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Vancouver Winter Olympics: Winning a Gold for Transportation?

The Vancouver Olympics have catalyzed some sustainable developments, such as Millennium Water, a mixed-use community.  But can the Games make a real dent in the region’s livability challenges?

The Olympics are, without a doubt, iconic events of international importance. They capture the world’s attention. This year, Vancouver will host up to 135,000 spectators each day – the equivalent of staging 17 back-to-back Superbowls – along with an expected 6,100 athletes and officials, 10,000 accredited media and 55,000 workers. And then there are all the people watching on television. Last time around, in Beijing, an estimated 2 billion people worldwide watched the Opening Ceremonies.

As a result, the organizers of the Olympic Games have a unique opportunity to showcase the best. The best athletes, the best sportsmanship, the best entertainment…and the best innovations in sustainability. With the growing threat of climate change, the Olympics should be more than a sporting event. The event organizers and the host city should take advantage of the opportunity to show us how it’s done. The Games should be a showcase of the most progressive and effective environmental, planning and transportation strategies. Especially in a city of such “green” repute as Vancouver. So, how will the 2010 Winter Games measure up in terms of sustainable transportation?

So far, they’re looking good. The athletes’ village is the central section of a larger planned redevelopment of an old industrial waterfront neighborhood. The development is participating in the LEED-ND pilot program, and though it hasn’t been evaluated yet, it’s aiming for gold certification. Street design has focused on pedestrians and bicyclists, and carsharing vehicles and electric hookups will be accommodated. Competitors and attendees will rely on public transit (despite a glitch than has already surfaced.) One transport option will be a demonstration street car that will run from the athletes’ village. The games are laid out in a fairly compact manner, easing mobility between events. To reduce automobile traffic, officials will enact parking bans along major roads, close certain arteries, and prohibit private vehicles from driving in dedicated Olympic lanes, which will be open to only accredited Games traffic and Translink buses.

In other transportation-related initiatives, the 45,000-kilometer torch relay will be carbon-neutral and the 2010 Games will be the first Olympics to have an official supplier of carbon offsets.

The Vancouver Olympics have had an impact on regional travel as well. Amtrak has launched a second daily train from Seattle to Vancouver, giving travelers two trips in each direction per day for the duration of the Games.  This service may or may not become permanent.

But at the end of the day, the Olympics are temporary and its legacy could be a pale shade of green if the infrastructure created is not put to good use. Opinions are mixed on whether the 2010 Games will have a lasting impact on transportation and livability challenges in the region. The David Suzuki Foundation, a prominent Canadian environmental group, says organizers missed a big opportunity by making many transportation improvements temporary rather than permanent additions to the city. (See their scorecard for the Olympics’ efforts to reduce its climate impact – they awarded the event a Bronze medal).

However, many of the transportation enhancements seem to be permanent. Translink, the regional transportation authority, will use a $17 million contribution from the Vancouver Olympic Committee to permanently add 48 SkyTrain cars, 200 buses and a new SeaBus to Vancouver’s transport infrastructure. The Games also jumpstarted some valuable infrastructure projects, such as the Canada Line, the city’s newest rapid rail line linking Downtown to Richmond and Vancouver International Airport, the metro area’s busiest north-south corridor.

In addition, when the Olympics and Paralympics are finished, the athlete’s village will become a mixed-use community called Millennium Water, where residents will be able to walk to goods and services and take transit to work. Proposed transportation options include rapid transit, a “skytrain,” the streetcar, multiple bus lines and greenways with cycling facilities. The neighborhood comprises the newest section of the Seaside Greenway/Bikeway, part of Vancouver’s 22-kilometer Seawall. Eventually the site will be home to 16,000 residents.

It seems that the organizers and Vancouver officials are doing a decent job of providing sustainable transportation options during the Games, but it is true that addressing a large region’s long-term livability challenges is much more complex.  However, by showing the world what is possible, and then by making as many of those innovations as possible permanent, perhaps the Vancouver Olympics are doing their part.

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