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Growth, Livability and Transit Network: Part I

Sep 09, 2014
by Graham McGarva, Architect AIBC AIA AAA LEED® AP, Founding Principal

Vancouver – leading the way in Canadian cities’ transit infrastructure expansion
VIA Architecture was recently invited by CBC-TV to provide comment on the Pembina Institute’s study of transit system in Canada’s major cities. The study highlighted that Vancouver has built the most kilometres of rapid transit over the last 3 decades. But whereas Toronto and Montreal’s 40 year old transit lines provide service within 1 kilometer of more than 30% of the population, less than 20% of Vancouver’s population has the same connectivity. Entering a Municipal election cycle where provincially controlled transportation funding is a key issue, this provided fodder for knee jerk blogging about bloated transit funding not serving the needs of the majority.

Fortunately, in conjunction with our discussions, CBC went deeper into the analysis than that. The Pembina authors had pointed out that in comparing the Cities they used the Metro Vancouver average data to match the scale of regional completeness of Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton’s civic borders. Approximately 640,000 of Metro Vancouver’s 2.4 million population live in the City of Vancouver. Using Pembina’s index of transit proximity, 54% of Vancouverites live within the rapid transit walk-shed, but less than 13% of those in the other 20 municipalities do.

Sept 5: Graham McGarva’s interview with Andrew Chang, anchor of CBC Vancouver’s evening news.

Where are we heading now?
Through the joint initiative of the Mayor’s Council for metro Vancouver, TransLink has a plan for rapid transit extension that will be tested by the voters in 2015 in a funding referendum. Amongst its many provisions covering, roads bridge and bus and bike routes, most attention has been focused on Rapid Transit in Vancouver and Surrey.

In Vancouver the plan would see a SkyTrain extension of the Millennium line connect across the inner City to the Central Broadway employment and medi-tech corridor and interconnection with the north- south Canada Line.This extension is generally accepted as requiring an underground subway. With an (interim?) terminus at Arbutus it somewhat addresses the connectivity to the major transit centre of UBC to the west.

Surrey has a larger but much less developed land base, with a population that is expected to match Vancouver‘s in 30 years. Here the plan is to bring 3 LRT lines through the emerging City Centre and connect with each other and the existing SkyTrain line.

The political temptation is to dodge the bullet of large public expenditures and force a choice between the two transit strategies. To the credit of the process to date, there has been a general political acceptance that the whole Transportation funding package (including the Surrey and Vancouver rail transit) should be adopted as a whole. The sniper fighting (which will escalate for both the Civic elections in November and next year’s regional referendum) has tended to be about which form of tax to use, and thereby whose pockets will be targeted more than others.

Views from the past; views from the present
The Pembina study frames the dilemma of transportation as differently seen in mature and emerging urban contexts. In Vancouver, which had a streetcar network a century ago that reached south to Richmond and East to Burnaby, New Westminster, public transit is “Normal”, not “Special Needs”. In the expanding auto-oriented suburbs, particularly Surrey and south of the Fraser River, transit is still seen as a special need for those disadvantaged through not having access to a car.

The tipping point North of the Fraser was the Canada Line. Following the success of mobility throughout the 2010 Olympics, transit related developments have sprung up whose keynote is being “11 minutes from Downtown” etc. This connectivity works both ways, as each transit node becomes a magnet of its own for employment and recreation as well as residence.

The Olympic streetcar that ran during the Vancouver Winter Olympic in 2010.

Creating urban centres but not downtowns
South of the Fraser does not want to be Downtown Vancouver. But people do increasingly wish for urbanity, both in the array of places to hang out and enjoy food and beverage, shopping and entertainment, as well as to enhance the daily life spent moving between home and work. There is a 21st Century urbanism that needs to be established here, and one that integrates the automobile, whose passengers may turn to using transit in the future, lessening the demands on drivers to drive so much.

The problem is that the bogey man of traffic congestion is seen as caused by urban development, and too often resolution is framed in terms of speeding up traffic rather than creating places closer together than people want to spend more of their time in.

Land use planning in conjunction with transit planning
Transit is about nothing if it is not about the pedestrian and where the pedestrian wants to be. Regardless of transportation funding people should be demanding more joy in their daily lives. Some of that joy is having more time to connect with those you care about most, family, friends and colleagues, and the opportunity to move between those environments. At the top of the hierarchy would be being able to walk between one joy and another – life as a village.

Transportation is not this joy but its quality can and must be factored in to the equation. Thus transportation planning is nothing without supportive land use. The marketplace is what determines how land use works. Public leadership and investment can help, but need private investment to follow up. Surrey’s newly relocated City Hall now hopes to engender synergy that the relocation to BC Place’s Downtown Stadium did for Vancouver’s Downtown thirty years ago.

Artist rendering of the civic plaza in front of the new Surrey City Hall. Photo courtesy of Surrey BIA.

The focus of the suburbs has been on autonomy in daily life, on privacy and individual territory. It was assumed that community life would flourish around the cul-de-sac. This has turned out to not be the case. For several decades the shopping mall became the protective shell for public interaction. But the cul-de-sac and the strip mall discourage casual social encounter and thereby the social richness of our daily errands in the marketplace. The key for the suburbs is multiple urban village centres, and the foregone travel trips that their synergy reduces. Parking is the immediate world of 87% of Metro Vancouver who live outside Vancouver, and it is this world of the suburbs that we have to respect, understand, serve and collaborate to transform this parking, step by walkable step.

To attract the interest of those who live beyond the measure of typical transit accessibility, the coalescing of urbanity around urban village nodes (park once, linger longer, feel happier) is critical. It will be a challenge to secure a positive result from the transportation referendum, but the greater challenge is to frame this path forward not as car vs transit, but as demand for high quality of urban place to reward all those people arriving somewhere in their buses, trains and cars, if not by foot.


For more information:
Pembina Report
CBC Article