Public Transportation and Urban Density

florence vs atlanta density

Florence, Italy and an Atlanta freeway interchange http://www.originalgreen.org/blog/costs-of-sprawl—the-speed.html

This graphic appeared on Twitter a few days ago that marvelously illustrates the living space we lose being overly accommodating our cities to the car.  The Original Green blog compared Florence, Italy’s historic tourist area to a freeway interchange in Atlanta with a relatively negligible population.

While much of that contrast may be attributable to Florence’s historic nature, the influence of transportation planning on modern city design is very evident.  Florence as a whole has a population of 380,000 inside a 102 square kilometre space while the city of Vancouver, slightly larger area at 115 square kilometres but with a population of 604,000, has a higher population density at 5,249 people per square kilometre than Florence’s 3,725.

Vancouver Google Earth 2015-02-11

City of Vancouver (image from Google Earth)

Vancouver’s density is the fourth highest in North America behind New York, San Francisco, and Mexico City and through it, the city enjoys a vibrancy and diversity of life that was made possible by placing a priority towards accommodating the freedom of movement of people over that of the automobile.  Many decisions over the past several decades made significant contributions toward Vancouver’s status as a leading example of effective urban design.

Most notable was in the early 1970s with the scrapping of the plan to build a downtown freeway like so many other North American cities who had subsequently found that such thoroughfares drained life from their urban cores and encouraged sprawl.  Construction of the rapid transit Skytrain system in the 1980s and Canada Line connection to the airport in advance of the 2010 Winter Olympics followed.  Complimenting these developments have been moves designed to reduce downtown automobile use such as a 35,000 public parking space cap imposed in 1997, a 35% increase in 2011 parking fees, and a broad expansion of the city’s bicycle lane network.

Skytrain’s influence can also be seen the neighbouring cities it connects.  Burnaby, which has several large parks and the sizeable Simon Fraser University campus, still has a respectable 2,464 residents per square kilometre.  New Westminster is smaller and more compact with a more impressive population density of 4,222.

But the Metro Vancouver area is still vulnerable to urban sprawl.  The population density for the region outside of Vancouver, Burnaby, and New Westminster is only 591.  Many undoubtedly prefer a quieter and more spacious lifestyle outside of the urban core, but that does not mean the design of such suburban cities cannot look toward more effectively utilizing their existing areas rather than expanding towards new spaces.

This is one reason why a focus on improving public transportation is needed.  As Vancouver the city demonstrates, an effective transportation system reduces the need for space dedicated to accommodate vehicles which can be instead be used for parks, living spaces, businesses, and cultural venues, amongst other things.  Was not able to locate the percentage of Vancouver’s area that are for streets and parking, but as an example, one website estimated that 65% of Houston land area is set aside for those purposes.

Yet it is pretty clear that many will still choose in Metro Vancouver’s upcoming referendum to not further invest in the public transportation system despite its impact on the region and ability to address many other concerns like air quality and movement of goods.  The proposed 0.5% sales tax increase needed to assist the long term plan’s finances as well as criticism of Translink, the regional public transportation authority, are a couple of the more prominent reasons for the opposition, but it is likely that part of the problem is that public transportation, like urban density, has trade-offs that, despite being a clear net benefit, are accompanied by issues that are harder for many residents to relate to, sympathize, and/or care to consider.  Avoiding the high costs, crowding, and congestion of Vancouver are among the reasons why many choose to live away from the urban core just as much as the convenience and privacy of the car is preferred to taking a bus or train.

However, this individual perspective is a narrow one, yet is the lens by which many will decide how they will vote on their ballot.  This may be the right of voters to make their decisions this way, but issues like public transportation deserve to be made from a broader public interest perspective.  How and why that is will be addressed in the next few posts.

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Posted in Climate, Environment, Metro Vancouver, Politics, Public Policy, Public Transit, Transportation

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