Monday, May 31, 2010

Older can be better!

Steve Mouzon on Learning from Old Buildings from Lloyd Alter on Vimeo.

Great video interview from Treehugger on old buildings. Key point: Older buildings (pre-1940s) were designed to create an positive/healthy internal environment (windows for access to fresh air/ventilation) but now with modern technology we get a designed 'shell' and let engineering deal with the inside environment (air conditioning, thermostat - energy intensive stuff!).

Saturday, May 29, 2010


If people know me at all, I'm a professed transit nerd. Transit maps, I suppose are transit nerd candy. I've really enjoy the newer transit maps in the Skytrain stations since the Olympics. They're clean, colourful and effective at mapping out the trains' connections to other rapid services such as the B-lines. I only wished that the bus lines were rail lines. . .

Friday, May 28, 2010

Bizarro History: The Car built Canada!

I read a few similar articles in the last few days basically saying a few common things. I'd like to respond to a few points and maybe share a few of my ideas.

One article is "People drive their cars because it's better than Transit" written by Adrian MacNair for the National Post. His post is actually a response to a WWF/Montreal Gazette article that states that:

Nearly eight in 10 people (78 per cent) claim to be concerned about the environmental impact of their wheels, as transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in this country. But even when walking, biking or public transit are viable options for them, three-quarters of Canadians (75 per cent) will still choose to drive.

He then explains why this is so - for him at least. He complains that there is no reliable transit from the suburbs to the centre of the city and mentions GTA's GO Rail Transit as a model system (Skytrain?). MacNair also says that people don't necessarily want to live in the suburbs but are stuck doing so because it's cheaper. Mixed in is also a bit of complaining on how cars are expensive and so is parking (only to get more so with the HST!), however, he spends the first part of the article explaining how living in the city, where transit is effective, is expensive also. So, living in the city, where one could live without a car, housing is expensive. Living in the suburbs, with cheaper housing but where one would be attached to a car for their daily commute, is expensive. Is the argument moot? I'd be interested to see the costs of family living downtown without a car and the costs of a suburban family, probably owning many cars. I don't have that information available to me but it's just a thought I had while reading this article.

He tries to maneuver around criticism that's likely to come to this article by explaining that he's tried to take public transit...twice. With a resolve like that it's no wonder people take their cars.

Is transit reliable? I would say so (though this varies depending on the area in which you live). Is it perfect? No. Sometimes buses don't show or are late but in my experience, rarely. I don't have the numbers after a first google search, but I'm certain that Translink's on-time rate is pretty high (80-90%). Furthermore, if I've been stuck in traffic on a bus, chances are, there are more people stuck in cars in the same traffic.

My biggest contention with this article is the part:
Then there’s the cultural aspect of driving. You can’t eradicate a century of nation-building on the back of the automobile overnight. Canada is a big country with low population density. Things are really really far away from each other. Having a car is part and parcel to one’s sense of accomplishment in life, just like the job, the mortgage, the significant other and the offspring.
As a history student/anyone with a bit of knowledge knows that this country and its major cities were not built on the back of the automobile. The locomotive was responsible for most of our urban form (even though its cliche to say that this country was built by the railroad, not vice versa, it's true). In Vancouver, the city ran on street cars until the 1950s and its urban form is completely based around this system - not the automobile. Development from the 40s and 50s onwards is most definitely based on the automobile, sure. But, look at our Major cities and each one has a long history based on rail and street cars. Remember, a car per family is only a relatively new concept.

End rant.

It also seems he's bought into some 'Leave it to Beaver', hetero-normative lifestyle where you're life is complete because you've got a picket fence and Mustang in the driveway.

I do agree with MacNair in that we shouldn't punish drivers but we should be tolling roads and implementing congestion charging. These fees aren't punishment - they're pay for use.

Monday, May 17, 2010


My friend, Jake, brought this article in last month's Walrus to my attention. The author, Chris Turner, takes a 'Grand Tour' of Europe and highlights the many wonderful and sustainable things Europe is doing.

I particularly liked this quote from his Copenhagen leg about public space:

Gehl believes urban public space is the lifeblood of democracy, the essence of humanism, and the sine qua non of green-minded livability. “Throughout history,” he told me, “public space had three functions: it’s been the meeting place and the marketplace and the connection space. And what has happened in most cities is that we forgot about the meeting place, we moved the market space to somewhere else, and then we filled all the streets with connection, as if connection was the number one goal in city planning, in public space.” What he means is that we replaced public squares with parking lots, enclosed and privatized our marketplaces as shopping malls, and then turned over our streets almost exclusively to rapid transportation by private vehicle. In so doing, we enslaved ourselves to oil, choked ourselves on exhaust, and shattered into a million fragments the public realm where civil society once flourished.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Seven Rules and Street Talk

Last week I attended Prof. Patrick Condon's book launch for Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post-Carbon World. In point form, his 'rules' are:
  1. Restore the streetcar city.
  2. Design an interconnected street system.
  3. Locate commercial services, frequent transit, and schools within a five-minute walk.
  4. Locate good jobs close to affordable homes.
  5. Provide a diversity of housing types.
  6. Create a linked system of natural areas and parks.
  7. Invest in lighter, greener, cheaper, and smarter infrastructure.
Condon's first point has received a lot of criticism - you can find a lot of the debate on this great blog: Human Transit (under the Vancouver tag).

I don't have any criticisms of my own at the moment but I do have some points of interest to make regarding rule number 2 about designing an interconnected street system. While reading this particular chapter, I recalled my childhood in Langley and my current distaste for it now.

Langley, like most growing suburbs, is dealing with major automobile congestion problems and after reading Condon's chapter on streets, I can see that its a much more complicated and systemic issue that can't just be solved by throwing transit it at. It's most definitely a planning issue.

An interconnected street system with its many intersections generally offer multiple routes to your destinations. This system mostly features narrow residential streets and arterial streets fronted by commercial buildings (jobs and services!). An obvious example of this in Vancouver is the Broadway corridor (see photo).

Condon notes, "the major advantages of the interconnected system are that it makes all trips as short as possible, allows pedestrians and bikes to flow through the system without inconvenience, and relieves congestion by providing many alternative routes to the same destination" (39). Indeed, many people who bike tend to take 10th Avenue (one block south) instead of tempting fate on Broadway.

Langley streets are replete with cul-de-sacs in a tree-like - dendritic - fashion with 'trunks, branches and twigs' (see photo).

As you can see from this picture of a neighbourhood between Langley and Surrey, there is the main arterials along the bottom (60th ave) and right hand side (188th st) and branching from them are a series of winding streets and cul-de-sacs. In this instance, all of these households only have 3 ways to get in and out of their neighbourhood. This configuration causes some major problems:
  • Trips are longer because cars need to travel further than had this been an interconnected system with a variety of routes - the shortest distant between two points is a straight line, duh.
  • Condon notes, "all trips collect at one point, usually the major intersection of two suburban arterials . . . typically receiv[ing] up to four times more trips than an equivalent intersection in an interconnected system . . . congestion is inevitable" (42).
Residents living with this street system typically drive 40% more than those in an interconnected street system and, yes, it produces a significant increase in GHG emissions per car - a 40% increase. Cars in these neigbourhoods are often a necessity and most households have more than one vehicle. When I lived at home, my house had 4-5 cars for a 7 people.

Here's my old neighbourhood:

It has a one way to get in and out at 200th street on the right side.

For those not in the 'know', 200th street is the spine of Langley, reaching from 8th ave. (near the US border) to the Fraser River, and suffers from crippling auto congestion. The City usually tries to solve this by throwing more asphalt at it and widening it to little effect.

As a major road that receives the majority of trips in the city, it doesn't have a bus that goes its entire length. Not that more transit would help this corridor since a large part of the problem lies in the configuration of the streets. I have noticed the city trying to create alternatives to 200th street (like the re-alignment of 203rd street) but unfortunately there might be too much built up in the way.

Most new development is sadly in the same pattern as before but there is hope:

Not a single cul-de-sac in sight.

Further reading:
Human Transit post on Cul-de-sac hell and the radius of demand

Friday, May 14, 2010

My Masters Plan

It seems like I'm creating a blog every other week these days. This one, however, will be different. This one has a purpose.
I intend to use this blog as a vehicle for expressing my fascination with Urban Planning and my desire to enter a Masters of Planning program at one of Canada's many fine universities.
Why? I am doing this for several related reasons. Firstly, I failed to get into a program for this coming academic year. Secondly, I want show that I'm engaged with the topic and the 'community' and perhaps, lastly, I want to prove to myself that this is really what I want to do. In this blog I will write on any topic related to Urban Planning. I hope to update it on a weekly basis.