If you checked out either Phase 1  or Phase 2  of the Surrey Rapid Transit studies, you’d know that there are a number of options to chose from when we look at how to improve transit south of the Fraser River.
Amongst all these choices is one thing we know for sure: the population south of the Fraser is growing fast. We know that Surrey and the surrounding areas will grow by roughly one million people over the next 30 years. With growth like that, transit will have to change dramatically to serve this increased need.
Like TransLink, Metro Vancouver  has been doing their own study on regional growth and have their own take on how to help shape growth south of the Fraser, a take that includes transit. It’s called the Regional Growth Strategy : Metro Vancouver 2040 .
I sat down with Christina DeMarco, the Manager of Regional Development with Metro Vancouver to get a better idea of the challenges the area faces in terms of development and transit as well as the role Metro Vancouver plays in what south of the Fraser will look like in 2040. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Metro Vancouver, I started the interview with some fundamental questions.
When I think about south of the Fraser, I think about all the different governments, federations, agencies, business and interest groups that play a part in the future of the region. Where does Metro Vancouver fit into the process of deciding what happens in the region?
Metro Vancouver is best described as a federation of municipalities. We don’t like to be described as a higher level of government. We’re comprised of 21 municipalities and one First Nation (Tsawwassen). What the Metro Vancouver Board does is get together to discover what problems need to be solved regionally and what services are delivered regionally. So historically, we’ve provided water, sewers, solid waste–those kinds of things that make sense to do collectively.
So on the planning front, there’s something called the Local Government Act . There’s a chapter in that act called the Regional Growth Strategy Legislation  that was put in during the 1990s. That piece of legislation looks at what regions have to think about when they’re planning regions as a whole. Regional planning is how the decisions made around the region actually affect one or more neighbours.
And south of the Fraser?
When you come to south of the Fraser, you have the City of Langley, the Township of Langley, White Rock and Surrey as the key players out of these 21 municipalities. The very exciting news for us right now is that we finally have a regional growth strategy in place, which was many years in the making. It replaces a plan called “Livable Region Strategic Plan” that was in place in 1996.
We’ve been working on this [new] plan for a good four or five years. The governance structure requires that every single municipality, as well Tsawwassen First Nation, TransLink and joining regional districts sign off on it before it becomes a plan. This is an extremely high bar of acceptance. This sets a blueprint for what we do collectively to accommodate growth by 2040.
In order of magnitude, we’re talking about another 1.2 million people joining us in this area by 2040 compared to the 2.3 million we have right now. On the job front, we’re looking at about 1.1 million jobs [now] and another 600,000 jobs by 2040. It’s roughly the same numbers when you’re looking at cars as well, although we hope we’re not on this same trajectory with cars. We hope to not add as many cars as we have in the past as transit, cycling and walking become more practical options if we arrange the land use right.
So that’s a big focus in the growth strategy. The challenge is finding where we accommodate this 1.2 million people and 600,000 jobs while also protecting our livability, making sure our roads still work, avoiding pollution, reducing our greenhouse gas emission and protecting agricultural and conservation lands. That is what the plan is actually doing: trying to answer and meet these objectives. The formula here is growing up, not out. The new plan draws a hard urban containment boundary and says this is where we want to grow. So then, what do we do inside that area? The whole plan is based on the premise that if we want people to have fewer cars and more room for public space, houses and attractive places to live, then we have have jobs and housing where there’s good public transit. The focus is to get two thirds of all the housing and job growth in a network of centres throughout the region, particularly in a new downtown for Surrey. To actually make transit or biking trips doable, we need to cut the distance down. When you think of Surrey now, you don’t think of doable trips like this.
So is land use your main concern for reaching your goals for 2040?
Yes, it is the land use framework. We looked at the challenges of what was going wrong between 1996 and 2006 in which job sprawl was a bid deal. If your job isn’t accessible by transit, then you’re going to have to support a car. So we did an analysis of where all the office jobs were located. The jobs you can concentrate in a specific area, like office jobs, what happened to them during this period? During this period there was about 18 million feet of new office space built in the region, rough 200 sq. feet per person. About half of it got built in downtown Surrey, which is important. As for the other seven metro centres, only about 10% of the office space happened there. The rest went in far-flung locations that weren’t served by transit. They went into office park corridors and former industrial areas.
So one of the things the new plan tries to do is to say that in order to get these transit oriented communities, we need to get the jobs in the right place. There are two benefits of getting the jobs in the right place: one is that you get vibrant centres, and the other is the problem of protecting enough industrial land in the region. So we want to reduce businesses buying cheap industrial land and converting it to office use. If we can protect that industrial land, then we can steer those office jobs to the centres.
So how does Metro Vancouver control where people build?
There are rules around converting industrial land to other uses. If you want to do that, you need to come to the Metro Vancouver Board, and a municipality would have to make a resolution to change the use of the land. So it’s a regional check-in for the first time. The older plan was very broad in how it allocated land. Now, if you want to change the urban containment boundary, it requires a board decision. There’s a lot of flexibility within the urban containment boundary, but the key land use has a set of rules. This helps give us long-term certainty around land use patterns. It helps TransLink with efficiency of the system.
What about encouragement for people and developments to move into these metro centres?
One thing is we work closely with TransLink to tell people that if you move into these metro centres, you’ll have better public transit. It’s not just a stop or two on the Expo Line, it’s 11 or 12 bus lines coming in.
Is there an economic advantage for developers to build in these centres?
Yes, they’re more interested in this now. When we first started to talk to large developers about job sprawl they would say, “Why wouldn’t we do this? This is cheap land, and everybody takes a car, so we can make a lot of money by doing it this way.” That was ten or 15 years ago. Now a lot of the progressive developers are saying, “We can’t afford to go off the transit system.” The firm needs their workers. A lot of the younger employees don’t own cars. They want to get around on transit or on bike. So they’re saying the transit-oriented locations do make good business in the long term. A lot of them are starting to see that if it’s a completely auto-oriented community, what kind of region are they building in the long term? What kinds of taxes do businesses have to pay to support road infrastructure? So we’re definitely seeing a change over the past decade on the importance of a transit-oriented community.
I know in this area that most people still get around via automobiles. Is there a goal for reducing this dependence on this form of transportation?
Yes, about 76 per cent use personal vehicles. We use TransLink’s goals, so we want most of the trips to be by public transit, biking or walking by 2040. If we get more jobs in the centres, this will help. Look at a place like Metrotown for example. You’re probably getting at least 12 per cent of the people living in the area walking to work. So that’s about 3000 people. If you translate that 3000 people into car space, you’d need a couple more lanes on Kingsway to accommodate the volume. So it’s very significant. A place like Metrotown has been improving a lot over the years, so it’s a good example of how things can change for the better.
What is the biggest challenge for Metro Vancouver meeting these goals for 2040?
I think its being conscious of the fact that by saying yes to something now, you may be saying no to something in the future. Are the decisions we’re making adding up to a sustainable transit-oriented future? Does every one of these decisions–rezoning land, how you design your suburbs, the layout of Surrey Centre–going to result in a really attractive place for businesses to want to relocate? Will you be able to stroll down the streets for coffee and sushi and beer? The challenge is putting everything together to make a place where everybody wants to be. So right now, people are trying to make a decision about whether they are going to move into a low-density suburb where they’re really car dependent or do they go to a denser area? What are they going to get from that? Will my kids be able to walk to school safely? Will I be able to take transit to my job? Will I be able to support one car rather than two cars?
I think it’s fair to say that looking back over the years, we haven’t made our newly developed urban environments as attractive as they could be. We could do a lot more.
Sprawl is already present south of the Fraser? What’s the idea for those areas that are not in these urban/metro centres?
It will be up to each separate municipality what they do with these low-density areas. There are all kinds of neat ideas of what to do with low-density office parks, a sprawling plaza or single detached houses. The plans vary. Some say you need to put more investment into the street network. Others say you take the old mall, and you put a few streets through it. In Surrey Centre, they are working on getting more street fabric and even thinking of using alleys as places to have businesses, etc.
Thanks for the time and the info, Christina!
There’s plenty more to talk about in respect to Metro Vancouver’s ideas for this region. Do take the time to have a look through Metro Vancouver’s Regional Development page  for all the info. I’ll be posting some of TransLink’s own work south of the Fraser soon.