Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘Greenest City

Mayor releases plan to make Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020

with 21 comments

Gregor Robertson used the platform of the current Gaining Ground-Resilient Cities conference at the Vancouver Convention Centre to launch “Vancouver 2020 A Bright Green Future” yesterday. This is the document from the Greenest City Action Team that sets out the objectives and looks as some of the possibilities to achieve the Mayor’s desire to make Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020.

My link in the paragraph above will enable you to download the complete report as a pdf file. If you would prefer, there is a short summary in today’s Vancouver Sun.  It does not discuss the recommendations – it merely presents them. And I expect there will be a lot of discussion about these ideas – what is there and, more importantly, what is missing.  On the whole, as a statement of objectives it is quite bold but “you know these environmentalists, they are never satisfied” (a line from the movie The American President, which was also about greenhouse gas reduction, in part. I’d link to the imdb quotes page, but that is one of the few they missed).

The report’s presentation is self-consciously modern. Much effort clearly went into appealing to modern sensibilities. No great slabs of grey text, or formal presentations. But lots of sidebars and anecdotes from other cities. Plenty of good positive examples, and lots of talk about the need for objectives and targets. Where it falls short is the lack of specific programs and commitments – so I do not think it is really a plan so much as a wish list.

Of course, my concerns are transportation and land use – because taken together that’s most of the greenhouse gas emissions.

Buildings and vehicles produce more than 85 per cent of Vancouver’s greenhouse gas emissions and are the focus of the next two sections of this report. However, there is an overarching issue that affects emissions from both buildings and vehicles: density. Land-use patterns are probably the single most important determinant of people’s greenhouse gas emissions and their ecological footprints.

To their credit they do not abandon Eco-density, the initiative of the last administration but they note

Much more can be done. Most importantly, Vancouver should complete the planning processes required to increase density and permit mixed uses.

Because this is a report of the Action Team – not a commitment by the City Council. So it does not have the status of a formal change to the City’s planning activities – yet. But Robertson himself referred to the document as a Plan. Ecodensity was not an easy sell for Sam Sullivan and company – and the issue will still raise the hackles of most communities within Vancouver, who are very happy with the way things are and are deeply suspicious of any change. Anything that affects both their current way of life, and their property values, is going to be subject to close scrutiny.

A series of more detailed implementation plans…will need to be developed by city staff through wide consultation with the community

Indeed. And this is followed by an exhortation to “everyone to do their part”. And I am quite sure that all of the neighbourhoods that had very close consultative processes under administrations prior to Sullivan’s will expect to have that approach returned.

UPDATE: Ned Jacobs has now published a damning critique of the Mayor’s commitment to consultation

Of course the city is not alone in transportation – so of course much of what it says about transportation in general – and transit in particular – is addressed to other levels of government and is all entirely predictable. What is very noticeable is the lack of a set of specific targets in areas where the City does have control. And as we learned this week from New York there is a great deal that can be done, very quickly and at relatively low cost. Paint and potted plants can do wonders.

There are a number of things the City can start to do quickly: and – as long as they stick to a continuous rolling effort – will have significant impact. In terms of broad objectives, this plan does not adopt the one that was pioneered by Copenhagen forty years ago – although there are ten different citations of that city in the document. Their objective was a reduction in the amount of space devoted to cars – both moving and parked. They have achieved that by a steady attrition: a small percentage is taken each and every year. Since traffic adapts to fill the space available, traffic has contracted.

Similarly in New York (18 citations) the decision was made to reduce the amount of street space used by cars by reallocating traffic lanes to become bus lanes, bike lanes and – probably most significantly – pedestrian space, much of which is not devoted to movement but sitting! The City of Vancouver, thanks to its charter, does not have to defer to senior governments here. It is master in its own house, and it can, if it wishes, move the furniture.

Previous City of Vancouver Engineers have fought long and hard against any encroachment on road space that might reduce traffic volumes. They seemed to have been unaware of the simple change in metric that is brought about when “people” are substituted for “vehicles” in the model. The #99 B-Line – the most effective bus route in the region – has almost no on street priority. There are no bus lanes on Broadway. The only thing that sets that route apart from most of the others is that it does not stop so often. On Hastings, a similar type of service is offered by the #135. It is not branded as a B-Line, but it works just like one. The Granville Street #98-B Line is now history: even that had hardly any priority within Vancouver. Contrast this to what New York is doing – and London, Paris and many others have done – in terms of bus lanes which have different coloured tarmac (no arguments about what is a bus lane) and camera enforcement (it is easy to see what is and is not a bus, unlike an HOV lane which is very hard to enforce).

Similarly the City can do a lot about parking. Not just on street but off street as well. But there is no overall parking strategy addressed in this report – apart from the need for bike parking, and for the ability to charge electric vehicles. This is really missing the point. But I can understand why they do not tackle it head on. Because that would immediately incur the wrath of the DVBIA. Well I suspect anything you do like this is not going to please that crowd so you might just as well face up to it. As long as there are lots of places to end car trips (parking spaces) there will be lots of cars. Yet three cars carrying on average 4 people in total take up the same space as a bus with 40 to 60. Or similar numbers of bikes or pedestrians. In Manhattan and Central London only 5% of the trips are in cars – so it is easier to make the case there. Not easier to win it, of course, since those car drivers are disproportionately influential people. Much harder here – as we saw with the Burrard Bridge trial, the short lived closure of part of Robson Street and the battle over Granville Mall.

Sure the City does not provide the transit service, but it can make the provision of transit a great deal more efficient and effective. A bus that can avoid traffic congestion is not only faster but more reliable. There may not even be any increase in the number of buses but those that are there will be moving more people than they can now, because they can complete more trips in a shift. That in itself makes bus lanes worth doing. But the longer term effect – as both London and New York demonstrate – is that you can get a lot more people using buses once you remove the element of uncertainty. The bus becomes reliable. And with only slightly more effort it becomes “the surface subway” that Janette Sadik-Khan spoke about this week. And a bus service can get introduced a lot quicker and cheaper than a subway line.

The contrast between the lack of specificity in areas where the city can do something (density, street use, parking) and transit, where someone else has to pick up the tab, is striking. There the ideas are definite – if a bit lacking in expertise.

  • The Downtown Streetcar project should get the green light, [of course – but since it only serves Vancouver, maybe you should consider following the example of Portland and pay for it yourselves? It is not now, nor ever has been, a regional priority]
  • express bus services should be expanded on busy routes (e.g. Commercial/Victoria) [see notes above about how bus lanes would be the way to achieve that]
  • Electric express buses should be used on Hastings, 4th Avenue, Broadway/West 10th Ave, and 41st Ave [You can do that on Hastings now, as long as it does not stop at intermediate points between downtown and the PNE. Electric B Lines would need a lot of wiring and some expensive “special work” to get in and out of the curb lanes between local buses. Putting trolleybuses back on the #41 sounds like a good idea until you look at the cost of wires to UBC. How about trolleys for Cambie while you’re at it? Maybe someone should start looking at my idea of putting poles on hybrid buses to extend the range and flexibility of trolley routes without more overhead wiring.]
  • Waterfront Station should be redeveloped into an accessible and attractive multimodal transportation hub. [DAFT – it is already. Redevelopment of one of the few outstanding heritage buildings in this City would be unforgiveable]
  • Local ferry services should be encouraged and supported. [yes, and the City can do that without Translink – West Vancouver just did. The False Creek ferries work very well without regional interference. Others could too, if they were financially viable ]

The one thing that is missing, that I am very pleased about, is there is no reference to a subway underneath Broadway to UBC.

Instead of a slab about what Translink should be doing, there ought to have been a direct attack on what is happening on Vancouver’s door step. The widening of Highway #1 may stop at Boundary Road, but that does not stop a huge amount of new traffic being dumped onto Vancouver’s streets. Yes I know that sounds like I am suggesting a Corrigan like bluster, but ignoring the impact of this vast increase in car traffic on the City’s east side is baffling. Not picking up the suggestion of pulling down the viaducts is a small issue in comparison. Freeway expansion will affect Vancouver. It is a very retrograde step – and the plan to make Vancouver “the greenest city” – is going to be undermined by the presence of large numbers of cars trying to get into Vancouver from the freeway.

And hoping that someone else might introduce road pricing is not a Plan, any more than expecting to win the lottery is retirement planning.