Transit is a hot topic in Metro Vancouver. The region’s Mayors Council even attempted to make it the hottest topic in the 2019 federal election with their “Cure Congestion” campaign. Even though the media didn’t really pick up on it nor agree with the narrative, the importance of transit infrastructure may have, in fact, had a role to play in the re-election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
With the region’s Mayors Council (or at least the Co-Chair) vocally expressing disappointed at the level of the transit funding commitment by the Conservative platform, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the majority of the areas that were also in favour of the previous transit referendum were also those who went Liberal in 2019, despite the party’s loss of support in Western Canada (I know, it’s strange to think that British Columbia is actually in “Western Canada”).
“It’s a disappointing platform. It’s more than just moving it down a few years, it could end up actually jeopardizing completing both of those projects.” – Jonathan Cote, Mayors Council Co-Chair
I’m not suggesting that this was the most significant factor nor am I purposely ignoring all the nuances of why people vote the way they do. However, I am pointing out that there is a good chance that when a party ignores an issue that is significantly important to a region, they likely diminish their level of support.
It’s also no surprise that Langley continues to be an outlier in the Metro Vancouver region. We are caught in the vicious suburban cycle of building auto-centric neighbourhoods because it doesn’t have a reliable transit network and not receiving a reliable transit network because we build auto-centric neighbourhoods. As the transitional community caught between Metro Vancouver the the Fraser Valley Regional District, being the suburban outlier is no stranger to the Township.
No Transit = More Cars = Less Walking
Transit-oriented neighbourhoods breed walking and you can’t actually have a sincerely walkable, self-sustaining neighbourhood without a strong transit network. The data argues in favour that the hypotheses that strong transit-based neighbourhoods leads to walking. According to a study by Yonah Freemark, when 1/4 of commuters take transit to work, more than 10% walk. When fewer than 5% take transit, less than 3% walk. (“Transit Mode Share Trends Looking Steady”, October 13, 2010).
“With rare exceptions, every transit trip begins and ends with a walk. As a result, while walkability benefits from good transit, good transit relies absolutely on walkability.” – Jeff Speck, Walkable City
If transit is inexpensive, accessible and convenient, it will be used. The City of Vancouver has built a system that one really doesn’t need to use a car to get around. Not only that, it can actually be more efficient to take transit than your own vehicle in many parts of the city.
“…it could be said that people who live in a city want to have access to everything that city has to offer. If the vast majority of those things cannot be reached conveniently by transit, then people of means buy cars and you end up with a driving city. As the city grows, it grows around the car. Its neighbourhood structure dissolves and its streets widen. Walking becomes less useful or pleasant and, soon, less likely or even imaginable.” – Jeff Speck, Walkable City
As of 2018, there are 9 bus routes that have over 7 million annual boardings, including the top 99 B Line Route that sees just shy of 17.5 million boardings. Meanwhile, 8 Skytrain stations achieve at least 5 million boardings with two more at 4.9 million. Of course, every one of those bus routes are based in Vancouver and 8 of the top 10 Skytrain stations are in the City of Vancouver (Burnaby’s Metrotown and the New Westminster stations also break the top 10).
The most popular stations are all within walking distance to high density homes, lots of amenities, and offering a lifestyle that one can go without a vehicle quite easily. However, taking transit requires walking. With very few exceptions, a commute that involves taking the bus or Skytrain will require at least some walking by its very nature (unless you have a bus stop or Skytrain station immediately outside your threshold). Whereas a route that requires a car usually involves walking into the garage and parking in front of one’s place of work or favourite strip mall/big box store (sorry, not sorry).
If you have a neighbourhood that is built for efficient transit, it will inherently favour the pedestrian over the car. Just as cars and people don’t mix well, neither does transit and car infrastructure: they are in direct competition for funding, space and use. Efficient transit infrastructure shares the same interests as a walkable neighbourhood: higher residential density close to amenities, wide, connected sidewalks, prolific mixed-use buildings & narrower, and a limited number lanes dedicated to single occupant vehicles.
Sprawl is Expensive… and Addictive
The reason that Asian cities such as Hong Kong and Tokyo can have 60-75% transit usage, Europeans around 30-35%, yet North American transit leaders are limited to 14% (Toronto) and 9% (New York), is because these statistics include the respective metro areas. In North America we are masters of sprawl. Due to sprawl, transit accounts for only 1.5% of trips in the United States.
Sprawl is much easier to build than the alternative. Since the dawn of the automobile age, especially in the post-war era, North American municipalities have treated land as if it is endless. This practice doesn’t require much planning and it promotes the two favourite American dreams of buying a big house and driving long distances… and then driving out to the ball game and finding unlimited amounts of parking. Yet this is expensive. In a study of 50 large USA cities, Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy found that while residents of high quality transit oriented cities paid $370 USD per year for public transportation (via direct and indirect costs) than those in auto-oriented cities. those same residents saved $1,040 USD per year in vehicles, parking and road costs (NOT including savings involved with congestion, safety, pollution and health).
In developing cities in urbanizing areas, such as Langley and Surrey, these costs are further exasperated as ever rising land costs which pushes the raw cost of single use vehicle infrastructure even higher, yet is more conducive to stronger transit network.
Pre-Automobile Cities are Pro-Transit Cities
For thousands of years, the pedestrian dominated city streets. Horses were occasionally tolerated, later streetcars were given some right of way respect. Yet, in less than 15 years, following the mass production of the Ford Model T in 1908, the automobile conquered the streets. Soon after, streetcars would be derailed.
However, these pre-auto cities left us the template of a walkable, pro-transit city. A true neighbourhood has a center, with the widest array of activities and amenities concentrated in close proximity to each other. A pre-car neighbourhood required this closeness by convenience. These centers are therefore traditionally infused with a buzz of pedestrian activity. A traditional city is a connected series of these neighbourhoods, often surrounding various special public spaces, such as universities, economic centers, and/or natural resources.
Without the convenience of a car, building a disconnected, sprawled out city was ineffective and inefficient. The complete dominance of the automobile allowed us to cut ties with the efficiency of the “downtown” focused neighbourhood. Pre-existing regional cities, such as New York, Toronto, and, to a lesser degree, Vancouver (which made smart choices later), maintained their pre-automobile character in many ways, but still have had their own historical battles (think of Jane Jacobs out East, meanwhile Vancouver’s own successful fight against a highway carving up the downtown). Meanwhile, “undeveloped” communities such as the former “New Westminster” district that included Surrey and the Langleys, would basically desert their downtowns, leaving communities like Fort Langley, Milner, Murrayville, Aldergrove, and Langley Prairie to suffer and eventually be overridden by the affects of suburban sprawl in the postwar era.
Some might argue that Fort Langley has maintained a highly walkable nature, but I would disagree. Yes, the downtown commercial core is successful – in part by its pre-car groundwork and also by its exclusion to Langley’s standard parking minimums – and yes it is walkable once you are there. But unlike most downtown cores, the vast majority of residents cannot conduct their typical daily lives without a car. I would probably estimate that the percentage of commuters that drive to work or for basic needs is probably still over 98%. I might argue that Fort Langley is more “pedestrian-friendly” than it is “walkable”. This is simply the nature of a community with 1/4 acre lots and a tourist-based village.
Transit in Langley: One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward
Since splitting in two, the Langleys have been predominantly pro-automobile. The development industry in the Township of Langley took advantage of a boom in the late 1970’s which witnessed baby boomers move to the suburbs. Compared to Vancouver’s standards, Brookswood’s large lots and inexpensive homes drew in thousands of residents. The market crash of the 80’s halted development, only to ramp up again in bedrooms communities of Murrayville and Walnut Grove through the 90’s. Following the completion of Walnut Grove, it would appear there was some recognition by Township stagg that Langley didn’t have an unlimited supply of developable land and attempted to change course and adopted the Willoughby OCP in 1998.
Willoughby was originally intended to be the most transit-friendly, walkable neighbourhood in Langley. But the market was soft and development was anything but rapid. It would take almost a decade to start seeing a real spurt of development. Because of the lack of development, there was no attempt to phase in the development or push for new urbanist principles, which led to spot rezoning and random development on the Willoughby slope. The majority of development ended up being slightly more condensed suburban single family homes. With little commercial or real walkable density close to amenities, the neighbourhood began to look a lot like Walnut Grove, but with smaller lots.
The goal of having a population of 65,000 in a relatively condensed space was good step forward. Upon being built out, it could certainly attract a strong transit network, especially with the planned HOV lanes down 200th Street and future rapid transit extending from Surrey. However, density for the sake of density isn’t good enough. Willoughby’s early development was missing a crucial element found in pre-car neighbourhoods: a neighbourhood center.
Instead of building a neighbourhood center (or 2 or 3), with all of the elements of a walkable district, Willoughby was allowed to build in the same way and with the same purpose that Brookswood, Murrayville and Walnut Grove were built: for those willing to “drive til they qualify”. This led to cheaper, bigger homes, accessible only by car: the American dream, accomplished. The only difference is that there were slightly more homes. Which meant more traffic and more parking. But with nothing significant to walk to, even higher density isn’t walkable.
Since 1998, there have been almost a dozen neighbourhood community plans adopted which are almost all automobile-centric, a failed transit plebiscite (an anomaly in North America), the opening up of another OCP (Brookswood-Fernridge, which will water down development further), and a lack of political leadership to fight for HOV lanes or rapid transit. Furthermore, another massive strip mall is planned for the new 216th Street interchange, almost all local infrastructure discussion is focused on expanding 208th Street to make it more like 200th Street or 88th Avenue – both of the more dangerous roads for pedestrians. Langley appears resolute in its desire to be a car-focused neighbourhood, meanwhile continuing to throw in the key buzzwords of sustainability and walkability in its neighbourhood planning documents.
A Way Forward
Without a strong transit network, walking is extremely limited. Even the rare few who live in the immediate vicinity of something like Willoughby Town Centre (hardly a true town center) have limited access to everyday needs – certainly not a lot of high quality jobs or economically sustainable commerce. Pedestrians need access to good transit or else the automobile will continue to be the exclusive choice of residents. More automobile use means increased demand for more parking, more lanes, more car-based infrastructure. You get what you build for.
Transit use is up by almost 14% in the South of the Fraser region, far outpacing the region-wide growth of 7.1%. There is obviously a thirst for a strong transit network. We cannot, however, continue to rely on a regional transit authority to supply good product to bad supply. Municipalities have a responsibility to build neighbourhoods that transit can service without being overly wasteful.
Some people in the Township of Langley groaned about the route of the proposed Skytrain/LRT transit, as it appeared to disproportionately serve the City of Langley over the Township. Although there is one stop proposed in the smaller municipality, the centrality of the proposed station would service Brookswood, and South Willoughby much more than almost any other route, while not ignoring neighbourhoods such as Fleetwood and Clayton. The route is intentionally servicing as many transit-oriented communities as possible. Diverting to anywhere else in the Township would be extremely inefficient, cutting through farmland or serving less transit-oriented comminities.
Additionally, every map of future stations I have seen shows a Township of Langley stop in Willowbrook (the larger North-west portion of Willowbrook is in the ToL, the area most likely to receive a station). Whether it is Skytrain or, my own preference, LRT, the eventual arrival of rapid transit to the closest thing that the Langley have representing a “town center” will be a great step forward.
However, Skytrain from a low density commercially segregated area that connects to more walkable areas in Vancouver will likely only end up attracting more vehicles down the 200th Street corridor and ship potential good jobs westward. This would promote even more of a bedroom community than we have. Unless we plan in advance, the economic benefit of Skytrain/LRT in the Langleys will be lost on the everyday citizen.
Time for Real Vision
We obviously have time before rapid transit arrives in Langley. Even the shortest timelines are a good decade away – or in my world, one full real estate market cycle away. There will also likely be at least 2 more local council elections during this time and my hope is that we use these election cycles to pressure Mayor and Council to passionately strive for walkable, transit-friendly neighbourhoods.
We need our primary arteries to have less focus on single occupant drivers. We need to lobby for a road diet on 200th Street that will give priority to high occupancy vehicles. This means that 200th Street needs to be finished with two HOV lanes, sticking to the 6 total lanes, just like the 2009 Township of Langley Master Transportation Plan proposed. We also need to finish 208th Street, but not without an significantly increased commitment in reliable bus service connections and strong pedestrian network between residents and amenities (such as Willoughby Town Centre and local schools).
Most importantly, the 20-year-old Willoughby OCP needs a modern overhaul. It was archaic and out of date when adopted and has created a suburban nightmare for many. The NCPs that have been adopted under its framework have provided little vision and even less transit-based orientation. With never-ending promises of “growing pains”, the evidence weighs more towards poor planning than it does a utopian neighbourhood. The manufactured and nonsensical “neighbourhood communities” invented in the OCP should be dropped in favour of two or three true neighbourhood centers. Yes, we can use what has already been built, but no, we can’t keep letting developers choose where our streets and lanes go.
We need to include Willowbrook as a true neighbourhood center and work together with the City of Langley on a proper plan before the arrival of rapid transit, not afterward. Neighbourhood centers should provide massively expanded commercial & retail services and we need to do away with and planned auto-oriented strip malls and highly segregated land uses as seen in even the most recently adopted plans (Williams, Brookswood-Fernridge, etc.). There have been small attempts made for better planning (1/2 of Carvolth, Aldergrove, etc.), but very little has been done to promote execution of these better plans.
As a geographic center of the Lower Mainland and a rich neighbourhood-based history, the Township of Langley has a powerful opportunity to grow into the incredible sustainable network of villages that it started as in the 19th century. We should pick up on that history and move it into the future.
More Articles in the “Walkable Langley Series”:
“Why Making Langley Walkable is So Important” (March 4, 2019)
“Stop Demanding More Lanes!” (March 20, 2019)
“Build Mixed Use for Walkability: an Interview with Eric Woodward (May 30, 2019)
“Making Langley Walkable: Fix the Parking” (October 10, 2019)