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

Dense, Mixed-Use Neighbourhoods Provide The Best Local Transportation Demand Management

By Darren Proulx

Transportation demand management is an critical element of any multi-modal transportation plan that prioritizes people and mobility options over only simply moving automobiles quickly. There are many great examples such as investing in high quality mobility options as alternatives to driving, parking sharing, demand based pricing controls such as congestion charges, behavioural prompts, demand based market priced parking or employee transit pass subsidies combined with removing free parking incentives. However the best transportation demand policy may be to build complete communities with dense, mixed use neighbourhoods with fine grain retail especially when combined with neighbourhood wide traffic calming. The dominant transportation modes are often a direct result of the built form. There is a direct relationship between the composition of our land uses and how people get around.

Baltimore Rowhouses are human scaled, interesting and dense. (Image Credit: http://vancouversun.com/news/staff-blogs/in-vancouver-what-are-rowhouses-townhouses-stacked-townhouses)

To be clear, for the purposes of this article dense land uses includes primarily row houses, town houses and small to mid rise apartments that are 5-7 stories tall (Row House: 0.9-1.2 Floor Space Ratio (FSR), 7 Storey Building: 1.45 FSR). Jan Gehl recommends 5 stories as the optimal height where you can still have building to ground interactions between people. Buildings up to five floors tall also offer the best sustainability benefits in terms of heating and energy efficiency. Shorter buildings also allow cities to spread the density to cover more of the property and fill the space better creating a complete street wall and a more interesting urban environment. Places like Vancouver demonstrate that you could have taller buildings than this, however it is recommended that you have a step back for any floors above the fifth floor to maintain a great human scale feel.

Often the majority of trips in cities with higher densities and mixed land uses are under 5 km. In Vancouver 54% of all trips are under 5 km. A recent report from Ryerson University estimates that 33% of the 4.35 million trips within the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area are between 1 to 5 km. According to the European Commission the average length of walking trips in seven European countries varies from just under 1 km (Great Britain) to 2.8 km (Finland). These distances are best for walking and cycling. Trips that are 3-5 km are optimal for cycling. Building mixed use neighbourhoods where the essential services and amenities (groceries, tools, dentists, doctors, day cares, restaurants, bars, schools, parks, public spaces,  community centres, etc.) are within 400 meters will help generate more trips that are 5 km or under. Having higher density residential uses will introduce more people to the neighbourhood which has a double effect of increasing the number of people on the streets and providing more potential customers for businesses. According to the book Principles of Urban Retail planning and development a small corner store requires 800-1000 houses within 160 acres to be financially sustainable.

Mixed Use Buildings – London and New York

What does a dense mixed use neighbourhood look like? Generally there are two models: mixed use buildings throughout the neighbourhood or neighbourhoods that were built around streets cars with separated land uses but every day needs are still within a 5 – 10 minute walk. London and New York serve as examples of the mixed use building model.


London’s fine grain retail and high density row houses creates an interesting urban environment that invites people to naturally be out in the city walking, cycling and enjoying the patios.

You could pick any neighbourhood in London as a good example of a complete community with dense mixed commercial and residential land uses. In most neighbourhoods in London you could walk for hours in any direction comfortably. The dense mixed use creates an interesting and inviting environment that attracts more people to the streets and many different activities including aimlessly walking around.

New York City

While New York City has many complete communities including but not limited to Greenwich Village or the Alphabet City. The Alphabet City as a complete community has a park and mixed use buildings with many a community park, restaurants, bars, businesses and grocery stores. You would rarely need to leave your block in the Alphabet City.

While both London and New York City do a great job at creating complete communities which makes it easier to walk, bike and use transit. They both fall short from preventing vehicles from entering every street. Allowing vehicles to co-opt every space degrades the quality of the street public space experience for walking and living as it introduces noise and emission pollution. While London does benefit from a congestion charge that has been very effective at reducing the number of vehicles on the road, space hogging cars are still permitted in almost every nook and cranny while people walking and cycling fight for over the left over space.

Street Car Developments with Separated but Walkable Land Uses

Vancouver – West End

The West End neighbourhood in Vancouver offers a different model than London or New York City for incorporating commercial uses with higher density residential land uses. The West End was developed around a street car network that operates on Davie, Denman and Robson Streets. These streets were also developed with fine grain commercial uses, meanwhile the majority of land surrounding these retail streets is primarily residential land uses that were developed to support the fine grain retail businesses and increase ridership on the street car. You do find some businesses within the neighbourhoods that have been grandfathered in, increasing the convenience for residents of the West End. All of this serves to put most residents in the West End within 400m (5 minutes) walking distance of fine grain retail and services and a high frequency bus transit service (arriving every 6 minutes for most times of the day). In fact it is because of the higher residential density of the West End that allows the very high transit frequency which helps with the longer regional trips in Vancouver.

The higher residential density also supports a high density of retail businesses. Just to put this into perspective, in the West End you have eighteen grocery stores and bodegas within a 15 minute walk for most people, seven of which are large scale Safeways, Whole Foods and No Frills. In most North American cities you would be lucky to have one large scale grocery store within a 10 minute walk. It is the smaller bodega’s or produce markets that bring the convenience closer to the residents by reducing walking distances. This doesn’t include the West End’s hundreds of restaurant, bars, businesses and amenities. Density is convenience. Having more people makes having more businesses possible, the higher volumes of customers can also serve to drive down prices for local businesses due to economies of scales. This combination creates an interesting and comfortable urban environment that encourages people to walk or cycle to their destination. The numbers speak for themselves 67% of people walk (40%), bike or use transit to work.

Traffic Calming

An example of a Vancouver traffic diverter than allows people walking and cycling to pass through while preventing vehicles.


One major difference between Vancouver’s West End and New York City’s Alphabet City are the noise levels. Despite the high density of the West End, while you will often find many parked cars you will seldom see large volumes of vehicles travelling through. This means the West End is often very quiet. This is contradictory to what most people will assume about density. Often when you hear of new residential apartment buildings going up, you will also hear of the protests that more people will bring higher traffic volumes, noise and congestion. Traffic models will also often demonstrate that neighbourhoods will be suffering from chronic congestion. When done correctly higher densities combined with mixed uses encourage more walking, cycling and transit usage as is the case with all of the examples presented in this article. The missing ingredient is often neighbourhood wide traffic calming.

A map from the West End Community Plan demonstrating the comprehensive neighbourhood wide traffic calming measures taken to prioritize local vehicle movements. http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/west-end-community-plan.pdf

Two elements are critical for this success. The first is the high frequency transit service which provides an alternative to automobile for long distance trips in Vancouver. The second is the neighbourhood traffic calming and diversions. Traffic diversions are necessary to prioritize local traffic for local residents and keep out people making regional trips trying to travel through. High quality and frequent transit is necessary to provide an attractive alternative to the car for long distance trips. The both of these combined tends to keep traffic volumes down and primarily on the retail streets. This is the case in Vancouver’s West End as traffic tends to stay on Denman, Robson and Davies Streets and out of the neighbourhood. Even then the majority of traffic on streets like Denman Street are primarily coming from other parts of the city and are passing through on their way across the Lions Gate bridge north.

Barcelona Superblocks

Car, scooter, lorry and bus traffic will then be restricted to just the roads in the superblock perimeters, and they will only be allowed in the streets in between if they are residents or providing local businesses, and at a greatly reduced speed of 10km/h.

Barcelona offers another version of this traffic calming through the creation of superblocks that prioritize walking and cycling over driving.”A superblock will consist of nine existing blocks of the grid. Car, scooter, lorry and bus traffic will then be restricted to just the roads in the superblock perimeters, and they will only be allowed in the streets in between if they are residents or providing local businesses, and at a greatly reduced speed of 10km/h.” These superblocks would put everyone within 400m (5 minute walk) of transit while improving the quality of life for the residents with reduced noise, pollution and congestion.

Edmonton – Oliver

Edmonton’s Oliver Neighbourhood


Oliver is one of Edmonton’s most attractive neighbourhoods which has higher density residential land uses and is surrounded by old street car corridors. However often when walking through the neighbourhood, it will be empty. How is it that one of Edmonton’s most attractive neighbourhoods with the highest density is often empty? Oliver lacks the finer grain commercial uses and most critically the small scale grocery stores on 2 of 3 of its nearby retail streets, Jasper Avenue and 104 Avenue. Groceries are a basic necessity, when you don’t make them readily available like Vancouver’s bodegas this forces people to have to travel farther to get their groceries. When the grocery store and other necessary services and stores are within a 5 to 10 minutes walk this means that people can take more trips spontaneously more often. When the grocery store is farther away this means people are more likely to take fewer trips by driving and buy more products at once. A study in Portland showed that people walking and cycling actually spend more overall than people driving because of this phenomenon. Making our communities more walkable has significant positive economic impacts, therefore creating complete communities that also decrease driving rates is also better for the local economy.

Part of the issue in Edmonton are the restrictive covenants, a legacy left by Safeway that prevents future grocery stores from opening in old Safeway locations or anywhere nearby. This only serves to create an artificially competitive market for big chain grocery stores within a 5 minute driving radius, while residents lose out on improved convenience and access. The maps above put this in perspective, Oliver only has four grocery stores within a 15 minute walking distance of most residents, meanwhile Vancouver has eighteen. The second issue are the gaps and reduced commercial business densities imposed on the retail streets by unnecessary and costly minimum parking requirements. Minimum parking requirements required existing businesses to buy the neighbouring property to only demolish it for parking, doubling their costs while halving the number of businesses attracting people.

Intensifying Commercial Land Uses

The great news is that Edmonton has already relaxed the minimum parking requirements. Cities with these retail street gaps should also contemplate encouraging land owners of parking lots to consider temporarily filling them with food truck pods similar to those in the City of Portland which can be found both downtown and also in lower density residential neighbourhoods. The result is that you can provide more low cost entry opportunities for home grown businesses, therefore increasing city revenues, jobs, residential convenience and making the community more interesting. Increased business density also supports existing small businesses on retail streets as it invites more people to the street which can result in unintentional spill over shopping. Edmonton’s Corner Store Pilot program, while still in its infancy may also offer an opportunity for intensifying lands uses. The program invests in improved landscaping, infrastructure and placemaking in addition to providing customized operations advice for struggling fine grain retail community centres.

Vancouver Cambie Street mixed-use development shows that Big Box stores can play nice in cities without the parking lots. (Photo Credit: https://757hamptonroads.wordpress.com/tag/lynnhaven-mall/)

What about the big chain stores? Often they are the biggest culprits for willingly building massive parking lots for their stores. A Costco at the base of a residential tower? A mixed use mid rise development with a Home Depot, Winners, Save-On-Food, Canadian Tire, Best Buy and Homesense, including a dozen small businesses on the ground floor and residential units on the top floors? Vancouver offers a model that works. Cities often underestimate the negotiating power they have to foster and shape better urban design that increases the convenience for people without destroying the urban fabric that invites more walking with parking lots.

To deter high volumes of vehicle trips that degrade the quality of the urban environment with their noise, pollution and costly collisions, the best thing you can do is build dense mixed use neighbourhoods that are naturally convenient, exciting and inviting for walking and cycling. While this will convince most local residents to ditch the car, the differences between Vancouver’s West End and neighbourhoods in New York City or London demonstrate that neighbourhood wide traffic calming is usually also necessary. Neighbourhood wide traffic calming will mitigate traffic that is simply trying to move through contributing little to the community and prioritizes the driving trips for the local residents. It is also important to have high quality and frequent transit service within a 5-10 minute walk to further discourage the need of a car for longer vehicle trips.