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

Archive for the ‘Urban Planning’ Category

From hyperloops to hailing rides:

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This is just the start of Justin McElroy’s puff piece for the CBC on Railvolution.

I am not going to be dragged off topic by venting on hyperloop or ride hailing. What triggered me was the reference to the lack of affordable housing – as though the lack of it was somehow the fault of transportation planning or unique to Vancouver. Indeed I do not understand why mainstream journalists continue to play around with the issue without placing the blame squarely where it should go.

Canada used to do affordable housing quite well. Though the word “affordable” is rather more recent. Back then it was pretty much accepted in the advanced western countries that the housing market did not work at all well for people on limited incomes and no wealthy background to help out. Housing the poor was regarded as an obligation that had to be accepted by government to avoid the sort of problems described by Dickens and Victor Hugo. Slums were always a feature of industrial landscapes – and for much of the nineteenth century seemed to be regarded as an unfortunate necessity. Until some manufacturers with social consciences – or religious obligations – started building decent homes for their employees. The quakers who ran most of the confectionary companies stand out in my mind – Cadbury and Rowntree. In fact the Rowntree Trust is still in the same business in the UK now.

In Canada the federal government funded public housing – up until the Jean Chretien administration when Paul Martin became Finance Minister and began the change to neoliberal – monetarist policies that cut back public spending on the poor in favour of tax breaks for the rich. This was pretty much the same policy that Thatcher had adopted in the UK – she forced the sale of the best council housing to the tenants in the stated conviction that it would convert them to Conservative voters.

While I am not saying there were no housing issues prior to this point, what is indisputable is that provincial and local governments have had a hard time since federal support for housing was withdrawn. And it is also noticeable that other publicly supported tenures such as co-ops have also been having a hard time.

Of course Vancouver is not alone in “experiencing challenges around affordability”. It has been made worse by the previous BC Liberal government turning a blind eye to money laundering. Vancouver was already a favoured destination for wealthy immigrants – again due to the federal policies that promoted the business class.

“municipalities across the region have faced pressure to keep land around transit-oriented developments affordable for those that need transit most” is really one of the silliest ways of looking at the issue. Municipalities can determine zoning: that is about the extent of it. Arguably, places that continued to stick to single family zoning for much of their territory did a lot to price people out. But then the places that did see development weren’t exactly cheap either.

The region had a strategy to limit sprawl, but that was blown out of the water – once again the BC Liberals decided to invest in highway expansion which far exceeded anything that was spent on transit in the same period. The Olympics were designed not just to attract visitors to a sports festival but to blow a hole in the regional strategies of Greater Vancouver and Squamish-Lillooet and encourage housing development and car commuting along the expanded Sea to Sky Highway. Jack Poole was a developer first and foremost.

So the combination of Hayekian fiscal measures federally and reckless mismanagement provincially is more than enough to explain why decent housing close to jobs has become so hard to find here. What is less acceptable is that having a so called “progressive” governments at both levels in recent years has not seen anything like an adequate response to the need for effective housing policies. It is not as if there is a shortage of resources. When governments find it possible to buy an oil pipeline and building the boondoggle Site C, they have no credibility at all when they plead poverty as a defense of inadequate social policies – where housing ought to have a much higher priority. And during a climate emergency when investing in tar sands and fracking should be anathema.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 8, 2019 at 2:37 pm

What I have been reading

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A useful list from the Guardian “Ten common myths about bike lanes – and why they’re wrong” which uses mostly UK data. And it is about a month old, but I only saw it today. For local readers, the switch of the Downtown Vancouver Business Association from anti-bike lane to pro, simply based on the business data of the members should be proof enough. It was thought that the loss of parking would hurt retailers, but it turns out that the people who ride bikes have more disposable income than those who spend a lot on owning and using a car.

Also from the Guardian – from their Cities section – is a useful explanation of how people use public spaces, based on research in New York City by SWA Group – in a gallery with useful commentary on the left hand side.

You can read “Our Renewable Future” by Richard Henberg and David Fridley on line. It was published a couple of years ago and if you haven’t had a chance to look at it you should.

New Trains from Bombardier for London Overground

“SERVICES over London Overground’s Gospel Oak – Barking line are now exclusively operated by four-car class 710 Aventra EMUs after the legacy two-car DMUs were phased out. One month free travel will be offered between August 31 and October 1 as compensation for the late delivery of the new fleet.” from the International Railway Journal

This used to be mainly a freight line transferring trains from the docks at Tilbury to the rest of the country, in between which ran one of the few peripheral passenger services around London (as opposed to to and from the centre). In recent years these services have been greatly improved by taking them into the regional service provider rather than the national railway which had tended to neglect them. Even though I lived in East Ham for 18 years or so, there was never really much need for us to use this line, but as a train enthusiast I found reasons to, later on.

I quite like the way that people who were inconvenienced by the switch now get compensated. This is common in Europe – but almost unheard of here. Apparently Canada is going to make airlines do something similar. Of course no compensation is ever considered for those stuck by the Greyhound withdrawal – or the appalling unreliability of VIA rail.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 6, 2019 at 5:17 pm

Oakridge Development

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Walking through the mall this morning I passed this illustration of what the new mall development will look like. I then crossed the 41st Ave and Cambie Street intersection to take a photo from the diagonally opposite corner for comparison purposes. You will note that the rendering adopts a much higher viewpoint than street level.

fullsizeoutput_292bfullsizeoutput_292aThe rendering also eliminates the overhead wires for the 41st Avenue trolleybus.

Preparatory work for the development is already underway, hence the traffic control officer and the bollards in the street.

If you also follow me on flickr you will already have seen the following photos there. The exhibit is still open in the mall as part of the marketing effort for the condos.

Oakridge Exhibit

Oakridge Exhibit

Oakridge Exhibit

Note the brewing vessels top centre.

Oakridge Exhibit

The view below shows the proposed brewpub

Oakridge Exhibit

This will not be like the usual mall food court. No franchisees allowed. Guest chefs from all over will be showing off their skills here.

Oakridge Exhibit

This is a sample of the Green Walls that will be a feature of the new buildings.

Oakridge Exhibit

Written by Stephen Rees

March 29, 2019 at 1:48 pm

Geography and demographics perpetually conspire against Delta

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There is a piece by Justin McElroy of the CBC that discusses transit – or rather the lack of it – south of the Fraser and in particular – in Delta. As usual this is in the context of the Massey Tunnel. And I found myself irritated by McElroy’s journalistic attitude. Which is a shame since I generally enjoy reading his stuff.

He has got some data that he puts into Infograms – but the one thing that is very obviously missing is this map

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The original is a pdf that you can get from metrovancouver. It is the second one in the list. Most of Delta is either agricultural or the protected area of Burns Bog. The only population centres are Ladner and “North Delta” – the bit of Surrey that flops over the municipal boundary in the northeast corner.

“Strip away the urban studies jargon,” says McElroy – which is frankly offensive. What Kevin Desmond says is simple and obvious. But what would have made it clearer is if the article had included this map. The relationship between transit service and residential density is very basic and very clear. Though what is a bit of a surprise is that Tsawwassen does not even show up on this map. It is not labelled but does show the “urban containment boundary” – and is still pale green , not the orange of the next density step up. I am not sure if the next census is going to be much different – or if it will show the Tsawwassen FN as a separate “municipality”. But then White Rock doesn’t get a label either though Semiahmoo does. But that is because the labels refer to “Regional and Municipal Centres”.

And actually the lack of transit in this region is nothing to do with geography or demographics. It is simply politics. For 16 years we had a provincial government that neglected transit except for a its pet megaprojects – and foisted an unnecessarily divisive referendum on transit funding which has held back service growth. That log jam has now been broken and things are getting better slowly, but clearly priority for new service has to go to where overcrowding is worst. The province is still fumbling over the need for better regional connections because MoTI is still run by traffic engineers keen to build more and bigger roads. Everyone else seems to understand induced traffic, and the only real argument seems to be over transit technology – which is actually much less important than transit priority.

And while I think there is improvement, we have by no means solved the underfunding of transit operations and maintenance. Senior governments only want to fund projects that have nice photo-ops for politicians, not the dull but essential everyday need to keep the fleet running. Which makes me even less tolerant of the people who keep pushing the idea of free transit, as though we did not already have enough issues of overcrowding and pass-ups. If we had lots of spare capacity and the ability to replace fare revenue from some other source I might be more receptive, but these never ever get mentioned by the free fare crowd. They seem to think that somehow not collecting fares actually saves money, which is not true here – and is only true is very small, underutilized systems – mostly in the US. If you really want public services to be free please concentrate on health and education – which are supposedly free but are not by a long way. When you do not need health insurance for any treatment, and anyone can go to post secondary education without needing loans or grants or scholarships, then I will accept that free transit can be next up. But recognize that means making wealthy people pay more taxes. As we have seen with property tax, you can expect pretty hard push back.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 11, 2019 at 10:52 am

Posted in transit, Urban Planning

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The Surrey Decision

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The Mayor’s Council has decided to support the choice of the electors in Surrey who want SkyTrain over LRT. I am not going to get into why that might be, since they are mostly new Mayors (good) and I have no doubt that the strongest instinct for human beings in group situations is don’t be the awkward, difficult critic. Try and find some consensus, or if you prefer, don’t block their favourite project this time as next time they will block yours.

The difference between SkyTrain and LRT is not the technology. The whole point about the Plan was that it was a real effort to try to match transit technology to the desired land use. There was actually a diagram I saw, not so long ago, that showed how buildout of Surrey LRT would see service on all of the major arterials. This would have facilitated building four to six storey apartments over commercial at street level all along the main roads while a mixture of “missing middle” would fill the bits in between. The Light Rail trains would have priority signals at intersections and exclusive right of way – so not streetcars. This produces journey times door-to-door comparable to grade separated – but without the escalators. Stations on LRT are cheap, and can be relatively close to each other. While the train is loading/unloading, the traffic crosses in front of it.

SkyTrain’s main selling point for electors (boomers: older white males) is that they don’t get in the way of the cars. Because the trains are small, and automated, you can build elevated structures (much cheaper than tunnels) along the highway alignments – see Millennium Line, Evergreen Line. Stations are more widely spaced than LRT. That is because to get people up to the platform you have to offer a faster ride for longer distances. Basically SkyTrain endorses sprawl: it makes longer distance commutes tolerable because the train is faster.  The Canada Line, by the way, is not SkyTrain and it isn’t fast. It’s just not as slow as the jammed up traffic on the surface.

SkyTrain does not have a driver. That means instead of running long trains with long gaps between them (like Edmonton) you can run short trains at shorter intervals, like the Millennium Line, as the cost is the same, but the service level much more attractive. Stations are expensive as they have to have elevators and some escalators. Ideally lots of entrances and exits to make transfers convenient (something the Canada Line deliberately ignored to keep the initial capital cost down) as the punters don’t like to have to cross two six laners just to catch their connecting bus which stops far side of the traffic signals and won’t wait for you.

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The development pattern produced by SkyTrain is now most clearly visible at Brentwood. The Lougheed Highway and Willingdon are both wide stroads with fast traffic. The station is surrounded on three sides by high rises. This does not look like a Walkable City. Yes, it is indeed Transit Oriented Development. But it is not at human scale. I used to think that the views made possible by living high up, would compensate for the inconvenience of waiting for the elevator (no one walks up to the 40th floor). But if all you can see out of your windows are the serried windows of the high rise across the street …

That is what the region has now endorsed for Surrey. The population and the overall density won’t be much different, but the point density at transit stations will be very different. But that allows the bits in between to stay something like they are now for longer. So not only do you not have to wait for a streetcar to finish loading, but you can also stay in your present accommodation.  No wonder it appeals to the sort of people who will vote for Doug McCallum.

POSTSCRIPT

Hours after I first posted this opinion piece some new analysis came to my attention from the Georgia Straight 

Written by Stuart Parker it is worth your time

…why Surrey could choose an LRT without sufficient public buy-in for the project and then have that project defeated by a candidate claiming that he could fund a $3-billion asset using $1.6 billion of other people’s money that they had set aside for a different project.

Who is Stuart Parker? “Stuart Parker teaches international studies and history at Simon Fraser University. He ran for Surrey council in 2018 as a member of Proudly Surrey.”

Note also there is a comment by Frank Bucholtz under the article which endorses it.

Towers at Marine Drive Station

High rise towers at Marine Drive Canada Line station

 

Written by Stephen Rees

November 16, 2018 at 8:25 am

Book Review: Trains Buses and People

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An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit by Christof Spieler

Published by Island Press October 2018  ISBN 978-1-61091-903-6 Paperback Full color 290 Photos 185 illustrations 248 pages Price US $40.00

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This review will be mainly of interest to my US readers. While there are some references made in the book to how other places do things, this book is concerned with how transit is provided in the US and how to do it better. In the same way that “Walkable City Rules” spells out how to improve car oriented cities – which is most of them – this book identifies what needs to be done to make transit more useful. Given this morning’s events here – where the Mayors’ Council voted to suspend work on the Surrey LRT and start on the process to switch priorities to SkyTrain to Langley – his thoughts on modes are very relevant.

“…mode is not the most important aspect of transit. What riders care about most is where transit goes, how fast it is and how reliable it is. It is better to think of modes as tools … one mode or another may be a better fit in terms of capacity, cost or capability”

It is also significant, I think, that he lives and works in Houston, Texas and takes light rail for most of his journeys. It is frequent – every 6 minutes – and has its own right of way with signal priority at intersections. So he gets pretty much the same sort of on board experience as someone who rides SkyTrain here – but without the need to use an escalator or elevator. He probably has a much better chance of getting a seat. For me that is another essential but then I am very nearly as old as Prince Charles.

” most importantly … it goes to the right places” so it can be used for a wide variety of trip purposes not just the journey to work. Far too many US railroads with passenger service take Commuter Rail far too literally – and West Coast Express is one of the prime examples of how useless it is for anything other than the weekday commute to downtown.

Fortunately not only is there a really good book, with lots of information, there is also a web site.   And that will do much more for you than reading any review.

This is a reference document which you will want to keep handy. It is also something that is worth just idly skimming – for places you know or those you might want to visit. And yes there is a list of best and worst – you can learn from both. Toronto does get a couple of mentions. Vancouver none at all. Neither does Montreal rate a mention. I hope that one day Mr Spieler comes here. I would be happy to show him around.

I would also say that I would disagree with him about speed. The actual pace of the mode over the ground is much less important than how long the overall journey takes, and how convenient it is. If there is a lot of stair climbing and hanging around in grim surroundings, the fact that you get onto a fast train eventually is less than adequate compensation. The Canada Line is downright slow – but it is still better than the #15 bus for almost any trip. And if you want to avoid the traffic congestion that often impacts the bridges to the airport, more reliable than driving, on most trips. In my most recent travels the impact of a two hour wait for a METRA train from Naperville to Union was far more significant than the fact that it never seemed to get much faster than 30 mph, and stopped even more frequently than the CTA Blue Line to O’Hare airport. And the walk from the end of the train to the taxi was a significant issue too.

METRA 194

And when we got home we felt that is was worth splashing out on a cab rather than struggle with our bags on and off a train and a bus – and then a drag through the streets. Had we not been so encumbered then the transit ride would probably been a comparable time but considerably cheaper. You note that fare doesn’t even get mentioned in “what riders care about”.

I would recommend this volume for everyone who likes maps and data, and is interested in US transit. I would also like to see something that does like for like comparison with cities around the world. We used to like to compare Metro Vancouver to Zurich – and Phoenix – just because they were comparable but very different indeed.  I know that I am going to find myself thumbing through it quite a lot. It is a lovely production.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 15, 2018 at 4:30 pm

Posted in transit, Urban Planning

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Vancouver Public Library: New Roof Garden

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We went downtown today to see the recently opened extension to the main public library. There is a new top floor with an large public space, currently hosting an exhibit about the changing city and above that a rooftop area that is mostly paved but with some planting (shown above).

I have also uploaded a set of photos to my flickr stream which I am linking to below

Vancouver Public Library

This poster is displayed in the main lobby. It is not meant to be taken literally.

Vancouver Public Library

As you can see it is not that hard to find your way around the new 9th floor.

There are two open patios on the 8th floor, also accessible from new exterior stairs as well as the internal escalators, elevators and stairs.

Vancouver Public Library

There is also a planted area that is not open to the public on the 9th floor as is the green roof above it.

Vancouver Public Library

The whole thing is all very nicely presented but I have to confess a feeling of being underwhelmed. The new space did get quite a lot of notice in the media, so I suppose I was expecting something more.

Vancouver Public Library

Vancouver Public Library

Vancouver Public Library

Movable tables and chairs are a very good idea. Maybe as the plantings grow and more people start to use the space, things will look better. No doubt sunshine will help but frankly the view is unimpressive. Not much of our glorious setting is visible from here – just the towers and the roof of the stadium

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Written by Stephen Rees

October 3, 2018 at 4:55 pm