April 22, 2022

Canadian Sprawl and Electrified Transit For All? Pt 2

By Dr. David Sadoway
Viewpoint Vancouver Writer in Residence

(continued from Canadian Sprawl and Electrified Transit For All? Pt 1)

In my classes I  like to cross-reference Professor David Gordon and his Queen’s University colleagues’ 2018 report that underscored suburban growth patterns are deeply entrenched in Canada’s city-regions.

It is why I tell my City of Vancouver friends to keep paying attention to the 20 ‘other’ municipalities in Metro Vancouver. It is why the Surrey School District is the fastest growing in B.C. and the Vancouver School Board is the slowest.

David Gordon and his colleagues remind that the bulk of new growth in our largest cities remains in overwhelmingly auto-dependent suburbs.

These are the working class and new immigrant Canadian suburbs — from Peel Region to Surrey or Longueil to Langley — where there has been pitiful underinvestment in transit; and instead, ever more locking into low density road-oriented greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive development trajectories. It does not help that on average Canadian vehicles remain amongst the least efficient and most gas guzzling (and largest) in the OECD.

Returning to Canada after living in East and South-East Asia for around 15 years, I could not help in comparing the much stronger government commitments to mass public transit in Asia.  Take a look at  the tortoise pace of growth in rapid transit network development in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal.

Why were our politicos seemingly so uncaring about investing in transit, especially in growing working-class suburban areas?

When I returned to Canada, longstanding debates about how to expand transit In Toronto and Vancouver still seem unresolved and complex multi-level funding arrangements involving the Feds, Provinces and local government still take forever to align solid commitments to.

New local political alliances and affiliations seemingly cancel overnight previously committed transit projects that would have made a difference. We saw this in Toronto with the subway vs. LRT debates involving the Ford Brothers and in Surrey with the Skytrain vs. LRT debate. In the meantime, little was built on the transit front, especially where it was needed most, in the sprawling suburbs.

Instead of expanding transit networks or building extensive cost-effective bus rapid transit (BRT) or light rail transit (LRT) systems, our politicians it seems are  more concerned with debating over expensive showcase projects or worried about their impacts on existing car-dependent voters.

Meanwhile, Asian cities like Taipei and Singapore leapfrogged Translink and the TTC, systems that it seems have relied on their previous reputation of once  being stellar transit networks. Those Asian urban transit systems retain solid infrastructure spending commitments from higher levels of government.

The Asian transit systems are also incredibly efficient and provide  universal access for elders and disenabled folks, not to mention having features like safety gates on platforms and clean public washrooms in nearly every station (such as on Taipei’s MRT).

Urban residents can live in most neighbourhoods and never need to own or even ride share a car because they are able to live, work, and play solely with high-speed transit.

Meanwhile Canadian cities have both fallen behind and now become distracted by debates about multi-billion-dollar vehicle-oriented infrastructures, bridges, tunnels, and highways, instead of building a more low-carbon transit network.

One way to escape this underfunding trap would be to garner secure, recurring (and far greater) multi-level public investments in green transit and particularly low or zero GHG electrified transit.

The overall transport sector typically accounts for a quarter to a third of GHGs in most Canadian cities — so expanding and  using electrified transit would provide co-benefits like reduced air pollution and sprawl.

However, if we simply substitute electric vehicles for internal combustion engine (i.e., gas/diesel) fuels we are not addressing the land gobbling impact of private automobility and the sprawl subsidies that Thompson identified in his research.

Just as all levels of governments seem to  be pushing for private cars electrification as a kind of silver bullet to fight the climate emergency, we need to also recognize that public investments would be more equitably spent on supporting urban mass transit systems and their electrification first and foremost.

Not only should this include stand-alone electrified buses, but also the expansion of the grid-like overhead electrified trolley system which long existed in the City of Vancouver and could continue in much of Metro Vancouver (for regular buses, fast BRTs and even LRTs).

Yes, a plan for electrified mobility is long overdue in Canada, however, subsidizing expensive private electric vehicles before electrifying and expanding mass public transit does not make sense.

Expanding electrified transit and massively expanding the network of bus rapid transit across our city-regions would be far more economically feasible for long-term strategic planning.

Instead of government monies subsidizing electrified vehicles for middle- and upper-class drivers, we must  first prioritize expanding and electrifying mass public transit systems for all.

In the process perhaps we can learn from some of the strong commitments that Asian cities have made with their public transit systems in recent years.


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  1. Plenty to agree with here, as far as where I think we should be headed goes. Electric or gas, we need fewer cars (especially in cities like Vancouver proper, which chose long ago not to build road infrastructure for the future), for environmental as well as aesthetic and practical livability goes.

    My only issue is with the overemphasis on blaming “governments,” as if they are somehow totally distinct from citizens. The latter, of course, chooses the former, and all the evidence suggests that the citizens want cars. Hence, they choose car-focused governments. The car focus need not be blamed only on conservative governments either: NDP governments here an elsewhere helped make cars an aspiration of the working man by socialising auto insurance. A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. They’re still using the car in populist appeals, if Horgan’s abandonment of bridge tolls is an indication. And let’s not forget Carole James campaigning against Gordon Campbell’s carbon tax.

    Many of the Asian countries referenced in comparison don’t have the longer history of democratic participation (or expectation), or the distributed wealth that North Americans have had. Many also have different cultural histories, and live in far denser cities.

    Railing against governments who aren’t building enough transit makes for good blog posts that preach to the converted, but it might not be doing much to convince passively or actively transit-unfriendly voters to imagine what cities might be like if they weren’t choked with cars, parked and moving, or if they could relax on a train sipping coffee and reading the news instead of getting angry at the bumper in front of them.

    Let’s hear some ideas about how we’re going to convince electors that funding transit is in their and their families’ interests. As a transit supporter, environmentalist, and cyclist, I’m as tired of the “war on the car” rhetoric as anyone, but the fact is making our case for transit funding rooted in the “too many cars” mantra only hardens people in favour of the car model and against imaging alternatives. Let’s spend more energy on promoting things, less on demoting.

  2. I have worked in many of the Asian conurbations (Beijing, Guangzhou, Taipei, Hong Kong, Osaka and Kuala Lumpur.) Suburban density is massive by our standards. Here suburban density will barely support a bus route and urban rail is a pipe dream.

  3. Auto-mobility employs a far greater percentage of the population compared to automated mass transit which employees very few people locally. The size of the auto economy explains in part the slow development of rapid rail / Skytrain in metro Vancouver. The auto industry is a major employer.

    We like our cars; we just don’t want them to pollute the environment. In regard to gridlock, each of us has a tolerance threshold, it all depends on what we are trying to do, delay can be useful, or even motivational as in balancing time, income, expenses for food, housing location, transportation choice, parking, environmental impact. We make adjustments in spite of the way the city and the region has been planned. We make it work for us.

    Could moving around the region be improved in some way? Well there is that old sci-fi utopian city dream of effortless motion along sky train guideways stacked up in the sky twisting and turning through the dense high rise canyons. There is no nature in that dream which is a bit of a problem. In fact, the condition of nature as it turns out is the problem. It’s never too late to learn something new, however. What we have learned most recently is that we do not have the ability to construct anything carbon free and that’s what we need to do. Start there with the dreams, the idea seems to hold promise. We might even solve some of these gridlock issues by changes in land use, with mixed land use and densification for example.

    1. There is a pretty big gap in density between 1/4 acre lots, and Metrotown. Moderate density, designed for walking should be used in the Vancouver suburbs. Townhomes and low rises have the potential for high enough density to support walkable neighbourhoods and BRT.

      Right now a lot of townhomes are in the suburbs, but the neighborhoods are not designed for walking. It’s still drive everywhere, even though some developments are higher density.

      It’s definitely possible to make our suburbs less car dependant without becoming tower cities. Right now every person needs a car in our suburbs, but it could easily be reduced to every household with some better design.

      1. We are in need of development policies aligned with environmental protection on a global scale.

        For example:

        We should stop with the destruction of existing buildings, public works, and infrastructure. We should treasure these investments and actively preserve, maintain, add to them, or divide them and multiply their utility. This is a zero carbon strategy.

        We should take actions to increase housing supply utilizing factory production with zero carbon emissions.

        We should insert live / work capacity into existing neighbourhoods.

        We should consider new rural village development for all those wishing refuge from the fast paced demanding life of the inner city. Just as we advocate for transportation choices, we should like wise advocate for city, suburbia, small town, village, resort choices for live, work, play, where folks can thrive on a very small carbon footprint.

        I imagine there are many paths to reconciliation with nature and a wealth of knowledge to be gained through the adventure.

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