Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast


Post-Referendum Blues

Vancouver Trolley Bus

The weather in Vancouver has been glorious this summer, but something if not rain had to dampen the mood. Last Thursday we learned that the transit referendum had failed. Decades of regional transportation directives have, to pardon the impolitic wildfire pun, gone up in smoke.

Siege Mentality

In the immediate aftermath, Michal Rozworski criticized the Yes campaign for sticking to “severely-limited, feel-good, paternalistic liberalism”, and failing to stand on the social politics of transit. This is nowhere more apparent than downtown Vancouver, the heartland of the city’s centre-left elite, where the campaign had little to do with connecting people to their workplaces and everything to do with a continued legacy of progressive urbanism. The loss was interpreted as a repudiation of decades of technocratic planning, anchored in False Creek, by encroaching hordes of clueless suburbanites. Pete McMartin’s polemic against the No vote, soaked with despair over the implied rejection of Vancouverism, drew many puzzled comments in the Vancouver Sun. “What the hell is Vancouverism?” wrote one No voter. “I have never heard that word used to describe Vancouver”. Gordon Price went so far as to characterize the referendum as a public expression of our civic identity. Under this interpretation, the resounding message is that Metro Vancouver wants to drive, regardless of what Vancouverism has come to signify or what its proponents believe.

Don’t panic. While the Broadway subway was a key plank of the transit package, the tangible effects of the referendum loss in Lotusland — most of Vancouver proper — will be comparatively small. We retain a dense fabric of frequent trolleys, express buses that function despite limited capacity, and a growing network of bikeways to serve a rapidly shifting mode share. “What’s really going to change for us if the referendum fails?” my partner mused once the gloomy outcome grew clearer. “We already bike everywhere.” If anything, the greatest impacts fall on the suburban drivers who voted against the tax, where transit will be unable to keep up with rapid changes in land-use. Barring the end of the ALR, Metro Vancouver suburbs are all going to grow more dense. A drive around Richmond or Surrey reveals a surprising abundance of multifamily housing, and more are on the way. Residents of these sprouting south-of-Fraser townhouse developments will now have little choice about getting around: they will have to drive. To rudely paraphrase George Orwell, imagine traffic running over a human face, forever. That’s the foreseeable future of transit in Metro Vancouver where it does not currently exist.

“A Demoralizing Political Game”

Like many engaged local commentators, Paul Hillsdon views the referendum loss though the prism of political failure, a perpetual funding hot-potato that no one in office wants to own. The roots of this conflict run to the foundation of Translink as Gordon Campbell’s vehicle for sidestepping the Metro Vancouver mayors, many years before Canada Line and the 2010 Winter Olympics. Antipathy of Metro Vancouver governments to an imposed Translink management, who they were then cruelly forced to back in the referendum by a hostile Province, doomed the Yes coalition from the start. No united message could possibly emerge from this uneasy partnership, and no leadership of the Yes vote was forthcoming, least of all from the Province. Christy Clark claimed to support a Yes vote under duress of a microphone, but she could not plausibly give a different answer given her role in starting the referendum circus. (She was unavailable for comment once it failed.) The best the pro-tax coalition could do to rally the Lower Mainland vote was Mayor Robertson, the mythical personification of a self-absorbed Vancouver that surrounding municipalities make sport to ridicule.

In a sense, this clinical view of the referendum’s political pathology is still more disturbing than the purported ignorance of suburban rabble. It means not merely that a large portion of the population opposes crucial improvements to the transit network, but that the political elites themselves are unable to form a consensus and indeed are too cynically mired in cycles of retribution to make tangible progress. Blame is ultimately directed at the BC Liberals, or the provincial government in abstract, with vague hope of redemption in the 2017 election. But that’s a long way off to make Christy pay, a lifetime in politics, and offers cold comfort to those whose day jobs are to press for a unified transportation strategy to meet inevitably rising demand.

Doubting Vancouver Exceptionalism

Despite its design to fail, the referendum has forced a sober look in the mirror by those of us who think of Vancouver as someplace different. If not already clear from the content of Reflecting Vancouver, I moved here because Vancouver offered a different vision of development and city life than the sprawling suburbs of my youth. In the geographically dispersed cul-de-sacs, a bicycle was an amusing way to reach the kid’s house down the street and buses were things you might have to navigate on a tour of Europe. I saw much more of the interior of a city bus from documentary photos of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott than I ever did in reality. So the following sentiment of a Metro Vancouver voter struck me rather sharply:

The few times I have used transit I found it inconvenient, dirty and unpleasant. Even diehard greenies in this town ride their bikes to avoid it. People want cars. They want good roads. They do not want to be told to take a bus by some holier than thou types who condemn drivers’ legitimate choices. WE are Vancouver. We drive. We also vote.

There is perhaps a dose of magical thinking in the Dream City echo chamber. We have spent decades reinforcing the idea that people are willing to live in small apartments provided an urban environment that obviates the need for a car. We’ve pointed to Europe and Asia, invoking a kind of universal model that we can achieve in North America with enough foresight and will. The most strongly felt disappointment of the referendum loss is to dampen this hope, to seed worry that Vancouver is really just a North American city like any other, perhaps with a few lucky perks of landscape, climate, and history. That people here really want to drive on big, fast roads for everything, like innumerable other sprawling North American municipalities, excepting a few token walkable districts with abundant parking. Buses, sure, but not too many and only for the poor. All that theory about livable, walkable neighbourhoods? A load of elitist tripe for those who can afford it.

I strongly reject this fatalism, and I hope you do too. The population of the downtown peninsula has nearly tripled since the start of the modern Vancouver experiment, and jobs have roughly doubled, while traffic volumes into and out of the city centre have continuously declined to the lowest levels since 1965. Mode share has dramatically shifted, with over half of Vancouver’s trips made by means other than an automobile, six years ahead of the Greenest City 2020 goal. Land has spiked in value, but the inflation-adjusted cost of an apartment in Vancouver proper has barely risen in a decade. As I have voiced before, I strongly support increased density in our residential districts to ensure more, varied, and affordable housing stock for future residents of our city — see (1), (2), and (3). That surrounding municipalities do not want to emulate the successes of Vancouver does not negate the radical progress our city has made in shifting the way people inhabit the urban fabric. Communities in Metro Vancouver that most need density for rising populations are precisely those who voted against the sales tax by the widest margins. These cities didn’t negate Vancouverism — they are merely ignoring its lessons and making some mistakes that Vancouver has sought to remedy or avoid.

The Question of Translink

The last and possibly most pernicious issue is the fate of Translink. The referendum laid bare the public disdain for the agency, a result of smear campaigns, poor public relations, and provincial neglect. Vancouver has many tools at its disposal for implementing a progressive urban vision within its borders, but the governance of Translink dictates that public transportation is not currently among them. Bike lanes have gone further than many of us imagined to change the way people get around Vancouver, but it can only go so far, both physically and in abstract. Bicycles cannot connect cities in a sea of green. In the wake to the failed referendum, it is really the Livable Region Strategic Plan, and successor Regional Growth Strategy, that remain threatened.

Rebuked by the suburbs, will Translink focus resources on Vancouver, where routes are more profitable? Will the mayors simply boycott Translink until voters turn their ire on Victoria, or is this too dangerous a game against the provincial hand that feeds? Will changes in the federal government, a likely possibility in the autumn, open paths to direct investment in Vancouver and Surrey? If so, how will Translink fit into the picture? Sadly, we have not seen the end of brinksmanship over transit in Vancouver, and we have not yet witnessed a sea change in Translink. Regardless the outcome of specific battles to come, it seems like the era of a unified Metro Vancouver transportation plan may be drawing to a close.


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Reflecting Elsewhere: Bike Lanes in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires Bike Lanes Cyclovias
Bike lanes in Vancouver are sometimes derided as the quixotic obsession of a greenwashed mayor. The reality is that our infrastructure is barely keeping up with other major cities that have prioritized cycling mode share. London and Paris are well-publicized examples of this transformation. Buenos Aires offers another striking study, laying over 130 kilometres of protected bike lanes since only 2009, usually at the expense of automobile lanes or parking.

Porteño cyclovías are leaner than the Vancouver version, separated from traffic by narrow, yellow curbs plus occasional delineators. There are no planters or islands as seen in our alignments. This simplicity probably contributes to the speed with which they were installed, allowing rapid achievement of a functional network. The lanes are frequently punctuated by driveway access, but nonetheless feel safe to ride because they are usually installed on secondary roads. Many dodgy intersections remain, but this is a broader problem of the Buenos Aires street grid that is slow to amend. My travel companion informed me that a decade ago there weren’t even pedestrian signals in most neighbourhoods.
Palermo Bike Lanes Cyclovias
In fairness to Vancouver critics, Buenos Aires is a flat city, as are other popular examples of urban cycling across Europe. There is a legitimate argument about the extent of bicycle mode share that is possible in Vancouver given topography of the Burrard Peninsula. The ascent from Cambie Bridge to 10th Avenue is enough to leave any cyclist winded, far from the leisurely pedal of most Buenos Aires cyclovías. Our easiest separated commuter routes involve a hill or bridge of substantial grade at some point in the journey, enough to dissuade casual users. Famed West Coast athleticism may to some extent compensate for this natural disadvantage, but our mode share may ultimately find a lower ceiling than in cities that require fewer gear changes.

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York Bikeway: Curb Realignment at Yew Street

Yew and York Sidewalk Extension
Construction has started on the curb realignment at Yew Street and York Avenue, part of a broader suite of changes coming to York as it is refashioned into an east-west bike corridor. It wasn’t until I saw these changes in concrete that I realized the York Bikeway will be as much about enabling bicycles as calming traffic in the neighbourhood. Separated bike lanes will only run two blocks between Chestnut and Maple, but curbs will be modified as far west as Yew, and stop signs will be reversed along the full extent of York to Stephens Street.
York Avenue Traffic Changes
These are welcome changes, as they further discourage driving shortcuts between 4th Avenue and Cornwall. The steep grade of the hill, which offers spectacular views over English Bay, also leads to rapidly descending vehicles throughout the north-of-fourth grid. Even prudent glances up the road can sometimes fail to reveal a fast-approaching automobile, a particular hazard at Yew Street where pedestrian traffic is high. I’ve used York as a bike route prior to these changes, mostly to avoid Cornwall at the shallowest grade, and find the intersection at Yew also troubling for its poor visibility of downhill traffic. These cars will now meet a four-way stop at York.

It is not clear whether curb realignments and stop sign reversals will be sufficient to deter shortcut driving of this kind. Certainly the changes are less extensive than traffic calming measures found in the West End, and the hellish turn from 4th Avenue to Burrard Bridge increasingly encourages use of local streets. Summer will ultimately test the new arrangement.

City documents of the York Bikeway can be found here:


Point Grey Road and Stephens Bike Connector

Point Grey Road and Stephens

As I mentioned regarding the closure of Point Grey Road, Vancouver engineers typically waste no time implementing changes passed by Council. Here the reapportionment of roadway for green space and bike traffic at the corner of Stephens and York, connecting to Point Grey Road, has already started. The reformed intersection is intended to bridge the Stephens bikeway, the forthcoming York commuter route, and a grand stretch of separated bike lane along the north side of Point Grey Road. Presumably the crossing will allow quick access to Burrard Bridge for eastbound bike commuters, as well as offer easy access to the seaside greenway for cyclists heading north from central Kitsilano. Reaching Jericho by bicycle should prove more popular than ever this summer thanks to this single intersection. It is not clear why some consider this project a means to limit accessibility of Point Grey Road for leisure. If anything, the parks will be much easier to reach for leisure, their intended purpose.

Point Grey Road bike lane

The bike lane along this pictured stretch of Point Grey Road is more exception than rule, running only two short blocks from Trafalgar west to MacDonald, where it merges with the recent traffic closure and empties into now-local roadway. To the east, continuation along the odd northerly detour of Point Grey Road at Trafalgar is straightforward enough, but the need for a clear connection through Kitsilano Beach becomes all the more apparent. Sadly, a political misstep by the City, which sought to hurry a plan through the Park Board without major public consultation, appears to have stymied improvements within the Park borders for the time being. This leaves a muddle of mixed-use paths, lacking an intuitive route from the Point Grey Road greenway to Ogden Avenue at the far eastern edge of the park space.

Kitsilano Beach Park bike routes

Yesterday I took precisely this path, weaving along the southern fence bordering Cornwall, down the colonnade of trees toward the beach, and behind the Boathouse until reaching Arbutus Street. I faced unnecessary conflicts with pedestrians and automobiles, even in the dour rain of February, where a few ingenious infrastructure fixes would yield none. The situation within Kitsilano Beach Park needs amendment, and will become increasingly chaotic as summer approaches. I am surprised that a routing along Arbutus has not garnered more attention, as it would seem to avoid the brunt of the disagreements about running more pavement through the eastern half of the park.


Main and 2nd’s Transit Problem

Vancouver Winter 2013 013
What’s happening at Main and 2nd? Condo prices may be flat, but on the eastern edge of False Creek it looks like the rising downtown of years past. Crowded along 2nd Avenue toward Main Street, nearly 10 different condo developments are in construction around the former Olympic Village. But no transit improvements are planned to serve this new, ostensibly urban population. How will all these people get to work and around Vancouver?

The growing neighbourhood will be dense enough to permit local errands by foot. Main and 2nd is also an eminently bike-friendly location, connected by the seawall, the Ontario Bikeway, and various routes east and west. But geography and weather ensure that year-round trips to major employment destinations — downtown, central Broadway, the universities — will be made by transit or car. In this regard, Main and 2nd seems to have a problem.

From condos on the flat of Quebec Street, such as Central and Meccanica, most downtown commuting will be made by SkyTrain, with Main Street station one or two hundred metres away. But mode share will likely shift to cars further west along 2nd Avenue, where no transit is particularly frequent or accessible. This is especially true of residents for whom transit is not forced out of economy, as will often be the case in these developments. Use of transit from Main and 2nd to reach Central Broadway seems particularly remote, despite being only 2km away, simply because of the poor connectivity of the system between these locations. Few will walk to Broadway to ride the B-Line given the grade of the hill, especially when the trip can be made by car in half the time or less. What this means is more cars on Broadway, 2nd Avenue, and Main Street, where densities would instead suit fixed rapid transit. In short, the same mistakes that led to high rates of driving in North False Creek, a tragedy considering its location, are being made again.

RRT Alternative marked
Most proposed routes for the Broadway extension of SkyTrain neatly bypass the neighbourhood. This means that even if the shortsighted policies of the Provincial government were somehow contorted into funding the Broadway line, this area would remain poorly connected. While I generally favour the unambiguous extension of SkyTrain to UBC, the rise of Main and 2nd may paint an argument for the Combination Alternative. LRT running west from Main Street Station through the Olympic Village would integrate the neighbourhood into the surrounding transit network, although it would still fail to solve the problem of connecting False Creek Flats to Central Broadway, being separated by both busy 6th Avenue and a very steep grade from the presumed tracks.

Combination Alternative marked
What is to be done? The 84 bus will perhaps find its potential along this corridor for trips to UBC. But it would seem the majority of new residents at Main and 2nd will be driving to work or elsewhere, and adding more cars to Metro Vancouver’s roadways. Hardly the greenest city.

Jarret Walker wrote about walking distance to transit a few years ago, offering available data on the subject. The verdict? Not surprisingly, transit use tapers with distance to the station, nearing negligible levels beyond 500m. Manitoba and 2nd Avenue is roughly 800m to both Main Street SkyTrain and Olympic Village Canada Line stations, and a kilometre uphill to the B-Line stop. Transferring from the 3 bus (Main Street) may work for some, but widespread use of fixed transit will not be available despite the rapid increase in density. Cars will naturally be the mode of choice given the wide boulevards adjacent.

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Smithe and Beatty

A welcome addition of bike infrastructure to the previously dodgy stretch between Cambie Bridge and Beatty Street. Getting to Dunsmuir from South False Creek is now even easier. Thanks, Vancouver.

The shared bike and pedestrian pathway on Cambie Bridge is slated for AAA bike route improvement in 2014. I wonder what the city has in mind?

UPDATED: What the block and painted “bike lane” used to look like:
Smithe and Beatty