Saturday, December 8, 2012

Neighbourhood planning; forethought vs afterthought

In his editorial to the Vancouver Sun (below), Bob Ransford explains the importance of timing when asking questions regarding transit planning and the problem of not asking the right questions.   Focusing on the "UBC Line" which had been receiving much attention recently, Ransford concludes his piece by pointing out the differing approaches to development between Burnaby and Vancouver around the stations along the Millennium Line.

Vancouver Sun article

The number of stations would have a huge impact on the shaping of neighbourhoods along the rapid transit line

Now that Vancouver city council has decided that a $2.8-billion subway rapid transit line to UBC is the best way to meet the growing public transportation demand along the Broadway corridor, some hard questions need to be asked.
Why ask the questions after the decision has been made?
Well, if history is our teacher, we should know that securing a political commitment to finance a transit project close to $3 billion is a near-impossible task. I can almost guarantee we're facing at last five years of wrangling over transit governance, regional planning priorities, provincial participation, tax policy, cost sharing and a myriad of other issues standing in the way of finding the money. While that wrangling is going on, there will be lots of time for asking and answering questions.
Second, if a miraculous agreement can be reached to secure $3 billion to build a single transit line in a region that needs at least double that amount of money to finance a short list of other transportation priorities, our attention will then turn to another two to three years of serious planning.
It's during this serious planning phase that we can't afford to ignore asking the serious questions and answering them honestly and completely.
These are the serious questions that went unasked and therefore unanswered during the dysfunctional planning that led to the construction of the Canada Line. That's why, more than seven years after the Canada Line station locations were planned, not a single new housing unit along this high capacity transit system has been built in Vancouver. It's also why at least three and perhaps as many as five transit stations are missing on the line. It's why the system was designed with small station platforms, inhibiting expansion of trains to accommodate increased ridership.
These questions weren't asked because all the attention focused on seeking consensus on raising the money to build the system. When a tenuous agreement among a long list of partners was reached to fund the project, after seemingly endless wrangling to, no one wanted to provoke any more serious debates. "Forget the questions, let's just build the system" became the mantra.
We can't afford to repeat that fiasco. Serious questions need to be asked before a contract to build the system is signed.
The first and most important question that needs to be asked is about how this new transit system will shape neighbourhoods along the line. The plan is to build a subway all the way to UBC with only three proposed stations between Arbutus Street and the UBC campus. Research demonstrates that automobile trips are one of the biggest contributors to GHG emissions. We also know that most people make vehicle trips in a range just beyond where they are comfortable walking, primarily to meet their daily needs.
UBC Prof. Patrick Condon has demonstrated in his extensive work comparing transit systems performance and costs that local buses and streetcars extend the walk trip at costs considerably less than SkyTrain LRT, allowing frequent on and off stops for trip chaining (performing more than one errand on the same trip) and accommodating typically short trips to work or to shop when compared to other modes.
Walking becomes the mainstay mode of movement in streetcar neighbourhoods, with the streetcar itself acting as a sort of pedestrian accelerator, extending the reach of the walk trip.
A mixed-use neighbourhood flourishes when people either walk between their homes and local shops, services or jobs or take a short jaunt on a streetcar and get on or off close to their destination. Typically, streetcar stations are 300 to 400 metres apart. Residential densities within a 400-metre radius of these lines typically average 20 to 30 units per acre. That means low-rise apartments close to the station and townhouses, duplexes and some single-family homes near the edge of the 400-metre radius. With a streetcar, over time along the Broadway corridor, modest redevelopment would occur and the existing retail villages along the corridor would be revitalized and would thrive.
Compare this neighbourhood-shaping influence to a high-capacity, costly subway system with just three stations between Arbutus and UBC, more than a kilometre apart. First, the system is aimed at moving people relatively long distances quickly, rather than serving local neighbourhoods. Hence, three stations.
The idea is to move large numbers of people from the Broadway/Commercial transit node to the Central Broadway jobs centre and others on to the terminus at UBC.
This type of transit line will do little to support the existing retail villages along the corridor. There will be pressure to develop density around the three transit stations. It will be the kind of density most existing residents will find unacceptable and will characterize as "spot zoning".
Densities around transit stations of this type should radiate up to about 800 metres from the stations and should be in excess of 30 units per acre on average, with much higher densities within the 400-metre radius.
This kind of density transforms neighbourhoods. This is the kind of transformation Burnaby has been embracing along the Expo and Millennium lines for years. It's this kind of density Vancouver planners and politicians have been afraid to talk about, leaving seas of low-density housing around a number of existing expensive, high-capacity transit stations in Vancouver years after the stations were built.
So after we've answered the first question about whether or not we can afford to invest $3 billion of public money in a single transit line moving people from A to B and on to C along the Broadway corridor, we then need to ask how that transit line will reshape our neighbourhoods.
Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with Counterpoint Communications Inc. He is a former real estate developer who specializes in urban land-use issues. Email: or

1 comment:

  1. Brentood 15 years ago

    Kitsilano 100 years ago

    Metrotown and Station Square construction 1987.

    Station Square? Gone