Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘regional growth strategy

Regional Growth Strategy consultation

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Now there’s a headline to send your pulses racing. Yes, I know all sorts of exciting things are going on in the world, but somebody has to pay attention to these things. And I did volunteer for the Livable Region Coalition that I would lead the charge – though I was very pleased to see LRC founder Gordon Price at the meeting. It took up most of the morning at the Metrotown Hilton, and it is taking me some time to get my notes on line as I found that both the batteries for my notebook PC were dead. So I am working from scribbled notes.

Johnny Carline opened the proceedings with a summary of the process to date. They are now on the second draft of the strategy having been through extensive consultations with the public, municipalities and “stakeholders” (more about that later). The Regional Growth Strategy is only one of twelve parts of the Sustainable Region Initiative.

The RGS has changed the Livable Region Strategy objectives by introducing the idea of “a sustainable economy” but Carline admitted that what is there now is not sustainable but is more to do with “economic viability”. There is also a new commitment to deal with climate change. Metro has worked hard with Translink on transportation choices but not with senior governments whose policies he said were “pulling us apart”.

In addition to the public meetings they held two focus groups of randomly chosen residents and interestingly their views were not very different to those “self selected” people who attended the meetings. Overall there is around 90% support for the new strategy, though 40% think there should be a higher level of regional agreement, which is directly contrary to the views of municipal officials (elected and professional) who think they should have more autonomy. The implementation of the strategy is the municipalities’ greatest concern, as well as the role of Translink. Perhaps the greatest area of concern now is employment dispersal – an area where the LRSP notably failed to get implemented – and the need to protect industrial land.

Urban Centres

The RGS maintains the LRSP list of multiple centres with different scales and roles (as Central Place Theory states – range, hinterland, hierarchy) but adds two new municipal town centres, one on the North Shore and the other in Langley Township. Pubic pressure has resulted in neighbourhood centres being added to the map even though they have no regional significance.

Frequent Transit Corridors

As result of municipal pressure these have been taken off the map but the idea remains key, that high density development needs to be located along the routes used to link centres, but these corridors will not be allowed to undermine the centres. Translink will work with the municipalities to define these corridors, which will need commitments from both sides and will not go forward without that.

(I think that this is a significant policy issue and shows, once again the great local resistance to the need for increased densities in established areas.)

Industrial Lands

There has been a “big push back from the municipalities” on how these are defined: they want autonomy, but the region feels there is a need to be able to accommodate the repatriation of manufacturing as well as “the need to support port activities” as well as meeting the need for truck “storage”.

49% of office employment in the last 15 years has gone to developments outside of the town centres, often on industrial land. These areas are not transit friendly which has significant mode split and ghg implications. The new road systems now being built are “expensive and counter productive” and the increased dispersal of employment undermines regional objectives. However the region does not have the necessary powers to control this growth. We must all understand that we cannot say we support the objectives of the RGS and continue as we have been doing. The result has been a compromise called a “mixed employment” designation which will act as an “escape valve” – since both the development industry continues to want to develop these and municipalities cannot afford to forgo the additional tax revenue.  The region will “not be happy” if that designation extends the problem. Carline remarked that this was the “juiciest policy debate” in the process.

Rural Areas

These small areas have been added: they are not an urban reserve or “development in waiting” but rather lands outside the ALR and the Green Zone where low density development has occurred. The density guidelines have been removed, but sewers will not be extended into these areas to support development, though they may still be needed for health or environmental reasons.

Conservation and Recreation Areas

Linkages have now been added between these areas as part of the region’s Greenway Network


Everyone wants a stronger policy but there is a limited amount that municipalities can do absent federal support.

Transportation – the thorny issue

Translink gets to “accept” the regional stratgey but Metro can only comment on theirs. “At the staff level we all get it”. The role of providing service to meet existing demand is core to Translink. Investing to shape growth is an important policy direction and is the Metro interest. For transit there are three concepts

  1. established markets
  2. major emerging transit markets
  3. locally emerging  markets

As Martin Crilly pointed out, Translink cannot get too far ahead of current demand. But Metro has identified the areas where future transit investment should go

  • The Evergreen Line
  • Surrey Town centre to other centres in Surrey
  • Surrey Town Centre to Langley and other adjacent regional centres


Everyone  wants clarity. But the plan cannot be rigid so Metro has identified two amendment processes. 1) The municipal Regional Context Statements are a major instrument that allows for variations from the plan without amendment, except that the agricultural designation and the urban containment boundary cannot be changes by this process.  2) Special Study Areas which will only require 50% +1 vote at the GVRD Board for approval (not the higher levels of agreement required for other amendments)

The intention is to get the plan “put to bed before the summer break”. More public consultation meetings will be held across the region from January 12 to 26.

After the small group discussion three stakeholders got to speak from the lectern.

Jeff Fowler of UDI

We support wise and efficient use of a scarce resource: density must be tied to transit. The development industry buys into the vision but the municipalities seem to find it easier to identify where development will not go than where it will. The industry understands the need for development at transit stations and for infill. We have a limited land base so it is crucial to identify places where development will be permitted.

Government still restricts land uses, there are limits on what can be done on industrial land which limits the possibilities for municipalities to adapt to economic change. Some industrial areas are near transit stations and would be good places to put new development. Restrictions on land use do not compel density to go into the right places. The industry has to confront NIMBYism, high development cost charges and demands for additional community facilities. 23 local governments all beholden to local pressures makes increasing density difficult. We need to leverage the investment that has been made in [rapid] transit. As one Orgeon official has pointed out “we do not like sprawl but we don’t like density either!”

In Toronto’s centre building costs are around $40-50 psf: in Vancouver its $150 psf. The average house price in Toronto is $560,000, in Vancouver $900,000.

We must be wary of restrictions on land use and need to be bold and creative to achieve greater density

Port of Vancouver

(I am sorry but I did not catch the name of the speaker). We are much interested in growth and development, especially as it effects the Pacific Gateway. We welcome the collaborative approach to the regional goods strategy and the reinforcement of the major transit corridors. He also noted the linkages to industrial areas. They oppose mixed employment areas as they see them eroding the industrial land base and are often not well served by transit. He also spoke about “Fair Tax Equity” (which is a bit rich coming from a wealthy agency that has been refusing to pay property tax in Richmond).

Greg Yeomans of Translink

The two agencies are trying to establish the same thing and the two plans should be regarded as “two chapters from the same book”. Translink supports the goals, the retention of the transportation component and the strongly defined urban growth boundary. The Frequent Transit Corridors are also supported and shoud align with Translink’s Frequent Transit Network.

More work and refinement is needed on jurisdictional issues, the transit markets concept and priorities as well as implementation and amendments.

Gordon Price posed a question in the form of a long statement which essentially stressed the impact of the huge investments now being made in roads and bridges. Essentially the region’s growth strategy has largely worked – up until now.

Johnny Carline responded that the dispersal of employment was what had prompted the road building program as a response to an intolerable level of congestion. “If you stop dispersal of employment you will end the demand for roads”. We are call for better management of the road  system to give priority to trucks. The land use plan limits sprawl. A firm urban containment boundary limits amount of land left for greenfield development. Focussing development, and the lac of alternatives, works in our favour. What is worrisome is that highway expansion will also spawn development outside the region. Metro Vancouver should be expanded to Hope.

In answer to another question he also remarked that because travel has been cheap and easy, longer distance commuting has been an attractive option. This applies to transit as much as car use. But also the region has offered “freedom to travel” which is highly prized. “Perhaps the best trip is no trip at all”.


The discussion around each table was recorded on large post it notes and stuck to the wall. They will be transcribed and, I suppose, recorded by Metro.

Deb Jack of Surrey Environmental Partners made a couple of very good points: the conservation areas are not nearly big enough. Simply protecting what we have is not good enough. Secondly while turning attention to climate change is good, the RGS ignores the much bigger issue of the need to promote biodiversity. Even of we manage to control ghg, this will be a much greater threat to our survival as a species.

In my view, the choice of “stakeholders” to be given the platform emphasizes what has been wrong with this process throughout. Far too much attention is being paid to what other agencies and corporate interests want, and far too little has been done to include communities and other interest groups. Why do none of the NGOs, foe example, get to comment from the lectern? If Gordon Price had not shown up, would the question he raised even have been considered?

But there is also far too much complacency in Carline’s reply. No urban region has ever cured congestion by building roads. Congestion is – as everywhere – just about tolerable. If that were not the case, people would change their travel behaviour and relocate. What every urban system sees is  the level of congestion that the local populace thinks, collectively, is what they can put up with. The only way to reduce traffic congestion is to make better use of the space devoted to moving (and parking) vehicles – essentially reducing the role of the single occupant car (the greatest waste of resources known to man)  and buidling better transit systems.

Deb Jack, again, made the point that the choice of transit technology is always made by the province, not Translink. What the region needs now South of the Fraser more than anywhere, is Light Rail, not Skytrain. And, I added, not freeway expansion.

The idea that the RGS can somehow stop the incesant demands of the road building lobby is bizarre. Of course the Port supports it – it has won every round. The Gateway Council gets “most favoured” treatment and every other interest group – of whatever kind – is largely ignored. What the Port claims is never challenged. There is no need for port expansion. Given what we now know about peak oil and climate change there will likely never be enough demand to justify these new facilities. Anyway they will all be underwater in a few years time. Parking spaces for trucks is not the greatest issue this region faces and there is absolutely no need for truck priority. All they need to do is change their scheduling procedures so that trucks dropping off a container can collect one at the same time – and also expand the port’s working hours to encourage trips into the off peak periods. Pretending that you need a new freeway so that truckers can work 8 to 4 Monday to Friday is a ridiculous priority.

And while I have nothing against Greg Yeomans personally, his contribution was otiose. He did the job his organization needed done, but given what Carline had already said, it did not need saying again. Yet many voices in the region seem not be heard. There is never any time for the concerns of the people – or the environment – to be heard at these gatherings. Only corporate PR and spin.

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