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  • Lance Berelowitz

Speaking about Density and Transit

Last week I was involved in a design charrette in Vancouver’s West End. One idea that came through loud and clear from all the participants (approximately 30 business owners and/or residents plus us consultants and a City of Vancouver Planner) was the desirability and need for cheap or free, frequent and reliable public transit that serves the entire West End. We came up with a transit diagram that, in retrospect, seems compelling in its obviousness, simplicity and practicality:

Why not introduce a continuous, two-way free-fare public transit loop along Davie, Denman, Robson and Granville streets?

Here is the thinking behind this idea (which by the way emerged at about the same time as Vancouver’s Non-Partisan Association was unveiling its 2011 municipal election campaign platform support for the long-trumpeted downtown streetcar, which TransLink has studiously tried to ignore, with probably sound reason):

The West End is the densest area in Vancouver (according to several sources including Census Canada, Metro Vancouver and the City of Vancouver), with more than 10,000 people per square kilometre, or 100+ people per hectare, or over 18 dwelling units per acre, depending on the source. These kinds of density thresholds are commonly held to support public transit, and help make it economically viable.

Davie, Denman and Robson streets are the West End’s three primary commercial streets, with almost continuous shops, cafes, restaurants and other service uses lining their length (there is a short commercial gap between Jervis and Cardero on Davie Street): these businesses and their customers would benefit directly from increased transit service. These mixed-use corridors are also tourist draws in their own right.

Granville Street is the city’s primary downtown transportation corridor, and links to several regional transit routes and services such as the Canada Line, the SeaBus, and other citywide bus lines. A service such as this would put all West End residents within easy reach of this system. Running a regular, frequent and continuous surface transit service along these streets would not only link people across the West End, but also connect them directly to the region’s larger transit system. This will likely have a multiplier effect, inducing more West Enders to use public transit not just to get around the West End, but beyond as well.

The proposed loop route would also link West End residents to downtown Vancouver and its key destinations such as Robson Square, Pacific Centre mall, and the Granville Street entertainment district.

Besides, if transit can’t work here, it can’t work anywhere. The West End, with its compact, dense population and regular street grid, is ideal for a small scale frequent, surface tranasit services such as is envisaged here. Maybe a fleet of small shuttle buses, or perhaps (dare we say it) a streetcar. Or perhaps a new form of electric transit.

Free fare zone? Why not? It works in other cities (think Seattle and Portland). And it can be paid for by increasing the cost of driving, a perfectly reasonable shift in costs from those who choose not to drive or can’t afford to own a car, to those who choose to drive and incur the higher environmental costs. This is not radical, in fact it’s what other progressive cities are already doing or planning to do. CF Green Metropolis.

Why free (or heavily subsidized)? Because this subsidy will repay itself in spades, in true cost accounting terms: substantially increased ridership, more business activity along the route, more tourists hopping on and off who will require more goods and services, savings to the environment, reduced congestion, and so on.

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