a few years, several of the most prominent people in the city had joined him as automobile owners. They putt-putted around downtown and got together on weekends for excursions into the countryside.

They drove on the left side, British style, until Jan. 1, 1922, when British Columbia switched to the other side. No problems were reported as a result of the switch; there weren't enough vehicles to make much of a difference.

Within a generation, however, things had changed dramatically - and city council was being called upon to act.

"Growth, settlement and mounting traffic congestion have seriously overtaken the traffic control system of the Greater Victoria area," the Daily Colonist said in an editorial in 1947. "The need for vision and action were never more apparent than they are today."

The post-war economic boom and an influx of new arrivals had resulted in a sharp increase in traffic. Making matters worse, the streetcar service was ending, and the Colonist feared that would mean more traffic on every arterial road.

Both the Colonist and the Victoria Daily Times carried extensive features on the need for better driver education, as well as road improvements.

At the time, the north end of Douglas Street was not the thoroughfare we know today. Traffic heading up-Island still used Gorge Road, and traffic to the Saanich Peninsula followed Quadra Street.

Some of the problems had simple solutions. With Quadra seeing ever-increasing traffic volumes, it was almost impossible for cross traffic at Hillside Avenue to get through. Traffic lights had to be installed, with the stop signs on Hillside removed.

The complex intersection of Hillside, Government Street, Douglas and Gorge Road had changed little since Joseph Heywood installed a fountain and a horse trough there in 1885.

Heywood's fountain and trough had been replaced by Maurice Humber in 1937, to celebrate the city's 75th anniversary, but traffic was still snarled where all those streets came together.

The Colonist argued that "the only remedy for this particularly bad crossroads appears to be a continental-type roundabout." City council decided to create a roundabout on a trial basis.

The roundabout went into operation in March 1950, and two months later, council decided to make it permanent.

Permanent, in this case, lasted 13 years. Pressure to replace the roundabout, known as Fountain Circle, started almost as soon as it was installed. By 1963, the roundabout was gone, replaced by the system of rotating signals that is still in use today - one that's similar to a design rejected by council when the roundabout was approved.

Things started to change in 1952 with the opening of the new Patricia Bay Highway, which shifted Peninsula traffic onto Douglas, and again in 1955, when the city's new "highway outlet," as it was called then, was opened between Douglas and Regina Street (beside today's Uptown) and Goldstream.

Another problem area in the city was known locally as the Dardanelles, after the narrow waterway in Turkey that separates Europe from Asia.

Our version of the Dardanelles was a stretch of Fort Street between Harrison Street and Belmont Avenue. The street was so narrow that a streetcar and a motor vehicle could not pass.

Council had decided in 1922 to do something about the Dardanelles, but plans were delayed because every possible solution required money, and that was in short supply.

Widening the street would require more land. Twinning Fort and Pandora Avenue as one-way streets was also considered, but it would have taken $90,000 to pave Pandora east of Cook Street. That idea was scrapped, too.

Over the next 30 years, property along the north side of Fort was acquired, and in 1957, the city was finally able to widen the street to allow two-way traffic. The roadwork resulted in the loss of the city's shortest thoroughfare, 20-foot-long Uneva Street.

In 1960, a long-range plan for traffic in Victoria called for several changes, including the extension of Blanshard Street to serve as a highway entrance, the replacement of Fountain Circle and creation of one-way streets downtown.

All three ideas became reality, although it took a quarter of a century to see the Blanshard change.

Three pairs of one-way streets were envisioned: Yates Street and Fort Street, Pandora Avenue and Johnson Street, and Quadra Street and Vancouver Street.

The first streets to be converted were Yates and Fort, which were made one-way in September 1968.

There were major problems with the second set of streets, Pandora and Johnson. Work was delayed because of the need to realign streets on the east end of the Johnson Street Bridge, the need to build a new station (at Esquimalt Road and Catherine Street in Victoria West) for the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway, so the downtown one could be removed, and the need to move hydro and telephone wires. Oh, and there was a labour stoppage in the construction industry as well.

Pandora and Johnson were converted to one-way traffic in June 1973. The idea of changing Vancouver and Quadra was discarded.

The decision to make Blanshard a highvolume freeway was made in 1960, but the opening was delayed for almost two decades because of the need to win approval from the province as well as Saanich council. The original Blanshard was much shorter than today's version, extending only as far north as Hillside Avenue.

The roadwork meant other streets, most notably Rose Street, vanished from our maps. We also gained one. Dowler Place, named for 1890s schoolteacher Carrie Dowler, is the old north end of Blanshard.

Since then, the city has worked to make life easier for cyclists. In 1995, the city painted its first dedicated bike lanes on Blanshard between Caledonia Avenue and Tolmie Street.

Ten years later, it took a more radical step when it removed vehicle lanes from Fort Street, dedicating the strip to cyclists.

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