Posts Tagged 'metro vancouver'

And now, a word in favour of high-rise living.

Last week I wrote sympathetically about suburbanites attached to their low-density lifestyle who were being forced out of Vancouver by soaring housing costs. And a few months back I told the story of my friend who had to move when her low-rise apartment building was torn down to make room for a high-rise.

There was a long article on high-rise living in this weekend’s Vancouver Sun. Reporter Douglas Todd asked folks living in the shiny new-built towers of Vancouver and Burnaby whether they’re happy in their pricey homes in the sky.

Most are. A few mention that they’ve had trouble getting to know their neighbours. (Todd points out that in some buildings as many as 20% of the suites are empty, being owned by out-of-town investors.) One guy complains that his lobby is overrun with strangers staying in suites the owners have turned into Airbnb rentals.

Unsurprisingly, the people Todd interviews at ground level are less keen on living in the shadow of the towers. One fellow observes:

“I never see people walking here, or kids playing. All I ever see is cars coming out of the underground parking lots, which is kind of weird.”

That is weird. Todd identifies the intersection in Burnaby where this conversation took place. There’s a park and rec centre across the street; the SkyTrain is a few blocks away; grocery stores, a movie theatre, countless restaurants, and the province’s largest shopping mall are all in strolling distance. If these residents of one of the region’s most walkable neighbourhoods still feel the need to drive everywhere, maybe they chose the wrong neighbourhood to live in.

I speak as a resident of an ageing 14-story tower in a busy suburban neighbourhood. To my mind, the only real downside is the non-stop traffic noise. On the upside, I’m fewer than 500 steps from a grocery store that I pop into nearly every day; across the street from a beautiful park; a two-minute walk from four major bus routes. Coffeeshops, library, a good used bookstore – all are within a few blocks.

Before moving to Vancouver I lived in a rented house in Saskatoon. There was a convenience store a few blocks away. For every other amenity, I had to hop in my car. It was a pain in the neck, and I left the house far less frequently than I do now.

True, I got to know one of my neighbours. I didn’t like him much.

Todd mentions a meta-study by UVic psychologist Robert Gifford that claims to find higher rates of depression and mental illness among high-rise dwellers. Gifford admits that

many older studies were skewed because they focused on low-income high-rises in the US and Britain.

In other words, the populations being studied, poor and no doubt rife with petty crime and family dysfunction, may have been susceptible to depression and mental illness to begin with.

It makes me wonder whether more recent studies that claim to perceive malaise among high-rise dwellers are sufficiently adjusting for personality differences that cause people like me to choose such a life in the first place. Take this survey mentioned by local author and urban theorist Charles Montgomery:

[H]e talked about a Vancouver Foundation survey finding that residents of towers were “half as likely to have done a favour for a neighbour” and more likely to report having trouble making friends. “People living in towers consistently reported feeling more lonely and less connected than people living in detached homes.”

Okay, but without conducting a survey I can predict that high-rise dwellers are likelier than detached-home dwellers to be elderly, to live alone, to be recent immigrants – in other words, to face obstacles to human connection quite apart from their living situation.

Does the high-rise lifestyle actually contribute to this loss of connection? Or might it in some ways compensate for it?

Look at me. I’ve always been prone to depression. I grew up in a series of suburban houses where my depressing chores included mowing the lawn in summer, raking leaves in fall, and shovelling the driveway in winter. Being a grumbly cuss, I kept my eyes down while performing these chores, and never got friendly with the neighbours. I’m still a grumbly cuss, and guess what? – I’m single and childless. Which gives me the freedom to live in a high-rise where I can avoid both unpleasant yard maintenance and annoying small-talk with my neighbours.

Am I less happy than my married friends, with their kids and suburban houses? No doubt. But giving me chatty neighbours and a lawn to maintain won’t close the gap. As I see it, apartment living reduces my stress level and keeps me from becoming still more miserable.

My lifestyle isn’t for everyone. I wouldn’t deny any kid the opportunity to grow up in a house with a yard – though being across the street from a good neighbourhood park, with basketball courts, splash pool, and trees to climb, strikes me as a decent tradeoff. The thing is, stacking old folks, childless couples, and singletons like me in high-rises leaves more room for those detached single-family houses with fenced yards for kids to play in. It leaves more room for parks like the one I can see from my balcony, with its chattering squirrels and hundred-year-old chestnut trees. It leaves more room for outposts of untamed nature like Stanley Park, or Burnaby’s Central Park, big enough to conceal raccoons and porcupines and coyotes and even the occasional deer.

Plus, high-rise clusters supply the population density that makes better transit economically viable, so that people like me who still rely on our cars to visit friends in far-flung areas can someday forego car ownership altogether, and get around in buses or trains. And maybe with fewer cars zooming up and down the road, parents will be less leery about letting their kids run over unsupervised to the neighbourhood park to climb trees and chase squirrels.

So by all means, let’s do what we can to make high-rise architecture less oppressive to people living near the ground. And let’s do what we can to foster connections among alienated apartment-dwellers – at least the ones who actually want to become more connected.

But I fear that groundhuggers who enjoy their three bedrooms, vegetable gardens, and gossiping over the backyard fence, will mistakenly assume that those things are psychological necessities, and block the development of high-rises for our own good. The astronomical rents in high-rise neighbourhoods prove that there’s more demand for my lifestyle than the current supply of units can accommodate; and remember, every isolated weirdo who snags a place in a tower makes a bit more room for you well-adjusted groundhuggers to spread out in the ’burbs.

That won’t be enough on its own to make room for every groundhugger family that wishes to stay in Vancouver – not even close. But it’s a start.

M.

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A powerful heap of room.

In George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and the Redskins, [1] the seventh installment in the memoirs of the self-serving, sexually predacious Victorian mountebank Harry Flashman, we find our hero leading a wagon-train over the Santa Fe trail, joining John Gallantin’s gang of scalp hunters, [2] being adopted into a band of Apaches, escaping to civilization with the help of Kit Carson…and that’s just the first half, which sets off a chain of events leading eventually to Flashman’s scalping (non-fatal) at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

In the wake of his narrow escape from the Apaches Flashman is understandably cynical about Indians, but big-hearted Kit Carson can wax sentimental over their impending dispossession:

“They’ll go, as the buffalo go, which it will, with all the new folks coming west. I won’t grieve too much for the ’Pash [Apaches]; they have bad hearts, and I wouldn’t trust a one of ’em. Or the Utes. But I can be right sorry for the Plains folk; the world will eat them up. Not in my time, though.”

I observed that the land was so vast, and the Indians so few, that even when it was settled there must surely be abundant space for the tribes; he smiled and shook his head, and said something which has stayed in my head ever since, for it was the plain truth years ahead of its time.

“An Injun needs a powerful heap of room to live in. More than a million white folks.”

***

The conservative blogger and columnist Steve Sailer, prolific coiner of grabby yet neglected catchphrases for underrecognized social phenomena, likes to refer to the Dirt Gap that contributes to the ongoing political polarization of the United States. [3]

The premise is that, while coastal cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York are hemmed in by oceans, mountains, or both, limiting their potential for geographic expansion, cities in the middle of the country, like Phoenix, Dallas, and Atlanta, are surrounded by dirt on all sides, and thus free to sprawl in every direction.

This simple observation predicts that, all else being equal, it will be easier in inland cities to find an affordable house within commuting distance of downtown. Young couples who’d like a yard for the kids to romp in will therefore tend to move inland, while childless singletons who don’t mind investing vast sums in one-bedroom condos are likelier to remain on the coast.

The inland dwellers will tend to vote for low-tax, pro-growth policies they see as sustaining their family-centred lifestyle, while the coastal dwellers will vote for high taxes to fund the generous welfare state they expect to care for them in their childless old age. These voting patterns will exacerbate the cost differences, driving more and more families away from the ever-pricier coast to affordable inland cities, accelerating the sorting process.

Hence, the Dirt Gap.

In last weekend’s Vancouver Sun I came across a good illustration of the Dirt Gap at work here in Canada. Freelance writer Lee Abrahams has been scraping by in the outer suburbs:

In the Fraser Valley, about an hour and a half or so from Vancouver, my husband and I live in a tiny home. We occupy 400 square feet with two young children and three pets, and pay a low rent to our family for occupying their property. My husband commutes more than two hours to work, each way, five days a week. …

In addition to the difficulties of tiny living, we face the same issues everyone else here does: astronomical gas prices, tax on goods and income, car insurance and the price of food. Car insurance in B.C. is on track to be the highest in Canada, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada as reported by Global BC. The price of gas in B.C. was the highest ever in North America this year, according to Gas Buddy.

Despite the challenges, they enjoy the perks of coastal living. But lately those perks are under threat:

[M]y husband and I take comfort in knowing we have beautiful scenery and abundant mountain hikes to relieve our stress. Nothing calms us more than crisp air and stretching our legs in the quiet forest. Except, the forest isn’t quiet anymore. The Fraser Valley has been flooded by more people having to move further east from the city for the reasons noted above.

So they’re giving up and relocating to dirt-rich Calgary.

Now, one modification I’d make to Sailer’s Dirt Gap theory is that while in the short term it seems to predict a balanced sorting of tax-’n’-spend subway-riders to coastal cities and guns-’n’-sprawl SUV-owners to dirt cities, in the longer term it winds up spreading coastal-style policies to every big city.

In the early stages of the process, when the price differential is small, it’s only the most rabid clingers to the low-density lifestyle who flee to the dirt cities. As the sorting accelerates, it’s not only dedicated sprawlers, but coast-culture folks like Lee Abrahams – mommy blogger, “tiny home” dweller, unironic user of the phrase “safe space” – who are priced out of their native environment and driven inland.

As more coast people settle in dirt cities like Calgary, bringing their culture and voting habits with them, the dirt cities become more welcoming to coastal refugees, who pour inland in ever-greater numbers, driving up prices, forcing the dirt-culture people further and further from the city centre, and eventually to smaller cities as yet unaffected by the Dirt Gap.

Now, I know it’s a bit gauche to compare these non-violent migrations to the conquest of the Plains Indians. I’m not trying to portray tax-harried suburbanites moving to Medicine Hat as the new Trail of Tears. But there’s an important insight contained in the observation that the Indians needed “a powerful heap of room”: one of the ways in which cultures vary is density.

The Indians couldn’t simply scooch over and make room for the white immigrants. Their lifestyle was based on following the wild buffalo around the wild prairie; even a smattering of settled farmers and ranchers made that untenable. In the early stages of the inundation the Indians could move further from the frontier, but no matter how far they retreated, the frontier snuck up behind. So they resisted; and the pioneers, who only wanted a little more elbow room than the overcrowded east could supply, couldn’t see why these backward savages struggled so desperately to preserve their old and inefficient ways.

“We’ve set aside reservations for them. We’ve offered to teach them how to farm. All we’re asking them to do is live as we do. Is that so terrible?”

But the Indians didn’t want to give up their low-density ways and take up farming, any more than Greg and Terri in Abbotsford want to swap their four kids, three dogs, and two-car garage for a used Prius and 700 square feet in Yaletown.

The Dirt Gap separating pioneers and Plains Indians was vastly wider than the one separating our modern cultural tribes. But the history of the Old West gives us a guide to how current trends will play out, as population growth drives migration from high-density regions into low-density ones: expect misunderstandings, conflict, and the ongoing retreat of the dirt culture into poor and isolated enclaves.

M.

1. Millennial readers who somehow get past the “redskins” in the title will no doubt be turned off by Flashman’s casual racism. They might not notice that for all his rough language one of the hero’s endearing traits, along with his good-humoured awareness of his own dastardry, is his readiness to see the good side of the alien cultures he encounters (usually accidentally, through recklessly pursuing some exotic trim). In our era, Flashman’s hypocrisy would manifest itself as prompt re-tweeting of the latest #MeToo meme; but in the 1840s it’s the superiority of Anglo-Saxon manners and morals that he publicly avows, while admitting to his readers that under the surface there’s not much to choose between his island tribe of ruddy-faced empire-builders and whichever rabble of cannibals he’s been kidnapped by this week.

2. “John Gallantin” is better known as John Glanton, driver of the remorseless sun to its final endarkenment and leader of the murderous gang in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

3. Re Sailer’s “grabby yet neglected catchphrases”. As he accurately predicted around the time he invented the term:

I fear, though, that despite the explanatory power of the Dirt Gap, the concept will not be widely discussed. The problem is that it’s too morally neutral. What people want to hear are explanations for why they are morally superior to their enemies.

In a post this summer I talked about the impact of Vancouver’s high rents and low vacancies on ordinary working folks. Last year I mentioned the rising cost of land acquisition as one of the factors making rapid transit infrastructure so prohibitively expensive to build.

 

Apartment hunting in Vancouver.

I drove my friend X. to the open house. The usual routine: a mob of displaced renters waiting by the entrance for the building manager to appear; a two-minute tour of a bare apartment; a dozen people jostling for room in the lobby to squat and fill in the application form.

Returning to the car, X. grumbled at the absurdity of the building manager’s salesmanlike spiel, as if the mob could afford to be choosy. “Just tell me who I have to blow to get the place,” she said.

I drove her back to the tiny suburban bachelor suite that had been her home since 2014. It was clean enough and pretty quiet. The floor was noticeably tilted; I poured myself a glass of water and the fridge door swung open and banged on the wall, deepening the dent there.

The main thing her building had going for it was its location, a block from the SkyTrain. Alas, this had made it a prime candidate for redevelopment. She’d been given a year to find a new home.

When she moved in, rent was around $700. With provincial law restricting annual rent increases to 2% above inflation, it had risen to a bit over $800 – a bargain. Bachelor suites in her neighbourhood were now starting at $1250, in buildings likely to be torn down in a few years.

X. has good references, good credit, works steadily. She took time off between contracts so she could concentrate on the apartment hunt. She soon realized that was a mistake. With a dozen, two dozen applicants to choose from, why would a landlord take a flier on someone technically unemployed? Just skip to the next person in the pile.

Eventually she snagged an even tinier place in Marpole, a fifteen minute walk from the Canada Line. The building is a bit crummier, the commute a bit longer, but it’s only $1050 a month – a 29% rent jump. Not bad, considering.

***

I mentioned my friend Y. in an essay a couple months back. He’s in in his early forties, tidy and quiet, but with a spotty employment record, bad credit, and a history of drug use.

I’ve known Y. since we were in sixth grade, but we’d fallen out of touch until he moved here last year. I put him up in my apartment for six weeks and loaned him some money while he looked for a job and a place of his own.

He wound up in a rented one-bedroom in a house in Vancouver’s east side. It’s on the ground floor, with a private entrance leading to the backyard. Around here these are advertised as “garden suites”.

Y.’s garden suite has no stove, no fire alarm, and is separated from an adjacent suite by the flimsiest of partitions. The sound insulation is so poor that he can hear when his neighbour cracks his knuckles.

When Y. informed his landlord, who lives with his family upstairs, that his neighbour had invited a guest to crash on his sofa, doubling the noise problem, the landlord replied that he was aware of the extra occupant, and had upped the neighbour’s rent by a hundred bucks in response.

For this pleasant living arrangement Y. pays $1000 a month. He’d like to move; but if sober, responsible X. had so much trouble finding a place to live, what chance is there for Y., with his history of unpaid bills and far-from-glowing references?

***

Why doesn’t Y. just go back where he came from – in his case, the Canadian prairies?

If you’ve ever spent a winter in Saskatchewan, you’ll understand why he doesn’t want to go back. But even disregarding the west coast weather, balmy only by Canadian standards, Vancouver is still a pretty attractive place to live. Low crime, good infrastructure, clean air, lovely parks, mountain and ocean views – but I don’t need to enumerate its charms. Vancouver is, objectively speaking, attractive: it attracts people. Another million or so by 2041, if Metro Vancouver’s projections are to be believed.

That’s why I’m skeptical of all promises by politicians to somehow solve the problem of high rents and near-100% occupancy rates. If housing were cheaper and easier to find, that would only make Vancouver a more attractive place to live – which would attract even more people, putting more pressure on the housing supply.

If it weren’t for stressed-out renters losing hope and moving back to Moose Jaw, there would be no reasonably-priced apartments here at all. I’m not gloating over their departure. I may be forced to follow their example one day.

High demand imposes a sorting process: those who can imagine better uses for their money, like raising children or saving for retirement, will gradually drift away, leaving a helot class of rootless perma-adolescents to scrape a living pouring the cappuccinos and mowing the lawns of the rich and beautiful.

The various levels of government keep vowing to ease the helots’ lot by getting more affordable homes built. While socialist and free-market factions squabble over whether governments should build the homes directly, or tweak regulations to make building quicker and cheaper for private developers, the future sneaks up on us: dumpy apartment blocks like X.’s are flattened and glass towers arise; poorer people are displaced and wealthier people ushered in.

There are plenty of neighbourhoods near transit where it seems new homes could profitably be added without displacing anyone: ground floors that could be turned into garden suites, garages that could be turned into laneway houses, one-story retail and industrial buildings that could be rebuilt with a couple floors of rental on top – if regulations didn’t make it too pricey and time-consuming to bother.

But the more red tape you cut away to facilitate new housing, the more slumlords you’ll get renting out rickety suites to suckers like my friend Y., streaming in starry-eyed from the rest of Canada and the world.

Maybe, then, governments should take the lead in building affordable rental units. But they’re naturally focussed on helping the most desperate first. I’m pretty sure that the modular, supposedly temporary homes for the homeless currently going up around Vancouver will, in the short term, be trashed by their drug-using, unstable residents, and in the longer term be colonized by better-adjusted folks with an aptitude for navigating bureaucracy who will defy all attempts to relocate them when the modulars are due for removal.

Maybe I’m wrong; I welcome the experiment in any case. But many hard-working renters must have had the same thought Y. had, when he saw pictures of the inside of one of those modulars: hang on a second, that welfare crashpad is way nicer than the dump I’m paying a thousand bucks a month for.

If municipalities started throwing those modulars on empty lots along major transit routes, and renting them out to all comers at a shade below market rates, it would go a long way toward easing the crisis. I have no idea why no-one has proposed this. Maybe it would just be too pricey. (The units are about $110,000 apiece to build – excluding the cost of land.)

But if the public sector can’t manage to slap up no-frills, reasonably-priced rental units on a break-even basis, there’s not much cause to hope that private developers can ever build affordable rentals and turn a profit.

***

While the media focusses obsessively on how to increase housing supply, ways to reduce demand are rarely considered.

The easiest way to reduce demand is to make Vancouver a crummier place to live.

Anti-gentrification activists understand this intuitively. All that’s keeping hordes of yuppies from moving into Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and sprucing up the place is the many unbathed, mentally disturbed, petty-crime-prone people who make their homes there currently. The neighbourhood must be kept unpleasant enough that the number of yuppies stays low, so the down-and-outers can afford to remain.

The obvious problem with making Vancouver crummy enough to repel new residents is that the rest of us will have to live in the mess we’ve created. The strategy might not work, anyway: rich people, unlike you and me, have the means to insulate themselves from ugliness and disorder. They might decide high walls and private guards are a worthwhile tradeoff for sunset views of English Bay.

If we’re not prepared to trash our city to preserve it, we might consider erecting legal barriers to make it more difficult for non-Vancouverites to buy property or move here.

Taxes on foreign buyers, which the previous provincial government imposed and the new government has expanded, strike me as the very least we could do to constrain demand.

But as progressive conventional wisdom is cohering around the idea that everyone in the world should have the right to live anywhere for any reason, even these modest barriers have been decried as discriminatory, and are under legal challenge.

Alternatively, the federal government could simply lower immigration targets. Unlike the previous immigration peak in the 1910s, when Canada was still largely empty and agricultural, nearly all of today’s new arrivals wind up settling in a handful of crowded cities, where they compete with the native-born for housing.

foreign born canada 1871-2011

Source: Statistics Canada, 150 years of immigration in Canada.

canada immigrants rural vs. urban 1921

Click image for data.

canada immigrants cities 2016

Click image for data.

Yet I’ve seen no signs that burned-out big-city renters have begun to turn against mass immigration. At all education and income levels, unhesitating xenophilia remains an essential marker of right-thinkingness; anyone who suggests that immigration ought to be curtailed in order to protect the attractive features of Canadian urban life – modest houses with spacious yards in quiet, tree-lined neighbourhoods – is quickly shouted down as a nativist bigot.

Partly this is self-serving propaganda. Realtors, developers, and homeowners all benefit from having the largest possible pool of eager bidders driving up the price of local properties.

But it’s at least equally a product of liberal guilt. Many Vancouverites who (like me) moved here from elsewhere would feel hypocritical denying anyone else a boon that we enjoy, for no reason other than that we showed up first.

On this principle the ten-millionth arrival will be as welcome as the two-millionth; and I hope that ten-millionth resident will enjoy his three-hour commute from somewhere in the vicinity of Chilliwack.

M.

PS. A big part of the reason my friend Y. moved here is the easy availability of cheap, high-quality weed. Maybe Canada’s impending marijuana legalization will make Vancouver a bit less attractive to a certain kind of young slacker, and take some of the pressure off.

Sooner or later: Cost disease and Canadian transit.

Back in 2015, in the wake of Metro Vancouver’s failed referendum campaign for a 0.5% sales tax to fund an ambitious list of regional transit upgrades, I argued that the big-ticket items on the list should be scaled back or postponed while we focussed our limited dollars on improving bus service. Subways and LRTs are great, I said, but a couple big rail projects will eat up all the money we could instead use to make the whole network faster, less crowded, and more enticing to commuters.

I still think my argument makes sense. I occasionally take the bus during rush hour, and I seethe at being stuck behind lines of idling cars when I can see how a simple bypass lane, costing a paltry few million bucks, would save thousands of straphangers five or ten minutes out of their commute each way, every day. Many roads wouldn’t even have to be widened – simply sacrificing a few on-street parking spots would do the trick. There must be dozens of such chokepoints around the region, and they could all be unchoked for a fraction of the cost of putting a subway down Broadway. Though I’d like us to build the subway too.

But a post last month on Slate Star Codex – Scott Alexander’s estimable blog, to which I lately find myself linking with unseemly frequency (see here and here) – makes me wonder if my sensible, fiscally-prudent argument was in fact completely wrong.

Alexander discusses something called Baumol’s cost disease, a phenomenon in economics where increasing efficiency in one industry counterintuitively leads to increasing costs in an entirely unrelated industry.

Suppose new manufacturing methods save an auto plant part of the cost of building a car. Profits rise, allowing the company to boost its workers’ wages by a couple bucks an hour. Meanwhile the meat processing facility across town hasn’t seen any improvement in productivity, but if they don’t offer an equivalent wage hike they’ll lose their best workers to the auto plant. They pass the higher costs along to their customers, and suddenly the price of meat goes up because the cost of manufacturing cars has gone down.

That’s Baumol’s version of cost disease, anyway. Alexander wonders whether it’s a sufficient explanation for the perpetually increasing costs in four different sectors of the U.S. economy – education, health care, housing, and public transportation infrastructure. Even after adjusting for inflation, costs in these four sectors have gone up in my lifetime by factors of two, five, even ten, without commensurate improvements in outcomes. Life expectancy is flat. University grads are as semiliterate as ever. Apartments aren’t appreciably nicer. And subway tunnels are pretty much the same as the ones our forefathers dug for a fraction of the cost.

Alexander is American, and in his brief section addressing ever-pricier subway construction he restricts himself to American data. In fact one of the questions he asks is why the U.S. seems to be more susceptible to cost disease than other countries. So my first question was – does this disease afflict Canadian public transportation infrastructure as well?

Let’s look at the costs – adjusted for inflation – for a half-century’s worth of rapid transit projects in the two big cities I know reasonably well, Vancouver and Toronto:

toronto subway costs

vancouver skytrain costs

(Click on images for data and sources.)

Some caveats and observations:

  • With so few data points to work with, the trendlines are susceptible to being skewed by one or two pricey outliers, like Toronto’s bonkers Line 1 extension to Vaughan.
  • Reported final costs are questionable, since governments tend to find ways to obscure overruns. Vancouver’s 2016 Evergreen extension, for instance, is known to have blown past its budget, but we’ve been assured that the unanticipated costs will be eaten by the contractor. The true cost, therefore, is higher than the figure shown.
  • The graphs are to the same scale, but the cities’ rapid transit systems shouldn’t be compared directly since they use totally different technologies. Vancouver’s light, high-frequency, mostly-elevated SkyTrain permits smaller stations and (for the 20% or so of the system that’s underground) narrower, cheaper-to-build tunnels than Toronto’s heavy-rail subway. (I’ve left Toronto’s SkyTrain-like Scarborough RT and under-construction Eglinton light-rail project out of the analysis for this reason.)
  • Even within each city, these aren’t apples-to-apples. In the Toronto graph there are visible discontinuities between the early cut-and-cover subways in the city core, with stops every 500-600 metres and relatively low per-station costs; the 1970s extensions into suburbia, often at surface level and with fewer, more widely-spaced stops; and more recent bored tunnels where the costs shoot into the stratosphere.

In any case, both graphs show a discernible upward tick since the 1990s or so, suggesting that cost disease may indeed have spread to Canada. But if so, what are the causes?

The libertarianish Megan McArdle waves away Alexander’s data on the rising cost of subways as merely “union featherbedding combined with increasingly dysfunctional procurement and regulatory processes”. Maybe those are worsening the problem – I don’t know enough to comment – but off the top of my head I can think of four other possible contributing factors:

1. The cost of land acquisition goes up at a rate faster than inflation (because they keep making people but they aren’t making more land).

2. The ground beneath and alongside city streets is ever more crowded with pipes, cables, parking structures, and so on, which must either be relocated or awkwardly worked around.

3. An increased emphasis on worker and bystander safety slows and complicates construction. (Some of this probably falls under the definition of “union featherbedding” as mentioned by McArdle.)

4. Projects now include the expenses of mitigating environmental damage, preserving historic neighbourhoods, averting noise pollution, accommodating the handicapped – all that touchy-feely stuff previous generations didn’t give a rip about.

Doubtless there are other causes I haven’t thought of, but I’ll stop at those four because they pair off neatly into two groups I’d like to examine a little more closely. When you think about it, all four are side effects of growing wealth:

  • Causes 1 and 2 – the rising cost of land and the build-up of clutter along possible transit routes – accelerate as a city becomes more populous and its taxpayers demand more and better services.
  • Causes 3 and 4 – worker safety and the mitigation of environmental and social externalities – might be thought of as perks, which previous generations were willing to forego in their pursuit of progress but which we in our prosperity don’t mind splashing out on.

I think the “perk factor” actually explains much of the cost disease in the sectors Alexander identifies. As we’ve grown wealthier we’re willing to spend more on things that are orthogonal to the actual missions of health care, education, housing, and public transportation – things like prioritizing the physical and mental well-being of our workforces, or ensuring that their gender and ethnic compositions are representative of the wider population. These perks require added layers of administration that do nothing to improve the outcomes we’re attempting to measure. Those layers aren’t failing – they’re doing what they’re meant to do – but those things aren’t captured in graphs like the ones in this post.

As a taxpayer I suspect we could afford to do without much of this extra padding. But I don’t want construction workers risking their necks, or rivers recklessly diverted, or noisy trains rattling people’s cupboards, just to save a few bucks. I know next to nothing about health care or university administration or housing construction, but I suppose the people who are familiar with those matters have equally strong objections to cutting what may strike me as frivolous perks.

In any case, sticking to transit infrastructure, there’s no reason to suppose we’re likely to care less about safety, or the environment, or architectural heritage in the future. In fact those concerns will almost certainly grow, making construction ever less affordable.

To return to causes 1 and 2 – land costs and infrastructure clutter – it should be possible to mitigate cost disease through better planning – say, through more farsighted property acquisition, and coordinating with other agencies to ensure that future transit corridors aren’t obstructed. But I assume we’re already trying to do those things, and my suggestion of “Okay, well, just do them better” is not too helpful.

Sooner, or later?

One way to avert cost disease might be by preemptive surgery – building rapid transit today, at today’s comparatively reasonable prices, in anticipation of tomorrow’s needs. Metro Vancouver’s overall outline is pretty well established by geographic barriers like mountains and rivers, and more recently by the imposition of an urban containment boundary meant to preserve nearby farmland.

metro vancouver urban containment boundary

Source: Metro Vancouver. (Click for original.)

Therefore we can assume that the Vancouver of the future will be much the same shape as the Vancouver of today, only a lot denser. We should be able to predict with fair accuracy where future demand for transit will lie, and build in anticipation of that demand.

However, of the four causes of cost disease mentioned above, preemptive surgery really only targets the first one – rising land costs. It sidesteps the cost of infrastructure clutter only by transferring that cost to future generations who will have to spend more to build around the clutter we create today. And while it might seem thrifty to thwart the next generation’s opportunity to waste money on what we consider silly perks – by using construction methods that they’ll see as barbarously unsafe, maybe, or by bulldozing some architectural monstrosity before it’s declared a heritage monument – who are we to say what the future’s priorities should be?

I’m grateful for much of the infrastructure earlier generations of headstrong builders bequeathed me, but I wish they’d been more cautious about what they smashed in the process – like the whole blocks of Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood destroyed in the sixties to make room for the Georgia viaducts, which planners are now preparing to remove. Building preemptively means we risk building unnecessarily, as the future evolves new habits of getting around that we can’t anticipate.

Still, being made aware of cost disease has tipped me in favour of building rapid transit now, while it’s still barely affordable, rather than putting it off as demand grows and grows. Spending sooner rather than later may actually be the sensible, fiscally-prudent thing to do.

M.

Planners versus riders: Metro Vancouver transit after the referendum.

So the results are in from Metro Vancouver’s recent mail-in transit referendum. (Technically a plebiscite, but I’m fuzzy on the distinction.)

The issue on the ballot was a proposed 0.5% sales tax hike to help pay for the so-called Mayors’ Plan, a raft of regional transportation improvements. Specifically:

  1. A tunneled extension of the Skytrain rapid rail line through the busiest stretch of Vancouver’s Broadway corridor;
  2. Two new LRT lines in the fast-growing suburb of Surrey;
  3. A replacement for the past-its-expected-lifespan Patullo bridge between New Westminster and Surrey;
  4. 11 new “B-Line” high-frequency express bus routes;
  5. More trains for Skytrain, more sailings for the Seabus to North Vancouver, more buses, more late-night service – just more transit in general;
  6. Improvements to cycle and walking paths throughout the region.
metro vancouver transit map mayors plan

The Mayors’ Plan.

To the surprise of approximately no-one, the Mayors’ Plan was roundly rejected, by majorities ranging from about 51-49% in Vancouver proper up to 75% in the more distant exurbs.

I voted Yes, as the proposal would have benefited me personally: I take transit regularly, and spend very little, so I would have enjoyed the improved service while barely feeling the pain of higher taxes. However, I sympathize with No voters who objected to that extra fraction on their sales tax on top of the already staggering cost of living in the Lower Mainland.

Since voting ended, the federal government has announced a substantial new fund to support large transit infrastructure projects, and both Surrey and Vancouver have pledged to look into this and other means of achieving their respective rail ambitions. Which means a very possible outcome is that in a decade or so we’ll end up with items 1, 2, and 3 from the list above, but none of the small-beer improvements that would actually have made getting around the region more efficient in the short term.

metro vancouver mayors plan rail proposals

The Mayors’ Plan, big-beer version.

This is a little annoying to me, because although the Broadway subway and Surrey LRT are worthy projects, and the new bridge is probably a necessity, they’re going to suck up all the funds we could have used to make less flashy but far more useful upgrades.

Problem: Rapid transit doesn’t take you to places you want to go.

Transit serves two very different purposes, and it’s easy to forget that they are actually in conflict. The first purpose, the one riders prioritize, is to take you to places you want to go. To your home, your job, your school, a bar, a doctor.

The second purpose is to shape growth – to redirect investment and development to underdeveloped areas – to remake the city. Which is why cities are constantly building rail lines to precisely the places riders don’t want to go. Where there are no homes, no jobs, no schools, no bars, no doctors. Not yet, anyway.

Ideally there should be a balance between serving the first purpose and the second; between the short-term needs of riders, and the long-term goals of city planners. But the planners tend to win out, because they have a pretty strong argument on their side: It’s expensive to build where stuff already is. It’s cheap to build where there’s nothing.

So you wind up with a project like the Skytrain’s Millennium Line, which at the time of its opening in 2002 connected a string of down-at-heels suburban malls and light-industrial zones.

Meanwhile, over a decade later, riders wanting to go to the University of British Columbia, or Stanley Park, or Granville Island, still have to ride the bus.

The two big-ticket transit items in the Mayors’ Plan are a decent balance of short-term and long-term. The Surrey LRT would stop at many a weed-choked lot, but the communities at the extremities of its three arms – Newton, Guildford, and Langley – are already busy, built-up suburban centres. And Vancouver’s Broadway corridor is a thriving business district abutting a dense residential population heavy on renters and students.

The ultimate objective is for the Broadway subway to extend all the way to UBC. Maybe I’ll get to see that before I die, though I wouldn’t bet on it. In the meantime, the plan has the line terminating at Arbutus Street, or not quite halfway.

metro vancouver mayors plan broadway subway

Millennium line subway down Broadway.

Which means that, barring other improvements, taking transit to school from the middle part of the corridor – say, the intersection of Broadway and Oak – will actually be slightly less convenient than it is at present. Instead of boarding an overcrowded express bus that takes you all the way to UBC, you’ll have to travel a couple subway stops and then transfer to an overcrowded express bus. Much of the time you save from having bypassed a few dozen blocks of traffic will be eaten up in transferring and waiting.

Let’s forget about the rail proposals for a second and consider only the express bus routes – the B-Lines – laid out in the Mayors’ Plan.

Metro Vancouver transit map - Mayors' Plan - proposed B-Lines

The Mayors’ Plan, small-beer only.

Absent the subway, the existing Broadway B-Line would remain in operation, but be supplemented by another one along 41st Avenue, creating a more direct route to UBC for students coming from the south and southeast, and alleviating the ridiculous congestion on Broadway.

Two new routes would head east out of downtown Vancouver, helping to relieve the overcrowded Expo/Millennium Line. Another would lead up through the West End and Stanley Park to the North Shore.

What’s missing is an all-day express route directly linking downtown and UBC via the Burrard Bridge and 4th Avenue West, to take further pressure off the Broadway B-Line. [1]

metro vancouver mayors plan b-lines

Proposed B-Lines – with my suggestion (green).

Simon Fraser University, Capilano University, and BCIT would all enjoy all-day express service under the plan. So would Burnaby Heights, Kerrisdale, Hastings Park, Park Royal, White Rock…all places people either already live or might actually want to go.

The initial capital cost for all eleven proposed B-Lines would be a shade under $100 million. On top of that the plan proposes $193 million in “transit priority” upgrades – things like queue-jumper lanes and traffic signal priority for buses. That’s $300 million, total – or about 1/6th of the cost of the Broadway subway.

And unlike the subway, we could be enjoying at least some of these improvements immediately.

Problem: Buses are the worst.

It’s strange, but some folks out in the suburbs aren’t too keen on getting around by bus. Why could this be?

  1. Waiting like a schmuck in the rain or in the sun.
  2. Time listed in the schedule is only an approximation. Did I miss it? Should I just start walking?
  3. Inscrutable notice tacked to bus stop seems to be saying on certain days I have to wait at a different stop two blocks away.
  4. Not sure how to use unfamiliar payment system, driver vaguely hostile when I make a mistake.
  5. Nowhere to sit. Packed shoulder to shoulder with the plebes, swinging from a strap, broiling in summer heat.
  6. Bus stuck in rush hour traffic along with all the idiots in their cars. At least those idiots have air conditioning.
  7. Never been on this route before, not sure when to pull the cord.
  8. Shouldn’t we be turning here? Am I even on the right bus? [2]

Some of these drawbacks are shared by trains. You’re as likely taking a train to be confused at first by the payment system. You’re as likely to be wedged in between a wheelchair and a sweaty hiker’s backpack (although at least on a train the aisle is wider and the ride smoother). There’s still a chance of getting on the wrong train, though the maps conveniently placed above the doors, and the big signs on the wall when you pull into a station, make it easier to recognize when you’ve made a mistake.

It seems to me the main advantages of taking the train are that your waiting area is sheltered from the elements, your route will be clearly mapped and easy to follow, and – of course – the speed and frequency of service.

City planners, with their emphasis on long-term goals over short-term needs, will say: People hate to take the bus. Let’s build new rail lines and attract those people.

Whereas an emphasis on currently existing riders would say: People hate to take the bus. Let’s make the bus-taking experience better.

Let’s build clearly-marked, well-lit, fully-covered platforms instead of rinkydink shelters. Let’s have an electronic timer counting down the minutes till the next departure. Let’s put the payment system at the entrance to the platform so passengers can board the bus itself more smoothly. Let’s have dedicated bus lanes so those who elect to leave their cars at home actually enjoy a time advantage over drivers of single occupant vehicles. Most importantly, let’s have more and more frequent buses.

The best thing about this strategy is that the cost-savings advantage swings from planners to riders.

If we tripled the $300 million B-Line investments described in the Mayor’s Plan, we could make getting around by bus almost as attractive as taking the train. And it would still cost only half as much as a new rail line. [3]

Specific suggestions for Metro Vancouver in the wake of the plebiscite’s defeat.

I’m not saying let’s not build rail lines. I love rail lines. They’re fast, they move a lot of people, and yes – they attract a lot of new riders to the system. Rail is worth building – when you can afford it.

But if we have to pick and choose which improvements we can afford to make right now, maybe let’s put a little more emphasis on the needs of existing transit riders than the needs of the possible future riders of 2040.

If there are federal infrastructure funds available, instead of blowing them on a couple big rail projects, use them to build platforms and dedicated lanes for express buses. [4] They’re not very glamourous but they’ll get people moving.

Start with the B-Lines proposed in the Mayors’ Plan. Maybe we don’t do all of them right away – I’m not sure we need two separate express buses trundling along Marine Drive in North Vancouver, as the plan proposes. Maybe for now we focus on the most congested corridors.

If there’s a little money left over, get to work on extending the Millennium Line as far as the new Emily Carr University campus scheduled to open in 2017. Then, stop.

Pause to think about whether it’s worthwhile to continue tunneling on down Broadway. Maybe it would make more sense, and be less expensive, to close the gap between the Millennium and Canada Lines by building along 1st Avenue, the old rail corridor, to Olympic Village Station.

Vancouver Skytrain - Millennium Line extension options

Millennium Line extension options.

Maybe a system of east-west express buses down, say, 4th, Broadway, and 41st could do the job of keeping students flowing to and from UBC while relieving congestion on Broadway.

If we choose trains over express buses, I can live with that too. I’m sure I’ll enjoy riding the Broadway subway in 2025 or so. On my not-too-frequent trips out to Guildford, I’ll happily take the LRT.

But when I go to Stanley Park? I’ll drive.

M.

1. My proposed 4th Avenue B-Line would be a slight augmentation of the existing 44 express, which already runs every 10 minutes at peak times on weekdays.

2. Recent technological improvements have made the bus-taking experience significantly better. TransLink has a website that will tell you based on GPS tracking data when your next bus is due to arrive. Smartphones allow you to follow your progress on a map to make sure you’re going where you think you’re going. And the little digital display at the front of the bus showing the next stop makes riding an unfamiliar route much less stressful.

3. To be fair, the ongoing operating costs for the B-Lines would be quite a bit higher. Operating the 11 new proposed routes would cost about $50 million a year, twice as much as the completed Broadway subway.

4. We’ll also need to put aside some money for new off-street parking lots. This is to appease local business owners when we start taking away street parking for bus lanes.