Ending the Vancouver Housing Crisis: A Farewell to Skytrain-and-Towers

The second post in the series about ending the 25-year+ Housing Affordability Crisis in Greater Vancouver. Discussion here led to completing the West Coast Charrette.

[T]he Surrey-Langley Skytrain business plan depends on increased ridership along the route, and ridership depends on greater residential development, which in turn is dependent on population growth, which in Metro Vancouver is fuelled largely by immigration.

Graeme Wood, The Courier

It is hard to decide what is more ‘improbable’, the quote above suggesting that immigration is fuelling Skytrain ridership, or the photo at the top showing Skytrain as the right technology choice for a Regional Transportation System.

The quote reads like the Tower-and-Skytrain manifesto. It implies that Translink’s Business Plan is propelled by unquestionable truths:

Skytrain = Increased ridership = Greater residential development = Population growth = Immigration

Grade Nine algebra helps us to obtain several startling results:

Skytrain = Immigration

Greater density = Population growth

Greater density = Increasing ridership

Of course, these are all false premises. Skytrain does none of these things—except one: Skytrain plays a key part marketing hi-rise condos to off-shore investors. Skytrain-and-Towers are responsible for driving up land values and spiking the Housing Crisis.

That is a business case, of course, but one that shuts out the middle class from the property markets. But it does not mean that off-shore capital—some of it legal, some of it not, some of it from Communist China—results in population growth, or immigration.

Government has it wrong. Let’s have a closer look.

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RULE 1: NEW TRANSIT LINES DEPEND ON A BUSINESS PLAN

For those of us that hold the opinion that the wrong transit lines are being built, the first step is to question the base assumptions in the plan.

‘Plan’ here must be understood in general terms, including Metro and Greater Vancouver Regional District plans like the Livable Region Strategic Plan (LRSP 1996), its offspring, the Regional Growth Strategies (RGS 2011), and whatever meagre crumbs fall across the boundary to the Fraser Valley Regional District. (I think the same approach plays in the Capital Regional District, where housing prices have been on the rise for over a decade and ‘plans’ are responding by adding density, while highway congestion continues on the rise).

It must be stated at the outset that the LRSP/RGS primary achievement is now indisputable: the regional plans set in policy the conditions that have triggered The Housing Crisis. Only one word can describe the break-neck pace of rising valuations: bad government.

It’s not good planning when governments go into business promoting real estate at the expense of the people, including the middle class and the homeless.

Transit Lines must depend on opening new land for urban footprint on which to build affordable housing, and housing for the homeless.

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RULE 2: INCREASE RIDERSHIP ALONG THE ROUTE

Here, we are already on ‘thin ice’ here: The sole reason for planning the Broadway Corridor is to pay for the Broadway tunnel with tower revenues.

By the way—we prefer building strong ‘neighborhoods’ over ‘corridors’.

This is the business plan approach to government: collect more fares, more development fees, more property taxes, more levies on foreign sales and tax the ‘dark’ condos. And to hell with the rest… Values of community and values of place? Please move to the back of the bus.

Since more fares come from more density—a belief that has not been proven by facts—the imperative to build more towers trumps all other considerations. 

This single-minded approach to the Towers-and-Skytrain planning has corroded our system of governance. The real fact driving all these towering decisions is that Skytrain can only serve tower densities. Skytrain as a systeis too invasive to support high-density, Human Scale urbanism. It has to run through overhead, in viaducts, along neighborhoods where people don’t give a damn about the ground plane: Coquitlam, Burnaby, Surrey, New Westminster. And it requires tower densities to pay for each Skytrain station. Port Moody was not the only municipality to be told outright: if you want another station (Moody Centre), you must build another tower neighborhood there. The community wouldn’t have it, and so Moody Centre doesn’t have a Skytrain stop.

Looking at it the other way around, the business plan for selling towers is totally dependent on Skytrain. The trains-in-the-sky provide the caché for the off-shore markets. There, buyers will not get closer to their investment properties than glossy pictures like the one at the top of the post. All this effort, and all this treasure, is being spent in order to build dark towers, full of empty condos that no one is living in. Meanwhile, the local population can no longer afford to buy a house on a lot. And the homeless are being housed in temporary shelters, temporary housing buildings, and even in tents in city parks.

It would appear that the people driving the plans for the trains are getting too much of a say in the future fate of the city, and region—to the detriment of the vast majority of the people living in the city, and region.

This has to end. The purpose of transit ‘for development to increase ridership along the route,’ rather it is to open up new land for affordable houses that are hard-wired to downtown—the regional jobs centre.

The responsibility for all this falls to the elected officials. They must act to End the Housing Crisis. Or, they must be made to answer for their inaction at each and every election.

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RULE 3: RIDERSHIP DEPENDS ON GREATER RESIDENTIAL DEVELOPMENT

I question the validity of this statement. Translink has published no data to support it. And there is a dangerous assumption being brought in undercover: transit cannot operate at a regional scale. All decisions must remain local.

It is not ridership that requires towers, since gate revenues are not paying for the highly subsidized system. Tower revenues—greater residential development—pay for building the Skytrain system.

That’s the real reason behind the Skytrain-and-Towers paradigm. If you agree that we cannot build cottages on lots (because its Sprawl); if you agree that we must all move into Hong Kong-style tiny concrete and wood box condominiums; if you agree that the cars must be taken off the streets; if you agree that there is a climate emergency… and so on.

What is clear is that the regional plans (1996, 2011) got it all wrong. Building concrete, steel and glass towers is bad for sustainability. Building the regional, Human Scale vernacular from renewable, value-added forestry products is good for the environment and good for the economy. Electric motors are going to end air pollution from transportation sources (except air travel). And there are more cost-effective, higher-capacity, and town-friendly alternatives to the Trains-in-the-Sky.

Besides, a significant number of the luxury condos are empty, No one is living in the suites and no one is riding Skytrain. I see the dark towers at night and wonder why we are going to such extremes to build Skytrain-and-Towers, triggering a Crisis in Housing and failing to house the homeless. Nobody is living in these investment properties. And among those resident in towers, the preference is still driving, not Skytrain. Especially since what characterizes the towers zones is a lack of Human Scale and walkability.

On the other hand, building Skytrain-and-Towers makes traffic congestion worse. This is plainly visible in any of the tower zones going up in Surrey, Coquitlam, Burnaby, New West, the North Shore and Port Moody. No matter how good the system, or what type of building they occupy, greater residential development induces people to drive. We will discuss governments inaction on the traffic congestion problem in a future post.

Properly stated, RULE 3 should read…

Greater government revenue depends on Greater Numbers of Towers.

This is the Skytrain-and-Towers paradigm. TOD turned up side down as DOT: Development Oriented Transit. The master is now the servant, and vice versa. We build towers to pay for an ill-suited transportation technology, when what we really need is a transportation link to new land, where we can build affordable, Human Scale urbanism, hard-wired to the regional downtown.

Not too long ago transit lines were built to access open land on which to build new neighbourhoods and towns. Today, that timeless planning paradigm has been inverted. Stood on its head. Transit drives a process to pay for itself, lifting property valuations rather than accessing cheap land for affordable housing.

The result is just what one would expect: House prices going up into the stratosphere, two and three times higher than what households on median incomes can afford. Condo prices are rising too, albeit at a slower rate.

This, of course, is all according to the mandate entrenched in the LRSP and RGS, regional plans hatched in the name of achieving sustainable development, by shifting households from houses into tiny apartments. ‘No more Sprawl, no more cars’ was their measure of  Sustainability. However, they left out an important principle: people must be able to achieve the Canadian Dream of owning a house on a lot.

Whatever the regional plans had in mind—including climate change and peak oil—they got it wrong. Now we must change them to build a regional transit system as part of the strategy that will End the Housing Crisis, restart our economy and end Homelessness.

The business plan under discussion is neither about better transit, nor sustainable urbanism. It is a tax grab boosting government revenues by granting mega-density along newly minted Skytrain corridors. And it is a mad race that no one can win. The costs for building Skytrain-and-Towers will just keep going up and up, driving ever further afield to cry from the people to build an affordable, and therefore truly sustainable, Human Scale urbanism.

Ridership depends upon getting the job done.

This ‘business plan’ belongs to the government, not Translink. It is developer-driven, and that is too bad. Because government is supposed to regulate the markets, not mix in them.

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RULE 4: RESIDENTIAL GROWTH IS DEPENDENT ON POPULATION GROWTH

Of course, I question this too. Already in 2015, I dubbed the notion that we have to build towers to house more people ‘The Density Fallacy’.

We don’t need high-density urbanism to house people. We can do it at the low and middle densities with well planned towns, neighborhood intensification and neighborhood extensions, at the regional scale.

All over the world we have built high-density, Human-Scale cities and towns. These places are working just fine. We also have global examples of cities and mega-cities made out of towers. These have one characteristic in common: hyper-inflating property markets. And there is also a second subset among them: places that are either in the third world, where the middle class has been effectively driven out of the property markets; or communists economies like Hong Kong where five families dominate real estate.

Pent up demand is a primary cause of the Housing Crisis. This growth potential is already here, being held back by failed government policy. To unleash this potential, all that is required is delivering new towns and neighborhoods as part of regional planning. This will be the subject of a future post in this series.

The Housing Crisis—prima facie—is caused by choking-off the land supply in the aforementioned regional plans (LRSP/RGS). The business plan hard-wiring growth to population growth is all about selling condos in Towers. Regional plans, overtly—its written on its pages—force vast majorities into small apartments, creating the pent-up demand for houses. The pent up demand keeps driving up the price of a cottage on a garden lot.

And, it keeps the ‘Condo Kings’ in business. Because people mistakenly believe that adding condo supply will put downward pressure on house prices. Because the increasing density lifts the price of land, the new condo towers do the opposite. They lift the price of land, not only under their footprint, but region wide.

The regional plans profess a second fallacy, the Sprawl Fallacy. ‘Sprawl’ is turned into a ‘great evil,’ for everything from the loss of farmland, to traffic congestion, to global warming. Yet, the imperative to build Skytrain-and-Towers in order to end global warming has been proven wrong. We have already mentioned the worsening traffic conditions in all tower zones in the region. And the real story about farmland is that over half of it is either lying fallow, or growing grass feed for cattle.

Economic Diversification is also a renown economic engine, not linked to population growth.

Here, we arrive at another deficit in this policy. On the one hand, the Housing Crisis is driving away young families and individuals from our region. And plans and policy are turning to immigration to feel the vacated spaces.

On the other, the Canadian economy today has been bled to the point where just two economic engines are left: towers and oil. Oil is threatened by the faster than predicted adoption of renewable fuels. Towers could be next, if they become over-exposed to global market forces.

While prices in both housing and condo markets have been on a 25-year meteoric rise, inflation and salaries hover around the 1 and 2 percent.

Government must act to End the Housing Crisis.

The Skytrain-and-Towers ‘business plan’ is the reason why the Vancouver Housing Strategy is ignoring the Housing Crisis, chosing instead to exaggerate growth numbers by 250%.

The Housing Crisis is a Government Choices. ‘Bad’ planning has painted us into the Towers-and-Skytrain corner.

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RULE 5: IMMIGRATION IS FUELLING POPULATION GROWTH

Rich immigrants. Folks that made a stash overseas, a lot of them in Asia, some under conditions that would not be tolerated under the Canadian Constitution, are coming over here. Or their ’satellite families’ are over here, collecting the benefits, but filing out net-zero tax returns.

One could hope for no better explanation of the plight of the Canadian middle class. Households are so strapped for cash, and decent living conditions, that they are opting to have one less child per family. Government, feeling the pressures of families and young people fleeing the overheated housing market, and feeling the consequences of families making hard choices to cope with economic stresses, is left reaching for the easy way out: Turn up the volume on immigration.

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CONCLUSION 1: RIDING THE OBSOLETE 1970s TECHNOLOGY TO THE GLOSSY UNAFFORDABLE FUTURE

Skytrain is the ‘poster child’ of the Housing Crisis.

The glossy image at the top presents as the crisp and succinct summation of the Skytrain-and-Towers paradigm quoted just below it. In reality, the picture is hiding a myriad of problems festering with government and left unanswered for far too long.

Let’s look at the transportation technology aspects of this Transit Fairy Tale here, and leave housing and regional planning issues for upcoming posts.

Would anyone run their computer using an operating system now 50 years old?

SKYTRAIN: MORE BLIND THAN A BAT

The point of grade separation is not so much to keep Skytrain riding above the traffic—and blighting the places it crosses—but rather to make it impossible for people to step on the track.

You see… Skytrain’s 1970s automated system operates blind as a bat. Or worse… since it does not even have sonar on board. There are no cameras or sensors as the driverless trains speed down the track. Anything that stands in their way gets run over.

Skytrain cannot ‘see’ the track ahead. Any obstacles that fall on the track will get smashed by the trains. Skytrain will not only kill people, but collisions will wreak untold damage on the train and its occupants, as well as shut down the system for who knows how long. When it snows, for example, the driverless system must be shut down. The lack of qualified drivers on staff wreaks havoc on snowy days, just when the city needs to rely on transit the most.

SKYTRAIN TRIP TIMES ARE EXTENDED BY THE 5 MINUTES PLATFORM ACCESS TIME AT THE BEGINNING OF A TRIP, PLUS THE 5 MINUTES IT TAKES TO EXIT THE STATION AT JOURNEY’S END

We surmise the folks in the glossy photo at the top of the post have spent a minimum 5 minutes to get there. It means they have likely walked through an urban wasteland to get to Skytrain (the only stations that are well integrated to their urban locations are subterranean). Thus, the time savings advantage for ‘grade separated transit’ vanishes after they spend another 5 minutes at journey’s end to reach terra firma.

Consider that the average transit trip is 20 minutes. Add 10 minutes, five at the start and five at journey’s end, and the advantage grade-separated Skytrain enjoys over surface tram… disappears. Vanishes into thin air.

As it turns out, lack of integration and failure to support high levels of social mixing on the street and the cafe, are features of the wondrous, 1970s ‘driverless Skytrain technology.’ Only a fool would be running a computer, or a cell phone, with an operating system that old.

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