Increasing housing density along arterial roads just reinforces inequality

Vancouver is densifying in areas that will make people sick and exacerbate inequality.

Vancouver has a housing affordability crisis. They are trying to make homes more affordable by building more of them, and they’re primarily building in dense strips along arterial roads.

New-ish densification at Kingsway and Knight. This intersection is frequently so loud that you can’t have a conversation on the sidewalk or turn up your headphones loudly enough to understand an audiobook.

Living near a road with lots of car traffic is very, very dangerous. The air pollution makes you sick, stupid, and demented. The noise pollution also makes you sick, tired, fat, and dumb. Both take years off of your life.

This housing is still far too expensive for people making the median income in Vancouver to actually buy, but they’re likely to be renting it and some wealthier professionals will likely use it to try to get a foot in the property market. But there’s a real downside to living in these places. As the NYTimes opined yesterday:

The emphasis on vehicle traffic flow is also a perversion of basic social equity, and the costs show up in ways large and small. Vehicles in cities contribute a major portion of small-particle pollution, the kind that penetrates deep into the lungs. (The percentage can reach as high as 49 percent in Phoenix and 55 percent in Los Angeles. It’s just 6 percent in Beijing, but that’s because there are so many other pollution sources.) People living close to busy roads, particularly infants and older people in lower-income households, pay most of the cost in respiratory, cardiovascular and other problems. A 2013 M.I.T. study estimated that vehicle emissions cause 53,000 early deaths a year in the United States, and a study just last month from Lancaster University in Britain found that children with intellectual disabilities are far more likely to live in areas with high levels of vehicle pollution.

Right now, Vancouver’s planning priorities mean that the lower your income, the sicker your home is likely to make you. And being sick makes you poorer. By densifying along roads with lots of car traffic, we’re exacerbating the already deeply problematic wealth inequality in Vancouver. We’re letting a very few people with millions of dollars in assets live in safe parts of the city away from cars and forcing everyone else into homes where they don’t sleep well, where their kids don’t learn well, and where they die years young.

From that same NYTimes opinion, here are a few of the smaller ways prioritizing cars is deeply unfair, expensive, and bad for us all.

  • Most people in cities from Bangalore to Brooklyn cannot afford to keep a car, and yet our cities routinely turn over the majority of public thoroughfares to those who can.
  • [Parking] means that we often cannot afford room for parks or shade trees, which other studies have repeatedly shown to be an important factor in the health and mental well-being of residents.
  • Urban walking has thus deteriorated from a civilized pleasure to an overheated, unshaded, traffic-harried race to a destination.

When you consider the enormous costs and unequal distribution of the negative health effects from reduced exercise, air and noise pollution caused by car traffic, it looks even worse. And that’s completely ignoring the way car-dependence drives up housing costs through parking requirements and damages retail by turning streets into places cars pass through rather than a place people go.

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It doesn’t have to be like this!

Instead of densifying along arterial roads, we could zone areas dominated by single family homes so they can be more like the incredible West End. I think Dunbar is the perfect neighborhood to transform into a dense, livable community.

Both have big, gorgeous trees, unique and personal gardens and quiet streets. Both are next to large, forested, world-class urban parks. Both abut large workplaces (the West End – Downtown and Dunbar – UBC).

But a block in the West End has hundreds of people. A block in Dunbar might have 40.

Density at this corner in the West End is 200-400 people per hectare.

The West End is much more affordable, walkable, and bikeable, and the large population means it can (and does) support many more shops and amenities. Dunbar’s retail areas are very small and have a lot of empty storefronts. The West End isn’t crowded, but you see other people. Dunbar feels dead. Transit in the West End is both more unnecessary and more available than in Dunbar.

Density at this corner in a relatively dense section of Dunbar is 40-50 people per hectare.

Dunbar is more like the West End was a century ago, but the West End changed – and for the better.

The West End community is one of the oldest residential areas in Vancouver. In the late 1890’s and early 20th century, this was the upscale neighbourhood in Vancouver. Many large family mansions were built then slowly replaced by low rise apartment buildings. Today there is a mix of old mansions, homes and heritage apartments throughout the West End.

With good zoning decisions, traffic calming off the arterials, and better transit, Dunbar could become a beloved, quiet, interesting home for tens of thousands more people.

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Another option is to acknowledge that cars make us sick and cost us a ton of money, and that they don’t belong in cities. We could limit or ban private cars entirely in high density areas of the city – I’d start with pretty much all of the downtown and move to much of the Broadway corridor, along parts of Kingsway and Southwest Marine Drive, through much of East Van between Main and Victoria, the Drive and around Nanaimo and Dundas St.

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We can even be truly brave and do both.

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