Roadmap to a sustainable region?

In a recent post on my blog, Dis:adventure, I took an idea I saw on CityCaucus, and ran with it. What would happen if we left the bridge broken? I mused.

Well, 9 comments later, and some good discussion both here and there, and I began to realize that I asked the wrong question. T2F co-author Will rightly pointed out,

I know that if you build a road that makes driving easier, people will use it and move to those places. That is the point. But if you remove a road from where everyone already lives and it increases their “non-family time by 1h per day, those folks move out.

So it occurred to me that the question was not, “What would happen if we left the bridge broken?” but “Given that the bridge is closed, what does this loss of transportation options indicate to us about how traffic planning affects our urban density?”

Put more succinctly, “How can we plan our transportation network so that we decrease our dependence on vehicular commuting?”

The argument being: (Read More)
– If we already understand that vehicular traffic doesn’t just disappear when you increase the road network’s capacity, it increases to fit the capacity available, we should seriously reconsider our development plans for the region in order to put some negative pressure on roadways.
– This negative pressure (in many forms such as cost, distance, time, parking scarcity, and stress) would prevent artificial, vehicle-mediated economies of distance from springing up. For example, these negative pressures limit the extent to which “bedroom communities” spring up farther and farther from the economic hub of the region, because they pose realistic barriers on commuting, making a long distance commute difficult, long and expensive. If new developments opened up these “bottlenecks” these false economies would encourage the development of communities impossibly far from economic centres and pose property comparisons that would never normally be feasible.
– Negative pressures on vehicular traffic present realistic impetus for people to consider other options to meet transportation needs, along with the decisions that are made about where to live, where to work. If vehicle traffic were easy, cheap and non-polluting, few people would ever go to the trouble to bike to work. Because there are cost, distance, time, and stress-related “negative pressures,” more people try alternatives like public transit and biking to work that have numerous benefits. These negative pressures also provide bargaining power to work with employers to provide sponsorship for other options like carpooling, discounted transit passes and corporate shuttle services like we have at work. They make it more cost-effective to chose a mass-transit alternative than the ubiquitous single-occupancy vehicle.

The flaws are probably many, but here are a few which were pointed out:

– You can’t impose restrictions on already existing transportation corridors, such as leaving the Patullo Bridge closed forever or making it transit-only. After hundreds of thousands have made their life decisions to establish a home in one area and endure a long commute, those corridors can’t simply be eliminated just to cut down the traffic. This can only be done in future planning so that these negative pressures can pose their realistic limitations on the economies of commuting.
– Limiting vehicular corridors can’t be done in a vacuum. If we canceled the Gateway Project now without increasing public transit options and decreasing cost, we could kiss the “gas metaphor” would result in an explosion of frustration and anger, and the politicians who are trying to create more sustainable cities would suffer the consequences. In Vancouver, cost and system fallibility are primary issues. Transit in this city seems spectacularly unable to deal with weather-related problems, and until someone like Jen Arbo can go from her home to her work 5km away without enduring a 45 minute commute and 3 bus rides later, we can’t call the system a viable alternative to vehicular transport.

So – if we were to continue the “thought experiment” of our transportation system in the wake of the staggering loss of the Patullo Bridge for 2-4 weeks, what would need to happen to make it workable and effective?
– As Rod Smelser pointed out, property values remain one of the biggest motivators for people to seek homes at ridiculous distances from the economic hub of the city, in Vancouver. Even if we could retain “negative pressures” on the system, if house prices remained high as they are it would continue to force the choice to live further out. Rod’s proposal is a good start – re-examination of zoning policies with an eye to creating cheaper zoning or putting into place limits on ultra-expensive housing. Perhaps more realistic ways to achieve this may include putting quotas in certain neighbourhoods on rent controlled housing for people who can demonstrate a job in the city.
– Massive expansion of public transit to “work out the kinks,” decrease fares, and reach areas which are currently not reached by transit or only poorly served. One key change needs to be providing transit service all night so as to accommodate people on more than just the average 9to5 shift.
– Work with municipalities in the region to create incentives for commerce and industry employers to build in those locations, creating work in more areas than just the downtown core.
– Creating a “diverse transportation advisory committee” operating region-wide to provide realistic input into coprporate boardrooms and industrial shop floors on how to make alternative transportation easier, from move-in to shut-down. Civic and Provincial tax and other incentives to corporations that make deliberate decisions to avoid the bi-modal “into Vancouver and home to the ‘burbs” commute pattern: alternate hours, building warehouses and offices by skytrain stations, sponsoring below-market housing in the area.
– Bring “diverse transportation” back into the public health, education, and PSA limelight. Make this topic as ubiquitous as anti-smoking ads were in the 80’s and 90’s. Make this the time to change worldviews on the subject, starting in elementary school. A sort of “urban literacy” is needed for kids to understand and develop habits conducive to sustainable communities. An example of this would be the adoption of a “foot-friendly school” policy that created “walking school bus” programs for kids to safely walk to school together and safe bike-lock and bike safety programs – all of which model and sustain examples of non-vehicular traffic. Making these options a de facto part of the lifestyle of an urban dweller removes the obstacles posed by those who find bicycle and public transit commuting incomprehensible (like my parents’ generation).
– adoption of Official Community Plans that follow non-car-dependent models, such as the “urban village” model that is so common in pre-auto European cities. Development of a research braintrust on this issue that can serve to advise community planners on how to solve complicated vehicular traffic problems in a way that promotes non-vehicular transportation.
– hike up gas prices, and funnel the money from gas taxes and vehicle insurance into local mass transit initiatives. Create exemptions for those unable to take transit or for residents of regions where transportation is not available.
– create public sponsorship for car and bike co-op programs, expanding them to be one per street. Use a diversity of vehicle types so that those activities that necessitate vehicles (like moving your house, or driving around equipment or friends) could be suited by those with no vehicle of their own. Make pickup trucks, minivans and cube vans available through car co-ops, or make a small amount of car rental trips tax-deductible to make it more possible for people to go completely carless by making cheaper those few trips they may need to make that require a vehicle.
– instill a vehicle limit (if you want to get crazy about it!), imposing very high taxes on second automobiles. Introduce this gradually and with car amnesty and return incentives so that households can plan and make large purchase decisions (such as where homes will be vis a vis transit) accordingly. Perhaps one option would be giving everyone in Vancouver ONE parking pass, and making parking illegal almost everywhere so that having a second car would be useless.

whew! That’s all I can think of for now. Since we are thinking out loud – what do you think could or should be done to make our cities less car-dependent?

One Reply to “Roadmap to a sustainable region?”

  1. Yes, an increase in commuting alternatives is key. We need to remember that despite all of our belly-aching, our region is spoiled for transit compared to other North American cities. We have more busses per capita than most and with the skytrain, seabus and commuter rail we do a good job where the assets exist.

    Also remember that 4 expansions are already funded. Coast Mountain bus is now receiving the first buses in the largest single bus purchase contract in North American history. Hello? — Ever. Evergreen is funded for Skytrain into Tricities, a Fraser Valley extension has been announced, an expansion almost to UBC has been announced (I think). We just completed the millenium line and the canada line. We are the pink princesses of urban transit, complaining about the pea.

    We also need to remember that the Gateway project is primarily to keep freight and business traffic in an efficient corridor and keep big trucks off other roads and keep them from creeping through town spewing diesel. I would like to see a shipping container on a transit bus too but if we are going to operate 3 seaports in the lower mainland and connect to the new one in Rupert, we have to make sure we can keep the goods moving.

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