Sunday, May 25, 2014

Nanaimo Transportation Master Plan
Goes to Council Monday

How to critique a Transportation Master Plan that says all the right things? All the current urbanist jargon and concepts are here. The first part of the plan could have been written by algorithm mining from on-line content trendy notions of "complete streets", "walkability" and "a good transportation plan is a good land use plan." So, no fault can be found in the introduction and one is encouraged that based on these urbanist concepts, visionary and transformative actions are surely to follow.
But, I'm reminded of the band leader who, when asked to play a dreary old chestnut that both he and his band loathed, said no they didn't play that tune but you'll like our next selection instead — it contains many of the same notes.
Some background. Nanaimo is a small city on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It is often referred to as 5 minutes wide and 45 minutes long. By my estimation its land mass is five times greater than makes any sustainable sense. By comparison, Victoria, the Provincial Capital 100 km to the south with a comparable population of around 85,000 is 7.5 sq miles to Nanaimo's 35 sq miles. This is the elephant in the room in all important planning, economic development and mobility challenges our little city faces.
While brief, passing reference is made to this very low population density, its ramifications are not dealt with here in any realistic manner. The report has some blind spots and this is certainly one of them. To the report's credit the linkage between zoning and land use and mobility in the city is identified but in a way the weather or the city's geology might be discussed. At some point cities have to face the limitations of a real estate driven sprawling development model that was great fun through the boom years but has left us struggling with its consequences. It is possible, though not discussed in this document, that a one-size-fits-all multi modal mobility plan is simply not feasible in a city as sprawling as Nanaimo. Concerns I raised in an earlier post here.

A wise friend said early days in this planning process, "a transportation master plan is about everything", there's nothing in city life that transportation in the city doesn't touch for good or ill. To me the first and overarching question in thinking about transportation planning is "what kind of city do we want to have." Here's two examples of plans that show vastly different approaches. The first is the City of Red Deer, Alberta. They brought in two very high profile urbanists who are in demand around the world: Danish architect Jan Gehl and Gil Penalosa former Parks Commissioner, Bogata Columbia who now heads the Canadian based 8-80 Cities. Link here. The second is a report done for the City of White Rock by the consultant Nanaimo hired, Urban Systems. Link here.

This passage from Shaping Priorities on page 14 in my view reveals the faulty reasoning that underpins much of this thinking about how we move in our city. Italics mine 
The design of most cities has inadvertently fostered a market for auto-oriented land uses (such as single-family housing as well as retail and office space) which, in turn has increased pressures to build more road space in order to support driving for our daily needs. Unfortunately, these decisions have also reduced the vibrancy of urban areas and created sizable barriers to providing attractive transportation choices.
OK so I am critical of the Plan for its co-opted appropriated trendy language and its convenient blind spots. More on this later and perhaps it can defend itself when we get to its action plans and implementations. But let's get this out of the way —
The only thing that really angered Jane Jacobs, in the midst of all the hubris and wrong-headedness she saw harming city neighbourhoods was what she called the "pseudo-science" of traffic engineering. In her book Dark Age Ahead she said that when universities granted science degrees in traffic engineering they committed a “fraud upon students and upon the public.”
Gotta sting. But as I say, let's get it out of the way. In 21st Century city-building the traffic engineer (and the town planner) has to be a proactive advocate for quality of life in our neighbourhoods. I don't accept that this quality of life might be at odds with the movement of people and goods and emergency first responders.
The question then, what kind of city do we want to have, how do we enhance quality of life in our neighbourhoods. I was unable to find out how the consultant was chosen but I did express early and often that I feared we were asking the wrong people at the City to ask the wrong questions to the wrong consultant. It's said that engineers are great problem solvers, but they have to be told what problems to solve.
The report is based on a number of assertions that I'm surprised to find aren't backed up by any hard data. Population growth projections for instance. In the 28 years between 1986 and 2014 population growth was about 1,000 human souls per year. Moderate and manageable growth, but the report chooses to express this as the much more dramatic even alarming 70% increase (by my calculation an increase from about 50m 1986 to 87m 2014 is an increase of 57%). The report offers unsubstantiated growth projections over the next 27 years of an additional 38,000 people. Figures I believe are taken form the Official Community Plan (OCP) but I have no idea how they're arrived at. Based on these historic and projected numbers what kind of transportation network will we require? During the last OCP review, before the Urban Containment Boundary was eliminated, it was stated by the Planning Department that our existing low density footprint would without difficulty absorb an additional 50,000 people.

If you [try to] "balance" transportation modes,
the car wins.”

There are three main areas of the plan that I am most critical of. First, is the passive acceptance of the Inland Island Highway, a Provincial Highway that carries inter-city commercial traffic the length of the city. The other two concern the Boxwood Connector project and the Sandstone development across the greenfields in the city's southern extremity. More on the last two later. And before I get to them I'll touch on a couple of things that strike me as positive, sound ideas that unlike a lot of things in the report that are likeable in that motherhood sort of way, actually have their feet on the ground, so to speak. But first the Island Highway...
As part of the Province's Vancouver Island highway system that connects Victoria in the south to the north and west coasts, the Nanaimo Parkway was built about 15 years ago. A slick multi-lane bypass that was to divert traffic that previously was routed directly through the city. Among its main virtues was how it would be an essential element in the renewal of the downtown core. In the absence of that dangerous toxic inter-city traffic the downtown core and the neighbourhoods the old highway passed through would see a glorious renewal. The problem: the old highway was left in place. The result: (this will come as no surprise to anyone who has studied the dynamics of vehicle travel patterns) we have now two highways with one still running through the city. Councillors I've talked to scratch their heads and say but a whole new highway was built for them, why do they still use this one? Answer: because it's there. To the report's credit the laws of induced demand are identified when it comes to building parking capacity, they are curiously missing when it comes to road building.

The damage done to city neighbourhoods, the depressed property values and economic growth, the danger to pedestrians of injury, even death along its 25 km length is apparent to the casual observer. The offsetting benefit to the the common good is harder to quantify but no attempt is made by this report, which is on  its way to Council, to quantify this in any way. City officials will tell you that the Province shoulders some of the costs of its maintenance and repair but how can this report not offer some cost/benefit analysis based on reliable, objective data? This appears in the Policies and Actions index —
Support a transition of Island Highway (Route 1/19A) in the long-term to  an urban arterial streetscape with better accommodation for pedestrians,  cyclists, and transit, particularly within or adjacent to mobility hubs. Improve  access and connectivity to/from Island Highway to the city’s road network.
On what basis is this identified as a long-term goal? Reclaiming this highway to return it to its proper role as a productive, safe city street, as the report quite rightly identifies as meeting the goals of the Transportation Master Plan, is perhaps Nanaimo's most urgent priority. The Plan shows here it's all talk-the-talk and little or no walk-the-walk. These dangerous counter-productive hybrids have become known as "stroads" a term coined by the Strong Towns organization — not a street and not quite a road. They fail everyone. No one enjoys driving on them, you'd be a fool to risk walking on or across them, they repel all investment but tire and car repair shops... Here's how one California town made a successful city street where there was once a stroad —

Here are a couple of welcome, practical ideas. Though the plan is disproportionately focused on bicycle infrastructure ahead of walkability (the index identifies ambitious Cycling Network Projects and Major Road Network Projects with zero mention of investments in pedestrian infrastructure), the short term achievable goals of the Harewood Bikeway phase 1 and the Albert / 4th Street Complete Street Corridor and the Frequent Transit Network linking downtown, VIU and the shopping centres off the Island Highway are important undertakings and they should proceed immediately and urgently, certainly before Council even considers a project like the Boxwood Connector. As in other areas of this report, Council is offered no substantiating data — a study should be able to quantify how many vehicle trips can be reduced, what meaningful contribution to the alleviation of vehicle congestion (which is quickly and unquestioningly offered as sound rationale for costly road projects) can be delivered by immediately proceeding with these initiatives.
Early in the document, under Shaping Priorities the now widely accepted pyramid of modes with the pedestrian prioritized over all other modes appears. Pretty bold talk-the-talk. The 2008 Downtown Urban Design Plan and Guidelines has a much better grasp of "walkability". An understanding is lacking here that walking in the city isn't a recreation, isn't just a form of exercise, it's a critically important mobility mode. It has little to do with the width of sidewalks and much to do with what Urban Planner Jeff Speck explains in his General Theory of Walkability.
The consultant has a responsibility to tell Council the truth: in a city 4 to 5 times larger in square miles than begins to be sustainable, walkability is not an achievable goal. The objectives of this plan, I believe, are still achievable in the city core where there is the kind of proximity of uses walkability needs and where municipal taxation yields are far greater per acre than in the sprawling perimeter. 

It's in these two areas of the plan where the disconnect between the talk and the walk are most pronounced. The pretzel like reasoning behind the Boxwood Connector project should be challenged. My thoughts from an earlier post here. That the consultant has copied and pasted this traffic-engineer speak to justify this wasteful project which takes funding from pedestrian, transit and cycling initiatives is, excuse me, where the rubber meets the road and costs this plan its credibility.
And speaking of copying and pasting, much of the report is repeated from the Official Community Plan. The OCP is of course Council approved official City policy. But there is the opportunity, I'd say responsibility, to be honest with Council in regards to the proposed Sandstone development across the city's southernmost greenfields, and for which our Urban Containment Boundary was eliminated 10 years ago. Having drawn the connection between land use, population densities and transportation, the plan fails, and in my view shows its true colours, in not challenging our city and our Council to face some 21st Century realities. The inclusion of long term transportation planning for Sandstone, a remote expansion area zoned for 1970s style big box retail and car dependency is indefensible.
As I mentioned in an earlier post I had requested a number of times that the plan be peer reviewed before going to Council. Listed in the document in a support role, the well respected transportation consultants Nelson Nygaard. In this exchange on Twitter, they offer some clarification of their role and if I'm not mistaken, distance themselves from the plan. At the very least, faint praise 

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