Friday, April 1, 2011

What color is your underwear?

Columnist Allen Garr has an interesting piece in the current Vancouver Courier on the history of action to keep Vancouver's Strathcona neighbourhood from getting torn apart by road construction. Nearly 60 years ago, the fight began to prevent houses from being bulldozed to make way for a freeway into downtown -- shades of the Jane Jacobs/Bob Moses battles in New York City in the 60s. The story reads a little like the premise of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, only without the laughs: a new hyper-space freeway is to be built across the galaxy,m and "regrettably, your planet has been identified for demolition."

Seriously, I don't think people in Vancouver know how much they owe to the people who stood up more than half a century ago and said, "no mas!" and kept the freeway from going through. I don't want to imagine what the city where I was born and raised would have looked like if that had happened.

Now, the issue is whether the Georgia/Dunsmuir viaducts, which -- according to Allen's article -- were the precursors to the broader freeway plan, should be knocked down, as part of some "green" initiative for Vancouver. The idea seems noble enough on the surface: make driving downtown less attractive, "force" people onto transit or into other alternative modes, and continue the push to make Vancouver The Greenest City.

Except I have serious reservations about the move to tear down the viaducts now. For one thing, there would be a tremendous ripple effect throughout the region's transportation system -- and whether some Vancouverites like it or not, Vancouver is part of a region -- No man is an island unto himself, and all that. Transportation issues need to be worked through. People might say, "well, we closed the viaducts during the Olympics and everything worked fine". We also had the equivalent of 180 40' buses available on top of the "normal" fleet, ran West Coast Express more often under a special arrangement, put a vacation blackout on the Games Time period and benefitted from a lot of bus drivers who put off their retirements until after the Games. Knocking down the viaducts and choking off downtown traffic without sufficient alternatives in place would be disastrous and until funding issues are resolved with the transit system, those alternatives aren't there.

But more than that, I have deep suspicions of the motives of the proponents. When I hear talk of knocking down the viaducts it's almost drowned out by the sound of developers, rubbing their hands in glee at the thought of all that buildable land underneath. Like "Eco-Density", I can't help wondering how much of the motivation is green and how much is greed? At the time of the freeway debate in the 60s, people pointed to developers as the villains in the piece: but how are the developers who today talk about "increasing density" as if it will preserve the planet from destruction motivated any differently than their predecessors? The clothes may be different but the underwear is the same.

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