Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for May 2010

Olympic commuters sticking with public transit

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The Vancouver Sun reports a good new story on transit – and despite my oft repeated cautions about the quality of data on travel in this region, one that has credibility.  In fact I would suggest that you go to Translink’s web site for the full story

Comparing first-quarter revenue ridership (first time one boards a transit vehicle) 2009 vs 2010

Translink ridership dataSome of the increase was due to the additional riders attracted to the Canada Line before and during the Olympics.  The newest SkyTrain line carried 2.49 million riders in March (not counting those transferring from South of the Fraser bus routes, which had formerly travelled into downtown Vancouver).  A sizeable amount of the remainder also likely reflects people who made the switch to other parts of the transit system during the Olympics and, finding that it worked well for them, stayed on after the Games.

SeaBus and Canada Line are the two parts of the system that do actually count passengers all the time. SeaBus has turnstiles, not for fare checking but for vessel safety: Canada Line has overhead counters at all station entrances.

The kicker is at the end. Transit, as we all know, has cut the service it offered during the Olympics and cannot afford to expand capacity. It is, however, still being forced to spend money needlessly on a project which will do nothing to help expand capacity or improve service.

What is in TransLink’s near future, however, is turnstiles in transit stations by the end of this year and planned “smart cards,” which would charge transit riders based on the distances they travel by 2013.

Turnstiles are supposed to increase revenue collection, due to the widespread myth that fare evasion is out of control on SkyTrain. They won’t of course, but they will increase costs – both through debt service and maintenance. Moreover, staff will have to be available at stations to ensure that people who cannot pass through the gates due to having baggage, or a stroller, or being in a wheelchair can be let through an otherwise locked gate. That means either less ticket checking or more staff – either way, higher costs or less revenue.

A turnstile can only tell if the ticket is valid at that time and that location, which is often different to the journey being made. Back in the old days, long transfers were one of the biggest sources of evasion – bus operators tore off too much time when issuing a paper transfer. That ended with machine readable transfers. Fare evasion includes people using one zone tickets for two and three zone journeys, and people using concession fares that they are not entitled to.  Ticketless travel on SkyTrain is comparatively rare – as the ticket checks on board trains now conducted at random by SCBCTA police confirm.

What we now know is that the people who tried transit liked it and stayed. Will they continue to like it if capacity is not steadily expanded to meet growth in demand? Will turnstiles make people feel safer? No. They will add the inconvenience and frustration – especially if gates are not manned properly and people find that they are not able to complete their journeys. Expect a rise in complaints too from expiring transfers as people are delayed both by the gates, pass ups and service disruptions inevitable when there is insufficient resource to keep up with demand.

Fare by distance is a whole ‘nother matter – and probably something that I ought to devote a separate post to in future.

By the way, this positive story needs to be seen at the same time as the Province’s recent gleeful reporting of a WWF survey.  I am not at all surprised that few Canadians want to give up their cars, but people in Vancouver who have joined the car co-op or other car sharing schemes have found that they can live without car ownership. It is not just that we live in places designed for cars not people – though that is, of corse, the main reason we are car dependent. It is that we make more journeys than the journey to work, and those journeys are difficult to make especially outside peak periods. For instance, the Main street trolleybus – popular enough to get articulated buses despite the proximity of the parallel Canada Line under Cambie Street – has 20 minute service frequencies on Sundays (this is based on the service intervals being reported by the real time bus stop signs not the schedule). So even though you can take the family with you on your transit pass (something that many people seem to be unaware of) it is still often a matter of long waits and inconvenient transfers on a street which has had more invested than nay other on things like curb bump outs and real time information. Yes we have spent more on transit – but not nearly enough – and we have done little to curb car use or build more people friendly places.

And I am sure I saw – but of course now cannot find – a story last weekend that car driving has yet to recover to the levels seen before the 2008 crash. The story related to the United States where the “recovery” has yet to have much impact on ordinary citizens – and transit has been slashed in many places as gas tax revenues are way down. They may not have given up the car – but they certainly drive less, and make more multipurpose trips than they used to. Just like we are seeing here.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 25, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Posted in transit

What’s happening on Broadway?

with 50 comments

That’s West Broadway in Vancouver BC, just to be clear.

For background I suggest you look at the Georgia Straight.  Here’s the relevant bit – with a link that works too

Monday (January 18), TransLink is hosting a stakeholder meeting from 6 to 9 p.m. on a proposed rapid-transit line to UBC. It will take place at the Plaza 500 Hotel at 500 West 12th Avenue.

The group Businesses and Residents for Sustainable Transit Alternatives claims that the Broadway Corridor has already been selected with no public input.

BARSTA says it’s not against transit, but prefers an affordable, low-impact, cost-effective, and community-accessible system rather than a SkyTrain-style project.

BARSTA favours a $360-million European-style, at-grade train, which would provide more stops along Broadway than a $2-billion subway.

“It is important that our community comes out in force and expresses our concerns in relation to Translink and above all the SKYTRAIN Technology option that Translink is pushing,” BARSTA stated in a widely distributed e-mail. “Our community organization is very concerned on the lack of honest and open discussions between Translink’s key decision makers, local politicians and provincial politicians.”

Related article: Patrick Condon highlights cost of Broadway transit

I did not go to that meeting, and as far as I can I have stood back from the ensuing debate – part of which is running full tilt on the discussion board at the Skyscraper page forum – and spills over into the comments section of this blog on a regular basis, despite my efforts to widen the discussion beyond the choice of skytrain versus trams (AKA streetcars or LRT). And, of course, I think Patrick’s recent book on Sustainable Communities is well worth reading.

I am not sure that there is much value in rehearsing how Skytrain got chosen for the Expo Line, the Millennium Line and how something similar but not the same got chosen for the Canada Line. Those choices were made and we are now stuck with them and their consequences. I think there are lessons to be learned about what that did – and did not do – for our communities and our region. Since one of the best definitions of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. But it was not the only decision, and other things have happened too, which are equally – or possibly – even more important.

The reasons why I did not go to the Translink meeting are significant. The first one is that whatever Translink concludes from its studies does not matter. The transit agency for Greater Vancouver has never made these decisions. They are made by the province because they are the level of government that has the financial ability to execute such an undertaking. BC Transit didn’t and Translink doesn’t. In the case of the Canada Line, the province forced the Translink Board to keep on voting on the issue until it came up with the “right” decision – and then got rid of the Board so it did not have to go through that process again.

Secondly, Translink could not do anything even it wanted to. Currently it has cancelled its Ten Year (growth) Plan and is in “stand still” mode. If the Plan was still in place, then the Evergreen Line would be the first priority. The province is still saying that it (EL) will go ahead, but I am not convinced. It certainly ought to go ahead and there is enough provincial and federal funding (apparently) to build something – just not the government favoured SkyTrain extension. There is still some planning work going ahead, but every rapid transit project that has been built in this region – including the #98 B-Line (formerly known as Richmond Rapid Bus) – was run by a project office separate from the transit agency of the day.

Thirdly, Translink is not listening. You can tell that by the way the process is structured. If community input really was important, then the debate about what and where and when really would be open. BARSTA is convinced it isn’t. And the fact that Gordon Campbell has made it clear that he wants a bored tube all the way to UBC under Broadway – and that he has no intention of stepping down as premier – means that his current Minister of Transportation has already been given her marching orders. Personally, I believe them to be “mark time” right now until the dust has settled a bit from the 2008 financial crash. That would make sense if they really were serious about a P3 for every project. Right now it is next to impossible to get a new P3 up and running using private sector capital – and lot of existing projects are looking dicey or are proceeding using government debt – which is cheaper anyway.

Translink employs planners – and has a new VP of planning imported from Chicago, who is a Good Egg. Indeed, so are they all. But what they are doing is busy work. It may even produce a very well written and illustrated plan. And it will look good. So do they all. I have a few myself. They could be bound into a combined volume of Projects that Might Have Been. Another fascinating academic exercise no doubt, but not much use on Broadway.

I am going to be speaking to BARSTA next month (Please Note: this is an update on the original post). I will get ten minutes to talk about why they don’t need to get too worried just yet. Others – including Patrick Condon – will talk about what ought to be happening. I happen to think that in a ten minute period I will be lucky to get out very much of what needs to be said, simply because all these problems are complex and particular. There is no one size fits all solution – no magic bullet – no simple idea that can be easily stated and absorbed. So, if you wish to read further I am going to use this space to get into that in more detail that I will probably be able to manage next month. After all, Patrick can refer people to his book – which is already published – and I could point people to this blog and expect them to root around and find the relevant bits on their own. But having tried that myself yesterday on bike routes, I do not think that is wise.

Clearly my starting position is going to be as stated in the opening paragraphs. Translink is all smoke and mirrors, pay attention to the Premier. He has his hands full right now, and I do not see that crowding on the 99 B-Line is the most significant problem he has to deal with.  The big transport issues are the Gateway and how to pay for it. H1PM and SFPR are both expensive and in their early phases. He is determined that they keep going. The big financial issue – and the current hot potato – is the HST and its expected stimulating economic effect. If he is right and it is fiscally neutral, I do not see much room for Keynesian stimulation. Indeed, shifting once again to regressive taxes on expenditure against reductions in progressive income taxes means that more money leaves the province. Poor people with extra cash tend to spend here: rich people spend – an invest – all over the place and insist that the workings of the free market require them to do so.  Health and education are also big problem areas where people are convinced that the government is not spending enough. We seem to have ridden out the recession better than the US but arguably not as well as the rest of Canada despite our reserves of fossil fuels and willingness to increase their exploitation.  Campbell also wants to look Green – but doesn’t to most people who understand what that term means. Hydro and salmon are the hot buttons there – not transit or transportation.  He is unpopular, but wants to stay on. I wonder how much he is looking at Point Grey – usually a very safe seat indeed – and thinking about how the UBC tube will play out in his own constituency.

Even though there has been a financial crisis – which is still not over – a lot of people are still employed and putting money into pension funds. So all that money needs to be invested in something safe. That used to be real estate. That got badly mucked up by the mortgage backed securities and derivatives scandal, but that effect seems to be largely confined to the US. Not only is the residential sector here newly bouyant, but people are still looking for commercial/industrial developments to invest in. And those investors are now worried about peak oil, and the impact of the latest offshore spill, so developments that feature energy savings and environmental kudos are getting more attention. At one time, you could not get Wall Street to look at anything that was not one of the seven standard types of development  (Leinberger) but now mixed use and new urbanism and LEED-ND seem like better bets.

One issue along Broadway is that if the big outside investors are calling the shots still, more nodes are likely to get built, because big institutions like big chunky projects. It is simply more efficient to deal with one large loan application than many. But if there is to be a pattern of more dispersed incremental growth, then there is much more opportunity for local input – both as investors and stakeholders. One real issue is the preference of public institutions for “economies of scale” too. It is not just national retailers who like big stores – so do health care providers and educational administrators. This also drives up the “need” for motorized travel. It is is not just the aging population that increases the need for HandyDART, it is also that more of the health care system is no longer available locally. Both UBC and SFU have opened their doors downtown: but neither seems to be able to fund more student accommodation on campus – which I would argue is one of the main drivers of demand for the need for more transit. That and UPass. To some extent the province is behind that too – since they were the authors of policies around tuition fees and funding for research which forced universities to become more market oriented, and not just in their use of land. And they have also promised UPass to all post secondary students.

Growth in this region is going to continue for some time to come. We are still expecting another million people to come here in the next twenty years. They have to go somewhere, and the present regional plan says pretty much what the LRSP said about that, but now with added words like “sustainability” and “affordability”. We do argue a lot in this region, but mostly it is about details not principles. We like the clean air, clean water and green space. We are not keen on density, but we are beginning to show that there are enough people here who will embrace the notion of not living in a detached house with three bedrooms and a large yard that other kinds of habitation are desirable and marketable.

Those same people are also showing that given the right environment they will walk and cycle more and drive less.  This is signifiant since we really do not have any great success in getting a greater market share for transit – something that I have been saying on this blog repeatedly.  There are parts of the region, and some journey purposes, where transit is doing better than others, but overall transit share is stagnant.  This suggests that we need to revisit how we assess mode choice. And that brings me to the other news story today.

What changed in Vancouver in recent months was the perception held by ordinary people of what streetcars or trams looked like – and felt like to use.

Bombardier Wins Award for the Olympic Line – Vancouver’s 2010 Streetcar

The Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA) recognizes Bombardier’s achievement for 60-day streetcar demonstration project in Vancouver, Canada

Berlin, May 18, 2010 – At the CUTA 2010 Annual Conference held in Ottawa, Canada, Bombardier Transportation received an award for the Olympic Line in the category “Exceptional Performance and Outstanding Achievement” under CUTA’s National Transit Corporate Recognition Award Program.

The National Transit Corporate Recognition Awards are designed to highlight successes and achievements at the organizational level of CUTA’s member transit systems, business or bgovernment agencies. The award recipients were selected by a national committee of transit professionals.

Bombardier Transportation and the City of Vancouver, co-sponsors of the 1.8-kilometre Olympic Line, provided free passenger service between January 21 and March 21, 2010.

The two 100% low-floor BOMBARDIER FLEXITY streetcars, operated by Bombardier, carried over 550,000 passengers, and made over 13,000 one-way trips with zero equipment failures, zero station delays and zero injuries.

Raymond Bachant, President, Bombardier Transportation North America, said: “The success of the Olympic Line attests to the extraordinary response to streetcars by commuters in Metro Vancouver. We are gratified by CUTA’s recognition and appreciate its active role to build support for sustainable public transit.” He added, “As communities face growing congestion, light rail can offer a cost-effective option with a positive impact on the urban environment.”

The Olympic Line demonstration project also won a Sustainability Star from the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, which acknowledged a product or service representing a new solution to local and global sustainability challenges.

I am pleased for them – but understand that trams are not a “new solution” – they have been around for years and we ignored them. They have been repackaged – and instead of being seen just as a transportation mode, they are now seen as part of a way of reclaiming the city from the car. The reason grade separated rapid transit was chosen was that it kept the transit system out of the way of the cars. European cities that put their streetcars underground into “pre-metro” systems found that traffic got worse and city centres did not prosper. So they stopped doing that – and made the streets in city centers car free. Trams got the street space instead – as did walking and cycling. And, most importantly, so did people who were not trying to get through but wanted to stay put. Sitting and people watching turned out to be the most popular thing to do. (Jan Gehl. Janette Sadik Khan) By the way, when Toronto replaced streetcars on Yonge and Bloor Streets with subways, traffic volumes increased – traffic expands to fill the space available.

It is also important to understand that the City does NOT think that it needs trams on Broadway. They wanted to show what a downtown streetcar would look like. That project has never been a regional priority. Equally, the City does not do much for transit. The #99 B-Line was introduced without any hoopla – all it did was introduce an express service on top of the local #9. The buses did not stop so often. Even then the City of Vancouver made sure it stopped much more frequently than the transit planners wanted. There was no transit priority for the new bus service – and still isn’t. A peak hours only nonstop UBC-Broadway/Commercial overlay was also short lived – and now extra capacity runs on several parallel routes to boost direct service to UBC. By transit priority I mean exclusive bus lanes – and the ability to extend green phases at signals for approaching buses. Both of these could be quickly implemented if the City thought they were necessary.

Regional transportation is all about getting people through places on their way to somewhere else. I have done consultations on rapid transit on Broadway, and one thing I know from that process is that locals do not want people from elsewhere rushing through their neighbourhood. And it really doesn’t matter what mode gets chosen to do that. They don’t like cars whizzing though, they don’t like rapid buses, they don’t want SkyTrain outside their bedroom windows or commuter rail along the backyard fence. They also do not want the disruption of tunnelling and do not believe any longer that bored tube is a solution to all those ills either.

Now that may seem like an insoluble conundrum, until you start to take the single occupant cars out of the picture. I expect the merchants along Broadway to defend parking along the curb. But the use of that lane for stationary vehicles is actually not very helpful. For one thing, the act of parking and unparking stops movement in the centre lane too. So street capacity of the two lane plus parking each way road is nothing like the theoretical 2,000 vphpd (vehicles per hour per direction) or the 2,600 pphpd (people per our per direction). That is why traffic engineers now say they can get more capacity out of a narrower road than a wider one (Dan Burden). Actually I have always thought that it was the shop keepers and their employees who used those spaces most – but I concede from my experience at 8:30 this morning that is not the case on West Broadway. The shops were open but the parking spaces were empty – even on the side streets. My experience in London was also that people do stop and pop into a shop even if there was supposed to be No Parking, on the bet that most times they would get away with it before the traffic warden came along. A lot of those fences at the curb were put up to stop parkers more than channel pedestrians.

People who stop – as opposed to people who are trying to get through – are what makes a street like West Broadway work. Streets are more important than simple traffic arteries. It is, as Jan Gehl, says the space between the buildings that matters. We have to make that a space where people want to be. If we reduce the space devoted to parking and moving cars, we have more space to move people – and more space for people who have no desire to move much for a while. What that means is that the car becomes relatively less attractive as a mode of transport. We currently focus on making car use as easy and convenient as possible and then wonder why people don’t want to use transit. It is not enough to “punish car users” (as their proponents love to say). What we do is follow the example of all those many places that have found ways to work without cars. Or with many fewer cars.

There are some common elements. Public parking off street is a common one: private parking which is controlled by the retailer is a disaster. It generates many very short motorized trips, and is the reason why No 3 Road – or most of Richmond’s central area – does not work well. The City of Victoria recognizes this and has parkades. So does Kansas City!  Some parking on some streets for special purposes may also be a good idea – but that has to be worked out locally, not prescribed. Taking a lane from cars and giving it to transit exclusively increases the number of people that can be moved. The numbers get too much attention, and the arguments rage over technologies, but the important point is that transit becomes relatively more attractive with respect to the car. (By the way 10,000 pphpd is not hard to do with conventional surface transit.) The car is always available whenever you want it, and goes almost exactly where and when you want it to. Transit can’t do that. But it can do much better than it does here now, and we can quite safely take some of the advantage away from the car user. After all, we don’t need to achieve very much in the way of shift from one mode to the other – and nothing like 100%! We now have around 11% overall, and wanted to get to 17% before now. That still seems to me to be doable. We just have to stop building freeways, and start getting smarter about street use and transit investment. We also have to recognize that many car trips are for short distances and quite trivial reasons – but mostly because of really bad land use decisions – like single purpose zoning. And very low density development.

The transit trip has several elements – at least two walks, some wait time and possibly a transfer or two. Each one of those will have a “penalty” value to in-vehicle time. Just looking at in-vehicle speeds is grossly misleading. We need to assess the whole trip and measure it the way the user perceives it. The good news is that transportation models have been doing that for many years. You just have to have good data to feed them. We have not had that here. We also need to understand that we are not just dealing with a transportation problem  but a livability or sustainability problem. So just looking at ridership is misleading. Moreover, on the Broadway corridor, we already have significant transit use, so simply switching people from buses to trams or trains gets you very little – though you do win some car users just from that change alone.UPass and increasing parking charges at UBC also won some car users to transit. Simply relying on transit technology choice to do the heavy lifting is expensive  – and counterproductive if all you do is just generate more motorized trips. There has to be a co-ordinated approach. “Balanced transport planning” is not just continuing to spend as much as we do now on roads but adding a bit more for transit. It means a long term commitment to reducing the space in the city devoted to moving and parking cars, at the same time as  making all other choices of movement and non-movement more attractive. That does not have to be about speed: it should also be about comfort, safety, convenience and indeed the pleasure of the experience. Just imagine that. Transit as fun. Which was what the Olympic Line achieved and what Disney does every day for all sorts of modes.

But along Broadway we also need to be talking about what sort of place the people who live and work there now want it to be. It will not stay the same no matter what choice is made. Change is the only constant. It is the direction of that change that is important, and change in land use and density has to be part of the discussion. And not just as way of paying for more transit infrastructure. Most of West Broadway is already zoned for four storey buildings. That ought to be a lot more acceptable to the locals than high rises clustered around rapid transit stops at one mile intervals.

The other important consideration is how wide the sidewalks need to be: currently parking serves the function of providing a barrier between pedestrians and moving traffic. But the area in front of the buildings can serve many purposes, mostly to do with allowing people to linger. The biggest change introduced on New York’s Broadway was the number of movable tables and chairs put into what had once been traffic lanes. Originally they were simply “protected” by barrels and paint. More recently it has been concrete planters – and boulders.

The regional transportation answer is going to be lot less than optimum – simply because regional transportation is not the only and far from the most important concern. There has to be a trade off between the need to move people around the region and the need for people to have reasonable places to do everything else. Vancouver rejected freeways through downtown for very good reasons. Unfortunately, there are some types of transit system that share some of the freeways unfortunate impacts – overshadowing, separating and deafening communities. A lot of cities got rid of their elevated trains for those reasons. Similarly not everyone thinks that riding in a hole in the ground is the best way to get around. Maybe if the people who want to drive everywhere were told they had to pay for tunnels they might think harder about their choices? Tunnelling is expensive. And if we stick to existing rights of way and subsurface cut and cover very disruptive. Even bored tube has to have some structures on or near the surface.

But there are, fortunately, plenty of places where the use of surface but separate transit does work very well. And we will not copy them slavishly but be inspired by them to do better – and do things which celebrate the place where we live and the sort of people we want to be.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 18, 2010 at 2:46 pm

How cities grow

with 5 comments

The Globe and Mail has a story today abut a new study by the Neptis Foundation that compares Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. When I read the Globe piece I was at first puzzled as it seemed to me that there was some confusion in that about definitions. It seemed to me that the Globe thinks “Vancouver” meant the city, whereas Calgary and Toronto referred to their regions. I am glad I looked at the Neptis site and then decided to download the whole report (though from the same page there are a number of other options including a summary report and links to a fact sheet and “observations and FAQs”). Since the full report is 128 pages it is going to take me some time to read it. But I wanted to get in first with a quick bash, once again, at the sloppy reporting of main stream media, but also to point out firstly how well constructed this report is, but also how dated. Things have moved on, and our region  – though quite fairly from the data seems to have been doing well – is now going in completely the wrong direction.

Let us first deal with the comparison thing. They did do an “apples to apples” comparison, by using satellite imagery to define the limits of the city regions and then using census data to track changes in population and dwelling counts over time. But the time is also significant – they looked at the period 1991 to 2001. In that time, compared to the other two regions, Greater Vancouver (as it was then called) did much better than the other two.

Rates of growth in population and housing stock:

• Calgary’s population grew by 24% and its housing stock by 26%.

• Vancouver’s population and housing stock both grew by 24%.

• Toronto’s population grew by 19% and its housing stock by 22%.

Compare these to the increase in urban land:

• Calgary’s urban land increased by 43% (from 25,000 to 35,000 hectares), or 6.3 hectares per 100 new residents.

• Toronto’s urban land increased by 28% (from 139,000 to 178,000 hectares), or 4.4 hectares per 100 new residents.

• Vancouver’s urban land increased by 16% (from 57,000 to 66,000 hectares), or 2.3 hectares per 100 new residents.

So we seemed to have done better at limiting sprawl than they did. The report goes on to examine the nature of the growth on more detail (intensification vs greenfield), and then turns to the planning policies of the the regions  and the implementation of those policies. The conclusions are unsurprising but important

The stability of planning policies over the long term hinges on the presence of supportive institutions such as regional planning agencies and consistent regional leadership. Vancouver and Calgary have  both pursued fairly consistent regional urban development policies for more than 50 years because they had both of these things. The Toronto region, however, has suffered from a fragmentation of authority — only the provincial government has been able to act as the effective planner for the region.

(I am quoting, by the way from the copiable shorter pieces referred to above, not the full report as that is a “secured” pdf than does not allow quoting of selected text)

There are, of course, good reasons for their selection of dates. I would suspect that a comparison of 2001 to 2011 – when that data becomes available – will show much less of a success in controlling sprawl. But I also think that anyone who has had close experience of the regional planning process and its implementation here will choke on their cornflakes when reading some of the findings about the GVRD. “Stability and continuity of institutions” are credited for  Vancouver’s success as well as “a long tradition of inter-municpal cooperation and decades-old policies for protecting agricultural land.”

First notice that the word “Transportation” is not mentioned. Stability of institutions does not apply there. Nor does “inter-municpal cooperation” – for example the long running battle between New Westminster and Coquitlam over the Braid St bridge.  In the last ten years transportation has been one of the most contentious issues in this region, both with municipalities battling for rapid transit and also arguments about who goes first ((Vancouver, Richmond and Burnaby won – Coquitlam and Surrey lost).  Secondly, the commitment to protecting the ALR seems to have been weakened. And thirdly the role of the province which the report says was to set the rules and then stand back has very obviously shifted. The current government says that the LRSP “failed” and that therefore the highway expansion is essential to support their favoured pattern growth. The policies and the frameworks have not changed very much, but it is very obvious that the intentions of the developers are now being given much more favour than formerly.

We didn’t sprawl much in the nineties, says this report. And that is very well documented. But don’t take that pat on the back as assurance that all is well. For the performance in the noughties was almost certainly worse – certainly for loss of the ALR and growth outside of the Growth Concentration Area. And with the province now firmly committed to more freeways, much more sprawl is certain in the next ten years (the teenies?).

I would like to believe, as a regional planner and policy analyst, that policies and their consistent application are the key to controlling growth.  I do not believe that one can ignore transportation completely. I cannot accept that the provincial has ever been wholly benign – and certainly is not now. But I am going to read the whole thing now – which may take me some time. Once again, this is NOT an invitation to restart the old “it’s all Skytrain’s fault” stuff and if I see any comments on that they will once again get moderated out of existence.

UPDATE Thanks to Price Tags here is former GVRD head planner Ken Cameron’s response in a letter to the G&M

Spinning in her urban grave

I feel queasy when I see Vancouver described as an “urban planner’s dream” (How Cities Grow – These Days, Up Is In; May 17). Thirty years ago, people described Toronto as “New York run by the Swiss.” Now it resembles Los Angeles more than Lucerne.

Vancouver, which Mayor Gregor Robertson wants to make the world’s greenest city, comprises a mere 27 per cent of the region’s population and less than 5 per cent of its land base. Much of the rest of the region is more like an urban planner’s nightmare, with low density development aided and abetted by massive provincial investment in freeways – freeways, for heaven’s sake. Jane Jacobs must be spinning in her grave.

It isn’t a pretty picture. Unless Mr. Robertson and mayors of the other 20 municipalities can get their act together and fix the weak, dysfunctional arrangements for regional growth management and transportation planning, Vancouver might soon resemble Venice, but it will be surrounded by Phoenix.

Ken Cameron, Vancouver

Written by Stephen Rees

May 17, 2010 at 2:19 pm

The Bicycle Diaries

with 6 comments

bike

There is no copyright in titles, but I do happen to be reading David Byrne‘s excellent collection of short pieces right now, and the return of the warmer weather saw me get my bike out of the shed this weekend. I simply wiped off the dust, pumped up the tires and oiled the chain. Everything seemed to be working ok until I needed the small front gear ring – so I need to do a bit more adjustment on that for when I leave Lulu Island.

Byrne’s diaries are “observations and insights – what he is seeing, whom he is meeting, what he is thinking about – as he pedals through and engages with some of the world’s major cities”. Well worth reading. My aim is perhaps more limited and I doubt I will be covering anything like his geographic compass. What I tend to be thinking about when I am cycling is cycling – and the state of the route I am using, as opposed to the state of life, the universe and everything.

Steveston at No 4 Rd

Steveston at No 4 Rd

In no particular order let’s start with Richmond. I have been cycling here now for 15 years or so, and I have seen very little change in that time in the bike route network or its facilities, and many have needed upgrading for a long time. The concept of cycling as transportation seems foreign to Richmond. though being completely flat, it shouldn’t be. The dykes are fine – though I would prefer a better surface than loose gravel.  Some of the issues of cycling in Richmond have been covered here in this blog, so I will try not to repeat myself. Both No 4 Road (at least north of Steveston Highway) and Steveston Highway itself should be avoided. These are arterial routes that drivers use for fast travel: they are posted at 50km/hr but hardly anyone drives at that speed. There are no marked cycle facilities of any kind so wary cyclists who have no choice but to use short lengths of these roads ride on the sidewalk, illegally but a lot more safely. Please, if you have to do that, ride slowly so that you can stop quickly if someone walks out of a gate in a hedge.

Garden City might be good alternate to No 4 but there is no way you can proceed safely south through the Granville Road intersection.

Empty trail 2

The Shell Road trail is a joy to ride but dead ends at Highway #99. The boundary between MoT and CoR is marked by signs and a clear shift in attitude. MoT does not seem to have a cycling policy. While Highway #99 is getting bus lanes added to it (and not before time!) the bridge over Shell Road is a work site. Underneath, in the CN right of way is the works yard. There is plenty of room here for a northbound continuation  of the bike route all the way to River Road within the road allowance. It would be nice if, when the work is finished, at least the bit under Highway #99 was left as a bike route. I will be surprised if it is.

Highway 99 overpass

A common issue for many major intersections in Richmond is the use of right turn lanes. These are simply designed to speed up vehicle movements – and pose a significant hazard to cyclists and pedestrians alike. Cars driving fast west along Westminster Highway and turning north onto Shell have no intention of stopping, and the location of the crossing at the apex of the bend actually reduces the sightline of cars and bikes. Signalization of intersections like this (the next one north at Shell and Alderbridge is the same) ignores the turn so you don’t get a button to push or a light to stop the cars except on the straight through movements. And even then, traffic making left turns does so when you get the white walk sign (the existence of cycles is simply ignored by drivers and traffic engineers alike).

Shell at Westminster Hwy

Shell at Westminster Hwy

The section of River Road between No 4 and Shell has been narrowed to deter car racing. However this is a residential street on the south side, so cyclists who do not want impatient drivers crowding them through the chicanes use the sidewalk. The dyke is also an alternate through route, but less convenient if you are headed to or from Vancouver over the new Canada Line Bridge.   And as I noted at the time, that drops you down to Kent Avenue for the climb back up to the ridge. A gentler, straight ramp to S E Marine Drive would have been far better and neater. The “sharrows” on the tarmac seem to indicate use of Cambie but I would avoid Marine for the same reasons I avoid Steveston Highway. Kent to Ontario is much quieter.

If the climb from Marine deters you there is a lot of choice – put the bike on a variety of bus routes or the Canada Line itself. Ontario Street southbound from the Ridgeway, on the other hand is a joy. Just a note to other users. Those round things in the middle of intersections make them traffic circles NOT roundabouts. If you don’t know the difference you should.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 17, 2010 at 11:34 am

Posted in bicycles, cycling

Tagged with , , ,

Richmond slides in best city rankings

with 9 comments

The Richmond Review decided to run this story on their front page. Which says a lot about free local “news”papers. It is taken from an annual Money Sense survey – and seems to me to lack even the most basic common sense. Our “best” ranking (according to the Review) is in the number of new cars in the city – we’re No 3! Whoopee.

We rated cities based on climate, prosperity, access to healthcare, home affordability, crime rates and lifestyle with subcategories in each area.

Yeah, it’s that prosperity indicator. Am I worse off now that I was in 2007? That was when I bought my car. It is now getting on for three years old. It works just as well as the day I bought it, though thanks to depreciation it is worth less now. That was true the moment I drove it out of the showroom  – but of course if it lasts long enough to become a classic collectable item that could change too. Though in the case of cars, patina does not add value they way it does with furniture and bronzes on the Antiques Roadshow.  (Actually in the case of this survey it makes no difference at all since “new” means “up to three years old”.) Monetary value is actually not a very good way of measuring things. For one thing the Roadshow never mentions inflation. If someone had bought me something in the year I was born that cost $100, it would need to be worth nearly $1,000 now just to keep pace with the decline in the value of money.

Is the number of new cars a good measure of “the best place to live”? Somehow, the fact that some of my neighbours like to trade in their cars every three years does not  make me any happier with Richmond. At the same time, the ranking of affordability is applied to houses: but once again it is perverse in that the way the information is displayed suggests that Vancouver gets top ranking as it is even less affordable than Richmond is. As far as that goes, since I am mortgage free where I live got “cheaper” in terms of its value – but now seem to have returned to what I paid for it. Once again, I don’t see house prices actually make much difference to my perception of the city over time – factored by average incomes or not. The indicator is called “time to buy a house” (Average house price divided by the average family income) where Richmond ranks third (#53 overall) with an indicator of 177. The most affordable place is Portage la Prairie in Manitoba with an indicator of 1, which is ranked #73 overall.

What they are really saying of course is that Richmond is, in the words quoted from Derek Dang, “highly desirable”. Unless that condo you bought now has the elevated Canada Line a few feet from your bedroom window. Accessibility is great, privacy and the view not so much.

Actually you need to read the somewhat complex methodology to see how these ranking were weighted.

Some of the indicators I actually like

WALK/BIKE TO WORK – 7 Points – Data taken from 2006 Statistics Canada reports

TRANSIT – 5 points – Based on the percentage of the workforce utilizing public transit according the 2006 census

So we get no credit at all for the Canada Line, yet it has had some effect on transit ridership since the last annual survey, there’s just no census data on that yet. But only commuting counts, even though it has had significant value for me (and, I suspect quite a few others) in changing my views about how easy it now is to get to events of all kinds in Vancouver, without having to pay an arm and leg to park. In Richmond walking and cycling still seem to be perceived as recreational activities – not serious transportation. The only real change recently has been again due to the Canada Line which meant the new bike/walk bridge to Vancouver and the bike lanes on the north end of No 3 Road. Not that either of these connect to a continuous network of course. And walking anywhere other than the dyke or within one of the larger parks seems to be an exercise in masochism. I live within a mile of the nearest shopping centre – but that mile is along Steveston Highway. There is a sidewalk (on one side only) no bike lanes, and traffic which averages 70 km/hr (posted speed 50 km/hr – speed enforcement negligible).   So (nearly) all the drivers like this route. Like most of the straight, wide arterials in Richmond it seems to offer a fast way to get around, with few pedestrian crossings and restricted volumes of traffic emerging from side streets or entranceways. I do see a few brave cyclists – and some harried pedestrians – but none of them seem to be willing to linger. Conversation on the sidewalk would be next to impossible, most of the time. I cannot leave my back door open in good weather – or sit in my back yard for long – because of the noise.

CULTURE – Bonus points.  A city could receive up to 5 points based on the percentage of people employed in arts, culture, recreation and sports.

This seems to me also to be perverse. Surely the measure of culture should be something to do with participation rates. Thanks to cut backs in all levels of government funding for the arts the number of people employed has been in steep decline for some time. But that does not stop people making art – they just find it hard to make a living at it. And again “recreation and sports” counted this way means that the Vancouver Canucks are seen as important and your daughter’s softball league counts not at all. (Richmond hosts regional and national girls’ softball tournaments at London park.)

In cities, as with most things, what gets measured gets attention. Trouble is, we don’t usually measure things that are very significant but hard to count. Or rather, “mainstream media” seem to get all excited (front page news  is an indicator) about some things which turn out not to be very important at all. At one time, crime rates got all the press. Since they have been falling, you do not see so much about that – but stories about crime (customers of a local restaurant robbed at gun point) and the “failings of justice system” (i.e. we don’t punish those found guilty harshly enough) are still lead news stories. Richmond has significant problems – flood risk, lack of preparedness for earthquakes, loss of farmland and green space, shortage of parks in the  central area, loss of industrial employment, lack of transit to employment locations, lack of public and affordable housing, no shelters for the homeless, rising rates of foodbank use, impact of the cuts in education funding – I could go on. Some of this might be captured by this survey – but most of it isn’t. And anyway just ranking us against other places in Canada does not tell us very much either.

Are we doing well? Are we doing any better than we were? Are we keeping up with other countries? I don’t know. Not from reading this anyway.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 14, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities

with 8 comments

Patricks Condon launched his new book yesterday at SFU. I was there – and I was also one of the first to get out my credit card. I am proud to have a first edition signed by the author.

The organisers had moved to a bigger room due to the level of interest but even so I felt crowded: there were lots of people standing around talking, drinking and schmoozing. A number of former politicians were invited including Gordon Price (of course) Darlene Mazari and – to my delight – Anne Edwards who was Minister, when I worked for Energy Mines, and (back then) gave me peppermint tea at the leg. No other minister of my acquaintance has ever done such a thing.

Former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan spoke first: I wrote down his main points

“Anything I ever said I copied from you. Thank you for this gift. It will provide guidance for cities across the country and we really need some guidance.”

Brent Toderian, current Director of Planning said that the book shows Patrick’s deep understanding of the Vancouver model. He thought the book would be of value to many different audiences – students and practitioners – and was “completely relevant to urban issues”. He also thought it important for citizen activists – very complex issues being covered in an accessible way. “I don’t necessarily agree with everything the book says but I am sure it will be quoted on the UBC line corridor … You do us a great service”

Patrick Condon responded by contrasting our political culture to that of Boston. There, he said, decisions are made by groups entrenched since the pilgrims. This is a region where there is vibrant dialogue about what sort of region it should be – and that dialogue been going on for 40 years. While we may feel less than successful, everyone else [in North America] sees us as the great urban hope for other places to emulate – and that is what is happening in St Louis, San Franciso and even Minneapolis!

We have created a powerful force. He said he felt “quite anxious: since the work was done in charrettes and communities – by thousands of people. His aim had been to keep the book simple and organised “to be read on a cross country airline trip”. He noticed that in airport book stores “fully half of the books were self help manuals” so he chose to follow the same formula – chapter 1 theory, chapters 2 to 7 – rules. This method was originally adopted as the 12 steps to sobriety but now gets applied to almost everything we need to achieve.

He hopes that is has reduced the complexity into one theory and seven simple rules that we can follow. But he cautioned that at best it will only be partially successful but all the issues connect.

I want now to address the people who regularly comment on this blog and who have seized on Chapter 2 to once again rehash the very stale debate about streetcars versus skytrain that seems to obsess us. I suggest that they reread the title first. Patrick has produced a manual for urban planning “Design Strategies for a Post-Carbon World.” While the first one of his rules is “restore the street car city” that is only one of seven, and mainly applies to the areas which used to be streetcar cities. He also says “concepts that presume extremely high density urban areas linked by rapid transit systems seem inconceivably at odds with the existing fabric of both prewar and postwar urban landscapes and beyond our ability to afford”.

I would add that we have singularly failed to adopt such a concept – despite what the Livable Region Strategic Plan and Transport 2021 said. Firstly, the language they used was emollient – and wide open to interpretation by people who had no sympathy at all for the plans’ objectives (though mostly they kept that quiet). Secondly, the regional bodies who produced those plans and who were charged with implementing them had no powers to do so. The decisions were also made by entrenched groups – who felt little responsibility to the people who lived in the region, but served the interests of the developers and other large corporate investors. This had much more to do with continuing the processes of turning “raw land” into profits as fast as possible that has characterised the European approach to what they call BC since they got here. Developers decided they wanted the Olympics, the Sea to Sky, the Canada Line, the Gateway program and all the rest. The choice to go for grade separated rapid transit was more about leaving car traffic as untrammelled as possible. But that was not the most – or the only – decision that mattered. Regional town centres are not high density – higher in spots maybe but overall we are still a low density region. Most of Vancouver is still “single family” designation and density – even though that now includes lots of secondary suites. The region as a whole has become more like every other North American suburban area than the distinctive place that the LRSP sought to make it. Above all, we still mostly drive everywhere for everything. Those who choose to be car free are the exceptions. And it is the accommodation of those cars that still decides what sort of places get built – even where there is some good quality transit service nearby. Mostly the region does not have high speed rapid transit – and if you ignore West Coast Express (which only serves commuting to downtown Vancouver) – the map of rapid transit coverage is very obviously only a small part of the region. And mostly not the part that will be absorbing the next million people.

So we need to follow not just Rule 1 – restore the streetcar city. We need to read and understand all seven rules.

2   Design an interconnected street system

3   Locate commercial services frequent transit and schools within a five minute walk

4   Locate good jobs close to affordable homes

5   Provide a diversity of housing types

6   Create a linked system of natural areas and parks

7   Invest in lighter, greener, cheaper and smarter infrastructure.

And it is those last six I want to see discussed below. We have had quite enough discussion about rule 1, thank you very much, and that can stop now. If your comment on this post does not address issues other than rapid transit technology choice it will be deleted as off topic

And for everyone who can go buy this book – that link goes to the $60 hardback version: here is the $30 paperback

Make sure your local library buys them too!

Written by Stephen Rees

May 11, 2010 at 10:39 am

Posted in Urban Planning

Monday mega-post

with 21 comments

I spent much of the weekend at the Northern Voice blogging conference – and, being contrary, did not take the netbook or the MacBook with me. All around me people who were at the front of the line to get a seat in a session were busy. Listening perhaps with one ear to the presentation, but mostly doing other things – tweeting, live blogging (though perhaps not as much as in previous years) but also I saw Gmail and even people building web sites. I thought it was a good idea to take notes in a paper format – using a ball point pen in a real notebook  (which also meant I didn’t need to spend any time looking for a power outlet). But a lot has been happening, and I wanted to draw attention to some of the stories in my inbox this morning piled up from the weekend. If you follow the same listserves I do, some of this may be repetitive of that.

On trans-action the long running debate of rapid transit versus streetcars, that has long occupied the commenters on this blog, continues. This evening I am going to be at the launch of Patrick Condon’s new book and there is also some overlap, now apparent, with the recent controversy here on environmental justice. Richard Campbell posted all of “In Praise of Fast Transit” – so I won’t, but it is worth noting the overlap.

From this perspective, it’s difficult to understand University of British Columbia Professor Patrick Condon’s recent call for slow transit in his home town, Vancouver.

“This perspective” being American, and based on their “suburban dispersion of the poor” – or if you are poor and live in New York you have to live in places like Queens because the better connected areas are not affordable. Now to some extent that might also hold true here – but is not, I think, quite so definitive. People here tend to follow the “drive until you can afford to buy” rule too, but there are other ways of achieving affordable living, often starting with the decision not to own a car – or maybe only having one car in the household. The change of land use around Joyce Colingwood being a good example – and one that is, sadly, all too rare. With the exception of West Coast Express, we did not go for “expensive commuter rail options” – unlike Greater Toronto. And there I used to have to listen to TTC executives spout “no concessions for fat cats from Oakville”  whenever the topic of fare integration got raised. Actually, the people on the GO train I boarded every day had also been forced out to suburbs like Malvern, where the TTC was often the only option for most of the remaining lower paid jobs in the industrial areas as free trade hit. Park and ride was about the GO’s only saving grace.  But that is, I think, exceptional in Canadian experience, and in Greater Vancouver we had intended at least to provide people with a grater range of choices. Not that we succeeded, due to the calamitous decisions that drove industry out of Vancouver into the suburban fringe and usually to the freeway exits, instead of the “regional town centres”. Most Metro planners concede that “office parks” were never part of the LRSP. And putting UBC at the end of the peninsular, and SFU on the top of a mountain, and then declining to provide anything like enough of the sort of accommodations that students need was even more contrary.

Patrick has his own riposte on Human Transit. And it is worth reading. But the point I want to make to readers here – and especially those who spend so much time commenting – it is not the transit technology that we ought to focus upon. It is about the sort of place we want to live in. Obviously in a long established huge urban area like the New York megalopolis, much retrofitting needs to be done – and it obviously ought to be more concerned about everyone – and not just the well to do – than it was in Robert Moses’ heyday. But in this region we have to weigh also in the balance where growth is going to happen next – we can expect another million people in the next twenty years or so. And also where we have been spending most up to now and how little difference there has been in mode choices as a result.

I think the speed question can also be reframed in that speed of itself imposes higher costs on society – firstly because a fast trip burns more energy per passenger kilometre than a slower one, but also – in personal transport – carries with it a higher risk of more serious casualties. Add to that, the extent to which personal transport is tied to fossil fuel use, the inevitable environmental degradation – of which a large chunk is the sprawl it continues to generate. Clearly the debate should be more about transit versus freeways – especially the extent to which recent decisions can still be reversed – than about trams versus SkyTrain. For the ‘burbs the prospects of “rail for the valley” seem to me to be diminishing, not improving. I hope I am wrong about that, but for now Translink cannot even find a way to pay for the much needed Evergreen Line – so the whole “what kind of transit do we need on Broadway” seems to me to be pointless. Whatever Translink concludes in its current round of planning is irrelevant. Translink cannot afford ANY expansion. Anything that does get built will be decided by the province (and the availability of federal funding) not what Translink and its consultees might prefer. If anything at all.

In the Globe and Mail, Frances Bula reports on an important shift in priorities at the City of Vancouver. No longer just “no more roadspace for cars” – the rule in recent years – but now less space for cars.

Urban-planning research has found that roads typically account for about 35 per cent of a city’s total land area.

The days when cars had free rein in that era are long over. Planners and city politicians look at which stream of locomotion should get priority and where.

They are also looking closely at how much room cars take. They require 140 square metres when they’re travelling, 37 square metres when they’re parked. And, Ms. Reimer said, one recent calculation she heard was that there are four parking spots for every one of the 1.5 million cars in the region.

“If you could figure out a more efficient use of allocating all this pavement, you could do all kinds of things,” she said.

One thing that we could do is take space from cars (1.3 people per vehicle on average, or 1,300 people per hour per direction per lane) and give it to transit. That gives an order of magnitude increase in people carrying capacity – as Gordon Campbell acknowledges. Even the very limited, down to fixed price budget, Canada Line can carry as much as five lanes of freeway each way  – or ten lanes of Broadway. But you can also do that with surface transit. And don’t bother with the issues of should be  it be steel wheels or rubber tires. It doesn’t matter. What matters is any exclusive lane transit option is far cheaper to build than a subway – and it gets in the way of the cars! Slowing cars down is a worthwhile target as part of the strategic objective of making a city better for people. Less space for moving cars – and parked cars too in the longer term once there is adequate transit – means more space for tables and chairs as well. It is not that streets are just for moving the maximum number of vehicles through as quickly as possible: streets are the public realm. Streets are where we live. Lively streets have lots of people – and they are not moving very fast – or often at all. Yes we need to get about – but that is only part of what cities need to be workable, and pleasant at the same time. Not that you will read that In Bula’s piece.

You also have to make it possible – or even attractive – to get across the street. Especially at intersections. Even more importantly where stupid transit planners have neglected to put in enough entrances to the subway (i.e. nearly every Canada Line station). Once again, please note that your nice new train might be “fast” (and could have been faster had it not had to stick to the bends in the road around Queen E park) but it is the overall door to door journey time relative to the car that matters in mode choice. And access time, in any simulation, is always twice the value of  in vehicle time. Washington DC is bringing back the Barnes’ Dance. I have mentioned that here before too. This is a better name for it than the “pedestrian scramble” which I think has all the wrong connotations as it makes me think of eggs and their fragility.  The important thing being that all vehicles face all way red signal – and no sneaking around the corner either! The current practice of giving turning movements priority at signalized intersections and making pedestrians wait ever longer also sends all the wrong messages. The priority in Vancouver’s plans has been (for many years) pedestrians first, then cyclists, then transit, then, finally, motorized vehicles. But that is still not seen on most streets.

The Staten Island Ferry

In news of transit in other cities, New York saw a nasty incident on the Staten Island Ferry,  which is being blamed on the high tech Voith Schneider Propeller. I didn’t get a ride on what is truly the world’s best harbour cruise (beats SeaBus and anything in Hong Kong becuase it is free) because we spent so much time in line for the Liberty ferry.  Maybe just as well. Seattle is looking at alternatives to its aging fleet of trolleybuses with the likely crunch issue being hill climbing ability. We ought really to have looked at trolleybuses for SFU, North Van and New Westminster. Or, as my trips last weekend reminded me, extending the #41’s wires to UBC. Actually my personal desire is to see poles put on some of the new hybrid buses, so they could use the wires where they are currently installed but little used . A bit of roof stiffening and some extra power control technology might be more cost effective than more kilometres of the world’s longest extension cord. And less wirescape. Note how nice this street looks without all the cables commonly seen on so many arterials in this region. Not just trolleybus wires either!

9504

And finally, the SFPR P3 contract was awarded on Friday. Laila Yuile has all the ghastly details. (Hat tip to Eric Doherty for the link.) As it happens London has got rid of its appallingly bad P3 deal on the tube. Interestingly, under the aegis of a conservative Mayor Boris Johnson.

Johnson was quoted by newspapers as saying the deal freed London Underground and private contractors from “the perverse pressures of the Byzantine PPP structure.”

Bob Crow, general secretary of transport workers’ union RMT, said the buyout was a “recognition on a massive scale that transport privatization does not work” and said RMT would continue to campaign for the renationalisation of Britain’s rail network.

Piccadilly Line Barons Court  20051201

Written by Stephen Rees

May 10, 2010 at 11:38 am

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