The following opinion piece was published in the Vancouver Sun on May 15, 2017.
Not so fast. That’s my message to Vancouver city council, preparing to consider a measure next week that would shift responsibility from elected representatives and onto city staff for the making of potentially disruptive decisions affecting road use.
Vancouver happens to be one of the most densely populated, traffic-choked jurisdictions on the continent. The public these days has every right to be concerned about the adjustments that are being made continually to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists, transit-users, the disabled and motorists.
Yet, councillors are poised to consider a report Tuesday that seeks changes to the Street and Traffic Bylaw that would transfer important decisions into the hands of city engineers. Decisions such as removing traffic lanes or parking spaces to make room for wider sidewalks or bicycling infrastructure.
Vancouverites elect city representatives to oversee such matters for good reason. Councillors, unlike city staff, are directly accountable to members of the public. They know that, to remain in office, they must make decisions that reflect the views of their constituents.
Further, their decisions are open to public scrutiny, discussed and debated at open council meetings, not in cloistered back offices away from public scrutiny.
Vancouverites care deeply about how their city streets are used. Who can forget the fury of some Vancouverites several years ago over a city decision to block car access along Point Grey Road or the ire of business owners whenever adjustments are made along Commercial Drive, a popular and heavily used artery in Vancouver.
Even the smallest changes can damage business interests and greatly impact motorists trying to get to and from work. Indeed these days many motorists, undertaking necessary commutes, feel their needs are being forsaken in the interests of those who pedal to their destinations. And business owners are rightly riled when disruptions stemming from road improvements disrupt the running of their businesses.
Judgments about balancing the interests of these various groups, no matter how small the issue, should be in the hands of city councillors, not bureaucrats.
A city report to council is arguing that existing traffic-bylaw provisions need updating, to better reflect a modern era in which Vancouver is no longer as car-centric as it once was.
And, it asserts that it would be more efficient to allow city engineers to make their own decisions about small improvements to local streets rather than having to seek council approval, and the often messy public consultations that accompany these decisions. The report offers assurances that large-scale and controversial projects would continue to be directed to council.
Specifically, the bylaw amendments being sought would give the city engineer authority to reallocate public rights of way, divert motor traffic from streets and reroute transit routes onto different streets with TransLink support.
The problem, of course, is that in the current era no reallocations and diversions imposed on Vancouver’s heavily used streets and sidewalks are equally distributed in their implications for members of the community.
All such adjustments appropriately require the scrutiny of councillors who remain directly answerable to the cyclists, transit-users, pedestrians and motorists using the streets.
And problematically, the determination of which projects would be decided privately and which are significant enough to warrant councillor input would rest in the hands of the bureaucrats rather than folks who are publicly accountable.
What this change would mean is that Vision Vancouver members never again would have to publicly defend their decisions about creating bike lanes.
And this matter raises a further concern. If decision-making on transportation issues can be taken privately, in the interest of avoiding public scrutiny, will such a strategy be used elsewhere by the city?
I also believe that input from the public, especially during council deliberations, is a very necessary part of the decision-making process. This bylaw change seems to negate that fact entirely.
I firmly believe the buck stops with city council. When we start circumventing that process, we are in big trouble.
George Affleck is a Vancouver city councillor with the Non-Partisan Association.