Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for December 15th, 2008

Rethinking the need for speed

with 25 comments

Globe and Mail.

The opinion piece is by David Beers who is referencing a report by Patrick Condon. Which, of course, the Globe provides no link to – but I can: it is a pdf file.

I think Beers has the right approach on the whole – certainly the sales line has always been “rapid transit”. But that is because buses are perceived as slow. They stop to set down and pick up other people which means they do not keep up with single occupant vehicles. Even though when you space out the stops – and especially if you co-ordinate the bus stops with traffic signals, something we do not do here – the difference can quickly be reduced. But in any event, it is the door to door time that matters to individuals, not just the in vehicle time. So if parking is difficult, remote and expensive, the advantage of the car can starts to wither. Transit that makes you walk a long way to get it (or from it to where you need to be), or climb stairs, or keeps you hanging around to make connections is less attractive no matter how fast the station to station time might be.

But the big thing about Professor Condon’s report is the cost – and the impact on land use. As car ownership spread we started building our towns to accommodate the cars. Doing that made every other mode less attractive. And it is only recently that we have begun – on this continent – to realize that we were creating all sorts of problems for ourselves, and making our cities less habitable. Most places are quickly catching on – and as result, across the US you can read reports that transit ridership is not falling even though gas prices are. Having been given a strong incentive to try an alternative, people are finding that it can work.

Transit ridership is not going to rise in places that do not have enough transit. It is also not going to increase until the routes and service frequencies reflect the needs of passengers. Transit is still run by and for the operators – and schedules reflect operational convenience and economy not what works well to attract new users.

But the most obvious change in policy we need to see is the retrofitting of suburbs – and major educational and other institutions – to reduce the need to travel long distances. Plonking universities on the top of a mountain or at the end of a headland may make a nice architectural statement but it is plain dumb in urban planning terms. Just as the whole idea of a “campus” is suspect – especially if it is too expensive to provide student accommodation. It is not just that we need walkable residential neighbourhoods (though that would help too) but we need both mixed income housing and mixed use development. And before we had the current planning nostrums towns and cities were all very mixed up indeed – and worked much better than they do now.

Recreating streetcar suburbs in the City of Vancouver is going to be quite easy – if we have streetcars. And the same is true of much of Burnaby, North Vancouver and New Westminster all of which developed before widespread car ownership and around a network of interurbans and streetcars. It is going to be much harder in the newer suburbs – and the places which are going to accommodate the next tranche of population growth. It is vital that such places do not repeat the same mistakes of the last sixty years, yet we seem to be locked into that pattern – and by the deliberate decision of one man – Kevin Falcon. If we build more freeways we will get more car oriented sprawl not transit oriented development – because you do not get TOD where there is no T!

It may be that, as others are predicting, car 2.0 will be more environmentally acceptable than car 1.0. But it is still going to require far too much space – for both movement and parking – to allow us to have walkable urban areas. Cars and cities are a bad mixture no matter what kind of motive power system they have.

The fact is we will get a lot more transit for $2.8bn if we don’t spend it all on one underground line to UBC. There is also a great benefit if we use the transit we build to deliberately and consistently reduce the space for cars to move and park. Yes, car free streets. We need to shift the balance of advantage towards environmentally sustainable modes that also will help make us healthier – we need to walk more – and also make our urban areas more livable. Where human beings can interact socially while they move around – and stop – because they do that much better when not encased in a steel cage. And that is as true if the car is a Prius or a Model T. UBC cannot afford to give students a Prius each because there would be nowhere for them to park – let alone get in and out of the campus.

And that is also true in the bigger picture. We have no room here for urban sprawl. We need the land to grow food, and trees and collect rain water. We need the space around us to be accessible for all, not just the privileged who can buy big estate homes. We need it to be possible for our children to walk to school in safety, for us to have a choice of where to work, shop or pursue other interests which does not impose the need for several vehicles per household.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 15, 2008 at 11:56 am

Posted in Light Rail, transit