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Vancouver and Transit Oriented Development

When it comes to intensification one of the things we have long supported is the idea that it’s critically important that density is done well. It’s no use just building high density on its own and it’s the access to local amenities that will determine just how liveable a place is. As the amenities in an area increase it helps to make development much more viable and transport is one of the most important in that regard. Build a motorway through an area and it’s not going to be very conducive to residential development, build a rapid transit line and you can get quite the opposite.  Vancouver is one of the best examples of this and this video from last year shows the impact over 30 years that the initial Skytrain line has had on the area it passes through.

In 2009 Vancouver built the Canada Line which is another line on their Skytrain network. This article from The Atlantic Cities is about some of the impacts that have occurred along the route.

But the light rail line is also becoming a model for spurring environmentally responsible growth around stations, where people will ride transit more and drive less. The Canada Line has sparked a development boom unlike anything in the region’s history.

The most striking transformation is happening in Richmond, a suburb south of Vancouver. Richmond was a bedroom community for decades. Since the late 1990s, it’s turned into the region’s primary settling point for Chinese immigrants. However, Richmond has still retained the look of a North American suburb, with a highway-like main street pocked with large malls and parking lots on either side.

Now, Richmond is the southern terminus of the Canada Line, with easy transit access to both Vancouver and the international airport. The train runs on an elevated track above the main street, No. 3 Road. Since the rail line opened in 2009, clusters of mid-rise apartment towers have gone up around stations. More are in the works. By 2040, Richmond expects to see 30,000 more people living around the line in its city center, and all the parking lots covered with buildings.

It would be interesting to hear how the local retailers near train stations are doing. But it’s not just Richmond benefiting from the Canada Line:

Vancouver is also seeing a development boom around the Canada Line. Near one station, a 1950s era indoor shopping mall called Oakridge is being redeveloped with 13 new apartment and office towers and more retail space. Oakridge is owned by a subsidiary of the Quebec credit union that is one of the main investors in the Canada Line project.

Elsewhere on the line, Vancouver currently has 12 projects approved, 13 applications underway, and 10 more inquiries. If everything gets built, that will add another 4,100 housing units to Cambie Street, whose previous life was as a sleepy row of single-family homes.

“The province and the city made a significant transit investment and now what we’re seeing is that people are greatly attracted to it,” says Brian Jackson, Vancouver’s general manager of planning. “It’s been a magnet for new development.”

Vancouver got to its planning work a bit later than Richmond did. A Cambie Corridor plan was not finalized until 2011. But even before that happened, land values along the line soared and properties started trading hands.

The city’s major developers say they have one priority when they look at project sites these days – access to transit. “It used to be about location, location, location,” says the city’s most influential real estate marketer, Bob Rennie. “Now it’s transit, transit, transit.”

One of those is this development I talked about a few months agoClearly the Skytrain has been immensely successful on many fronts in reshaping the city.

Over the next few years I think we’re going to increasingly see similar activity along parts of our rail network – although not likely as high and we won’t truly see any major change on the western line until the CRL is built dramatically reducing travel times to the CBD and elsewhere. The only thing that will hold this back is going to be the Unitary Plan however I suspect we will likely be on to a second version by then which will hopefully address some of these issues. Morningside is a good example of where there could be substantial changes if the zoning allowed for it.

On the issue of development Kent has kindly created this map which shows the location of the apartments in our development tracker and also shows how they would relate to the Congestion Free Network which would further open up large areas to vastly improved transport options.

Brent Toderian on “Density Done Well”

Former City of Vancouver Chief Planner Brent Toderian was in Auckland last week and spoke at a very well attended Auckland Conversations event on a range of planning issues that Auckland has much to learn from. We will elaborate on some of the key messages for Auckland coming out of this event during the next week, but for now here’s a different presentation given by Brent back in 2012 which touches on many of the same issues:

While the Unitary Plan does enable some level of increased intensification and certainly places a far greater emphasis on requiring good urban design, the jury is probably still out on whether it truly enables the future that Auckland desperately requires.

Marketing Transit Oriented Developments

This is the kind of development that Auckland desperately needs more of, dotted around some of our key rail stations. It’s interesting how sophisticated the marketing of transit oriented developments is in Vancouver. Detail is provided about how close the building is to other areas by train even before the focus shifts to the proximity of available retail or even the views over the adjacent river:

More here.

Visualising Bus Route Performance

In any transport system there are routes which perform much better than others. In Auckland for example we know that the Northern Express, and Dominion Rd buses are incredibly successful while I’m sure there are other routes out there in the spaghetti like network we have today that carry almost no passengers and probably a very bad use of resources. As the public we normally don’t get a chance to see that level of detail though.

In Vancouver they have come up with a great way of showing what makes good routes as part of their annual bus service review. The info-graphics below shows just the really high and low performing routes along with the characteristics that affect their performance.

Vancouver Bus Performance - High

Vancouver Bus Performance - Low

It would be great if Auckland Transport could start producing stuff like this once they have rolled out the new bus network.

H/T: Human Transit

The impacts of Vancouver’s Skytrain

30 years ago Vancouver didn’t have a passenger rail system. Then in time with the 1986 expo they built their first skytrain line, initially between the Waterfront and New Westminister. Other lines and extensions were made later to give the network that exists today.

What is interesting though is to see the change in the landscape that has occurred largely in response to the existing of the line. This video is perfectly synchronised up and shows the difference from 1986 to 2013

It would interesting to be able to do the same thing in Auckland in 30 years time.

H/T Gordon Price

Grids Gone Wild, Episode 1

Continuing on from my recent post on our troublesome speed limits, I wanted to further document some of the other problems I see on local streets. I have a particular fondness for our streetcar neighbourhoods with their old homes and regular gridded street network. In an earlier post I calculated the advantages of the streetcar grid to typical suburban development patterns. The reticulated grid forms a highly efficient transportation structure as well as a convenient method for land development. In addition to being highly walkable, streetcar suburbs provide advantages to present-day traffic by dispersing vehicles in a variety of directions unlike sprawly street patterns which tend to focus traffic at increasingly congested nodes.

But here’s where the value of the grid system breaks down in Auckland. It’s not the fact that cars can traverse these neighbourhoods, which is good and creates a resilient network,  it’s that the street designs and road rules allow people to drive with impunity. It’s as if these streets are designed to serve an elevated network function when in fact they are foremost residential neighbourhoods.

Besides the crazy speed limits, most streetcar suburbs have little if any traffic control. In fact, more important than the speed limit is actually bringing cars to a full stop with regularity. This obviously slows cars but most significantly discourages through (rat race) traffic in the first place. Increasingly, I have witnessed the insertion of speed tables as a method of traffic calming. These are okay, but most drivers have an uncanny ability to slow and then speed up in perfect rhythm to avoid slowing down too much. Also, the speed tables seem incredibly expensive to achieve something that other cities can do with a lick of paint.

I see the best solution to fixing the suburbs for increased walkability and even cycling is to insert North American style crosswalks and stop signs. Of course this raises questions about pedestrian priority in NZ and the basic roadway designs that we have adopted from Canberra. As an example see the image from Vancouver below. It is a gridded neighbourhood about 6km from downtown Vancouver. Note the density and diversity of traffic control devices. The small red stripes represent stop signs and a simple stripe. Because of the road rules giving pedestrian priority and the fact that that the stripes are pulled back from the intersection, these work effectively as crosswalks, giving people on foot prominence and more comfort. Note also the partial street closures. Unlike cul de sacs, these retain the traditional network connectivity of the streetcar grid by accommodating people on foot and bike, but stop unnecessary through traffic. Not noted on the map is a “Bicycle Boulevard” that cuts through this neighbourhood with its associated sharrows, signage and other features.

Traffic control in streetcar suburb of Vancouver

Below is the same scale area in the Auckland neighbourhood where I live. The blue stripes represent giveways which have limited pedestrian value, especially since they are placed beyond the pedestrian desire lines, and since there is no pedestrian priority status in this country. The few stop signs also have limited function for people walking because of their placement and the status of pedestrians. Compare the density of traffic control devices. Sure the blocks are much longer, but  that should only emphasise the practicality of putting crosswalks on every corner.

Lack of control in streetcar suburb of Auckland

Because it seems pretty unsafe, I walk my kids to school here. Of course many parents drive, creating an absurd self-reinforcing cycle of car dependency in a neighbourhood originally designed for people.

Melding Cycling and Transit

A great video from Streetfilms looking at how Vancouver is integrating cycling with public transit to extend the reach of its system and provide people with a really high quality alternative to travelling by car:

There’s always an interesting debate around whether we should encourage cyclists to carry their bikes with them on PT (either chucking them on the front of a bus or carrying them on the train) or whether the goal should be on storage at stations. I think the answer is obviously a mix of the two, though obviously carrying them on the vehicles only really works if we’re talking about low quantities of users trying to do this.

From memory New Lynn station has decent facilities for bikes, but elsewhere on the rail network I can’t think of the facilities being that great (though I haven’t looked in too much detail). Improving storage facilities for bikes at train and busway stations seems like a pretty low-hanging fruit to focus on.

Thoughts on “Band-Aid” solutions

There are often two competing arguments when it comes to transport investment:

  1. Build the project now, you’re going to need it eventually
  2. Only build what you need when you need to build it

This is a really interesting debate, because both sides of the argument have a good point to make. The first argument suggests that if we’re going to really need a piece of infrastructure a while in the future there’s little point “wasting” money on an interim fix – you might as well bring forward investment on the big project. But at the same time, we need to recognise the concept of  “net present value” and noting that if we’re spending money on something we only kind of need now, we’re probably taking money away from something we really need now.

There are a few classic example of this debate around at the moment. With Puhoi-Wellsford, we have seen necessary short-term projects put off (like upgrading the notorious Hill Street intersection) because the larger project is going to bypass this anyway – at some point in the future. Another example is the City Rail Link, where the debate seems mostly around when we will need this project, rather than whether  we will need it: even Steven Joyce agreed that the CRL was the logical next rail project for Auckland and it ‘made sense’ to protect its route.

It’s quite possible that the absolute need for the CRL could be put off for a bit by spending big bucks on bus infrastructure around the central city and its main feeder routes – but if we’re going to end up needing the CRL anyway in the not too distant future, why bother with all of that? Of course some improved bus infrastructure will be needed regardless of whether the CRL is built, but how much value would we really get out of a ‘band-aid solution’ in advance of the CRL? This is a similar question to one raised by the Transport Politic blog  (brought to my attention by this post) in relation to Ottawa, Canada: which is now looking at replacing its BRT system with a light-rail system:

Ottawa’s several busways transport passengers quickly and relatively comfortably. Unlike most “BRT” lines in North America, this city’s are mostly grade-separated, producing actually high-speed buses.

But now Ottawa is planning to give up its primary transitway… Is the Ottawa model — raise ridership with buses, and then think about more expensive rail options — falling flat? What went wrong?

The quick answer is that Ottawa was too successful, encouraging the city’s citizens to take an average of 125 trips by public transportation a year, more than any equivalently-sized North American city. The transitway has so many riders that it puts 2,600 daily buses onto two downtown streets, and by 2018, the system will have literally no more capacity. By 2030, Ottawa would have to get a bus downtown every eighteen seconds to accommodate all of its riders — an impossible feat.

Ottawa has incredibly high public transport use, and on the one hand the BRT system has clearly “built the demand” for the light-rail system. But on the other hand, the BRT system clearly took a lot of time, effort and money to put in place – and it’s now needing complete replacement. Why not have just built the LRT system in the first place? This question is explored further:

With expenses like that — practically equivalent to building a new rail line from scratch — one wonders whether there was ever any fiscal advantage to using buses first along the rapidway. Did the city lose out by not choosing rail when the transitway first opened in 1983?

In terms of operations costs, it almost certainly did. Even with a nine percent increase in ridership in the first year alone, light rail is expected to allow the city to save up to C$100 million annually on bus drivers’ salaries, gas consumption, and right-of-way maintenance. By dramatically increasing the average number of passengers per vehicle thanks to long trains and by switching to clean and cheap electricity from diesel fuel, the city will find notable economies in rail. It will also produce far fewer greenhouse gases — saving 38,000 tons by 2031.

I think there’s a cursory lesson for the CRL in particular here, but also wider in terms of helping us get a better answer about the appropriateness of “band-aid solutions”. There are some key matters to consider:

  • What’s the cost of the interim measure and will its benefits be realised by the time you further upgrade to the “real” long term solution?
  • What of the interim measure will still have some functional and helpful use even after the long-term solution is implemented?
  • How far into the future do the interim measures really push the need for the ‘proper’ project?

Vancouver’s B-Line bus services are an example of a good “band-aid solution”, as they fit well with our criteria noted above. They involved relatively little infrastructure spend (the benefits of the initiative could be realised extremely quickly), they helped build a market for future Skytrain lines and they managed to effectively shift a lot of people pretty quickly. This has meant the B-Line services did a pretty good interim job and made it possible for Vancouver to focus on constructing one major line at a time, rather than jumping into a heap at once.

Looking at Auckland, applying the same criteria provides us with a useful process for understanding just how far we should go with further bus investment before we really bite the bullet and build the CRL. As far as I can understand it, the way Auckland operates its bus network in the city centre doesn’t work very well even at the moment. That can be improved through changing the routings and through some infrastructure investment (particularly better bus lanes), but really this only fixes things to a certain extent, or for a certain length of time. After that it will really be necessary to either spend some serious cash on finding a way to make the city (not just the city centre, but right across Auckland) handle even more buses (ignoring, for the time being, the issue of trying to create a world-class city centre) or build the CRL. That’s when we really start to ask ourselves whether those additional interventions are desirable – even if they are feasible and could push the need for the CRL out a bit further into the future – or whether we just cut to the chase and build the darn thing.

If we are smart enough to learn from Ottawa, we will realise that spending serious cash on what will always be a ‘band-aid solution’ just doesn’t make sense.

Vancouver facing some tough decisions

The excellent “Price Tags” blognotes something that came through pretty loud and clear when I was in Vancouver over the last couple of weeks and researching a bit into their transport situation (although I was mostly focusing on land-use initiatives, you can never quite separate the two) – there’s no money left in traditional funding sources to keep improving the system, should they hold back for a while (especially as a few roading projects seem to have snuck in recently) or does Vancouver need to find different ways of sourcing funds for important further improvements to its transport network?

The region is at a turning point: whether to proceed to shape growth around expanded transit in the fast-growing parts of Metro by raising local taxes, or forgeddaboudit – which is easy and tempting to do since all the expanded road capacity from Gateway, notably the Port Mann Bridge, Highway 1 and the South Fraser Perimeter Road, will be coming on stream. Once congestion disappears on Highway 1 in the short term, it will be tempting to say, who needs transit? And TransLink, having had its legs cut from under it by Martin Crilly, the TransLink Commissioner, doesn’t have much public credibility.

But the problems don’t go away – notably the decline in one existing revenue source, the gas tax (Stephen Rees discusses that here and here), and the increasing pressure on the Broadway corridor, already the busiest bus route on the continent. Students are planning a major education campaign-cum-protest in the Fall, the City of Vancouver needs a decision to move ahead on rapid-transit for the Broadway corridor, UBC at the west end of the route wants rail to support its expansion, both real-estate and academic, and the developers and realtors themselves understand how important transit has become for directing and shaping growth. That’s a powerful political constituency if they could combine forces.

But the mayors are faced with with a dysfunctional governance arrangement, no likelihood of provincial action until after the election, the prospect of raising property taxes or cutting services, and the requirement to make a decision within weeks.

It is very interesting the difference that comes from spending a while in a place, rather than just a few days – and also researching a bit more into the problems faced by a city that you’ve so often thought of as “having it sorted”.

In many ways though Vancouver’s problems mirror those of Auckland – or at least the problems Auckland is likely to face in a few years time. It seems that quite a lot of the funding pressures in Vancouver exist because they have a small number of very large transport projects either under way or relatively recently completed. The Port Mann Bridge project, spending up to $3.3 billion (including operations and maintenance), seems a project particularly ‘out of step’ with Vancouver’s general approach to transport in the past and has a number of parallels with the Additional Harbour Crossing project that has a likely cost which has ballooned out to over $5 billion. Looking forward into Auckland’s future, it is the Waitemata Harbour Crossing project which is just so expensive that it really threatens our ability to achieve much else. One wonders whether finding a cheaper alternative will become increasingly important as time goes on.

Of course there is still much to be jealous of Vancouver about – and in the form of the Evergreen Line the fantastic Skytrain system is being significantly expanded as we speak, but beyond that project, and even to keep up service levels without significantly raising fares, Vancouver is perhaps struggling a bit more than I thought and faces some really challenging choices over the next few years. With Auckland likely to go through the same processes, but over the next couple of decades most particularly, we’d do well to keep an eye on what happens in Vancouver.

Guest Post: Downtown Separated Bike Facilities: Vancouver

This is a Guest Post by Kent Lundberg, who is an Urban Planner at Isthmus where this blog post was first published. 

I’m sure one of the things that Peter M will encounter on his trip to Vancouver is the expansion of fully separated bike infastructure throughout the downtown. Of course Vancouver has had exceptional waterfront promenades and bikeways extending around the city centre and into Stanley Park for a while, but these cycle tracks have a distinct utility purpose linking the downtown to adjacent neighbourhoods and providing intra-downtown/crosstown links.

Vancouver is one of several North American cities engaging in an “arms race” of sorts by implementing state of the art bike facilities; other cities include Minneapolis, Long Beach, New York, and most famously Portland, Oregon.

The best thing about traveling is having your preconceptions challenged. I used to consider bicycle infrastructure in dense, vibrant cities as being too hard since the land is so valuable, and because there are so many competing users. These barriers can all be overcome I discovered after visiting Vancouver. Here is a quick look at some of the more interesting designs. Without getting too bogged down in the details, these images depict a variety of design techniques that would otherwise make the proposition of first class facilities in downtown difficult.

An example of how bike lanes are added on large, one-way streets. Two-way paths are added to avoid the tendency of cyclists to “salmon” against traffic.

Dunsmuir Street Cycle Track, Vancouver

Here is cycle track in a more surburban/park like setting that provides clear delineation between ped and cyclists without going crazy with colours or signage.

Carral Street Greenway, Vancouver

Here is an interesting way that delivery vans are accommodated. Delivery servicing has a critical “place” value along many downtown streets.

Carral Street Greenway near Chinatown, Vancouver

Here is how buses work along a cycle track. They are placed inside the cycle track and pedestrian/bike conflict areas are marked.

Dunsmuir Street Cycle track in Downtown Vancouver

Its worth recalling what Bruce Katz from the Brooking Insitution said during the movie Urbanized about how cities are increasingly competing amongst themselves for skilled immigrants or simply to retain younger residents. Many globally-relevant cities are clearly copying and further adapting the latest best practice design solutions. It’s about time that Auckland starts to look seriously at these new techniques or risk being left behind.

Over the last six months I have visited a few of these trend-setting “pattern cities” and will be documenting some more of their pedestrian and cycling improvements in subsequent blog posts.