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

Posts Tagged ‘LRSP

Lower Mainland flops on efforts to slow down sprawl

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Corey pointed to this article yesterday in a comment on the 80c/l forecast for Gateway.

The share of new urban and suburban growth that went into pedestrian-oriented development in Metro Vancouver declined from 2001 through 2006, according to the Sightline Institute.

The Sun story picks out the few municipalities in the region that were trying to increase densities. Most weren’t – or would have liked to but were denied the necessary transportation infrastructure that makes such development possible. There are pockets of quite high density townhouses in places like Langley Township. Trouble is they are remote from anywhere and have no – or very little  transit. Pedestrian oriented development means you can walk to jobs, shops and schools. I would also like to have seen much more Transit Oriented Development but we (collectively) have been  putting much more money into roads than transit, and transit growth has barely kept up with population.

In some cities there was a determined push to break out of the constraints of the LRSP. Doug McCallum, the former Mayor of Surrey was frankly dismissive of it and followed a strategy of Highway  Oriented Development in the southern part of his city, recognising that it looked and worked just like Whatcom County. So he went for big box retailers and more office parks, because they produce more tax revenue, and pretty much left the developers to produce whatever housing types they liked. To be fair he did also allow some Smart Growth on one site in conjunction with  Patrick Condon, but that fell foul of municipal codes which insisted on conventional drains that the design had eliminated as unnecessary. The Surrey Centre (never to be called “Whalley”) has in fact now recovered and got going despite the governments best efforts to undermine it by slashing SkyTrain service to Surrey in half and killing the ICBC relocation. Poor old Port Moody did its very best to do TOD in the expectation that the province would live up to its commitments to provide a rapid transit line – and is, of course, still waiting for a shovel to hit the ground. Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows got two new road bridges – but no transit.

For a long time, I had discussions with the planners in Coquitlam and their attitude was that they could have done a lot differently if they had had SkyTrain along its designated corridor before the people moved in. But that is not the way things are done here. Kevin Falcon repeats his mantra that the population has to grow before we can afford transit – but that means we will never ever get  transit oriented new development – only in areas where redevelopment can occur.

Pointing the finger at municipal politicians is easy. But they have to work in constrained circumstances. And if the province (and the federal government) are not doing their part – or, in this region, actively working to promote sprawl – then this outcome is in fact not as bad as it could have been. The point of the LRSP is that it committed all levels of government to a growth strategy. And Gordon Campbell was one of its authors and main proponents. But once he got into power in Victoria, his priorities changed.

I think Doug Ward, the author of the Sun’s report, should have made a bit more effort on the why. The census shows us what happened – but that is like steering the ship by staring at it wake. We need to understand that there was a deliberate policy at play that held the values of the LRSP in contempt. It only values the ability of the private sector to make as much money as possible whatever the social, environmental and long term economic consequences might be. Of course, such an analysis is anathema to the Asper family. But it has been clear for some time that business is what our government cares about. And it likes diversions such as the Winter Olympics to take out minds from what they are really doing. “The best place on earth”? Not by the time they have finished with it.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 22, 2008 at 8:25 am

Posted in Olympics, privatisation, Urban Planning

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This reform needs a rethink

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Richmond Review Editorial

(note: the editorial published in the Review was a shorter version of one that appears in the Surrey Leader) This article has been revised in view of comments received.

The Black Press is gradually becoming more critical of the BC Liberal Government. This in itself is not remarkable – it is almost inevitable that over time the media will become more critical of any government. This particular editorial though is mainly about accountability – and how there will be less of it in future.

But the real stinger for me is this:

The board ultimately agreed—but only just—to push the Richmond-Vancouver rapid transit line ahead of other priorities. It drained any trust Victoria had in the locally elected mayors and councillors, who will be booted off TransLink’s board in January.

It is not about “trust”. The Board of Translink was doing what it was appointed to do, as set out in the Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority Act, a piece of provincial legislation. Every government, once it is elected inherits a system from previous governments, and it has to continue with what it inherits until there is enough legislative time to change some parts of it. It is simply unrealistic to think that a new government can simply come in and start doing everything differently, since they are as much bound by the law as everybody else.

The Canada Line was not in Translink’s strategic plan, as Richmond already had the B Line. The GVTA is bound to support the LRSP as it is the legally mandated Regional Growth Strategy. The BC Liberals did not repeal any of the legislation (Growth Strategies, GVTA Act etc). The Canada Line was a recreation of a former idea of a rapid transit line to Richmond that had been around prior to the previous NDP government. But that was a while ago. The thing about plans is that they only work if you stick with them. That is what a strategy is: we all agree to follow the same path – even if privately we might have reservations about it – since that will ensure the best chance that we will end up where we intend. Now this is not as exciting and daring as making it up as you go along. But is also less confusing for everybody, since a strategy works by replacing uncertainty – and if there is anything that markets, and investors, and indeed almost everybody involved in trying to achieve some goals, is uncertainty.

Not only was the Canada Line not in the strategic plan but it had features that were unknown. It is the first major public transportation P3. It would not connect with the existing SkyTrain. It would be in a very expensive bored tube – something not seen in any line so far built here or planned here. And it would run through a relatively low density area (where change in land use was not very likely) to a place the LRSP had determined should not be a growth concentration area since it was subject to both flooding and ground liquefaction in the event of seismic activity. Let us leave aside any consideration about the political allegiances of the area.

Given the above, the Translink Board would have been derelict in its duty not to question the province’s proposal. Except that it had been cooked up by its own former CEO who had personally directed the creation of the project. And he is a man who does not recognize that anything he has a hand in can have any taint of conflict of interest. As he himself has always been at pains to make clear. And, by the way, he was also City Manager for the City of Vancouver prior to going to Translink, and the City of Vancouver was not going to see much rapid transit spending as the Broadway rapid transit line was itself highly controversial, and the Coquitlam extension (now known as the Evergreen Line) had been the on again, off again priority for years – even before the extensions into Surrey. And the best thing about the Canada Line, as far as the City of Vancouver was concerned, was it removed a threat to the home of the “creme de la creme” – The Arbutus corridor.

The Black Press is right. It is a “serious erosion of local democracy”. The problem is that the GVTA itself is not especially democratic and hence not known for its responsiveness to local concerns. Some might think that is an advantage in a regional body, but the real problem that I see in a “two steps removed” election process is that people do not feel that – despite its cloak of legislative authority – the Board is representative or responsible (in the sense of other democratically elected bodies).

The GVTA is sui generis. There is nothing else like it. The GVRD is one step removed from municipal elections – and that in itself causes a problem for most voters. There are all sorts of crown corporations and provincially mandated boards and agencies, but the GVTA does not report to the Province – not should it. The whole idea of the GVTA was that the province was supposed to get out of the regional transit business. Nowhere else in Canada does the Province deliver local transit services itself (with the exception of GO Transit – where there is no one regional municipal body covering the whole of its service area).

The proposal that will be brought back to the leg this fall is driven by a combination of spite and pique. Neither of these is a respectable reason for legislating administrative changes to regional transportation. It is based on a misconception, that regional transportation should be run just like any other commercial enterprise. That is a big mistake. We can already see the damage that this approach is doing to the region by the attitudes and aspirations of the boards running our port and airport. More business for them is not necessarily the best thing for the region – far from it. The residents of the region are suffering now from more pollution from shipping and truck movements and noise from aircraft, as the traffic for other places is now routed through here rather than Seattle or Oakland. And it is just not good enough for these boards to simply shrug their shoulders and say that this is a cost of doing business.

I think that reform is needed. I think what we need is a democratically elected body that is in charge of both regional planning and transportation. All of it. You cannot possibly be successful trying to plan transport if you do not ensure that it fits the development pattern. The LRSP is being whittled away, as is the ALR. Yet this region has made it clear that it did not, and does not, wish to develop in the same way as most other North American cities have developed. The fact that one or two politicians elected to the provincial legislature think differently is simply not important. The fact that they can command a parliamentary majority is. But one of the other meanings of “responsibility” is that an elected politician is supposed to set aside personal preferences, and allegiances, and act in the best interest of all the people – not just those who might vote for him next time. And in my mind there is no doubt that the integration of regional transport and land use planning is very important, and must be done better in future than it has been up to now.

The problem with the new Board is not so much that it is not going to respond to complaints about fare hikes: none of its predecessors did either. The problem will be that that the people running it in future will not be concerned about much more than “the bottom line” – the way most business people learn to think. We even have the Premier telling us the Evergreen Line does not have a business plan! Well, it is actually better planned than any other line – including the Canada Line. And what is the value of a plan (build it in bored tube) if you change it once you see the size of the invoice (ok, cut and cover along Cambie)? Making cities livable is not entirely and solely about making money.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 18, 2007 at 1:36 pm

“Unlivable Strategies”

with 6 comments

The Fraser Institute recently published Public Policy Source no 88 “Unlivable Strategies: The Greater Vancouver Regional District and the Livable Region Strategic Plan” by Randal O’Toole.

Now in fairness we have to state up front that we know who the Fraser Institute are. And we also know who the Cato Institute are: they are the people who currently employ Mr O’Toole. While they are both right wing think tanks, they are not simply party off shoots. In fact the Cato Institute has been sharply critical of the Bush administration, and dislikes the appellation “conservative” since it thinks of itself as an agent for reform – and quite radical reform at that. Both are clear that they are against government. They think there should be much less of it. And they dislike the idea of planning, especially when it is done by governments. They both have a touching faith in the ability of markets to produce the right solutions. In this they remind me of Dr Pangloss. The free markets were of course the creators of such wonderful institutions as child labour and the Bhopal disaster.

O’Toole is certainly well read, if he tends to rely on a fairly predictable range of sources, and seems not have actually spoken to anyone here. For example he states that “region’s leaders could have focused on reducing the impacts of growth through technical solutions, such as controlling auto emissions”. Apart from the slur on the efforts of the GVRD’s Air Quality Management people, and the complete ignorance of the Air Care program, this statement neatly ignores the fact that the region has no powers to prescribe vehicle emissions, and cannot legislate for tougher restrictions. Indeed, while that is a provincial power, it has not been pursued simply because Canada and the US follow a policy of co-ordinating their standards, and have done ever since the Autopact was signed. The GVRD has in fact often put pressure on the Province to adopt California standards. When BC tried to impose a ban on MMT (a dangerous fuel additive that uses a known neurotoxin) it had to back down in the face of legal action from the Ethyl Corporation under the North American Free Trade Act. Isn’t free enterprise wonderful? Of course, California has banned both MMT and MTBE – but we won’t get sidelined into that discussion here.

Mr O’Toole does not like planning. The paper is open about that. In “about the author” it states

“O’Toole’s work currently focuses on the negative impacts urban planners have on housing affordability, traffic congestion, levels of taxation, and other issues. His blog, the Antiplanner, documents urban planning follies on a daily basis.”

So the GVRD planners should not take his attacks as personal: he dislikes all planning, and, by extension, has only contempt for all plans and all planners. But that does lead him to make some remarkably immoderate comments – for example

“in the name of protecting open space, the plan prohibits development in 70 percent of the region, even though much of that land is not particularly valuable for agriculture or other purposes”

That quote comes from near the front – but further into the report we read

“The Green Zone covers about 205,000 hectares, or 72 percent of the Greater Vancouver District. This includes 53,700 hectares in the province’s agricultural land reserve (less than 40,000 hectares of which are actually agricultural lands), 91,970 hectares that are protected habitat areas, and 11,714 hectares of regional parks (some of which may also be protected habitat) (GVRD, 2004, p. A9; GVRD, 2003a, pp. 9, 14).”

Now I cannot fault his academic method. But it does seem to me that that his view of “valuable” and mine are rather different, and these are, of course, not objective statements but value judgements. But I feel fairly confident that most residents of this region would find parks and protected habitats to be valuable. What he also seems to have failed to notice is that much of the protected areas are mountainous – so they have scenic value, but would also be extremely expensive to develop as, say, housing. Many of them are also pristine watersheds, not open to other uses. Not only that but one of the drivers of the LRSP which O’Toole seems to be unaware of is security. Now I do not blame him for that, since he is relying on (carefully selected) published documents, and may be unaware of some of the risks that concerned the planners. Since disaster management is also one of the key responsibilities of the GVRD. So, areas that are subject to flooding, or are geologically unstable – such as mountainsides mostly made up of scree (which covers a lot of the North Shore) or are waterlogged silts which will liquefy when there is an earthquake, were excluded from the Growth Concentration Area. I may have missed it in my reading, but I cannot find the words “earthquake” or “flood” anywhere in his article, yet no land use planning in this region has been done in ignorance of those risks.

Similarly, the plan chose to protect some very sensitive ecological areas – such as the sea shore and estuarine wet lands, as well as Burns Bog. I also failed to notice any mention of logging or salmon in this article, which for this region seem to me to be two very important omissions.

Because he relies on published sources he makes statements such as

“In 1983, the conservative (Social Credit) government responded to a depressed economy by stripping the district of its planning authority.”

Now, I am not nearly as well read as he obviously is, and I am simply relying on what I have been told by people who were here at the time. So I could well be misinformed. But I though the GVRD lost its power to make land use decisions when it frustrated Mr Van der Zalm’s desire to develop “Fantasy Gardens” at Steveston Highway and No 5 Road. He may, as Premier, have been able to overcome the objections of the MoTH – who do have powers to prevent development within a mile of the Highway #99 intersection, which was then and still is now much too small to cope with existing traffic let alone development. He abolished the GVRD’s planning powers in rather the same way that Mrs Thatcher abolished my former employer, the Greater London Council, and for similar reasons. They got in his way.

He then goes on “a more liberal (NDP) government restored the district’s planning authority in 1995” – well, their ability to make plans certainly. But not their ability to enforce those plans. The real problem with land use planning in this region is that the GVRD – and the Province come to that – have no real powers to compel the municipalities to actually comply with the region’s or even their own land use plans. All the planners that I have ever spoken to about the issue have said something to the effect that “plans are one thing, Monday nights are another”. In other jurisdictions it is usual to have some sort of appeal process. For instance in Ontario there is a Municipal Board which can review land use decisions. In Britain, the central government can even call for a public enquiry, and the final decision rests with the Minister. In BC, if a municipality wants to allow development on a piece of land identified in its Official Community Plan for a different use, or zoning, it can simply pass a new zoning ordinance or a new by law. In fact my local paper is full every week with proposed changes of this kind – some very large, most exceedingly small, but cumulatively very significant indeed.

The GVRD has the power to ask to see or be sent some of these decisions but cannot change them. Oddly enough, under its legislation so does the GVTA. And I worked for a number of years trying to get the municipalities to accept that the regional transportation agency had a legitimate concern in land use. And that the Act required us to comment when those concerns impacted the region’s transportation network. The response was either – we won’t send you anything – sue us and see how far you get – or, more effectively – we will send you every single land use and zoning change: you will not have the time to do anything but read the applications.

O’Toole seems not to understand that there has been considerable drift in the LRSP, despite the context statements and the requirements of the Growth Strategies Act. Because nothing could be done, other than publish Annual Reports, which he cites, but does not seem to understand. For instance, one Annual Report belaboured the municipalities for allowing employment to move out to “Office Parks”. In the LRSP, these are not mentioned. Jobs were supposed to concentrated into the regional centres. Instead they were dispersed to low density, car oriented developments at the freeway entrances. In these areas, transit provision was sparse and difficult to provide economically, but it was desperately needed.

Perhaps we can get some insight into the mind of O’Toole from his citation on zoning, which refers to the US Supreme Court 1926. Now while it is a legitimate comment on the ethos of planning in North America, it really cannot be said to apply in Canada, where we are, so far, largely beyond the writ of the US Supreme Court.

It is perhaps not surprising that there is very little discussion of transit and role of the Province. O’Toole talks about land use, but seems not to have noticed that the region has not been in control of its transit system at any time – and hardly any of its transportation system as a whole either. I am talking now of “de facto” control as opposed to “de jure“. The province has made a series of disastrously bad transit decisions. At the same time it has boosted the use of freeways through its expansion of freeway capacity by adding HOV lanes, and has refused to allow the region the power to raise funds in a way that would either control car use or permit expansion of the bus system. Now I understand that this reality does tend to let the GVRD planners off the hook a bit, and O’Toole’s thesis is that planners are not just misguided and ineffective, but also responsible for all the ills of the region.

He criticises the LRSP by writing

“It did not reveal that the cost of its transportation strategy was increased traffic congestion. It did not reveal that that increased congestion would lead to increased air pollution.”

But what he seems not to understand was that the region’s transportation strategy is contained in another document, Transport 2021, written jointly by the Province and the GVRD, and endorsed by both of them and adopted on its entirety into the LRSP. That document expressly recognizes that, absent other, more effective controls, congestion does act as a self limiting mechanism on traffic growth. By increasing the generalized cost of driving, it does discourage some trip making, and would cause increased demand for other modes if they were provided. But the Province not only reneged on the GVTA Act, it also abandoned the very principles it had endorsed in Transport 2021.

There is a lot about the difference between “housing affordability” and “affordable housing”. Which makes the absence of any mention of the withdrawal of the federal government from housing provision all the more remarkable. But then he also does not seem to know that the main author of “Creating our Future” was Gordon Campbell.

There are a couple of things I agree with:
1 “With transit starting from such a low share of travel, it will take decades for it to have a significant role in the region’s transportation.” Which is true given the very low levels of financial commitment to transit both historically and now. For instance, twinning the Port Mann will cost around $3bn give or take. The much touted rapid bus on the newly expanded freeway, $180m.
2 He is a fan of congestion pricing. So we agree on that much, and that also distinguishes him from the brain dead provincial policy on tolling.

He is pretty tough on both planners and transit but I note that all his examples are Canadian or USA cities. In my view, planners here tend to look to Europe. We wanted to be like Zurich not Phoenix. And one thing most Western European cities have in common is much more stringent development control than here. For O’Toole this is an important distinction that he overlooks altogether. The plans are one thing, implementation of them something else. We have not done as badly as some places, but cities like Surrey were developed under Mayor Doug McCallum in open defiance of the LRSP. No-one pretends that big box stores out by the freeway entrances are part of the plan (OCP or LRSP) or even a good idea – except for the geniuses at the BC Transportation Finance Authority who thought it would be neat to get get developers to pay for upgraded interchanges by bribing them with public lands.

He is also a fan of technology

“Today’s clean cars pollute the least when travelling in free-flowing traffic at 60 to 90 kilometres per hour (FHwA, 2006, p. 15). New roadway facilities that relieve congestion can allow cars to operate in this optimal range. The congestion produced by the region’s failure to expand road capacities for single-occupancy vehicles will do less to get people to stop driving than it will increase pollution by leading more people to drive at slow speeds and in stop-and-go traffic.”

Except of course that the region does not have the ability to build that kind of road – that’s a provincial bailiwick, and one they fill very nicely. Also note that the amount of road space in the region as a whole has expanded dramatically. Not freeways, but arterials and distributors, often paid for through developer contributions, as well as all the roads in the new developments they built themselves. Of course, that simply added to the congestion. O’Toole does not understand that traffic is like a gas and expands to fill the space available, and that no city in the United Sates, no matter how much it has spent on road building, has ever done anything better than slow the rate at which congestion worsens.

“As with air pollution, improvements in auto technology are doing far more to improve fuel efficiency than trying to get people to stop driving.”

Except that nearly all the improvements in engine technology have gone into building larger and more powerful vehicles. Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards have been one of the least successful interventions of government into this field, and are one of the best examples of the law of unintended consequences. What he fails to notice is that when transit is improved in Vancouver, even by relatively modest amounts by world standards, it is enthusiastically taken up by people who used to drive. The problem with SkyTrain has always been that we “cannot afford” to buy enough trains cars to accommodate the demand (with the exception of the silly Millennium Line).

O’Toole uses US data on both fuel efficiency and transit comparisons rather than Canadian or Vancouver data, and to some extent I can understand that. He is obviously much more comfortable with those sources, since he has been using them to castigate US transit investments for years. Unfortunately, this does seem to suggest that he is not aware of some of the things that make Canada distinct from the US

When he becomes prescriptive, his arrogance overwhelms his common sense. For instance his broad statement that the LRSP deals with the “Wrong problems” and hence provides the “wrong solution”. Excuse me, but I think we are allowed to decide for ourselves what our objectives and priorities are. That is what democracy and liberty are supposed to be about, aren’t they? He is concerned that we are not sufficiently enamoured of unbridled economic growth: that whatever scheme some investor comes up with is, by definition, preferable to anything that a local politician, community group or urban planer might say. And that the consequences of that investor -or his backers – going bust are enough to regulate what happens. Sorry, but our experience has been different. Even with all our controls and plans we are still clearing up the mess left by failed enterprises and will be cleaning the contaminated soils and rehabilitating the dead watercourses for years to come. And some places, like False Creek are beginning to show that we are actually quite good at that. And by the way that required quite a bit of cooperation between developers and planners, which we also seem to be rather good at, given the number of US cities that send delegations here, and try to emulate what we have achieved in Vancouver.

One last snippet –

“Some people fear that building new roads will simply lead people to drive more. But a study of the Vancouver area found that significant additions to the region’s road network over the next two decades would lead to less than a 0.25 percent increase in driving. Yet those new roads would reduce theamount of time Vancouver residents spend driving by 7 percent (Delcan, 2003, p. 61).

I went to his very thorough list of references –

Delcan (2003). Economic Impact Analysis of Investment in a Major Commercial Transportation System for the Greater Vancouver Region. Vancouver: Greater Vancouver Gateway Council, 2003.

You can download it from

It states “A transportation network simulation model was used to forecast and analyze future changes in roadway network demand and performance.” Now from the Appendices I note that the model was, unsurprisingly, the “EMME/2 regional model and/or SYNCHRO capacity analysis software”. (The latter is not important since it refers to specific intersections.) The significant feature you need to know is that emme/2 does not forecast land use. That is an “exogenous variable” input by the user. Typically, the network analysis of a future year will use the same forecast land use pattern for both the “with” and “without” scenarios. In other words, the way the model is used does not admit for the possibility that the new facility being studied can influence either land use or trip making. The land use stays the same and so does the trip matrix – origins and destinations and number of trips do not change. The only things that can change are the routes and the modes chosen by the trip makers. It is therefore axiomatic that there is no perceptible change in forecast car use. That is what this type of model, used in this way, will always tell you. But it is hopelessly unrealistic. There have been literally thousands of studies now which show that when a network is expanded, traffic also expands. People make more trips. When you increase the capacity of a major freeway, new development is attracted to its interchanges and the immediate vicinity, since you have also improved its apparent accessibility. I say “apparent” because the other effect which is always seen is that congestion returns with a vengeance soon afterwards.

What the studies also show is that if you take out a link from a network – for example when the Loma Prieta earthquake crumbled the Central Valley freeway in 1989 it was not replaced. Somehow this did not lead to total gridlock or economic disaster. in fact, the economy in the area of the former freeway has significantly improved.

Land use and transportation are two sides of the same coin. Yet we model as though they are completely independent of each other. That this leads to bad regional planning can be no surprise. What is perhaps a surprise is that an intelligent, thoughtful and analytical mind such as that of Randal O’Toole appears incapable of grasping it.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 6, 2007 at 3:32 pm