Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Sustainability of Vancouver's Transportation Plan

The City of Vancouver is the eighth largest city in Canada with a population of 578,000 (City of Vancouver). Vancouver is on the coast of the Pacific Ocean and bordered by the Coast Mountains and experiences a relatively mild climate. The city is known for its important port which trades $75 billion in goods annually and is famous for Stanley Park (City of Vancouver). The Corporate Knights Survey (2010) named Vancouver as Canada’s most sustainable medium-sized city.
The City of Vancouver adopted a “Downtown Transportation Plan” (DTP) in 2005. The goals of the DTP are to create a sustainable transport system in the downtown core of the city that allows for maximum accessibility and increased livability. Vancouver has identified “living first” as its top priority in establishing and maintaining a vital city and urban center. The city strives to create more area for individuals to live downtown, close to where they work and play. Although the DTP does not specifically address or define sustainability it is an essential part of the DTP. Vancouver has been planning for transportation needs consistently over the past ten to fifteen years and has adopted a variety of plans that address different aspects of transportation and livability.
The City of Vancouver (2005) has adopted several critical planning documents including:
  • Central Area Plan (1991) made “Living First” a priority downtown.
  • Transport 2021 (GVRD 1993) provided a long term regional focus on transportation.
  • Livable Region Strategic Plan (GVRD 1995) established regional strategy for growth.
  • CityPlan (1995) established a vision of Vancouver’s future through extensive public consultation.
  • Vancouver Greenways Plan (1995) envisioned a network of safer, calmer, greener streets for pedestrians.
  • Vancouver Transportation Plan (1997) established citywide transportation policies.
  • Vancouver Transit Strategy (2002) confirmed short and long-term transit needs for Vancouver.
The 2005 DTP seeks to accommodate the increasing population of people that live and work downtown without adding additional roads and traffic lanes. Vancouver is one of the few major cities in the world that does not have a major highway running through or around it. The city asserts that this is one of the main reasons that Vancouver is so livable. The DTP defines livability as quality of life which includes safety, ease of transport, proximity of work, retail and recreation areas, and minimization of traffic congestion. The DTP is interesting because it does not specifically address sustainability or economic and environmental impacts of transit—the plan mainly focuses on social impacts. This is certainly a diplomatic way to address transportation and may be more politically feasible than addressing environmental impacts associated with transit.
The DTP seeks to create more transportation choices thereby reducing the number of car trips and traffic congestion. There are existing opportunities in the downtown core for pedestrian use, cycling, bus transit, and train transit. The downtown core is a critical element of Vancouver’s residential, business and retail development: Downtown comprises 5 percent of the City’s land area, contains 13 percent of the population, 39 percent of its jobs and 21 percent of its trip destinations (City of Vancouver 2005).
The DTP states that people in the downtown core use alternative forms of transportation in greater numbers than elsewhere in the region. Over a five year period walking trips increased by 40 percent while cycling use also increased and car trips remained the same (City of Vancouver 2005). These trends support the idea that sustainable transportation plans have been working in Vancouver and that there is an existing framework of sustainable transportation methods.
The existing framework however must be expanded to accommodate the growing population of Vancouver. The residential and working populations in downtown Vancouver have increased significantly over the past twenty years (City of Vancouver 2005). The DTP notes that “over the next 20 years, the total number of trips to downtown will grow by 30 percent. Some kinds of trips will increase more than others. Commuter trips on foot and bike are expected to double. Rush hour transit use will rise by 50 to 60 percent. Car and truck trips are projected to stay about the same” (City of Vancouver 2005, 10). The DTP identifies four main goals for each mode of transportation:
  • Make downtown more walkable
  • Create network of downtown bike lanes
  • Create better downtown transit routes that address new and existing neighborhoods
  • Create safe and sustainable management of roads and traffic
The DTP identifies specific recommendations to create better transportation in downtown corridor. Each mode of transportation was analyzed to determine its current viability and then recommendations were made for current and future growth.
The first half of the DTP makes very broad statements about transportation elements and sustainability. The second portion of the plan identifies more specific recommendations for each mode of transport: walking, cycling, roads and transit. There are a variety of transit methods in downtown Vancouver that include: trolley or diesel bus, streetcar, SkyTrain, SeaBus and the West Coast Express (City of Vancouver 2005). The DTP explains that this variety of options enables a wide array of users to access mass transit.
The pedestrian plan of the DTP focuses on creating connector routes and greenways that enable easier walking throughout the city. Improvements such as landscaping, wider sidewalks, awnings and corner bulges will improve safety and comfort (Victoria Transport Policy Institute 2010). These pedestrian improvements create a sustainable mode of transportation by encouraging more people to walk and enabling them to walk longer distances because of connectivity with other systems. A unique feature of the DTP is a way finding system for pedestrians that assists residents and visitors with directions (City of Vancouver 2005). It is critical that Vancouver implement pedestrian friendly streets to continue to create a thriving urban core: The high density and ease of access to retail, business and recreation all encourage walking (APA).
Cycling is another critical mode of transport in downtown Vancouver. The DTP explains that cycling makes up only 2 percent of trips in the downtown core; however that is equivalent to 8,000 trips or 230 buses in rush hour (City of Vancouver 2005). The DTP proposes to expand bike lanes by 25 kilometers which will connect routes in the downtown area. If bike lanes are not proposed, accommodations (widening and restriping) will be made on roadways for cyclists. Other changes to encourage and accommodate cyclists include more racks on mass transit, storage lockers and signs geared toward cyclists (City of Vancouver 2005). The changes made will encourage more cycling. Racks on mass transit will be an important component of the plan because it would enable longer distance commuting using a combination of modes.
Because Vancouver has a strong urban core with significant retail, residential and business existing they will be able to attract and accommodate cyclists in a way that other smaller downtowns may not (APA 2009). The DTP does address traffic speeds and safety of bicycle commuters—they intend to reduce the travel speed to 40 km/hr through the use of streetlight waves. This would create a safer, more comfortable environment for cyclists. Additional considerations that the plan does not address should include working with businesses in the downtown area to encourage cycling by making storage space available and possibly even showers. Overall the plan addresses cycling as a mode of sustainable transport in an effective and thorough fashion. The only remaining question is the time frame for implementation of the recommendations.
The final portion of the plan encompasses of a variety of transport modes including bus, rail, boat and train. Transit ridership is expected to increase by 85 percent in the morning rush hour over the next 20 years which will require increases in transit options (City of Vancouver 2005). Waterfront Station is the downtown hub for all modes of mass transit which enables users to access a variety of modes and locations from one main location (City of Vancouver 2005). The DTP identifies current difficulties in utilizing mass transit to access the metropolitan core—an area where many jobs are located. More and better connections are proposed in the downtown area to make it easier for users to access popular locations. This portion of the DTP is still relatively undeveloped. Although additional connections are needed from different transport modes the DTP does not give specifics. This will be a critical component of future sustainable planning. Identifying which types of transport will require new connections and where is crucial to development. The absence of this information in the current plan limits sustainability because there is no concrete plan for the infrastructure necessary for those elements. The DTP again broadly addresses mass transit expansion but gives few specific details on how this will be accomplished. DTP also provides few details on financing. Proposed improvements, especially to mass transit will be costly and significant financing will be required—will Vancouver have the money when implementation dates are recommended?
The DTP has identified several other methods to address sustainable transportation: management of parking supply, creation of a public realm strategy, and spot improvements. The DTP proposes that there be no significant increases to available parking in the downtown core. This will effectively making parking difficult and expensive because it is not readily available and will likely encourage the use of alternative forms of transportation. Vancouver does have residential and commercial parking standards that are not specifically addressed as part of the DTP; these policies should be reviewed to determine consistency with the DTP.
The public realm is another consideration of the DTP. The public realm is defined as “the shared spaces that people use to get around, to meet, to play, to celebrate, and to shop” (City of Vancouver 2005, 26). The public realm is relative to the transportation plan in the design and development of streetscapes and the maintenance of historic streets and scenic vistas. Finally, the DTP has incorporated a list of spot improvements that are recommended for immediate action. These improvements were noted by citizens and staff and identified particularly problematic areas.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Overall, the DTP makes significant strides in the incorporation of sustainable transportation methods. Vancouver is a relatively progressive city and has already utilized alternative transportation for a number of years. The DTP does make some broad statements and does lack specific plans in some cases (specifically the increased use of mass transit); however the goals are generally admirable and sustainable. This plan is interesting in that it does not incorporate any type of penalty or taxes on drivers or users. The plan is centered around government funded solutions that do not mention any user generated fees. Some cities have adopted fees for drivers to access the urban core. While this is not a comprehensive or a particularly popular solution it is one method that communities have implemented. The DTP appears to be a plan that will please many and upset few because it is not particularly controversial. No mention is made of funding for the proposed projects and improvements and one imagines that if there is any controversy that is where it will be.
The City of Vancouver should make several additions to the DTP. While the DTP identifies a list of recommendations it gives no time frame for implementation or specific information about how items will be implemented and who will implement them. Often these general plans can contain useful recommendations but if there is not clear direction on which city departments are responsible for implementation and when they may go ignored. Because Vancouver does not have a highway system around or through the city, the city can be a challenge to navigate quickly. This is a benefit for encourage alternative modes of transportation and city should remain firm on excluding a highway. The DTP will need to make serious recommendations and plans for increases in mass transit. The use of mass transit is expected to increase significantly over the next ten to twenty years and Vancouver will need a clear plan on where riders are going and which mode of transit is preferable. The infrastructure for trolleys and trains is significant and will require comprehensive planning that includes a variety of entities (Planning Departments, Public Works, neighbors, businesses). The City of Vancouver should also work to make their planning and zoning codes compliment the transportation plan. It is critical that zoning and transportation relate to each other because they are so interconnected.
Vancouver is a truly livable city, with a thriving urban core. In order to maintain the city’s livability they will have to continue to address transportation planning now and as the city evolves in the future. There are a variety of modes of transport that are being utilized and the current infrastructure discourages the use of cars. Now and in the future specifics on mass transit including routes, connections and modes will need to be addressed to enable residents and visitors to continue to access the city in an easy and sustainable manner.

American Planning Association (APA). Characteristics and guidelines of great streets.
American Planning Association Urban Design and Preservation Division (APA). 2009. In-complete streets. Urban Design and Preservation.
City of Vancouver. 2005. City of Vancouver Downtown Transportation Plan.
City of Vancouver. Welcome to the City of Vancouver – Host city of the 2010 winter games.
Corporate Knights. 2010. The 2010 sustainable cities ranking. Corporate Knights: The magazine for clean capitalism.
Victoria Transport Policy Institute. 2010. Nonmotorized transportation planning: Identifying ways to improve pedestrian and bicycle transport.

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