Walking near Joyce Station, Vancouver (Google Images 2012)
Skytrain is being used as the preferred technology for transit in our region. Yet, as this Google view shows, significant issues in urban design present today when we add density within easy walking distance of elevated transit. The challenge we face is combining transit planning with community planning. Typically, this is done under the rubric of an urban design plan.
The most obvious urban design flaw in the photo is the view available to the new homes on the left—or lack of it. As shown the first three or four storeys of fronting residential are compromised when Skytrain is pushed through the heart of a neighbourhood. The same result will obtain all along the elevated track of the Expo Line’s 19 mile (30.5 km) path. The quality of view achieved in our homes affects our visual sense experience, which in turn conditions our mental well-being. But, how about the noise pollution from trains whirling by at short distances from our windows and doors in rapid succession at all hours of the day?
The blighting of the urban fabric is not just a problem for the Expo Line, it results wherever Skytrain crosses urban land.
TOD (Transit Oriented Development) was supposed to provide high-quality, high-density, human-scale, affordable neighbourhoods within easy walking distance of transit stations. The point was to lower automobile ownership by half, lower automobile use by more than that, and build affordable communities with a palpable sense of place. The origins of TOD can be traced back to a week-long charrette hosted by the University of Washington, Seattle. The results were published in 1990 in a small book entitled Pedestrian Pockets.
Peter Calthorpe’s website describes Pedestrian Pockets this way:
The Pedestrian Pocket [is] “a simple cluster of housing, retail space and offices within a quarter-mile walking radius of a transit system,” [It] answers the rapid privatization, depersonalization and fragmentation of suburbia with a model that relies upon mass transit, higher density development and quality public space.
However, in our metro area TOD has come to mean “towers and sky train”. Made clear by comparing and contrasting quote and photo above, the Skytrain result is about as far from the original proposal as we should care to go.
Notice the low quality of the urban realm in the photo. Imagine yourself as one of these pedestrians! The woman on the left is gazing across at the mother pushing the baby stroller on the other side of the street. The caption could well read, “How are we going to get out of this hell?”
One more person is visible in the background. All three are walking in an environment without human scale. There is nowhere to go in sight; and no attractive public realm to traverse on the way. The telephone and power lines on the left are as great a psychological barrier to the sky, as the concrete elevated transit guideway on the right. Notice that the municipality has seen fit to plant not a single street tree! Translink may share some of the responsibility. I must remember to ask the next Translink official I meet whether there is a set-back requirement restricting the planting of trees near the elevated guideway.
The front door yards on the left of the picture are closed-off from the street with concrete block walls that appear to be as high as the pedestrian (say 5 feet). While tall garden walls are appropriate on the rear side of the property, the desired effect on the sidewalk side is to keep “eyes on the street”. This can only be achieved if the fronting residential door yards retain a high level of transparency. Of course, in order to make this possible the quality of the fronting street must be far better than what was built here.
A final concern is affordability. Our region finds itself in a property price bubble that has put owning a home out of reach of most young families, singles and seniors. Combining planning with transit implementation in TOD plans should provide the means for accessing land further away from the Central Business District. Distance from the job centre should yield affordability, with fast and convenient transit easing the penalty of living on the periphery. But the formula is not working; something has broken down. Transit is being used to export tower-and-podium urbanism instead. Prices all along the corridor and at station areas on the regional perimeter are sky-high. As the price per square foot rises in the tower, it brings up the price of housing in the nearby suburb right along with it.
Thus, property prices soar in the region while affordability fails to materialize on both TOD lots within easy walking distance of transit stations, and housing lots everywhere else. Defaulting to the preferred method of assembling land, building condo towers far in excess necessary density, and reaping sky-high profits while contributing as little as possible to the neighbourhood. Yet, the photo shows evidence of an all-out effort to lower costs. Cheap buildings, poor neighbourhood design, and investment in public realm kept to a minimum generating maximum savings for municipality and developer alike. However, these ‘savings’ are not being passed on to the consumer. As municipalities inherit the responsibility of maintaining this jacked-up level of infrastructure service, local governments are finding it hard to balance budgets. Land assembly and land-lift seem to be combining to keep prices—and profits—soaring. Are taxes next?
In conclusion—as the photo below amply demonstrates—putting density up against transit lines is not necessary. We can build hi-density without hi-rise resulting in neighbourhoods with hi-levels of social functioning. Care must be taken to design a public realm that is supportive of social mixing, not the “No Man’s and Woman’s Lands” we see above. In addition, a new paradigm must be embraced where the neighbourhood as a whole is designed. Decisions about the station area cannot be left to the whim of market forces. Finally, the choice of building product must be made with the purpose of delivering affordable housing, rather than maximizing profits in the private sector and bringing land-lift profits to city hall even as we contemplate the bankruptcy of local governments.
The result of massive levels of public investment in transit should be affordable housing, livable streets and walkable neighbourhoods. Not this stuff.
Aerial View of Joyce Skytrain
Google areal view of Joyce Skytrain Station. The green arrow points in the direction of the ground level photo at the top of this post.
Joyce Station Quartier Footprint (dotted line)
The quote from Pedestrian Pockets cites “within a five minute walk of the transit system” as a critical element in TOD planning. I have called the footprint of an area so described the urban quartier. This puts some distance between ourselves and one of the most elemental failings of Modern Planning, namely the fact that it never established what it meant by a “neighbourhood”. Overlaid on the site aerial photo one soon realizes that the quartier footprint for Joyce Station is more than ample to achieve high-densities within easy walking distance of the station and without having to build giga-scale towers.
The Walk to Transit
Of course the transit planning literature is more even assertive suggesting that folks might walk five, ten and even fifteen minutes to transit. The corresponding growth in density (measured as units per acre) or population (measured as 2.2 persons per unit per acre) is geometric rather than linear. The supported population will not be 2x and 3x greater as the table below shows.
Table showing Populations supported at three walk to transit distances.
The results of the table assume a population density of 80 units per acre (unit size = 800 sq. ft.). This is a unit type that can be built either as 40-foot high walk-up appartments or 3.5 storey fee-simple row houses. By including all lots within a 10-minute walking distance from transit the supported population quadruples (4x); and by increasing the catchment area further to 15 minutes the potential supported population grows by a factor of 9x, growing by nearly an order of difference.
Now, Millennium and Expo Lines share stations, so we have to be careful not to count twice. However, the total number of transit station sites build in Vancouver are as follows:
- Expo 20 stations
- Mille 13 (stations not shared)
- Canada 15 stations
The total 48 stations can be home to 9.6 million living within a 15 minute walk in row houses and walk-ups (not likely to happen); 4.2 million living within a 10 minute distance (still more than we need); and 1 million-plus living within the station area quartier.
The conclusion from these further considerations are that:
- We should refrain from allowing our projections of catchment areas to “sprawl”—it’s just not necessary.
- We should put all our attention in designing the pedestrian shed or urban quartier surrounding the transit station.
- Furthermore, that we change technology from Skytrain to 0 GHG either on the surface or underground.
Reverse View of photo at the top of the post (Google Images 2012)
Verso (looking in the rear view mirror)
Experts may disagree. In my view there is no advantage to putting towers against the elevated guideway. Two wrongs don’t make a right. This part of the Expo line is on the old BC Electric R.O.W. That should provide a clue. The choices in rail transit that are compatible with ‘good’ urbanism are: subway, LRT, BRT or streetcar. If it is commuter service, then keep it on the main railway trackage and transfer to the urban trains once at destination (i.e. West Coast Express). Use Trolley-BRT to keep it 0-GHG (Green House Gases-Zero).
We can see in the photo at the top of the post, and in the views that follow it, just how much damage the Skytrain wreaks on the urban fabric. We can do much better than that.