Building in the right places, part 2 – near transit stops

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I published an op-ed in the Times Colonist on where new building should be focussed. The upshot is that we need more homes in the right places, i.e. where people can get around more easily, more affordably, and with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

So where are the right places?

  • In 5- or 10-minute, walkable, complete communities
  • Near transit stops
  • Near protected bike-and-roll lanes.

At a regional level, so far we are not tracking well. The CRD’s Regional Growth Strategy “aims to keep urban settlement compact and directs new growth to be located where it can be efficiently serviced by transit and active transportation.” Currently we are not meeting the desired trend. Over the last decade, the large majority of homes have been added in areas of the region where less than 45% of residents walk, bike or bus to work. We need to do better.

How are we doing so far within the City of Victoria? Better: within City boundaries, very roughly half of our land base has 45% of people getting to work by walking, bike, or bus, and in very roughly another half the range is 25% to 45%. There are a few areas where the number is below 25%. (See image below. By the way, there is a project underway over at the CRD that will provide interesting and more fine-grained data on this.)

Source: CRD, “Regional Growth Strategy Indicators Report 2023

What about the future?  Where are the new homes going? Of course, we are going to have more homes in all areas, including areas formerly reserved exclusively for single detached houses. The era of single-detached only zoning is over – in Victoria and across BC.  The new baseline is multi-family. The real question is where we have more homes in addition to the baseline.

In Victoria, as in other cities, this is a key focus of the Official Community Plan (OCP). Recently, City staff prepared some useful slides for our OCP Update engagement, e.g. the slide below. I was excited to see these slides at one of the open houses for the engagement, and I want to share them and provide some of my own thoughts. This post focusses on the second bullet in my list of three above – “Near transit stops” – or what is often called transit-oriented development (TOD). Other posts will focus on the other two bullets.

 

"This map shows the five-minute walk area of Victoria's proposed Transit Priority Network, where frequent, reliable transit exists or is envisioned to be prioritized in the coming decades. Buffers: 200m, 300m, 400m."

As per the caption, this map shows 200m, 300m and 400m distances from “Victoria’s proposed Transit Priority Network, where frequent, reliable transit exists or is envisioned to be prioritized in the coming decades.”

The map shows that there are many areas that are, or in future could be, well served by frequent, reliable transit. And there are some that are not well served, and are not anticipated to be well served in the near future – e.g. Fairfield near Clover Point and Hollywood Cres, much of Rockland, part of North Gonzales, and some other smaller areas.

Transit service is generally better in areas that have enough homes to provide a good level of ridership. If you want buses, you need homes. If you don’t have enough homes, you won’t get much bus service. Fairly straightforward.

A couple of things to note about the caption.

“Network”

The shading in the City slide is centred on bus routes, not on bus stops, or intersections of bus routes. This is OK for now, as the slide is just an illustration of the larger concept of orienting development near transit. We can get more precise about locations as we get closer to actual decisions. A future version could look like nodes around bus stops rather than linear corridors.

Speaking of nodes, Provincial policy requires that cities allow more housing near frequent service bus stops and within a 400m radius of transit hubs – and I fully support that policy. Transit hubs are defined as “bus exchanges where passengers transfer from one route to another” (and rapid transit e.g. Skytrain in the Lower Mainland). The only bus exchange in the City of Victoria is the bus exchange on Government St at the Legislature.

Provincial requirements for TOD around bus exchanges:

    • within 200 metres or less of a bus exchange – minimum density up to 3.5 FAR [ratio of floor area to lot area], minimum allowable height up to 10 storeys; and
    • 201 metres to 400 metres of a bus exchange – minimum density up to 2.5 FAR, minimum height up to six storeys.

Based on comments from City of Victoria staff, I expect they will be coming to Council with proposals for TOD around several City-defined transit hubs, in addition to the sole provincially-designated hub.

“Envisioned to be prioritized in the coming decades”

The slide illustrates where there might be frequent, reliable transit in coming decades. Certainly that’s not the case today. Most transit service in the City currently is not frequent. I hope service levels will see major investments in coming years, and that seems to be the direction of the current Provincial government and budget projections.

What radius around bus stops and exchanges?

The provincial policies noted above have fixed distances from bus stops for TOD, and these are meant to apply to a wide range of city-types. With the forthcoming Victoria-defined transit hubs, we have more flexibility.

There are historical standards out there – rules of thumb like “people will walk 400m to a bus stop.” Standards like this are somewhat useful, but newer research is showing that the distances people will walk to use transit vary significantly, and depend on a lot of factors, e.g. service frequency, wait times, length of journey, and neighbourhood and household characteristics. Also, attracting new riders may require different distances than existing riders are willing to walk. One meta-review of 41 studies notes that “a large variety of walking distances and times have been reported, and these seem to be highly context-specific.”*

In other words, the best radius for TOD in Victoria may vary from the standard rule of thumb.

Conclusions

Transit-oriented development is arriving in Victoria. I expect we will be expanding TOD areas significantly beyond the province’s minimum requirements, and baking it into our Official Community Plan. We need more investment in transit service levels, and TOD will helps attract it. Of course, transit funding depends on future Provincial budgets and the outcomes of elections.

In future, the City will be required by provincial policy to update the Official Community Plan every five years, or more often, instead of having it languish more than a decade. Again, I support this requirement. This will give us the opportunity to expand on TODs in future OCPs, as transit service levels improve.

This is just one part of building in the right places, and the proximity to walkable destinations and protected bike-and-roll infrastructure will also be factors in where additional homes are built. Watch for future posts on those topics.

* van Soest, D., Tight, M. R., & Rogers, C. D. F. (2019). Exploring the distances people walk to access public transport. Transport Reviews, 40(2), 160–182. https://doi.org/10.1080/01441647.2019.1575491

PS A quick note about history. We had transit oriented development in Victoria, starting in the late 1800s, and continuing until the mid-1900s. A lot of Victoria’s existing urban villages, cute corner stores and early-1900s apartment buildings were originally built at streetcar stops – before the streetcar system was paved over. To see a few maps of our streetcar heritage, see this post.