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

Gordon Price on Surrey

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Gordon PriceI took a spin out to SFU’s Surrey building last night to hear Gordon Price. I expected him to talk about the future of Surrey, but before he did that he spoke a lot about the history of Vancouver.

He thinks that Surrey won’t, can’t and shouldn’t be like Vancouver. He calls it “urban DNA” and explains the building blocks that put a city together, from the first surveys by the Royal Engineers, to the technology that was available to residents when their cities were first built. The downtown core of Vancouver is a walking city, much like the centre of Portland.

Things like the length of a block face do not change over time. Indeed the persistence of these patterns has been noticeable in every city. In London, the street pattern is still medieval in the City, since the property owners refused to comply with Sir Christopher Wren’s grand design. Outside of the City you can still trace the field patterns that underlie the road network. Much of Paris got ripped up by Hausmann’s boulevards, put in to enable the army to mobilize quickly and make the erection of barricades difficult for citizens who tended to revolt – and still do. But the old neighbourhoods are still there, in between the broad streets.

I got the impression that the rather small audience was surprised to hear some of things Gord had to say.The audience That downtown Vancouver accounts for only 10% of growth in the region in the last thirty years. That this region has been building more multi-family housing than single family since the 1980s. And that Surrey is not a suburb of Vancouver: Surrey residents tend to work in Surrey. Surrey used to have an interurban, and has had plans for compact communities based on its town centres for many years. But under Doug McCallum, its rapid growth was based on the car to provide mobility, which is one reason why transit really doesn’t work very well there. Much of the City was designed to keep buses out. The interurban’s route is still extant but is hardly direct to anywhere.

Drive around Surrey for a while, and you do not notice much in the way of urbanity. Most of the streets are numbered. I find it hard to believe that you can build much community spirit out of a locality designation like “88th at 104th”. Interestingly I noticed that some of the original roads carry historic markers – like Old Yale Road. But many intersections seem to lead only to “Mall Access” as the cross street. Wal-Mart is everywhere it seems.

Surrey, he says, is the child of the ITE Handbook published in1942 which promoted the “efficient, free, rapid flow of traffic”. Surrey is designed to move at 50 to 100 kph. It is not the walking city of downtown Vancouver, or the streetcar city of neighbourhoods like Commercial Drive or Kerrisdale. It is an auto city. And the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge will set that firmly in stone for the forseeable future, for it is only about cars. look at the Gateway and ask yourself “where’s the rest?” Where is there any real commitment to transit, or walking, or any other mode? The ring formed by the twinned Port Mann, Highway #7, upgraded Pitt River Bridge, Golden Ears Bridge and widened Highway #1 will become the “centre of suburbia”.

The Highway Ring

There is another way. In St Paul Minnesota they put it simply. “More natural, more urban, more connected” – and there is no “or” in those statements – it is a package. What people want is a city that is clean, green and safe. Mostly it is about providing choices – both of where you can live and how you move around. It is not about moving traffic faster. In fact all successful cities have congestion – and always have had long before the automobile spread it out so far. The question is not how do you eliminate congestion because you can’t. The question is where will you accommodate it?

There’s a lot more in my notes – it was hard to keep up with Gord in full flow – but you can read more of his stuff in Price Tags and on his blog. He also directed his audience to Larry Frank (on walkable cities) and Patrick Condon (who has just published a new book), both at UBC, a nice inter-collegiate gesture I thought.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 31, 2007 at 6:58 pm

12 Responses

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  1. Nice round up of the lecture Stephen. I thought it was you there, but I wasn’t sure! I too was hoping he would talk more about what he envisions for Surrey, but I suppose that’s not his place to say. And from the discussion afterwards, it felt like nobody, not even city staff, had a concrete idea of where Surrey is or should be going.
    My one thought however was, since Surrey is a car city today, how do you slowly phase out the automobile? It takes a lot to reverse a trend, and it certainly doesn’t help that Translink refuses to provide us with real transit service out here. I made a post on my blog earlier today discussing this a bit.
    In any case, it seems to me that Surrey and the south of fraser area needs a champion to stand up and rally the troops. Obviously the city staff weren’t doing too well without leadership from council, and the Mayor continues to act far too “Canadian diplomat” on the whole issue. I guess the question would be, how does one start up a BEST/SPEC for Surrey?!

    Paul Hillsdon

    May 31, 2007 at 8:03 pm

  2. You should have said hello – we could gone for a coffee or something. I only recognized one or two people there – and I did not see you. Sorry we missed the opportunity to meet.

    Clive Rock at Translink used to say that changing the suburbs was going to be like unscrambling an egg. I thought that it was very significant that when the discussion got around to business parks everyone recognized they were a problem but because they were not specifically prohibited, the muni next door might allow them, so we have to …

    Stephen Rees

    May 31, 2007 at 8:10 pm

  3. The one thing that been in the back of mind, after continuously hearing the argument that the cities are in competition and that the office parks will end up somewhere… Isn’t Surrey almost the last frontier? I mean, if Surrey stopped allowing the developments… there’s not much elsewhere to go, except some areas of Langley I guess. Then they start to move into the Abbotsford territory, which isn’t technically the GVRD. Surely, the North of Fraser wouldn’t accept big sprawling developments if Surrey rejected them…?

    Paul Hillsdon

    May 31, 2007 at 10:22 pm

  4. I think Abbotsford is trying to lure industrial businesses as much as any other municipality. Apparently, Langley has quite a bit of light industrial space. One of our clients, a biotech company, is located in Langley.

    Of the, say, 4 “new downtowns – Metrotown, Richmond, Surrey and Coquitlam, I think that Richmond has been the most successful so far changing the scale of the development in its core.

    Fo Richmond, it started with the area around the Richmond Public Market and the introduction of a smaller street grid there and is ongoing with the extension of the grid (Lansdowns, Browngate, Hazelbridge, etc. come to mind). There are even plans to subdivide the Lansdowne Mall parking lots with roads – although there are some towers in the park east of Lansdowne. Part of it could be that their above ground parkades more easily lead to streetfront retail (rather than towers in the park).

    Metrotown has the problem of towers in the park for any project north of Kingsway (not fronting on Kingsway) and then the big mega blocks (historically warehouse sites?) on the south side. The mall is such an overpowering influence, that other development faces an uphill battle – although the office tower above the Staples store is being completed (a vertically phased office tower). The grid is incomplete, too, as Central Boulevard does not connect to Kingsway, and redistribution of some of the Kingsway traffic would probably allow Kingsway to be tamed. It’ll be interesting to see if an redevelopment occurs south of the Skytrain Line @ Metrotown.

    I think that Surrey and Coquitlam suffer from being far away from Vancouver. Both will take time for demand to spur construction.
    Surrey appears to have something of a grid system and is undergoing a bit of a renaissence at the moment due to Central City, SFU and some new projects. Hopefully the trend will continue.

    Remember that before the redevelopment of Downtown South in Vancouver, nobody walked through Downtown South either.


    June 1, 2007 at 12:35 pm

  5. WRT “The ring formed by the twinned Port Mann, Highway #7, upgraded Pitt River Bridge, Golden Ears Bridge and widened Highway #1” – those are inter-city routes, not local routes. Highway 1 doesn’t cut a swath across Surrey’s downtown core.
    Richmond seems to be developing a nice downtown core even though Hwy 99, the Annacis Highway and the East-West Connector also form a ring route around Richmond, Queensborough, North Delta and Surrey.


    June 1, 2007 at 1:01 pm

  6. Metrotown has had sites earmarked for additional office towers since its inception. Rents in towers cannot compete with office parks, so one must conclude that Burnaby has provided too much space overall.

    Lansdowne Mall has resisted furiously any suggestion that it might have the grid imposed on its huge lot. However it is happily leasing out great swathes of its parking lot for fairgrounds and now for the Canada Line site office and future station. The envelope of the flight path is also a restriction. Creation of an urban environment here would have to start with pulling down much of the existing mall and putting buildings around the outside of the two new lots that would be formed by extending Cooney. One major drawback of development in Richmond is the cost of underground parking – only City Hall can afford it!

    One member of the audience at SFU said that he knew of potential tenants for offices in Central Surrey – he suggested “millions” of square feet – following the success of the Bing Thom tower. That must come as something of a surprise to the owners of Gateway who always had problems finding tenants while I worked in that building.

    Stephen Rees

    June 1, 2007 at 1:13 pm

  7. Ron

    Those roads you mention may be intended to be “inter city” but in reality carry mostly local traffic. The vast majority of the congestion on the Port Mann is caused by single occupant cars going between Surrey and the TriCities. Most of the traffic on the Golden Ears will similarly be short distance travel.

    Stephen Rees

    June 1, 2007 at 1:16 pm

  8. Wish I’d been there. I should keep a wider eye open for things like this–


    June 1, 2007 at 6:06 pm

  9. I get this kind of information from email lists like trans-action or the lrc list. I suppose I mght also give this sort of thing a plug on here from time to time. I had not thought of that.

    Also check out

    Stephen Rees

    June 1, 2007 at 8:45 pm

  10. […] June 2nd, 2007 · No Comments Stephen Rees did an excellent job of summing up my speech – an SFU Surrey Mayors’ Lecture – last Wednesday.  I certainly won’t try to sum up his summary: check it out here. […]

  11. WRT Metrotown – there has been talk of Metrotower 3 for some time, but still no sign of life. It’ll be a long time before the Kingsway frontage office building are built.

    WRT Lansdowne – I was surprised when I saw the City’s plans for the site – the mall was gone! I think any property owner would object to plans that show their property demolished.

    I had once seen plans for a second phase office tower for Central City across the street (is that over the bus loop?).

    WRT the roadways, the point I was trying to make was that existence of a highway loop (or arterial road loop) won’t necessarily prevent the development of a compact urban area that is near that route.

    WRT Gateway, I could easily see the demand for connections across the Fraser River served by an arterial road bridge aimed at local trips between Surrey and the Tri-Cities (instead of twinning the Port Mann). Given the choice of diverting to the freeway and merging on and off, I’d think that a lot of drivers would take an arterial route dotted with traffic lights and lower speed limits. I think that it has been jurisdictional and financial issues that have led to a twinning of the Port Mann rather than a parallel arterial road.
    As for single occupancy drivers, are local car trips in the suburbs (Surrey-Tri-Cities) any more “single occupant” than local car trips within Vancouver or between Vancouver and Burnaby? and if not, why should they be treated differently by the planning process?


    June 4, 2007 at 1:18 pm

  12. This is tricky but as I see it the province should be concerned about longer distance trips, as local travel is clearly a regional and municipal responsibility. The regional plan, to which the province was party, don’t forget says quite clearly that accommodating more SOV trips is not part of the plan – or at least only as a last resort.

    The province acknowledges that twinning the Port Mann would bust the plan, but rely on a wholly specious argument – “it’s out of date”. Sorry, it may have needed more formal reviews and amendments than it has had, but its basic premise still holds true. “Predict and provide” does not work when it comes to automobile traffic, because absent any fee for use, demand always exceeds supply.

    The munis cannot provide an “arterial bridge” because it crosses a boundary. New Westminster and Coquitlam are still battling over the Braid Street bridge. Translink won’t provide another one any time soon as the Golden Ears is using up all its abilities right now. And anyway, we don’t need more car capacity, we need more transit capacity, which can be easily provided by a bus lane queue jumper – see the LRC web page for details.

    Stephen Rees

    June 4, 2007 at 3:20 pm

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