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Urban Planning + Architecture

Taras Grescoe's Excellent Adventure on Public Transit

The author of 'Straphanger' on global riders, killing fares, SkyTrain and more. Plus an excerpt on mobile Vancouverism.

David Beers 4 May

Adapted from Straphanger by Taras Grescoe, with permission from HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Grescoe's previous books Include The Devil's Picnic and Bottomfeeder.

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Former Vancouver kid Grescoe hangs on for a global commute.

The next time you're on a bus or train scanning the faces around you, don't think of your fellow passengers as obstacles between you and the exit door at your next stop. Instead, feel the bond that unites a vast Transit Nation spanning the globe.

"Most of the population of Asia, Latin American and Africa get around by transit," says author Taras Grescoe. "At least half the people living in the hugely influential cities of London, New York and Toronto don't own cars. They are Straphangers."

Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile is the title of Grescoe's new book, a personal investigation into how various cities are doing public transit differently, what works and what doesn’t, and whether civilization will be rescued by the new wave of Straphangers.

"The Millenial generation is far more comfortable with transit and cities," says Grescoe, chatting by phone from Montreal where he lives. "They grew up with shows like Seinfeld and Friends that rehabilitated the image of the city. And there's been this great inversion. Crime has diminished, old industries have abandoned cities, making them better places to live. Straphangers use their Kindles to make the ride go pleasantly, and their smart phones to predict exactly where the next street car is. New York last year saw 1.6 billion rides on its subway system, the highest since 1950."

And if Republican presidential nominee candidate Newt Gingrich bellows, as he did recently, that New York's trains are full of elitists, he's sort of right. Even the mayor of New York rides the subway to work.

Grescoe, who grew up in Vancouver, returned to his roots researching his book. A Straphangers excerpt about Vancouver's distinct mix of whooshing SkyTrains and groaning buses runs below, and he will be making an appearance in town Monday evening. What does Grescoe think about the argument UBC professor Patrick Condon makes that what the region really needs -- and could better afford -- is a cross-hatching of light rail lines?

"The SkyTrain is good at moving people fast with fewer stops. Street cars are really good at place making -- more stops, more integrated with the community, making little urban neighbourhoods. SkyTrains produce these farther spaced nodes, with taller, denser development, the Metrotown thing. I'm not sure I like it. I'd prefer a lower rise city."

Grescoe says our big public transit projects spring sporadically into being at the whim of political mandarins. "That's what we do in Canada, build things for our Olympics and our Expos. What we're lacking is dedicated funding for transit." Even in the U.S., transit funding and planning is more rational and concerted, he says. "We get super projects like Canada Line, then nothing for a long time."

And what about the idea, explored in a Tyee series, that if we stopped charging people to ride the bus or train, we'd promote, rather than discourage, greener ways of getting around in the era of climate change?

"I like the idea of free transit," says Grescoe. Spoken like a dedicated Straphanger.


By Taras Grescoe

(Excerpted from the "Good Bones" chapter in Straphanger.)

I grew up in Vancouver. It was here, working as a courier, that I witnessed one too many accidents, and developed a lifelong aversion to traffic and cars. My family arrived in the '70s, settling in a neighbourhood of single-family homes near the university. Streamlined Brill trolley buses, drawing power from overhead wires, ran down the nearest major artery, Dunbar Street, where only recently streetcars had run. The local housing ran from Tudor­style manses in Shaughnessy Heights, a neighborhood built on an eccentric garden city street plan, to stucco-coated Vancouver Specials, boxy working-class homes with low-pitched roofs and second-floor balconies. Coming from Toronto, Vancouver felt like the edge of the world, an outpost of the British empire experiencing a few timid blooms of alternative culture. This was the place I became a pre-­adolescent urbanist, pacing out our block and building a model showing how, if you removed the cars, city streets could be made into parks.

When I visit these days -- my parents and sister still call Vancouver home -- I barely recognize the place. The shock begins when I get off the plane, walk among the totem poles of the coolly West Coast-themed airport, and wheel my bags to the elevated SkyTrain station. The Canada Line, completed for the 2010 Winter Olympics, whisks passengers in Korean-made electric trains at 50 miles an hour toward the West End. As the driverless light-rail train crosses the Fraser River, I marvel at how thickets of office and condo towers, each cluster corresponding to a SkyTrain station, have cropped up at intervals of about a mile and a half, where once there was only low-rise suburbia. The single-family homes on small lots, which make Vancouver's west side so reminiscent of East Portland, still exist, but they are now bordered by slickly designed, European-inspired condo blocks with names like City Square and Arbutus Walk.

Arriving at the station in Yaletown, once a downtown district of forlorn warehouses, I'm surrounded by "see-throughs," the slender condominium towers of pale green glass that rise against the snow­dusted coast mountains. After Manhattan, Vancouver's downtown is now the second densest in North America. In my absence, the backwater of my youth seems to have morphed into a temperate­zone Singapore, a transformation that has spawned a new buzzword among urbanists: "Vancouverism."

'Absolutely wrapped in development'

To get an idea of where it was all going, I asked Moreno Rossi, a senior planner with TransLink, Metro Vancouver's transit agency, to take me on a SkyTrain tour of the new Vancouver. We boarded an Expo line train from the TransLink headquarters at Metrotown, next to the largest mall in the province; the boxy train pulled out of the station with a mounting electric hum, and we rode southeast away from the downtown on elevated tracks raised on concrete pylons. The train pulled into New Westminster station, three stories above ground level. Overlooking the log floats being hauled by tugboats on the Fraser River, the half­built station area was dotted with the orange hardhats of construction workers; behind us rose three high-rise apartment towers. Rossi said the completed development will include 650 condo units, a drugstore, a supermarket, a multiplex theater, and a doctor's office; most of the retail would be directly accessible from the station platform.

"More and more," said Rossi, "we're seeing these stations are absolutely being wrapped in development. They become an integral part of the neighbourhood, rather than something sitting out there and separate."

Park­and-rides are against TransLink policy, so the station will be surrounded by a transit loop where feeder buses will drop passengers next to the escalators rising to the platforms. Moreno told me about another station where a leading drugstore chain had chosen not to build a single parking spot; instead, customers enter the store directly from the SkyTrain station, and it has become one of the most successful franchises in the chain. Vancouver was building the kind of transit-oriented development I'd seen in Tokyo, where commuters can shop for groceries, buy flowers, and pick up their dry cleaning on the walk between station and home.

After a short ride back toward downtown, Rossi left me on the platform of the Joyce-Collingwood station, which overlooks Collingwood Village, a 27­ acre development with a population of 4,500 set in a neighborhood of older, single-family homes. Four­story townhouses form a street front paralleling the SkyTrain tracks; behind them are 16 mid- and high-rise residential towers. Taking a stroll, I noticed that the greenbelt beneath the elevated SkyTrain tracks had been turned into a community garden, where local residents were tending patches of tomatoes, pumpkins, and lettuce; shops on the ground floors of the condo towers included a Filipino grocery with lacquered ducks hanging in the windows, a walk­in clinic, and a beauty salon advertising "Japanese Straight Perms." The developer had also built an elementary school, a gym, a park, and a neighborhood police station.

What astonished me most, though, was the stream of passengers pouring from the station, some of whom joined the lines for buses at the bottom of the station’s escalators. It was half past five, so commuters were returning from downtown, and I stood on the platform counting heads: each four-car train disgorged 30 to 40 passengers, with a new train arriving every two minutes or less. At Portland's Orenco Station, I had counted only half a dozen people getting off each rush-hour MAX train, with waits of at least six minutes between trains. The statistics speak for themselves: in Collingwood Village, 56 per cent of residents commute by transit, versus only 15 per cent in Orenco Station.

'Getting a lot of the little things right'

When it comes to reducing car dependency, the Vancouver model, which puts high-density residential and retail right up against high-capacity transit, is emerging as the one to beat. SkyTrain ridership is triple MAX's, making it the busiest light­rail system in North America. Over the last decade, transit ridership has grown by 52 per cent, pedestrian trips are up 44 per cent, and cycling 180 per cent. Ten per cent fewer cars now enter Vancouver than a decade ago, and the average time people spend commuting to work has actually decreased by several minutes (even while increasing significantly in Canada's largest city, Toronto). Thanks to its transportation policy and hydro power, Vancouver now has the lowest per capita carbon emissions of any major North American city.

I asked Gordon Price, a former city alderman and transit blogger, if the lessons of Vancouverism could be applied anywhere but Vancouver. Price agreed that, like Portland, Vancouver's early history of streetcar-driven development gave it certain advantages. A grid system of major arteries at half-mile intervals puts most homes within a few minutes' walk of transit; Vancouver's historic interurban network, the equivalent of Los Angeles's Red Cars, also encouraged the growth of such substantial suburbs as Richmond and Surrey, which now provide the anchors that keep the SkyTrain cars full throughout the day. But the real key, Price believed, was Vancouver's freeway revolt.

"There was this planner called Gerald Sutton Brown, an engineer and city manager who since the '50s had been the grand poo-bah of Vancouver." The imperious Sutton Brown came close to implementing his vision of a regional freeway system, until he made the mistake of routing it through Vancouver's Chinatown. "In the late '60s, Chinese businesspeople and the more political unions held marches and raucous public meetings, and a rather ragged coalition of lawyers, architects, academics, and urban thinkers emerged to create a new municipal party. The first thing they did, when they were elected, was to fire Sutton Brown." Most Canadian highways fall under provincial, rather than federal, management, and British Columbia decided against funding such a clearly unpopular plan. "The amazing thing is that, even today, highways don't go through any part of the City of Vancouver," pointed out Price. "They just stop as soon as they reach the city limits."

Vancouver opted to use federal highway money for public transport; rather than building a new bridge, the city launched its SeaBuses, bright orange ferries that still shuttle passengers to the north shore mountains for the price of a bus ticket.

Elevated light rail turns out to have been a prescient choice of technology. When I rode the SkyTrain on the opening of Expo 86, a world fair whose theme was transportation, I remember thinking it was nothing more than a toy, a rinky-dink people mover. But the system has proved both robust and popular, and the new, wider trains on the Canada Line operate more like serious mass transit vehicles. "Thanks to the technology," pointed out Price, "we've got a system that gives us headways of as little as 90 seconds, which is incredible. And because it's automated, the labor cost of putting a new train on the line is also incredibly low."

Vancouver has also introduced a form of BRT, using articulated buses that run from SkyTrain stations and only stop at major intersections. Students riding the B-line, which serves the University of British Columbia, receive discounted monthly passes paid for out of their tuition fees. The B‑line has attracted such a huge ridership that there are now calls for it to be replaced by a permanent light-rail line.

When it comes to transportation policy, Vancouver is getting a lot of the little things right. Downtown parking is expensive. The city has built broad bike lanes on major bridges and arteries, taking entire lanes away from cars. Michael Shiffer, until recently TransLink's vice president of planning, told me he believed another factor was cultural. His last job was as head of planning for the Chicago Transit Authority, where support for public transport was not automatic. "Too often the debate in the United States is about whether transit is a good idea or not. Here, everybody's on board with transit. The debate is, who gets it first, and how are you going to pay for it?"

Funding, in fact, comes from a variety of sources. In Vancouver, passenger fares cover 50 per cent of operating costs, while fuel and property taxes pay for the rest. Construction of the proposed Evergreen SkyTrain line will be paid in equal parts by the federal government, the province, and the region. The Canada Line to the airport, in contrast, was the first major piece of transit infrastructure in North America to be built with a public­private partnership, an initiative many commentators say was plagued by corner­cutting. Three stations had to be eliminated from the planned route, and the station platforms that were built were too short to allow future expansion. Thanks to cost overruns, the provincial government will be compensating the private company that operates the line with payments up to $21 million a year until 2025.

'We asked for the Volkswagen and you went for the Ferrari'

Almost everybody I talked to agreed that Vancouver's greatest strength was the concentration of vision allowed by true regional planning. The Livable Region Strategic Plan, adopted in 1996 as a framework for making regional land use and transportation decisions, is now the game plan for the entire region. According to Christina DeMarco, the director of planning at Metro Vancouver, the region's 22 municipalities are constantly consulting one another.

"Every month since the mid-'90s," she told me, "all the planning directors in the region have gotten together to discuss common concerns, everything from affordable housing to the rezoning of industrial land." They collaborate closely with TransLink, which was created by the provincial government in 1999 to oversee not only transit but also bridges and major roads.

The various stakeholders in the process don't always see eye to eye. Metro Vancouver, for example, favored making the Evergreen Line a surface light­rail line similar to Portland's MAX, but the province opted for a more expensive SkyTrain. "The local municipalities are saying, we didn't agree to this train, and now you're asking us to cough up $400 million to build it. Sort of like, we asked for the Volkswagen and you went for the Ferrari and you're making us pay for it."

There is a broad consensus, however, that the focus will be on regional city centers linked by transit, rather than freeways. When it comes to density, the SkyTrain is proving to be a force multiplier: a true mass transit system, with enormous throughputs, it enables high residential and commercial densities, just as New York's subway created the skyscrapers of Midtown and the apartments of the Upper East and West sides.

Throwing good transit at a city doesn't mean density will follow. Vancouver early on limited space for cars, and its planners have worked hard to locate residential towers, bus loops, and shops near transit stops. It provides more evidence that public transport works best when it is overseen by an agency with truly regional scope -- preferably one that can work in tandem with a planning body with some degree of metropolitan-­level control over zoning and land use.

'Ridiculously expensive'

Some people say that Vancouver, whose economy is increasingly tied to Asia, is hardly a realistic model for other North American cities. One morning I rode the Canada Line to Richmond, a suburb where more than half of the population is of Asian descent -- mostly recent immigrants from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong -- and stopped at Aberdeen Center, a mall that could have been airlifted straight from Shanghai, Taipei, or Singapore.

Shark-fin soup was the lunch special at the food court, and a Barnes & Noble-size bookstore offered mah-jong sets and books with titles like Struggling in the U.S.? Move to China!. The lead story in the local paper profiled a real estate agent who was pre-­selling entire floors of condo towers to the nouveau riche of mainland China. For its critics, Vancouver has become a kind of productive resort with no indigenous economy -- an attractive home base for highly mobile Pacific Rim executives, but entirely dependent on inputs of foreign capital. I could see why, like Dubai or Singapore, it would be a good city for someone with an established career to spend a few years, but a hard place to build a life.

The fact is, the city of my youth has become ridiculously expensive. These days, even a tear-down on a tiny lot can go for over $1 million; the house my parents lived in was recently listed for 30 times what they paid in the '70s. There have been times, particularly in the depths of the Montreal winter, when I've daydreamed about enticing Erin to relocate to Vancouver, which, after all, boasts sandy beaches and old-­growth forests within its city limits. In reality, we probably ­couldn't afford to buy a home in my old hometown anymore.

Brent Toderian, Vancouver's director of planning at the time, defended the city against charges that it has become an unaffordable haven for the international elite.

"We have about 7,000 kids living downtown, and we're one of the few North American cities to have opened a downtown elementary school in the last decade," said Toderian. "We require developers to include day cares, parks, and neighbourhood facilities." Developments like the Woodwards Building, he pointed out, have garnered international praise for including hundreds of apartments priced for poorer families.

Toderian admitted that Vancouver probably had all the condo towers it needed. Echoing Metro Vancouver's Christina DeMarco, he said he hoped the future would bring a more European-style urbanism. That's good news for the Vancouverites who see those ranks of sea­green condo towers as an invading army pushing them out of their hometown.

"What Vancouver has done better than Singapore or Hong Kong," Toderian pointed out, "is slim, separated towers that protect mountain views and allow sunlight in. But we're coming to the end of this lazy interpretation of Vancouverism, which is all about high­rise towers on podiums. I think the future of Vancouver is mid­rise, from four to 12 stories, around transit lines. You'll be seeing much more of that near the new stations on the Canada Line."

Vancouver is undergoing a rapid transformation commensurate with its transit system of choice, the SkyTrain. As a widely applicable model, however, Vancouver may have priced itself out of the market: not only is its wealth of planning expertise simply not available to most cities, there are few places these days that can afford to buy themselves an expensive SkyTrain.  [Tyee]

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