Stephen Rees's blog

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

Regional Growth Strategy consultation

with 14 comments

Now there’s a headline to send your pulses racing. Yes, I know all sorts of exciting things are going on in the world, but somebody has to pay attention to these things. And I did volunteer for the Livable Region Coalition that I would lead the charge – though I was very pleased to see LRC founder Gordon Price at the meeting. It took up most of the morning at the Metrotown Hilton, and it is taking me some time to get my notes on line as I found that both the batteries for my notebook PC were dead. So I am working from scribbled notes.

Johnny Carline opened the proceedings with a summary of the process to date. They are now on the second draft of the strategy having been through extensive consultations with the public, municipalities and “stakeholders” (more about that later). The Regional Growth Strategy is only one of twelve parts of the Sustainable Region Initiative.

The RGS has changed the Livable Region Strategy objectives by introducing the idea of “a sustainable economy” but Carline admitted that what is there now is not sustainable but is more to do with “economic viability”. There is also a new commitment to deal with climate change. Metro has worked hard with Translink on transportation choices but not with senior governments whose policies he said were “pulling us apart”.

In addition to the public meetings they held two focus groups of randomly chosen residents and interestingly their views were not very different to those “self selected” people who attended the meetings. Overall there is around 90% support for the new strategy, though 40% think there should be a higher level of regional agreement, which is directly contrary to the views of municipal officials (elected and professional) who think they should have more autonomy. The implementation of the strategy is the municipalities’ greatest concern, as well as the role of Translink. Perhaps the greatest area of concern now is employment dispersal – an area where the LRSP notably failed to get implemented – and the need to protect industrial land.

Urban Centres

The RGS maintains the LRSP list of multiple centres with different scales and roles (as Central Place Theory states – range, hinterland, hierarchy) but adds two new municipal town centres, one on the North Shore and the other in Langley Township. Pubic pressure has resulted in neighbourhood centres being added to the map even though they have no regional significance.

Frequent Transit Corridors

As result of municipal pressure these have been taken off the map but the idea remains key, that high density development needs to be located along the routes used to link centres, but these corridors will not be allowed to undermine the centres. Translink will work with the municipalities to define these corridors, which will need commitments from both sides and will not go forward without that.

(I think that this is a significant policy issue and shows, once again the great local resistance to the need for increased densities in established areas.)

Industrial Lands

There has been a “big push back from the municipalities” on how these are defined: they want autonomy, but the region feels there is a need to be able to accommodate the repatriation of manufacturing as well as “the need to support port activities” as well as meeting the need for truck “storage”.

49% of office employment in the last 15 years has gone to developments outside of the town centres, often on industrial land. These areas are not transit friendly which has significant mode split and ghg implications. The new road systems now being built are “expensive and counter productive” and the increased dispersal of employment undermines regional objectives. However the region does not have the necessary powers to control this growth. We must all understand that we cannot say we support the objectives of the RGS and continue as we have been doing. The result has been a compromise called a “mixed employment” designation which will act as an “escape valve” – since both the development industry continues to want to develop these and municipalities cannot afford to forgo the additional tax revenue.  The region will “not be happy” if that designation extends the problem. Carline remarked that this was the “juiciest policy debate” in the process.

Rural Areas

These small areas have been added: they are not an urban reserve or “development in waiting” but rather lands outside the ALR and the Green Zone where low density development has occurred. The density guidelines have been removed, but sewers will not be extended into these areas to support development, though they may still be needed for health or environmental reasons.

Conservation and Recreation Areas

Linkages have now been added between these areas as part of the region’s Greenway Network


Everyone wants a stronger policy but there is a limited amount that municipalities can do absent federal support.

Transportation – the thorny issue

Translink gets to “accept” the regional stratgey but Metro can only comment on theirs. “At the staff level we all get it”. The role of providing service to meet existing demand is core to Translink. Investing to shape growth is an important policy direction and is the Metro interest. For transit there are three concepts

  1. established markets
  2. major emerging transit markets
  3. locally emerging  markets

As Martin Crilly pointed out, Translink cannot get too far ahead of current demand. But Metro has identified the areas where future transit investment should go

  • The Evergreen Line
  • Surrey Town centre to other centres in Surrey
  • Surrey Town Centre to Langley and other adjacent regional centres


Everyone  wants clarity. But the plan cannot be rigid so Metro has identified two amendment processes. 1) The municipal Regional Context Statements are a major instrument that allows for variations from the plan without amendment, except that the agricultural designation and the urban containment boundary cannot be changes by this process.  2) Special Study Areas which will only require 50% +1 vote at the GVRD Board for approval (not the higher levels of agreement required for other amendments)

The intention is to get the plan “put to bed before the summer break”. More public consultation meetings will be held across the region from January 12 to 26.

After the small group discussion three stakeholders got to speak from the lectern.

Jeff Fowler of UDI

We support wise and efficient use of a scarce resource: density must be tied to transit. The development industry buys into the vision but the municipalities seem to find it easier to identify where development will not go than where it will. The industry understands the need for development at transit stations and for infill. We have a limited land base so it is crucial to identify places where development will be permitted.

Government still restricts land uses, there are limits on what can be done on industrial land which limits the possibilities for municipalities to adapt to economic change. Some industrial areas are near transit stations and would be good places to put new development. Restrictions on land use do not compel density to go into the right places. The industry has to confront NIMBYism, high development cost charges and demands for additional community facilities. 23 local governments all beholden to local pressures makes increasing density difficult. We need to leverage the investment that has been made in [rapid] transit. As one Orgeon official has pointed out “we do not like sprawl but we don’t like density either!”

In Toronto’s centre building costs are around $40-50 psf: in Vancouver its $150 psf. The average house price in Toronto is $560,000, in Vancouver $900,000.

We must be wary of restrictions on land use and need to be bold and creative to achieve greater density

Port of Vancouver

(I am sorry but I did not catch the name of the speaker). We are much interested in growth and development, especially as it effects the Pacific Gateway. We welcome the collaborative approach to the regional goods strategy and the reinforcement of the major transit corridors. He also noted the linkages to industrial areas. They oppose mixed employment areas as they see them eroding the industrial land base and are often not well served by transit. He also spoke about “Fair Tax Equity” (which is a bit rich coming from a wealthy agency that has been refusing to pay property tax in Richmond).

Greg Yeomans of Translink

The two agencies are trying to establish the same thing and the two plans should be regarded as “two chapters from the same book”. Translink supports the goals, the retention of the transportation component and the strongly defined urban growth boundary. The Frequent Transit Corridors are also supported and shoud align with Translink’s Frequent Transit Network.

More work and refinement is needed on jurisdictional issues, the transit markets concept and priorities as well as implementation and amendments.

Gordon Price posed a question in the form of a long statement which essentially stressed the impact of the huge investments now being made in roads and bridges. Essentially the region’s growth strategy has largely worked – up until now.

Johnny Carline responded that the dispersal of employment was what had prompted the road building program as a response to an intolerable level of congestion. “If you stop dispersal of employment you will end the demand for roads”. We are call for better management of the road  system to give priority to trucks. The land use plan limits sprawl. A firm urban containment boundary limits amount of land left for greenfield development. Focussing development, and the lac of alternatives, works in our favour. What is worrisome is that highway expansion will also spawn development outside the region. Metro Vancouver should be expanded to Hope.

In answer to another question he also remarked that because travel has been cheap and easy, longer distance commuting has been an attractive option. This applies to transit as much as car use. But also the region has offered “freedom to travel” which is highly prized. “Perhaps the best trip is no trip at all”.


The discussion around each table was recorded on large post it notes and stuck to the wall. They will be transcribed and, I suppose, recorded by Metro.

Deb Jack of Surrey Environmental Partners made a couple of very good points: the conservation areas are not nearly big enough. Simply protecting what we have is not good enough. Secondly while turning attention to climate change is good, the RGS ignores the much bigger issue of the need to promote biodiversity. Even of we manage to control ghg, this will be a much greater threat to our survival as a species.

In my view, the choice of “stakeholders” to be given the platform emphasizes what has been wrong with this process throughout. Far too much attention is being paid to what other agencies and corporate interests want, and far too little has been done to include communities and other interest groups. Why do none of the NGOs, foe example, get to comment from the lectern? If Gordon Price had not shown up, would the question he raised even have been considered?

But there is also far too much complacency in Carline’s reply. No urban region has ever cured congestion by building roads. Congestion is – as everywhere – just about tolerable. If that were not the case, people would change their travel behaviour and relocate. What every urban system sees is  the level of congestion that the local populace thinks, collectively, is what they can put up with. The only way to reduce traffic congestion is to make better use of the space devoted to moving (and parking) vehicles – essentially reducing the role of the single occupant car (the greatest waste of resources known to man)  and buidling better transit systems.

Deb Jack, again, made the point that the choice of transit technology is always made by the province, not Translink. What the region needs now South of the Fraser more than anywhere, is Light Rail, not Skytrain. And, I added, not freeway expansion.

The idea that the RGS can somehow stop the incesant demands of the road building lobby is bizarre. Of course the Port supports it – it has won every round. The Gateway Council gets “most favoured” treatment and every other interest group – of whatever kind – is largely ignored. What the Port claims is never challenged. There is no need for port expansion. Given what we now know about peak oil and climate change there will likely never be enough demand to justify these new facilities. Anyway they will all be underwater in a few years time. Parking spaces for trucks is not the greatest issue this region faces and there is absolutely no need for truck priority. All they need to do is change their scheduling procedures so that trucks dropping off a container can collect one at the same time – and also expand the port’s working hours to encourage trips into the off peak periods. Pretending that you need a new freeway so that truckers can work 8 to 4 Monday to Friday is a ridiculous priority.

And while I have nothing against Greg Yeomans personally, his contribution was otiose. He did the job his organization needed done, but given what Carline had already said, it did not need saying again. Yet many voices in the region seem not be heard. There is never any time for the concerns of the people – or the environment – to be heard at these gatherings. Only corporate PR and spin.

14 Responses

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  1. Sorry, Johnny Carline said that Metro Vancouver should extend out to Hope?


    December 16, 2009 at 9:32 pm

  2. Transit is one of the major keys to changes. Transit lines must be built before density can occur. This is the way it has been done in many other places since the first rail lines appeared in the 2nd 1/2 of 19th cent. and the only way it can be done.

    People in the lower mainland that travel alone in a car may well do it just because they crave privacy etc. but if offered a choice that would save them money (over 200$ a month for parking alone is a high price to pay for privacy) many would take transit.

    I know people in Kobe-Japan and Bordeaux-France. They both have a car. In Kobe there is a choice of 3 different train lines, with very frequent trains, between Kobe and Osaka where the work is. Taking a car would mean paying toll fee plus parking–for a high daily fee relatively far from the office (no parking there).
    The guy in Bordeaux actually lives in a town 40 km away. He used to drive to town, where he had to park over 1 km from work then walk. Since the region drastically increased the number of commuter trains per hour he takes a train then a bus (with the same smart card–130 Euros per month, 1/2 of it paid by the employer).

    Red frog

    December 16, 2009 at 10:24 pm

  3. […] space [The Georgia Straight] Council okays height increase for Ritz-Carlton [State of Vancouver] Regional Growth Strategy consultation [Stephen Rees's blog] CANADA Committee OKs downtown Ottawa transit tunnel [CBC] INTERNATIONAL 2030 […]

    re:place Magazine

    December 17, 2009 at 8:08 am

  4. I think we are making a big mistake tying transit to density. The density myth is nothing more than a sop for the light-metro types in the region.

    The reason more highways are being planned and built is that the regional transit system is so poor and the car, by default, is the only choice many people have.

    For reasons that will be made clear in 2010, I have been involved with a few overseas transit consultants and their observations of our problems has given me some unique insight to our problem.

    These chaps do not talk of density because we do have the density for light rail in the region. What we do lack is the ridership numbers to support our mania for light-metro and our light-metro system has skewed how we plan and build transit.

    To be successful, transit must be consumer driven – to provide the transit product that the transit consumer really wants. We (collectively) have forgotten about the transit consumer and have designed our transit system to accommodate political and bureaucratic agendas instead of a building user-friendly transit network.

    The news coming out of the UK is scary, Peak Oil is coming and coming fast and sadly Campbell’s great Gateway project may see little use as fuel prices skyrocket. But, Peak Oil will leave our public transit system in tatters as we will never have enough money to build light-metro into the network that it will be consumer friendly and fuel for buses will drive fares ever higher.

    My crystal ball has gone very dark as of late.

    Malcolm J.

    December 17, 2009 at 9:40 am

  5. Steve

    The context is important: while the PMH1 project reaches as far as the Metro eastern boundary its effect will spread much further. The response of the FVRD is unlikely to be the same as Metro. Carline claimed to be quoting someone at a consultation meeting – but that, of course, cannot be checked. Moreover the Fraser Valley is a single entity in biophysical terms. The Metro boundary is arbitrary. Obviously, the socio-economic sphere of influence overlaps too.

    Stephen Rees

    December 17, 2009 at 9:42 am

  6. I hate to be on Malcolm bad side but it is a fact that all the cities that have a good transit system have a high density. This doesn’t always mean high rises at all. Even Tokyo has lots of single family homes in the core area (within the JR Yamanote Loop) but these homes are tightly packed along narrow streets. Most of the housing in the core area of London, Paris, Berlin, Milano etc. is made of low-rise buildings. Paris may have the highest apartment buildings, with 5 to 7 storeys, with 10-12 ft high ceilings, a far cry from so many apartment bldgs here) and this is high density.

    As for building transit where people wants it, this is only true in the general sense. It is not economical to have trams or buses, even small ones, on every single street. Some transit companies pick up regular customers, with a van or small bus, in front of their home every working day but the fee is quite high and this is only offered on a limited basis, not across the whole town

    In every single town with a great transit system the first transit lines built go along major streets. And yes, in Paris there is practically a Metro station in every direction, each one about 5 blocks max from a home or business, but most of the Metro was build when construction was cheap. Dito for London etc.

    Red frog

    December 17, 2009 at 12:31 pm

  7. Senior Frog; but Paris and London have vast populations (as much as the population between Victoria to Thunder Bay!) to support metro, but look at Paris; planning for 100 km of light rail/tram to be completed in just a few years.

    London’s Tube and Underground are near bankruptcy and new Tube lines are slow to develop. Even with vast populations and density, metros are still considered an expensive proposition.

    I have looked at density charts for many cities and sure for a few square km. in European city centres there is high density, but the transit (LRT) routes network out to the suburbs where per km. density is less than 2,000 persons per km/sq.

    The real problem is that we just do not have the route ridership to support light metro, which needs 400,000+ customers a day to justify construction.

    Here lies the conundrum, our ‘rail’ transit systems are much too expensive for the population they serve. We just can’t create the ‘rail’ transit network within our tax base.

    In France, the transit customer comes first and the transit system is designed with the customer’s needs and I do not think the same can be said of here.

    Malcolm J.

    December 17, 2009 at 2:30 pm

  8. I see, thanks for clarifying Stephen.

    I should add that I work for the FVRD, hence my interest. In my opinion, FVRD municipalities are doing a fairly good job of growing in a responsible way, and while I think that regional growth strategies can have an positive impact on this, I think that really the main preventative measure of sprawl is the ALR – without which we would be lost, whether it was us or Metro running the show.

    I would argue that Metro Vancouver’s and the FVRD’s policies are really not much different in terms of their respective growth strategies, and while there is an arbitrary boundary there, the real power in what is shaping land use in the lower mainland is the province through the ALR, and if JC was running the show it would be not much different.


    December 17, 2009 at 6:31 pm

  9. “we just do not have the route ridership to support light metro, which needs 400,000+ customers a day to justify construction” where in the world are these figures coming from?! Rennes, Lille, Toulouse, Kobe, the Yurikamome in Tokyo are all automated light Metros (VAL type) and they don’t get nowhere near 400,000 customers a day ..and it is not as if their construction costs, especially in France, with all the benefits workers get, are less than here.
    from Wikipedia:
    “The Yurikamome’s future looks bright: at over 100,000 passengers per day, the Yurikamome is making a net profit and will pay off its loans in full faster than the 20 years originally anticipated”
    “Rennes was the smallest city in the world to boast a metro, with a population of just 220,000 for the city out of 390,000 served by the network (37 municipalities). On average, there are 120,000 metro trips each day”

    Red frog

    December 18, 2009 at 12:19 am

  10. Steve

    As with Metro, the problem does not lie with regional policies but local control. The FVRD may have a good plan but it cannot impose that on Abbotsford any more than Metro can impose on Vancouver. Yet to listen to the municipalities they think they need greater “autonomy”: when in reality the regional districts have no land use planning powers at all.

    Stephen Rees

    December 18, 2009 at 11:50 am

  11. Malcolm

    Most of Metro Vancouver’s developed area is low density. Since we have a rigid growth containment boundary, that is going to have to get denser in order to accommodate the expected increase in population. If that is not planned for, it will occur anyway – as the experience of illegal secondary suites showed.

    Increased urban density is necessary to satisfy the region’s growth objectives, only one of which refers to transportation, and all of which are important if we are to become more sustainable. It is clear that our present pattern on development and movement cannot continue. We have been able in the past to adopt the principles but ignore them in practice. Now that we have almost no permissable greenfield left to develop on, with peak oil already passed and the plant warming faster than ever it is vital that we adopt a better way of doing things. Choosing more appropriate transit technologies is but one aspect – and probably not the single most important one at that.

    Stephen Rees

    December 18, 2009 at 11:59 am

  12. Back to the chicken and the egg debate – build to shape growth or build to serve growth.

    Port Moody and Coquitlam have dutifully allowed hgher densities in reliance on the Evergreen Line being built as set out in the 1996 Livable Region Strategic Plan – but to date they’ve been stymied by politics. Last week, Port Moody Council voted to reject a modestly higher density project because the infrastrutcure (i.e. Evergreen) wasn’t yet in place. So how can you get a municipality (and its developers) to build in reliance on a figurative plan (a line on a map in a report) when that can be delayed, changed or never built?

    That seems to weight heavily in the “build to shape growth” direction (like the streetcar suburbs of the early 20th century).

    Of course, that direction also puts you head long into opposition with the “business case” people who require that transit break even, “satisfy a proven need” or even make a profit (those include newspaper reporters who love headlines of lower ridership, subsidies, low revenue and failing to meet projections).

    Ron C.

    December 18, 2009 at 6:13 pm

  13. Thanks for this very comprehensive report Stephen.
    Would like clarification are they still aiming for those “protected industrial lands” so that once designated industrial lands cannot be removed from that label or land use? It could spell the death of Smart Growth – mixed use / sustainable development along the South Fraser Foreshore particularly at the Bridgeview area.

    A few other comments:

    It sounded like there is the intent to put transit to areas where there is the density to merit it, yet the South Fraser Freeway which is commanding huge amounts of transportation dollars is being built through a relatively low density area. On the other hand Coquitlam which is comparatively extremely dense is having trouble getting funding for the Evergreen line as I understand it.

    Also you mention Johnny Carlines comments with respect to road building being a response to intolerable congestion, while yet again the congestion along the existing South Fraser Road infrastructure is relatively light compared to that say along the Lougheed Highway and still the Freeway is being built (for now), but not the Evergreen LIne.

    Is it too much of a leap of logic to say that besides looking at density of development for justification of transit, the region also needs to look at levels of traffic congestion? No one with perhaps the exception of you and Deb Jacks) seemed to be connecting those dots or did I just miss something?

    Also isn’t there some kind of disconnect happening when talking about “repatriation of manufacturing” in the same context of port expansion and truck parking. I mean the former means creation of valuable local jobs strengthening our national, provincial economy while the latter is just opening a door to even greater export of our resources and import of consumer goods often of shoddy, poor if not downright dangerous (as we have seen in the past repeatedly) quality.

    Finally was there no mention of densification of industrial lands. Ned Jacobs was telling me in the States multi level warehouses are common, in fact in former times if you think of some of the buildings being converted in Yale town that was also the case here. Yet currently if you look at warehouse / office buildings developments in Richmond for example there may be a token upper level, but generally they are built on a huge one story sprawling model. That is as bad for sustainable development as single family dwelling subdivisions.

    Again thanks for the great notes and commentary Stephen as well as the chance to comment and looking forward to the next round of public consultations meetings. Hoping to get an opportunity to go. Oh and Happy New Year hope we have as much fun in 2010.

    Bernadette Keenan

    December 29, 2009 at 3:39 pm

  14. I think what the strategy does NOT say is as illuminating as what it does. And anyway, it does not have much more force than “good intentions”. Metro cannot bind the province, and all it can do with the municipalities is encourage a compliance statement. There is no penalty if they do not stick to that either – just the plans have to say the right things, not the decisions they make with respect to development.

    The whole point about industrial lands is that they have been used to put up really cheap “tip up” buildings and surface parking – most of which are hardly in industrial use. But now that horse is out of the barn, not much can now be done about it. Multi-storey buidlings and parking structures will not be used as long as there is peripheral land to develop.

    Stephen Rees

    December 31, 2009 at 8:44 am

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