Upward Mobility: Is Vancouver’s approach to transportation sustainable?

A recent survey casts doubt on Vancouver's commitment to sustainable transport. But perhaps it's asking the wrong questions

A recent survey casts doubt on Vancouver’s commitment to sustainable transport. But perhaps it’s asking the wrong questions

Vancouver is a city that enjoys basking in its own press. Each year, when the Economist or Mercer puts out its “best” or “most livable” list, Lotusland regularly cracks the top five. But every so often, a contrarian report puts Vancouver in a less flattering light.

Such appeared to be the case when the 2017 Sustainable Cities Mobility Index, produced by Arcadis, was released last fall. The Amsterdam-based consulting firm ranked Vancouver 28 out of 100 global cities on urban mobility, with Hong Kong, Zurich and Paris taking the top three spots.

Although there are several big caveats with the findings—including the fact that the top 25 cities are separated by about 10 percentage points—the analysis points to Vancouver showing weakness on issues of “people” (see sidebar), especially the share of trips taken by public transit, where it ranks 71 out of 100.

“What’s really important for us in the Mobility Index is accessibility of public transit—and the investment of public funds into those forms of transit,” explains John Batten, global cities director at Arcadis. Hong Kong ranks first, Batten adds, because its transit system, the MTR, “is by far the most superior form of public transit in the world. And it has to be, because it moves so many people a day.” At the same time, he admits, “Hong Kong is terrible when it comes to bicycles.”

Therein lies a key problem with this report and others like it: mobility, as a concept, favours big dollars for fancy trains that move people from A to B—and discounts the importance of reducing the distance between A and B. Vancouver gets hammered on the question of “share of trips taken by public transport,” but so does Amsterdam (79 of 100), widely considered one of the world’s most sustainable cities. For both cities—dense, compact and committed to multiple modes of transportation—building another billion-dollar subway isn’t always the path to sustainability. 

That’s certainly the perspective of Andrew McCurran, director of strategic planning and policy at TransLink. “We’ve been trying over the last few years to shift our thinking from just about mobility to accessibility,” McCurran says. “Mobility is about the ability to move around, but that’s only half of the equation; the other half is where you’re moving from and to.”

Older neighbourhoods are a natural for accessibility, McCurran maintains. He notes that New Westminster and Gastown were walking cities in the pre-streetcar era, and remain quite walkable, and that the streetcar suburbs that developed in the early 20th century, such as Mount Pleasant or central Burnaby, continue to support robust transit use. “The challenge is taking the rest of the region—much of which grew up in the era of the automobile—and trying to retrofit the auto city and make it more of a walking-and-transit city.”

Still, it’s a difficult thing to socially engineer people to live where they work or shop. As Arcadis’s Batten puts it: “It really comes down to people’s choices: ‘I have to get a job, I have to get my kids into a school, and I have to find an affordable place to live—and, oh, ideally they should all be located nearby.’ It’s complicated.”

That’s why many planners and academics are working to find less expensive ways to get people from A to B, wherever they choose to be. It’s a mission that has driven Gordon Lovegrove for more than 30 years, including as UBC‘s director of transportation planning from 1997 to 2005. In that capacity, in 2003, Lovegrove designed and helped introduce the popular U-Pass program, which brought affordable transit to the university-going masses.

“We ended up saving students over a million dollars a month in reduced travel costs, in reduced safety risks and improved health benefits,” says Lovegrove, now an associate professor of engineering at UBC Okanagan, where he leads the Sustainable Transport Safety Research Laboratory. “Traffic levels on the Lions Gate Bridge, the day we launched U-Pass, went down 7 percent. Everybody across the region won when we got more people on buses.”

While Lovegrove believes Vancouver has done a commendable job of building sustainable transportation, the next challenge is bringing that ethos to the suburbs and exurbs with lightweight, at-grade rail. “I would say it has to be on-board hydrogen fuel-cell technology, augmented with batteries,” he argues, pointing to the adoption of so-called hydrail technology by French rail company Alstom, which he says can be built in B.C. for less than $5 million a mile—compared to $150 million a mile for SkyTrain.

“You know what my dream is? That we revitalize commuter passenger rail and get people out of cars, out of energy consumption, and improve safety and connectedness,” Lovegrove says. “Are we going to become less sprawling, less spread out, in the next 10 years? No. But maybe what we can do is connect ourselves differently.” 

Moving Targets

Consulting firm Arcadis’s Sustainable Cities Mobility Index appears each fall, with a new one expected in October. The 2017 ranking was based on 23 key indicators, broken down into three categories: people, planet and profit. Vancouver finished No. 3 overall among 23 North American cities and 28th among 100 cities worldwide. Here’s how it fared against its North American peers.

People (No. 7*)

Intended to capture quality of life for commuters and visitors, this sub-index focuses on indicators like safety (traffic facilities), access to transport services and share of trips taken by public transit.

Planet (No. 9*)

The planet sub-index looks at various green factors, with greenhouse gas emissions, traffic congestion and delays and bicycle infrastructure among them.

Profit (No. 1*)

Profit, which covers economic health, examines commuting time, transit revenue as a share of expenses, public finance commitment, affordability of public transit and efficiency of road networks.

Sources:  Sustainable Cities Mobility Index 2017, Arcadis

* Out of 23 North American cities