A Survey of Surrey

September 19, 2008 at 1:46 pm Leave a comment

The City Program was asked to submit a paper for the Surrey Economic Summit.

The development of a post-war urban region at a time of changing assumptions

ABSTRACT: The City of Surrey, laid out on a classic mid-19th century grid, predominantly developed in the post-World War II environment, reflects the car-dominant design of transportation planners of that era. The assumptions of its growth and the choices available to those who live and work there have become increasingly tentative as a consequence of global events and changing needs and expectations. Surrey is examining how to become both more sustainable and more resilient. Fortunately, there are options.

Exactly a century and a half ago, events led to the creation of a Crown colony roughly four times the size of Great Britain – the colony Queen Victoria chose to name “British Columbia.” Fearful of American expansionism, its rulers realized they would have to impose their presence on this vast wilderness if they were to retain control.

And so they called forward those who knew how to draw lines on paper.

As W.A. Taylor, provincial surveyor-general, remarked: “There is nothing like a little surveying to create the illusion of ownership.”

The men who drew the lines were the Royal Engineers under the command of Col. R.C. Moody. Among the first lines on their maps was the Coast Meridian: the critical north-south spine from which all the east-west baselines would be derived. And which, when platted out in square miles, would create the palate on which all subsequent generations would paint.

The Coast Meridian begins where the 49th parallel meets the Pacific – the Blaine border crossing. From there, it heads north where 168th Street is today, through the heart of Surrey, before jumping the river and ending up somewhere in the wilds of Coquitlam’s Burke Mountain.

Col. Moody adopted the American survey pattern of ‘township and range’ south of the Fraser River, and so laid out the pattern of squares so familiar on the flatter lands of this continent. The lines between the squares have become the numbered streets and avenues that make up the familiar grid, familiar at least to suburban drivers who pass through a major intersection every mile in every direction.

Inside those one-mile squares are collector roads, and then, if a subdivision plat was laid down after the Second World War, most likely a squiggle of cul-de-sacs and curves. Disrupting the right angles of the grid are major historic routes – Old Yale Road, the Fraser Highway and the Trans-Canada. Main-line railway tracks and the interurban right-of-way now angle across the agricultural lands and the sprawl of suburbia that long ago absorbed once-isolated country stations.

The first municipalities incorporated in the late 1800s were simple but vast tracts of land stretching from the Fraser River to the 49th parallel, ignorant of topography and ecology for the sake of straight-line borders. When faced with complexity and the limits of their technology, surveyors and engineers imposed simplicity. There was rarely a curve in the grid of an early surveyor.

The grid has much to recommend it. It’s an extraordinarily easy thing with which to construct a mental map and to manage traffic. Across great distances, large volumes of vehicles can move quickly and safely.

That was the idea behind post-war transportation planning. In 1942, when the first edition of the Transportation Planning Handbook was issued by the Institute of Traffic Engineers, it codified best practices in road design and construction – all of it dedicated to the “efficient, free and rapid flow of traffic.”

After the war, men accustomed to military order were moving into highway departments. They were used to building massive infrastructure, with substantial budgets and not a lot of interference. The road builders, public and private, opened up the hinterland with asphalt, and redesigned suburbia to match. As population and communities grew, the grid of roads became the arterials of commerce that fed the freeways. Today, no matter where one goes in North America, the experience of driving down a commercial strip is very much the same, from the left-hand turn bays to the colours of the fast-food franchises.

Municipalities in the post-war world needed codes and standards right away; the transportation engineers had them – and the two words that could deter any deviation: “safety” and “liability.” They could design roads for safe travel at 60 miles an hour; they could assess with precision the needed amount of parking; they could extend this network seamlessly, seemingly forever. They assumed there would never be a limit on the demand for more road space or of politicians who would fund them.

Post-war prosperity in the Lower Mainland was facilitated by the literal bridging of the Fraser. The Oak and Knight Street Bridges, the Deas Island tunnel, and especially the Port Mann Bridge, opening in 1964, and most recently the Alex Fraser Bridge unleashed a tidal wave of subdivision and development over the low-lying fields of the delta and the benchlands above.

Almost all this development was car- and truck-dependent. (Transit was an afterthought and insufficiently funded. The interurban line stopped service in 1950.) Once the road standards and parking codes were in place, the rest else was detail, including the architecture. Zoning complemented the road standards; it was intended to be simple, to reduce incompatibility, to avoid risk and liability. Everything would be in its place, each in separate places, networked with arterial roads.

After more than half a century of building urban regions this way, there remains a basic question: Is this a good working model? Specifically, is there a place in North American that has successfully addressed traffic congestion by building more roads and bridges – and that we wish to emulate?

However, even without a working model of success, transportation planners and engineers continue to build and widen roads and to build more bridges in every drivable direction. Our dependence on cars is extended wherever we accommodate growth, mainly because there seems to be no acceptable alternative.
This is the ‘psychology of the previous investment’ – or path dependence. Decisions today are limited by decisions made in the past, even though past circumstances may no longer apply. We keep on doing it because that’s the way we’ve done it.

Surrey is a post-war agglomeration of suburban communities which now faces a different set of assumptions than those on which it has based its development. The provision of uncongested roads and bridges was only one of those assumptions. More essential was the continual supply of cheap serviced land – the point of constructing the roads and bridges in the first place.

Altogether there are five assumptions on which the suburbs have been built. (1) Enough serviced land to keep housing affordable. (2) An unlimited quantity of safe water, so abundant it wouldn’t even need to be metered. (3) Cheap, secure energy, largely in the form of liquid hydrocarbons and electricity at constant command. (4) Accessible capital, government-insured if necessary, in order to put home ownership in reach of the majority of Canadians. (5) The technology needed to do all this, able to overcome any constraint.

Today, at least four of those assumptions are in question. The next generation will not be able to assume that the housing and transportation options achieved by their parents will necessarily be available to them, particularly at an affordable price. As a result there will need to be more transportation options, especially as the cost of driving becomes increasingly untenable, and a greater mix of land uses and densities.

A sustainable city will have to offer a mix of five practical mobility choices. The car is often the first choice, certainly the most popular when affordable, and the second is for mobility purchased by the trip – car sharing and taxis. Then, in addition, transit in many forms, from shuttle bus to heavy rail. The bicycle of course. And finally the option most universally used: the foot.

When transportation consumers can mix and match these five modes according to the particulars of the trip and individual circumstances, they have enough flexibility to reduce both their personal dependence on the car and the failure of a network that is hostage to congestion created by the overuse of a single mode.

But to make these choices practical, conditions must be right. Low-density, single and widely separated uses, required or reinforced by simplistic zoning, is not resilient enough. Rather than an urban form designed to be served predominantly by cars and trucks, a successful urban region combines sufficient density with the right kind of mixes, and brings things close enough together so that options such as walking and cycling work for some trips and can be blended with other modes, including the car, truck and transit, to provide affordable mobility.

It’s not that hard. Precedents go back to the beginning of cities, and continue through to the streetcar era of the 1920s. In such cities there is room for everything from single-family houses to highrises, complemented by a mix of work places, retail services, cultural and educational institutions, green space and agricultural lands, situated close enough together to be mutually supportive. Given the right combination of density, mix and proximity, for instance, transportation choice spontaneously evolves.

Compact centres linked by rapid-transit that overlay the grid of arterials and freeways go back to the original vision of the regional plans rooted in the 1950s: “cities in a sea of green.” Successful examples of urbanity from the initial experiments such as Metrotown in the 1970s to more integrated developments like Newport Village and Suter Brook in Port Moody, illustrate the intent of the original vision. This mixed-use model is already being formulized in contemporary “lifestyle centres” and the rebuilding of shopping centres from Park Royal to Surrey Centre.

Surrey, of course, tried to achieve town-centre success with the designation of Whalley as Surrey City Centre in the 1966 regional plan, reinforced by community plans and the arrival of SkyTrain in 1994. For a number of reasons, it didn’t gel – possibly because of market conditions and perceptions, possibly because of insufficient follow-through by public agencies. Or possibly because it’s difficult to create a walkable, urban community within a grid and form of development that has been designed to be exclusively drivable and defined by vast surface parking lots.

Yet in some sections, Surrey has the residential density and ostensible mix that should in theory make transportation options work, particularly at Guildford. While the pieces may all be there, they are not put together properly. There is not the right proximity. From the nearby interchange on Highway 1 to the parking lots of shopping centres and condo complexes, Guildford reads as “drivable suburban” urban form – something that will only be reinforced by the Gateway Project.

Indeed, when SkyTrain is extended to Guildford and the interchange on the Trans-Canada Highway is enlarged, the momentum at Surrey City Centre may dissipate and gravitate to Guildford. Whalley may never maintain the momentum it needs to become a true downtown.

Surrey could well be a test case that answers the question: Can a suburban city designed for the personal vehicle and the truck have to convert completely to walkable urbanity in its town centres, or is there some ‘compromise’, where gradual change accommodates new forms over time? And is there time in which to make these changes?

Global forces are rapidly changing expectations. The volatile price of energy, the traumatic consequences of climate change, the geopolitical and financial ruptures that follow – all of these interact to disrupt the assumptions on which we have planned our cities. Sustainability may be the new mantra, but resilience in the face of crises may be the needed strategy.

Some argue that the hole is already too deep; it’s time to stop digging. Stop ‘investing’ in car-based infrastructure and divert those resources to alternative transportation options, especially transit. Discard the road builder’s codes and standards, particularly for parking, and build more complex, compact cities. Others maintain that significant new road infrastructure is needed to accommodate both existing demand and new ways of moving, even if the projects themselves continue to reinforce driving dependence.

Surrey, at the moment, is trying to do both, to become more sustainable even as it becomes yet more car dependent. The challenge will be to use the grid to promote more choice. There are options: a network of ‘B-line’ style rapid buses on dedicated lanes feeding major transit exchanges, a revival of the interurban line, an extension of SkyTrain. At the same time, a rebuilding of the large shopping centres into truly urban communities; more infill, density and mix of uses; less isolated business parks and campuses; direct pedestrian routes through cul-de-sacs and the convoluted plats of post-war subdivisions; more bicycle lanes, bikeways and separated tracks; more shuttles, jitneys, car-sharing and increased taxi services.

One thing for sure: the next generation, faced with the palate of the grid and its post-war design, will have to paint with a different set of brushes.

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