A significant uptick in the number of traffic jams between Langley and Abbotsford could indicate that Highway 1 can’t handle much more traffic.
Although traffic levels have increased gradually over the last four years, the number of dramatic westbound slowdowns has increased ten-fold since 2005 and more than tripled since 2014, according to highway data analyzed by The News.
Over the course of last year, nearly one of every westbound 20 cars passing over the Bradner Road underpass were travelling slower than 60 km/h. In 2005, your chances of going that slow over Bradner Road were one in 250.
Eastbound traffic is about half as likely to hit a traffic jam, the figures show. But traffic in that direction is generally slower, with an average speed of 97 km/h in 2018, compared to 103 km/h by Vancouver-bound vehicles. Traffic in both directions has slowed over the past five years by about five kilometres an hour.
Robin Lindsay, an economics and transportation professor at the UBC Sauder School of Business, said slowing speeds can suggest a road is nearing capacity.
Lindsay said that highway speeds tend to be stable until a road nears its limit of vehicles.
“The speed is almost independent of the flow until you get fairly close to capacity,” he said. “So if the speed limit is, say, 90 km/h, then the road can be operating at 80 per cent, or even more, of capacity without the speed dropping. But then if you try to push even more traffic through … then the speed can drop quite quickly.
“It could be the traffic has reached that level and gone beyond the optimal point,” Lindsay said.
While Lindsay suggested that it’s possible construction on the 216th Street interchange could have an effect on speeds, the greatest jump in below-60 westbound traffic took place between 2015 and 2016, before work on the project started.
Last year, ICBC released data that showed the number of crashes between Langley and Chilliwack had doubled between 2014 and 2017. Many of those crashes inevitably result in significant delays for other drivers.
The number of vehicles using the highway between Abbotsford and Langley has risen steadily in recent years, increasing 13 per cent between 2014 and 2018. Prior to 2014, traffic levels had increased at a slower rate – by 10 per cent over nine years.
But truck traffic has been increasing even faster, and is up 30 per cent in total since 2014. The number of very long trucks over 22 metres has risen by 50 per cent. And whereas trucks and other large vehicles accounted for nine per cent of all traffic in 2005, by last year, one of every seven vehicles was larger than your average personal vehicle.
Lindsay said semi trucks tend to have about twice the congestion effect as a single smaller vehicle, and noted that differentials in speed also lead to congestion.
Local politicians, particularly Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun, have spoken frequently about the need to widen Highway 1. Braun once asked for an extra lane, but he now frequently talks about the need for two more lanes in each direction: one HOV and bus lane, and another designated for trucks.
Meanwhile, the Rail for the Valley group has resumed calls to use the former Interurban Rail Line between Chilliwack and Surrey to carry commuters and passengers between cities south of the Fraser Valley. The Fraser Valley Regional District, meanwhile, plans to begin running its Fraser Valley Express regional bus all the way from Chilliwack and Abbotsford to Lougheed SkyTrain Station.
Lindsay said that while congestion on Highway 1 may have reached a turning point, it’s not one that cannot be reversed. Indeed, he noted that it was “self-equilibrating”: as traffic increasingly frays nerves, drivers will change their habits. Some may choose other commuting options or re-orient their lives to enable them to use the highway less. Others will try to use the highway at less busy times. And politicians will feel pressure to find solutions to ease voters’ anger.
Other infrastructure options also exist, though, beyond widening the highway.
Lindsay is an advocate of congestion charges, which put a price on the use of busy roads. But he concedes that such ideas may not be politically feasible.
Between Chilliwack and Abbotsford, a variable speed system is being installed to slow down traffic before it grinds to a halt. The idea is that traffic will flow more smoothly, more safely and more efficiently.
Many American states also use ramp control signals to reduce congestion around on-ramps.
All those potential solutions and knock-on effects might not ease drivers’ fury the next time they’re stuck waiting an hour for traffic to ease. But Lindsay said highways generally only grow so crowded.
“Things are bad, but I wouldn’t expect them to be real bad,” he said.