Governance & Politics
September 21, 2009

TransLink Service

Some of you may have seen these comparisons of  TransLink’s service area with other regions, like Toronto:

Or Chicago:

These maps are taken from the Buzzer Blog:

Throughout history, in fact, Metro Vancouver has basically always had one transit system that served all cities in the region, rather many cities with their own transit systems. (The exception, of course, is West Vancouver Blue Bus!)

This regional system stems from the way transit developed in Metro Vancouver.

Transit was launched in the 1890s by a private electric company, the B.C. Electric Railway, who kept expanding throughout the region and served it as one unified transit system for about 60 years. (Here’s a past post about B.C. Electric and its interurbans.)

So even as our transit system changed hands to different authorities later, the regional transit system had already stuck and never went away.


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September 17, 2009

My current Business in Vancouver article:

The bets are in. The stakes are high. With billions on the table for the Canada Line and the Gateway project, we have two very different visions for our region.

The first, transit-oriented; the second, auto-dependent.

The City of Vancouver played its hand back in the early ’70s when it rejected freeways and said no to auto dominance. Instead, it made density livable. Transportation choices followed. The result has been called “Vancouverism,” and it is the face we will present to the world during the Olympics – the Vancouver of False Creek North, Coal Harbour, the Olympic Village, greenways, streetcars and sustainability.

The Gateway project, on the other hand, will spread auto dependence up the valley. The new bridges – Pitt River, Golden Ears and Port Mann – and their connecting arterials will lock another generation into a vision of Motordom from the 1950s: everyone drives and there’s always free parking.

Call it ADUP: auto-dependent urban planning. The main problem with ADUP is that it drives out choice. It allows for only one mode of practical travel and limits urban design to a narrow range of options best typified by the strip mall.

To see a small but dramatic contrast between urbanism and auto-dependence, go to the new Aberdeen Station on the Canada Line. Descend from the platform and be irresistibly pulled forward along the landscaped greenway that curves towards Yaohan mall.

Here the pedestrian has priority, the overhead guideway provides protection and it feels safe and comfortable.

But when you get to Yaohan – no sidewalks!

 You You have no choice but to walk down the roadway originally designed when it was expected that everyone would drive and park.

So what’s likely to happen?  Will pedestrians return to their cars to drive to Yaohan or will a new sidewalk be built to the mall? I’m betting “sidewalk.”

That small change will be indicative of the transformation that will occur up and down No. 3 Road as Richmond eventually accommodates 120,000 people within walking distance of its five stations, a population equivalent to the build-out of Vancouver’s downtown peninsula. That’s the win from the $2 billion Canada Line bet: a city centre worthy of the name.

Meanwhile, out in Motordom, they’re building the strip malls and big boxes wherever an expanded interchange is anticipated or, in the case of Langley, already there. Even when plans for the 200th Street corridor call for “sustainable principles,” stand-alone commercial development will trump mixed-use when, as happened last month, developers make the case that auto-orientation is the only feasible alternative.

Advocates for Gateway argue that traffic congestion and transit options can be addressed simultaneously. Problem is, once we’ve built the bridges and widened the highways, who really needs the transit? Yes, the extra lane for additional buses may be provided, but more problematically, who will pay for the service? The message we’re getting from senior governments is that they will happily pay for big roads and bridges, but only for small pieces of rapid transit and nothing for operations.

We know from past experience how our billion-dollar gambles are likely to play out. Rapid-transit will deliver on its investment by attracting growth to its stations, visible in the development that has sprung up along the SkyTrain lines and is already starting along the Canada Line.

We also know from experience that building more roads and bridges will likely fail to solve the condition it was meant to address: traffic congestion. We have no model of success to point to in North America, no place where ADUP has produced the kind of urban environment that we want to be more like. The only place where vehicle traffic has dropped in our region is in the downtown peninsula, where transportation choices work.

In the next few months, the provincial government will have to decide whether to support TransLink’s call for increased revenue. It’ll have to take another gamble. But given the near impossibility of supporting a new or increased tax for TransLink in this time of the HST, what are the chances? Will the Evergreen be delayed yet again while Gateway goes full-speed ahead? Will transit be cut just as the demand for it grows?

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September 15, 2009

The Seattle branch of the Architectural Institute of America just held a competition on “how to craft a better Seattle.”  Titled Future Shack (great name), the winners were just announced, including Danielson Grove below, a 16-unit complex in Kirkland.

The challenge, as summarized by juror and Crosscut columnist Knute Berger, was “to recognize projects that reflected in some way the direction things ought to be going.” 

According to this  article  (with pictures of the winners) in the Seattle Times, “two juries — one professional, the other public —considered dozens of residential housing projects and selected 11 to highlight as innovative, cost-effective and sustainable solutions to increasing both urban density and the quality of our lives.”

The award winners reflect a remarkable diversity, from industrial infill to this contemporary residential highrise (above) at 5th and Madison, across from Seattle’s library.  There are definitely a few ideas for Vancouver in the mix.

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September 8, 2009

I don’t usually do a lot of postings on Vancouver’s real-estate market since it’s a favoured topic in so many other places.  But Tom Durning passed along a post from a Portland blogger who picked up on an interesting anomaly:

During this “Great Recession,” property values and employment rates have been declining across North America, with my hometown having one of the worst unemployment rates in the US.

“[‘s] office market has logged seven building transactions this year capped off by Germany-based Deka Immobilien’s recent $263 million purchase of Bentall V, a 33-story tower in the heart of the city’s district. Just as impressive, prices have held up well. By contrast, only five office properties valued at $5 million or more have sold in Manhattan in the first two quarters of this year, and average prices paid are off 32%, according to Real Capital Analytics, a New York-based real-estate research firm.”

Nevertheless, Wall Street Journal reported that ’s property market is remarkably robust.

The writer goes on to discuss our residential market:

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You may have seen, heard or read about the Great Vancouver Versus Seattle Debate, held by the SFU City Program and VIA Architecture.  Well, here’s a variation in print: the Portland Versus Vancouver Smackdown.

It began with Vancouver’s Tyee, which did a series by Christine McLaren on Portland and featured articles on Why Portland Beats Vancouver and Portland’s Progress on HomelessnessThat in turn was critiqued by Clark Williams-Derry at Seattle’s Sightline Institute.  (Disclosure: I’m on the board of Sightline.)

Okay, too many links.  I’d recommend all the items – but here’s an excerpt from Clark’s piece that jumped right out at me.

McLaren points to Portland’s recent progress in tackling its own homeless problems as evidence that Vancouver’s homeless policies and funding sources simply aren’t up to snuff.  Perhaps that’s right.  But focusing on a few of Portland’s successes misses a huge and somewhat hidden blemish in the Rose City’s homeless record: Portland puts vastly more people in jail than Vancouver.

The numbers on homelessness rates themselves are a bit dicey.  Both cities do one-night counts of their homeless population (here’s Portland’s, and here’s Vancouver’s). But the counts are hard to compare directly, since they were done on different dates, used slightly different  methods and definitions, use different geographic boundaries, and could have different error rates.  Because of the methodological confusion, I’ll call the numbers on homeless rates a draw — while noting that the raw counts found that Multnomah County alone, with only 714 thousand residents, had slightly more unsheltered homeless folks than all of Metro Vancouver, which is three times Multnomah’s size.

But the difference in prison and jail populations between BC and Oregon are simply staggering, and subject to the none of the data confusion that surrounds homeless counts. Oregon’s state prison system houses almost 14,000 inmates, and Portland’s jail population tops 1,300.  In contrast, British Columbia has more total residents than Oregon, yet only about 2,700 total inmates in its jails and prisons.  Apples to apples, Oregon imprisons more than 5 times as many people as BC.  And, of course, many of Oregon’s prisoners are locked away for drug crimes — which is at the root of many of Vancouver’s most public homelessness struggles.

The bottom line:  including Portland’s large and growing prison population puts the city’s “success” in homeless policy in a different light.  Portland’s homeless problem may seem less pressing, but that’s largely because — as is completely typical in the United States — Portland locks a large portion of its homeless problem in jail, where it’s harder to see.

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Portland is often pointed to as an example of enlightened transit policy – in particular, the existence of free transit in the downtown area, or ‘Fareless Square.’   A similar policy for downtown Vancouver is often No. 1 on the list of things people believe TransLink should implement if it wants to increase transit use.

According to yesterday’s Oregonian, we won’t be able to point to Portland any more:

The TriMet board voted 6-1 this morning to cut buses from downtown Portland’s Fareless Square, marking the first significant cutback to the nation’s largest free mass transit zone.

The change goes into effect Jan. 3. The transit agency said the new policy would cut down on fare evasion by bus riders who board within the fareless zone but stay on beyond its border.

Bus routes downtown will not change as part of the new policy, but riders who board buses will have to pay fares there. The fareless policy will remain for MAX light rail and the Portland Streetcar. With the addition of the new MAX Green Line and the MAX Yellow Line to the transit mall, TriMet officials predict most free zone bus riders will switch to the trains.

Board members from Clackamas and Washington counties said they view the fareless policy as an unfair perk for downtown riders.

Lynn Lehrbach, of eastern Multnomah County, was the lone dissenter in the board’s vote. He said the fareless area helps bring rich and poor together.

TriMet said that most of the public comments it received favored the proposal. About a dozen people affiliated with the Transit Riders Union, a rider advocacy group, heckled the board meeting and shouted disapproval after the vote.

‘Free’ transit was never really an option for TransLink, given that, unlike in the U.S., there is no senior-government source of operating dollars.   Indeed, the agency will have trouble maintaining existing service unless there it can raise additional dollars somehow, somewhere.

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An interview in The Independent (August 3) with Dr. Fatih Birol, the chief economist at the International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris, which is charged with the task of assessing future energy supplies by OECD countries.

Dr Birol said that the public and many governments appeared to be oblivious to the fact that the oil on which modern civilisation depends is running out far faster than previously predicted and that global production is likely to peak in about 10 years – at least a decade earlier than most governments had estimated.

But the first detailed assessment of more than 800 oil fields in the world, covering three quarters of global reserves, has found that most of the biggest fields have already peaked and that the rate of decline in oil production is now running at nearly twice the pace as calculated just two years ago.

On top of this, there is a problem of chronic under-investment by oil-producing countries, a feature that is set to result in an “oil crunch” within the next five years which will jeopardise any hope of a recovery from the present global economic recession, he said.

“One day we will run out of oil, it is not today or tomorrow, but one day we will run out of oil and we have to leave oil before oil leaves us, and we have to prepare ourselves for that day,” Dr Birol said. …

The IEA estimates that the decline in oil production in existing fields is now running at 6.7 per cent a year compared to the 3.7 per cent decline it had estimated in 2007, which it now acknowledges to be wrong.

“If we see a tightness of the markets, people in the street will see it in terms of higher prices, much higher than we see now. It will have an impact on the economy, definitely, especially if we see this tightness in the markets in the next few years,” Dr Birol said.

 “It will be especially important because the global economy will still be very fragile, very vulnerable. Many people think there will be a recovery in a few years’ time but it will be a slow recovery and a fragile recovery and we will have the risk that the recovery will be strangled with higher oil prices,” he told The Independent.


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David Godin sends in an L.A. Times report on the real-estate damage in San Diego:

From 2001 through 2008, more than 8,000 condominium units were built in downtown San Diego. That’s double the number of downtown units constructed over the same period in Los Angeles, a city three times its size. So while sales of urban high-rise units are convulsing elsewhere, nowhere is the collapse more dramatic than in downtown San Diego….

“There was a little bit of a mass hysteria mentality. . . . People thought they would be priced out of the market,” said Bradford Willis, 47, who signed a contract in 2004 to purchase a $341,000, one-bedroom condo in a planned luxury development….

Downtown San Diego, a 2.2-square-mile area, is now awash in condos. About 400 new and occupied ones are listed for sale, and more than 450 are in some stage of foreclosure and will eventually be put on the market. An additional 1,000 units that were under construction when the market soured are slated to be completed this year, adding to the glut and putting further downward pressure on prices….

Canadian developers with little experience in Southern California, starting with Nat Bosa, a prominent Vancouver, Canada, condo builder, led the condo charge downtown, overestimating its potential, experts said. Buyers likewise bet too heavily on the urban revival triggered by the 2004 completion of the Petco Park baseball stadium, home to the San Diego Padres…

But that almost exclusive focus on upscale high-rises was a mistake, said Howard Blackson, who heads a San Diego urban design firm. Towers aren’t as attractive to families as other types of housing, such as row houses or smaller, walk-up buildings, Blackson said. Nor were they affordable for many. With some three-bedroom units priced at more than $1 million, the pool of purchasers was limited….

People priced out of San Diego during the bubble market may also emerge winners, said designer Blackson, because lower prices will open up the possibility of downtown living to a wider variety of residents.

“Maybe some of my friends will be able to live there instead of having to go to Tijuana or Temecula,” he said. “We had a housing [affordability] crisis; did we inadvertently solve it on the backs of developers gone broke?”

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In the race to build a small, affordable, powerful battery, a New York Times report details the challenges.  And, at a factory in Pennsylvania, discovers where the technological advantage currently resides:

International Battery bought machines from China that manufacture the components and has been tweaking them to make them run faster, use fewer materials and produce a better product. Each button on the control panels is labeled in Chinese characters, with English penciled in by hand underneath. Near Mr. Peters’s machine, a cardboard box awaiting unpacking bears hand lettering that says, “Glass Please Carefully.”

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There’s going to be lots of attention paid to transit financing in the next few weeks, as funding for TransLink’s plans comes to a head and the Canada Line opens.  And no doubt a lot of retrospective quotes will be pulled out for full ironic effect. 

[Does anyone have a quote from a Canada Line (nee RAV) spokesperson that assures us we will have a hundred thousand passengers on opening day.  Anything less and TransLink has to make up the difference in revenues.  Which is now apparently the case: “The Canada Line, to open in August, isn’t expected to see its projected 100,000 riders a day until 2013,” according to the Sun.]

For real transit afficionados who enjoy opening up old arguments, let’s go back to the first SkyTrain, then known as ALRT.    Alan Hart of VIA Architecture posted an old Province story on the back-and-forth taking place back in 1982:

Bob Bose, chairman of the rapid transit committee of the Greater Vancouver Regional District, calls the Advanced Light Rapid Transit system a billion-dollar gamble.

“The wisest and most prudent thing to do,” says the Surrey aldermen, “would be to abandon this unproven technology and begin converting immediately to a conventional system.”

More here. 

(Thanks to Jordan B.)

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