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“Unlivable Strategies”

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The Fraser Institute recently published Public Policy Source no 88 “Unlivable Strategies: The Greater Vancouver Regional District and the Livable Region Strategic Plan” by Randal O’Toole.

Now in fairness we have to state up front that we know who the Fraser Institute are. And we also know who the Cato Institute are: they are the people who currently employ Mr O’Toole. While they are both right wing think tanks, they are not simply party off shoots. In fact the Cato Institute has been sharply critical of the Bush administration, and dislikes the appellation “conservative” since it thinks of itself as an agent for reform – and quite radical reform at that. Both are clear that they are against government. They think there should be much less of it. And they dislike the idea of planning, especially when it is done by governments. They both have a touching faith in the ability of markets to produce the right solutions. In this they remind me of Dr Pangloss. The free markets were of course the creators of such wonderful institutions as child labour and the Bhopal disaster.

O’Toole is certainly well read, if he tends to rely on a fairly predictable range of sources, and seems not have actually spoken to anyone here. For example he states that “region’s leaders could have focused on reducing the impacts of growth through technical solutions, such as controlling auto emissions”. Apart from the slur on the efforts of the GVRD’s Air Quality Management people, and the complete ignorance of the Air Care program, this statement neatly ignores the fact that the region has no powers to prescribe vehicle emissions, and cannot legislate for tougher restrictions. Indeed, while that is a provincial power, it has not been pursued simply because Canada and the US follow a policy of co-ordinating their standards, and have done ever since the Autopact was signed. The GVRD has in fact often put pressure on the Province to adopt California standards. When BC tried to impose a ban on MMT (a dangerous fuel additive that uses a known neurotoxin) it had to back down in the face of legal action from the Ethyl Corporation under the North American Free Trade Act. Isn’t free enterprise wonderful? Of course, California has banned both MMT and MTBE – but we won’t get sidelined into that discussion here.

Mr O’Toole does not like planning. The paper is open about that. In “about the author” it states

“O’Toole’s work currently focuses on the negative impacts urban planners have on housing affordability, traffic congestion, levels of taxation, and other issues. His blog, the Antiplanner, documents urban planning follies on a daily basis.”

So the GVRD planners should not take his attacks as personal: he dislikes all planning, and, by extension, has only contempt for all plans and all planners. But that does lead him to make some remarkably immoderate comments – for example

“in the name of protecting open space, the plan prohibits development in 70 percent of the region, even though much of that land is not particularly valuable for agriculture or other purposes”

That quote comes from near the front – but further into the report we read

“The Green Zone covers about 205,000 hectares, or 72 percent of the Greater Vancouver District. This includes 53,700 hectares in the province’s agricultural land reserve (less than 40,000 hectares of which are actually agricultural lands), 91,970 hectares that are protected habitat areas, and 11,714 hectares of regional parks (some of which may also be protected habitat) (GVRD, 2004, p. A9; GVRD, 2003a, pp. 9, 14).”

Now I cannot fault his academic method. But it does seem to me that that his view of “valuable” and mine are rather different, and these are, of course, not objective statements but value judgements. But I feel fairly confident that most residents of this region would find parks and protected habitats to be valuable. What he also seems to have failed to notice is that much of the protected areas are mountainous – so they have scenic value, but would also be extremely expensive to develop as, say, housing. Many of them are also pristine watersheds, not open to other uses. Not only that but one of the drivers of the LRSP which O’Toole seems to be unaware of is security. Now I do not blame him for that, since he is relying on (carefully selected) published documents, and may be unaware of some of the risks that concerned the planners. Since disaster management is also one of the key responsibilities of the GVRD. So, areas that are subject to flooding, or are geologically unstable – such as mountainsides mostly made up of scree (which covers a lot of the North Shore) or are waterlogged silts which will liquefy when there is an earthquake, were excluded from the Growth Concentration Area. I may have missed it in my reading, but I cannot find the words “earthquake” or “flood” anywhere in his article, yet no land use planning in this region has been done in ignorance of those risks.

Similarly, the plan chose to protect some very sensitive ecological areas – such as the sea shore and estuarine wet lands, as well as Burns Bog. I also failed to notice any mention of logging or salmon in this article, which for this region seem to me to be two very important omissions.

Because he relies on published sources he makes statements such as

“In 1983, the conservative (Social Credit) government responded to a depressed economy by stripping the district of its planning authority.”

Now, I am not nearly as well read as he obviously is, and I am simply relying on what I have been told by people who were here at the time. So I could well be misinformed. But I though the GVRD lost its power to make land use decisions when it frustrated Mr Van der Zalm’s desire to develop “Fantasy Gardens” at Steveston Highway and No 5 Road. He may, as Premier, have been able to overcome the objections of the MoTH – who do have powers to prevent development within a mile of the Highway #99 intersection, which was then and still is now much too small to cope with existing traffic let alone development. He abolished the GVRD’s planning powers in rather the same way that Mrs Thatcher abolished my former employer, the Greater London Council, and for similar reasons. They got in his way.

He then goes on “a more liberal (NDP) government restored the district’s planning authority in 1995” – well, their ability to make plans certainly. But not their ability to enforce those plans. The real problem with land use planning in this region is that the GVRD – and the Province come to that – have no real powers to compel the municipalities to actually comply with the region’s or even their own land use plans. All the planners that I have ever spoken to about the issue have said something to the effect that “plans are one thing, Monday nights are another”. In other jurisdictions it is usual to have some sort of appeal process. For instance in Ontario there is a Municipal Board which can review land use decisions. In Britain, the central government can even call for a public enquiry, and the final decision rests with the Minister. In BC, if a municipality wants to allow development on a piece of land identified in its Official Community Plan for a different use, or zoning, it can simply pass a new zoning ordinance or a new by law. In fact my local paper is full every week with proposed changes of this kind – some very large, most exceedingly small, but cumulatively very significant indeed.

The GVRD has the power to ask to see or be sent some of these decisions but cannot change them. Oddly enough, under its legislation so does the GVTA. And I worked for a number of years trying to get the municipalities to accept that the regional transportation agency had a legitimate concern in land use. And that the Act required us to comment when those concerns impacted the region’s transportation network. The response was either – we won’t send you anything – sue us and see how far you get – or, more effectively – we will send you every single land use and zoning change: you will not have the time to do anything but read the applications.

O’Toole seems not to understand that there has been considerable drift in the LRSP, despite the context statements and the requirements of the Growth Strategies Act. Because nothing could be done, other than publish Annual Reports, which he cites, but does not seem to understand. For instance, one Annual Report belaboured the municipalities for allowing employment to move out to “Office Parks”. In the LRSP, these are not mentioned. Jobs were supposed to concentrated into the regional centres. Instead they were dispersed to low density, car oriented developments at the freeway entrances. In these areas, transit provision was sparse and difficult to provide economically, but it was desperately needed.

Perhaps we can get some insight into the mind of O’Toole from his citation on zoning, which refers to the US Supreme Court 1926. Now while it is a legitimate comment on the ethos of planning in North America, it really cannot be said to apply in Canada, where we are, so far, largely beyond the writ of the US Supreme Court.

It is perhaps not surprising that there is very little discussion of transit and role of the Province. O’Toole talks about land use, but seems not to have noticed that the region has not been in control of its transit system at any time – and hardly any of its transportation system as a whole either. I am talking now of “de facto” control as opposed to “de jure“. The province has made a series of disastrously bad transit decisions. At the same time it has boosted the use of freeways through its expansion of freeway capacity by adding HOV lanes, and has refused to allow the region the power to raise funds in a way that would either control car use or permit expansion of the bus system. Now I understand that this reality does tend to let the GVRD planners off the hook a bit, and O’Toole’s thesis is that planners are not just misguided and ineffective, but also responsible for all the ills of the region.

He criticises the LRSP by writing

“It did not reveal that the cost of its transportation strategy was increased traffic congestion. It did not reveal that that increased congestion would lead to increased air pollution.”

But what he seems not to understand was that the region’s transportation strategy is contained in another document, Transport 2021, written jointly by the Province and the GVRD, and endorsed by both of them and adopted on its entirety into the LRSP. That document expressly recognizes that, absent other, more effective controls, congestion does act as a self limiting mechanism on traffic growth. By increasing the generalized cost of driving, it does discourage some trip making, and would cause increased demand for other modes if they were provided. But the Province not only reneged on the GVTA Act, it also abandoned the very principles it had endorsed in Transport 2021.

There is a lot about the difference between “housing affordability” and “affordable housing”. Which makes the absence of any mention of the withdrawal of the federal government from housing provision all the more remarkable. But then he also does not seem to know that the main author of “Creating our Future” was Gordon Campbell.

There are a couple of things I agree with:
1 “With transit starting from such a low share of travel, it will take decades for it to have a significant role in the region’s transportation.” Which is true given the very low levels of financial commitment to transit both historically and now. For instance, twinning the Port Mann will cost around $3bn give or take. The much touted rapid bus on the newly expanded freeway, $180m.
2 He is a fan of congestion pricing. So we agree on that much, and that also distinguishes him from the brain dead provincial policy on tolling.

He is pretty tough on both planners and transit but I note that all his examples are Canadian or USA cities. In my view, planners here tend to look to Europe. We wanted to be like Zurich not Phoenix. And one thing most Western European cities have in common is much more stringent development control than here. For O’Toole this is an important distinction that he overlooks altogether. The plans are one thing, implementation of them something else. We have not done as badly as some places, but cities like Surrey were developed under Mayor Doug McCallum in open defiance of the LRSP. No-one pretends that big box stores out by the freeway entrances are part of the plan (OCP or LRSP) or even a good idea – except for the geniuses at the BC Transportation Finance Authority who thought it would be neat to get get developers to pay for upgraded interchanges by bribing them with public lands.

He is also a fan of technology

“Today’s clean cars pollute the least when travelling in free-flowing traffic at 60 to 90 kilometres per hour (FHwA, 2006, p. 15). New roadway facilities that relieve congestion can allow cars to operate in this optimal range. The congestion produced by the region’s failure to expand road capacities for single-occupancy vehicles will do less to get people to stop driving than it will increase pollution by leading more people to drive at slow speeds and in stop-and-go traffic.”

Except of course that the region does not have the ability to build that kind of road – that’s a provincial bailiwick, and one they fill very nicely. Also note that the amount of road space in the region as a whole has expanded dramatically. Not freeways, but arterials and distributors, often paid for through developer contributions, as well as all the roads in the new developments they built themselves. Of course, that simply added to the congestion. O’Toole does not understand that traffic is like a gas and expands to fill the space available, and that no city in the United Sates, no matter how much it has spent on road building, has ever done anything better than slow the rate at which congestion worsens.

“As with air pollution, improvements in auto technology are doing far more to improve fuel efficiency than trying to get people to stop driving.”

Except that nearly all the improvements in engine technology have gone into building larger and more powerful vehicles. Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards have been one of the least successful interventions of government into this field, and are one of the best examples of the law of unintended consequences. What he fails to notice is that when transit is improved in Vancouver, even by relatively modest amounts by world standards, it is enthusiastically taken up by people who used to drive. The problem with SkyTrain has always been that we “cannot afford” to buy enough trains cars to accommodate the demand (with the exception of the silly Millennium Line).

O’Toole uses US data on both fuel efficiency and transit comparisons rather than Canadian or Vancouver data, and to some extent I can understand that. He is obviously much more comfortable with those sources, since he has been using them to castigate US transit investments for years. Unfortunately, this does seem to suggest that he is not aware of some of the things that make Canada distinct from the US

When he becomes prescriptive, his arrogance overwhelms his common sense. For instance his broad statement that the LRSP deals with the “Wrong problems” and hence provides the “wrong solution”. Excuse me, but I think we are allowed to decide for ourselves what our objectives and priorities are. That is what democracy and liberty are supposed to be about, aren’t they? He is concerned that we are not sufficiently enamoured of unbridled economic growth: that whatever scheme some investor comes up with is, by definition, preferable to anything that a local politician, community group or urban planer might say. And that the consequences of that investor -or his backers – going bust are enough to regulate what happens. Sorry, but our experience has been different. Even with all our controls and plans we are still clearing up the mess left by failed enterprises and will be cleaning the contaminated soils and rehabilitating the dead watercourses for years to come. And some places, like False Creek are beginning to show that we are actually quite good at that. And by the way that required quite a bit of cooperation between developers and planners, which we also seem to be rather good at, given the number of US cities that send delegations here, and try to emulate what we have achieved in Vancouver.

One last snippet –

“Some people fear that building new roads will simply lead people to drive more. But a study of the Vancouver area found that significant additions to the region’s road network over the next two decades would lead to less than a 0.25 percent increase in driving. Yet those new roads would reduce theamount of time Vancouver residents spend driving by 7 percent (Delcan, 2003, p. 61).

I went to his very thorough list of references –

Delcan (2003). Economic Impact Analysis of Investment in a Major Commercial Transportation System for the Greater Vancouver Region. Vancouver: Greater Vancouver Gateway Council, 2003.

You can download it from

It states “A transportation network simulation model was used to forecast and analyze future changes in roadway network demand and performance.” Now from the Appendices I note that the model was, unsurprisingly, the “EMME/2 regional model and/or SYNCHRO capacity analysis software”. (The latter is not important since it refers to specific intersections.) The significant feature you need to know is that emme/2 does not forecast land use. That is an “exogenous variable” input by the user. Typically, the network analysis of a future year will use the same forecast land use pattern for both the “with” and “without” scenarios. In other words, the way the model is used does not admit for the possibility that the new facility being studied can influence either land use or trip making. The land use stays the same and so does the trip matrix – origins and destinations and number of trips do not change. The only things that can change are the routes and the modes chosen by the trip makers. It is therefore axiomatic that there is no perceptible change in forecast car use. That is what this type of model, used in this way, will always tell you. But it is hopelessly unrealistic. There have been literally thousands of studies now which show that when a network is expanded, traffic also expands. People make more trips. When you increase the capacity of a major freeway, new development is attracted to its interchanges and the immediate vicinity, since you have also improved its apparent accessibility. I say “apparent” because the other effect which is always seen is that congestion returns with a vengeance soon afterwards.

What the studies also show is that if you take out a link from a network – for example when the Loma Prieta earthquake crumbled the Central Valley freeway in 1989 it was not replaced. Somehow this did not lead to total gridlock or economic disaster. in fact, the economy in the area of the former freeway has significantly improved.

Land use and transportation are two sides of the same coin. Yet we model as though they are completely independent of each other. That this leads to bad regional planning can be no surprise. What is perhaps a surprise is that an intelligent, thoughtful and analytical mind such as that of Randal O’Toole appears incapable of grasping it.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 6, 2007 at 3:32 pm

6 Responses

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  1. I’m one of those “Peak Oil” guys.
    I tend towards believing that the cost of fuel will skyrocket in the next decade. (Truckers didn’t strike at the port because of gridlock did they?)
    What I’ve yet to see is a breakdown describing the effects of rising gas prices on commuters. Basically, I’m curious to know the correlation between rising gas prices and tranist use.
    I have seen some data, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on this Stephen. I appreciate that many people think Peak Oil is pure bunk, but were it so, I’m not sure I’d be hearing stories here and there about commodity prices (ie:ethanol sources) rising so rapidly.
    It’s a tough request, but I’d be greatful if you could offer some analysis (or a link or two!) on specific transportation reprecussions *if* Peak Oil is really occuring. (It goes without saying that this belief of mine makes Gateway look a lot like a white elephant – and one I hope takes out as many pro-Gateway people as possible when its ramifications become obvious)


    October 7, 2007 at 12:59 am

  2. Unlivable Strategies

    Posted on behalf of Stephen Rees. You can also read this at his blog.

    The Fraser Institute recently published Public Policy Source no 88 “Unlivable Strategies: The Greater Vancouver Regional District and the Livable Region Strategic Plan” by Rand…

    The Livable Blog

    October 7, 2007 at 8:45 am

  3. The only argument about peak oil that I am aware of is “when” – it has either happened, is happening now, or will happen in the near future.

    The repercussions so far have been a lot of grumbling at the pumps and some effect on the rate of inflation. And, of course, fuel surcharges on some forms of public transport such as airlines and ferries. Quite why they think we will accept a fuel surcharge and not a price rise I am not sure, but I am sure it was the marketing types who came up with that one. Since the prices of other things have been falling (such as electronics) and galloping inflation of house prices makes people who own them feel better off, it has had only moderate effect on both trip making and mode choice. Although I understand that sales of scooters and electric bikes are doing well, and the wait time for a Prius in Canada is now down to a couple of months.

    When the price of a basic commodity such as energy increases there are two effects – “income” and “substitution”. We have seen and will see increasing interest in energy saving devices of various kinds, and more people will be going to their municipality for permission to put solar panels on the roof. “Plug in hybrids” are the newest response of the automobile makers. Cycling, walking and combining trips are all on the rise too. People on low incomes have almost no alternative but to cut back on other expenditures in order to pay their transit fares to get to work – so their discretionary spending falls – they feel worse off (hence the “income” effect).

    I have not looked recently but I am sure that Todd Litman will have something useful on the subject.

    One thing I should add, I realise, is that expectations have changed. No one now seriously imagines that energy prices will fall, and they will be making plans to take that into account. So longer terms effects on location, quality of house construction, vehicle size and type and propensity to take foreign holidays will all be changing. I think these effects are much more visible in the United Sates now than they are here.

    Stephen Rees

    October 7, 2007 at 9:46 am

  4. “This paper will show that the impacts of these decisions (of the LrSP) fall hardest on low-income families.p5”

    Thankyou planners, it is always a good idea to force people out or in Vancouvers case onto the streets.

    “The policy of providing a balance of rental units
    and owner-occupied housing will not do much for
    reducing driving. For example, some municipalities
    such as Lions Bay are almost entirely made up of single-
    family homes that are mainly owner occupied.(p.8)”

    Another great idea rental units in LB and no chance for any employment nearby.

    In other words, planning restrictionswere reducing the value of some people’s property
    solely to enhance the value of other people’s property—
    with the side effect that the restrictions were
    also creating a housing shortage.
    Such restrictions might be good for the people
    who already owned their own homes.p12

    No comment needed. Let us harm the future generations.

    On dealing with problems of the LRSP, from wrong problems, “In focusing on sprawl and auto driving, planners traded off many desirable qualities of the Vancouver region, such as affordable housing and mobility, in order to achieve goals that are arguably much less important p26”

    How true.

    Some people fear that building new roads will
    simply lead people to drive more. But a study of the
    Vancouver area found that significant additions to
    the region’s road network over the next two decades
    would lead to less than a 0.25 percent increase in
    driving. Yet those new roads would reduce the
    amount of time Vancouver residents spend driving
    by 7 percent (Delcan, 2003, p. 61).p29

    A worthwhile investment for gov’t is to increase roads and reduce pollution at the same time as I stop idling my diesel.

    Transport Canada estimates the cost of congestion
    in Vancouver to range from $400 million to $630
    million a year. p31

    I did not realize how much civic leaders have been penalizing residents of Vancouver. $1K each. That is theft and a huge externality to get people walking. CoV puts in stupid traffic bulges on one way streets to slow traffic but stops it dead at certain intersections. I need my car to transit thru the city core to get to NShore to work.

    A good paper that shows the need for densification and much more lax standards and restrictions when it comes to zoning. One should be able to live in the community or very near where one grew up to be near family. It is very hard to do that here because of the very poor poilicies of the gvrd. Proper zoning should have allowed that but instead took that away.

    I consider the article by the fraser institute to be well written and a valuable asset to any discussion involing the unlivable region strategy.


    October 7, 2007 at 4:54 pm

  5. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The Fraser Institute starts out with a position and then looks for evidence to support it.

    Lion’s Bay is hardly representative of the GVRD.

    Building more roads simply encourages more trip making. In successful urban areas it cannot improve traffic congestion beyond a short period after the opening of the new facility. The only places where the roads are empty are where the town is dying. I explained why the conclusions of the Delcan report are simply misleading.

    I suggest you also read “Can more road space reduce more congestion growth”

    Stephen Rees

    October 7, 2007 at 8:12 pm

  6. It’s been a busy working weekend for me, but I suppose I should go through O’Toole’s report soon. I did attend his presentation at the Fraser Institute a few months ago, and it was clear to me that he hadn’t the slightest clue of how the region worked, where people were buying their residences, or to what extent we were already using what transit we had. He was unaware of how quickly mixed-use developments in places like Yaletown or Mount Pleasant (or New West!) were selling even as the 50-foot lot in Surrey was still available. Didn’t know that SkyTrain pulled 10,000 passengers an hour on the Expo Line. Wasn’t merely I (a barely-educated hack) who got this impression — there were far more knowledgeable people calling him on this in the Q-and-A. He was also of the view that the ALR was just a subsidy for farmers, motivated by a desire for nice landscapes and paid for by families who wanted a 50-foot lot. As for the watershed, which is most of the protected land in the GVRD? “There’s only two kinds of land: water, and watershed.” I really can’t make this stuff up.

    Interesting that you use the hammer-to-nail analogy. O’Toole’s presentation seemed to be one that he could re-use in Oklahoma City, or Indianapolis (not to pick on either city!) or wherever, all to promote the same view: planning bad, urban containment a subsidy to farmers, automobile-oriented development as the people’s choice. Whatever. Frankly, I found him an ideologue who’s found a friendly and paying audience on the think-tank circuit.

    Ian King

    October 7, 2007 at 11:09 pm

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