Stephen Rees's blog

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

Archive for April 13th, 2011

Surrey wants lights rail

with 28 comments

Mayor Diane Watts yesterday delivered her “state of the city” address. It got covered by the Globe and the Sun with the latter stressing the demands for light rail and the former setting it properly in a vision for the city. There is no doubt in my mind that she is a far better Mayor than Doug McCallum. And I think she is right in her preference for surface transit. And pushing for light rail is probably reasonable, though I think what will happen is that she will have to settle for B Lines being steadily upgraded to rapid bus for now. Eventually that could become light rail, but probably won’t be.

Mayor Watts and a streetcar

Mayor Watts and a streetcar - from facebook

The reason I say this is that the experience of this region is that it is the province that makes this decision. For a brief period there was a sham of a regional transportation authority, but that has been gone for a while. And every decision so far has been for grade separation and extending what we have. The only new wrinkle being the use of P3s and imported equipment. Richmond wanted what Surrey now wants. It had a rapid bus and quite reasonably thought that it could be turned into surface light rail. They were simply overruled. Local preferences count for nothing – nor do city visions in our system. The province’s preferences for future land uses are clear from yesterday’s post about Tsawwassen: as Meredith Botta observed “it is profoundly disappointing to see the form of development take on discredited and outdated models from the Sixties,” but that is all our development industry understands – and it is the BC Liberals who they pay for and who deliver the outcomes they demand – even if every so often they dress it up in greenwash. Even Stephen Harper can use the need to reduce greenhouse gases when it suits his agenda. Doesn’t mean he actually means to do anything effective about them.

Surrey is going to find – as will the rest of the region – that the current rush to put in more road capacity is the wrong direction. Places which have been building electric railways and streetcars are going to be much more attractive and viable in a future where fossil fuels are going to be sharply restrained. I really doubt that electric cars or even hybrids can revive the low density suburb where you have to drive if you want to do anything. Walkable places connected by high quality transit and high speed rail will be where the investment will be going in future. Just look to our neighbours to the south to see where the distress is currently greatest, and how fast those redundant malls are being turned into something more human in scale.

There actually really isn’t a case for Skytrain – as we understand it – anywhere in this region. Of course, we are stuck with what we have for now, but I do not mind forecasting that in the not too distant future urbanists and others will be calling for the removal of the overhead guideways just as they are calling for the removal of the viaducts now. LIM rails seemed clever once upon a time, but the Canada Line shows that they were not necessary and deliver very little of value at great cost. Automated systems do have advantages, but I think we are going to have to be much more sanguine in future about creating employment. The advantages of surface transit are plentiful and have more to do with place making than saving money – though they can do that too. But it requires an agency that is conscious of the importance of urban design and related land use – not a single purpose transportation agency. If we have grade separation and widely spaced, expensive stations then we get high rises dotted around them at walking distance. If we have slower on street transit with more frequent cheaper stops, then we can have walk up four storey buildings along arterials with townhouses behind them, and detached houses with laneway housing further away. A pattern quite familiar to use and possible within current zoning in most cities – including Vancouver.

But I, as usual, am out of step with municipal politicians. They do not want the regional planning powers we have now. Coquitlam and Port Moody are saying no to the regional plan, not for what it wants to achieve but because it is the region that is saying it, not them. It is much more important, in their minds, that local councillors have no-one to look over what they do and keep them to a broader vision. Though not so long ago it was well understood that unless we had a co-ordinated regional land use and transportation plan, all of our efforts to create something better than the untrammelled market place could produce would be lost. And once again the province will step in and start making the decisions instead. Hardly progress, in my view.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 13, 2011 at 10:47 am