Thursday, November 1, 2012

Vancouver's Sustainable Transportation Plan and the South of Fraser

Earlier this week, Vancouver City Council passed their new transportation plan with the goal of seeing walking, cycling, and transit account for a full 2/3rds of all trips in the city by 2040. This is just the latest in a series of transportation plans dating from the mid-1990's that have put a focus on improving walking, cycling, and supporting transit use while deemphasizing the auto as the primary means of transportation. By all accounts, the plans have been a success. It is encouraging to see that a city can shift its transportation priorities in a matter of a few decades. Of course Vancouver had a few things going for it to help speed the process along.

Vancouver has a tight grid road network which allows it to do a number of things. It allows the City to traffic calm streets next to major arterials (to the delight of residents who live on those streets) to provision a lower cost cycling network with little more than signage. At the same time, the City already has an established transit system which helps support a higher-density built form. In the South of Fraser, we are not as lucky.

As the South of Fraser is largely made up of neighbourhoods from post-World War II, the road network doesn’t have the same tight grid as Vancouver. The South of Fraser also doesn't have an established transit system that blankets the sub-region. While Vancouver was founded with a sustainable transportation system at its core, the South of Fraser grew when the auto was the only mode of transportation to be considered. That means that today it is a bit harder, but not impossible to shift to sustainable transportation system.

The biggest hindrance to building a sustainable South of Fraser transportation system is the lack of frequent public transit. Without public transit, you have no real choice but to promote the auto as the only means of longer-distance travel. Of course you can still build walking and cycling-friendly communities to support mid-distance and shorter trips. Unlike Vancouver though, communities in the South of Fraser have to spend more money to retro-fit existing arterials to safely handle all modes of transportation as traditionally they where the only roads on a grid. The other option is to build off-street walking and cycling facilities. Surrey’s solution is to build a greenway system that will mostly run along Hydro right-of-ways. The other thing that communities in the South of Fraser can do today is require more from commercial developers.

Right now anyone can build an auto-oriented strip mall or business park in the South of Fraser without so much as a blink from a municipality. Municipalities must change their guidelines to require commercial developments to be designed around walking and cycling while accommodating the auto by putting parking underground or hiding it. This way when transit comes, the build form will be in place to accommodate a truly sustainable transportation system. Of course this takes municipal councillors who have a vision for a sustainable future.

While Vancouver had an early start and possibly easier time building a sustainable transportation system, the South of Fraser can still shift to a sustainable transportation system. It will just take a bit more time and a lot more determination from municipal councils. Though until long-term transit funding is secured, I believe the South of Fraser will still be dependent on the auto.

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