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Land use and transportation, historically the concerns of engineers and politicians, have begun to seep into the public conscious as Vancouver works to maintain its status as one of the world’s most livable cities.
City councillor for sixteen years, influential blogger, recognized global speaker and Director of the City Program at SFU – Gordon Price is one of Vancouver’s foremost authorities on the built environment.
What would you say is the biggest planning issue facing our region today?
The vulnerability to the basic commodity upon which our entire world has been based: oil.
Let’s just cover that off: oil has some particular features that if not making it unique, the combination thereof is extraordinary: it’s liquid and stable at room temperature and it’s incredibly energy intensive. So while people may talk about alternatives, there isn’t any alternative that combines all of those particular features.
We’ve come to accept that our world can function in a certain way based on the particular characteristics of a limited resource that’s been so cheap – bottled water is more expensive – that it’s now in every aspect of our lives: food, clothes, transportation, construction materials, and just about everything that we process has an element of oil in it.
While it’s easy to get into an apocalyptic scenario around peak oil, volatility is more the issue than an actual shortage. This expectation that something as critical to your life as oil will stay at a fixed price is more important than even what the price is.
Can you give an example of the effects of the volatile price of oil?
Well, in 2005 I think that you can make a case that as a result of that spike in oil price the assumption that the asset value of homes, particularly the ex-urban ones being built in the unbelievable staggering waste known as the sub-prime blowout came to a crashing end and brought the world’s financial system down with it. It’s more complicated than that, but it seems to me that the dots are too close:
If you live in an ex-urban community where your only transportation choice is to drive and suddenly your commuting cost just doubled and you’ve already strung out your debt in order to acquire the mini McMansion, you have no room, because you have no choice. Ex-urban development is built almost exclusively on the idea that everyone will drive everywhere for everything, even internally, within their own communities. There aren’t many options to walk and cycling is seen to be a non-existent choice. There’s just no give, so that’s where I say the vulnerability comes from – this lack of choice in the system.
What does the Gateway Project mean for choice in our region’s transportation system?
It’s not the route itself over the bridge that I have a problem with it – I voted for some of this stuff when I was on the Metro and Translink boards – what I object to is the very clear message that we are going to organize our transportation system in the fastest growing parts of our region around vehicles, almost exclusively, and anything else isn’t to be taken seriously.
Still, that tends to focus narrowly on the corridor itself: the actual roadway – the bridge. The far greater significance is the land use consequences:
To make a generalization, transportation is always about land use and in particular, real estate. Every form of transportation that we’ve used has allowed us to expand the land that’s available for development. If you were constrained by your own two feet, or maybe a horse’s feet, the diameter of a city is pretty limited, so you get these compact, dense cities. With the arrival of the horse omnibus and the initial cable cars, the city begins to expand somewhat, but it was with the electric street car in 1887 that you had an exponential increase in the amount of land that a city can begin to appropriate.
Land becomes so cheap that for the first time in history an average working person can think about owning their own land and building their own house – effectively the first suburbs. It’s a very high quality way of life. In fact, every culture that can begin to afford it will tend to move towards something like what we would call a suburb.
Then, with the arrival of the automobile we see a geometric increase in the amount of land available – you can develop any parcel so long as you can get a road to it.
By the 1950s we begin to build these huge trunk lines extending to far parts of the region that then join up with transcontinental roads so that everything can be organized around the car. Architecture adapts, planning responds, and you get this combination that most of us have lived in since the ‘50s: single-purpose residential subdivisions, college campuses, office parks, mega theatres, shopping malls, strip developments – everything is basically organized on the assumption that people drive everywhere. By the time you get into the 1960s you see the urban form that’s pretty typical everywhere: a parking lot with some expression of a box.
Then you see the final stage where we don’t even allow people to walk or bike on the streets. You see a total car dominance, all based on the assumption that there will be no end to cheap, secure, fuel.
The gateway project reinforces it tremendously, and locks the next generation into auto-dependence.
Is it fair to say that the Gateway Project is intended to help the economy by reducing congestion?
That’s the argument – a fatuous calculation – they take a very small number and multiply it by a very big number. So if I’m for instance stuck in traffic for two minutes and there’s a million people, you end up with a very large number that has absolutely no consequence on how you live your life and make decisions: two minutes of no consequence. But you can say, “ahh, that’s worth x hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy.”
But it’s not some nefarious scheme by the oil industry or the car industry – it’s done on the rationale that this is best for the economy. It’s a coalition of interests – in this case we can identify them as the Gateway Council, and they consist of ports, the trucking industry, warehousing, manufacturing and the kinds of businesses that really are vehicle dependent.
Is the increase in capacity going to decrease the congestion?
It’s always promised. If you look at the first edition of the Transportation Planning Handbook by the Institute of Transportation Engineers in 1942: it was dedicated to the efficient, free and rapid flow of traffic. It’s almost never delivered that, but it’s always promised to do so. The ideal vision of a functioning region is always in the future, and there’s a good reason why they would make that type of promise and why we continue to live with it still: their job as traffic engineers is to translate infinity into a kind of reality. The infinity is based upon the fact that you can never limit the amount of automobiles. So long as people can afford an automobile and get one, there can’t be any imposed limit on the number of vehicles that come onto the road. We will never make a decision for instance, that we will match up the road space with the number of vehicles we allow, as they do in Singapore.
So the job of the road designer is to keep planning for an infinite increase, which means they will never come to terms with this idea that there is a practical limit to the amount of capacity that the system can handle, and therefore its efficiency.
Is that the same principle that drives the American phenomenon where we see eight and twelve lane freeways jammed bumper to bumper?
Absolutely. The studies are pretty clear now that if you build more road space it attracts more vehicles. There is an idea called triple-induction theory, which is that if you build new road space it will attract more traffic from three sources: people who previously would have used the road space if it were available but since it was too congested, drive at another time, use another mode of transport, or use another route. That will surely happen with Gateway: the moment that road space is completed there will be people who will now drive, or will choose to drive at rush hour, or might have taken another route or another mode – maybe Skytrain.
Road builders will argue adamantly, and they certainly did in the Gateway case, that all they’re doing is building roads – they don’t take into account what the consequences of those roads will be on land use patterns . That, they argue, is determined by municipalities and regional plans. This by the way, I think is professionally irresponsible.
One of the [Gateway] project managers said, “all that we’re doing basically is building up what we planned to do in the 60s.”
Their thinking is rooted in the height of auto-dependent urban planning.
Given carte blanche, what would you do for transportation in the region?
Build out what Translink’s already got. There’s no question what we need to do – that’s well-determined. You can have debate over the pieces and who gets the first priority, but we have demonstrated time and time again that when we build a frequent transit network – a combination of trolleys, buses, shuttles, trunk lines and rapid transit in a web that’s frequent and affordable (it doesn’t need to be cheap, it just needs to be affordable) you’ll see these kinds of increases that we’ve seen these last few years. And more importantly, land use starts to organize itself around it.
If we set out expanding that rapid transit network, would Gateway still be necessary?
Gateway would be better. That’s the brutal irony: Gateway argues that tolls will keep the number of vehicles down to the point that triple-induction won’t negate the justification for the expenditure. In other words, we’ll keep the traffic moving. But really what they’re saying is we will price people out of their cars. They will not say it that way – that’s just political dynamite – but how else can it be? If you’re going to argue with the increase in the number of vehicles that the road space you will build won’t get filled up, that can only mean that whatever the tolls on the bridge will price people out of using the road system at least at the peak times. Well, at that point you have to give them a choice. But gateway has no responsibility to provide choices. They’re not funding any buses, they’re not funding the light rail – they’re not funding any of the related part of the network that will take the pressure off of Gateway in order to make it work.
This is the scam; this is the professional irresponsibility; this is the political blindness: so we’re going to spend billions to lock people into motordom – into car dependence – not provide them with any choice and then watch the system fail because we didn’t act at a time when we are likely to be incredibly vulnerable to the fluctuating cost of oil.