Listen to the episode here. We’ve done our best but please forgive any typos or errors.

Matthew: [00:00:28] Hello and welcome to the Cambie Report.

I’m Matthew Naylor and I’m here with Dale Bracewell. Dale is the Manager of Transportation Planning at the City of Vancouver.

Thank you so much, Dale, for joining me to talk about how this pandemic has affected our transportation system and how it’s going to change things going forward.

Dale Bracewell: [00:00:49] Yeah, thanks, Matthew and I look forward to the conversation.

Matthew: [00:00:52] So just generally, can you give us a kind of overview as to how the transportation department has been coping so far with the change in well, you know, everything with this pandemic?

Dale Bracewell: [00:01:04] Yeah. I mean, I think it’s pretty evident, but you know, COVID-19 has been a pandemic that’s really been unprecedented and really a shock to our transportation system. But it’s, it’s quite noticeable, right, the dramatic decrease in all kinds of trips, um, and so I think, you know, looking at, you know, mode by mode, I could walk you through what that looks like and just gives you the, the idea of the scale.

Matthew: [00:01:32] Sure. Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you tell us how, I mean, we’ve all been looking at COVID trendlines, so why don’t you, why don’t you bring another sort of trend lines into our discussion here today.  How have those trips been looking, what are the trip counts at?

Dale Bracewell: [00:01:46] So kind of like the one that’s probably most obvious to the public is, you know, vehicles, cause the most amount of road space is actually allocated to them and so we have these permanent counters throughout the city.

And so we’ve been monitoring this and keeping it on a dashboard. And so in and out of like downtown Vancouver it’s sort of been, in April, an average of about 50% decrease and certainly those peak periods where you, you’d otherwise get those times of congestion and those have like flattened the most. And then, you know, citywide we kind of seeing about a 40%, um, reduction.

Transit is sort of like, I think for us, like the greatest, you know, area of like concern and when we kind of then talk about rebounding and, and recovery planning. But that’s you know, system-wide and Metro Vancouver, but you know, specific to Vancouver, it’s around that average of about 80% and so not as visible because, you know, a bus might be carrying only a very few amount of people but certainly huge decrease in trips throughout the day.

And then, you know, walking we have kind of a limited amount of opportunities to collect that kind of data. We’ve gotten into some automatic pedestrian counters. And so this is not really representative because so many people are actually, you know, for exercise getting outside but at least in the downtown counters those, those can range anywhere between 40 and 50% less, which kind of makes sense for the businesses that are essential services. They are the ones that are open.

And then, and then cycling is kind of the real interesting one because we have a variety of our permanent, you know, bike counters. Um, so when you kind of look at the ones that we would kind of more categorize that are like more commuter oriented, you know, locations in the city. That those are down anywhere between 35 to 50%. But then we have ones that say like on Point Grey Road or along the seawall, and in that one, that range can, can be anywhere from like 10 to 50% more.

Um, which then of course we think makes sense in terms of what has happened is people, again, getting outside and using opportunities of public space and our seawall to get out and be safe and social distance, physical distance, but ultimately getting out and having and do some healthy, um, uh, outdoor activity.

Matthew: [00:04:03] What is the biggest challenge been from your department’s perspective in this pandemic?

Dale Bracewell: [00:04:08] Well, I think, I mean, we’re a large employer, so I just mayb start there.

We, we, ourselves, I remember those early weeks as, as a manager, you know, supporting my staff team to all be working from home. And so, you know, just trying to do, you know, the kind of serving our public and trying to match up and do everything that we can to support the public health uh direction to, you know, stay at home and travel only if necessary. And so, so that’s kind of kind of one that, you know, as, as a public servant and it relates to a lot of kind of what, what people are seeing.

I think it, um, you know, of course, you know, the vehicle trip reductions by itself kind of simplified in terms of some of what otherwise could have been the challenges.

Um, but I’d say, uh, you know, what’s been growing over time is, especially as the weather gets nicer, we want to be, you know, really supporting those essential services again to the businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies and medical people who then ultimately still need the access to employment.

But the growing need is, is that time outside. That, that exercise for that good physical, emotional, mental health, yet encouraging people to still do that, you know, to stay local. and, and kind of trying to encourage people to maximize the enjoyment in their own community and their own neighborhood while they do that, as compared to, let’s say, coming to visit, you know, Stanley park or, you know, waterfront Beach Avenue Park, because, you know, we don’t want people to travel just for the sake of kind of enjoying a destination.

So, so then the other is, is that, you know, we didn’t have a good inventory of like grocery stores and pharmacies. And kind of as they’ve been now supporting, um, kind of their own, you know, physical distancing with queues sometimes needing to be outside the stores and, and, you know, then on our public street, right of way along the sidewalks.

And so, in a fast paced way, we, you know, have been trying to kind of respond and, and, and give good kudos to those types of businesses. And doing that, that’s kind of led to one of the initiatives where we have, you know, you know, looking at some, some localized sidewalk widenings. So that as those essential businesses provide those opportunities for physical distancings and ask to use some of the sidewalk, we’re also kind of giving people the opportunity who are, who’re still walking on the sidewalk and passing by to feel like they’re being supported from a public health perspective.

Matthew: [00:06:32] Alright, have there been any like surprises in the unfolding of the pandemic that have caught you off off guard at all, or have even just been like unexpected?

Dale Bracewell: [00:06:43] Well, I think what we’ve discovered, uh, Matthew is just also, we always care about supporting our most vulnerable. And so this is kind of one of those times where we get to learn and grow a little bit more about, you know, where again, we have, you know, transit dependent and, and, and it’s, it’s not possible for some essential workers, you know, to, to work from home.

And so, we’ve been discovering things along the way and I think, you know, a big part of the overall city effort and, and we’re just, you know, one, one part of a team of people who are trying to support like Downtown Eastside and how to really better understand what it means in terms of mobility for community resilience.

Um, you know, a big part of kind of our climate emergency plan is to, to think and supportive about more walkable communities. Um, and so we’re, we’re trying to learn and discover where are people kind of seeing the joy of that and kind of rediscovering of that at an, at a neighborhood level because that’s what we’re encouraging.

And that’s, now most people are trying to do that. And then where are we seeing that? That’s actually not very possible often. And so kind of how do we kind of make a deposit in terms of kind of the, the importance of responding to a pandemic. We’re still in a response phase, but especially kind of within a planning transportation planning team like mine, how do we really create a bit of an inventory and kind of bring this back into what ultimately will be, you know, that recovery and the rebuilding time so that ultimately we can aim to have a better city and a better opportunity to, to build out walkable communities and be supported for, for the choices that now people are either making again a new or they were already doing, but kind of how do they do that more in that like hyper local kind of way, in around what uh what they call home.

Matthew: [00:08:35] So do you see this as being able to feed into some of the development of the the City Plan and developing communities as more, I wouldn’t say independent, but like localized and, and self contained environments, rather than having these destinations like an entertainment district or like a recreation destination?

Dale Bracewell: [00:08:57] Yeah, absolutely. And I think what we’re unfortunately not able to yet do is kind of really have the opportunity to engage and ask people. And so, uh, at the best and most opportune time, it’ll be great to kind of have people, you know, reflect back on their like trip diaries that they were able to kind of make and walk within their community.

But even remote work, right, which I said, you know, we as a workforce are doing, of course hundreds of thousands of people in the city are, are, are doing, um, you know, remote work. And so how does that actually also, kind of support walkable communities?

Cause I know, for example, you know, here as I’m working from home, more often than not, then, you know, I’m kind of rediscovering, the things that are in around kind of my, my neighborhood in my community.

Um, and so kind of where do those things, you know, become opportunities for us, you know, going forward as we, what we’re going to try and do is ultimately really build upon what we then think are the positive, sustainable, you know, behaviours and choices that sometimes people had to make or are now choosing to make.

Um, since we’ve been kind of going through this for a few months and in, of course, what are, what are the ones that, you know, unfortunately, sometimes people need to make, you know, a drive trip, or more drive trips because they need to make more frequent trips to the grocery store. And now they’re doing that alone.

And, and so, you know, kind of really, processing as best we can, kind of the behaviors and the trends that we’re seeing, even even in the COVID response phase that we’re in.

Matthew: [00:10:25] Well, I guess that’s something positive to look forward to. But why don’t we actually shift gears and take a look at what that opening up is going to look like.

You know, we saw today the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, releasing new guidelines on gatherings and looking forward, we’re seeing the economy opening up again. What do you think the biggest challenges are going to be in that process for transportation?

Dale Bracewell: [00:10:51] I think the biggest challenge is to kind of really, you know, maximize what ultimately is I think a narrow window.

I think we have weeks to months to really get this right. And so how do we recognize that we’re not returning to normal in terms of what February 2020, you know, transportation is. Uh so with that in mind, like, you know, this is unprecedented. This is an opportunity for everything that we’ve been kind of trying to encourage more in terms of urban, sustainable mobility.

And like I was mentioning earlier about like what’s our kind of vulnerable community, but like how do we bring equity more into the fold in terms of the work that we have been already doing? And so really kind of want to think of like how do we advance resiliency in terms of transportation? So what, again, have we learned where we’ve got kind of those weak links and then kind of look towards this proactive, an intentional effort to actually better position ourselves.

So whatever this progress towards recovery is, how do we bring in, um, sustainable mobility in terms of like the long standing, not just the trends with the policy targets that we have. But now currently for climate emergency, we’re trying to get to two thirds walk, bike transit by 2030. And then doing at the same time, being flexible and adaptable to support all the good guidance about, you know, rebuilding and supporting, you know, economic recovery.

Matthew: [00:12:19] So, so you mentioned, when we were talking earlier, a little bit about benchmarking other cities. What, can you talk a bit, a little bit about what that is and what that process looks like for Vancouver? And then maybe expand on, on what models we might be looking at for our reopening.

Dale Bracewell: [00:12:35] Yeah, so I can mention advanced transportation planning, you know, it’s always, it’s always good to kind of–yourselves. And so it’s been pretty exciting. Um, we’re, we’re constantly, you know, watching out for what other cities are doing. So, you know, just along the West coast, you know, San Francisco, has kind of some, uh, slow open streets, but really, they built off of Oakland.

Oakland, I think really in a North American context is showing the greatest amount of leadership. They announced a plan for a hundred miles of actually like local in our context, more like local street, Greenways, bikeways being converted to be more, you know, people people-centered first and car traffic being just localized and access only.

They haven’t fully outlayed that a hundred miles, but they’ve been very bold and very quick to kind of move in that direction. Uh, and then, you know, just just last week, Portland announced, um, basically kind of an equivalent. At first it was announced kind of almost to the scale of Oakland, and then, you know, but then this is why we’re constantly trying to learn.

They’re gonna look for more towards, you know, tactical interventions at particular places along essentially the neighborhood Greenways, which, you know, predominantly can have more or less the same effect of reducing a lot of the car access if you kind of reduce some of the through trips.

So that’s kind of like some West Coast benchmarks, but you know, Milan is kinda one that a lot are pointing to certainly from kind of, I think I’d say not just a response phase, but a recovery where, you know, they’ve announced, you know, in the months ahead they’re going to be very intentional. Uh, I think it’s about 35 kilometers in terms of, you know, better and, and, and giving over more space on their streets for walking and cycling.

Um, and then there’s, you know, more regional ones. And so kind of our conversations with TransLink and our, you know, neighborhooding uh neighborhood municipalities, but Paris beyond the city itself is really looking to, in particular to cycling, hundreds of kilometers of kind of, you know, cycle routes in, in, through the kind of greater region of Paris.

And then just kind of most recently, Matthew, I don’t know if you heard that about London. And kind of one of my colleagues in like the C40 Cities kind of transportation network, you know, he’s been a part of like this kind of new streetscape, you know, plan.

And so it’s, I think exciting. I mean, we’re, we’re a very major, you know, Canadian urban city, but to see kind of one of these, you know, world urban centers like London all while they too, are going to have, you know, an equivalent amount of physical distancing on their transit as they kind of start there.

They’re kind of phased approach back in, but but really um looking towards being intentional about that road space, reallocation opportunity that’s going to keep supporting people’s opportunities to choose those walking and those cycling within their community and their neighborhoods.

So those are, I think, um, you know, some of the cities. Um maybe the last one just is Auckland. Auckland, I think as a kind of an urban heart center has, has done great things, not only for walking and cycling and public space.

So certainly as again, we have a lens on the mobility side to look towards, you know, public space and public realm. Um, there’s some other cities that are really embracing that as well, which again, of course, when we get past, you know, physical distancing opportunities, you know, walking, biking by the very nature of those modes increased people’s physical health, but they also increase ultimately their opportunity for social connectedness.

So kind of benchmarking ourselves to see what other cities are doing, bringing in public realm and public space. It’s also important for us as we kind of look ahead to mobility, recovery planning.

Matthew: [00:16:07] It’s interesting because all, all the like connections that, you know, the, the interpersonal connection that sociologists and urban planners get really excited about that kind of spontaneous connection is the kind of thing that we suddenly had to move to avoid because that’s how this things spreads.

You mentioned a little bit about closing off certain roadways to car access, for like making it access only for residents or users of that space. Can you imagine like a roadway in Vancouver where that would be appropriate? And would that look like actual physical barriers to the thing or just a different designation?

Dale Bracewell: [00:16:45] Well, maybe I’ll, let me, I’ll start with, you know, the efforts that have already been done. And Park Board approached us and, you know, looked for City Vancouver support for the closure of Stanley Park to vehicles. And so, that’s kind of a Park Board decision, but of course it, it touches base with our kind of the rest of the city’s networks.

So we did that and partnered with them in that. And so, I mean, there’s an example where, you know, even, you know, of course was really important, of course, that the destinations themselves that otherwise had the access or more or less closed. And so it gives us the opportunity to do that.

But in tandem with that, you know, along Beach Avenue, that’s kind of our best example of a busy street where, you know, we, we reallocated the eastbound lanes. Um, and so, you know, in that sense it has a bit of a transit impact. We have to work with TransLink to, to talk about what would be then, you know, some service that wouldn’t be in that direction, but ultimately, and again, supporting the public health and opportunities to have physical distance and enjoy other than walking or the cycling kind of along, you know, our densest and, um, part of our, our downtown.

So I think the, the kind of ways that you would see those as temporary tactical, I think are good expressions of what could be other future opportunities for us, and the teams kind of come up with a name for that called Room to Move.

And so right now we’ve been kind of in a, in a response phase towards those and, you know, Beach and Stanley Park.

But I think economic centers like downtown and like the Broadway area, the second biggest economic center in the province, and as we kind of look ahead from response to recovery, we need to think about, you know, sidewalk widenings beyond, I say, like that, what we call the Room to Queue, which is outside essential services.

So, so those, those, those, um, having it kind of landed in terms of like a declared a plan and, you know, next week, we understand that, you know, Council may have a motion something that they’ll talk about. And of course we have staff take guidance from them. So I think staff are, had some opportunities, um, to, to be responsive in this realm.

And we’re certainly kind of ready and benchmarking all the tactical ways. I mean, kudos to even the province of British Columbia. They’ve even come up with, kind of more of a probably either a rural or kind of a highway oriented community in BC, but still have come up with some of the kind of tactical ways that, uh, that cities like Vancouver can do more in this realm.

And certainly I think we’ll be ready to do more as either the weather gets warmer and these, these spaces are needed or of course if we’re in a very, well more known, longer recovery period where these space-based allocations are going to be important over time.

Matthew: [00:19:35] So let me ask you a little bit more in depth on that particular thing.

The idea of closing some laneways or some lanes to traffic or removing parks to facilitate both Room to Queue and Room to Move like what would be the criteria that the city would look at in order to evaluate the need for that kind of change to the traffic flow and how quickly could we see some things like that getting rolled out?

Dale Bracewell: [00:20:03] I think where, where exactly we’re at Matthew is, is your question where we’re creating kind of the principles around that. So again, equity will be, you know, absolutely important for us that we want to be able to be able to respond across the city for kind of where, where those, those needs are.

But yeah, a little bit of kind of insight is  arterials that have buses, that again, if, if more workers are going to be, you know, graduating back into needing to get to the destination while, you know, remote work and telecommuting is still continued, those bus stops become harder areas to kind of tactically intervene on. So that’s kind of one. Parking, we’ve started with, really supporting health workers and, relaxing the enforcement. But that again, again, in terms of being responsive, you know, we added parking enforcement back into the West End and then in the Kits Beach area.

So you know, where that, you know, in some places I think, you know, parking won’t be an issue in other places again, as we kind of graduate back into a phased approach to, to more people needing to be at work and more people needing to, you know, use what we want for on street parking, which is kind of like high turnover to be able to support those businesses.

So those can either still be opportunities or, you know, possibly, you know, constraints. And so I guess, you know, we’re at that principle creating stages and local streets and our bikeways and Greenways and that network is certainly seeming like a much easier opportunity to create ultimately connections to parks or connections to, you know, services and businesses.

I can’t quite say it would be an entire network at this point in time, but certainly starting with some principles and continuing to be responsive.

Matthew: [00:21:50] So it looks like you’ve got like a bunch of tactical interventions that are coming down the road, if you’ll forgive the pun, but the- they’re coming down the road like and they have to happen soon because they’re part of the initial recovery phase.

And then you’ve got a somewhat more strategic sense that this information and this sort of set of opportunities can be used to develop some of our transportation and infrastructure. But from what I’m hearing from you, that strategic stuff almost seems to be somewhat easier to reach for than, than some of the tactical stuff that we have to do in the near future.

Dale Bracewell: [00:22:28] Well, I’d say, I think both are important, Matthew. And so, you know, we’re a big city and so we have the opportunity to have I’ll call it more of the design operational teams that can kind of continue to focus on what, you know, might be the growth of Room to Queue and Room to Move.

And then particular to my team because, you know, we’re always at Vancouver, I think, based on solid, you know, policy. And so transportation 2040 and climate emergency response are still, you know, policy goals that we need to achieve. And, and how do we work in this kind of more short term tactical, but thinking about the values around those longer term.

And so this is kind of where I get excited is like this idea of mobility, recovery planning. Um, it’s not harder to do, but it’s, it’s hard to think about the engagement part, but it’s so important. We need to build back a better city. We need, like I was saying earlier, to really, you know, maximize whatever we’re learning now or whatever we could learn with, you know, a future growth of room to move those travel patterns and behaviors.

And we need to get ahead. We need to get ahead of what could be a real, you know, desire to not just get back for those that already were, you know, maybe using personal vehicles for their journey to work trips or for lots of trips that they might otherwise, you know, walk, cycle, take transit.

And so we need to get ahead of that. You know and we know in transportation planning that because we’re always kind of trying to promote and encourage and look at the barriers towards people’s orientation to choose walk cycle and transit and Matthew like a big life event is always one of those opportunities.

And so this is an opportunity for us to kind of really maximize right now where that car dependency is kind of quite low compared to their previous normal. And then again, kind of how do we learn, like I said, equity and so that we could embed that equity planning into our transportation processes beyond what we were doing.

And you know, it’s always important to support the economy. And so, part of transportation 2040 was, was, was clear about that. But for us, it’s sorta like when I was working on the Olympic transportation plan, this is not like, we’re not, we’re not trying to deliver anything that was like the status quo anymore.

There’s no returning to that. Um, so it’s, it’s how do we support the, the ongoing, you know, policies and, and looking towards transportation 2040 and climate emergency and then really thinking, you know, in towards what will be, you know, there’ll be a reframed and a repurposed, and Vancouver plan.

But how do we maximize equity and, and resiliency in terms of ultimately, you know, we- not just a recovery phase, but that recovery phase, it could be kind of longstanding. It’s certainly into 2021 and maybe a couple years and, and really kind of work with the community to help serve kind of where they live, where they work, and where they’re still going to want to move around.

 Matthew: [00:25:22] I really wanted to actually, to just touch on your comment about the Olympics, because it seems like this event is almost like an inverse Olympics where the Olympics saw this sort of spike in demand and everyone knew even going into it that things weren’t going to be on the same on the other side.

This is the sort of artificial dip in demand because of exigent circumstances and right now while I was going to ask you what the new normal was going to be, it looks like basically the new normal is up in the air, so maybe I’ll ask you a bit of a different question, what what is the best case scenario for a new normal?

Dale Bracewell: [00:25:58] That’s a great question. I mean what we what we do is, residents of Vancouver are you know happier and healthier and excited that they had all the opportunities to choose you know walking biking and transit and you know connect within their community.

And so the the hard work ahead though is you know outlining right now scenarios in terms of how to get to that final outcome because there’s still a lot of uncertainty that’s in front of us and so I think the big difference between the Olympic transportation planning and then- and now is that you know Olympics had, as always telling my team at that time, you know there’s only one day for an opening ceremony and we have to be ready. Uh in this case you know we’re dealing with uncertain timelines…

Matthew: [00:26:47] The Olympics had an end.

Dale Bracewell: [00:26:49] Yeah and so and then the other is is just again for the Olympics it was really important for us to plan for more trips. You know, at least certainly into the fall we’ve got a plan for less trips overall is what we would at least expect. But how do we, you know, looking at it from like a, sorry to be a bit you know transportation nerdy, but like from a mode split perspective you know, even if the total number of trips let’s say I’m making something up now in October it’s still let’s say 30% of what we otherwise thought fall 2020 would be, what’s going to be more important is being adaptable and flexible and that again that could depend a lot on maybe what we still need to do on road space reallocation for walking and biking and transit and public space but kind of be continue to be responsive and holding fast to those kind of longer term sustainable policy goals.

And then you know really being a partner to Translink again I think they’re doing a great job highlighting and showing us how important that’s been for Vancouver and how important that is going forward but what will be people’s levels of perception in terms of the you know the safety and the health of that. And you know will Tranlink get the support to have you know the capacity. And so where does the City of Vancouver, you know do we need to even do more for walking and cycling to kind of be a further support for our key regional partner.

And then also like you know where you know a lot of people have been financially impacted in terms of the hardship or just owning and running a businesses And so kind of again a bit of a different environment uh and yet lots of opportunities but how much and where and kind of again with consistency are still to be determined

 But I’d say we have confidence I mean this benchmarking by the cities the network of other cities that we have. Uh TransLink itself has kind of done some early scenario and modeling. And we’ll move into you know beyond scenarios into impacts again to to really highlight which trends are we trying to make sure we continue on that are beneficial for the kind of the health and the building a better city and which trends you know do we want to get ahead that where otherwise hinder our progress um towards you know the the strategic policy and and goals that we have here at the city.

Matthew: [00:29:03] Well Dale thank you. I think that’s all we’ve got time for today but I really appreciate that insight into how this massive global event is impacting our city and how we get around it. Uh any final words on how you see this event playing out in the next couple of weeks and months?

 Dale Bracewell: [00:29:22] Yeah well then I’ll go the one to the months, I think COVID has changed the way we need to do transportation planning and everything that we’ve talked about. What we’re still gonna learn, it’s, it is going to help us plan for a more resilient sustainable and equitable transportation system. And I’m excited about you know when we get back to really community engagement, how we weave that more into you know a climate emergency response in the fall and and ultimately even the next couple of years through our Vancouver Plan. And so have some hope in terms of uh kind of how to make the best of this you know world impact upon us.

Matthew: [00:29:59] Well hope is something that we can all use a little bit of right now.

Thank you so much for joining me today, Dale. I’ve been speaking with Dale Bracewell. He is the manager of transportation planning at the city of Vancouver. Thank you so much

Dale Bracewell: [00:30:12] Thanks Matthew.

Matthew: [00:30:13] Bye.

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