SKYTRAIN OR CARS? WHAT DELIVERS ‘GOOD’ URBANISM?
My first three decades in professional practice have seen politicians, professionals and educators in the region where I practice make up their minds that building the city was all about choices in transportation technology. For them urbanism has been dumbed-down to building transit and towers, with the density bonuses collected from the towers used to help pay for the transit. Needless to say, this Faustian bargain has not worked out. The more transit we built the worst the road congestion gets. That is a paradox that needs explanation. It turns out that 85% of the trips generated in this ‘new urbanism’ are car trips. Transit only captures about 15%.
The Transit Paradox
Studies show that the more transit we build, the worse the automobile congestion grows. This is a paradox.
In Vancouver, because we are building towers-and-skytrain as one package, using the tower profits to government to help pay for the expensive train-in-the-sky, the unintended result is the 15 | 85 rule: every new line of Skytrain generates 6-times more car trips than transit trips. It appears that the only way we are going to force people out of their cars is either
(a) Make them believe driving is causing Global Warming; or
(b) Make congestion so bad that most folks will just give up and ride the train.
The real opportunity is
(c) Fine tune the transit system to the commute to work, and make access so convenient that most people will take it without even thinking about it.
Of course, that goal seems to have eluded planners in our region. Thus…
The tower urbanism we get is horrible. Elitist and aloof, it fails the test of supporting high levels of social functioning. We build this ‘bad’ urbanism in order to pay for the hi-capacity transit that most folks—given the opportunity—would rather not use. But rather than curbing traffic conditions, the towers pile on more car trips into the mix. Since most people still prefer to use their cars they drive out of the towers creating traffic jams and bringing traffic to a stand-still in places that had never experienced congestion. On the one hand, we are told we will need still more transit to deal with the rising traffic congestion. While on the other hand, we are not being told that the towers are generating the new congestion. Of course, more transit will require more towers to pay for it. Yet, the tower projects are focusing densities in impossibly small urban footprints invalidating common sense planning measures—like dispersal—and spewing out cars from their underground bunker like never before.
The Transit Paradox puts it in stark and clear terms that the density we have built to end traffic congestion, clean up the air, and end global warming ends up creating more congestions, dirty air and green-house gases. And it is doing something even more sinister. It is killing Canada’s social values by failing to deliver walkable places, livable streets and affordable housing.
So we are left pondering a very unusual situation. We build towers to pay for transit. But the new trips that are generated by towers-and-skytrain are overwhelmingly car trips. So congestion gets worse triggering a knee-jerk reaction that we need to build even more transit! However, in order to pay for that transit we will have to build even more towers which will generate even more car trips, more congestion & more bad urbanism. We should just build ‘good’ urbanism instead, promote walking and avoid urban intensification. But our leaders are different idea:
Damn the car! Ban development in over a quarter of the urban footprint! Prohibit human-scale neighborhoods! Build the skytrain-and-towers!
These are among the tacit understandings in the Post Modernist Planning that plagues our professional and political circles. This fiat is accepted without discussion or acknowledgement of the freedom that cars and highways have afforded North American urbanism for over a century. Of course, while all this has been going on incontrovertible evidence has been pilling up showing the fastest way to end pollution, global warming, and—you name it—is to switch to electric cars in the garage and put solar panels on the roof. But this must seem too simple a solution (keep in mind it will require human-scale urbanism to furnish the roofs). It has also become an incontrovertible fact that the fastest way to trigger a crisis in the price of housing is to restrict development in over 25% of the urban footprint, then build ‘skytrain-and-towers’.
‘SKYTRAIN-N-TOWERS’. LNV—Webbimage, 2018.
The Great Failure of Post Modern Planning
Back in the shi-shi 1980s the planning paradigm was changed in our province to something not altogether new in the global economy. However, it was very different form what had characterized the western region of Canada up to that point:
(a) Build high-capacity transit lines within the already developed urban footprint.
(b) Prohibit development on 25% of the urban footprint.
(c) Give away massive amounts of density in order to finance the transportation projects.
This is urban planning in a transit bubble. According to the regional plans hatched in 1996 and 2006, the reason we built transit in the first place is to deal with traffic congestion finally putting an end to ‘global warming’. Thirty-two years later were are still waiting. Congestion gets worse with every transit line that opens and so real relief from air pollution will not be coming from switching private car trips to transit trips. The reason why drivers are not shifting to transit in large enough quantities to make a real difference is that using the transit system pales in comparison to driving. The mode split here remains more or less the same as the mode split in major North American centers with transit systems.
In other words, when the Regional Growth Strategy was adopted in Apr 21, 2006 it might as well have been voted twenty days before—on April Fools Day. From front to back what it added to its previous iteration was ‘greenwash’—false theories about traffic congestion and climate change, and how to curb it by building towers-and-skytrain. Nonsense alll of it masquerading as sound planning—Post Modernism at an absolute nadir.
Consider that up to 85% of the tower residents do not use transit. They drive out of their underground garages in their cars contributing to the very traffic congestion transit was intended to cure. So the towers that pay for the transit pile-on even more traffic congestion! And so it goes around and around. In order to curb that congestion we need more transit that will be paid for with more towers, spewing out even more traffic congestion—a transit paradox if ever there was one.
Creating the Regional Housing Crisis
Unfortunately, this circular form of reasoning where giving away density pays for the transit that will end traffic congestion by luring drivers out of their cars and into the transit has precipitated quite different results in the economy. Transit use is up, but not significantly greater than in other major North American urban centers. It hovers around 11 to 20%. Car use of course is surging. The seemingly bottomless amount of density dolled out to pay for the transit mega-projects, combined with land-use restrictions and a shortage of single family residential supply, have combined to triggered a spike in land prices like never before seen in this region.
Everyone has been negatively impacted by these land policies except those elite few high rollers actively playing the real estate casino.
Yet our politicians and professional leaders continue ignoring the elephant in the room even though every time we have gone to the polls in the past four years they have been chastised for their hubris. We have priced housing out of reach of the Canadian middle class (good planning, that) without achieving higher transit use than other major North American urban regions.
Moreover, this planning has little time for methods that present with a proven track record for dealing with traffic congestion, keeping house price inflation in check and building communities that support the Canadian values and way of life:
(1) Dispersal: incentivizing a finer grain distribution of workplaces.
(2) Human scale urbanism: designing all places as walkable neighborhoods.
(3) ‘Good’ urbanism: combining all the elements of urbanism—including transit, waste management, land prices, urban footprints, building typologies, arterial revitalization, livable streets, parks & open spaces, water supply, farmland, schools & hospitals—in support of higher levels of social functioning.
(4) Reaffirming the dual salient realities: People prefer cars over transit and houses over condos.
As a result of a Post Modernist planning public dialogue and private sentiment are bifurcating beginning. Social and political dialogue at local, provincial and federal levels is made increasingly more difficult as we continue to ‘throw the bums out’ one election after another with worrying consequences for our ability to effectively construct long range plans. Our politics is beginning to resemble a game of ‘last one standing’ because our politicians win office on questionable promises, then continue to disregard common-sense solutions like (1), (2), (3) & (4).
Where does this leave the towers-and-skytrain Post Modernism? It stands in opposition to concrete and measurable reality, including the time-honored measures with a proven track record for delivering ‘good’ urbanism:
(1′) Dispersal works as a strategy for sustaining a regional economy.
(2′) Outside the regional cores building products constructed by small mom & pop shops using renewable, value-added wood components yield better results than towers and massive shopping centres in terms of: affordability, economic diversification, traffic dispersal and supporting higher levels of social functioning.
(3′) Outside the GVRD (Metro) it may still be possible to sustain stability in land prices by building human-scale urbanism—and banning mega-densities—to achieve walkable neighborhoods, livable streets and affordable housing.
(4) Governments artificially pushing against cars and houses have triggered a potentially very dangerous crisis in housing affordability.
At stake is the very way we structure our economy, pick ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, elect our governments and suffer the consequences in the places we call home. Thus, rather than build the urbanism that will encourage walking, and safeguard land prices from inflation, we are building tower neighborhoods that alienate social functioning and lift land prices into the stratosphere.
It is a classic example of putting the ‘cart before the horse’. The skytrain-and-towers planning with its profit-based decision making has created this mess. Back in 1986, in the salad days of Expo, we weren’t told that land values would push house prices up 12-times while inflation went up 2-times. Keep in mind that a healthy portion of the inflation index was pushed up by the runaway housing prices. Planners explained away that we would tax the land (price) lift to finance the transit mega-projects. Now they avoid referencing the fact that back thirty-two years ago house prices were at par with median house-hold incomes.
Governments must act now to correct the distortions recklessly loosened in our society by their own invalid and now failing planning methodology and bring the cost of housing back in line with Canadian median household incomes. Nothing else will do.