Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for the ‘Urban Planning’ Category

Why can’t we be like Zurich?

with 6 comments

I retweeted this video this morning and as I sat watching it, I kept thinking about that question. Or perhaps we just need to rephrase: when Vancouver grows up, it will be like Zurich.

The bit of history that I think is important that is not mentioned in this video is about the trams. It is part of a European awakening. Cities like Amsterdam seriously considered replacing their trams (streetcars) with a subways. Others used a technique they called “pre-metro” to put the trams underground in city centres. And of course what happened in every case was the traffic expanded to fill the space available. So they stopped doing that. Places like Strasbourg designed the trams to be a desirable part of the city, not just a regrettable necessity. There is a lot about public transport in North America that reminds me of other public conveniences.

The same thing also happened in Toronto. When the Yonge Street subway opened, traffic in the City Centre increased because there were no longer streetcars on Yonge getting in the way of the cars. It might be significant that Toronto still has streetcars. It is also very significant that while the planners (transportation, urban and regional) all now think in terms of surface LRT, Rob Ford wanted a subway.

Some people have even referred to the referendum as Vancouver’s Rob Ford moment. And even Daryl dela Cruz is convinced that the choice of LRT for Surrey is increasing the No vote there.

In Zurich they did plan on a subway system. But the costs were astronomical. And they already had a tram network as well as really good railways, which provided both suburban and intercity services. The Swiss are very well off, of course, and Zurich is the centre of financial services. But they are also very keen on democracy and civic minded. An American in that video almost cannot believe that government can be genuinely concerned about people.

I have often thought that the reason we like SkyTrain so much here is that it keeps the transit out of the way of the cars. An elevated structure does provide a more attractive ride than a tunnel – and is considerably cheaper. But it also has an impact on area through which it runs. Not as horrible as the old elevated railways – which may have been taken down in Manhattan but are still the dominant mode of the New York subway in the other borros.

El Queens

I wonder if in some future Vancouver, having finally got up the courage to rip down the viaducts we will start planning to get rid of the SkyTrain structures. Or perhaps turning them into High Line style parks. SkyTrain of course has to grade separated because of the LIM rail.

The British method of light rail is to use old railway lines wherever possible, but on street running in town centres. In Paris even though there is a disused Petite Ceinture railway line parallel to its route  – grade separated at street crossings – the new T3 runs in the centre of the boulevard. The “art of insertion” is actually just removing space that is now taken by cars (moving and parked) and replacing it with people. Lots of people.

New tram station under construction

Here we seem to be much less concerned about people. The Cambie Street line had to be underground because the City had designated much of the route as The Heritage Boulevard. A broad strip of grass with some large trees. Not actually usable. No one plays on it, or sits watching the cars speed by. There are no couples strolling hand in hand on those lawns. Cutting down trees for a transit line – or widening the Stanley Park causeway – is a red flag. Oddly, not for wider sidewalks and bike lanes apparently.

The other thing I noticed about Zurich’s city centre was the absence of towers. This is also common in much of Europe. In cities like Rome or Florence the centro storico is four to six stories maximum. Unless it’s a cathedral or something. Paris does have towers – but only one at Montparnasse which is widely derided or clustered in La Defense (which is the location for shooting dystopian SF films).

You will also note that the film concentrates on the decisions to limit parking and the volume of traffic allowed into the centre.

One other thing that needs to be said too is that the Swiss are very particular about who they let in to live there. I haven’t looked but it seems to me highly unlikely that the Zurich region is planning on absorbing another million people in the next thirty to forty years.

Haven’t I written all this before?

Written by Stephen Rees

March 27, 2015 at 10:31 am

“NIMBYs in the twenty-first century”

with one comment

The title comes from an article in The Economist (paywalled) which discusses the work of a graduate student who has challenged the very successful book by Thomas Piketty “Capital in the 21st Century”.

I have had to return the copy that I was reading to the library: the wait list is long and the number of copies limited. If you want a good summary then Cory Doctorow has done a very good job of that.

Matthew Rognlie

On March 20th Matthew Rognlie (pictured), a 26-year-old graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presented a new paper at the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity. Although the paper began its life as a 459-word online blog post comment, several reputable economists regard it as the most serious and substantive critique that Mr Piketty’s work has yet faced.

Without actually quoting the whole of the article, the point I want to tackle is this. “housing wealth is the biggest source of rising wealth”

Economist graph

“Policy-makers should deal with the planning regulations and NIMBYism that inhibit housebuilding and which allow homeowners to capture super-normal returns on their investments.”

Now this seems to me to be a very familiar assertion that I have read from the same gang of dealers in secondhand ideas who like to attack government spending on transit. They have asserted more than once that the ALR is responsible for unaffordable housing in Vancouver. For instance here’s the Fraser Institute – citing Wendell Cox (pdf)

The land scarcity created by the ALR has rendered Vancouver housing the most “severely unaffordable” of any major city in the 265 metropolitan markets across Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Ireland, as analyzed by Wendell Cox and Hugh Pavletich (2009) in their fifth annual International Housing Affordability Survey

And the same thing in almost any city that imposes an urban growth boundary to limit sprawl.

Dr. Shlomo Ange of the Stern School of Business (NYU) Urban Expansion Project puts the issue simply in his introduction:where expansion is effectively contained by draconian laws, it typically results in land supply bottlenecks that render housing unaffordable to the great majority of residents.

The Economist of course does not have to reference these reports since, as we learned recently, the marketplace of ideas has adopted this notion unquestioningly. Or has it?

The argument stems from the idea that markets are better at determining everything than policy makers. Except that markets can only determine the level of use of those things that are priced. And most of the things that are of real value – breathable air and clean water for instance – are not priced. Land capable of producing food is priced far below what it would be as land designated as suitable for development. Smart Growth seeks to protect this land from development by ensuring that land within the growth boundary is better utilized.

Smart growth planning allows us to create new housing choices that are more affordable. We need to:

  • make better use of existing land and buildings (for example, by filling in vacant lots and allowing homes to be built over stores)

  • allow a mix of home types in every neighbourhood, like secondary suites, granny flats, and single- and multi-family dwellings

  • provide a mix of homes with commercial in the same neighbourhood

  • carefully add new homes in existing neighbourhoods, such as units in the basement or above the garage (to increase rental supply and provide extra income to help with the mortgage)

  • provide easy access to jobs and transportation choices, so households can save on transportation costs

In fact the very idea of “affordable housing” might be misleading because it fails to encompass travel costs. Indeed the old saw about buying a house was “drive until you qualify”. The amount you can borrow to buy a house is controlled (in our case by the rules of CHMC) but no-one controls the amount of time and money you spend commuting. This idea is encapsulated neatly in the last of those bullet points. It is also the case, of course, that in markets like Vancouver, many people cannot afford to buy and renting is increasing in popularity even if the supply of rental housing may not be responding as we might like.

It also ignores all the evidence that the conventional model is unsustainable. All the infrastructure that is needed to support sprawl makes it financially unaffordable – as Charles Marohn admirably demonstrates at Strong Towns. The US congress has been arguing for years how to patch up the crumbling interstate system, given their refusal to even contemplate raising the gas tax which funded its construction but not its maintenance. And the bits which are usable fill with traffic congestion which building more roads has never relieved. This makes for very unhappy commutes (see Charles Montgomery “The Happy City”) but again human happiness is another one of those externalities which markets ignore. Prices were supposed to be based on “utility” but every study shows that simply piling up more cash fails to make anyone happy.

Indeed the greatest failing is that the inequality puts more resources in the hands of those who pay politicians to adopt policies that are disastrous to human existence but are good for their short term profit.

What bothers me about the Economist piece  is the nonchalance which goes along with omniscience. It goes without qualification what policy makers must do. Because all we are talking about is inequality and where wealth comes from. So none of those dull externalities need get considered at all.

And all of this it seems to me has been covered by others more able and capable than I, but that work does not seem to get cited when I go looking for it. I am actually not too dissatisfied by this piece, but at one stage I was seriously considering crowdsourcing it. I am sure that my regular crew of commentators will be piling in but if you know of other articles which deal with this particular debate (“the impact of growth control on housing affordability” gets 54,700 hits) in particular with reference to either this region or the Pacific North West, by all means let me know.

Afterword

Just how unaffordable is Metro Vancouver – and how will that change? VanCity has this forecast

Of course, there is a policy that could deal effectively with affordability, just as there is a policy that would end Homelessness. It simply requires the provision of subsidised housing. Of course those who oppose taxes on the wealthy will howl with rage. But all that we have to do to free up some resources is stop subsidizing fossil fuels – and rethink our agricultural subsidies too, while we are at it. It is ridiculous that corn and sugar production is subsidized when we are dying from diabetes, obesity and heart disease. All of which are also strongly associated with sprawl. Utah – hardly a radical liberal sort of state – eliminated homelessness by simply housing the homeless, which turned out to be cheaper than making them to stay on the streets.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 25, 2015 at 4:08 pm

The Arbutus Corridor Dispute

with 4 comments

I was back on the CBC TV suppertime news last night. CP have sent in the bulldozers again to restart the work on their long disused track from Marpole to Burrard Bridge. They are down at the south end of the line now, back where they were ripping out gardens last year before the the City tried to get an injunction to stop them. Unsurprisingly, the courts were reluctant to stop CP from trying to make their tracks capable of carrying trains again. Except, of course, there is no reason for CP to do so: not one that makes any commercial sense that is. CP are not interested in carrying people: they are freight railway. There are no customers now on the line. That is why there have not been any trains: for years. The track has simply been left to return to nature. CP is obliged to maintain the road crossings as it has not formally abandoned the track. But the only reason it is clearing away encumbrances is to try to get the City to raise its offer. The corridor is designated for transportation use in the City plan. That also was established in court. CP is not able to sell the land to developers, so the City is the only potential buyer. And they do not put the same price on that strip of land as CP does.

UPDATE

I have been out taking photos of the ongoing work by CP and putting the images on my flickr stream

SPEC has a very interesting history of the line on their newsletter this month

“Gardens started along the tracks as “Victory Garden’s” during WWII and were tolerated by BC Electric Railway Co until 1952 when CPR took over the line and continued to permit those gardens and, over the decades, allow others to be built. For as long as they ran trains on this line, gardens thrived along many stretches of the Arbutus Corridor – What happened to that CPR?”

Community Garden Destruction

Written by Stephen Rees

February 11, 2015 at 6:22 pm

Elizabeth Ball seeks ‘dark sky’ legislation for Vancouver light pollution

with one comment

I do not listen to talk radio – not even worthy programmes such as Rick Cluff’s Early Edition on CBC. My political sympathies are usually somewhat distant from the NPA – but that doesn’t stop them having Really Good Ideas. I hope that Vancouver City Council gives this one a careful hearing.

Whenever you fly at night time across North America, all you have to do is lift the blind on your window to see light pollution. It is of course the result of our obsessions with our need for security and safety. But streetlighting need not light up the sky.

My own personal concern with this is not actually about street lighting, but the practice of lighting private sector parking lots at night. And she has that covered too “putting limits on lighting on private properties like illuminated signs and flood lights.”

It is a huge waste of energy, of course, and one that could be easily reduced. And while Elizabeth Ball rightly concentrates on health impacts, my own desire is simply to be able to see some stars on clear nights. The CBC is very good at telling us when the Perseid meteor showers might be visible – or even the Northern Lights! But from our 6th floor windows the only lights in the night sky come from passing aircraft.

UPDATE Feb 4

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 6.14.59 PM

Written by Stephen Rees

February 3, 2015 at 8:06 am

Posted in Urban Planning, Vancouver

Tagged with

Toderian and Montgomery on The National

with 3 comments

I need something hopeful. The debate over the “transit tax” is debilitating. So this big chunk of last night’s CBC tv news cheered me up this morning. I know that here I am preaching to the converted, and I must admit I do not watch tv news late in the evening. Good thing about this being on YouTube is you can watch it anytime and pass along the link.

I would like an escalator to Kerrisdale please, but leave me Ravine Park for the stroll back. Or add a slide.  A few bike escalators would get me riding again I think. So far there is only one in Trompe, Norway.  Gondolas for SFU – but why not New West or North Van too? Escalators should go in there too, of course. And can you imagine the row if someone dared suggest improving access to/from Wreck Beach? But we seem to tolerate the continued existence of a wide divided highway around Pacific Spirit Park. (From the video above “If you build a wide road people will drive faster…”)

We have been waiting for the sad old Arbutus shopping centre to be transformed into a mixed use hub for many years. The locals just grumble about what it would do to the drainage. The existing “recreation centre” in the basement of the mall looks like it may close as all the strata councils are considering dropping support due to lack of use. That shows me that we really have not yet figured out how to build public facilities yet. I think that also underlies the intolerance of the Poodle on the Pole on Main St. Why cannot people laugh at it? We seem to understand the laughing guys of Denman and Davie. But if you want to offend people, put a misaligned head of Lenin into Richmond. Actually, go look at the Oval and the area around it to see what not to do in our suburbs.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 29, 2015 at 8:28 am

The Link Between Obesity, Transportation and Land Use

with 5 comments

There was a story tonight on the CBC TV news Vancouver at 6. It is about an important shift in the advice given to doctors. “The Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care released recommendations for family physicians …on prevention of weight gain and treatment of overweight and obesity.” The emphasis is shifting from treatment – which mostly does not work – to prevention, which might. As is now the practice, after the news story from back east, Andrew Chang sat down with a local expert to talk about this some more. She was a doctor from Children’s Hospital and it was all about what we teach our children to help them keep the slim figure they have in their adolescence. It wasn’t until right at the end of the interview when she used the word “environment”, and it was left mostly unexamined. But without doubt it was the most important word in the discussion.

The shift in obesity statistics for the Canadian population occurred at the same time as it did for the American and a bit later for the UK. People have become less physically active partly due to their jobs changing – but mainly due to their commuting. Most of us used to stand to do our jobs, which usually involved some muscular exertion. And we either walked or biked to work. These days we are much more sedentary both at work and at home. And we tend to drive between the two. At the same time, we have stopped cooking for ourselves and rely heavily on processed food or prepared food from commercial outlets. This was not mentioned at all and is a bit of distraction, but basically when you do your own food prep you are much more likely to control salt and sugar. Processed food contains all kinds of preservatives and flavour enhancers to prolong shelf life – and long distance shipping. When you eat out, or buy a pizza, there’s a lot of fat and carbs on your plate.

It is not at all coincidental that the people who are now getting involved in long term planning for transportation and land use are Medical Officers of Health. They were largely absent during my career as a regional planner and transportation economist but in recent years they have noticed that people who live in walkable (and bikeable) neighbourhoods have lower levels of adult onset diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Also known as “metabolic syndrome” even though it has nothing to do with metabolism and everything to do with living in suburban sprawl and driving to do anything at all.

You will not hear anything about this from Jordan Bateman or the No lobby in general. They are the people who have no intention of changing anything. They want a ground oriented house with a two car garage, in a residential area far distant from any other land use apart from schools and churches. Jordan Bateman was a Councillor in Langley. This is still his constituency. The people who listened to the “drive until you qualify” mantra. They shop once a week, spend much of their time taking their children to and from school or after school activities and will tell you they have to drive. They cannot conceive of using a bus or a bike to live like they do. And as they age their weight increases steadily and inexorably.

The Yes campaign is driven by the concept of increasing transportation choice. That phrase was key to the Livable Region Strategy, written by Gordon Campbell, and intended to guide the pattern of development in Greater Vancouver. You cannot have a Protected Green Zone and a Compact Region with Complete Communities unless you Increase Transportation Choice. Wendell Cox does not understand this. Neither do Christy Clark, Todd Stone or Kevin Falcon. The two solitudes in Greater Vancouver are the people who live in the parts of the region where they can reasonably decide for themselves which mode to use for their trips – and switch between them at will – and those who can only drive for every purpose imaginable. The second group see nothing odd at all about driving to the dog park. Or driving to the gym or community centre to walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike. If you suggested to them that they walk or ride a bike for any other purpose than recreation, they would tell you “it isn’t safe”. And they would be right. We equate safety with belts and airbags in cars, designed to have crash resistant crumple zones. They demand everyone wear helmets – on the ice, down the hill, on the bike. Fear of head injury – actually not that frequent in adults especially once you have deducted car crashes – vastly outweighs fear of the diseases that kill most people. All of which can be traced to weight gain in adulthood.

The biggest challenge we face – after climate change – is the increasing cost of healthcare. Actually if we had sensible economists advising politicians, that would also be manageable, but we have built our own box to get locked into by insisting on tax cuts as the policy nostrum for every problem. As the baby boomers – people my age – retire and continue to live long after any generation that preceded them, the cost of taking care of them will balloon. Correction, is ballooning. Since we now live in nuclear, rather than extended, families that cost is borne by the public health system, not the daughters and granddaughters of the former wage earner.

I think the healthcare benefits of increasing our ability to walk, bike and take transit – every transit trip involves more walking than any driving trip – vastly outweigh the terrible burden of an extra 0.5% sales tax. If we still believed in cost-benefit analysis (nobody has paid me to do one of those in the last twenty years) then we could show that the costs of paying the tax for more transit would be more than made up in the savings in healthcare costs alone.

Of course, just increasing existing bus service frequencies will not be enough on their own. Just as we really cannot expect to see any reduction in congestion from the sales tax funded expansion alone. We need to do something radical about mixed use developments, increasing density, safe routes to school and all the rest. Just as we will need some fiscal sticks – fees and charges that change behaviour – as well as increased capacity and attractiveness of alternatives to driving. But making Vancouver and its suburbs better places to live features nowhere in the No campaign. Even sensible people like Laila Yuile have been caught up in the fallacy that somehow not paying more taxes will produce better run institutions.

Anyone who talks about transit – or transportation – as though it were a free standing issue is spouting nonsense. Transportation and land use are two sides of the same coin. The best transportation plan is a land use plan. Better land use is measured by the reduction achieved in motorised trips over business as usual. Not only that but Charles Marohn and his Strong Towns movement have shown that this form of development is actually financially more responsible and actually sustainable – in the sense that we can afford to pay for it. Which is quite clearly impossible in motordom with its freeways and  sprawling single use subdivisions.

When I ran for the provincial legislature for the Green Party, I started every speech with what I thought was an unarguable truism. We know that capitalism and communism have both failed. Neither paid the slightest bit of attention to the environment or the limits to growth. While the Liberals (federal) and NDP pay lip service to these truths, their policies are still based on economic growth and more jobs. I think it is equally obvious that we cannot continue a pattern of urban growth predicated on increased car use. It also seems to me that enough people agree or have been forced by economic realities (read huge student loans and no prospects of full time permanent employment) that car use is actually declining. But our provincial politicians are still stuck on increasing the extraction of fossil fuels – and other limited natural resources – while widening highways and building ever bigger bridges.

The anger you can hear from the No campaign is the refusal to accept the necessity of change. No-one in their right minds should be proposing dedicated taxes – or a new imposition of yet more regressive taxation. But on the Yes side, we have no choice. If we want to see transit expansion  – more bike routes, safer walking, more HandyDART for the aging population – more CHOICE in transportation – this is the only way we can do this right now. Not our doing, but those who set the rules for this thing. She Who Must Be Obeyed. She who never thinks of a plebiscite for the Massey Bridge or dualling some more highways in the heartlands. I do not think that an increase in sales tax is a Good idea at all. It is simply the easiest of the available options. No one is now talking about road use pricing. More gas tax or more carbon tax would work quite well as the price of oil is falling but we don’t get that chance either. I do know that I could more easily deal with an open house  on the sales tax increase than those I had to face back when we were proposing a vehicle levy.

I also know that the No side will not deal with any of these issues as they are not in the solutions business. They have a coalition of the unwilling. It is a diverse and motley band and includes a lot of people who think of themselves as progressive and find the whole process repulsive. It has been imposed on us by someone who thinks she can control the outcome. The Yes side is similarly heterogeneous, but what unites us is the desire to prove her wrong. We do not want the future she imagines. We don’t want this plebiscite or this sales tax either, but it is the only game in town, and it has to be won if motordom and sprawl are to be defeated. And if our waistlines are to start shrinking and our health to improve.

More on this topic can be seen on PriceTags with all sorts of references and sources

Election Impact on Transportation

with 12 comments

Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 3.16.55 PM

I got a call this morning from Global BC, inviting my opinions for their live cable news show which only goes to Shaw customers. So if you have some other way of getting tv, this will help fill the gap. Gordon Price was in the same coat closet sized “studio” ready to follow me, for another show and the same subject. While he was talking to me I heard the feed from Burnaby in my earpiece, where Keith Baldrey was playing down the likelihood of a Broadway Subway. He said that Christy Clark has no interest at all in funding a project for a constituency that had rejected her but would probably be very willing to help Surrey get LRT. Oddly, Gordon was pointing out almost simultaneously that former Mayor Diane Watts would be able to do some of the heavy lifting for the same project in Ottawa. So no wonder Linda Hepner seems so confident that she can deliver an LRT for Surrey by 2018.

What I had to say was that she seems to be implementing Plan B – what do we do if the referendum fails? – before Plan A had even been tried. Plan A requires agreement on the question – still to be decided – on how to fund the project list decided by the Mayors before the election. In order for any package to be acceptable there has to be something for everyone. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that if one project was seen to take precedence, that would be the death knell for any funding proposal that did not deliver for the rest of the region. The Mayors, under the guidance Greg Moore, re-elected Mayor of Port Coquitlam, have been acting very collegially up to now. Translink is not just a transit agency, so there would be some road projects for the parts of the region where transit cannot be a significant contributor for some time. And no-one was being allowed to play the “me first” card.

Actually, given the political cynicism  realism I was hearing from Baldrey and Price, perhaps this explains why Kirk LaPointe was so confident that he could deliver transit for Broadway better than Gregor Robertson. Peter Armstrong – who paid for much of the NPA campaign – must have given him some reason for believing that he would be favoured by the federal Conservatives (who featured so prominently in the revived NPA organization apparently) – and maybe even the province too.

It is very sad indeed that we cannot talk about how will build a sustainable region and meet the challenges of a world that will be sending us more people – whether we have plans to accommodate them or not. How we move to higher densities without upsetting existing residents, how more people can give up using their cars for every trip as things become more accessible and walkable, how transit becomes one of several better options than driving a single occupant car that is owned – not shared. How we have a region wide conversation on what needs to be done, and how we pay for that, in a way that satisfies a whole range of wants and needs across communities.

Worse, that is seems to be really easy to get funding for a major upgrade to a freeway interchange in North Vancouver when there seems to be no possibility of relieving overcrowding on the #99 B-Line. No doubt the new highway bridge between Richmond and Delta will still get precedence in provincial priorities. Once the Evergreen Line is finished there will be the usual protracted process before the next transit project starts moving and, as we saw with the Canada Line, perhaps expecting more than one major project at a time is over optimistic. The province also has to find a great deal of money for BC Ferries, since it seemed very easy to make a decision on the Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo route really quickly – without any clear source of additional financing for the identified structural upgrades its continuation demands.

If the fix is really in for Surrey, who is going to find the local contribution? Assume that the feds and province pick up a third each, can Surrey cover the rest alone? Is it likely that the other Mayors will vote for a package that gives the major capital spending preference to Surrey? And if not, and Surrey does find a way to that – a P3 is always a possibility – do Surrey transit riders and taxpayers pick up that tab? Who operates Surrey LRT and will it have the same fare system – or do the rest of us have to pay more for that?

No I couldn’t cover all of that in the time allotted to me. I spent longer getting down there and back than I did talking. But these ideas and the questions they raise seem worth discussion below.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,230 other followers