At its beginnings in 1886, Vancouver jumped over all the previous urban forms of density – it had neither terraces of row housing nor districts of apartment buildings. Hotels, yes, to serve the transient miner, logger and fisherman, but an immigrant arriving by train in this colonial port could reasonably expect to purchase a separate lot on which to build his own house, in a neighbourhood of house-proud citizens, in a community defined by front lawns. From its beginning, Vancouver City has been a suburban city – a collection of single-family subdivisions strung along streetcar lines.

Whether affluent Point Grey, working-class South Vancouver or downtown West End, all were originally single-family neighbourhoods. When the occasional apartment building started popping up in the West End, the rich decamped to Shaughnessy, where the sanctity of the single-family home would be encoded in legislation.

Vancouver also became an electric city. With the arrival of the electric streetcar, just invented in 1887, the average urban resident was freed from animal power – the human foot or the horse – and could now get around five times faster than before. And the city spread out to where the land was cheap.

The network extended its reach until the late 1920s, so long as profits from land sales justified the capital investment. But when operating expenses dwarfed revenues, and a new form of competition emerged in the car, the streetcar era was over – even before the Depression. Though ridership remained high, especially during World War II, the privately run streetcar system became a ward of the electric utility it had spawned, until responsibility for transit could be offloaded to the region’s governments.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that the streetcar would literally lose ground to the automobile. Coincidentally, the first practical cars appeared in 1886, the same year as Vancouver’s incorporation. The automobile, in addition to offering power and prestige, opened up even more cheap land – wherever the roads and water lines went, and not just along the streetcar corridors.

Designing cities for the car

By 1915, Henry Ford delivered his millionth Model T off the assembly lines of River Rouge, and the impact in the streetcar city was immediate: congestion. A few people in their cars could bog down the other 95 per cent in the streetcars, and their demand for parking was insatiable. City officials began to consider constraints on car use.

Another problem: cars killed people, children in particular. In 1917, Cleveland lost 12 school children in two weeks to street accidents. Mothers began to mobilize against the motor vehicle. Judges ruled that no one was entitled to drive their own vehicle.

If there was ever a “war on the car,” it was then, when the automobile was first competing for the limited road space available. In his book Fighting Traffic, historian of technology Peter Norton explains how “Motordom” – the alliance of car users, dealers and manufacturers – responded, most effectively with public safety programs that “socially reconstructed the purpose of the street.” They convinced pedestrians, in particular, that if they wandered into the right-of-way when they wanted, where they wanted, they were “jaywalkers” – an appellation that succeeded not only in reducing conflict but also in turning the streets over to vehicles.

By the end of the 1920s, even the engineers, initially sceptical, realized the city would have to be scaled for the car. Parking would be provided; pedestrians would be kept to the sidewalks; roads would be designed for increasing speeds.

Road-building soon became the greatest public-private partnership in history. For most of the past century, our transportation system has been built on this understanding: the private sector will produce the vehicles and the public sector will build the roads, with no real constraint on the number of vehicles the private sector can produce.For most of the past century, our transportation system has been built on this understanding: the private sector will produce the vehicles and the public sector will build the roads, with no real constraint on the number of vehicles the private sector can produce.

Consequently, urban regions were redesigned to serve the automobile. In Los Angeles, for instance, the Major Traffic Street Plan of 1924 led to the widening of arterial roads in a crosstown grid. Little attention or money was paid to the transit system. Vancouver in 1928 undertook a similar treatment – another “City Functional” plan directed by the same Harland Bartholomew who helped author the 1924 Los Angeles plan. In Vancouver, it became the basis for street improvements through to the 1980s.

That is what traffic engineers have been trained for: to provide enough capacity to meet demand, which, if there is always room for one more car or truck, must be theoretically infinite. Their job is to translate infinity into reality.

Governments in North America after the war, buoyed by prosperity, undertook to build all the roads and bridges necessary. Which led to more productivity and wealth, and more tax revenues to build more roads, which generated more tax revenues to build more roads. It seemed like a perpetual motion machine, one that delivered votes and jobs and justified devoting huge resources to constructing road capacity, to the point where people believed it an entitlement – and a useful justification for stimulus and employment programs in downturns, the perennial shovel-ready project.

An even more tantalizing vision of a Motordom Utopia was unveiled in the General Motors pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York – a blend of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, a vast model of an urban region of separated uses with unparalleled mobility, made possible by sweeping, infinite arterials of freely flowing traffic.

With the Depression and war, pressure on road space eased. In the 1930s, planning was already underway for freeways, styled after Germany’s autobahn system. As Allied military leader in World War II, Dwight Eisenhower had seen the German autobahn network first-hand. In 1956, as president, he signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, unleashing billions of dollars through the Highway Trust Fund to build the Interstate highway system, the largest public works project in human history. Canada had already proceeded in 1948 with the federal-provincial agreement to fund and build the Trans-Canada Highway.

These continental highways are the single biggest engineering projects in any town or city they go through. They changed the economy and culture and the way urban regions were shaped. Governments created a continent-spanning system of highways that would, with the exception of older roads and bridges in the east, seem to the casual driver unlimited and free.

But unlike the German autobahn system, the Interstates go to and through the centres of urban regions, where they are built to the same standards as those that pass through field and desert. This required vast amounts of land and the expropriation and destruction of any preexisting urban fabric in the way. Freeways were thrust into downtown cores in an attempt to give easy access to and from the burgeoning suburbs. In the end, those same central areas were weakened or destroyed by the roads on which the middle class fled. Retail services, businesses and jobs withdrew to the new main streets of suburbia – the belt freeways.

But initially, mostly good things seemed to happen. Suburbia was the fulfilment of an American (and Canadian) dream built on insured mortgages, technically magnificent infrastructure for water and roads, cheap land and even cheaper energy. The lifestyle made possible was optimistic, ebullient and broadly shared.

Vancouver’s historic turning point

Vancouver, Canada’s most modern city, hired consultants who like Bartholomew suggested that Vancouver should build something rather like the Los Angeles freeway system. What they proposed for Vancouver would have laid concrete on elevated decks, in tunnels and trenches over and through much of the land now occupied by residential towers, parks and the seawall.

In a historic turning point, by the early 1970s Vancouver refused to build any freeways that required demolition of its streetcar neighbourhoods, particularly Strathcona. It was the most important thing that never happened. The city had broken the agreement underlying Motordom: no more roads, no matter how many more cars. Instead, vehicle growth would have to be absorbed on existing streets – an arterial grid, the heritage of the street improvements of the 1920s, on which the trolley buses, successors to the streetcars, would also run.

Political ideology changed at the same time: all civic parties proclaimed that there would be no expansion of the road system for single-occupancy vehicles. The new priorities put pedestrians first, followed by cycling, transit, goods movement and cars. And despite the scepticism of the transportation engineers, it turned out the politicians meant it.

By not building more road space, Vancouver’s council violated an essential condition of the Motordom partnership. The dream of the car flowing freely along beautifully engineered roads ran into the reality of congestion, faster even than in the 1920s. But even if Vancouver had built the freeways, congestion would have loomed over commuters. More freeways would have accelerated suburban growth. Cities with good rapid-transit systems faced road congestion; cities with great freeway networks faced congestion; cities with neither faced congestion.

The problem was inherent in the urban form that the automobile created. Just as the streetcar had generated shopping streets along its corridors, with bungalow suburbs within walking distance on either side, Motordom generated its own forms. Design was simplified: big and simple, flat and square. Land uses were separated and dropped in density, from shopping centres to college campuses to industrial parks. Form followed parking.

No longer was the city redesigned to accommodate the car while leaving most of the pre-Motordom road grid intact; now the postwar urban region would be designed for the car, and only for the car. All other transportation choices were minimized. Distances would be too far to walk, roads too dangerous to cycle, transit too infrequent, taxis too expensive. From the drive-in garage at the front of the house to the free parking wherever there was a destination, the assumption was self-evident: almost everyone would drive almost everywhere for almost everything almost all the time. By 1942, the traffic engineers had encoded all the standards for emerging municipalities to adopt in order to guarantee, as the manual promised, “efficient, free and rapid flow of traffic.”

And it couldn’t possibly work.

Consider, for instance, the growth in vehicles in Metro Vancouver. Currently, there are 1.48 million motor vehicles. Over the last decade, that number has increased by 29,000 a year – 80 more vehicles per day, about three per hour, another car or truck every 18 minutes.

The average car length is about four metres. We would need another 116 kilometres just to park a year’s worth of cars, bumper to bumper – about the distance from the Port Mann Bridge to Hope along the Trans-Canada Highway, which is currently being rebuilt for billions of dollars to address congestion. The most likely effect will be to turn Highway 1 into the main street of Fraser Valley suburbia, and lock the next generation into an auto-dependent urban form.

Note the emphasis on dependent. One needn’t condemn the automobile – a source of affection since its invention – to identify the issue. The problem is the dominance of the car at the expense of other modes of travel – and the zoning, form of development and demand for the infrastructure that follows.

The political quandary

The politician is in a difficult place. Constituents expect problems of congestion to be solved, but not at their individual expense. People want carrots, not sticks – but don’t want to pay for expensive carrots and don’t want the sticks to hurt. Politicians are caught between the expectation that enough room needs to be provided for an ever-increasing number of vehicles and the reality that there is not enough space, tax dollars or community support to do so. They intuitively appreciate that transportation policy is rooted in feelings: feelings about our cars, feelings about our homes and neighbourhoods (places made possible by the car) and feelings (even guilt and frustration) about the consequences of our choices, and where they may be leading.

Politicians appreciate that individuals can hold completely contradictory views about the automobile, depending on whether their point of view is personal or collective. As individuals, people may view attempts to reduce car use as misguided. They cannot imagine their lives without unlimited access to the car. However, these same people can also be heartily in favour of drastic actions to reduce car use and, at least in principle, favour alternatives like cycling. But once actual tradeoffs have to be made, particularly if they involve reallocation of street space, inconvenience for the car or the introduction of tolling on existing infrastructure, the backlash can be severe if not career-threatening for any local politician in the car owners’ headlights.

Many economists and environmentalists have suggested “road pricing” as a more rational way to allocate a scarce resource. But pricing the road is a touchy political proposal. The road is our commons. No matter who you are, you want the same right to the road. Rich or poor, powerful or weak, you are equal, even if you’re equally caught in congestion.

To maintain the automobile as a low-cost form of transportation means the poor meet the rich on common ground, even if the implicit subsidy for the road means more to the rich than the poor. The left defends the free road so the poor can drive farther for cheaper housing and needed work. The right opposes the tax grab that road pricing would entail. The politician has little middle ground on which to stand.

A further dilemma is that the problem is only partly about the road and the car. It is also about how we use our land and design our buildings, a combination of planning, architecture and urban design, as well as the energy required to maintain it all, and the costs incurred to do so – issues that connect directly to geopolitics, global economics and environmental consequences. A tall order for a municipal councillor voting on a parking bylaw.

So the cars and trucks keep coming, and the expectation remains that government will build and maintain the needed road space, and it will get the money largely from taxpayers. And it can’t be done. Nor have we even begun to appreciate the burden of maintenance costs of these great public works – the tens of thousands of overpasses and bridges alone, all decaying at the same rate, but still seen as a free good by the majority of users.

Traffic engineers are never asked to determine what the upper limit on capacity should be – and how we could maintain that limit – so that the vehicles which do use a properly managed system could function efficiently. To do so would imply a limit on the number of cars and trucks that can be served, and destroy the illusion on which the car industry and our planning are based.

Parking standards have increasingly driven urban design. The need for wide roads and abundant parking is the reason why endless strips of commercial frontage now appear everywhere and why the dominant form of commerce is the decorated box in the midst of the asphalt parking lot, with the big sign out front to attract the speeding passerby. The result is a kind of placelessness, unfriendly to every mode save the car and truck.

Finding a limit on capacity

When the U.S. Congress approved the Interstate highway program in the 1950s, urban critic Lewis Mumford said they had no idea what they were doing. True enough. The same was probable when the City Council of Vancouver passed the first Zoning and Development Bylaw in 1956 and unleashed the forces of technology, modernism and money to transform the decaying streetcar neighbourhoods that surrounded the downtown core. If anyone had shown the councillors what the West End would look like at the end of the highrise boom in the 1960s, they would likely have been stunned.

About 40,000 people now live concentrated in the West End’s square mile. Some assume it is overcrowded, but they are confusing overcrowding with high density. In fact, it works pretty well for the dominant income group – lower-middle-income renters – who can afford higher than average rents because their transportation costs are commensurately lower. They don’t need a car and can use the $10,000 a year the average Canadian spends to run one to help cover the high housing costs of Vancouver instead.

The West End still functions rather like the early-20th-century community it was built as: a grid of narrow streets, with trolley lines and services no more than three blocks away, where parking is limited and feet function as the dominant mode of movement. This combination of density and transportation choice is not that unusual. Most urban populations have lived this way for most of human history. It’s just that we stopped building dense, mixed-use communities as planning, design and engineering tried to accommodate the needs of the rapacious car.

Given its confining geography, absence of freeways, reasonable transit, limited parking and 30 years of traffic calming (roundabouts, speed bumps and such), Vancouver has constrained the car – and has coincidentally turned out to be one of the most livable cities in the world. Actually, that is not a coincidence at all.

It is not “livable” for everyone. And “livability” can’t be done overnight. But it turns out that people will switch from car dependence to other transportation choices faster than pessimists expected. As people substitute walking trips for car trips, there are now 25 per cent fewer vehicle movements downtown than a decade and a half ago, even as the population has doubled and employment increased by a quarter. In other words, congestion can decrease as density increases – but only if there are constraints on the car, alternatives that work and good land-use planning and urban design.

Since congestion is inevitable, given the current circumstances, we might as well figure out how it can help us. If the car and truck are to move freely on a road system with limited capacity, somewhere there has to be a constraint on the number of vehicles that can be accommodated. It makes more sense to decide where congestion is best located, rather than allowing unlimited demand to erode the integrity of the entire network.

Some would give no ground to the car; others would take no ground away. The challenge is to find a limit on capacity that ultimately benefits the users of the transportation system and the communities affected, without gratuitously punishing those who accept the limits.

What can be done, and why

What will work?

Metering and tolling. Road charging is likely necessary in any event as gas taxes diminish. Anticipated vehicle volumes on new toll bridges and tunnels have vastly overestimated demand, suggesting we might be reaching “peak car use.” Charging for priority use frees up existing space and generates money for alternatives such as transit, which will more effectively help the truly poor who will increasingly be unable to afford cars. Nothing better illustrates this than the success of the Canada Line, the new rapid transit line opened in Metro Vancouver in 2009.

Charging for parking is perhaps the only “TDM” (Transportation Demand Management) measure that has really worked. In the Central Area of Vancouver, we have traffic-calmed neighbourhoods and eliminated vast amounts of free parking. (In the West End, 85 per cent of street and lane parking is assigned to residents, for which they pay a yearly fee.) Meter parking runs to 10 p.m., even on Sundays. Parking must be paid for in parks. It’s expensive enough to change people’s decisions; already demand for parking in off-street garages has dropped by up to 20 per cent downtown.

More options to buy car trips on a per-trip basis – taxis, car-sharing – so that the sunk costs embedded in the car (insurance, depreciation) can be used for more flexible responses and, ultimately, real savings.

Moving things closer together. More mixed use and higher densities, designed to be livable and affordable for all social classes.

The good news is that there is a huge latent potential to reduce automobile-based trips. If we get even some of those trips off the road, we will have solved a good portion (not all) of the congestion problem – at a very low price. People have considerably more discretion than they believe. Giving up the occasional car trip and finding a substitute can be surprisingly easy to do, and the payoff is big.

And what will motivate all this change and a reallocation of resources?

Crisis and catastrophe.

Environmental concerns, particularly climate change, may help justify action. If every push of the accelerator is moving us more quickly toward disruption of our environment, is not change inevitable, and some individual sacrifice worth the price?

Intergenerational change. Already the millennials understand they will not have access to the abundance the baby boomers took for granted – cheap land, water, money and above all energy. Sustainability will be seen more as a survival mechanism than as greenwashing. Bike culture and car sharing are just two manifestations. The Olympics confirmed Vancouver as a transit and pedestrian culture.

There are essentially two kinds of urban form: one dependent on the vehicle; the other with roots in the streetcar era, with many transportation choices.

It has taken almost a century of building for the car to get us to our current state of congestion. It will take time to achieve long-term solutions. Ultimately, they can only be found in the way we build our cities. We will have to establish virtuous cycles to offset the vicious ones. Fortunately, we can see some such cycles beginning to happen.

In the central core of Vancouver the megaprojects that now dominate the skyline occupy lands once slated for freeways. Instead of paying for the capital costs of a freeway system, on which we would now be spending millions to maintain, Vancouver is using its capital dollars to build alternative ways of moving about the city – on transit, bike and foot.

There is no single solution. Top-down planning can never be comprehensive enough or flexible enough. People with enough transportation options can by and large work out their own solutions. That in turn is dependent on the design and integration of land-use and transportation choices. Ideally, people should have at least five choices – feet, bike, transit, taxi and vehicle – and the ability to mix and match them in a way that is appropriate to the kind of trip and the circumstances faced. The combinations and the mix make it all work.

Of course, the provision of alternatives assumes a city designed around more than the car – and a citizenry comfortable with the choices. In the end, the direction we need to go, that we know has a good chance of working, is found in the plans, local and regional, we have had since the 1950s and now more clearly see the benefits of. Concentrate growth. Build complete communities. Preserve the green zone. Provide transportation choice.

None of that requires that we do away with the suburbs or the single-family home. Indeed, the intact parts of Vancouver from the streetcar era – the Kitsilanos, Mount Pleasants and Grandviews – demonstrate how effectively, with gentle densification, that fabric can achieve our stated goals. And it’s happening all along the rapid-transit lines and throughout the region: places being built without requiring car dependence.

The streetcar city may have been the best way human beings have found to build aspirational urban fabric. Adjusted for our times, the pre-Motordom city can serve as the model for the post-Motordom city.

But to do so, we will first have to be aware of the impediments, rooted in the unrealistic beliefs and assumptions we have associated with the success of the car.