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GRINDING GEARS: Any Upper Levels Highway fix requires smarter driving

Province spending $110,000 to study often clogged stretch of North Shore highway
Scenes like this are common at the curve in the road on Highway 1 eastbound just before the bridge over the Capilano River. file photo Cindy Goodman, North Shore News

Big news last week, as the provincial government has awarded a $110,000 contract to Parsons, Inc, an infrastructure firm, to examine the Upper Levels highway.

I mean, I could have done the job for ten bucks and a handful of expired Subway coupons. The Upper Levels highway, specifically the section from Horseshoe Bay to Lynn Valley, is one of the most mercurial sections of highway in the province. It’s used as a regular thoroughfare by people who live and work here, to a much greater extent than highways elsewhere in the city.

As I generally work from home, I’m lucky enough not to feel the creeping dread when you pull up Google Maps to check traffic and see red-black lines of clogged arteries stretching in all directions. However, getting the kids to and from their various after-school activities is sort of a full-time job in itself, and frequently requires girding the ol’ car-loins and heading out into some of the worst traffic in Canada.

The problem is that everything is so variable, and so heavily affected by even a single accident. When, earlier this month, a cement truck rolled over on the far side of the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing, traffic ground to a halt for hours and hours. At 9:30 p.m., it was still a complete mess. Some people were sitting on the Upper Levels for so long, they probably now have to pay property taxes.

Yet on other days you can climb into your car at 5 p.m. and everyone will be flying along at (slightly over) the speed limit. Commute times can take ten minutes or several hours. It’s bananas.

What causes this wildly oscillating traffic flow? Certainly part of the issue is rampantly incompetent drivers. Not you, dear reader. Just everyone else in the coffee shop.

Take the bridge over the Capilano river. I’ve dedicated a column before to this wonky piece of concrete, but it’s not really the structure’s fault. The beginning of this month was dry and lovely, and when we finally got the first day of rain, I fired up the local traffic report and waited for the inevitable. Sure enough, somebody immediately crashed into the barriers.

Obviously, I hope they were OK. And I hope the person who crashed the very next day was also OK. But perhaps, and bear with me here, maybe we should stop crashing into things? It’s not difficult – you just need to slow down a little.

This is the real problem with the Upper Levels highway, and one that’s sadly unlikely to be changed by any study. Most of the problems, be they bottlenecks or too-sharp turns, aren’t easy to solve. Yes, you could widen and spend millions on construction projects – which will cause their own backups all summer long – but there’s another problem here.

It’s called induced demand. Essentially, there’s a counterintuitive problem caused by widening a road, in that traffic usually gets worse on that road after a couple of years.

The thinking is this. If there’s a certain amount of traffic flow along a road, then widening it makes more room for peak traffic. Unfortunately, what happens is that wider roads and faster-moving traffic means that more people start using the road. For instance, if traffic moved consistently well along the Upper Levels, then more people might start commuting over from Burnaby, or farther up the valley.

In the same way, if the Capilano Bridge was resurfaced, with a banked entry and wider road shoulders, people would just naturally start driving faster through that turn. And, eventually, somebody in a 1990s Dodge Caravan would discover the limits of adhesion for their ancient no-name-brand tires at 130 kilometres per hour, and punt it into the barrier. Traffic would be backed up while the tow trucks and first responders showed up, just as it regularly is.

There already exists a plan to help ease our way, which involves increasing the flow of Seabus traffic during peak times, and more express bus services. Right now, getting around the North Shore is much more convenient by car than by transit. If taking the bus took 10 minutes longer, rather than five or six times longer, then people might use transit more.

One particular invention that might soothe North Shore travails more than expected is the rise of the electric-assist bicycle. These tend to “iron out” our hills, and let you show up to work without being a sweaty mess. Cycle-commuting isn’t for everybody, but taking a person out of their car on a commute isn’t just environmentally sensible, it takes a car out of traffic. Studies suggest that a five or 10 per cent reduction in traffic can reduce commute times by as much as 30 per cent.

Lastly, there’s the recognition that the Upper Levels is a particularly vulnerable artery, one used by North Shore residents frequently. It falls on us, as drivers, to try to respect that by making sure our driving habits are as safe as possible.

For the community, clearing up when collisions do happen is cited as a priority. When a crash happens, it has the potential to snarl traffic for hours. Personally, I feel a good move might be to install a large scoreboard near the Capilano Bridge, listing off the number of crashes so far this year.

In the meantime, any North Shore resident concerned about avoiding traffic could usefully study a map to find themselves a couple of clever alternative routes. They could also consider whether alternative transportation makes sense now, whether that’s ride-sharing or just adjusting the times you’re on the road.

The Parsons Inc. study is intended to be completed by the end of the summer, and any recommendations they make are likely to take several years to implement. Traffic can be bad right now, and is probably going to get worse. My best recommendation is to find a good podcast to listen to, or start looking at your own alternatives for commuting.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.