Jonathan Cote at the NWEP Transportation Forum

Comments on the NWEP’s forum on the future of Sustainable Transportation, held at Douglas College on November 9th, 2010. – the much-belated Part 4. There has been so much going on in Transportation locally, and the UBE issue pushed itself to the front page so effectively, that I almost forgot to finish up the series on the NWEP forum held in November. That would be a shame, because the final speaker was New Westminster City Councillor Jonathan Cote, and we were lucky to have a sitting council member share some ideas about how he sees the future of transportation in New Westminster, and throughout the region.

First off, it was refreshing to have a politician sit in front of a crowd and put ideas out there, especially ideas about sustainable transportation and the things that Cities (including ours) do wrong. But Cote always struck me as one of those rare types in politics who actually thinks about these issues, who cares about communities (especially his own), and who knows who Jane Jacobs was, and what she meant. He is also young enough that he still has a thirst for learning. He was generous with his time, and with his ideas. I tried to catch the essence of what he said below, but I am working from two-month-old notes now, so any gross errors or inexactitudes below are more likely mine than his!

His talk began by putting “sustainable transportation” into context. There are lots of feel-good reasons to build sustainable transportation infrastructure and to increase sustainable mode share (safer more livable cities, lower development costs, healthier populations), but the harsh realities of Anthropogenic Climate Change and Peak Oil mean the heady decades of our parents may soon be over, and we may be forced by economics to make better choices.

Cote then discussed the “Chicken and Egg conundrum” around urban planning and transportation planning, although I think the analogy fails on two fronts: clearly the egg came first (after all, the genetic changes that result in diversity happen during the reproduction phase and very early development, not by gradual change within an individual of a species, but hey, this is about transportation, not evolutionary biology); and second, it isn’t really a conundrum as the there is a simple answer: both must happen in concert. We built automobile-serviced suburbs because people had automobiles, people had automobiles because they lived in (or wanted to live in) those suburbs. The two are so entwined that the entire model must be redrawn together. His points about street design and density (then, now and future) were well made however, and were (in my opinion) similar to the Patrick Condon mode of thinking. Read his stuff, there is much there to think about, and even things to disagree with.

There were two solid “factoids” I took out of Cote’s talk, and they stuck with me so well I have repeated them and used them in discussions about sustainable cities in various contexts.

The first is the “5 – 7 – 10” rule, and once I looked this up, I realized it was a Patrick Condon concept.

5 minutes is approximately how far the average person will walk to get to a place, or a transit stop. Any more than 5 minutes, and walking is no longer the likely choice the person will make. The Dutch Rail bicycle program takes advantage of this by setting loose thousands of bicycles into the unsuspecting public. If people will ride a bike 5 minutes to get to the train station, that triples the distance people can travel in 5 minutes, increasing passenger share, and ultimately paying off for Dutch Rail. This basically speaks the transit density we must build to make transit the truly viable option: everyone must be 5 minutes from a stop.

7 minutes is the maximum time between buses or trains that makes the system reliable and efficient without the need for schedules. If the maximum wait is 7 minutes, people will tend to just go to the stop and catch the next bus. If it is 10 minutes, and you need to make a connection to a bus with 15-minute frequency, all of the sudden you need to consult a schedule and plan your trip. I thought about this recently trying to take the Canada Line from Brighouse Station to the Airport at 7:00 on a Friday, when the train frequency was 12 minutes to each of the “Richmond spurs”. Which meant a 10-minute wait at Brighouse, a 5 minute ride to Bridgeport, a 12-minute wait at Bridgeport then a 8 minute ride to the airport: It took me more than a half hour to get from Richmond to the Airport… frustrating.

Finally, 10 units per acre is the density required to support transit service at the frequency required to be efficient: density is the key. But in reality, 10 units an acre is not that dense. An acre is 43,560 square feet, so 10 city lots at 50 feet by 90 feet will suffice. It isn’t Queens Park Mansions for all, but a 1500 square-foot footprint will fit nicely on a lot that size, and with good design, a comfortable 2500-square foot home can be built. At the other end of the scale, a single 20-story high-rise can be built on less than an acre and have 120 units in it. The density can be built, and for New Westminster it is already here.

The second point that stuck in my craw was an old CATO Institute economic study Cote showed that purported it would be cheaper for the governments of the United States to buy a new car for every citizen that it was costing to provide public transportation. Wethinks the old-school Reaganites at the Cato meant this to demonstrate the public transit is a waste of money and people should just find their own damn way to work. Cote turned it around and described it is a condemnation of the state of Urban Planning in the United States. If the most efficient way of moving people around is the least efficient form of transportation ever invented, then clearly something is wrong with your cities.

So what is wrong with our Cities? Where is my 7-minute service? The answer came back to the “Funding Gap”. How do we raise money for public transportation? We have federal and provincial governments claiming poverty (while subsidising the auto industry, and building 10-lane freeways, respectively). We have municipal governments absorbing more and more infrastructure and other costs that used to belong to higher levels, while extremely limited by the Local Government Act in how they can raise funds. The only source Munis have is property taxes, and there are numerous reasons why that is not the appropriate way to fund regional transit systems. Road taxes, gas taxes, vehicle levies, and these types of creative funding measures would require the Provincial government to institute them, and that isn’t something any government thinking about re-election is willing to do.

Translink has a dream of an integrated, effective, region-wide transit system. Many critics of it say it isn’t enough, that the infrastructure planned for 2040 will be inadequate for 2025. The harsh reality is that even that “too little too late” plan will never see the light of day unless the Province frees up the Municipalities and Metro Vancouver to find the creative measures it needs to properly fund the system the region needs.

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