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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

STRAPHANGER: Vancouverism and smart transit planning


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This week, Spacing presents five excerpts from Straphanger, the new book by Montreal-based author Taras Grescoe. The book examines the success stories, challenges, and future hurdles of 14 transit systems from across the world, including Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.


TODAY: Vancouver

It’s hard not to see Vancouver, British Columbia, and Portland, Oregon, as the long-lost twins of Cascadia, separated when they were still young. Both were born as Gold Rush boomtowns, and both grew up as Pacific Northwest regional centers with thriving ports and economies based on logging and resource extraction. Both developed streetcar and interurban networks, and count smaller areas of postwar suburban sprawl than similar-size North American cities. Both opted for regional governance in the 1970s, Portland with Metro, Vancouver with the Greater Vancouver Regional District (now Metro Vancouver).

Vancouver doesn’t have a growth boundary, but it has de facto limits to growth, both geographical — the Pacific Ocean to the west, steep mountains to the north and east, and the United States border to the south — and legal, in the form of a large stock of agricultural land forever protected from development. Both have central city populations of 600,000 in regions of just over two million. It is only now, in their early adulthood, that the twins are showing signs of following distinct life paths. Portland remains a regional center, a city comfortable with incremental growth. Vancouver has lately become an international hub, a model for its own brand of urbanism, and a futuristic city of glass towers bound together by the soaring elevated tracks of streamlined rapid transit.

I grew up in Vancouver. It was here, working as a courier, that I witnessed one too many accidents, and developed a lifelong aversion to traffic and cars. My family arrived in the ’70s, settling in a neighborhood of single family homes near the university. Streamlined Brill trolley buses, drawing power from overhead wires, ran down the nearest major artery, Dunbar Street, where only recently streetcars had run. The local housing ran from Tudor-style manses in Shaughnessy Heights, a neighborhood built on an eccentric garden city street plan, to stucco-coated Vancouver Specials, boxy working-class homes with low-pitched roofs and second-floor balconies. Coming from Toronto, Vancouver felt like the edge of the world, an outpost of the British empire experiencing a few timid blooms of alternative culture. This was the place I became a pre-adolescent urbanist, pacing out our block and building a model showing how, if you removed the cars, city streets could be made into parks.

When I visit these days — my parents and sister still call Vancouver home — I barely recognize the place. The shock begins when I get off the plane, walk among the totem poles of the coolly West Coast–themed airport, and wheel my bags to the elevated SkyTrain station. The Canada Line, completed for the 2010 Winter Olympics, whisks passengers in Koreanmade electric trains at 50 miles an hour toward the West End. As the driverless light-rail train crosses the Fraser River, I marvel at how thickets of office and condo towers, each cluster corresponding to a SkyTrain station, have cropped up at intervals of about a mile and a half, where once there was only low-rise suburbia. The single-family homes on small lots, which make Vancouver’s west side so reminiscent of East Portland, still exist, but they are now bordered by slickly designed, European-inspired condo blocks with names like City Square and Arbutus Walk. Arriving at the station in Yaletown, once a downtown district of forlorn ware houses, I’m surrounded by “see-throughs,” the slender condominium towers of pale green glass that rise against the snow-dusted coast mountains. After Manhattan, Vancouver’s downtown is now the second densest in North America. In my absence, the backwater of my youth seems to have morphed into a temperate-zone Singapore, a transformation that has spawned a new buzzword among urbanists: “Vancouverism.”

To get an idea of where it was all going, I asked Moreno Rossi, a senior planner with TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s transit agency, to take me on a SkyTrain tour of the new Vancouver. We boarded an Expo line train from the TransLink headquarters at Metrotown, next to the largest mall in the province; the boxy train pulled out of the station with a mounting electric hum, and we rode southeast away from the downtown on elevated tracks raised on concrete pylons. The train pulled into New Westminster station, three stories above ground level. Overlooking the log floats being hauled by tugboats on the Fraser River, the half-built station area was dotted with the orange hardhats of construction workers; behind us rose three high-rise apartment towers. Rossi said the completed development will include 650 condo units, a drugstore, a supermarket, a multiplex theater, and a doctor’s office; most of the retail would be directly accessible from the station platform.

“More and more,” said Rossi, “we’re seeing these stations are absolutely being wrapped in development. They become an integral part of the neighborhood, rather than something sitting out there and separate.” The contrast with Portland’s Orenco Station was striking. Park-and-rides are against TransLink policy, so the station will be surrounded by a transit loop where feeder buses will drop passengers next to the escalators rising to the platforms. Moreno told me about another station where a leading drugstore chain had chosen not to build a single parking spot; instead, customers enter the store directly from the SkyTrain station, and it has become one of the most successful franchises in the chain. Vancouver was building the kind of TOD I’d seen in Tokyo, where commuters can shop for groceries, buy flowers, and pick up their dry cleaning on the walk between station and home.

After a short ride back toward downtown, Rossi left me on the platform of the Joyce-Collingwood station, which overlooks Collingwood Village, a 27-acre development with a population of 4,500 set in a neighborhood of older, single-family homes. Four-story town houses form a street front paralleling the SkyTrain tracks; behind them are 16 mid-and high-rise residential towers. Taking a stroll, I noticed that the greenbelt beneath the elevated SkyTrain tracks had been turned into a community garden, where local residents were tending patches of tomatoes, pumpkins, and lettuce; shops on the ground floors of the condo towers included a Filipino grocery with lacquered ducks hanging in the windows, a walk-in clinic, and a beauty salon advertising “Japanese Straight Perms.” The developer had also built an elementary school, a gym, a park, and a neighborhood police station.

What astonished me most, though, was the stream of passengers pouring from the station, some of whom joined the lines for buses at the bottom of the station’s escalators. It was half past five, so commuters were returning from downtown, and I stood on the platform counting heads: each four-car train disgorged thirty to forty passengers, with a new train arriving every two minutes or less. At Portland’s Orenco Station, I had counted only half a dozen people getting off each rush-hour MAX train, with waits of at least six minutes between trains. The statistics speak for themselves: in Collingwood Village, 56 percent of residents commute by transit, versus only 15 percent in Orenco Station.

When it comes to reducing car dependency, the Vancouver model, which puts high-density residential and retail right up against high-capacity transit, is emerging as the one to beat. SkyTrain ridership is triple MAX’s, making it the busiest light-rail system in North America. Over the last decade, transit ridership has grown by 52 percent, pedestrian trips are up 44 percent, and cycling 180 percent. Ten percent fewer cars now enter Vancouver than a decade ago, and the average time people spend commuting to work has actually decreased by several minutes (even while increasing significantly in Canada’s largest city, Toronto). Thanks to its transportation policy, Vancouver now has the lowest per capita carbon emissions of any major North American city.* (The electricity that powers the SkyTrain and the city’s fleet of trolley buses comes from hydro dams, one of the cleanest forms of power known. Most of Portland’s electricity comes from coal-fired plants.)

I asked Gordon Price, a former city alderman and transit blogger, if the lessons of Vancouverism could be applied anywhere but Vancouver. Price agreed that, like Portland, Vancouver’s early history of streetcar-driven development gave it certain advantages. A grid system of major arteries at half-mile intervals puts most homes within a few minutes’ walk of transit; Vancouver’s historic interurban network, the equivalent of Los Angeles’s Red Cars, also encouraged the growth of such substantial suburbs as Richmond and Surrey, which now provide the anchors that keep the Sky-Train cars full throughout the day. But the real key, Price believed, was Vancouver’s freeway revolt, a more thorough rejection of urban highways than even Portland’s.

“There was this planner called Gerald Sutton Brown, an engineer and city manager who since the fifties had been the grand poo-bah of Vancouver.” A Canadian Robert Moses, the imperious Sutton Brown came close to implementing his vision of a regional freeway system, until he made the mistake of routing it through Vancouver’s Chinatown. “In the late sixties, Chinese businesspeople and the more political unions held marches and raucous public meetings, and a rather ragged coalition of lawyers, architects, academics, and urban thinkers emerged to create a new municipal party. The first thing they did, when they were elected, was to fire Sutton Brown.” Most Canadian highways fall under provincial, rather than federal, management, and British Columbia decided against funding such a clearly unpopular plan. “The amazing thing is that, even today, highways don’t go through any part of the City of Vancouver,” pointed out Price. “They just stop as soon as they reach the city limits.”

Vancouver, like Portland, opted to use federal highway money for public transport; rather than building a new bridge, the city launched its SeaBuses, bright orange ferries that still shuttle passengers to the north shore mountains for the price of a bus ticket. Elevated light rail turns out to have been a prescient choice of technology. When I rode the SkyTrain on the opening of Expo 86, a world fair whose theme was transportation, I remember thinking it was nothing more than a toy, a rinky-dink people mover. But the system has proved both robust and popular, and the new, wider trains on the Canada Line operate more like serious mass transit vehicles. “Thanks to the technology,” pointed out Price, “we’ve got a system that gives us headways of as little as ninety seconds, which is incredible. And because it’s automated, the labor cost of putting a new train on the line is also incredibly low.” Vancouver has also introduced a form of BRT, using articulated buses that run from SkyTrain stations and only stop at major intersections. Students riding the B-line, which serves the University of British Columbia, receive discounted monthly passes paid for out of their tuition fees. The B-line has attracted such a huge ridership that there are now calls for it to be replaced by a permanent light-rail line.

When it comes to transportation policy, Vancouver is getting a lot of the little things right. Downtown parking is expensive: an hour and a half in an off -street lot can cost the same as an entire day of parking in the center of Portland. The city has built broad bike lanes on major bridges and arteries, taking entire lanes away from cars. Michael Shiffer, TransLink’s vice president of planning, told me he believed another factor was cultural. His last job was as head of planning for the Chicago Transit Authority, where support for public transport was not automatic. “Too often the debate in the United States is about whether transit is a good idea or not. Here, everybody’s on board with transit. The debate is, who gets it first, and how are you going to pay for it?”

Funding, in fact, comes from a variety of sources. In Vancouver, passenger fares cover 50 percent of operating costs, while fuel and property taxes pay for the rest. Construction of the proposed Evergreen SkyTrain line will be paid in equal parts by the federal government, the province, and the region. The Canada Line to the airport, in contrast, was the first major piece of transit infrastructure in North America to be built with a public-private partnership, an initiative many commentators say was plagued by corner cutting. Three stations had to be eliminated from the planned route, and the station platforms that were built were too short to allow future expansion. Thanks to cost overruns, the provincial government will be compensating the private company that operates the line with payments up to $21 million a year until 2025.

Almost everybody I talked to agreed that Vancouver’s greatest strength was the concentration of vision allowed by true regional planning. The Livable Region Strategic Plan, adopted in 1996 as a framework for making regional land use and transportation decisions, is now the game plan for the entire region. According to Christina DeMarco, the director of planning at Metro Vancouver, the equivalent of Portland’s Metro, the region’s twenty-two municipalities are constantly consulting one another. “Every month since the mid-nineties,” she told me, “all the planning directors in the region have gotten together to discuss common concerns, everything from affordable housing to the rezoning of industrial land.” They collaborate closely with TransLink, which was created by the provincial government in 1999 to oversee not only transit but also bridges and major roads. The various stakeholders in the process don’t always see eye to eye. Metro Vancouver, for example, favored making the Evergreen Line a surface light-rail line similar to Portland’s MAX, but the province opted for a more expensive SkyTrain. “The local municipalities are saying, we didn’t agree to this train, and now you’re asking us to cough up four hundred million to build it. Sort of like, we asked for the Volkswagen and you went for the Ferrari and you’re making us pay for it.”

There is a broad consensus, however, that the focus will be on regional city centers linked by transit, rather than freeways. When it comes to density, the SkyTrain is proving to be a force multiplier: a true mass transit system, wiThenormous through-puts, it enables high residential and commercial densities, just as New York’s subway created the skyscrapers of Midtown and the apartments of the Upper East and West sides. Throwing good transit at a city doesn’t mean density will follow: think of Phoenix with its expensive light rail, which spends most of its time rumbling past parking lots. The difference is that Vancouver early on limited space for cars, and its planners have worked hard to locate residential towers, bus loops, and shops near transit stops. It provides more evidence that public transport works best when it is overseen by an agency with truly regional scope — preferably one that can work in tandem with a planning body with some degree of metropolitan-level control over zoning and land use.

Some people say that Vancouver, whose economy is increasingly tied to Asia, is hardly a realistic model for other North American cities. One morning I rode the Canada Line to Richmond, a suburb where more than half of the population is of Asian descent — mostly recent immigrants from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong — and stopped at Aberdeen Center, a mall that could have been airlifted straight from Shanghai, Taipei, or Singapore. Shark-fin soup was the lunch special at the food court, and a Barnes & Noble– size bookstore offered mah-jong sets and books with titles like Struggling in the U.S.? Move to China! The lead story in the local paper profiled a real estate agent who was pre-selling entire floors of condo towers to the nouveau riche of mainland China. For its critics, Vancouver has become a kind of productive resort with no indigenous economy — an attractive home base for highly mobile Pacific Rim executives, but entirely dependent on inputs of foreign capital. I could see why, like Dubai or Singapore, it would be a good city for someone with an established career to spend a few years, but a hard place to build a life.

The fact is, the city of my youth has become ridiculously expensive. These days, even a tear-down on a tiny lot can go for over a million dollars; the house my parents lived in was recently listed for thirty times what they paid in the ’70s. There have been times, particularly in the depths of the Montreal winter, when I’ve daydreamed about enticing Erin to relocate to Vancouver, which, after all, boasts sandy beaches and old-growth forests within its city limits. In reality, we probably couldn’t afford to buy a home in my old hometown anymore.

Brent Toderian, Vancouver’s enthusiastic young director of planning, defended the city against charges that it has become an unaffordable haven for the international elite.

“We have about seven thousand kids living downtown, and we’re one of the few North American cities to have opened a downtown elementary school in the last decade,” said Toderian. “We require developers to include day cares, parks, and neighborhood facilities.” Developments like the Woodwards Building, he pointed out, have garnered international praise for including hundreds of apartments priced for poorer families.

Toderian admitted that Vancouver probably had all the condo towers it needed. Echoing Metro Vancouver’s Christina DeMarco, he said he hoped the future would bring a more European-style urbanism. That’s good news for the Vancouverites who see those ranks of sea-green condo towers as an invading army pushing them out of their hometown. “What Vancouver has done better than Singapore or Hong Kong,” Toderian pointed out, “is slim, separated towers that protect mountain views and allow sunlight in. But we’re coming to the end of this lazy interpretation of Vancouverism, which is all about high-rise towers on podiums. I think the future of Vancouver is mid-rise, from four to twelve stories, around transit lines. You’ll be seeing much more of that near the new stations on the Canada Line.”

There are lessons to be learned from the transit-led renaissance taking place in Portland and Vancouver. Portland is taking things slow — too slow for some tastes. Building denser, transit-oriented suburbs like Orenco Station as a means of transforming the North American cityscape may be a case of too little, too late, particularly in recessionary times. Vancouver, for its part, is undergoing a rapid transformation commensurate with its transit system of choice, the SkyTrain. As a widely applicable model, however, Vancouver may have priced itself out of the market: not only is its wealth of planning expertise simply not available to most cities, there are few places these days that can afford to buy themselves an expensive SkyTrain. A better path, I suspect, lies somewhere between Portland’s New Suburbanism and Vancouver’s Hyperurbanism.

In other words, in re-imagining and rebuilding the kind of cities many of us already live in.

Excerpt taken from Straphanger © 2012 by Taras Grescoe.  Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

photo by Steve Chou and Matthew Blackett