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Archive for January 28th, 2010

Plantalk: Learning from Chicago

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Two of Vancouver’s newest city-shapers shared their experiences from one of North America’s most vibrant cities – Chicago – last night at SFU. Vancouver Deputy City Manager Sahdu Johnston and TransLink Vice-President of Planning Mike Shiffer both worked in the Windy City, one in the Mayor’s office, the other in the Chicago Transit Authority, at a time when sustainability was emerging as a key platform in the city’s political culture. Their talk was co-sponsored by Planning Institute of British Columbia — South Coast Chapter, Metro Vancouver RAIC Chapter, and SFU City Program.

Leveraging Technology to Reshape Transport Planning in Chicago & Vancouver

Mike Shiffer, Translink

UPDATED May 3, 2010 video of this presentation now available

Chicago had “skytrain” [the elevated railway] and trolleybuses and had aspirations for BRT in the 1950s. Chicago built the El 100 years ago and that was one of the main issues – how to maintain and upgrade aged infrastructure. But they also had the opportunity to shape communities: there was an extensive streetcar system which produced the land use pattern familiar here based on a rectilinear grid of streetcar lines. The City also experienced change to its urban form as the Dan Ryan expressway penetrated close to downtown. That replaced the dense  tenements with housing projects but those also now gone . He  showed how transit was shoehorned into the highway median, “not the most pleasant environment to wait for a train”. The high-rise offices also now dominate downtown – “there are no mountain views to block there”. The El also shaped the city as former industrial neighbourhoods of the inner city became residential areas but also serves the lower density outer suburbs, with very varied results.

He then showed some of the academic work he had conducted at MIT including a riverfront collaborative planning system for St Louis, which essentially combined maps and pictures, as well as Multimedia Visualisation for the FHWA,  FTA and US DoT web based multimedia and a visualisation of noise impacts which brought him to Chicago. He became CTA VP Planning and said that the CTA was a “challenged agency” facing capacity needs and aging infrastructure funding problems. It serves the central part of the metropolitan area: there is also a larger regional agency which is much bigger than Metro Vancouver.

He showed how similar statistics for bus and rail for the two agencies look, but what that confuses is that Translink’s 2m population is spread over the whole region, whereas the CTA serves a larger population at the centre of a much bigger area.

He said that his aim had been to “reshape transit planning”

  • systematic

  • service standards

  • information infrastructure

  • human capital

He did this by relying on a spatial data structure – he used census and other population and employment statistics together with data from faregates and smart cards to understand travel patterns. As well as gates on the rail system they had gps on the buses plus automatic passenger counters. In addition they did outreach through surveys and workshops. This lead to improved routes for buses and some strategic plans, although he conceded there is now “not much room to implement them”. He also showed how sections of the El were reconstructed over a weekend. This method replaced the earlier practice of closing lines – sometimes for years at a time – which lost ridership. He was also responsible for setting up an academic partnership which produced over 80 theses on topics of interest to the CTA.

The results were increased customer satisfaction and ridership. I noted he did not talk about mode share and he did acknowledge that there was still “room for improvement”

He then described current planning activities at Translink –  the 30 year plan, improvements to accessibility, and projected regional growth. This part of the presentation was very rapid and went “from soup to nuts” and he concluded by saying that it would reduce ghg emissions

Sahdu Johnston

Implications for Vancouver from Chicago work on the environment

he started by talking of his commitment to cities and environmental issues and spoke of his early experience “saving Cleveland” mainly by building communities after his earliest experience of how his neighbours helped each other.

Chicago has preserved its lakefront and early on the commitment to the greening of Chicago was made before he arrived. For instance the City introduced  planted medians instead of traffic lanes [actually reducing vehicle capacity!] and over 500,000 trees were planted. They have also made a huge effort to introduce green roofs – 7m sf – more than the rest of the US combined! He showed a picture of the city centre’s Millennium Park which was built as part of the City’s environmental action agenda leading by example.

Concert at Millennium Park

Concert at Millennium Park picture by ser.ddima on flickr

The issue of Climate Change has also received a lot of attention. The  projected number 100 degree days the city experiences in a year – mainly die to the urban heat island effect  could be 31 days (compared to just 2 in 1961-90) or perhaps could become 8 days if they can lower emissions. There is a similar forecast for days of extreme precipitation and also a huge increase projected for cooling degree days (i.e. the amount of air conditioning needed). This he stressed was adapting to climate change not mitigating it. The City discovered that its climate zone changed between 1990 and 2006, meaning that the types of trees and plants it uses has had to change.

There are five strategies but one common feature is to understand the co-benefits of action. For example the green roof on city hall had a sigificant effect on energy use and thus on its operational cost. One year the City had to cancel its annual Marathon after one death due to the extreme heat. They looked at the route as an area to increase available shade from new tree planting. From that developed a city wide tree canopy strategy which has had to aggressive to deal with heat island problem.

The process of adaptation to climate change caused them to re-examine the Role of Cities. He demonstrated that while emissions from cities appear much greater than the surrounding area its emissions per capita are far lower than the suburbs. There would be significant savings in energy use if suburbanites lived like city dwellers. Interestingly transportation accounts for only 27% of city emissions.

The city has adopted metric tonne reduction goals and as part of achieving that used the incentive of a faster permit process for green building applications. The city also pays the fees as a further incentive which is perceived as a win win by developers. Green Permit program

The city now has many LEED certified new buildings and has started on the massive task of retrofitting existing buildings by tackling the two biggest – the Merchandise Mart and Sears Tower. In both cases the savings in energy costs make the retrofits financially attractive. They have also noticed that geographically foreclosures on residences are concentrated in areas where energy spending is highest. They see the retrofit program as a source of green jobs.

Since he has only been in Vancouver for two months he did not say a lot about programs here but noted that Vancouver has lowest ghg per capita in North America (4.6 metric tonnes CO2 equiv). Vancouver is on track to reducing greenhouse gas GHG emissions by 6% below 1990 levels by 2012 (setting a target for Vancouver comparable to what the Kyoto target is for Canada) despite a population increase of 27% and jobs increase of 18%.

The aggressive goals set by the Green City Action Team show that the city is “poised to lead”. Unlike Chicago,  37% of ghg emissions come from transport, but the city is also tackling ghg from buildings, including the use of district energy systems.


1    What plans are there to use existing railways for passenger service?

MS – We need to look first at the origins and destinations of trips to see how these match the existing railways and also look for appropriate technologies for different trip types. There are undoubtedly opportunities to use existing  rights of way and Translink is  “looking at different options. A number of route studies are going on as well as a network study to better shape land use, as well as serve existing needs. The Evergreen Line [still the first priority] Surrey, The Broadway  corridor [Vancouver] were all mentioned. He also mentioned the interurban line and “rights of way in the  City of Vancouver [a reference to the Arbutus line and maybe the South Vancouver CP route]. He also spoke of the need for a “system to better serve land use and sensitive to neighborhood context” [which sounds like a nod towards streetcars or LRT]

2   [addressed to Sahdu Johnston] You spoke of an interdisciplinary way of working.  Is there a process of cross departmental working in Chicago?

SJ – It was organic rather than a system. We decided to solve a bunch of problems with each solution not just one issue. For instance the use photo catalytic cement: an additive keeps buildings white through a chemical reaction with air pollution “it eats smog”. The concrete then reflects more heat and light which provides  3 or 4 solutions with one additive. Similarly an program to recycle electronic waste provides employment and  ex offender training as well as low cost computers for low income households

3   Gordon Price asked what they thought would be the legacy of the Olympic games

MS – there is the physical legacy of the Canada Line, as well as consequent improvements to the urban form. Exposure of Vancouver to the world : “a lot of people want to do the right thing and this will attract them here”

S – The Canada Line is a good example: in Chicago the available capital dollars always get spent on shoring up existing operations. Vancouver is home to a lot of people from a lot of places. The games should bring people together, create a sense of community –and enable them to work together better in the future

4   How do you propose to optimise use of the transit network

MS – Through the use of smart card technologies we will get more efficient use of the network. For example by offering a bonus for off peak travel or charging fare by distance. There are  similar technologies  for vehicles to enable  TDM measures. The role of technology is to provide incentives for some routes and times and thus produce a more balanced system.

SJ – you only have one transit agency here:  Chicago has three [CTA, Metra and PACE]

5   How does Transit Oriented Development (TOD) provide affordable housing?

MS – We need a mix of land uses to support transit. There have to be  destinations on various parts of the line, not all centralised in one spot. We also serve different activities over time (there are different demands at night than during the day). For  transit the key for all levels of activity to increase. If we are to connect to low income  housing ( in the US we are required to look at an environmental justice review) we need to do spatial analysis. The  guiding principles for providing service [outlined above] provide a lot of opportunity.

6 – What do you see as greatest challenge here?

SJ – That’s a great question. What do you think?  Affordability

SJ –  I agree that is is a huge issue. Both TOD or green building can help with that. “Vancouver has super cheap, green power” [compared to the US midwest reliance on coal] He then turned the question to the audience: I answered “funding transit”,  others spoke of  the need to protect industrial land as people will coming here for jobs

7    Does the push for electric vehicles and other small, fuel efficient cars subvert transit?

MS  –  The car will always be with us.  It is a matter of commute distance: cars can complement public transit. We  still have to retrofit car oriented land use [to allow for better alternatives] Many people will continue to drive to transit stations in low density communities. But they
don’t have to drive every day.

8    It now seems we have two agencies doing regional planning. Is there competition between them?

MS – I think there is a perception of challenged relationship but I have found a great working relationship. We work together at staff level very well. For Metro getting the Regional Growth Strategy finalised is like herding cats. Our Transport 2040 is finished and Metro could be working from that. I think they should build on each other. “There is no simple formula of which you do first”



I had been looking forward to the evening. I think I would have preferred a format that promoted discussion and debate rather than two powerpoints and some Q&A. The audience seemed distanced and not engaged, and the presentations were both based on what seemed much used material “what I did in Chicago” not “what we could do in Vancouver”. Mike Shiffer had a great deal of material on his slides which he had to hurry through – hopefully the slides will be on line somewhere. Sahdu Johnston tried harder to get people engaged, but with scant response from a large room.

Shiffer’s geeky approach is a huge change for planning at Translink. He showed one slide which illustrated bus stops which have the most pass ups. I really want to know what the data source for that was. In the bad old days, the bus operators refused to collect any data at all. I suppose someone at CMBC is logging pass ups that are radioed in onto a geocoded database. I do know that there are not many buses here with GPS and apcs so I do not think he can yet have the data richness he enjoyed at the CTA. He did have some google map images which showed ridership by route – but it looked to me like it was just the 99 and former 98 B lines – but it went by too fast (a familiar story for Vancouver bus users). If someone at Translink is reading this, please tell us how you are tackling the long standing dearth of good quality data at Translink. Because if that does not happen then the technology is useless – garbage in, garbage out.

I think he muffed the answer to TOD and affordability – and it is the same for energy use. Households that do not need to spend as much money on fuel and equipment for heating and driving can better afford the mortgage. It is the same Location Efficient (and Energy Efficient) Mortgage story we have heard many times. Shiffer spoke about what TOD does to reduce transit costs – which is a whole different matter. He was also wrong, I think, to suggest that shape and serve can happen at the same time. That has not worked here. We have spent so much on serving existing demand (mostly in the City of Vancouver) there was nothing left to shape growth, which as a result is car oriented and has abysmal transit service. If the Broadway Corridor moves up the priority list (as his stop motion video of B Lines loading at Broadway and Commercial will support) this pattern will continue.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 28, 2010 at 11:52 am