(Updated Nov 1) On Halloween day, October 31, 2012, just one week to the day after the document was made public, City Council adopted Vancouver’s Draft Transportation 2040 Plan. (Council heard the staff report Tuesday morning, the speakers from the public in the afternoon, then voted the next day.) Vision Vancouver voted as a single block, against opposition. The staff report and draft plan, 123 pages combined, were released on October 24, 2012, just three working days before it went to council (and report contents have changed significantly since the June draft). (Did anyone notice the report was dated Oct 17? Why did City Hall hold it back until just before the meeting?) Did anyone notice that the first staff speaker was the City’s general manager for planning and development (i.e., land use), followed by the general manager for engineering services (i.e., transportation)? Media and therefore the public have focused on bike lanes and car traffic, but most people have missed an important point: Transportation 2040 is as much about land use changes (i.e., densification and construction) as it is about transportation. This map below may deserve some special attention. It is innocuously titled, “Sidewalk Width Priorities,” but look at what it shows: Rapid Transit Station Areas, Future Rapid Transit Corridors, and Commercial/Shopping Streets.
On the surface, the plan is about mobility — moving people/goods/services, about walking, cycling, transit, and vehicle transport, emergency response, safety, modal shift, wider sidewalks, public spaces and more. Overall, the document reads well and most people could be justified in thinking that it is 98% friendly to taxpayers and neighbourhoods. Great. Some opposition was voiced about restricting vehicle traffic on Cornwall and about separated bike lanes on Commercial Drive. But what else is buried in the text? Is City Hall failing to clearly tell the public something here? The text makes the link between transportation and land use. Yes, true. But very few Vancouverites know that City staff are cloistered away right now developing a “Regional Context Statement” — a detailed land use plan to be adopted before July 2013.
The Regional Context Statement must comply with the Metro Vancouver region’s “Regional Growth Strategy,” adopted in 2011 with virtually zero public oversight, virtually zero media attention, and no public meetings held for Vancouverites on the final text. The RGS is now a powerful bylaw, the most important piece of legislation ever adopted by the GVRD (Metro Vancouver), with vast implications for land use regulation.
Under the RGS, any routes that are designated to have regional significance begin to fall under the influence of Metro Vancouver Board of Directors, and Translink. Both of these organizations are influential bureaucracies with billion-dollar budgets and no direct accountability to the public. They have direct influence on land use decisions under the RGS. Once Vancouver Council has adopted the RCS (probably with only three days of advance public notification — as City Hall does things these days), it becomes increasingly difficult to make changes, as changes to the RCS require approval by vote of the Metro Vancouver board.
Supporters of this Plan will say that little has changed since the previous draft was shown to the public in June 2012. But the previous draft was much smaller and this final draft has much more content relating to land use. This plan will override existing community plans and current planning underway. Also, what about timing? Is it possible that City Hall is not telling us honestly that they plan to increase density first by allowing dramatic increases in construction along “potential” future transit improvement routes, but the actual improvements in transit could be decades away, if ever? Could this mean profits for developers, and nothing but more serious transit backlogs for Vancouver citizens?
CityHallWatch and MetroVanWatch are largely concerned with land use, particularly related to transit, land prices, taxes, and policies that could enable rezonings and significantly affect communities. Many community groups in the region have witnessed cases in which a few words can slip quietly into official policy documents just days before final approval and then be used later to justify something completely beyond what any member of the public anticipated. Countless times, we witness Vision Vancouver voting as a block, against strong opposition from neighbourhoods and non-Vision councillors.
Are there unstated implications of this report?
Two maps in the report may be the key. The map above, on page 74 of 123 of the staff report, is titled ”Sidewalk Width Priorities.” Nice title, but it indicates Rapid Transit Station Areas, Future Rapid Transit Corridors, and Commercial/Shopping Streets. How does this relate to the recently-rammed-through-by-stealth “Interim” Rezoning Policy that appears to be a precursor to city-wide rezoning policy to allow higher buildings on all arterial streets, and near “neighbourhood centres” and “shopping areas.” How does this relate to the Regional Growth Strategy?
Under the Regional Growth Strategies, routes of “regional significance” are designated for special treatment for greater densification, with the profits from “land lift” (land price inflation to do zoning changes) potentially being used to pay Translink. Under the RGS, Translink is counted as an “affected local government,” even though its board consists of political appointees, and its board meetings are not open to the public. Will these transportation and land policies actually lead to speculation, land price inflation, and attack housing affordability?
That map also has implications for the Regional Growth Strategy.
A few words about Metro Vancouver (GVRD). It is a large bureaucracy, virtually unaccountable directly to the public. The 2013 budget process is an example of how it works. On October 26, its Board of Directors approved the 2013 operating budget of over $630 million dollars, over $400 per household on average, with no discussion in public and very little public input. Discussions had all been done in committee meetings. Vancouver taxpayers are the largest contributor to Metro Vancouver, and Vision Vancouver holds all six of our city’s director seats on the Board. Vancouver City Council did not consider the Metro budget, and it appears that some our non-Vision councillors may not have even had a formal opportunity to provide input on Vancouver’s six Board votes on the budget . Our city’s votes in support for the Metro budget appears to have been decided behind closed doors, in caucus, by Vision Vancouver. Will land-use decisions at Metro Vancouver be handled the same way?
Bottom line: Further clarification is needed of the connections between Transportation 2040 and the Metro Vancouver Regional Growth Strategy and possible erosion of our own citizens’ and neighbourhoods’ influence on land-use decisions, and further relinquishing of decision-making authority to regional bureaucracies unaccountable directly to the public — Metro Vancouver and Translink.