Reflecting Vancouver

Urbanism and Life on the West Coast


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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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A New Vancouverism

This video segment from CBC has been making rounds:

Planners around the world once looked to Vancouver for advice on transforming their cities. Today we face a looming urban design crisis, and are rapidly losing vanguard status to cities willing to take greater risks. Our legacy still informs dense residential developments and luxurious condo schemes, particularly in North American cities where urban revitalization is incomplete. But we have precious little to teach the world about the challenges we now face, and that our imitators will soon be forced to confront as well: a rapidly rising population, diminishing brownfield, and intense resistance from inner suburbs to the platform-and-tower model.

I previously discussed the impact of this crisis on housing affordability, the gravest symptom of our need for new ideas. As the addition of new housing stock slows due to fewer available development sites, along with financial incentives to build smaller and smaller units on increasingly expensive land, housing for young families will soon vanish from Vancouver. Even if we mandate a minimum percentage of new apartments with two or more bedrooms — a recent Vision promise — less and less construction will occur as available land for traditional Vancouverism runs out. In parallel, these units will become more and more expensive, until they rocket past the financial means of young couples to afford them. Purchasing a two-bedroom apartment in Vancouver now requires a household income of about $70,000 per year, given a brutal 60% to housing expenses, plus a hefty down payment. There is dangerously little room for the cost of housing to rise further if we want a demographically balanced city.

It is often said that high housing costs are a geographic inevitability in Vancouver. That we are doomed to be a city of expensive condos and strapped renters because there just isn’t enough space to go around. But we are not Hong Kong, and this crisis is not for lack of land — greater than 50% of our city is zoned for single family homes. It is unthinkable to allow our city to slip into stasis after the final CD-1 tower, while pretending that our vast single-family vernacular should remain untouched. Vancouver must accept that single-family neighbourhoods will densify, or otherwise become vacant portfolio assets beside packed and pricey towers. Our city deserves better.

If we don’t start planning for the densification of our residential neighbourhoods, many thousands of new Metro Vancouver arrivals will instead flow to suburban development outside Vancouver’s borders. This almost certainly means being trapped in a vicious cycle of new automobile infrastructure to facilitate one-car commutes. Motordom will win. It’s time for Vancouver to step up again and show a better way forward for urban living, one in which everyone can participate. Diverse transportation options are crucial for healthy urban design, and the transit plebiscite must be won. But land use planning is the foundation on which transportation policy is framed, and changes to zoning start with the City.

The concern isn’t whether Vancouver has an optimal number of residents, but how we will design our city to remain livable as our population increases. Constraints of comfort, space, and price will determine our quality of life in tomorrow’s Vancouver, and these are all factors amenable to policy. In the coming months, I’ll share ideas from my own neighbourhood of Kitsilano, where a history of creative densification provides many instructive examples.


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Canada’s SoCal

San Diego Little Italy

You can walk on the weekend, at least


Apart from obvious differences in climate, the place that reminds me most of Vancouver is Southern California. A good friend of mine, native to Manhattan Beach but happily expatriated to Berkeley, once remarked on the similarity during a summertime stroll through Kits. “Mostly image with no substance”, he quipped. The trendy shops and body-beautiful volleyball teams drew equivocal looks. “Just like Southern California.”

This is a familiar charge leveled at Lotusland. That our city is shallow, and affords to be boring by mere providence of scenery. That we are a buxom beach blonde in comparison to sophisticated brunettes like New York or even Montreal. That we are blissfully unaware of how tawdry we really are. All common complaints about Southern California.

I propose a more nuanced interpretation: that Vancouver is a mirror of SoCal, rendered in Canadian form. Surface resemblances give way to telling differences.

Image in Vancouver tends toward a public, conformist expression. Southern Californians are American individualists, most content in the fortress of a gated home or the privacy of a luxury vehicle. Walking the street in Los Angeles is meant to be a solitary experience. Reality shows stationed in SoCal revolve around opulent private homes and society parlors, even as these scenes are interspersed with images of public beaches and hillsides. Vancouverites, on the other hand, prefer the mass consumption of image, or the projection of image into open view. The walk along the seawall is a shared experience of geographic, urban, and personal aesthetics all at once. The see-through voyeurism of Yaletown has come to define a common downtown lifestyle. We prefer crowd yoga to boutique pilates studios, preferably outdoors. Or better the Grouse Grind, our Sunday sacrament of athleticism. A similar mass performance is rare in SoCal, yet these experiences are a defining feature of Vancouver life. There is a cohesion to appearance and action in Vancouver, whereas SoCal famously allows you to be what you want, or at least aspire to it. In this distinction, some visitors see Vancouver as boring or even suffocating. Others see it as kinder than its Southern Californian counterpart, because it is easy for a new arrival to act the part. It is open and tends toward the mean, like Canadian society in general.

In urban respects, both cities tend toward modernism, and are distinctively West Coast. But Vancouver is both more vernacular and more futuristic than Southern California, defined by Edwardian interpretations, Post and Beam, and the omnipresent green glass condominium. Vancouver architecture shies away from the ostentatious, and indeed our design guidelines enforce unified themes between structures and their surroundings. SoCal trends toward expressive modernism, eclectic residential design, and opaque midcentury stucco. The individual piece is often emphasized over the surrounding neighborhood, or forgotten, and privacy is paramount. Whereas SoCal has accommodated private automobiles without reservation, indeed making it nearly impossible to live without one, Vancouver consciously rejected freeways and has repeatedly emphasized the priority of pedestrians and transit throughout the region. While one can criticize the incompleteness of this vision in reality, especially across the Lower Mainland, Vancouver has always made urbanism explicit in a way SoCal never really has. It is easy to live here without driving, possibly the most salient distinction from our Southern cousins.

While we both play volleyball on attractive beaches, in Vancouver we can easily walk, bike, or take the bus to get there. We can stroll for shopping on the way home. Only the densest neighborhoods of Los Angeles and San Diego offer these simple conveniences, and only rarely with the opportunity to avoid driving completely.

San Diego Mission Beach

He drove to get here


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The New Normal

Kitsilano Beach Park Bikes
A weekend breath of summer swept Vancouverites to the seaside. Kitsilano Beach has revealed itself suddenly, turning the usually sleepy promenade into a near-daily spectacle of young people living out fantastic, pleasurable lives. By foot, by bus, by car, and increasingly by bicycle, the seasonal pageantry of Cornwall has arrived.

Even I’ve been surprised by the cultural presence of bicycles in Kitsilano in these first long, reliably warm days. It is a neighbourhood that was loudly resistant to removal of parking and pushed back against initial drafts of the York bikeway. The City removed proposed counterflow lanes between Vine and Maple, opting instead to retain on-street parking in the final design. Some young Kitsilano residents heaped derision on the City’s new bike schemes, often with indignation that they would no longer be able to drive absolutely everywhere they wanted. If you’ve lost Kitsilano youth, I thought at the time, you’ve probably lost the centre-left vote in Vancouver.

Instead, I’ve seen drivers slowly adapt to the new stop signs along York, and a much larger number of bikes arriving at the beach. Local Pub has even installed a hanging bicycle rack beside their patio as a kind of design statement, creatively alleviating the lack of rack space for their clientele. If you’ve managed to get Kitsilano tank tops and aviators to Local by bicycle, then you’ve probably won the centre-left vote. In my mind, this is a more surprising turn than seeing families pedaling along Point Grey Road. This is the new normal.

Kitsilano Bikes Local

As always in Vancouver, the question persists as to whether improved infrastructure along York and Point Grey Road will see any practical use in rainy months. Volume on Vancouver’s most popular bikeways falls by nearly two-thirds between summer and winter, and even more precipitously in the case of Burrard Bridge. One could argue that the absence of protected bikeways through Kitsilano perhaps contributed to Burrard’s poor seasonal figures to date, or that tourism overwhelmingly boosts the summer total versus other monitored lanes. But it’s also possible that few Kitsilano residents will ever commute downtown by bicycle in winter, preferring bus or automobile given the proximity. We won’t know until the end of the year whether closing Point Grey Road, improving bicycle priority on York, and streamlining the intersection at Cornwall and Burrard will make any dent in Burrard bicycle volumes during the chill, drizzly days of January.

Kitsilano Bikes York Yew

If the only real success of the Seaside Greenway and York Bikeway is to facilitate enjoyment of the waterfront, and not to increase overall cycling mode share, that’s not such a failure. Completing a safe and comfortable route from Jericho to Kitsilano Beach Park, and connecting on to the rest of the seawall, was the primary goal of the project. Transportation 2040 objectives were always spoken of in a secondary way. But transit has more or less reached its limit serving this community in the absence of capital-intensive rapid transit. Take any packed 2 or 22 bus downtown on a November rush hour — they arrive every two or three minutes — and you’ll see what I mean. Getting Kitsilano commuters on bikes is the only way you’ll get more of them out of their cars. Heading to the beach, at least, we may be off to a good start.


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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.

Meccanica-by-Cressey-Vancouver-Condo
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.