06/26/2013 11:20 EDT | Updated 08/26/2013 05:12 EDT

Tear Down Those Viaducts, Vancouver

"Vancouver is the city without freeways."

How often have you heard that? It's close to being true, however I often say that there's an asterisk beside the statement. That's because we have a piece of freeway-like infrastructure, a little bit of freeway thinking, left over from our now-iconic story of freeway rejection. They are called the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts.

Saying no to the freeways in the late 1960's and early 1970's was very likely the most important decision earlier generations of Vancouver leaders ever made. It set our city on the path of counter-intuitive city-building that is today known as " the Vancouver Model." Since then we've built a huge amount of housing downtown, mixed-use and more compact communities, and a much more walkable, transit-friendly and increasingly bikable city. It made our city more livable, green, healthy and economically successful.

Vancouver has been showing North America ever since that the only successful way of improving commute times, lowering vehicle miles traveled, and improving mobility and accessibility, is prioritizing walking, biking and transit. The "law of congestion" teaches us that building more roads only adds more traffic and congestion -- as the saying goes, adding highway lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity.

Luckily, earlier generations rejected freeway thinking, and our city owes them a huge debt of gratitude.

The viaducts, though, predated that rethink. They were originally constructed in 1915 to bypass the tidal waters, rail lines and industrial lands below, and were rebuilt in the 1960s as the first piece of the anticipated freeway system, before the famous rejection.

Our generation now has a similar city-making opportunity to do the right thing for future generations. We have the opportunity to remove the asterisk and repair the city it scars, fixing the mistake made before those freeways were rejected.

In the meantime, cities around the world have been catching up to our way of thinking, and some are passing us. Many are rejecting new freeways, and even tearing down existing freeways, reconnecting their cities to their waterfronts. Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Seoul Korea, and well over 100 more cities have shown this city-building boldness. Increasingly it's not bold at all. It's just smart .

Vancouver City Council showed both boldness and smarts several years ago by directing staff to begin studying the removal of the viaducts. Special credit is owed to Councillor Geoff Meggs, the true political champion for this long-in-coming project. I and my friend and colleague Jerry Dobrovolny, Vancouver's Director of Transportation, led this work with our smart and passionate staff team.

Our work found what most cities now understand -- that taking down big car infrastructure doesn't result in traffic congestion and gridlock. The system accommodates the change largely through change in human behavior -- people rationally rethink their way of getting around, and even where they live. Staff reported back to Council that from a transportation perspective, there were no "showstoppers" from removing the viaducts. Answering this toughest political question first, proved very important and created momentum.

Momentum grew even faster in the next stage, when we looked at the land-use opportunities if the viaducts were removed. First, we held a high profile design idea competition that attracted incredible local and international attention to the future of the viaducts. The competition, called "re:CONNECT," was an incredible success, attracting 104 submissions from 13 countries - and the public response was fantastic! Over 15,000 votes and over 1500 online comments to the City's website were generated around the competition, and many powerful ideas (along with some pretty crazy but inspiring ones) were floated and debated.

Inspired by the winners, and really by the totality of submissions, our staff team with the help of consultants generated a city-making concept for a post-viaducts future. Let's be clear -- this design concept isn't perfect. There are several things about it that I'm still not a fan of. But it showed a possible future without the viaducts, and created considerable discussion and debate, as it was meant to. I would expect the actual design to continue to evolve and improve over the next few years.

My bigger worry has been that the momentum that was created around a viaduct-free future, would be lost. I believe the viaducts could have been included as a decision in the recently approved new Transportation Plan, but I'm very happy that the momentum recently started up again.

It's now time for Council to make the next stage of decision about the viaducts removal. They will be considering Staff's excellent new report that again makes the case for removal later today in fact, the next stage of one of the most important city-making decisions this generation of Council will ever make.

Best practice, I believe, would be to have Council approve the removal "in principle" subject to the further work outlined in the report, rather than the recommended up-to-two-year delay in decision-making. This would help keep the removal from becoming an election issue next year, and justifies the work that Staff would be undertaking, that frankly assumes a removal. I urge Council to make that decision in principle now. It still allows a course correction prior to final approval if something unforeseen comes up. It's more bold, and given the amount of work to follow, more clear and transparent.

Ultimately this powerful decision isn't about cars or concrete. It's about making a more connected, sustainable, resilient downtown and city. New and better public spaces; social and affordable housing; mixed-use, walkable and transit-supported development; and a better connected city and waterfront with a healed "scar" where the viaducts used to be -- whether you're motivated by place-making, a greener and healthier city, or smart economics, the opportunities are significant.

Some opportunities come along but once in a generation. Council will need public and stakeholder support, and political bravery, to make the right decision on the viaducts for the future of our city. Thankfully many communities and groups have provided such support, and I believe this Council has the bravery it needs.

A more successful viaduct-free future awaits us.