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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for February 2008

How dense is Surrey?

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The BC Liberals excuse for not providing more transit south of the Fraser is that the population is not enough to support it.  But as usual that  interpretation depends very much on how you look at the statistics. For instance the Metro Vancouver area in general looks very low density – until you take out the Green Zone (the ALR, the closed watersheds, the parks, the water and so on) and other undeveloped and in, most senses, undevelopable areas. So there are empty places and low density places and high density places. Sounds kind of obvious? Well yes but when you look at density calculations the easiest way to do them is take  the population and divide it by the municipal area. But we know that is highly misleading.

So the good folks at the Surrey planning department did some more sensible sums and determined that the developed bits of Surrey are denser than the developed bits of Burnaby. The Valtac blog has the details. You should check it out.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 29, 2008 at 8:20 pm

Posted in transit, Urban Planning

Food security

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There is a two day event today and tomorrow, that I would have liked to attend but cannot. Details can be found in the Richmond Review and I could not resist the illustration

Written by Stephen Rees

February 29, 2008 at 12:08 pm

Placemaking

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Jan Gehl at the Gateway Theatre, Richmond February 28, 2008

Jan Gehl

This lecture was part of the 2008 Lulu series “Art in the City”: a discourse with experts on the value of art in the city.

The people dimension in city planning. When Professor Gehl first graduated, architects were big and arrogant and people were small and insignificant. Modernists thought streets were bad. They designed towers in the grass. Most schools of architecture didn’t talk about people – and many still don’t. They were led astray by Art: it looks good in a magazine but people won’t use it. That was forty years ago, and then after studying it for a long time people started asking him how it should be done, so he started a consulting firm eight years ago: they call themselves “urban quality consultants”.

A city must be lively, attractive, safe, sustainable and healthy.

During the car invasion of the 1950s planners and politicians panicked. They thought that the purpose of life is to have more cars. Cities were designed for cars and parking. This became a universal craziness and it still is around. But fifty years of cheap petrol are coming to an end.

All city planning then was about the capacity of roads and parking. Every city has a department for traffic engineers. Is there a city department for pedestrians and public life? Does anybody know anything about people? His mission has been about making people visible in the city planning process. It is essential to realise how important people are: cities are for people and nothing else.

His firm now works all over the world and everywhere they establish the importance of looking after people. In the new city it is the spaces between the buildings that matter. This public space has to serve three purposes – meeting, market and connection. This was always a matter of a fine balance in the same space, and it is still seen in many cities where economy is not “advanced” i.e. where there are no or few cars. Once moving started to explode it took over everywhere. We have lost the understanding of cities: I wish that had copies of his illustrations of the indignities people have to suffer to negotiate around parked cars. In motorised cities respect for people disappears. He had one picture of the “Naples slalom” – a tricky manoeuvre to get around cars parked on the sidewalk without stepping into traffic.

“People are an endangered species.”

Sydney is typical: all the streets are the same, wall to wall traffic which pushes people to the side. “Traffic is arbitrary” – it fills all the space available. “The amount of asphalt required for car is not in the UN charter of human rights”. In Manhattan, while there are wide streets they have only 25% of the capacity they “should” have, according to the traffic engineers. The car invasion gets worse every day. You can never have enough asphalt. This continues until someone puts their foot down and says “enough”. In Bogota, Columbia it was the Mayor who said we cannot accept this anymore. We need wide sidewalks, bike lanes and rapid buses. There will be no more parking lots.

He showed images of the abandoned city – Meridian Mississippi. There are no pedestrians. The only place you can walk is the mall which is open for exercise only between 8 and 10 am.

He showed an image Main St, Clarksdale Miss (not this one). “The blues were invented here”. In Miami there are no streetlights, as it is assumed that everone has their own headlights. Houston Texas is the city with the fattest people in the world.

He spoke about how professors at Berkeley behaved driving a short distance from home to work, then circling to find a parking spot. They would run at lunchtimes, then drive ten minutes to get home. He had also this archetypal image of the escalator to a San Diego gym.

 

 

The reconquered cities: from the 1980s onwards cities started to find a better balance between meeting market and motoring. He has found nine cities including Barcelona, Lyons, Strasbourg, Curitiba – and each has the necessary qualities – lively, attractive, safe, sustainable and healthy. And they did this by putting the emphasis on walking and bicycling.

Each has curbed unrestricted car driving. They have discovered the importance of public life. His book “New City Life” looks at the change in the use of cities. In the 1960s the first street in Copenhagen was made traffic free as a shopping mall. Now we understand that city life is more about recreation than shopping. The shift in emphasis has been from market to meeting. People come downtown to see what is going on. The city is a destination in its own right. We are now an experience oriented society, but due to family fission and smaller homes if you want to see other people, you have to get out of the house. We want the kind of quality we see when we go on holiday in our own city. People leave the underpopulated suburbs to come into city, not seeking out greenery but the company of other people.”Life is too short to go on holidays”.

There is a shift away from suburbs and isolation. People want density. Things happen that are optional. Cities are worth going to because they are lovely. Since 1960 we have seen an increase in traffic calming, pedestrian streets and better public urban spaces.

It has been suggested that cyberspace will become the place to meet but people like to participate too. You might see something on tv, but that will inspire you to visit it to see for yourself.

He spoke about the dimensions of city life

  • transport dimension – catering for pedestrians – the more you walk the better

  • social dimension – city as meeting place – people watching is the number 1 attraction (and 2 3 4 5 6) A sidewalk café is for girl watching: this is serious, harmless business as old as mankind.

  • sustainable dimension – we need need good public realm and public transportation with style, safety and comfort

  • heath dimension – the more people walk and bike naturally as part of their daily pattern the healthier they will be. This is not something you have to set aside time for at the gym. It must be inviting and pleasant to walk and bike in the city

  • democratic dimension – ‘open society’. All kinds of groups meet in the city. In a face to face meeting you discover that people who belong to other groups are equally human. Having all groups out in the public realm increases sfatey because it reduce tensions. It is also an important part of freedom of speech and association a place for all kinds of meetings. “You cannot do anything in a shopping centre but shop. Safe cities have lots of people in them, The best lectures are those in crowded lecture theatres: this also works for parties. If you are one of only a few people there, you suspect that there is something better happening somewhere else. This is why all architects fill their drawings with people.”

  • economic dimension: In Aarhus a highway had been built on a river. It was decided to get rid of the road and open up the river again. The banks of the river have become a popular gathering place and the buildings on those banks are now the most valuable in Denmark. “If you are sweet to people, you are sweet to your economy”. One city decided to copy the example of Lyons. They brought the same architects and designers and found that the improvements made attracted both investment and tourists. The net effect of which was that they had “improved the city at zero cost.”

He also noted the dimension of enjoyment – sheer fun (illustrated with statues that had been capped with traffic cones).

Invitations to the City – more roads = more traffic. “You can never make enough roads”. He told the story of the man who found a skunk in his basement. He tried to encourage it to leave by setting out a trail of breadcrumbs to the woods. Next day he had two skunks in the basement. “Copenhagen has systematically taken lanes away from traffic.” (Please note that this directly contradicts the assertion made by Anthony Perl at the West Vancouver Metro meeting, where he said that only parking space had been reduced.) He went on to show the city of San Francisco taking down the Embarcadero Freeway after the Loma Prieta earthquake. It was so successful “now they take down freeways just for fun”. Cities do not take out traffic because they care about people, they care about security. in Belfast the city centre was closed to traffic to keep out the car and truck bombers. (A similar policy was adopted in the City of London for the same reason after a bomb near Lloyd’s.) All of Lower Manhattan will be pedestrianised as the authorities have decided to cordon off the whole area – for security. “Sometimes we need earthquakes”. In Seoul Korea a freeway has been taken out of the city in order to put back the river, and no measures were put in place to cope with the traffic. It sorted itself out. In London the congestion charge covers an area of 25 sq km. Traffic dropped 18% but if it had been left as roads, traffic speeds woud just increase. It has been decided to give that space to public life not faster traffic and it will also be done in Manhattan. (London also introduced many bus only lanes and is building a huge bike network.)

Better conditions for bicycles. After the oil crisis in the 1970s the city of Copenhagen decided to build a city wide bike network – special lanes, crossings, traffic lights that give cyclists a 6 seconds advantage and a “green wave” for bikes which means that if you ride at a steady 17kph you will not have to stop and restart. If you make it comfortable to walk not to drive, or to ride a bike, people respond. Cycling doubled in 10 years – there are now more bikes than cars in Copenhagen. The current mode share is 36% bike, 27% car, 33% public transport, 5% walk. This is one of the lowest percentages for cars and it is Copenhagen’s intention to become the No 1 bike city in world with a 50% mode share and half the accidents: because when there are more bikes, there are less accidents. Better quality public space means there are more people as the city moves from being a traffic place to a people place.

The research and data collected by Professor Gehl helped politicians to make these changes and courage to go on making more changes. Many more people now walk – four times more people. It used to be said, “We are Danes, not Italians”. It was thought that the climate would have a negative impact on street life but in fact the “good seasons” now last ten months of the year, not two. “Now we more Italian than the Italians”. It was also said that sidewalk cafés would be a health risk – dust in the cappuccino would kill people. This fear proved unfounded. “We have shortened the winter to two months.”

He then turned to Melbourne. “It could be Richmond” In the 1980s the city centre was dead. The City set about making it a real city centre and two reports “Places for People”produced 1994 and 2004 show how it was done. By the use of incentives to developers the number of residents increased from 1,000 to 10,000. (These incentives have now been withdrawn as they are no longer needed). The university was encouraged to relocate some departments to the city centre, which brought students into town. New, good quality public spaces and retention and extensions to the tram system. All sidewalks are high class – with public art, trees for shade, and high quality street furniture. The city is an outdoor art gallery for contemporary art: most of it is on temporary display to provide variety and continuing interest. Light is used as art on structures. 500 trees a year are planted. As a result there are now 40% more pedestrians and a 300% increase in “stationary activities” (like people watching) The city has the ambiance of Paris, a booming economy and has won the world’s most livable city award several times. “You should invite Melbourne’s planner Rob Adams to Richmond”. Melbourne is now going to introduce bike lanes “Copenhagen style” i.e. inside the line of parked cars. New York is going to build 4,000 miles of bike lanes in the next 15 years.

Questions

Q, In Vancouver we currently have the notion that density alone will cause these changes to happen

A. You have to be proactive. It has to be wider concept – “clever density” – do not take out the sun and make it windy – no one can see what is going on on the street 50 floors up. Senseless density won’t help – “high rise is the lazy architect’s solution to density” – you need “sensitivity in density”

Q – A planner in charge of beautification for Surrey wanted to know how to encourage the engineers to shut down a road

A – We used to have two types of street (car and pedestrian) now we have eight types including pedestrian priority and “access allowed”. It is not a black and white choice. “Slow traffic is OK too”.

Q – shared space streets -

A – While the plan is to move that way, Gehl likes pedestrian priority better than shared streets. He was against the idea of traffic sign free streets being tried in Holland. He was very critical of that way to doing it – “people should be free of worry”. We need quality in how people feel about it, not just accident statistics.

Q – The current building of infrastructure for the Olympics is a losing battle in getting quality in materials

A – “I will sign the paper”. Look at airports and shopping centres. They can afford marble. We should have that attitude for our public space. We need lovely public spaces. In Melbourne the City designed the chairs and tables to be used for street cafes. If you wanted to put out tables and chairs in the sidewalk you had to rent them from the City. The standard was the same as in Paris.

The questioner responded that we are surrounded by granite, so it should be easier to get better materials than concrete.

Q – “We get rain here. Do we need covered areas?” In one park a covered space gives comfort for people to hang around or even occupy public space.

A – Both Calgary and Minnneaplois decided to build skywalk systems. These are enclosed but completely commercial. We should celebrate the nice days not build protection for the few days when the weather is bad. Norwegians stay out in open markets all winter north of the arctic circle. “I have no firm answers. All climates have wonderful squares. Dress appropriately and leave it up to individuals”.

Q – Can we reduce the need to commute from bedroom communities?

A – In the next ten years we will see changes since gas prices will go up. We will see many new solutions like allowing bikes on the train. “A two hours drive (commute) is to me unimaginable. In the US you have 6 weeks of sitting in traffic: in Denmark we have 6 weeks of holidays.”

Brent Toderian said that he had visited a suburban neighbourhood in Copenhagen that had the worst North American systems. How do you make suburbs more urban?

A – The interest in new cities is only forty years old. The roots of the projects you refer to were in the previous generation. We now have a whole new approach and are making heroic efforts. The blunders of the past will not happen again. The city centre is quite wonderful, it has an urban culture based on leisure and an experience oriented society. New spaces really lift a neighbourhood. We are now moving out of the city centre and change will come to the suburbs in the next ten years.

Q – A White Rock councillor asked what height buildings should be? But he also wanted ideas to help regenerate the waterfront park while they are urbanising the core, as the town centre has grown, the waterfront are always just adds more parking spaces.

A – While the problem is well stated I cannot answer you as I do not know enough about White Rock. In Oslo they are putting their freeway into a tube so that th waterfront can be reopened. they have to determine what kind of spaces will they need. they held a competition to determine that. Then they asked “how do we place the buildings”. Note that this is the reverse of the usual process. Normally the space is what is left over after the buildings have been set down. In the 21st century you start with people, then do you do the places, then the buildings are made to fit the place.

q – gentritfication?

a – There is no smart answer to that. When you improve the area new people move in. This should not stand in the way of improving cities. You also need a social policy. Bogota used transit as social policy providing good transit not more roads for cars improves the lot of the poor.

============

At the end of the evening Professor Gehl wanted to present a copy of one of his books to the Mayor of Richmond. There was no Mayor to take the book – nor any councillors. Only a rather junior member of the planning staff. It was explained to me that there had been a day long briefing by Prof Gehl of the staff, but again no politicians attended.

It is very much to the credit of this City that we have a program like the Lulu Sweet series. The organiser had worked hard to get Professor Gehl to come. I think that Malcolm Brodie should be heartily ashamed of himself that he could not spare the time to come to this event – and so should every councillor in the city too.

It is also remarkable that not one questioner came from Richmond as far as I could tell

Richmond Centre

When I look at Richmond, where I have lived for the last ten years, and where I have tried to get some attention paid to these ideas, I feel disheartened. Turning this suburb into a truly urban place is going to be an uphill struggle. It has been pretty depressing so far to see how reactionary most of the engaged public has been. And the absence of any political interest in this lecture is deeply depressing and does not augur well for our future. We may be at the end of the Canada Line, but I do not see us giving up our cars for real culture any time soon.

But as Jan Gehl siad “If the Aussies can do it, you can do it”

Lord knows, we need to.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 29, 2008 at 12:51 am

Posted in Urban Planning

Fed gas tax pledge aids TransLink

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Richmond Review

This somehow got missed by the media I saw on budget day but it is important. The transfer of federal gas tax revenue will now be a permanent policy. It is currently worth $49 a year and will grow to $123m by 2010. Which is not a trivial sum.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 28, 2008 at 9:22 am

Posted in transit

City’s ‘smart growth’ claim questioned

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Richmond Review

The City of Richmond wants to call its proposal for development on the Garden City Lands (still in the ALR and already turned down once by the ALC) “smart growth”. But it is not very smart at all. There are ten principles of Smart Growth and one of them is “protect and enhance agricultural lands”.

As usual the needs of the spin doctors and the “optics” are much more important to the cause than doing the right thing. And at the heart of this controversy is the ability of government to suddenly “create” a huge amount of marketable value just by changing the designation of some land. Add in the need to do a deal with a First Nation – who feel, quite rightly, that they have generally been excluded from the enormous wealth creation that has occurred on their traditional lands – and you have a very tricky political situation.

The City, by playing fast and loose with language, is committing the same sin as its neighbour to the north. Just calling something by a green name doesn’t make it green.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 28, 2008 at 9:15 am

Posted in Urban Planning

The Mayor Of Chilliwack on Rail for the Valley

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I was going to do something else today, but Google’s alert drew my attention to a long piece in the Chilliwack Times. When you are Mayor, you not only get centre stage at events you attend, you get lots of media space to explain your position on those you don’t attend.

Now it is unusual for a Mayor to have such a coherent and well argued case, but it does have a few holes. I will let you read it as it stands – and I suggest you do that first – and then I intend to point them out.

the most recent census data (2001)

The most recent census was in 2006. I know because I worked on it. And data from that is becoming available. I suspect that things may have changed a bit int he intervening period, but in terms of journeys to work (the only ones that the census looks at) we can only choose from what is available to choose. Since Chilliwack has inadequate transit it is no surprise that most people drive. The Mayor goes on to make some suppositions: he may or may not be right, but I really wonder why he could not get real data.

The “Rail to the Valley” folks admit in their documents that an upgrade of the old Interurban Line would cost in excess of $1 billion.

Note that this is not a direct quote and no source is cited. It may be that you could spend a $1bn on upgrades, but I do not accept that is necessarily the  cost. And the Mayor does not look at any of the options in detail. One of the great advantages of using existing tracks is that you can proceed in a gradual way, and you can also avoid large capital costs. Indeed, most of the proposals I have seen have been of this kind. You could get a diesel railcar on lease, and a few temporary platforms, sell tickets on board, and run in between the freight trains. Not ideal by any means, but very cheap indeed. A whole order of magnitude or two below the Mayor’s carefully chosen figure.

It does not calculate the cost of buying the freight off of the right of way which is currently near capacity from Abbotsford to the west. It also does not include the cost of the disruption to the hundreds of businesses, who have located on, and use, the rail line to move freight.

It does not include these costs because they are not necessary. Freight on rail is not that time sensitive – and does not have to move at periods of peak passenger demand. No existing freight customers need to be inconvenienced at all. And I somehow doubt that the SRY has “hundreds” of customers – though I bet they wish they did. My casual acquaintance with less than train load freight in this area is that it has been declining steadily – but I will concede I may be misled. But the whole right of way and freight argument is a red herring – and a scare tactic and unworthy of a Mayor.

 As noble as the idea is to provide rail transit from Chilliwack to Vancouver using the old Interurban line, it is clear that this meets the least of our needs. In addition, while cheaper than “SkyTrain,” we would still be spending hundreds of millions to inadequately serve a very few people.

“Noble” is just being sarky! No one suggests it would solve every need, and of course you need to be looking at buses where there are no tracks – which is most places.

 We have a very limited service in our community and little access to additional provincial transit funding.

But the Mayor is disingenuous when he asserts that it is lack of provincial funding that is hobbling local transit service.  BC Transit views its services as a partnership. And many local municipalities, while they do not like raising property tax to pay for their share, have done so and now have better service than Chilliwack does as a result. As long as there is an inadequate network, ridership will be low. You need to get to the point where transit is a viable alternative for enough people. The Mayor must explain why this has not been his priority up to now. It seems to me he has preferred to keep his property taxes down. Which is fine if that is what his electors want – that’s democracy for you – but don’t blame the province for your lack of enthusiasm for transit spending.

He then goes on to trot out the usual guff about lack of demand and population. Which is typically short sighted. And the FVRD is as  much a creature of the Mayors as the MVRD – so citing one of its reports at length as though it were an independent source is casuistry. In future, the valley is going to have to reduce its reliance on cars. Sooner or later, trains will have to be part of the mix. If people have more choice, they can make more intelligent decisions – not just about travel today but location of home, school and work for future travel. The real agenda for this Mayor is that he likes the isolation of Chilliwack from the rest of the Valley. That is why he talks so much about the lack of travel from his community to Vancouver. But that is not the market for Rail for the Valley. And I think he knows that, but he also knows the  audience he is playing too – and he has played to them successfully for a long time.

I wasn’t at the meeting either. But I suspect that the reason people booed is because he did not come to defend his views and subject them to argument. Why should he when the Aspers will give him so much space?

Written by Stephen Rees

February 27, 2008 at 9:51 am

b. February 27th, 1949

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A day to celebrate. And perhaps take a break from blogging. Here, courtesy of an email from the Very Short List is an entirely appropriate video about banging the drum about how old you are.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 26, 2008 at 8:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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