Why TOD is an incomplete idea in Metro Vancouver

New Examples of Transit Oriented Development (Source: Daily Hive)

Transit oriented development is a prolific planning method that has shaped Vancouver and its suburbs into pockets of high density near rapid transit stations.  With the goal of decreasing sprawling development and car use, TOD encourages more transit usage and compact communities. In Metro Vancouver, a major goal of TOD has been getting commuters to downtown Vancouver without driving, and with ridership close to 500,000 users per day the region of Vancouver has every right to claim success in that respect.

However, Transit oriented development in Metro Vancouver has largely missed a critical element of compact communities which is the promotion of place, where people can stop to chat with neighbours, to allow children to play, or to to stay and linger in their neighbourhoods. TOD is developed to be a means for commuters, and not as an ends for neighbourhoods. TOD has not proven to be an ends where populations can feel welcome in their neighbourhoods, to be social, and to express themselves where they live.

The planning strategy of TOD has been challenged more recently, where various researchers, planners, and residents have begun to see social problems occurring due to extremely high land values resulting in housing that is no longer affordable for existing residents, and unable to produce rental housing. (Resources Below) Secondly, the development form is characterized as being too dense, and not permitting families or cohorts to live together. The high density living in North America has been characterized as living in “a shoebox in the sky.”

The following will further analyse the current problems of TOD, as it is applied today in Metro Vancouver and begin to show why TOD is an incomplete idea:


  • Many transit corridors in Metro Vancouver have existing housing that was built in the 1970s or earlier. The older housing stock is often affordable to middle and lower income earners. The Land value is the key factor that makes replacement of the affordable housing stock impossible. The ability to develop purpose-built rental through incentives also becomes nearly impossible according to Metro Vancouver studies

A Dramatic Jump in Land Value = Result is Luxury Housing

  • Studies in many western cities show that a transit station and line can have a rapid effect of increasing private property values, as much as 30-50%, in a short period of time after a transit line has been proposed.  Afterwards, property values will jump again when a municipality makes a neighbourhood plan permitting high-density housing. In order to develop the properties towards full value, a developer will often acquire several properties, which can be the size of a city block. This is a costly process, that results in very large scale and phased developments, and are oriented towards luxury housing rather than modest housing.

A Small Group of Builders will qualify to build

  • In TOD areas in Metro Vancouver, an “oligarchy” or select group of housing developers have formed to develop around stations. Because of the lack of variety of housing developers, the price for housing (rental or ownership) can often be fixed because there is no modest scale developer who can afford to acquire the site and develop. A further barrier exists to modest scale builders when the high-rise form requires specialized trades, engineers, architects, and project managers to build.

The small group of developers who can build in TOD areas can:

    • Afford to consolidate multiple lots
    • Afford higher priced / specialized engineers, architects, tradesmen, and project managers
    • Finance concrete construction
    • Hire a comprehensive marketing group to pre-sell units
    • Hold large quantities of land for long periods of time
    • Able to take risks with development that has no guaranteed outcomes, and afford higher financing rates

Lack of quality Public Space


  • Through the use of very detailed design guidelines established by cities, Transit-oriented developments are designed to provide quality quiet “open space” or public space, but under a high density form. The result is often inadequate. The open space aspect is often an afterthought and pushed to the least desirable area of a site such as near a road, suffers from lack of daylight, is not inviting to the public, or just separated from the public realm because it is several floors above the public realm. (See above, Cambie and 41st)
  • As mentioned earlier, the large buildings are a result of lot consolidation which shows little variation in form. The streetlife is further harmed when pedestrians cannot go through the site (lack of permeability)
  • Often in TOD, public space is kept to the edge of the property, closest to a busy road where units are less marketable, or sometimes by city design. In the Cambie Corridor Phase 3- Open Space Guidelines (Above). The proposed plaza is along a busy street. Pedestrians will perhaps wait for a bus or connection here, but will not likely stay for extended periods. This plaza faces a lack of enclosure and protection from traffic.
  • Generic Looking Building Form

    In Montreal , CA new tenants or landlords will often renovate their own rowhomes. New colors, fixtures, plantings, or ornaments allow resident to add their own touch to their homes.
    • Glass Towers have been favoured by developers as a winning model, one thatpromotes a view. However, the form has become commonplace and generic in Vancouver to the point where other designs which are more attractive at the ground level are ignored such as different types of brick or those adorned with ornate sculptures, marble, or craftsmanship.
    • The ground level also suffers from another problem, in that the residents of the glass towers can not display their own creativity with new arrangements of flowers, art, different colors of window frames, or different painting. Other housing that is more common in Europe or eastern Canada (Montreal) adds significantly more character through personalization.

    No Variety at at ground level

    • In response to requirements by municipalities to place commercial units at ground level, or the private sectors desire for larger commercial units, there is a lack of variety at the ground level. Only businesses that can take on larger costs such as chains will take over ground floors facing the public realm. The businesses are often generic and similar.
    No. 3 Road, Richmond. Many of the retail spaces are dominated by banks which often blank out windows and take away from the public realm.

    TOD Does not fully acknowledge desire for lower density living

    • TOD does not acknowledge the important ideas of sprawl such as living away from inner cities, away from high density, and away from the noise and pollution that comes from higher density


    High Density development is a goal that been pursued strongly in Metro Vancouver. However, the region has missed an opportunity for more sensible development options that have been established for years such as low-to-medium density housing and public squares. Development where residents can tailor their neighbourhoods to their likes and as a direct response to their creativity.

    High density developments have been too sterile, too prescriptive, and do not activate the public realm.  A large problem is the requirement to consolidate many lots in order to shape one site, then create requirements for the public realm site by site, and not in a collective manner that has been done historically.

    How can Vancouver meet goals of densification and do so in a way that can encourage people to walk, to stay in their neighbourhoods, feel proud of their nearby public spaces? The answer may lie in the ideals of “Missing Middle Housing”, or may need to go back to the trend of compact neighbourhoods centred around public squares. The remainder of this summer series will attempt to draw these questions out.

    Related Studies

    1. TOD and the relation to gentrification https://spectrum.library.concordia.ca/977520/1/Grube-Cavers_MSc_F2013.pdf
    2. Affordable Housing in Transit-Oriented Developments
      1. https://ncst.ucdavis.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/NCST-TO-027-Boarnet-Bostic-Affordable-TOD-White-Paper_FINALv2.pdf
    3. Transit Stations and Increasing Land Value in Brisbane/Gold Coast: https://theconversation.com/why-gold-coast-light-rail-was-worth-it-its-about-more-than-patronage-78190
    4. Metro Vancouver Study on Transit Oriented Development: http://www.metrovancouver.org/services/regional-planning/housing-affordability/transit-oriented/Pages/default.aspx

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