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

Archive for January 17th, 2008

Empty seats and stores a sign of the times on Cambie

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Good bit by Pete McMartin – he is getting good at transit – which is actually more about Broadway than Cambie.

And just in case you are from out of town, or haven’t been keeping up, here is the quick backgrounder (local and regular readers needn’t bother with this.) The province is trying to show that it has learned its lesson from the Canada Line fiasco on Cambie Street (which, being in Vancouver is the only place that matters: Richmond lost long established businesses too but they got a lot less ink). Originally Ken Dobell and his personally appointed Canada Line boss Jane Bird said very firmly that a line on Cambie was the only way to go (ignoring the existing tracks on Arbutus) and it had to be in bored tunnel. Indeed they both insisted that surface LRT on Cambie was impossible due to the grade at 12th. I have had a wonderful time since collecting images of aged street cars climbing steep hills but one of my colleagues did some quick math using the maps on the city’s web site and showed that the track from Broadway to 16th could easily be constructed at an average grade of 6%.

streetcar climbing a big hill - Lisbon, Portugal

Because the Canada Line is being built by a P3, Bird and Dobell listened very carefully to a pitch to confine the boring to downtown and use cut and cover on Cambie. This would save money, they were told. And by then all the tiresome details like assessments and consultations were over. Not that Ken is averse to pushing ahead with a fait accompli when it suits him – which it does, mostly.

And, of course, Clive Rock pointed out that if it was in bored tube it did not have to follow the road right of way – but no-one was listening to him either.

All of the upset was entirely predictable, and could have been very greatly reduced if someone had stepped up and accepted responsibility for the impact on businesses. You would have thought that a party of shop keepers would have had some sympathy. But the BC Liberals would rather pay off the provincial debt than spend money, even on small businesses that tend to make donations to Liberal Party funds.

So the opposition now from the businesses on Broadway to the proposed bored tube out to UBC is also entirely predictable and serves them right. Because it is not that they object to tube trains. They just do not trust the Government of BC to do the right thing – and I cannot say I blame them.

Cambie at 19th northbound

Written by Stephen Rees

January 17, 2008 at 4:37 pm

Posted in Transportation

Andres Duany at SFU

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duany.jpgLast night I attended a public lecture given by Andrés Duany as part of the SFU City Program. So did, it seemed, every architect and planner in the region. The lectures are normally held at the SFU downtown campus but the sign-up was such that this event was held at the Four Seasons. And the only empty seats in the house were either side of me, which made me wonder what I have done to be so socially unacceptable.

I was going to try and transcribe my notes, but fortunately you can get everything he talked about from the DPZ web site. This is well worth going to visit, and I will try to insert appropriate links to the voluminous information there. Of course,what is not there are his remarks about places which were all very pointed and often very funny.

Streaming video 

And let me also say that even though this was sponsored by the Century Group, no-one but “Budd Campbell” would think that tainted his views in any way. He is his own man – and clearly does not shape his views to please his clients or sponsors.

He started off with a shot at Portland, OR, the poster child for US urbanity. But what he said was that they had been relying far too heavily on the urban boundary. What has been built between the excellent city centre and the edge is, he said, the worst kind of urban sprawl. “Developers were given free run” and produced exactly the same kind of suburbs as anywhere else. (I must admit I tend to agree with him. A few years ago I took a ride one evening out to the end of the MAX line. It was not only depressing, it was scary. For the train was boarded by a gang of youths – and there were none of the security devices that we find on our SkyTrains. The driver was, of course, shut way in her cab with the blinds down and would remain unaware of anything happening inside the car.) However in more recent years they have started tackling this area, specifically I think with transit oriented development at MAX stations.

He was also pretty hard on Vancouver. The British tradition of planning here is very different to US. It is based largely on negotiation with developers – and he termed it “empirical”as opposed to the usual North American reliance on codes. Fortunately Vancouver has the elite of planners, which has produced an enviable downtown but it is also “fantastically inefficient – that’s why there’s a housing shortage.” It takes so long to make decisions some developers have, he said, given up here and gone elsewhere. Compared to, say, Houston where housing is plentiful, ugly and cheap. He was scathing about architects’ contempt for suburban houses, and noted that there was “more design in the Four Seasons restaurant than in several square miles of suburban Vancouver.” “Vancouver suburbs are very badly done … only 1 in 400 houses has a decent architect – the worst ratio I have ever seen”.

UPDATE Frances Bula in her blog quotes him extensively on this issue – and I noticed from the ping backs that the links on other sites do not lead there. My link on the other hand does work. It is indeed a shame that space could not have been found somewhere int he paper for this event.

The people responsible for making places have all become far too specialized: there are no longer generalists who can do buildings, landscapes and streets. Even developers tend to be specialized – “I just do malls” and so on. But his greatest scorn was directed at environmentalists (they only understand nature) and traffic engineers (who apply their hierarchy of roads and standards rigidly with no understanding of context).

Manhattan could not be built now, yet everyone – he says – thinks it is a fantastic place. Not only that but people there walk and ride transit, something not possible in most modern suburbs. So the city dwellers have a smaller carbon footprint than the suburbanites. But the development of Manhattan required that hundreds of creeks were put into pipes – something now unthinkable. You cannot have a dense grid if you have to allow 90′ setbacks from streams. In the eyes of the environmentalists every human being is a problem, and every loss of nature is to be deplored. But that means you can’t have urbanity.

His solution is a “transect“. The basis of his lecture was to demonstrate that in nature there is a progression from the sea shore to the mountain top – a concatenation of contiguous habitats. There is a also a succession – it starts as grassland and progresses towards a forest as different plants get established and compete for their place in the sun. Cities also used to grow up that way. In the same way that there is an natural ecology, so there is an urban ecology. Cities started as very basic settlements – Vancouver was a collection of tents that quickly got replaced by a buildings of increasing sophistication. Suburbs, on the other hand, represent stasis. They do not grow, because their residents have seen the future and they do not like it.

transect_america_left.jpgThe transect has six standards. Each is very complex but allows for everything, as long as it fits into place. In fact there is an entire smart code that can be downloaded and used. Duany is very keen on using the web. He pointed out that students in other disciplines cannot wait to get their ideas up on the web and give them away for free, whereas architects insist on old fashioned commissions – which, of course, students can’t get. He wanted to know why no architects were on YouTube.

One problem that he highlighted was how traffic engineers insist that a road has to fit into their hierarchy – arterial, distributor, neighborhood – and that the standards used applied across the transect and did not respect place. One image showed a woman attempting to climb over a gigantic storm drain – big enough for freeway but on a suburban street. An arterial road looks the same in the country as it does on the city centre. “No one can build a country road anymore” – but he had a lot of images of roads – many of them from the thirties – which he says people actually like. He also demonstrated how a road should change as it moves from rural through suburban to urban – again using an example from Washington DC. He said that new urbanists like cars. What they do not like are excessive parking standards – and parking lots which look ugly full or empty – and the lack of alternatives to driving in suburbs, no matter what the distance to be covered. (He used an image here of the classic adjacent house and mall with no footpath between them). It is not about banning cars – in fact, he said, in North America you cannot ban anything. It is about providing alternatives that are attractive enough to reduce car use voluntarily.

The point about codes is that it removes discretion from planners. He said that US planners do not like to make decisions – because that implies risk – but they can and do apply codes consistently. The test of a code he said was to give it to an enthusiastic incompetent. A good code works no matter who applies it. This means it is also efficient and can produce good places quickly. It solves the problem of how you produce quality and quantity at the same time. You can in fact get good, fast and cheap – you no longer have to chose two. He compared it to Chinese fast food. There are a limited number of ingredients all prepared ahead of time. And the cook just mixes and matches to produce an immense variety of dishes.

He was very entertaining when he started talking about density. He showed that it is entirely possible to have very dense development without urbanity – Tyson’s Corner VA. And it is not just a matter of taste. “You cannot have a townhouse without a town” – which someone needs to tell the City of Richmond because we have thousands of them, and the only town we had (Steveston) seems to be vanishing before our eyes. Densification must occur gracefully, and cannot proceed with one decision at a time. The use of the code allows an area to be upgraded to the next highest level – in fact the code specifies that the transect grade will go up one step every fifteen years unless the residents vote against it. And in places where it has been adopted, everyone is in favour of upgrades, because they know it will only help (and not harm) property values.

I cannot say I agree with him at every point. For example, he said that every city square in Europe is also a parking lot. And while that might have been true at one time, in some places, it certainly is not now. Trafalgar Square, and Parliament Square are not parking lots – and never have been – and London is now even taking the traffic off one or two sides of those squares. The most attractive squares in places like Belgravia have parks or gardens in the middle – often locked up and surrounded by wrought iron railings to keep out the riff-raff. If I am going to use a sidewalk café, I want to look out at people not parked cars. Squares are places where people linger – loitering is positively encouraged. They have places to sit and watch the passing scene. Parking lots do not constitute urbanity in my book and are exactly what is wrong with Granville Island, which I want to see made car free.

He also claimed that genius was not to be the subject of the code. That at the centre – the peak of the transect – civic buildings would not be subject to code either. Because we want significant iconic buildings I suppose (that’s on February 1, back at Harbour Centre). He ridiculed one such building in Austin Texas, which was built from rough-hewn local stone. Of course, it had to have been subject to much higher standards of finish to meet his standards of urbanity, if for no other reason than to keep the dust off your nice clothes. He may be right, but somehow I doubt the ability of local politicians to recognize genius even if it comes up and bites them in the ass! I think it is about taste – and kitsch is much more than having rural objects in urban settings.

He is also very keen on the idea of green belts to keep places separate. He wants to limit the gradual, grudging annexation of city edges. I think he may be right, but you do have to be much more prescriptive about what can happen in a green belt. For one thing they offer far too easy a passage for a future ring road (no houses to knock down, no NIMBYs to stop it). Green belts do not stop growth – growth simply leapfrogs over it and keeps going and you end up with even longer commutes. That is very much the experience of South East England. There is not much rural about places like Staines or Hemel Hempstead (I have lived in both).

Planners do like things neat and tidy. One of Jane Jacobs great insights was that they did not understand cities or economies. I think Duany may understand cities better than most, and his code is certainly cleverer than the existing code by use. Better, I think, but maybe not the last word. I think we also need a place for creativity and experimentation. Yes, Swedish cities look nice, but does that mean we all have to live in replicas of Stockholm? Sense of place surely also requires that we have local materials – and local vernacular too. Codes need to have some respect for local conditions – just ask any leaky condo owner. And I did not hear much about jobs, or industry or retail – and nothing at all about recreation and tourism. I think that Central Park in New York is a dramatic idea (his final image), but the Royal Parks in London seem to me to be much more civilised and more widely used. And if Vancouver really is lacking, it is in good multiple use large parks. Stanley and Queen E are good – but nowhere near enough!

Sustainable cities need to have a growing economy – if only because a city that is not growing is shrinking. And I know that environmentalists really worry about the limits to growth and Malthusian forecasts are increasingly produced. Duany says that we have to be willing to trade off natural for urban. We do not need, he says, green roofs in the city centre, because city dwellers use less energy for transport. There is, he says, such a thing as a city street without trees – it’s called Rome. But I do not think that just because some places look like that that all places should aim to be like that. I think a city in a West Coast Temperate Rain Forest needs trees – and lots of them. And buildings that use wood – like Bing Thom’s Surrey SFU campus. But we only need one example of that building – but many of equal elan and style. And if you can do green and urbane too (like that one at UBC) why wouldn’t you?

Written by Stephen Rees

January 17, 2008 at 2:17 pm

Posted in Environment, Urban Planning

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B.C.’s new transit plan ends need for Gateway

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Matthew Burrows Georgia Straight

The provincial government’s $14billion transit plan “eliminates the rationale” for the $4-billion Gateway Program, according to Eric Doherty.


Doherty, director at the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation and member of the Livable Region Coalition, has long opposed B.C. transportation minister Kevin Falcon’s Gateway Program—which includes the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge and expansion of Highway 1—because he believes it will neither relieve congestion nor increase transit ridership.

Falcon, a long-time Cloverdale resident, has countered these comments by stating his oft-repeated mantra: “Doing nothing is not an option.”

On January 14, Falcon and Premier Gordon Campbell jointly announced the transit plan, which includes the promise of completion of the previously stalled Evergreen SkyTrain line to the Tri-Cities, a rapid-transit line to UBC, an upgrade to the Expo Line, and a $1.6-billion investment in 1,500 new buses. The plan also pledges to ease traffic congestion and increase transit ridership to more than 400 million trips a year.

An estimated $11.1 billion in new funding is needed to complete the plan. The province has committed $4.75 billion; the plan calls for other levels of government to come up with the rest.

“It is providing a better way for people—particularly for the Highway 1 [users]—to get around the region,” Doherty told the Straight by phone. “In theory they could, and who knows, maybe they are already planning on abandoning Gateway and using the money to fund all this. They have certainly eliminated the reason for expanding Highway 1 and twinning the Port Mann Bridge.”

Dale Steeves, the premier’s communications director, did not make Campbell available for an interview by the Straight’s deadline. Falcon did not respond to a Straight message.

Jim Houlahan, vice president at Canadian Auto Workers Union Local 111, which organizes bus drivers in the region, said he agreed with Doherty.

“Gateway is the biggest, dumbest decision we could make,” Houlahan said by phone. “It is a five-year, short-term solution with dramatic adverse effects.”

Written by Stephen Rees

January 17, 2008 at 10:21 am

Posted in Gateway, Transportation