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COVER STORY: North Shore traffic report
In the evening rush-hour crawl up the north approach of the Lions Gate Bridge, a West Vancouver traffic cop can tag and ticket a delinquent driver in the bus lane about every six minutes.
So says Cpl. Grant Gottgetreu of the West Van police traffic section.
“Personally I can average about ten an hour there,” he says, noting that seatbelt scofflaws and distracted drivers also find their way into the mix.
Of course, when catching lane cheats trying to jump a 50-minute queue, the point isn’t to quickly lighten pockets and hurry them on their way. It makes more sense to rein in a herd of highway hoodlums before putting pen to pad.
“Generally, they have no excuse,” Gottgetreu tells The Outlook. “A lot of them are by themselves and they just don’t want to wait in traffic. They’re rolling the dice and hoping we’re not there — and we’re not always there.”
With more than 62,000 cars and trucks pouring across the Lions Gate Bridge on an average weekday last summer — 10,000 of those in the evening rush between 4 and 6 p.m. — a First Narrows commute, in all its zipper-merging, direction-changing, three-laned glory is a daily source of frustration for many — twice daily for others.
So when Gottgetreu and his squad head out to catch the habitual lane jumper, they sympathize first and foremost with all the other drivers who play by the rules, patiently waiting their turn as others answer the beckoning call of the empty bus lane.
“We always get the thumbs-up,” he says, referring to the approval of those patient drivers who eventually, happily, roll by that pulled-over new model import or pickup that seemingly ages ago screamed by in the bus lane.
“The true traffic bottleneck is the Lions Gate Bridge, and Taylor Way at Marine Drive all the way along Marine Drive,” Gottgetreu says. “That area is the biggest chokepoint in town bar none.”
“It’s the same nightmare it’s always been,” Gottgetreu says of his 12 years working traffic in West Van.
But ask a North Shore municipal engineer and they’ll tell you worsening traffic is all about perspective.
“There’s a certain segment of the population that feels traffic is too slow and they wish to move faster,” says West Vancouver’s director of engineering and transportation, Ray Fung. “And there’s another portion which feels traffic is moving too fast… and so they advocate for things like traffic calming through our streets and neighbourhoods.”
But at the North Shore’s three entry and exit points — the Sea-to-Sky Highway, the Lions Gate Bridge and the Second Narrows; all of which are highways controlled by the provincial transportation ministry — more vehicles than residents come and go through the North Shore every day.
In addition to the 62,000 vehicles the ministry says cross the Lions Gate Bridge on a typical weekday, about 13,000 pass through Lions Bay on the Sea-to-Sky Highway — up to 16,000 on weekends — and approximately 125,000 cross the Ironworkers Bridge at the Second Narrows.
That’s 200,000 vehicle trips through a maximum 13 lanes of traffic, with no alternate routes. Add to that the 293,000 daily commuter trips that don’t leave the North Shore and it’s clear why all three North Shore municipalities are increasingly eager to get people out of their cars.
The District of North Vancouver’s Official Community Plan boasts a 2030 target of ensuring 35 per cent of all resident trips in the district happen by walking, cycling or transit, not personal automobiles. That’s up from the current 21 per cent. To do so, the district is beginning to densify around its network of community centres — separate nodes of pedestrian-friendly mixed-use development, all connected by transit and cycling lanes.
In North Van city, the densification is already underway. With more than 175,000 people already on the North Shore, the population is expected to grow by 40,000 over the next 20 years, much of it taking up residence in the city. And with a road network that is already “built-out” to its maximum capacity, according to city engineer Doug Pope, prioritizing transit and cycling on the city’s roads is a must to avoid gridlock.
“An example of that would be putting bus bulges along Lonsdale [Avenue] and improvements to bus stops,” Pope said, noting two measures that allow buses to leave and rejoin the normal flow of traffic without holding up vehicles behind them.
In the latest TransLink study of the North Shore released last year, the regional transit provider, with the cooperation of all three North Shore municipalities, laid out a vision for the future of transit on the North Shore.
The study emphasizes a kind of rapid-bus “cross” of corridors through all three municipalities along Marine Drive and then down Lonsdale Avenue and over the Burrard Inlet.
“From Ambleside in the west to Lower Lynn town centre in the east, that is the east-west route that all three municipalities including — district of West Van, district of North Van and the city — has envisioned as the growth area,” says Dragana Mitic, city transportation manager. “And the other rapid transit corridor identified is across the Burrard Inlet, which is SeaBus, and following up Lonsdale towards 29th Street.”
Municipal planners also have high hopes that once completed and fully connected to transit hubs like Lonsdale Quay, the North Shore Spirit Trail will shift from its primarily recreational use today, to a vital east-west commuter corridor for cyclists and walkers along the North Shore waterfront.
As far as getting off the waterfront is concerned, any real talk of tunnels under the inlet or new ferry routes to Vancouver’s West Side — all of which have been thrown around in decades past — are all but dead in the water for the foreseeable future.
“Improving transit over the bridges as a way to get more people over the bridges without more vehicles” is the real priority for the near future, says North Vancouver district transportation manager Erica Geddes.
“They’re pretty close to capacity on vehicles but they could take more people,” she adds, pointing to a recent TransLink study that estimates that while buses make up between one to two per cent of the vehicles on the Lions Gate Bridge, they carry 25 per cent of the people crossing it.
Likewise, city staff say they’ve had high-level discussions with TransLink about one day extending the Canada Line under the inlet to Lonsdale Quay, but no such plans have ever been a part of TransLink’s stated vision, which currently extends out as far as 2040.
“Canada Line will be just an expansion further in the future,” Mitich says.
In the meantime, the hope is for a third SeaBus to increase the frequency of trips, but even that idea hasn’t received much attention since the Vancouver Olympics, when it was employed to handle the flood of tourists to the North Shore, then cancelled shortly thereafter.
It’s not just near the bridges at rush hour when traffic is a problem either. According to a July 2011 TransLink study, the North Shore has Metro Vancouver’s highest mid-day traffic volume spike of any Lower Mainland region, rising by seven per cent, or half the volume of rush hour, at approximately 12:30 p.m. each day.
As North Vancouver district council affirmed in a transportation workshop earlier this year, the car is here to stay on the North Shore.
“We are a car-centric community, for sure,” Coun. Roger Bassam told the February 13 meeting, at which district CAO David Stuart was asked how many cars were parked in his family’s driveway.
“Four,” he replied.
“Yeah. That’s going to be the average,” Coun. Lisa Muri said.
“Is there any easy solution?” North Van district engineering manager Steve Ono asks rhetorically on the phone with The Outlook. “We’ve built ourselves into this situation where traffic is an issue because of congestion; people want to drive their cars all over the place. But we can’t keep on going and doing the same thing that got us into the same problem.”