The Livable Region
January 15, 2016

The City of Vancouver is not the centre of the region

One of the things that I always found a bit odd was how some people refer to everything outside of the City of Vancouver as “the suburbs.” Metro Vancouver is different than a lot of other regions in North America; we don’t have suburbs/bedrooms communities that service the central city.

In fact, the only true suburban/bedroom municipalities in Metro Vancouver are Anmore, Belcarra, and Bowen Island. The Tsawwassen First Nation lands are also suburban.
Every other municipality in the region has a mix of densities ranging from high to suburban. In Langley and Surrey, the only truly suburban areas are Port Kelly and Salmon River/Uplands. I’ll leave you to find these areas on a map. Other current suburban areas are being redeveloped into urban areas.
As I noted earlier this week, Metro Vancouver is a collection of complete communities. Jobs and housing is distributed throughout the region. Some people from the City of Vancouver leave their community for work, just like some people from Burnaby go to the City of Vancouver for their job.

The really great things about our region is that it is a series of nodes. With proper funding for transit, these nodes would serve as the anchors which make viable high-quality transit from Langley to West Vancouver. We have the framework in place to build an auto-optional region for the majority of the population.
Given the built-form of the region, it’s no surprise that transit ridership has been increasing rapidly in the South of Fraser as TransLink has expanded service in the area.

This will be my last post of the week. Metro Vancouver is a great place to live. When urbanists only focus on placemaking in the City of Vancouver, and dismiss the rest of the region as a hinterland, it does everyone a disservice. If it wasn’t for the South of Fraser, where would all the Main Street Hipsters get their locally grown, organic food from?
Beyond that, the reason why Metro Vancouver works is because it is a federation of municipalities that have come together to improve the quality of life of all residents.
If you haven’t spent much time outside of the City of Vancouver, I invite you to start exploring the rest of the region. For great ideas for places to tour, check out the blog Fraseropolis. There’s a lot of cool things to see outside of the City of Vancouver.
Please be sure to check out my blog as well at http://www.southfraser.net/.

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Urbanists from the City of Vancouver love telling others about the accomplishments of their city. Usually after telling everyone about the awesomeness that is the City of Vancouver (which does world-leading things), they proceed to question why every other municipality in the region doesn’t copy exactly what Vancouver does. I’ll tell you why.

One of the big differences between the City of Vancouver and every other municipality in Metro Vancouver is the legal frameworks. The City of Vancouver gets its authority from the Vancouver Charter. Other municipalities in the region have to work under the framework of the Local Government Act and Community Charter.
This impacts all sorts of things from Vancouver’s unique Parks Board, to how developers contribute to the betterment on the community.
While several lengthy posts could be dedicated to explaining why the Vancouver Charter is special, the short of it is that the City of Vancouver can do a lot more than other municipalities in BC.
One of the other big differences between the City of Vancouver and other municipalities is its tax base. The City of Vancouver had an estimated population of 640,469 in 2014. It collected $1.56 billion in revenue. That is a per capita revenue rate of $2,435.
The City of Surrey had a population of 513,322 in 2014, and collected $844 million in revenue. That is a per capita revenue rate of $1,644.
The City of Langley, where I live, had a population of 26,652 and $43.3 million in municipal revenue in 2014. That works out to a per capita revenue rate of $1,625.
When it comes to revenue collection, the City of Vancouver is a leader in the region. The City of Surrey actually spent more money from developers in 2014 than Vancouver; most of Vancouver’s revenue comes from property tax.
The City of Vancouver has a lot more money available to use for municipal infrastructure and services than other municipalities in the region. This in on top of the non-revenue contributions it is able to extract from developers due to the Vancouver Charter, and the demand for development in the city.
Another thing that sets Vancouver apart is its party-style political system. While some municipalities have slates, they pale in comparison and are less divisive than the Vancouver political system.
Vision Vancouver, for example, is able to accomplish their agenda more effectively because of the unique way that Vancouver politics work, but the highly-polarized political system in Vancouver hurts the rest of the region at times.
Separated bike lanes are a perfect example. Because Vision Vancouver wanted bike lanes in Downtown Vancouver, the NPA didn’t want bike lanes. This created a controversy, and a chilling effect on other municipalities in the region that wanted to install separated bike lanes. They did not want to have Vancouver-level of controversy in their municipality.
It wasn’t until places like Calgary, and even my home town of Vernon, started installing separated bike lane with little controversy that other municipalities in the region started installing separated bike lanes in earnest.
Most municipalities in Metro Vancouver are actually looking to Surrey for leadership on how to provide cycling infrastructure. Surrey has been slowly building a greenway network and on-street separated bike lane network with little controversy.

So while the City of Vancouver has been able to do a lot of great things to improve the quality of life for people that live there, many of the things that Vancouver has done can’t simply (nor should they automatically be) replicated throughout the rest of the region.

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Every rail-rapid transit proposals in Metro Vancouver started off as (mostly) at-grade light rail.

If you’ve ever ridden the MAX light rail system in Portland, I’m sure this is what the original rapid transit planners had in mind.
We ended up with SkyTrain because essentially the federal government wrote a big fat cheque to help support high-tech jobs in Ontario. Urban Transportation Development Corporation, the creators of SkyTrain, was an Ontario crown corporation. Since that original decision to build SkyTrain, the provincial government has never looked back.

The Millennium Line was originally planned to be light rail until the provincial government “undertook a comparison of light rail (LRT) and SkyTrain technologies.” In 1998, the provincial government proceeded to unilaterally decide that SkyTrain was the solution.

The same thing happened with the Evergreen Line. TransLink was originally going to build light rail, but the province released a completely unbiased business case which proved that SkyTrain was the way to go. The province unilaterally took over the management of the Evergreen Line project, and paid the extra cost of converting from light rail to SkyTrain.
The original vision for getting rail rapid transit to Richmond put both light rail and SkyTrain on the table. Because the Canada Line was a P3, a fully-automated SkyTrain-like system was built instead of the real McCoy, but still no light rail. So, what does this have to do with the title of this post?
The City of Surrey is committed to supporting the construction of light rail along King George Boulevard and Fraser Highway. Surrey’s Mayor Linda Hepner has even promised light rail by 2018 regardless of the failed transit referendum.

While some urbanists and transit geeks will debate the benefits of various transit technologies until they are blue in the face, in Metro Vancouver, it’s really just wasting energy.
Given the history of rail-rapid transit in Metro Vancouver, it is likely that Surrey Light Rail will become SkyTrain along Fraser Highway. In a recent interview, Peter Fassbender hinted at SkyTrain. There is no doubt in my mind that the province is working on a business case for SkyTrain along Fraser Highway right now.
I don’t know why both the NDP and BC Liberals are in love with SkyTrain, but the fact is that rail-rapid transit in Metro Vancouver equals SkyTrain.
I used to spend a lot of effort plugging the benefits of building light rail over SkyTrain, but I’ve come to learn that it is more important to promote the value of funding frequent, fast transit service.

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I friend of mine, who lives in the City of Vancouver, recently visited me in Langley. It was the first time that this friend and their spouse actually travelled to Langley City. Very few people I know who live in the City of Vancouver venture beyond a 5 minutes walk of the SkyTrain in the South of Fraser; I was impressed.
After lunch, we went for a walk around Downtown Langley. The spouse of my friend was really surprised that Langley contained more than single-family houses and big-box store.
Many people have the impression that farmland in the South of Fraser is being paved over for single-family housing. While a small amount of farmland has been converted to urban purposes, this is the exception rather than the rule.
I wrote a report a few years back about the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). I found that the provincial government was causing the most destruction to ALR by building massive highway projects such as the South Fraser Perimeter Road.
People who live in the South of Fraser actually care a great deal about the preservation of farmland. In the Township of Langley, Councillors have been voted out of office for supporting development on farmland.
Much of the development in the South of Fraser is actually the redevelopment of large-lot suburban housing from the mid-twenty century.
While you are certainly going to see single-family housing, strip malls, and big-box power centres in the South of Fraser, you are also just as likely to see the following.

The South of Fraser consists of a collection of town centres. Many of these mixed-use town centre were established as the heart of rural farm communities, or were important railway and interurban stops.

This part of Metro Vancouver has all the right ingredients to support accessible town centres that are interconnected with high-quality, non-automotive modes of transportation.
Some past and current development decisions have eroded these town centres. This is why it is critical that there are people who will advocate for the accessibly development of these town centres.
The South of Fraser is the largest part of Metro Vancouver. Imagine what kind of region we could have if urbanist worked constructively with communities out here.

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Good morning! I’m Nathan Pachal.
I grew up in the Okanagan, but when I was a kid, my family would spend a part of each summer in Surrey and Vancouver. I remember using BC Transit buses from Fraser Heights to Guildford, then onward thru Whalley to catch the SkyTrain into Vancouver. I thought Metro Vancouver transit was the best thing ever.

If you’ve ever seen the 1980s propaganda created for SkyTrain’s launch, this is exactly what I thought of BC Transit in Metro Vancouver back in the 90s.
When I’d get back to my own town of Vernon, I wished that our crappier version of BC Transit could be even a little bit as awesome as the Metro Vancouver system. I remember wanting a train that connected Kelowna and Vernon, but I digress.
I lived in Calgary for a bit, but moved to Surrey in 2003 when I got my first job working for a TV station that was located along the Langley Bypass near the Cloverdale/Langley City border. I quickly moved to Langley Township before settling down in Langley City.
Three things came together which caused me to become a bit of an activist for building an accessible region.
The first was a serendipitous encounter with the book Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream at Powell’s Books in Portland.

 
The second was one of Gordon Price’s famous lectures on motordom.

 
And the final piece was the provincial government’s announcement that they were going to widen the Highway 1 corridor from Vancouver to Langley which included the massive Port Mann Bridge.
 

 
For most urbanist and planner types in this region, the City of Vancouver is their frame of reference. 80% of the conversations about urban issues seem to centre on the City of Vancouver.
As someone who’s lived experience of this region includes the South of Fraser, I find this disappointing. About a quarter of the population actually lives in the City of Vancouver. More people live in the South of Fraser. This is one of the reasons why I started the South Fraser Blog back in 2008. I believe that how we build the South of Fraser has more of an impact on the future success of our region than how we continue to build the City of Vancouver.
Over the coming week, I hope to bring a difference cadence to Price Tags, and show you why I believe the South of Fraser is key to the continued success of the livable region.
PS: I’m running in the City of Langley By-Election for a seat on Council. You should check out my election site.

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