Crystal Schick/Yukon News
A person walks along the Millennium Trail past the SS Klondike and a misty Yukon River just after noon in Whitehorse.

Crystal Schick/Yukon News A person walks along the Millennium Trail past the SS Klondike and a misty Yukon River just after noon in Whitehorse.

Yukonomist: The aesthetics and economics of highway strips

One of the many cultural experiences you enjoy while driving from Whitehorse to Vancouver is comparing and contrasting the highway strips in the towns along the way. They are a primer course in economics and human behaviour.

Paris may have the Rive Gauche and the Rive Droite, but only Fort Nelson has 50th Avenue North and 50th Avenue South. Will you cruise along one side of the Alaska Highway slaking your and your pickup’s appetites, or the other? Will it be Petro Canada, Boston Pizza and Motel 6? Or do you feel like A&W, Fas Gas Plus and Subway?

Fort St. John, on the other hand, has Alaska Road South and Alaska Road North. Will it be Esso, Burger King and Home2 Suites by Hilton? Or Chevron, McDonald’s and Super 8 Hotel?

Historically, Whitehorse has been an outlier. As Alaskans passing through during the pandemic on their way home from the Lower 48 have noticed, most commercial services require you to leave the highway and head downtown.

Indeed, the only thing Whitehorse has avoided more carefully than a commercial strip along the highway is commercial activity along the waterfront. There are businesses along the highway, but the Kopper King and Airport Chalet are too unique to be chains and too far apart to be a strip.

Now city council is entertaining a proposal to allow a drive-thru restaurant at 107 Range Road along the Alaska Highway. Proponents see convenience and development. Opponents see stripification and light pollution.

Debates over highway strips get emotional, quickly. Some think the rows of bright signs and truck tail lights are garish reminders that giant corporate chains have taken over the economy and moved it somewhere you can only get to in a truck. To these citizens, highway strips smell like diesel, money and urban sprawl.

They also tend to move the centre of commercial gravity of a town from its historic centre to the highway strip, for both locals and tourists. Land is cheaper, parking is free and often property taxes are lower too. Economic development consultants and those who like a vibrant small-town centre often despair at empty storefronts along the former main street.

Indeed, despite the 184-page Fort St. John Downtown Action Plan, I have to admit I haven’t been to downtown Fort St. John since the late Twentieth Century.

Others find highway strips convenient and easy on the budget. And this isn’t just highway travellers. Fort St. John locals also find it convenient that food, gas, big box stores and even the casino are located right beside each other. And they know that, if the owners of Burger King and McDonald’s are staring at each other across the highway, they’ll probably be trying a bit harder on pricing and customer service. And if you use your hard-earned cash to buy land along a highway, they ask, why should your city council get to tell you whether you can build a drive-thru or not?

Both our highway cousins along the Alaska Highway make liberal use of frontage roads. You don’t turn right off the highway into the Fort St. John Burger King. You exit the highway and then cruise at a safer speed along Alaska Road South to the Home of the Whopper. On the other hand, in the old days in Whitehorse you could drive your truck directly from the Kopper King parking lot onto the highway with a gratifying spray of gravel.

The current reconstruction project on the Alaska Highway near the airport is in the spirit of Fort St. John rather than the Kopper King. Frontage roads will be on both sides of the highway. The controversial drive-thru will be where Range Road will serve as the frontage road.

As the News reported last week, zoning for another drive-thru at the Kopper King was approved back in 2017, although it hasn’t been built yet. And the Range Road lot at the centre of the debate was already approved for a restaurant, just not a drive-thru.

The traditional highway strip battle was between pro-development and anti-development groups, with downtown business interests generally keen on development but not more competition from places with cheaper real estate and property taxes.

Now two more things have spiced up the debate.

First, thanks to Whitehorse’s growth and limited bus schedules, most people live in suburbs and use a car to get downtown anyway. It would take fewer minutes of driving to get to an Alaska Highway strip than downtown.

Second, the city has declared a “climate emergency.” Highway strips are to internal combustion engines what swamps are to beavers; their natural habitat. However, it would be little more than a token gesture to block one highway drive-thru after we spent millions widening the highway and located our recreation centre, university and continuing care facility so far from the city centre. Furthermore, the climate argument will weaken as electric vehicles replace gas guzzlers. The Yukon’s plan is for 30 per cent of new vehicles to be electric by 2030, and this is a much slower adoption rate than many jurisdictions are planning.

It seems like more development along the Alaska Highway is coming to Whitehorse, but how big and how fast is still to be seen. We may see a rapid mushrooming of brightly coloured chain signs along the highway. Or the current controversy may choke off the trend.

Or we may compromise, with a few more chain outlets but less than a full strip like our cousin cities. This might actually be good news for the people who own the already-zoned lots. If there is one thing more profitable than a chain business on a busy highway, it’s a chain business on a busy highway without any competition across the road.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.