You Should Have To Pay To Drive The North Vancouver 'Cut'

Peak-load pricing may be only way to solve this congestion nightmare

“They” say that the Long Island Expressway near New York City is the longest parking lot in the world — and “they” are never wrong; that’s a given. What is the Canadian equivalent? One candidate is “the Cut,” a stretch of road on Canada Highway #1 in North Vancouver from the Lynn Valley Road down a steep hill to the Second Narrows Bridge, which crosses over into Burnaby and Vancouver. Why is it called “the Cut?” I don’t know. Only “they” know. Perhaps because from far away, at night, this part of the highway looks like a cut in the mountain.

The Cut is only a few miles long, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in intensity of congestion. It is no exaggeration to say that cars negotiating the Cut move at the pace of a walker, a slow walker. Call it three miles per hour, for a 20-minute mile.

What’s going on here? Total chaos. I’d call it anarchy, but anarchy is better organized than what takes place in this neck of the B.C. woods. And we’re not talking just rush hour. With the exception of maybe midnight to six a.m., traffic moves at a snail’s pace, weekends included. It seems everyone and his uncle (and his sisters and his cousins and his aunts) are trying to get onto the highway all at once.

What can be done? The bureaucrats in charge of this mess don’t seem to have a clue as to how to fix it, since it has been going on for years now. They recently spent almost $200 million on construction north of the bridge but to no avail in terms of solving the problem.

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One solution might be a high-occupancy vehicle lane (HOV). But the highway is only two lanes wide at this point. Reserving one lane for vehicles with two or three or more passengers would likely spark a vehicular rebellion that would make the recent truckers’ strike look like a picnic in the park.

Another possibility would be peak-load pricing. No-cost travel from, say, midnight to six a.m., but hefty fees at all other times would poke a big hole in the congestion. This solution is not unknown to highway central planners. That they have not adopted it after years of permanent bottlenecks indicates either an unwillingness or inability to do so. The argument against it is, presumably that the poor would be unable to afford the substantial fees and thus be stranded, trapped, unable to travel when their jobs required them to show up for work.

How would private enterprise handle this situation? Peak-load pricing would be the order of the day. After all, countless other businesses commonly employ it. Ski lodges charge more in winter than summer; beach resorts the other way around. Restaurants charge more for dinner than lunch; many baby-sitters charge more for weekend nights than weekday evenings. Matinees are cheaper than evening shows (you remember shows, don’t you?).

As for impecunious travellers, they could car-pool. Get five people into a car and the fees to each are, wait for it, only 20 per cent of what they otherwise would be. Buses would do even better. Employers would be led by Adam Smith’s invisible hand to stagger their work hours a bit; in that way, they could pay lower wages but save employees highway charges.

Highway privatization is only the hallucination of rapid free enterprisers, you say? Maybe so. But tell that to the masses of Canadians cooling their heels in stultifying trips at three miles per hour. This may be their only hope for deliverance. When all else fails, think the unthinkable.

This originally appeared on Financial Post and was reprinted here with the author’s permission.