Tag Archives: density

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.

Conclusion

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.

[i] http://maps.google.ca/?hl=fr&q=vancouver&f=q&ll=49.285332,-123.109961&spn=0.027881,0.107803&om=1

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Protectionism

5 Nov

Zoning is a protectionist measure, which much like trade tariffs, constrain supply and restrict the ability of the market to respond to real demand. In the case of restrictive zoning, the housing market experiences a rise in the price of houses due to limited supply, a situation that leads to a market becoming detached from the real economy, to the detriment of the city and the region as a whole.

In a normal balanced market, the supply of housing stock either rises with the corresponding demand so as to keep prices stable, or rises only slightly more than inflation. In the condo market in Vancouver, comprehensive zoning allows developers to build sufficient product to meet consumer demand so prices neither rise nor fall dramatically. This is a healthy situation, as it allows future and current homeowners to better plan their housing needs, while at the same time permitting developers to better project budgets and sales revenues. Another benefit of this zoning environment is the neighbourhood can grow and evolve, meeting the needs and representing the ethnic diversity of a dynamic city.

Sadly in the case of a market distorted by a protectionist measure such as zoning, the prices of the available product rise quickly and unpredictably, faster than real wage increases. This reduces the number of potential buyers, as they fail to save fast enough to access the single family home market. Families, professionals with large amounts of student debt, seniors with rising property tax bills are among those forced to move elsewhere for their housing needs. Over time the profile of residents in a neighbourhood begins to narrow and become ethnically uniform, where more established ethnic groups who arrived in Vancouver early and benefited from the modern real estate booms, start to dominate the single family zones of the city. This explains why the City of Vancouver is a mostly Caucasian and Chinese city, while Surrey, much newer, is more ethnically diverse and representative of the population dynamics of Greater Vancouver.

I do not advocate turning Vancouver into a giant comprehensive development zone similar to the downtown, since this would lead to utter chaos in the market and destroy the livability of the city. What I propose is that each area in the city be up zoned, meaning single family zones become duplexes, duplex zones become more comprehensive low rise, and so on. This will permit more people to live in and enjoy the City of Vancouver’s amenities and give home buyers more choices than either moving to the suburbs or living in a condo in the downtown. It must be noted that the stock of single family homes will not dry up under such a measure, rather the market will adjust their price and quantity to match the buying power of potential home owners – those who want a single family home will demolish a duplex or retain a single family home. Up zoning will also preserve the aesthetics of the city without overly crowding neighbourhoods – one can just look at the success of the duplex zones in Kitsilano, which have preserved character and tree cover while providing a lot more housing than Dunbar or Point Grey.

The time to act is now. Restrictive zoning is strangling Vancouver, it creating a socioeconomic divide that is not healthy for our economy, our city and the region as a whole.

Building a Home in Vancouver

18 Oct

The bulk of my focus on this blog is on the urban issues here in Vancouver, specifically snapshots of bike lines, cycling, zoning, property development; however, more general themes related to urbanization as a global phenomenon, the urbanization of the Internet (clustering of activity around super sites such as facebook or google), and other not so Vancouver themes will occasionally pop up.

One of the reasons I returned to blogging was an interest in the micro process of property development. What happens on the ground? How hard is to build or renovate a house in Vancouver? What is like working with City Hall? The best way to do this is to actually blog about a project from its inception to its conclusion, which is what I intend to do.

The current project I am working on was originally intended to be a demolition and new multi-unit development; however, that objective has evolved quite radically into a restoration project. The motives behind this are that the city has imposed very strict rules on what homes can be demolished. While the property in question has limited redeeming features (what I thought when I wrote the offer), the residents in the neighbourhood have pushed City Hall to favour restoration over density. The initial work with the architect and consultations with the city planning department have confirmed this, which means the end product will be mostly a completely refurbished old house containing two, rather than one single home. In all honesty I tend to prefer the restoration option, primarily because less waste goes to the landfill, but also our company is a master in the area of home renovations and restoration.

At this point it is still uncertain as to whether I will hire a full service builder or end up building the house myself and hire services to fill in what is outside of my area of specialization. Increasingly the cost game is forcing my hand in one direction; however time will tell. One of the areas I have no expertise in is raising a home of its foundations. This procedure is increasingly common in Vancouver, as the City of Vancouver balances a push towards medium density outside of the downtown, with the demands of local residents to retain the existing neighbourhood feel.

Regardless of the option I choose, the aspect of jacking the house up, laying the new foundation, drainage, services, and framing infill will outsourced. One thing I have learnt in business is to focus on what you know, do it well, and outsource what you don’t know to strategic partners. The world’s most successful companies do this – Apple, Adidas, Bombardier. The less successful companies try to do it all – think HP, Target Canada, RIM (now called Blackberry).

Vancouver Developing a Duplex in an RT7 Zone

19 Sep

As I’ve alluded to on multiple occasions, Vancouver suffers from a housing crisis of sorts, not uncommon to many desirable cities around the world. I am not as instructed on the complexities of cities such as Paris, Rome, or Barcelona, which are part of Europe’s “museum” cities – city centres devoid of permanent residents and almost entirely inhabited by tourists, or San Francisco, New York, or Hong Kong – city centres occupied by the creative and entrepreneurial classes, where everyone else lives on the periphery, or for that matter London (arguably the most exclusive of them all). Vancouver’s housing crisis is different to these cities because it is neither a museum city, nor is it a global alpha city with a large creative and entrepreneurial class.

In Vancouver the problem is the juxtaposition of zoning and the BANANA (1), as is evident in my employer’s most recent property development project. In the past our company has always built and renovated in North and West Vancouver, nearby upper middle class suburbs with a mixture of density and suburban development, with pockets of early 20th century Queen Anne and Edwardian period homes. Zoning in these suburbs, as well as community amiability to development has enabled the North Shore to develop some very successful mixed neighbourhoods. Despite this, I decided to make a strategic shift towards the City of Vancouver because of a better values fit – cycling, bike lanes, public transit, pre-automobile city grids – all sadly lacking in the suburbs of North and West Vancouver.

I digress, back to zoning and the BANANA. The City of Vancouver’s zoning is approximately 80% single family or commercial and condominium development, with the remainder open to duplex and other smaller medium density projects. For those not familiar with the City of Vancouver, I like to call these zones places where one can build the kinds of medium density flats and town houses typically seen in the inner cities of Chicago, Boston, London, Montreal, and Toronto – not more than 5 stories high, and everyone has street access without an elevator.

Since these zones cover such a tiny area of the city, the prices are exorbitantly high, which means developers have to charge top dollar on completed product in order to cover costs and turn a profit for the next project. In my blog I have repeatedly called from the end to single family zoning, so I’ll avoid dwelling on it here. More importantly, this is where the BANANA part of the problem comes into the equation. Residents in these zones often fight back on proposed new density, as they do not want to see their neighbourhoods undergo any significant change. They argue schools will become too crowded, street parking more scarce, libraries overused, and privacy diminished. Yet what the BANANAs fail to understand, is that the very density they fight is the density that allowed them to get into the neighbourhood in the first place. Put simply, if houses could not be converted into duplexes, triplexes, and small apartments, no one other than high income earners and those with rich parents would be able to live in these zones. One only need look at the pricing in the single family zones to see the evidence. Density brings the price per square foot down, which allows more people access to housing.

So the developer has to bend to the demands of BANANAs, who through lobbying impose all sorts of restrictions on the sorts of development that can be done in these limited medium density zones. These restrictions are reflected in the City of Vancouver’s building legislation, where blanket restrictions on demolitions force builders to restore homes of questionable heritage value, often sacrificing both housing density and neighbourhood restoration.

I am currently going through this very situation at the moment. The architect we’ve engaged has been told by city hall that the house we are planning to convert is stamped as heritage, so to demolish it would mean we would sacrifice 850 square feet of living space. Agreed, the house was built in the 1920’s; however, it has suffered from so many “renovations” inflicted on it prior to the zoning restrictions, that today it nothing more than a neglected cement block with aluminium widows, a car port addition, and a concrete front stairway.

Yet the legislation is clear, the city, directed by voters and lobbying, placed blanket measures to encourage housing retention and discourage the development of the horrid MacMansions that were built during the 1980’s and 1990’s, when waves of Chinese immigrants fled Hong Kong and Macau to park their money offshore in giant pink stucco homes devoid of any garden space. The pushback from local residents was reasonable at the time; however, the city now faces a housing challenge that can only be resolved by relaxing zoning and standing up to the BANANA.

A more practical solution to fit today’s needs would be to offer the developer the option to demolish the unit and retain the allowable building space, if they integrated a minimum amount of salvaged heritage material. This salvaged material can come from other homes or from secondary resale markets. Square feet could be rewarded to the developer for installing restored timber beams, salvaged lighting, hardwood flooring, gables, stained windows, etc. Naturally even more square feet would be given to developers who retain the house; however, at least this more versatile option would ensure heritage is retained in the neighbourhood, but not by just “saving” a building that has lost all the “heritage” value it had, apart from the year it was originally built in.

For us the next step is negotiations with city. There is a four month backlog at City Hall, so this project has a long way to go before breaking ground.

 (1) BANANA – An acronym for Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything, also known as the NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NIMBY

Zoning: it’s killing Vancouver

5 Aug

Vancouver has a complex set of zoning measures, a legacy of zoning rules that shaped the cities of North America during the time of the industrial revolution, a period of rapid growth and social instability.

Zoning was originally implemented to keep crowds, noise, and industry separate from single family homes; to ensure the continuity of urban spaces by obliging developers to follow the guidelines of an established community plan. These plans were a crucial step forward during the industrial 19th and 20th centuries, a period of rapid growth, disease, and conflict (1).

Nowadays we live in a world of declining employment and stagnant wages, land is expensive, automobiles are pricey, and public transit is costly. The risk of pandemics and global conflict is reduced – no one of sound mind wants to send the civilized world back to 1917. So why then is the largest chunk of land in Vancouver reserved for the automobile and large single family homes? Between parking lots, boulevards, streets, and avenues, it is estimated that some 40% percent of the city if dedicated to cars, and this does not include the actually roadway, just the curbside parking (2). Even more astounding is this number also does not include the single family homes themselves!

A study of the zoning map of the City of Vancouver is a visual statement of the presence of the automobile and the single family home (3). Apart from the CBD there is no other high density housing in the city. Medium density and mixed use is limited to a few yellow blobs on the map. So why is it that the city of Vancouver has so much of its urban space zoned for single family homes?

Vancouver Zoning Map

The answer to this is pushback. Many of those who are already fortunate enough to live and own in Vancouver constantly push against any effort to modify zoning across the city – think NIMBY or BANANA. The attitude of homeowners is to “keep it the same”, totally nonsensical given the demographic wave the city is experiencing. It is ludicrous that 30 and 40 year old professionals cannot afford to buy anything anywhere near where they work or where their baby boomer parents live. It is absurd that the average Vancouverite is forced to drive to a supermarket for their groceries, rather than be able to walk to a corner store. It is just as ridiculous that because of existing zoning the only place one can drink a coffee, eat a croissant, or sip a glass of wine is on a noisy thoroughfare, and not at a quite street side café near one’s home. Yet as long as pushback continues, it will be business as usual.

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoning_in_the_United_States

(2) http://daily.sightline.org/2013/08/08/park-place/

(3) http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/Zoning-Map-Vancouver.pdf