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Congestion Charging Based on Automobile Efficiency – A Means to Reshape the Greater Vancouver Regional District

24 Nov

This post on Pricetags reminded me of a post I penned back when I was blogging on LiveJournal through the 2000’s. In my opinion, it has become more relevant than in 2009, as none of these issues have been addressed, but will need to be tackled in the upcoming GVRD Transit Referendum.

Congestion charging, tolls, user pay, bike lanes, subways, trolleys, improving the downtown core, pedestrian malls, these are the infrastructure issues our urban region will need to address and make final decisions on in the referendum. The current model, where cars take up nearly half of our urban landscape and can drive almost anywhere, is not sustainable. The question is, “what do we as a region want, do we wish to remain conventionally North American and stay with status quo, even though much of North America is moving on, or do we want to be the leaders?”

Vancouver into and beyond the Olympics: An Initiative for a Global Hub City

Vancouver, 3 May 2006 (Original date of composition)

Congestion Charging: A Supply and Demand Instrument

A number of cities around the world have been implementing congestion charging zones in high-density areas for some time. The results of these initiatives speak for themselves; once over-crowded streets have been replaced with more liveable and workable spaces, allowing people to take back street space. Yet congestion charging has allowed for a host of other benefits, such as:

  1. Achieving Kyoto objectives;
  2. Reducing noise pollution;
  3. Improving air quality to the benefit of local human health;
  4. Increasing city revenue due to congestion charges, consequently allowing for subsidies for intensive mass public transit initiatives;
  5. Reducing city traffic;
  6. Creating opportunities for revitalizing zones once considered unworkable due to excessive automobile volume;
  7. Reducing the number of required road networks (due to less traffic), consequently creating opportunities for redevelopment of streets in the form of urban gathering points (public squares), parks, living spaces, and tax rich commercial ventures;
  8. Reducing the cost for maintaining and up-keeping overused road networks.

Congestion Charging in Vancouver

This document proposes Vancouver initiate a pilot congestion charging initiative in its CBD. This congestion charging zone would run along Main Street in the east, starting at Science World and continuing north along Main to Portside Park; in the west access would be controlled via Lion’s Gate Bridge, while to the south traffic control would be established on Cambie, Granville, and Burrard Street Bridges. [i]

As in cities that have already established congestion charging, all movement would be tracked using databases and CCTV’s at access points. Downtown Vancouver does have an advantageous topography for such an initiative, which due to limited access to its downtown area, does not need as many control points as say London, Helsinki, or Stockholm (all cities that have implemented congestion charging).

The Pillars of Congestion Charging

In establishing a congestion-charging zone, charging must be based on easily understandable criteria:

  1. The duration of the commute based on origin and destination;
  2. The fuel efficiency of the vehicle;
  3. The time of day of the commute.

In North America the first item is relatively well understood. It is for the most part already applied on many freeway tolls in the United States and parts of Canada. Many Vancouver motorists have at some point utilized a toll highway, and understand charges are based on how long they are on a road, and how far they travel on it. Applied to a congestion-charging zone, those with digital vehicle plates registered from farther away (up to a set limit) will pay more than those with plates from inside or near the congestion zone.

Charging based on automobile fuel efficiency is still a relatively novel idea in North America. The concept implies charging rates according to the fuel efficiency of a vehicle, as well as whether the vehicle is registered as part of a car pool or cooperative network programme. Based on this system, commuters driving large inefficient cars pay more, whilst those carpooling or using coop cars, driving electric cars (this is up for debate, as electric cars are not as efficient as one is led to believe), or riding public transit pay the least. An effective database can tie these variables into a calculation.

The last item, charging based on time of day, means that congestion-charging simply applies to the private automobile what mass transit companies around the world are already using to mitigate overcrowding on transit at certain times of the day. Essentially drivers using road networks during rush hour pay more than those using roads at off peak times. The idea is based on the premise that the user pays, but also works to encourage commuters to find innovative ways to avoid utilising the road network during these times, unless absolutely necessary.

These three pillars of congestion-charging, backed by digital licence plates (already in implementation), CCTV, and a flexible database, will provide for reduced urban congestion, greater security, and improved human health in Metro Vancouver.

The benefits of implementing congestion charging in Vancouver will not only make the city more liveable, thus ensuring its lead as the most desirable place to live in, according to The Economist and the UN, it will also provide much needed revenue to help finance future public transit initiatives that will in turn get more people out of their cars and encourage further private sector investment in the city.

A prospective long-term benefit, yet to be explored, is the potential to reduce the number of automobile access streets in the city – something only possible with reduced traffic due to congestion charging coupled with viable public transit alternatives. With a reduction in the number of streets the city could redevelop urban thoroughfares into mixed commercial and green spaces, thus providing additional revenue for the city through new property taxes and new land to sell for development.

Out of Congestion, Landmarks and Legacies

Vancouver has, since Expo in 1986, experienced a spectacular real estate boom bringing thousands of people into live-work environments in the city core. This has helped revitalize the city core; however, the city centre, when compared to other major centres, lacks diversity in the form and function of its work and living spaces.

With the upcoming Olympics, and the economic conjunction of booming real estate, low interest rates, high energy prices, and a high dollar (affording discounts on quality imports), the city has the opportunity to encourage the development of world class statement buildings that will stamp its image as the cultural and economic intersection of European, American, and Asian cultures.

Using congestion charging to increase city revenues, improve urban liveability, and ultimate reduce the amount of space dedicated to automobiles will not only provide immediate revenue to the city, but it will also provide new space to initiate legacy and landmark developments. These developments, once completed, will further add to city revenues in the form of property taxes, tourism revenues, and unforeseen spin-offs.

The types of development the city could consider to replace urban thoroughfares:

  • The development of an integrated entertainment and theatre district to consolidate Vancouver theatre in a central area, as is the case in cities such as Buenos Aires, London, New York, and Montreal;
  • The development of a museum and design corridor dedicated to experimental design in architecture, as was successfully achieved in Bilbao, Spain;
  • The development of a north-south pedestrian, trolley, and non-motorized corridor incorporating commercial space and city piazzas;
  • The development of a statement boulevard space incorporating natural space with new urban developments;
  • The construction of urban spaces dedicated to knowledge industries in design, media, IT, and biotechnology.

Regardless of what themes are assembled, all efforts must ensure that this long term initiative give priority to experimental design that breaks away from the form of architecture that has dominated Vancouver’s skyline since the end of Expo in 1986.


Apart from increasing city revenues as well as reducing automobile traffic, congestion charging also provides the financial and logistical means for reshaping any urban space, thus affording cities the manoeuvrability to turn once unusable spaces into opportunities for the development of landmark legacy developments.

Vancouver, due to the factors outlined in this document, has the unique opportunity to be the first city in North America to use congestion charging to achieve greater liveability and sustainability, whilst also establishing itself as the epicentre for urban legacies.



Room for Improvement – Better Pedestrian Public Space in Vancouver

13 Oct

Trees, wide side walks, a varied composition of shopfronts and residential spaces, low levels of traffic noise, good lighting, pedestrian walkways, shelter from rain in the form of tree cover, canopies, and awnings; walking distance to amenities. These are the elements that create an appealing walker’s public space.

2014-10-02 15.30.51

Piazza in Konstanz, Germany

Most of Vancouver’s inner city neighbourhoods such as Kitsilano have high walkablility scores because their streets contain many of these elements, however, apart from the Westend, Vancouver’s downtown streets are a striking contrast. In the majority of cases, they are automobile thoroughfares offering limited shelter from rain or noise for pedestrians.


Typical downtown Vancouver streetscape

After spending a month travelling in central and southern Europe, I was once again reminded how walkable European cities are. They are of course this way because they were developed prior to the automobile and stitched together during the golden age of rail travel.

Europeans are accustomed to efficient train travel, connecting seamlessly from foot traffic to a metro to an intercity express. I did this several times on my travels, catching a train from Barcelona to Lyon, another from Lyon to Milan, and from there to Lake Como and the gateway to the Helvetic Confederation. Travel was easy, inexpensive, and at each destination I was greeted by yet another inviting walkable inner city playground, a sort of pedestrian and cyclist’s Disneyland, populated with water fountains, trees, and restaurant patios of all shapes and sizes.


Lyon Bike Share

Europe is not the only part of the world with this sort of infrastructure, even the centres of cities such as Melbourne, Cape Town, Tel Aviv, and Buenos Aires, where rail is almost non-existent, are a cyclist and walker’s paradise, urban oases providing respite from the noise of cars, motorbikes, and abrasive sirens.


Cape Town Gardens


Greenmarket Square, Cape Town


Confederation Square, Melbourne

And what about downtown Vancouver? Where are our piazzas, our alcohol friendly sidewalk patios, our pedestrian malls, and our central squares? Why do we fight and squabble for 20 years over a bike lane, when in most other cities this sort of infrastructure is considered normal, an essential part of urban infrastructure in much the same way as the construction of sewers, roads, and powerlines?

Tango, Palermo Soho

Buenos Aires

There is no clear answer to this question. This is the very reason why some societies are highly successful and others fail miserably, and why even with free access to near unlimited information, this divide persists. Why is Detroit not like San Francisco, or why does Norway have a sovereign wealth fund and Greece an economic crisis, or why is Ukraine a failed state, while Poland is an economic miracle?

I remain optimistic that Vancouver is connected enough to the rest of the world that eventually we will see the need for more walkable public space in our downtown core. We may live in the “Best Place on Earth”, but there is always room for improvement.