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Distributed, low density growth is a top driver behind the region’s fastest growing emission sector: transportation.

Alex Boston, ED Renewable Cities & Fellow, SFU Morris J Wosk Centre for Dialogue

Metro Vancouver’s draft regional growth strategy, Metro 2050, is the product of an institution that’s  inadvertently structured to operate in silos and change incrementally. In the proposed strategy, elected officials and staff endeavoured to create a regional land use agenda that acknowledges shifting priorities and meets minimum expectations. Based on this metric the draft plan is a success.

However, meeting minimum expectations is no longer satisfactory. The urgent crises of affordability and climate—with calamitous consequences to property, infrastructure, human life, economic activity and ecosystems—requires the region to steward a course correction, one that offers low-cost solutions and greater prosperity.

In its current form Metro 2050 will sustain high transportation GHGs—the region’s largest and fastest growing source of emissions—along with increased congestion, declining affordability and growing vulnerability to climate change impacts. While the draft RGS includes some commendable new work to manage civic infrastructure costs, the overarching policies and trends will result in rising civic infrastructure deficits and upwards pressure on transit fares. Metro 2050 inadvertently facilitates higher costs, carbon, congestion and risks across the region.

Two transformative events thrust Metro Vancouver Directors, staff and member local governments into a unique position to steward this course correction, stemming public cynicism and meeting public expectations for leadership: 1) local governments’ unprecedented and successful, yet challenging and  imperfect response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and 2) the catastrophic series of multibillion-dollar climate-related extreme weather events in B.C. communities.

Land Use is Driving the Largest and Fastest Growing Emission Sector: Transportation

Land use is a major driver of Metro Vancouver’s rising transporation emissions. A large share of job and residential growth continues to be located farther away major employment hubs (proximity to employment is the number one determinant of household carbon and congestion), while the vast majority of general urban fabric loses density. As a result, average commute distances are rising, transit mode share is slipping, and vehicle growth rates are increasing faster than population growth.

The only jurisdiction to reduce transportation GHGs below 1990 levels is Sweden, building upon four pillars:

  1. A bold carbon tax
  2. Strong vehicle efficiency & ZEV mandates
  3. Renewable fuels
  4. Sustainable land use

B.C. is in alignment with Sweden on the first three pillars, but lags behind on sustainable land use. According to the European Environmental Agency, Sweden has essentially eliminated farmland and natural area loss to commercial, industrial, residential and transportation infrastructure sprawl. Transit mode share is rapidly growing and traffic-related death and serious injury has plummeted.

California is another leading jurisdiction that employs these four pillars. While B.C.’s and Metro Vancouver’s transportation GHGs have steadily risen—almost 20 per cent since 2007—California has driven seven per cent reductions.

The Clean Air Plan recently adopted by Metro Vancouver has a 65 per cent emission reduction target for passenger transportation. However, there are no “big moves” for land use, which calls the plan’s defensibility into question. The Clean Air Plan states:

Strong regional land-use policies are foundational to achieving the targets in the Clean Air Plan. Building compact, mixed-used communities that connect homes, jobs and recreation with walking, cycling and public transit will reduce driving emissions and will support the protection of important lands such as agricultural and industrial lands, and natural areas.

The draft Metro 2050, in its current form, would likely result in negligible emission reductions. Land use is becoming less versus more sustainable. Strategically located industrial land is being displaced by residential development. Agricultural and natural areas are being displaced by substandard industrial sprawl, exacerbating climate risks. Meanwhile, leading U.S. cities—including competing port cities—are building state-of-the-art, multistorey warehouses on century-old, central industrial lands, reducing congestion, carbon and transportation costs.

Technology Innovation & Sustainable Land Use Implementation

ZEV mandates won’t be enough to meet Metro Vancouver’s long term carbon neutral commitments. It takes 30 years for 100 per cent vehicle stock turnover. Of the new vehicles driven off car lots today—ninety per cent of which are fossil fueled—the last will be scrapped just after 2050. Moreover, due to auto-oriented urban growth, Metro Vancouver’s total vehicle stock is rapidly rising. Without sustainable land use, there will be more fossil fuel vehicles and congestion in 2030 than at any other time in history, making the Clean Air Plan’s 65 per cent reduction target for light duty vehicles appear illusory.

Historically, most growth in transportation sector GHGs has been in passenger vehicles. Today, the region’s fastest growth in carbon and congestion is urban freight, the “Prime” sector. Similarly, Metro 2050 and Transport 2050 have omitted consideration of meaningful precedents in land use and transportation to address this sector.

Land use planning is local governments’ wheelhouse. If there is any planning agenda where Metro Vancouver should align its GHG reduction targets it is Metro 2050. The IPPC underscores the imperative for local leadership and focus.

Thousands of cities are undertaking climate action plans, but their aggregate impact on urban emissions is uncertain… Current climate action plans focus largely on energy efficiency. Fewer climate action plans consider land use planning… Effective mitigation strategies involve packages of mutually reinforcing policies, including co-locating high residential with high employment densities, achieving high diversity and integration of land uses, increasing accessibility and investing in public transport. ~ IPCC, Assessment Report 5, Mitigation Working Group, 2014

Effective urban planning can reduce GHG emissions from urban transport between 20% and 50% ~ IPCC, Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, 2018

Metro Vancouver Land Use Projections: Evidence We Are Likely to Fall Short

A recent Metro Vancouver analysis on urban tree canopy and impervious surfaces made the following projections regarding land use based on the designations in Metro 2040 now proposed for Metro 2050:

There are currently about 6,500 hectares of lands with the regional land use designation ‘General Urban’ within the UCB, that are undeveloped or rural and planned for future urban growth… It is assumed that the remaining urban lands within the UCB will be largely developed over the next 15-20 years… These areas are expected to be developed as mainly low-density housing with some higher density areas but the relative proportions of housing types is unknown.

The “undeveloped” 6,500 ha within the UCB is equivalent to 65 km2, roughly the size of a medium sized Metro municipality, e.g., half a City of Vancouver by area, one West Van, two Port Moodys, four New Westmisters or 40 City of North Vancouvers.

This table shows the buildout of undeveloped lands within the urban containment boundary and implications to GHGs, transportation activity and urban tree canopy loss based on conservative extrapolations of similar locations and neighbourhood types and Metro Vancouver analysis.

If this growth was re-allocated to an Urban Centre or high-quality frequent transit corridor, vehicle kms travelled and GHG tonnes could be reduced by two-thirds or even play a role in driving net reductions in GHGs and driving kms and increases in urban tree canopy growth.

Policy Alignment: Metro 2050, Climate 2050/Clean Air Plan, CleanBC

Metro Vancouver needs to ensure policy alignment between plans, and adopt a proactive, rather than reactive approach. Currently Metro 2050 Goal 3 states: “Protect the Environment and Respond to Climate Change and Natural Hazards.” This goal avoids addressing Metro Vancouver’s climate policy imperative to reduce emissions 45 per cent by 2030 consistent with IPCC 1.5°C conclusions regarding emission reductions and the strategic role of local government land use action. To ensure consistency with the Clean Air Plan’s “evidence-based” and “comprehensive and integrated” principles, it is incumbent on Metro Vancouver to lay out a more sustainable land use agenda.

Moreover, rather than simply “responding to Climate Change and Natural Hazards,” there is an urgency to reduce vulnerability. Over the past year, Abbotsford, Merritt, Lytton, Princeton responded to climate change. Communities need proactive leadership. Sustainable land use is a key cornerstone for reducing vulnerability to climate impacts. This should be central to the Clean Air Plan’s “preventative” principle.

CleanBC’s Roadmap to 2030 has underscored the need to robustly integrate land use to meet transportation GHG targets. 2030 targets include reducing total driving distance (vehicle km travelled) 25 per cent. Fortunately, the Clean Air Plan is underpinned by an “ambitious” principle, and Metro 2050 should meet this target.

With 30 per cent renewable fuels by 2030 and a 90 per cent ZEV mandate for new vehicle sales under CleanBC’s Roadmap to 2030, Metro Vancouver can use existing data to calculate the land use contribution to meet its target to cut light duty vehicle GHGs by 65 per cent. Metro’s commitment to “evidence based,” “continuous improvement,” and “transparency” principles should drive this analysis and make it available to elected officials and the public.

The lack of defensible and quantified modal shift, transportation demand management, and GHG reduction targets attributable to land use renders Metro 2050 and Climate 2050 inadequate for responding to rising catastrophic losses.

Land Use: Lowest Cost, Highest Benefit Strategy Wedge

Sustainable land use is the lowest cost climate action strategy. As the OECD and the Global Commission on Climate and Economy have underscored, sustainable land use is a negative cost—a money maker!

Sustainable land use offers some of the least expensive, affordable housing solutions, protecting the pocketbooks and prospects of people in this region. Focusing growth along transit corridors and around rapid transit stations cuts congestion and puts riders and revenue into TransLink coffers. Supportive land use can extend improved traffic flow on billion-dollar bridge and highway expansions for decades, delaying (sometimes permanently) further costly expansion. Smart land use can cut transportation spending—the largest household expenditure after housing. It can dramatically reduce the magnitude of losses to property, infrastructure, ecosystem services and human life from climate impacts.

Six Big Moves for Sustainable Land Use 

Metro Vancouver can lead a course correction on sustainable land use in the region, providing leadership on strategies that reduce congestion and carbon emissions. Renewable Cities recommends these six big moves:

  1. Transit Hub Housing & Commercial: Stack housing, commercial and institutional space atop rapid transit stations, bus exchanges and bus depots creates attractive, dynamic neighbourhood hubs. This is “free” underutilized land. This strategy is consistent with the RGS and aligns with OCPs. Adding housing on and around transit land can reduce transportation GHGs, and generate ridership, farebox revenue and rental revenue for TransLink. While affordable rental and social housing should be a primary objective, this should not preclude market housing to meet revenue priorities and accommodate the socio-economic diversity of a municipality. This strategy can improve taxpayer return for the hundreds of millions invested in these assets. In addition, a profitable public procurement program that integrates net zero, sustainable construction can catalyze a prefabricated, mass timber industry in B.C. to meet domestic and international markets, an immense growth industry.
  2. SkyTrain Connected Freight Consolidation Centres & Zero Emission Courier Vehicles: Urban freight is the region and continent’s fastest growing source of carbon emissions. Leading urban regions are reversing this trend, establishing a hierarchical network of centres that consolidate courier freight for pick up and drop off by electric vans and cargo bikes. In Metro Vancouver it may be possible to capitalize on our rapid transit network, using the SkyTrain network to move goods across much of the region efficiently. The RGS could prioritize the acquisition of land for these consolidation centres. This strategy could dramatically curb growing congestion and eliminate the fastest growing source of regional GHGs by 2030.
  3. Industrial Land Protection & Intensification: Adopt recommendations to protect and intensify industrial and employment land. Firm policies should be established to ensure zero loss of industrial and employment, or agricultural, ecologically significant land. Strengthen the integration of industrial and employment into mixed use. Remove barriers and provide incentives to build multistorey industrial and warehouse buildings close to transportation assets for employee and goods movement, returning to the form of a century ago, catching up to other leading jurisdictions.
  4. General Urban Resiliency & Gentle Intensification: Metro 2050’s policy for General Urban leaves too much flexibility and doesn’t provide enough support for gentle intensification. Tremendous changes are taking place in single family neighbourhoods. Demographic changes are leading to loss of population density: most households in single family neighoubourhoods are occupied by only one or two people. Empty nesters are a primary demographic, dependent on driving and living in homes they’ve outgrown. While some are happy and have good incomes, many are socially isolated, challenged to take care of their homes, and have few options to move to smaller, more accessible homes in their neighbourhood. By 2040, 50 per cent of all homes will be occupied by a solo resident. To address these trends, Metro 2050 should strongly support gentle intensification in the general urban fabric, allowing for missing middle housing, strip mall redevelopment and accessory dwelling innovations, such as senior-student homesharing, laneway homes, and secondary suite management for seniors. These solutions can and should be right-sized by neighbourhood and municipality.
  5. Connecting Big Urban Centres – Frequent Transit Corridor Focused Growth: There is immense untapped potential for focusing growth along many major transit corridors that connect key urban centres. Currently, the smallest and slowest growing geography of all land use designations is Frequent Transit Development Areas (FTDAs). If greenfield development pressure is to be reduced, considerable work is needed to promote the designation and development of FTDAs, identifying and overcoming key barriers. TransLink’s Transit Service Guidelines provide a solid basis to guide density targets but are only specified for bus routes. They should be expanded to rapid bus and SkyTrain.
  6. Greenspace Protection: Phasing out development on farm, forest and ecologically significant land is vital for municipal fiscal sustainability, community prosperity and resilience to climate impacts. This may be the single most important big move! Lighty-populated, peripheral development does not cover the costs to operate, maintain and replace its road, water, stormwater and sewage infrastructure, let alone pay its share of other municipal services. Furthermore, green areas within the Urban Containment Boundary are located on the urban edge, far from existing transit, services and employment lands. This form of growth is the region’s single largest driver of passenger vehicle congestion and GHG growth.

“The cost of reducing regional and global greenhouse gas emissions as well as the costs of adaptation will only grow, the best cost option is to take action now.” ~ Metro Vancouver, Clean Air Plan

Read the full submission on Metro 2050: Metro 2050 Course Correction: Win-Win-Win Solutions

Read the submission on Protecting South Campbell Heights Rural Designation: Metro Van_South Campbell Heights

Alex Boston’s Presentation to Metro Vancouver Regional Planning Committee and Climate Action Committee: January 14, 2022 Presentation to Metro Vancouver