Rethinking Density

Since reading Jane Jacob’s classic The Death and Life of the Great American City and the much more recent Happy City by Charles Montgomery, my perception of Vancouver, and the structure of cities in general, has changed a lot. I have a lot of thoughts, many probably quite simplistic, and many more probably fairly naive. However, the act of thinking about them enough to make a post will hopefully have some value. I welcome comments or suggestions on further reading

One thing I noticed about Vancouver is the bimodal distribution between low-density (which thanks to Vancouver’s small plot sizes and frequent renting is at least still far above suburban levels) and high-density. Below you can see a map of the density per residential zoned hectare. You can see that Vancouver fairly distinctly separates into the high density of downtown and surrounding areas, with high-rises on most blocks and the lower density of most of the rest of Vancouver characterized by standard single family lots.

Population Desnity

And this seems to strongly influence debates on Vancouver’s future. Most people arguing against density seem to be reacting mostly against the type of density they see downtown and in a few other hub areas like metrotown. After living in high-rise buildings for the last few years I understand why there is often pretty strong negative reaction against this form of living. Apartments are isolating. In these two years of living in an apartment the longest interaction I had with someone in my building was when I broke up a fight between my neighbour and his son-in-law.

The issue though is that there are other options that is rarely mentioned in Vancouver. When I was traveling through Europe, one of the most remarkable things I noticed was that most of the cities I visited were statistically very dense, with more people per square km than Vancouver, and yet they generally had very little like Vancouver’s extremely dense downtown area with multiple 10+ story buildings. Despite having little of this more extreme density, most areas were extremely walk-able and had excellent public transit.

I think the city should seriously consider zoning the blocks around most major streets (which for most of Vancouver is every 8 blocks) for medium-density with a strong mixed-used component. Obviously there are a lot of specifics to work out to ensure that lower-income Vancouverites will have their access to housing improved, and to keep the character of neighbourhoods in tact, but I believe these are solvable problems while a lot more people can live in the city.

A Good Start

Greater Vancouver’s Mayors have finally hashed out their differences and come together to create a reasonable plan for the region’s transportation priorities over the next 10 years and beyond. On top of being reasonable it is considerably more ambitious than I was expecting. I’m going to focus on the changes to Vancouver and Surrey/Langley as those are the locations I know about, and care about the most.

Investments In the Next 10 Years

Red is new rapid transit, green is new or expanded B-Line bus, faint pink shows normal bus lines with increased service

As you can see in the image above, they are proposing a 5km long underground extension of the millennium line extended from the current VCC-Clark station along broadway to Arbutus st. Considering this is currently the busiest bus-route in North America this can’t come soon enough. I’m pretty disappointed they aren’t extending it all the way to UBC but given the political difficulty of spending the extra billion or so to get it the rest of the way, I understand why they are making the compromise. In terms of time, I doubt things will be dramatically improved for UBC commuters, but there will at least probably be fewer full buses passing people.

The rest of the improvements in Vancouver are mostly about improving the connection between Vancouver and the rest of the region. SeaBus capacity is rising, Westcoast Express is getting extra cars and one extra locomotive, the various Skytrain lines are all getting major capacity increases to allow for thousands of extra passengers every day. Altogether the improvements should significantly improve transit access in and out of Vancouver.

Another proposal is 300 km of new separated bike lanes throughout the region as well as thousands of km other forms of bike lanes. I don’t have much experience cycling around Vancouver so it is difficult for me to comment on how much of an improvement this will be, but it sounds to me like a decent start over 10 years.

Surrey will probably see the most extensive improvements with this plan, and deservedly so. As the second largest, and fastest growing municipality in the lower mainland, they need a good transportation system to avoid crippling gridlock. According to the report, 200,000 new people will live within walking distance of rapid transit in Surrey and Langley, which has the potential to take thousands of cars off the road.

Details on the new light rail lines are sparse. They appear similar in length to the expo line which is 30km long. However, I wasn’t able to find any concrete information on implementation. If people are going to switch to light rail the system needs complete right of way and high average speeds. It will also need to stop in dense areas or at major transit exchanges. In many areas along the route to Langley City this is going to be a difficult proposition. The good news is that the Langley route is at least 12 years out so there is plenty of time for both Surrey and Langley to shape development along and around the route.

The plan also includes a replacement to the aging and quite frankly dangerous Pattullo bridge. Thankfully in the end New Westminster won the argument and the bridge will still be four lanes and tolled, providing much needed revenue to fund its replacement, as well as incentivizing people to use the expanding public transit network.

The plan also includes shifting some carbon tax revenue to transit improvements, and slowly introducing road pricing around metro Vancouver. These changes deserve a post of their own which I may try to do in the future but for now I just want to mention that according to the mayor’s report, all the proposed investments alone will not get the region to the goal of 4,250 annual km’s driven per capita. Investments and other measures like road pricing will bring the region closer to the goal.

I’m glad the region’s mayor’s finally completed a comprehensive plan, but the implementation will require the cooperation of both the provincial and federal governments. What could possibly go wrong there? That may be the subject of my next post…

Road Pricing in Metro Vancouver

I came across a good article this morning about the reality of road pricing in Metro Vancouver. According to author, road pricing is inevitable for Vancouver. I agree, although I think it is a long way out and will be an enormously contentious issue pitting suburban voters against urban voters.

I believe that all the talk about road pricing, referendums, transit and related topics are fundamentally missing what really needs to be done. What needs to be done is changing zoning laws so there is more housing that is close to where people work, shop and play. Simply making it incredibly expensive to commute from Langley to downtown Vancouver simply makes life even worse for long-distance commuters who already have to face the enormous cost of hours wasted commuting every day.

What needs to be done is to create a decade long plan that slowly institutes substantial road pricing along with improved transit and most importantly massive zoning changes. This gives the average family that is currently completely reliant on driving, time to adjust their life in anticipation of road pricing before road pricing starts dramatically reducing their income. It tells everyone looking to move, find work, or employ in Vancouver that they need to consider how far they will be from jobs, shops, or employees when they chose a location. If you are a Vancouver business and most of your employees live in the suburbs, your employees are going to push for you to move closer to them if they foresee the cost of commuting rising.

Under this plan I could see Surrey, with permissive zoning, rapidly becoming a second downtown aimed at employing people in Delta, White Rock, Langley and maybe even Maple Ridge. Without clear long-term guidance on policies however, highways will continue to clog, or a sudden imposition of road pricing will dramatically lower the effective income of most commuting families, without actually creating other opportunities for them. Metro Vancouver can’t continue to move forward when political leaders aren’t talking about their plans for even a year from now. Individuals can’t make rational decisions about where to live and work if they have no idea about future transportation plans.

The various governments, starting with the provincial government, need to demonstrate leadership and a vision.

The City

Lately, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of the city in terms of politics and everyday life. The city, and how it is structured and modified throughout the years, is so integral to most of what we do each and every day, yet it rarely gets the political and popular attention it deserves. Where we work, how we get there, where we go to school, how we access businesses and services, and so much more are intricately related to decisions either made at the city level or decisions pushed upon cities from governments above.

For decades now, the majority of tall towers and major density expansion in Metro Vancouver has occurred in the downtown core. This approach, often called vancouverism, has helped lead Vancouver to the top of the global livability charts, but it appears to be coming to an end as Vancouver starts to run out of downtown space in which to continue expansion. In the City of Vancouver there are pockets of density, mostly surrounding skytrain stations, that have small-scale development plans but for the most part, the rest of the city is off-limits politically.

While the various municipalities seem intent on building new dense transit-connected neighbourhoods, and developers seem keen on building these same neighbourhoods, there is very little space and little political will. I have noticed though that there is one source of large development friendly space that seems to be the next focus for Vancouver development: the mall.

Oakridge Mall has massive re-development plans that include 11 towers, a number of low-rise apartments, new office space, and expanded retail. Also, a park built on top of the actual shopping centre portion of the development.

In Burnaby, Brentwood Mall has a similarly massive re-development plan, with 10 towers, two of which would be some of the tallest in B.C., more office space, new public space. Lougheed Town Centre has plans similar in scope but earlier on in the planning phase so few details are yet available.

Metrotown and Station Square also have plans for large towers, more residential space, more office space, and a “Granville Island feel” to the area.

The common elements between all these plans are interesting. Almost all of them are taking what is currently acres of ugly parking lots and turning them in to (hopefully) vibrant communities that are walkable and transit friendly. All these new neighbourhoods will integrate office, retail, and residential in close proximity with the intent of creating more vibrant spaces to live and work in.

While I think there are many good elements to most of these plans, I worry that they will end up stale, expensive communities that lack diversity. Unless municipalities step in, I imagine the majority of the residential towers will end up as luxury one and two bedroom condos with steep price-tags for the majority of people. I hope both Vancouver and Burnaby work with developers to ensure that families and lower-income residents can afford to live there.