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

Archive for July 17th, 2006

“Richmond: My kind of paradise”

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Another Vancouver Sun piece. What bugs me about it – though I agree a lot with what Marilyn Baker writes in it – is the end, which degenerates into the usual “after me, no more” mantra, which I have heard and read so often since I got here. When we used to live in Saanich the formula most often used was “chop up the ferry landings”.

There is no doubt that people who have lived here for a while mostly moved here. Even ‘long term’ residents will be mostly first or second generation residents. And of course, given the rapid rate of change, it is not now like it was when they got here. But then nowhere ever stays exactly the same for very long. It’s either growing or declining. How many urban areas can be preserved in aspic? I once toyed with the idea of buying a house in Harrow which had been little changed since its construction in the early 1930’s. I would wear a period suit and shirt (with a celluloid detachable collar) and give people conducted tours. Maybe apply for a GLC grant to fund the preservation. The idea did not last long. A few years later I visited William Lyons Mackenzie’s home in Toronto and discovered something very like the house in which I was born – and which my parents spent most of my childhood modernising.

I did write a contribution to Gordon Price’s Price Tags about change in my neighbourhood, which was mostly stimulated by the lack of an effective tree by-law. The city has one now, though it remains controversial. What allowed for the rapid rate of change around here was Richmond deciding that densities could be increased along bus routes. (There was also the idea that back lanes would cut down the number of direct accesses onto arterial streets. The rules on back lanes got changed too.) The biggest shortcoming of Richmond’s bus network (and there are many of those) is lack of frequency. Frankly, given the nature of our network – and the need in future to have to change not only route but mode too – I have my doubts about the feasibility of the strategy. But generally speaking there is actually a lot of capacity on most of Richmond’s roads, and only a few places where there is peak hour congestion. Around High Schools at 8 am and 3 pm being the most notable exceptions. And trying to get onto any of the river crossings off the island at evening peak.

Richmond will grow, and seems likely to exceed its LRSP target – as the article points out – sooner rather than later. I think we can accommodate this growth, and the best tool we have to limit its sprawl is the ALR. Sadly, that may not be as effective in future. But those people will need frequent, reliable bus services that take them where they need to go, without more than one transfer. The actual speed of the bus is actually less important than the overall journey time. If you calculate the impedance caused by parking and walking on overall trip times, the car is not nearly as attractive as it seems. But even where bus service has been dramatically improved (UBC for example) the main impact has been to reduce car sharing. The real deterrent to using UBC buses is now over crowding.

Community shuttles were supposed to make suburban buses more user friendly. The original concept had small vehicles, going down residential streets (not just arterials) and diverting to pick up and set down, at least in the off peak. As presently operated, they are just small buses replacing large ones, and thus doing very little to attract new riders. They do however release large buses for the routes experiencing crush loads thanks to UPass.

The Canada Line will actually make commuting into Vancouver worse. Instead of the direct buses (put back quickly after complaints when the 98 B-Line debuted) to downtown, a mode change will be required. And this will be doubly inconvenient since it requires coping with grade separation. As has been noticed, the stations mostly only have escalators going up (a fault in most Skytrain stations). But they will all be located along No. 3 Road. And generally not near residential development, despite the number of towers now sprouting on either side of the glide path into YVR. And the ride will not be much quicker since Vancouver got the number of stations increased, ensuring plenty of dwell time as people fight to get on and off the trains.

But the big growth in travel in this part of the region is people who live in Vancouver and work in Richmond. And the workplaces (with the exception of YVR) are remote from the line, and are ill served by buses now, and for the foreseeable future.

I keep reflecting on the alternative future we could have had, if we had kept a surface LRT with proper community shuttles and (dare I say it) park and ride lots at major stations. But Richmond is now ripping up the track, where it has not already been built over.

What really worries me is that I start to sound like a one track mind like Malcolm Johnson.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 17, 2006 at 9:21 pm

“The Economist” on Vancouver

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A piece by Miro Certenig in today’s Vancouver Sun quotes The Economist on Vancouver, quite extensively.

That drove me to The Economist website – fortunately today is one of those days where, if you watch an advert you can access the “premium content” for free. It turns out that Certenig’s article is longer than the original. Since he manages to quote most of it I will give you the full paragraph on transport.

Critics claim the authorities have been slow to respond to the city’s growth. Only now are suburban railways being built. Opponents worry that a C$3 billion road-building plan by the provincial government threatens to reverse Vancouver’s relative success in containing sprawl, and funnel thousands more cars into the city.

Read the whole article.

A couple of things strike me about this. The magazine is right about what opponents worry about, and the emphasis should be not the flood of traffic into the City of Vancouver but the inevitable increase in car oriented growth in the outer suburbs. Surrey and Coquitlam already show us what that will look like, and with the rest of the Gateway program, and the Big Ears bridge, Langley and Maple Meadows will go the same way. Its actually quite hard to credit to Vancouver for containing sprawl. The density of the City as a whole is actually quite low by North American standards, and outside of downtown, attempts at increasing density are rare. The opposition to the use of the Arbutus corridor for light rail was mostly about fears of the residential density that would follow – and, of course, that it would be occupied by the great unwashed.

“Suburban railways” seems to refer to the Canada line – since the Evergreen Line has now been put off, due to lack of funds. But of course we all know that there are in fact suburban railways, because that’s how we got suburbs in the first place. One in Richmond is being ripped up right now to be converted into a road. The line out through the Fraser Valley still carries freight, and plans to put interurbans back on those tracks never seem to get very far.

The province has set aside $3bn for the road expansion but will not pony up for its share of the Evergreen Line. I wonder if one of the reasons is that if it opened as the same time as the Canada Line we would have a really good case study to compare the effects of grade separated ALRT versus conventional LRT. While Translink trumpets about its growth in ridership they very carefully avoid mentioning anything about mode share, which has hardly changed. Translink also states that its support for Gateway is conditional upon the use of congestion charging – but if there is no reasonable alternative to driving in the suburbs, don’t expect much mode shift from that either.

The lesson that the London congestion charge success teaches is that most of the car (and truck) traffic did not need to be in Central London in the first place. The decline in road traffic in central London is due to people diverting to other routes for their through journeys: the routes through the centre may look shorter on a map, but were usually longer in terms of trip time. Most people who need to get to central London get there by train – and, thanks to Ken Livingstone’s emphasis on improving the bus system – get around by transit while they are there.

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Written by Stephen Rees

July 17, 2006 at 7:13 pm