Archives for posts with tag: densification

I attended one of the SFU  City Program’s free lectures last night. The topic was ‘What’s Up With the Viaducts?’ in reference to the fact that the City is now considering what the future of these structures, and more importantly what the future of this area of the City, should be.

There seem to be two main aspects. Firstly, what happens to all the traffic that currently uses the viaducts? Does everything come to a grinding halt if they are removed? The consensus was – no. And to be fair, all the evidence now supports this, including the little experiment the City did in February last year when a small sporting event shut down the viaducts and a few other streets! There is now a fair body of evidence from all over the world which supports the notion of  ‘disappearing traffic’. One of the most notable examples is from Seoul and Gordon Price’s blog has a lot of info on it here. Basically, in this case, they removed 6km of a huge freeway through the city and replace d it with a park. And traffic in surrounding areas did not go up. It has even got the folks in New Westminster grappling with a planned expanded Front Street wandering whether its the right thing to do. Traffic is like a gas, it expands and contracts to fill the space available. Hence also, ‘induced traffic’ where new road capacity is used up quicker than expected. As an aside, the exception to this is if its tolled. I have heard of two examples recently of Public Private Partnership (PPP) projects where new bridges or tunnels have been constructed and tolls and financial models calculated based on a certain number of vehicles using the route (and paying the toll). And the traffic hasn’t come. One of the examples is the Golden Ears Bridge here in Metro Vancouver. I’m sure this wouldn’t have happend a few years ago. Times, they are a changing…

The other part of the debate was what should replace the space that the viaducts currently take. The skytrain weaves up and down around the viaducts at the moment so that’s one challenge, although I personally like the roller coaster feel to this part of the route and think its a feature in its own right. There was an interesting history lesson given as to what was there before the viaducts which acted as a reminder about how much we can loose in the name of ‘progress’. Hogan’s Alley was a thriving black community (Vancouver’s only one) which was wiped out. Someone suggested naming this project Hogan’s Alley Planning Initiative (HAPI) which got a cheer of approval.

This is only the beginning of the debate. So, what do YOU think? As Bing Thom said last night, the City Councillors want to hear from the people, otherwise they don’t really know what to do. So make your voice heard on this blog or elsewhere.

This article in the Globe and Mail got me thinking about how Translink should be funded in Metro Vancouver. Basically, Translink needs more money if it is to continue to expand services to meet the growing demands of more and more residents. Currently, Translink has four ways to raise money; property tax, gas tax, fares and a possible flat vehicle levy. One area I believe should be explored is allowing Translink to receive some of the Development Cost Charges that municipalities charge developers when they construct new buildings. These charges go towards paying for new infrastructure costs such as water, electricity, sewerage and roads. That’s right. Just roads. Or bicycle paths, or greenways. But not transit. Municipalities are taking this money to cover the costs of new roads, so they are provided, but Translink gets nothing to pay for new bus service. So it often doesn’t happen. Now you could say that over time, increased property taxes from these new developments will allow Translink to introduce services. But we all know that these services should be provided from day one, like the roads, so that sustainable travel habits can be established from the beginning. Enabling Translink to directly receive a portion of the Development Cost Charge would allow them to provide new services up front for the areas that require them most. The current system leads to an inherent bias towards roadway provision.

Here is an interesting idea from the City of Mission in Kansas, USA. The City wants to charge fees based on how much traffic a development generates. Developments that generate more traffic and thus more wear and tear on the roads will be charged more. The article, from the Kansas City Star states that:

Larger businesses that generate lots of traffic, such as Mission Bank, could pay $5,659 a year. A drive-thru fast food restaurant could pay $12,200 a year. Target could pay as much as $64,750 annually.

From the article it sounds like this is a set fee, based on looking up an ITE trip generation table (or similar) to tell you how much traffic a certain development type will generate per unit area (usually per 1,000 sq ft). This in itself is an outdated approach of course, as surrounding land use and density have a vital role to play in influencing the trip generation of a certain development type. However, it is a good idea in theory. I would suggest a couple of improvements to this approach, that would further promote smart growth principles. Firstly, it should include a factor which acknowledges that building a McDonalds (for example) in a higher density, pedestrian friendly area will generate less traffic than building one out in suburbia on a strip mall. This would financially encourage developers to locate in built up, walkable neighbourhoods, as it will cost them less in ‘traffic tax’. Even better, for larger developments, this should be done dynamically. With a permanent traffic counter (or temporary one used at regular intervals) on a site driveway, the number of trips the development generates can be regularly monitored. The more car trips, the more tax they pay. Therefore reducing these trips has a direct financial advantage for the owner. This would make developers think about the location that they build in, but also strive for continual improvements in the travel mode of their employees and visitors. A potential drawback of this approach is that municipalities receive less tax revenue if developments successfully implement vehicle reduction strategies.

Of course, the traffic counter approach only works if each development provides its own parking supply. In urban centres, it is good practice to have a pooled parking supply of on-street parking and municipal owned public parkades. In conclusion therefore, making developments that generate more traffic pay more for the upkeep of the roads makes sense, but the system needs to reward location and potentially other measures such as TDM strategies that an individual development may wish to implement.

‘Retrofitting the suburbs’ has almost become a new buzz word in planning circles. Books have been written on it (and here’s a TED talk from the author, Ellen Dunham-Jones, based on it). Dunham-Jones, from an architect’s perspective, talks about reusing old buildings, such as dilapidated malls. But more often that that, I hear that land use and density in the suburbs needs to change – i.e. it needs to be come ‘denser’ (if that’s a word). Here is another article about a competition in Long Island, trying to come up with ideas to design a ‘better burb’. Interestingly, the entrants landed up trying to address all sorts of issues in the suburbs, from housing type and density, to access to jobs, transport, smart growth, even food security.

One thing I struggle with though is that I haven’t read any articles from people who live in the suburbs arguing for why they need to change and how terrible it is living where they live. As urban planners interested in urban issues, the majority of us tend to live in urban areas. So why do people move to suburbia? Although I would not presume to try to answer this question (being an urban dweller myself) I think it is safe to assume that suburbanites place value on different things than urban dwellers. One example would be that they tend to place a higher value on personal space (move out of the City and you can afford a larger house). Another example would probably be that suburbanites value the sense of open space – they don’t like the city because it’s too crowded.

So, based on this, what does ‘retrofitting suburbia’ mean? Does it mean making it ‘urban’? If that’s the case, wouldn’t those people who value their larger houses and lower density neighbourhoods simply move to the next place that’s still suburban?

As a side note, as oil prices increase, a lot of people say it is inevitable that people (current suburbanites) will seek a less car dependent, more sustainable lifestyle because of increased travel costs. I’m not an economist, but as gas costs rise, I would assume that land values in car dependent areas will have to fall due to affordability issues. This means the combined cost of transport and housing would probably stay about the same.

So, what could retrofitting look like?  It doesn’t have to look like how we currently do ‘urban’. It can, in fact it has, to be different. I would suggest that the suburbs have to stay lower density, in most areas, in order for them not to loose their appeal to those already there. W(e don’t want them creating a demand for some suburbs.) But public transit needs higher densities to work. Or that’s what we’ve been told anyway. I would suggest that perhaps higher density hubs are required around transit stations, surrounded by more suburban, outlying areas. This would place many people outside of the recommended distances for walking to a transit stop with densities too low to support a comprehensive bus service to link to the transit stops (although I would imagine there would be a few). What are required, are bicycles. Bicycles increase the distance that can be traveled within the same amount of time. Now pedal bikes will be fine for many, but I believe electric bikes have a key role to play in this vision. They could transport large numbers of people to and from their homes to these transit hubs. They enable lower density neighbourhoods, but still put people 5 – 10 minutes from a high frequency transit stop to get them into the town or city efficiently. I imagine this would cover a lot of commuter trips.

Suburbia also needs more neighbourhood retail stores that people can walk to. Done well, these can form the focal point for a small community. There could even be more higher density residential around these retail areas (such as apartments over the retail units) to help support the retail and possibly some transit service as well.

Of course there are other aspects as well. These are just a few thoughts. The culture of car ownership also needs to change. If you’re not using your car to commute to and from work, it probably makes more financial sense to just pay for a car when you need one – such as a taxi or car sharing. But that’s a topic for another day.