Stephen Rees's blog

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

Smart Growth Debate

Nathan Pachal has asked me to post a press release from South Fraser OnTrax. They have invited Todd Litman to debate Smart Growth  with Randal O’Toole. Even if I was in town on that day, I would not be going. I have the greatest of respect for Todd but I have nothing but contempt for Randal O’Toole and the Cato Institute. There is, in general, a desire to see “both sides of the question” – media are required to provide “balance” – but this has been exploited by the rabid right to present arguments on issues where there really isn’t any controversy. No-one with any understanding of the word “truth” doubts that smoking causes lung cancer – and a wide variety of other serious diseases. The methodology espoused by the tobacco industry to fight off legislation limiting its activity have been emulated by the corporations that exploit fossil fuels – and our willingness to believe comforting falsehoods.   The scientific consensus on the link between fossil fuel use and climate change is overwhelming and the need for action is desperate. Yet institutions and individuals have been paid handsomely by the vested interests who profit from peddling tobacco and oil to create the illusion that there is some doubt about these linkages.

In the case of the South Fraser, our provincial government has determined that there will be little or no Smart Growth there. The freeway is being widened, there is no prospect of any significant transit alternative – such as low cost light rail using the former BCER Interurban track. And where there is no adequate transit you simply cannot expect Transit Oriented Development. It did not matter that the arguments in favour of highway expansion were based on fallacies: nowhere, anywhere has ever built its way out of traffic congestion. Increasing the size of roadways in urban areas simply expands traffic demand. Where people can drive but have few options that work for them, they will drive. So it does not matter what has been promised – or even what low cost palliative is offered by Translink in its plans – we know the shape of things to come in Surrey and Langley, and that is more of the same.

So what is the point of a debate? The facts were ignored. Reality has been set aside. We will continue to do what we have always done and we expect a different outcome.

If there is any point in attending such an event I suppose it has to be its entertainment value. Todd Littman is a very good speaker and I expect he will have the best arguments, since anyone who looks at these issues objectively has to agree that Smart Growth is one of the few things that we can do that will make a difference in the suburbs. And, of course, we can equally predict what Randal O’Toole will say. If you haven’t heard of him I suggest you start with this wiki entry about him (and its footnotes of course) and the Cato Institute. Both are very careful to be fair and balanced.

 LANGLEY, With the Metro Vancouver region set to grow by another 1 million people over the next 20 years and with most of that growth set to occur in the South of Fraser, there has been a call by many academics and urban planners to change the way we build our communities. South Fraser OnTrax advocates for smart growth design principles such as making transit a priority and building neighbourhoods that provide a variety of housing options, from single-family homes to apartments. OnTrax believes these principles will protect the environment, human health, and our agricultural land, but not everyone shares this belief.

Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, whose research has been used by governments worldwide, will be debating Randal O’Toole who is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and who has also taught environmental economics at Yale, UC Berkeley, and Utah State University on the future of land-use and transportation planning in the South of Fraser. Litman is a strong proponent of smart growth principals and high-quality public transit while O’Toole has been an outspoken critic.

“For many years we have talked about building more sustainable community and better transit,” says Nathan Pachal of OnTrax, “but many in our communities are not sold on the ideas that this is the way to go. This debate will allow both perspectives to be expressed and let people decide what future they want for our region.”

OnTrax with the support of a City of Langley grant will be hosting this debate on Thursday, February 23rd from 7:00pm to 8:30pm at the Township of Langley Municipal Hall (20338 65 Avenue.) This free event is open to all members of the public, who will have the chance to hear both sides of the debate and have the opportunity to question Litman and O’Toole.

Seating is limited and reservations are recommended. Please visit or for more information and email southfraserblog (at) to reserve your seat.

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