Stephen Rees's blog

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

UBC Alumni dialogue: Transportation?

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UPDATED November 22

I went to a UBC dialogue at the Burnaby Hilton Metrotown on Monday November 18, 2013. You can find out more about the alumni at Attendees at the meeting were encouraged to tweet using the hashtag #ubcdialogues (despite the unavailability of free wifi) and I have gathered what was tweeted here  and in more readable format on Storify

Stephen Quinn of CBC Raidio was the moderator who introduced the five experts Larry Frank, Ian Jarvis, Carole Jolly of UBC planning, Paul Lee of City of Surrey and Ian Druce of Steer, Davis & Gleave.

The meeting was recorded for a podcast that is now available on the UBC Alumni web page.

Larry Frank opened by stating that future funding for transit should be  tied to suitable land use planning. It was essential to bring development to transit. The public sector health care costs of car dependence are greater than the investment required “We are lazy and sedentary” which gives rise to the most prevalent health problems: diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Ian Jarvis noted that everyone seem to be in favour of improvements to transit as long as somebody else pays for it. Fares cover half the operating cost, and do not make any contribution to fund capital investment. Everyone benefits from the improvements to the economy and quality of life that follow transit investment. The upcoming referendum will focus attention on these issues.

Carole Jolly stressed the economic benefits of rail all the way to UBC along the Broadway corridor linking the hi tech industry and health care institutions to the centre of research.

Paul Lee noted “We are not alone: everyone else has this problem.” Surrey covers a huge area and every two years adds the population equivalent to another Port Moody
How much courage do we have?

Ian Druce said that out region was actually ahead of other places in Canada as we have  integrated planning and transportation. We get funds for transit from three sources fares, gas tax and federal contributions [?]. There are issues over governance and decision making with both the province and the municipalities. There remains an unresolved issue for the region of affordability.

Stephen Quinn asked with reference to the referendum how do we make a case to people who can’t access transit?

We all rely on other people to make better choices, to allow us to drive. Congestion is bad and getting worse. I think  that the health argument carries a lot of weight as we pay for everybody else’s health. The greenhouse gas argument is profound but not as immediate

How much of an impediment is the governance structure?

The are two questions to be dealt with
1 The need for elected officials to control broad policy issues
2 What is the appropriate level of investment

How much is the Broadway rail line worth to UBC?

The recent KPMG report shows the significant economic benefit to UBC but, unlike the airport we don’t have a revenue source to tap for funds. Quinn responded that there is a great deal of property development at UBC  to which Jolly responded that the development benefits are fed back to education

When did the light bulb go on for Surrey?

Four years ago we did a study which showed that the maximum we can do with road expansion would allow for a 10 to 12% growth but our population will double.

He had contributed to a governance review of Translink for the Mayors Council. What is missing now is the policy led decision making that requires elected officials [for legitimacy] The mayors are frustrated that they get the blame for overcrowding and passups but they can’t raise the funds to do anything about it.

How should the referendum question be framed?

It should address decision making as well as funding. H wis much more worried about “bad infrastructure” and its impact on land use.

There were successful referenda in the US. The ones that won had a specific set of projects with determined costs and timelines for construction. For example, Los Angeles  had a long list of projects to ensure that there is something for everyone

We have to identify champions – its not enough that Ian Jarvis asks for more money. Groups like the Board of Trade have to be out in public talking about the benefit to the economy
Everyone wins

We have to present a package of benefits not just cost

Must include pedestrians and cyclists

Questions from the floor

1 The province should do something for transit

Use the carbon tax pay for transit. [Not just use it to reduce other taxes.]
Planning should be at regional level – not dropping a huge project out of the blue onto the region [i.e. Massey Tunnel replacement]

BC spends more on transit than the other provinces do [presumably he means in proportion to population or GDP not absolute amounts]. An economic vision for the region is needed. We have done quite well in recent years [transit investments].

2. Look at the relative density cf London and New York (cited data I did not get to write down)

We built inefficient land use

Density by itself is not enough. The City of Vancouver  is actually denser than most cities but is designed for cars

1m people are coming but the land base is limited

3. What is the right transit technology for Broadway?

Build for the future
Not just the costs look at benefits too

We have excess demand now – many cities would like that problem
We need to build in flexibility

SQ Raised the issue of Human dignity – referring to his commute on SkyTrain from Broadway & Commercial to downtown. Is comfort [on transit] a luxury?

The problem with SkyTrain is it moves a lot of people through one narrow corridor. We need a bigger, broader network to improve resiliency. Currently we are vulnerable to incidents on one part of system. We need a technology that will “fill the gap” between bus and sky train [in terms of passenger capacity].

4 – Identified two areas that are likely to vote No. Low density areas without  access to transit
Burnaby and New West already have their transit

We should “bundle housing with transit” to improve affordability and reduced the need to “drive until you qualify”.
Parks open space

Vibrant economy benefits everyone

5 – (from Transit operator) What happens if the answer is no, what do we do?

TransLink articulates that – dig deeper in the hole

The vote will be taken as one of non-confidence in Translink

6 – Is the Implementation Plan the list pf porjects? When will it be ready ?

Yes – mid 2014

7   Developer Cost Charges to pay for transit ?

Distance based impact fees. Has been done elsewhere. Munis get DCC to pay for Pedestrian facilities etc.

Capstan Way station development in Richmond – developer (voluntary) contribution



I am not sure why I was invited to the meeting. I think it is interesting that this is now the second time I have sat in a room where everyone was convinced that we needed more transit but was also sure that the rest of the region would not be willing to pay for it.

I think the carbon tax idea is popular but is actually the least likely outcome. Firstly because it was sold as “revenue neutral” and that will be difficult to reverse. Does it only get diverted to the extent it is collected in this region? Or do we think that other parts of BC deserve to get carbon reducing investments too? No one talked about sales tax.

I was struck by the conversation that once again identified the need for a champion for transit but once again did not name any of the coalitions that are already forming

I also think it is highly unlikely that the region will get to decide how to frame the question. The province will do that to get the answer it wants.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 19, 2013 at 8:58 am

5 Responses

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  1. Sounds like the meeting was another unproductive session of preaching to the choir.


    November 19, 2013 at 11:57 am

  2. There were some from the other side present – I think that would include the “density” questioner, who seemed to think we should build more roads to cure congestion

    Stephen Rees

    November 19, 2013 at 1:27 pm

  3. “Look at the relative density cf London and New York ”

    When will people compare Vancouver to towns that are nearly similar to it…like Toronto and Montreal?
    Vancouver city 114.97 km2, population 603,502, Density 5,249/km2
    Toronto: 630 km2, population 2,615,060, density 4,149/km2
    Montreal: 365.13 km2, population 1,649,519, density 4517.6/km2
    Both Toronto and Montreal have a rapid transit system that covers the whole city.

    One could add Lyon in France, city population 484,344, density 10,101 /km2, 2.4 million in the metro area. It has 4 subway lines across the whole city..

    Density per se was not the most important thing when it came to transit in 1900-30 . When the first subway systems where built in various European towns, mostly by hand at first, no one worried that much about density, cost and possible number of users. A city decided that it would have a transit system and that is that. It was a matter of civic pride.

    For fun I added Tokyo: 2,187.66 km2, population 13,185,502, density 6,000/km2 (most of the housing is single family homes and low rise apartment buildings…as you can easily see by zooming on various areas of the 23 wards of Tokyo with Google Earth).

    “Density by itself is not enough. The City of Vancouver is actually denser than most cities but is designed for cars”
    Paris (nearly same size as the city of Vancouver but with 2.2 million) has a density of 21 370 people per km2. It has wide avenues, much wider than any in Vancouver, and a circular freeway right around the city of Paris.
    Osaka has a density or nearly 12 000/km2. Besides wide avenues it has—like all major Japanese towns, elevated freeways that criss-cross the city.

    Is there a town over 50 000 in all the major countries (G8) that was NOT designed for cars?

    Red frog

    November 21, 2013 at 1:09 pm

  4. […] An audio broadcast of the entire event (running 1h14m) is available online from UBC Alumnni Dialogues’ site. Local transit commentator Stephen Rees also has a summary of the talk at his blog. […]

  5. Thanks for attending and reporting on this event, Stephen.

    Very interesting numbers, Red Frog. Keep in mind that 70% of the private land in the city is still zoned for low densities and detached single-family houses on large lots, even with lane houses, and in my view there is much room for improvement regarding land use efficiency without resorting to towers on arterials. Let’s do an interesting experiment and take the numbers further.

    The ward in the London borough of Chelsea and Kensington where my grandfather lived prior to emigrating to Canada in 1921 currently has a population density of ~11, 500 people/km2 (rounded). The most populous ward hovers around 20,000/km2, and the least dense rings in at a little less than 9,000/km2. The average density of Chelsea-Kensington would be about 14,000/km2.

    Now even at 14K, Chelsea isn’t Manhattan in terms of urban design. My grandfather’s street and the vast majority of streets surrounding it are filled with lovely three-storey attached brick terrace houses punctuated by the occasional mid-rise. There are very few towers, but a lot of charming, human scale urbanism well-served by the Underground and double-decker buses on arterials, which are scarcely over four lanes wide. Public services like hospitals are dotted all over in mid-range scales (i.e. not super large or concentrated scales like VGH), and shopping and services are continuous at ground level on all the nearby arterials. There could be more parks, but these don’t have to be large unless you’re preserving riparian habitat or something.

    If you concentrated the entire world population into one big city with the quite comfortable average urban density of Chelsea, that city would be 500,000 km2 in size. That is roughly 53% the area of BC, or 5% of the area of Canada. To support the city with resources and food to an adequate standard of living acceptable to the West (i.e. not to the gluttonous levels of the 1%, and certainly higher than the poverty of the Third World) and to a level of economic activity that would support resilient stability would probably require a land area equivalent to an additional five Chelseas, or 3,000,000 km2 in total, which is less than 1/3 the area of Canada, and slightly more than 12% of the North American continent.

    Of course, nationalistic, corporate and globalized economic practices require about three planet Earths to meet our current level of per capita consumption in industrialized economies, so obviously something has to give before the depletion of cheap fossil energy and global warming take their toll (I am not confident on this and feel adaptation will be necessary). It will be painful. But thinking in these terms is rather interesting, you have to admit, and it feeds one’s optimism in spite of the deluge of daily negativity.


    November 25, 2013 at 11:53 am

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