Vancouver is a city that is growing rapidly, but where successful investments mean that walking, cycling and public transport account for an increasing share of transport. Result: Cleaner air, healthier residents – and an even more attractive city. Transportation Manager Dale Bracewell talks about why Vancouver manages to do what in other cities stays in the target documents. His most important advice: Measure carefully! Listen carefully!
Vancouver’s brand is strong. The city on Canada’s west coast, large as Gothenburg, is repeatedly named one of the world’s most beautiful and attractive. A rich cultural life, an exciting business life and beautiful surroundings, but also lively streets and squares, parks and promenades next to the Pacific Ocean. Add to that a well-developed public transport and an at least as well-developed cycle path network, and the picture emerges of a real city of the future, where the advantages of the big city have been taken advantage of and its disadvantages have been kept back.
– We hosted the Winter Olympics in 2010, says Dale Bracewell, head of the city’s transport planning, when I interview him over Skype. For a few weeks, our transport system would be able to cope with an extreme congestion with spectators, officials and competitors in need of transport between different arenas in and outside the city. We chose to solve the needs of public transport as much as possible and invested large extra resources. When we later asked the people of Vancouver how they perceived the Olympic weeks, we got the answer that they accepted both the load and such as the transport solutions we used. From our measurements, we know that 60 percent of the inhabitants want to see more of the sustainable transport solutions, and will use them when they are used.
– It seems that an extraordinary event makes it easier to dare to break a habit, change your personal choices, and then discover that all the benefits of doing it in a new way, he adds.
It is recognizable. It is when we move, get married, have children and in other vital stages that we have the ”window open” for change. A little unsearched, I think of Barack Obama’s visit to Stockholm a few years ago. For a few days, the central city was virtually closed to traffic – and Stockholmers enjoyed quiet streets and fresh air.
Dale Bracewell was himself responsible for transport planning during the Olympic weeks, and has brought with him many of the experiences from there in his career.
– It was like a catalyst, he says. Many who had not tried public transport before had reason to do so, and were pleasantly surprised. They have continued to travel collectively, and they bring with them more travelers. In 2016 alone, public transport increased by 4.5 percent.
Lack of space – but avoid the congestion
The investment in public transport naturally has a prehistory. Ever since the 1970s, Vancouver has had an opinion that opposed plans for major highways that were the standard solution to the growing traffic at the time – and what many believe is the only solution even today. Here, special, local parties have been formed with traffic issues in focus, and the city developed an early framework for a cohesive urban planning, with everything from transport to green structure and public health. It is part of the foundation of the advanced work that is being done today.
In addition to a conscious opinion, of a kind that can probably be recognized from other parts of the North American west coast, there is a good reason to keep the city close: Lack of space. Vancouver is located between the ocean and the mountains and near the US border. Surrounding land is valuable agricultural land. Therefore, the focus in the city for several decades has been on taking advantage of existing areas. As the population of the city and the region has grown rapidly, the city has had to grow in height. But not at any price. Between the tall houses there should be low houses, but also parks and walking paths. Then it is important to hold back on the surfaces used for traffic, and use them as efficiently as possible.
The investments in pedestrian, bicycle and public transport are part of the aspirations for a dense but still pleasant city. Nothing is as surface-efficient as a city where as many people as possible can move on foot. Nothing requires more space than a city dominated by car traffic.
– As in many other cities, we have been inspired by the Danish architect Jan Gehl and his ideas about the urban landscape: That it is in the spaces between the city buildings that there are meeting places, socializing, trade and exchange of ideas – all that is the point of a city, says Dale Bracewell. We talk about ”complete streets” in our planning. It is about looking after all the functions of the street space at the same time and distributing the space wisely. This also means that our Transportation 2040 plan is well integrated with the city’s plans for, for example, public health and green spaces.
The proportion of pedestrians in traffic is also higher than in most comparable cities. Cycling has benefited greatly from the investments in convenient and safe cycle paths in a network that is unique to the whole of North America. Buses, trams and regional trains usually run at a high frequency and connect the different parts of the city with each other and with surrounding towns. The driverless tram SkyTrain runs on an elevated track with a high frequency between about fifty stations.
– In Vancouver, car sharing is also common, says Dale Bracewell. There are four different car pool companies, one of which is non-profit. It does not reduce car traffic, necessarily, but it does reduce parking needs. We can also offer car pools free parking spaces. Since there are 20 users on each pool car, there are few parking spaces that are so popular with the residents.
Risk that the car pools’ parking spaces are used by other motorists? No, not with the rules for parking fines we have, in combination with the fact that there is a special number to call when you discover a wrongly parked car.
The world’s cleanest city air
In the reporting from 2015, one can also report a number of significant advances: The proportion of traffic made by foot, bicycle and public transport has increased to 50 percent (and it is high even by Swedish standards), while the distance a Vancouverbo uses vehicles has decreased by 27 percent. In five years, 50,000 new trees have been planted – and the number of times when the limit values for bad air have been exceeded has decreased by almost 90 percent. Vancouver also aims to offer the world’s cleanest metropolitan air. It is an objective that is likely to have value in the growing trade with Chinese companies, which are struggling with the difficulty of recruiting employees to the major Chinese cities.
But the city of Vancouver is one thing, the area where the city is located another. As in so many other places in North America, the city is surrounded by large, sparsely populated areas. There, the phenomenon is called ”urban sprawl”, which has no better Swedish translation than ”unrestrained urban sprawl”, even though ”villa rugs” is a more disrespectful name. There, almost nine out of ten trips can still be made by car, and cycling is down to a few percent.
– We have almost no one arguing for more thoroughfares inside the city anymore, says Dale. But without a doubt, new roads may need to be built in the area. Partly for passenger transport, partly for the ever-increasing freight traffic. Vancouver has Canada’s largest port and volumes are growing in line with increasing Asian trade.
Advice to stay, advice to travel
Traffic planning in Vancouver is based on the Transportation 2040 plan. As the title suggesAdvice to stay, advice to travelts, it looks a little over 20 years into the future. Until then, 130,000 new inhabitants and 90,000 new jobs are expected in the city, but at the same time the goal is for the total distance traveled by car to be reduced by 33 percent. Therefore, it is also expected to manage the car traffic of the future on the existing road network. The network will be used more and more efficiently at the same time as pedestrian, bicycle and public transport take up increasing parts of the travel flows.
Transportation 2040 sets out eight challenges that it is believed that a good transport policy both meets and can solve. In addition to the issue of the city growing in a limited area, one of Vancouver’s growing problems is also addressed: Rising housing prices. Vancouver is one of the cities in the world where many housing speculators bought apartments solely for the purpose of selling them later at a good profit. This means that apartments are empty despite a crying housing shortage.
I ask Dale how to look at the risk of gentrification, ie the risk that attractive residential areas, not least in the city center, will become rich people’s reserves – often middle-aged and older people with emigrated children and good finances.
– The risk is there, he answers, and therefore we work to develop public transport throughout the region to spread the opportunities to live and thereby reduce the pressure on the inner city. Our planning is based on a total of 26 ”neighborhood centers”: Small nodes with basic functions such as grocery stores, schools and libraries. They help reduce travel needs as such. We want to build the nodes together with fast regional trains with high frequency to reduce car dependence. In this way, we make both accommodation and travel cheaper. The goal is for the car to be an opportunity for those who want to, but no necessity to be able to live in the city.
Another challenge, according to Transportation 2040, is what is called a sedentary lifestyle. With 45 percent overweight in the state’s population, weight problems are starting to cost society a lot of money. Even small changes in the direction of increasing pedestrian and bicycle traffic provide dramatic benefits, both for society and for the individual.
With the ear to the rails
Well. We can find proud goals for the future traffic development in all cities in the world, not least the Swedish ones. But in Vancouver you can also show significant results in the right direction. What is the difference?
– It all starts with a good plan, says Dale. When we did Transportation 2040, we had plenty of our own experiences, but we also made extensive comparisons with other, forward-looking cities. But the speed of implementation is not determined so much by the plan as by the politics and leadership of the city. There, we have benefited from the fact that the work has taken place in relatively great agreement since the 1970s. And, as I said, from the experience of the Olympic weeks. Transport planning is an important part of Vancouver’s good reputation. To be able to move freely and safely on foot and by bike in the inner city, to take a walk along the water or in Stanley Park and to be able to enjoy being on the streets and squares – it makes an impression and attracts everything from tourists to investors.
A key factor, says Dale, is keeping track of what you do, what happens and not least how it is perceived. Thus, he confirms my observation that one seems to have data on everything from traffic flows to people’s travel habits and wishes. Transportation planning in Vancouver seems to live, figuratively, with the ear against the rails.
– Yes, we invest relatively large resources in collecting high quality data, says Dale. Nothing can be assumed or assumed. You have to know, and you have to be able to report credible numbers. We also put a lot of energy into listening carefully to all conceivable actors. We tell you carefully about what measures we want to implement, and when they will take place.
We are also careful to listen to the opinions of Vancouver residents. Of course, there are complaints about the traffic. We try to understand what the criticism is about and how it can be used for something positive. For example, we have a special group that reviews the times of the red lights. There, the feedback from the public can make the intervals change to be as efficient and safe as possible.
It is also important, says Dale, to listen to local opinions before they take over the formulation of the problem. He mentions as an example a period when people were forced to deteriorate the frequency of public transport in order to cope with austerity measures. This led to a decline in travel, at the same time as there were longer traffic jams.
– Growing traffic jams easily becomes an argument for more roads, which partly costs money and pollutes the city, and partly helps little other than in the short term. In that situation, it was easy to explain that an increasing proportion of pedestrian, bicycle and public transport were much better efforts to cut the queues.
Interview by Fredrik Holm