Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for May 17th, 2010

How cities grow

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The Globe and Mail has a story today abut a new study by the Neptis Foundation that compares Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. When I read the Globe piece I was at first puzzled as it seemed to me that there was some confusion in that about definitions. It seemed to me that the Globe thinks “Vancouver” meant the city, whereas Calgary and Toronto referred to their regions. I am glad I looked at the Neptis site and then decided to download the whole report (though from the same page there are a number of other options including a summary report and links to a fact sheet and “observations and FAQs”). Since the full report is 128 pages it is going to take me some time to read it. But I wanted to get in first with a quick bash, once again, at the sloppy reporting of main stream media, but also to point out firstly how well constructed this report is, but also how dated. Things have moved on, and our region  – though quite fairly from the data seems to have been doing well – is now going in completely the wrong direction.

Let us first deal with the comparison thing. They did do an “apples to apples” comparison, by using satellite imagery to define the limits of the city regions and then using census data to track changes in population and dwelling counts over time. But the time is also significant – they looked at the period 1991 to 2001. In that time, compared to the other two regions, Greater Vancouver (as it was then called) did much better than the other two.

Rates of growth in population and housing stock:

• Calgary’s population grew by 24% and its housing stock by 26%.

• Vancouver’s population and housing stock both grew by 24%.

• Toronto’s population grew by 19% and its housing stock by 22%.

Compare these to the increase in urban land:

• Calgary’s urban land increased by 43% (from 25,000 to 35,000 hectares), or 6.3 hectares per 100 new residents.

• Toronto’s urban land increased by 28% (from 139,000 to 178,000 hectares), or 4.4 hectares per 100 new residents.

• Vancouver’s urban land increased by 16% (from 57,000 to 66,000 hectares), or 2.3 hectares per 100 new residents.

So we seemed to have done better at limiting sprawl than they did. The report goes on to examine the nature of the growth on more detail (intensification vs greenfield), and then turns to the planning policies of the the regions  and the implementation of those policies. The conclusions are unsurprising but important

The stability of planning policies over the long term hinges on the presence of supportive institutions such as regional planning agencies and consistent regional leadership. Vancouver and Calgary have  both pursued fairly consistent regional urban development policies for more than 50 years because they had both of these things. The Toronto region, however, has suffered from a fragmentation of authority — only the provincial government has been able to act as the effective planner for the region.

(I am quoting, by the way from the copiable shorter pieces referred to above, not the full report as that is a “secured” pdf than does not allow quoting of selected text)

There are, of course, good reasons for their selection of dates. I would suspect that a comparison of 2001 to 2011 – when that data becomes available – will show much less of a success in controlling sprawl. But I also think that anyone who has had close experience of the regional planning process and its implementation here will choke on their cornflakes when reading some of the findings about the GVRD. “Stability and continuity of institutions” are credited for  Vancouver’s success as well as “a long tradition of inter-municpal cooperation and decades-old policies for protecting agricultural land.”

First notice that the word “Transportation” is not mentioned. Stability of institutions does not apply there. Nor does “inter-municpal cooperation” – for example the long running battle between New Westminster and Coquitlam over the Braid St bridge.  In the last ten years transportation has been one of the most contentious issues in this region, both with municipalities battling for rapid transit and also arguments about who goes first ((Vancouver, Richmond and Burnaby won – Coquitlam and Surrey lost).  Secondly, the commitment to protecting the ALR seems to have been weakened. And thirdly the role of the province which the report says was to set the rules and then stand back has very obviously shifted. The current government says that the LRSP “failed” and that therefore the highway expansion is essential to support their favoured pattern growth. The policies and the frameworks have not changed very much, but it is very obvious that the intentions of the developers are now being given much more favour than formerly.

We didn’t sprawl much in the nineties, says this report. And that is very well documented. But don’t take that pat on the back as assurance that all is well. For the performance in the noughties was almost certainly worse – certainly for loss of the ALR and growth outside of the Growth Concentration Area. And with the province now firmly committed to more freeways, much more sprawl is certain in the next ten years (the teenies?).

I would like to believe, as a regional planner and policy analyst, that policies and their consistent application are the key to controlling growth.  I do not believe that one can ignore transportation completely. I cannot accept that the provincial has ever been wholly benign – and certainly is not now. But I am going to read the whole thing now – which may take me some time. Once again, this is NOT an invitation to restart the old “it’s all Skytrain’s fault” stuff and if I see any comments on that they will once again get moderated out of existence.

UPDATE Thanks to Price Tags here is former GVRD head planner Ken Cameron’s response in a letter to the G&M

Spinning in her urban grave

I feel queasy when I see Vancouver described as an “urban planner’s dream” (How Cities Grow – These Days, Up Is In; May 17). Thirty years ago, people described Toronto as “New York run by the Swiss.” Now it resembles Los Angeles more than Lucerne.

Vancouver, which Mayor Gregor Robertson wants to make the world’s greenest city, comprises a mere 27 per cent of the region’s population and less than 5 per cent of its land base. Much of the rest of the region is more like an urban planner’s nightmare, with low density development aided and abetted by massive provincial investment in freeways – freeways, for heaven’s sake. Jane Jacobs must be spinning in her grave.

It isn’t a pretty picture. Unless Mr. Robertson and mayors of the other 20 municipalities can get their act together and fix the weak, dysfunctional arrangements for regional growth management and transportation planning, Vancouver might soon resemble Venice, but it will be surrounded by Phoenix.

Ken Cameron, Vancouver

Written by Stephen Rees

May 17, 2010 at 2:19 pm

The Bicycle Diaries

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There is no copyright in titles, but I do happen to be reading David Byrne‘s excellent collection of short pieces right now, and the return of the warmer weather saw me get my bike out of the shed this weekend. I simply wiped off the dust, pumped up the tires and oiled the chain. Everything seemed to be working ok until I needed the small front gear ring – so I need to do a bit more adjustment on that for when I leave Lulu Island.

Byrne’s diaries are “observations and insights – what he is seeing, whom he is meeting, what he is thinking about – as he pedals through and engages with some of the world’s major cities”. Well worth reading. My aim is perhaps more limited and I doubt I will be covering anything like his geographic compass. What I tend to be thinking about when I am cycling is cycling – and the state of the route I am using, as opposed to the state of life, the universe and everything.

Steveston at No 4 Rd

Steveston at No 4 Rd

In no particular order let’s start with Richmond. I have been cycling here now for 15 years or so, and I have seen very little change in that time in the bike route network or its facilities, and many have needed upgrading for a long time. The concept of cycling as transportation seems foreign to Richmond. though being completely flat, it shouldn’t be. The dykes are fine – though I would prefer a better surface than loose gravel.  Some of the issues of cycling in Richmond have been covered here in this blog, so I will try not to repeat myself. Both No 4 Road (at least north of Steveston Highway) and Steveston Highway itself should be avoided. These are arterial routes that drivers use for fast travel: they are posted at 50km/hr but hardly anyone drives at that speed. There are no marked cycle facilities of any kind so wary cyclists who have no choice but to use short lengths of these roads ride on the sidewalk, illegally but a lot more safely. Please, if you have to do that, ride slowly so that you can stop quickly if someone walks out of a gate in a hedge.

Garden City might be good alternate to No 4 but there is no way you can proceed safely south through the Granville Road intersection.

Empty trail 2

The Shell Road trail is a joy to ride but dead ends at Highway #99. The boundary between MoT and CoR is marked by signs and a clear shift in attitude. MoT does not seem to have a cycling policy. While Highway #99 is getting bus lanes added to it (and not before time!) the bridge over Shell Road is a work site. Underneath, in the CN right of way is the works yard. There is plenty of room here for a northbound continuation  of the bike route all the way to River Road within the road allowance. It would be nice if, when the work is finished, at least the bit under Highway #99 was left as a bike route. I will be surprised if it is.

Highway 99 overpass

A common issue for many major intersections in Richmond is the use of right turn lanes. These are simply designed to speed up vehicle movements – and pose a significant hazard to cyclists and pedestrians alike. Cars driving fast west along Westminster Highway and turning north onto Shell have no intention of stopping, and the location of the crossing at the apex of the bend actually reduces the sightline of cars and bikes. Signalization of intersections like this (the next one north at Shell and Alderbridge is the same) ignores the turn so you don’t get a button to push or a light to stop the cars except on the straight through movements. And even then, traffic making left turns does so when you get the white walk sign (the existence of cycles is simply ignored by drivers and traffic engineers alike).

Shell at Westminster Hwy

Shell at Westminster Hwy

The section of River Road between No 4 and Shell has been narrowed to deter car racing. However this is a residential street on the south side, so cyclists who do not want impatient drivers crowding them through the chicanes use the sidewalk. The dyke is also an alternate through route, but less convenient if you are headed to or from Vancouver over the new Canada Line Bridge.   And as I noted at the time, that drops you down to Kent Avenue for the climb back up to the ridge. A gentler, straight ramp to S E Marine Drive would have been far better and neater. The “sharrows” on the tarmac seem to indicate use of Cambie but I would avoid Marine for the same reasons I avoid Steveston Highway. Kent to Ontario is much quieter.

If the climb from Marine deters you there is a lot of choice – put the bike on a variety of bus routes or the Canada Line itself. Ontario Street southbound from the Ridgeway, on the other hand is a joy. Just a note to other users. Those round things in the middle of intersections make them traffic circles NOT roundabouts. If you don’t know the difference you should.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 17, 2010 at 11:34 am

Posted in bicycles, cycling

Tagged with , , ,