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Vancouver shares Olympic lessons with Toronto ahead of Pan Am Games

03/29/2015 09:12 EDT | Updated 05/29/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - In their effort to fight congestion during this summer's Pan Am and Parapan Am Games, organizers in Ontario are taking cues from those who have been there, done that.

Transportation planners involved in preparing for the international competition have been consulting their counterparts in Vancouver, which hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, and say they've learned from their predecessor's victories and challenges.

The city managed to reduce vehicle traffic by more than 30 per cent during the Winter Games despite a 44 per cent increase in the daily number of trips into the downtown core.

In Ontario, officials have said they are banking on a 20 per cent drop in traffic in order to prevent significant delays on roads and highways linking the Games' 16 host municipalities.

Like Vancouver, they are urging residents to carpool, take transit, cycle or walk — and asking businesses to schedule deliveries at off-peak hours — once the Games get underway in July and August.

They're also creating a network of high-occupancy lanes to ferry athletes, officials and media to and from events, though unlike those in Vancouver, the lanes will be open to the public, provided at least three people are in the vehicle.

Critics have argued it's unrealistic to expect residents to leave their cars at home. They predict the Toronto region, which already struggles with congestion, will be paralyzed by gridlock.

But transportation officials in Ontario say Vancouver achieved its goal using similar strategies, despite having most of competition venues in a smaller area.

"Our Games are spread over a larger network which helps to disperse the overall traffic impact," said Bob Nichols, spokesman for the Ministry of Transportation.

One of the key people behind the Vancouver plan says that while the two regions and events are different — both in terms of scope and geography — in each case, giving residents and businesses the time and information they need to adjust their plans is paramount.

With hundreds of thousands more people in the city and road closures around Games venues, "there's just a reality that you're not going to be able to accommodate... that many more cars in the downtown core," said Jerry Dobrovolny, Vancouver's director of transportation.

Reducing traffic "involved an awful lot of outreach and communication so people knew what they were getting into, could plan around it and be successful during a time when the conditions were different than they normally are," he said.

Even so, "not everyone was on board," he said. "We had people who thought this was the worst idea ever."

Transit use doubled in Vancouver during the Olympics, with all available trains and buses in operation, he said.

Officials in Ontario, meanwhile, have said transit service during the Pan Am Games will be expanded and the cost of a ride included in the event ticket price.

In order to avoid the crowding seen at some Vancouver transit stations during the Olympics, efforts are being made to ensure travellers can move easily through Toronto-area hubs, the Ministry of Transportation said.

A train link between Pearson International Airport and Toronto's Union Station is also set to begin operating before the Pan Am Games begin on July 10, much like Vancouver's airport link did before the Olympics.

It's unclear whether Toronto, a city where bike lanes and road closures for marathons and other events have become political hot potatoes, will transform downtown streets into pedestrian walkways, as Vancouver did with two streets.

Some who live and work in downtown Toronto say getting around during the Games will be a hassle — but a worthwhile one.

Adam Jamieson, 31, said he just bought a car a few months ago but plans to leave it parked for the duration of the Games.

While he normally walks the 45 minutes to work during the summer, the traffic this year will likely act as even more incentive, he said.

"It's going to be bad, it's just the way it is," said Jamieson, who hopes to catch several Pan Am events in the city and other communities.

"But this is a really cool thing...if you can put the inconvenience away for a little while."

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