Willoughby’s Roads: The Devil is in the Design

Will completing 208th Street fix Willoughby’s traffic problems? Will adding more lanes to our arterial roads solve traffic woes? I don’t think so. In fact it might just make it worse.

With under 2 weeks left in the 2018 municipal campaign I sent 10 fairly in depth questions about city planning to almost every candidate. My questions were intended to address real life situations and give a chance for the candidates to distinguish themselves as individuals who understood contemporary urban planning. What I was really looking for was one (small) group that might understand basic planning tenets and fight for them in spite of what campaign donors (developers) wanted. What I will present over the next few months will be my own responses to those 10 questions – albeit with the luxury of time that those candidates didn’t have.

Is 208th Street Really the Problem?

My first question targeted a specific pain point that I saw several candidates focus on:

  1. Do you have a tangible solution for solving the highly perceived traffic woes in Willoughby, especially along 208th Street, 80th Avenue and 72nd Avenue?

3 candidates – Steve Ferguson, Petrina Arnason, and Eric Woodward – really push this as part of their campaign platform. It is no surprise to me that all three were elected. It was also a topic that I somehow got roped into in the Langley Advance back in January (See Langley vs. Surrey means different approaches to road building). I don’t remember the Facebook post that is referred to in the article, but it sounds like something I would write. Arnason and Ferguson would later be featured in similar articles throughout the year. Shortly after, following a study requested by Councillor Arnason, Steve Ferguson wrote a letter that suggested that 208th should be built in 3 phases. While he provided some ideas about how to pay for it, he stopped short of actually endorsing any. Much later, during the campaign, Woodward made it a focal point to attract Willoughby voters by offering a financially sustainable solution since he knew that this isn’t just about 208th Street: don’t force the cost of arterial roads onto the immediate developer – instead, spread the cost among all development in the area through an infrastructure cost charge similar to others already used in the Township since all development benefits from these roads.

This is all really good stuff for campaign quips. 208th Street is a tangible pain point, easily digestible for the average voter. Induced demand and the nuances of road design, however, are not. I drive up 200th streets as much as 208th street: mostly between 72nd and the Highway, but often 72nd and Willowbrook as well as into Brookswood. 200th Street, while incomplete in some areas, is essentially a fully complete 6-8 lane arterial road from the highway down to Willowbrook. As complete as it is, it’s still horrible at peak travel times, especially in areas where the road is 100% complete. For most drivers, it’s impossible to even bypass this traffic until you hit 80th Avenue, where you can try your luck at 202nd (a school zone) or go all the way to 208th, where you meet the next problem.

So if 200th Street still experiences massive amounts of congestion with up to 8 lanes in some places, why do people think that completing 208th Street will be any better? Shouldn’t more lanes mean less congestion?

The short answer is, no, it doesn’t. The primary reason is the phenomenon of induced demand. Progressive city planners have known for decades that the more lanes that are built, the more cars you invite onto the road due to latent demand, especially when they have no other options to chose from.

“…induced demand is the great intellectual black hole in city planning, the one professional certainty that everyone thoughtful seems to acknowledge, yet almost no one is willing to act upon.” – Jeff Speck, “Walkable City”

The phenomenon of induced demand actually suggests that the completion of 208th Street will inspire traffic to get worse, not better. Without a proper road network in Willoughby, there will be more traffic and more congestion on 208th Street, 80th Avenue, 72nd Avenue, and others, not less, because of this somewhat counter intuitive phenomena.

Watch a 2 minute primer on induced demand by some MIT geeks here

(especially if you happen to be a Mayor or Councillor… )

What is latent demand?

We can complete 208th Street, 72nd Avenue, 80th Avenue, and even 200th Street, yet drivers will not only still complain of traffic (because well, that’s what we do), but the traffic will actually get worse because we are actually manufacturing the supply by teasing out the latent demand. Latent demand are all of those times you choose NOT to drive up 208th street because you knew traffic would be bad. Since you knew traffic was bad, and you had other options, you decided to use a different route, not drive at all, schedule your meeting elsewhere, go at a different time, walk, take transit, cycle etc. The latent demand was there, but you did not add to the traffic because of these decisions. By increasing the supply (of lanes), what happens is that you feel you have less reason NOT to drive, so you do… and he does, and she does, and so does everyone and their grandma. More lanes can often mean less people carpool, take transit, bicycle, or walk. More people will drive during peak times and before you know it, the congestion is as bad as it was before AND there are now MORE cars on the road.

Willoughby’s roads suck.

So what was the answer to my trick question? A candidate probably couldn’t say that they aren’t going to “fix” 208th street because of induced demand. Really, the first question was just a segue into my second question:

2. Do you believe that road design in Willoughby’s NCPs are adequate for a build out population of 80,000-100,000? If not, do you believe they can be improved, if so, how?

The almost universal answer from candidates who responded was “NO”, but most candidates probably didn’t know what the heck I was talking about. At least now-Councillor Margaret Kunst outright admitted (in an email I did not publish) that she doesn’t have understanding of planning and would depend on staff for these things. Woodward made plenty of references to contemporary smart growth urban planning principles, but his focus was more on density & zoning rather than the road network. Although he did state the following:

“We need better road designs with proper boulevards, parking, and real character, not obsolete designs for the 1980s.” – Eric Woodward

I’m not too sure what this actually meant though. Is it by putting roads on a lane diet, or is it mostly beautification? His reference to the 1980’s hints that his ideas aren’t all about trees in medians, but I would love to know more.

As the eastern-most suburb of Metro Vancouver, Langley has made little to no effort to promote transit, walkable neighbourhoods or prioritize anything other than the single occupant vehicle. Langley was the headquarters for the anti-Translink movement during the 2015 transit referendum. The Township repeatedly adopts road design in even the most dense, contemporary neighbourhood plans that are straight out of the 1950’s – even so far as to put multiple townhome complexes at the end of a cul-de-sac (and then wonder why there are parking problems and why there is major congestion when 300 cars try to leave 2 complexes every morning). Township council allows for rezoning from institutional (church) to apartment buildings with no thought that the local plan never intended for the traffic that apartments create on a daily basis versus a church. Most subdivisons have dead end roads that don’t allow for through traffic. There is not one HOV lane in Langley (apart from the highway), nor is there (I believe), even one planned (although I once saw a possible design of two bus lanes on 200th Street). Worse yet, there is a sense that the occasional begging to Translink for Skytrain or increased bus service, in spite of our pro-car planning, is somehow going to make some significant improvement in our traffic woes.

Councillor Long, as part of the majority on council that adopted all of Willoughby’s NCPs, defended the planning process and Willoughby’s roads:

“I trust that the professionals have done their due diligence in design, if you or your readers have expertise that has been overlooked then please chime in. We want liveable [sic] neighbourhoods, not highways.” – Councillor Bob Long

I have 4 significant concerns to this defense of the status quo.

First, unlike almost every other nearby community, including similar comparable cities of Surrey, Delta and Coquitlam, the Township of Langley does not have a separate planning department or general manager distinct from engineering. Langley may have a brilliant engineer who is the manager of our Department of Engineering, but he is also in charge of what Langley calls the Department of Community Development, which isn’t quite the same thing as a planning department. What happens in this case is that planning & development (the high level design and theory) takes a back seat to engineering (the on the ground practical “how you actually build it”). Most other cities understand the unique set of skills required in city planning as opposed to engineering, which is why there is a separate manager and division/department for it. In my opinion, this creates a chokehold on ideas and vision since both sides are running up to one person.

Second, there is nothing homogeneous about city planning ideas. There are massive differences of opinion in road planning in particular. You are putting all your faith into a handful of “experts” (or especially one, see above), yet you’re talking about an industry that has no consensus. All it takes it one general manager to vacate the position and suddenly every road design in Langley could change. The greater challenge for any planner will be the extreme variables in the municipality: we have urban Willoughby, suburban Walnut Grove/Murrayville and rural Campbell Valley. We have historic Fort Langley and transitioning Brookswood. That’s a lot of different caricatures in one little township. Yet what we end up with is with the same people who built the sprawl-like Walnut Grove building the dense urban Willoughby. The road network and design show this discrepancy. It’s easy to just increase density on a map, but much more difficult to design the infrastructure to support it.

“Most city engineers don’t understand induced demand. They might say they do, but, if so, they don’t act upon that understanding.”  – Jeff Speck, Walkable City

“It is popularly assumed that when universities give science degrees in traffic engineering, as they do, they are recognizing aboveboard expert knowledge. But they aren’t. They are perpetrating fraud upon students and upon the public when they award credentials in this supposed expertise.” – Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead

Third, the road design in the NCPS don’t match what we actually build. While some Willoughby NCPs are arguable out of date compared to modern smart growth principles, they are infinitely better on paper than what is actually built.

img_9329.pngIMG_9331

Neighbourhood Community Plans (NCPs) are intended to both guide the development of an area as well as give residents who are moving into a new development area some piece of mind of what their community will look like post-development.

The two diagrams above are right from Willoughby’s OCP and Yorkson’s NCP. Have you ever seen a road like these in Willoughby? Yet these diagrams are found in almost every Willoughby NCP. Two decades later, and nothing has been done to match the built roads to the planned roads. Take a look at this gem:

 

This is one of the worse roads in Willoughby: 202nd/203rd Street. This road connects the Langley Events Centre, RE Mountain Secondary (soon to be Middle School), the new secondary school, RC Garnett Elementary, Fraser Valley Elementary and, to end it all off, the Township of Langley Civic Facility (ironic?). While modern planning specifications call for 11 ft. lanes (more progressive planners suggest 10 ft.), including our own NCPs (see above), the speedracers of Willoughby celebrate the downhill 13 foot wide runways. There are no beautiful boulevards. No bike lanes. No parking. Not one element to control speed. No, even in “urban” Willoughby, the car is still king. If you dare suggest traffic calming measures you’re crucified by even the general public. Yet everyone wants a walkable neigbourhood. What’s that about having your cake and eating it too?

Fourth, the 1998 Willoughby OCP was originally designed around a build out population of 65,000, but the subsequent neighbourhood plans that make the whole have a build out population between 80,000-90,000. This huge discrepancy in planning is leading to many of the “growth pains” we are experiencing. These aren’t growth pains: these are permanent pains that will always be in the DNA of Willoughby. Once roads are paved & houses built, that’s where they stay. While the OCP and NCPs map out arterial roads, very little thought is given to the lanes that make up most of the asphalt laid in our communities. Developers are given little instruction when planning lanes in a subdivision. The piecemeal development, which had a great opportunity to design a truly walkable, planned community, we end up with the travesty of road planning that is Willoughby – both on the South Willoughby slope (most homes built 2006-2010) or in Yorkson (homes built 2008-).

Urban Density, Suburban Road Design

Willoughby is a neighbourhood that has been planned and built for urban density, but on top of a suburban road network. Food for thought: the density of the City of Vancouver is 5,400 per sq.km. If Willoughby does in fact have a final build out population of 90,000 as the cumulative NCP’s suggest, the neighbourhood will have a density of 6,080 per sq.km.  Consider these local road maps:

Vancouver road map
Mt Pleasant Road Map
screenshot-2018-11-09-17-06-06.png
Yorkson Road Map
Southwest Gordon & Routley Road Map
Southwest Gordon & Routley Road Map

This isn’t about complete versus incomplete. This is purposeful grid design, which allows for disbursement of traffic flow and parking versus a suburban arterial-focused road network that forces all traffic onto major roads.

Notice especially the amount of roads that lead nowhere in Southwest Gordon and Routley in the map above. This community wasn’t built in the 1950’s although it may as well have based on its road design. If you need to get from home to anywhere, you can’t take 69th avenue or 70A avenue or 68A avenue or anything to get to 200th Street or 196th. You are forced to take 72nd or 68th Avenue and even then, 68th Avenue is a Southbound turn only from the west or a Northbound turn only from the east.

The genius of a grid plan is that when one avenue or street becomes congested, drivers can divert their path. If you drive through the “suburbs” of Vancouver, you have a seemingly infinite number of roads you can zig zag through when the arterial roads are congested. Willoughby offers an extremely limited ability to divert paths. The tens of thousands of drivers that will fill the future apartments along 208th will join the tens of thousands of drivers already trying to make their way from one end of Willoughby to the other.

Metaphors-of-Cul-de-sac-Mechanism-in-Traffic-Flow

Above is an over-simplified graphic that I’ve seen pop up regularly in road planning articles and books. Consider that both allow for the same number of homes, but the “Langley” version on the left forces many more cars to use the same arterial road, whereas the “Vancouver” design on the right allows for drivers in the community to avoid the arterial roads altogether and still give many different options to arrive at their destination.

It is interesting that Langley does have one neighbourhood that is set on a grid plan: Fort Langley. It isn’t surprising that Fort Langley is our first neighbourhood and has a grid plan because it was “designed” throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The blocks may be larger than what you see in Vancouver, due to the larger lots, but the networks allows for drivers & pedestrians alike to navigate the community in a way very different than what you see in Willoughby. The only dead end streets are those that meet the railway tracks. Even the master planned Bedford Landing was designed with the historic Fort Langley grid plan in mind. Due to this grid plan, 88th Avenue, 96th Avenue & Glover Road are rarely congested once in the Fort.

Fort Langley Road Map
Fort Langley Road Map

There are no “experts” building the roads in the Township of Langley. The “how” of the lanes were outlined in the NCPs, but not the “where”. Considering we don’t have a truely separate Planning Department in the Township of Langley, who is surprised? The result is a massive problem: there are now houses where lanes should be. Much of South Willoughby (Southwest Gordon Estates, Routley) and a good portion of Yorkson are a complete loss as residents must meander their way through a suburban network to reach an arterial road to go anywhere.

Can we fix it?

While I’m not focusing on the candidates who didn’t win, I do want to mention that Michael Pratt (who I assume will be back in 2022) did make a reference in his questionnaire response that changing road designs in Willoughby would be too little too late. As I stated above, this may unfortunately be true. Mistakes made in urban centers were usually on top of a grid network already in place from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Trying to convert a suburban network already in place is much harder. However, I do believe there may be some solutions that could discourage development where poor planning is in place in time to review and fix some recently adopted NCPs (if council got serious).

An aggressively pro-planning Council can do three things for the rest of the undeveloped land of Willoughby and for future development in Brookswood:

  1. Guide developers of subdivisions and multifamily homes to design homes around a grid network instead of whatever works best or easiest for the developer (ie. do the opposite of what just happened with Shepherd of the Valley). There should be more priority placed on how lanes should fit into the puzzle rather than just how many homes can fit in the development.
  2. Have the very capable staff revise the 1998 Willoughby OCP to consider a grid network for the undeveloped lands so that step 1 will be easier for developers over the next generation of development. At least this way, there will be an overarching lane design that isn’t so piecemeal.
  3. Establish a true Planning Department distinct in staff and management from the Engineering Department.

I believe these three items are exponentially more important than completing 208th Street, 200th Street or any of the arterial roads that plague Willoughby.  It may not be as sexy, but it’ll create a better living experience, force better home designs, and promote better overall mobility (including walking, cycling and transit).

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