July 18, 2012

Is Vancouver Really Canada’s Most Congested City?

Disclaimer: I am not an urban planning student, nor do I claim to be. I do have a passion in regards to the efficient flow of traffic and am a bit of a transit enthusiast, and thus this piece may be slightly biased toward that ideal. However, I aim to write as objectively as possible.


It almost seems to be a daily occurrence in Metro Vancouver – sitting through endless hours of snarling traffic going back and forth from work, running errands. And yet there always seems to be some sort of backup at the most inopportune times, mostly when you really need to get somewhere. Though these hiccups in our commute(s) seem like a big deal, in the grand scheme of things, they usually only add about 10-12 minutes. Of course this depends on where you are departing from and where you want to go. But having experienced rush hour traffic in cities like Toronto, Seattle and Montreal, Vancouver’s traffic really does not seem that bad.

TomTom recently dubbed Vancouver as North America’s second-most congested city (after Los Angeles), and therefore Canada’s most congested city, in terms of vehicular traffic. This was measured based on the differences between travel times at off-peak times and peak times, and the difference in between. It is no surprise that Los Angeles would be first, with a gargantuan amount of freeways, a sprawling Metro population of over 15 million, and a very auto-oriented city with a considerably small transit system considering the size of the area. Vancouver, however, was not so expected, especially being ahead of Toronto in terms of congestion, and with far less freeways than Los Angeles or almost any other major Canadian city. The MacDonald-Cartier Freeway, located in Ontario, also known as the 401, which is North America’s busiest highway, has almost sixteen lanes in some parts of the city and yet is still routinely backed up. Vancouver is rated as having a 30% congestion level, with a delay of 34 minutes per peak hour. But enough with facts, let’s get on with why I believe this conclusion is flawed.

Why is it flawed?

The first problem with the results is that Metro Vancouver – according to this index – only includes North and West Vancouver, Vancouver, Richmond, Burnaby, New Westminster and Surrey. It does not include all of Delta, misses Langley, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Pitt Meadows, Maple Ridge and White Rock (which are all part of Metro Vancouver), and also omits the Fraser Valley. By omitting other cities that may be getting Gateway improvements (the Province’s initiative to update old vehicle infrastructure in order to increase capacity), a fundamental flaw is already made. Furthermore, I personally believe this skews data as people may be commuting from those cities and therefore are included in the index, but may be not completely on the way back to their city of residence.

The second problem in regards to comparing Vancouver to other cities – and this has more to do with geography than anything else – is the amount of river crossings that we have. Whether it’s the Lions Gate Bridge, Oak Street Bridge or Massey Tunnel, it is evident that Vancouver’s bridges and tunnels are essential for commuters, whether on transit, bike or car. Comparing cities like Vancouver to more landlocked cities like Toronto therefore is a bit of an issue. These river crossings are also usually dated (insert Patullo Bridge joke here) and do not have adequate capacity to address the demand from multi-lane highways that eventually bottleneck from four lanes to two. However, in many cases, it is currently not feasible to replace these crossings – the Lions Gate Bridge for example coming to mind with its recent seismic upgrades, and being able to cope with current demand (though I personally think it’s slowly reaching its breaking point).

The third issue I have with the index is that it only takes vehicles into account that are using a TomTom device. As detailed in the index, data was compiled using information from trip times on TomTom GPS units. Therefore, if you do not own a TomTom device and may know less congested routes towards getting to your destination, you don’t count as a commuter on the index. Further compounding this is, unless you need directions to work everyday, you’re most likely only using the device if you need directions to a place you may have not went to before. I own a TomTom device and can personally attest to it taking the most traffic-heavy routes, despite using ‘IQ Routes’ that enables it to map faster navigation from experiences of other users. Unless everyone knows how to use their GPS in and out, they most likely would not know how to program an alternate route and therefore use the most common route, adding to congestion. It would be helpful if TomTom had disclosed how many GPS’ they actually surveyed, considering the results would be quite skewed if only, for example, only 1,500 GPS units’ data was tabulated in a city with a Metro population of about 2.3 million.

You only count as commuter in the index if you're using one of these!

However, I’m not here to completely bash the index without providing some insight. I won’t deny that Metro Vancouver does have congestion issues at times, which can sometimes get frustrating. But I highly doubt that Vancouver’s congestion is worse than Toronto’s, considering that an average trip in Toronto is almost double the distance of one in Vancouver. From personal experience, I remember a time coming into Toronto from the airport only to get stuck in traffic at 1 a.m. due to a stalled vehicle on the shoulder. Not even in a lane, but on the shoulder. This delayed us by a full hour on a highway with four lanes on each side, and yet we crawled. Anyway, here are some ideas I have in regards to reducing (but not eliminating, since that would be impossible) congestion within Metro Vancouver.

How can we improve congestion?

A key problem, as I mentioned earlier, is outdated infrastructure. Highway 1 was built in 1961, and many interchanges remain unchanged, which only adds to a frustrating commute, as the roads are simply not built for the current demand. The Willingdon interchange for example had almost 345 collisions (both fatal and non-fatal) in 2011 due to poor design and weaving traffic trying to get from the curb to the left turn lane going on to Canada Way. Thankfully that interchange has been redesigned to address the demand and keep it safe. Other portions of Highway 1 remain outdated, and will stay the same due to issues with a lack of available land an interrupting the current flow of traffic. The Gateway project will definitely help though; especially with the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge and more interchange improvements. Other river crossings like the George Massey Tunnel are not so lucky though, and residents South of the Fraser will unfortunately have to live with considerable congestion for years to come. Other simple issues such as too-short onramps (another common occurrence with Highway 1), and that annoying traffic light on Highway 91 at 72nd Avenue can be fixed relatively easily and can improve capacity, but it seems that the provincial government has more important initiatives to address.

One of the greatest issues, at least for myself who frequents Richmond and Vancouver, is the lack of left turn lanes, or the lack of a left-turn advance arrow. On a four-lane road, one car turning left in the left lane instantly creates a bottleneck and reduces the capacity of the road (headed in the same direction) to one lane. Separating left-turning traffic with a separate bay would greatly enhance the situation, even if it ends up with vehicles jutting a bit out of the bay – at least there are still two through lanes as the road was designed for. Furthermore, left turn advance arrows – something the City of Vancouver seems to oppose (as well as Richmond to an extent), speed up everyone’s commute, whether for the vehicle turning left, cars turning right onto that same road, pedestrians who don’t have to fear impatient left turners and cars who give the right-of-way to left turners on ambers significantly enhance the commute and make it a lot more desirable. I was turning on to East 2nd Avenue from Main Street the other day, and you’d expect that there would be an advance arrow with so many vehicles turning, but there was just a solid green. Only two cars could go at a time (usually on a yellow), and all that idling would certainly not fit in with Vancouver’s green initiatives – overall a waste of fuel, time, and showing disregard for vehicular traffic.

We need some more of these South of the Fraser TransLink!

Since this is getting a bit long, I’ll get on to my last idea, which I think, can help reduce congestion. That would be more efficient transit. In most parts of Metro Vancouver, the transit service is quite adequate – and more than adequate in Vancouver. Other areas such as Surrey do not have this same luxury, which is both the fault of Surrey’s suburban-type road layout, but also TransLink’s never-ending budget crisis. The 399 B-Line rapid bus was a proposal to create an express bus (similar to the 99 B-Line) along King George Boulevard, linking major town centres with SkyTrain stations and other frequent transit routes (known as FTN routes). Yet somehow there was a lack of funding and the plans got scrapped, despite being in the process for a very long time and TransLink even ordering the greater amount of articulated buses required to serve the route. When you keep on shunning the residents of a particular city, it is no surprise that there is much apathy towards TransLink South of the Fraser, and Mayor Watts’ recent bold move to showcase streetcars at the Canada Day festival was a large and clear message to TransLink that Surrey desperately needs more options – otherwise more and more cars will continue to dominate the streets and congestion will never end. Some food for thought – Burnaby has a population of 223,000 (estimate, 2011) with 11 SkyTration stations, while Surrey has a population 468,000 (estimate, 2011) and just four SkyTrain stations. That’s just a brief glimpse of how TransLink desperately needs to step up its game in Surrey before it loses many potential riders with its many broken promises.

And that concludes this not-so-brief overview of why I believe the TomTom congestion index is flawed relative to Metro Vancouver, and what options we have to reduce it. Of course, there are many more options available, but this is just a small portion of what is possible. How do you feel about the index? Based on your personal experience, do you agree with the index? And do you think current initiatives are enough to alleviate congestion? Feel free to leave your comment/opinion below! Thanks for reading!

About the Author

Recultured Team
Recultured Team
This is where you'll find the blog posts that the team has contributed to collectively! What team? Wildcats! -Nope, wrong team. Recultured!

  • Vancouver traffic can be bad at times, but I think if you know how to navigate through residential areas, you’ll get home in no time and avoid all congested roads.

    Perhaps all the construction happening this summer affected the index. I’m sure everyone has experience grid lock traffic because 3 lanes become 1.

  • Great piece! I really enjoyed reading what you had to say. I liked how you pointed out the amount of river crossings in Metro Vancouver – I never really thought of that!

    I also think its important to note that the city of Vancouver itself has no major highways running through it, unlike most North American cities.

  • Mohamed Bhimji

    Interesting story however the solution for Translink and advocates of public transport is to simply raise taxes.  In the 7-years I’ve been in BC it seems every year that property taxes or gas taxes go up it’s because Translink needs money.  Enough of the tax increases and look at the organization to find inefficiencies.  It is clear there are inefficiencies, as you said Burnaby a city of 223k has 11 SkyTrain stations whereas Surrey which is double in size has only 4.  Clearly something is wrong.

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