Yukonomist: The future of Whitehorse traffic

Keith Halliday

I was recently kicking the tires on a new vehicle and noticed a small sign at the dealership: no courtesy drop offs in Riverdale around when school gets out.

Yes, Whitehorse traffic is now so bad that busy companies don’t want their staff tied up in it.

It makes you wonder what traffic will be like in 2027, by which time the Yukon government forecasts the Yukon’s population will be almost 49,000. That’s a rise of about 5,000 from mid-2022 and most of those new Yukoners and their trucks will live in Whitehorse.

The municipal government is trying to plan ahead. It is developing a Transportation Master Plan.

The master planners recently held their third webinar and the presentation is worth reading. They have a colour-coded map of traffic hot spots graded according to what planners call levels of service. Quartz Road, Two-Mile Hill, the Riverdale bridge and Mountainview Drive all show up as red.

It also has a safety map, with worrying red zones at key intersections such as Hamilton Boulevard and the Alaska Highway, Second Avenue and Main Street as well as Second Avenue and Fourth Avenue. Apparently someone in the Yukon is injured on the road every 1.5 days and someone is killed once a quarter.

The master plan documents sum up the city’s objectives as a “safe, equitable and sustainable transportation network.”

No one is against safety, equity and sustainability of course. But in the real world you can’t have everything. Whitehorse citizens will be wondering what the trade-offs are with the objectives that are not included, such as the words fast, convenient or low-cost. These, of course, are the objectives that were top of mind back in the 1960s when planners had visions of North Americans zipping to their destinations in private cars along huge freeways.

The planners face some difficult questions. Traffic planning has always been difficult as you try to estimate the impact of population and traffic growth on expensive infrastructure that takes years to build. These days, planners face two more tricky issues: technology and climate change.

The last quarter of the 20th century saw lots of minor technology improvements, but no major disruptions. The driver of a vehicle in 1975 would have been very comfortable on Whitehorse roads in 2010.

But consider what is happening in the 2020s. Advances in batteries mean e-bikes are surging in popularity for Whitehorse commuters. Google and Waze give drivers real-time advice on what routes to take to avoid traffic. Local Tesla drivers are already using autopilot. Robo-cars are loose today on the streets of Phoenix and San Francisco.

In May, Phoenix announced it would be testing driverless public transit.

It may take some time to reach Whitehorse, but in the time horizon of our planners there may be cities in North America where driverless mini-shuttles and buses responding to smartphone ride requests are replacing traditional bus routes.

Climate change is also shaking up transportation planning. Some ecologists used to hope that the climate transition would force suburbanites out of their cars and into more sustainable lifestyles. In this vision, people would live close enough to work that they could walk or bike. Or they would take public transport.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo popularized the concept of the “15-minute city,” where everyone was just a 15-minute walk or bike ride away from work, shopping, health care and education.

It’s an appealing vision. She went on to run for president. She won only 1.75 per cent of the vote, which Le Monde called the worst presidential election result in the history of France’s powerful Socialist Party.

Hidalgo had more issues than just the 15-minute city concept, but her career highlights the gap that sometimes appears between elite planners and regular folks.

Technology may have bypassed this vision anyway. Batteries and electric vehicles are falling in cost so rapidly that we may all eventually end up just replacing our fossil-fuel vehicles with electric ones. The federal and Yukon government are both encouraging this, with a combined $10,000 incentive to buy one.

Policy wonks think that in just a couple of years electric vehicles will be cheaper than gasoline vehicles even without incentives, measured by total lifetime cost of driving. This will happen as the higher up-front cost of electric vehicles falls, and the savings on gasoline rise along with carbon taxes.

One of the proposed master plan objectives is that “by 2040, 40 per cent of all trips will be taken by shared or sustainable transportation.”

This seems highly achievable. Two people driving in a six litre diesel counts as “shared” and the federal government plans to ban the sale of new gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2035.

The master plan objectives around minimum level of service ratings for all intersections during peak traffic hours may be harder to achieve as population and vehicle numbers grow. The webinar #3 document did not mention many of the policies other cities such as Oslo, London and Singapore have used successfully to manage traffic. These include stiff tolls to drive downtown, high annual license plate fees and stratospheric parking charges.

The master plan process looks likely to bring many improvements to our city. But it may not do much about Whitehorse traffic. Traffic jams will have to get much worse before voters support bigger changes.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He won the 2022 Canadian Community Newspaper Award for Outstanding Columnist.