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For the past 40 years, the car has been king and BC politicians have been promising shiny, new (and expensive) highways, bridges, and expressways to get elected. It’s been known as ‘blacktop politics‘, and although it never delivered on its promise of congestion-free commuting, it has never been a losing strategy for politicians.

But that’s beginning to change. There are two transportation visions being floated for the Lower Mainland. Premier Christy Clark and the BC Liberal government think expanded highways are the future. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and city council think expanded public transit, encouraging people to walk and cycle, and discouraging car use is a better plan.

It’s a big shift, but there are reasons to think the era of the car is coming to an end. Car use has peaked in many western countries, driven by high gas prices and young people who would rather spend their commute on a bus with their cellphone then behind the wheel of a car in traffic. In Downtown Vancouver, current traffic volumes are the same as they were in 1965!

The Sightline Institute has been documenting peak car use in the Pacific Northwest with a series of posts entitled Dude, Where Are My Cars? The most recent post shows that traffic on the Port Mann Bridge peaked in 2005, and yet the Liberals spent $3.3 billion building the widest bridge in the world (10 lanes, 65 meters) to replace it. Now, Premier Christy Clark is promising to expand the Massey Tunnel, which saw volumes peak in 2004. (Data from Ministry of Transportation – missing two years from 2000-2001).

Vancouver (and the region) has a growing population, and people are still commuting and traveling, they’re just using public transit and cycling instead of a car. Transit use is at an all-time high, and there’s a huge latent demand for new rapid transit projects. The Canada Line is years ahead of its ridership projections, averaging 110,000 passengers a day. Cycling is the fastest growing mode of transportation in Vancouver, and 4.1% of all trips are now done on a bike (1.9% in Greater Vancouver).

Politicians need to realize that our transportation future is not in wider bridges or bigger tunnels, but in more trains and bike lanes. There is a world-wide shift occurring away from the car. In Italy, last year more bikes were sold than cars for the first time since World War 2. In Australia, vehicle use is at the same level as 1992 and people are questioning the governments spending on highways. It’s time we start building for the future.