Off the Rails

April 1, 2009

If “sustainability” was the buzzword of the 2000s, “peak oil” may define the coming decade. The notion that global petroleum reserves are nearing depletion has divided the academic world and the energy industries, with skeptics dismissing the notion even as pessimists assert that resource decline is already under way. Anthony Perl, director of SFU’s urban-studies program, argues in his new book, Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil, that we’re moving inexorably toward life after oil. A New Yorker, Perl began his academic career in the renowned government program at Harvard University (“during the patchy years,” he says wryly), then studied public administration and political science at the University of Toronto. His research interests touch on transportation, city planning, and the environment, subjects on which he’s persuasively outspoken. Perl recently turned his attention to his adopted hometown and its troubled relationship with transportation, education, and self-esteem.

Q: You’ve been here for three years now. As a student of cities, how does Vancouver strike you?

A: It seems like Toronto in the ’80s, especially the “world-class” stuff. When people there started saying “world-class,” alarms should have been going off in city planning and governance minds. They thought they’d invented the answer; if something was done in Toronto, it must be successful. We risk that here in Vancouver—our megaproject mania for highways, SkyTrains to UBC, stuff like that.

Q: The Olympics drive much of this monumentalism. What do you see as the legacy of 2010?

A: As well as security, there’s a broader crypto-fascistic tendency of the Olympics to manage whatever society they’re in and to have everyone stand and cheer at the same time. Now, you can do that in a city of less than a million, and Winter Games cities tend to not be cities, really. Vancouver will be the first Winter Olympics city with well over a million people, and that will have some consequences. If a thousand people decide to march from the Downtown Eastside to the broadcast centre, well, they may only get to within a block or two, but they will be noticed.

Q: When the world comes, what else will they notice?

A: Let’s start at the airport. What we show people there is an embalmed version of B.C. nature and culture. You have fake water, fake bird noises—it’s like being in a mausoleum.

Even the smell is like embalming fluid. It’s different from other airports, where you’re fed through a chute like cattle, so maybe that has some benefit—it certainly shocks you. In any transportation terminal, the question that’s asked most is, “Where’s the washroom?” At YVR, you get a fake rain forest with running water, which, if you’re going to wet your pants after being on a flight for 14 hours, is even more challenging.

We’re trying to present a version of ourselves, but it speaks to an insecurity: we have to tell them, we have to show them the Raven, we have to have the water and the canoe, to make sure people get it. But the reality is that given the nature of air transportation and the sealed environments that are required, where they have to get you through Customs and figure out who to Taser and who not to, it can’t be a real representation. In the great European cities, you walk into St. Pancras Station in London or Gare du Nord in Paris and you get it a lot quicker because it’s a real environment: you can stop at the champagne bar or go out the back door and look for the red-light district; it’s all hubbed around the station.

Q: So our airport could integrate better with the region?

A: If YVR thinks the future lies in just adding more planes, it’s living in a fantasy world. Its one saviour—the only one if they want to be the air gateway to Asia—is that I see airplanes becoming bigger, more fuel-efficient, and less frequent. That means that instead of three flights a day to Tokyo from Portland, Vancouver, and Seattle, there’s going to be one, maybe run by two or three different airlines.

And if there’s only one airport in the Northwest that’s a gateway to Asia, the only edge we have over Seattle is that every mile you can go on the ground with an electric train uses zero oil, and this is the closest place where you can drop an aircraft down from the trans-Pacific routes and stop burning the huge amounts of fuel that are going through those turbines. So you might be able to make the case of landing the plane here and walking downstairs to a high-speed train—an hour to Seattle, another hour to Portland. Otherwise, we’re going to be heading south to get to China or Hong Kong.

Q: You sit on the board of VIA Rail Canada. You’re obviously a proponent of train use. How well do we do rail?

A: If we want to get serious about being connected to the rest of the world, we’ll have to broaden the ways to get to and from here, which means looking seriously at trains. You’d be looking at up to 20 trains between here and Seattle, with 15 of them going to Portland and probably 10 going at least as far as Eugene and five as far as Northern California. There’d probably be another five or six trains a day to Calgary. And all that is more than you can accomplish with only the three platforms at the current station. What you really need to do is take that space behind the Pacific Central Station to the east for a second station. The fact that nobody is thinking of reserving that as a transportation network is crazy, because if they do build in a Safeway or a Canadian Tire or whatever, instead of the proposed St. Paul’s relocation, it’s just going to add another five years of legal wrangling to undo it.

Also, we have to rethink the station itself. First Nations aside, by treating the train station as a kind of down-and-out skid row zone, we’re turning our back on a significant part of the Canadian/European heritage that brought people to Vancouver in the first place. There are lots of travellers whose first view of Vancouver is seeing people passed out in Thornton Park. Or they’re trying to get to a bus or the SkyTrain and they get asked for money or asked to buy something illegal. This should be the face of our city; instead we’re presenting visitors with a very different part of our anatomy.

Q: What do you think of the idea of moving St. Paul’s to that spot near the train station?

A: I was in Calgary when they blew up the general hospital. Everyone cheered. Within three or four years there was a bed shortage. Any politician who proposes reducing either education or hospital infrastructure should immediately be declared unfit for office.

Q: What aspects of our transportation system do work well?

A: The SeaBus is an unmitigated success, one of the world’s most successful water mass rapid transit vehicles. Those two boats—the Burrard Beaver and the Burrard Otter—carry the traffic a six-lane bridge or a tunnel would: 400 people per boat every 15 minutes. The landscape of Lonsdale would look very different if we hadn’t had those boats. You wouldn’t have that kind of clustered walkable development, the only one on the North Shore that I’m aware of where you can live, work, and play on foot and by bike. But there could have been two or three or four of those up and down the coast. Ambleside, Park Royal—you could have taken those and put in another SeaBus, but it didn’t happen; instead, we built up the mountains to the point where the houses fall down each time it rains. We should be running boats every five minutes across the inlet. It should be our Hong Kong harbour, with the North Shore being the Kowloon side and this the central side.

Q: You talk about walkable development. After New York we have the second-highest percentage of people who walk to work in North America. Could we be even more pedestrian-friendly?

A: Certainly. Vancouver needs a grand boulevard that is basically car-free—we haven’t given people space beyond the seawall to play and make use of, other than just to get between their car and their shop or whatever. Look at our high streets’ sidewalks. You can tell by the way the city allows all the clutter with signs and sandwich boards that they’re not designed for people to get by; they’re designed to get people from the curb, presumably from vehicles but maybe a bus stop or a bicycle parking post, into the store. They’re not designed for people to do what they do in Paris or London—to window-shop. I’m sure that on many of these streets—Davie, Denman, Robson certainly, large stretches of Broadway probably—there’s more people walking by the windows than there are driving and stopping, but the street space is still set up for perpendicular car use, not parallel walking use.

Q: How is it we never learn from these missteps?

A: Often, policy in this province is set by trial and error: if someone has learned something from someone else’s experience, find a way around them to give it to someone who has no clue what they’re getting into. Do we pick things that have a clear long-term future, or are we so insecure that we constantly go for the flavour of the month, whatever seems to be on top of everyone’s mind? Switzerland, Sweden, countries like that, they have a vision. You may or may not agree with it, but they stick with it. We, however, are still a very new society. Now, I like being in a young dynamic society, but it’s like being an adolescent: we go with fads and blow our allowance on things that it turns out we don’t like a few weeks later.

Q: What about the role of education in the city?

A: You can’t have a great city without a real, full university in its centre—I’m not taking away from UBC or SFU for trying to do things downtown, but they’re branch plants of suburban campuses. Toronto, Winnipeg, Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary—they all manage it. We need a University of Vancouver. It doesn’t have to be great, but it has to be based in the city. And we need that student population downtown. Montreal has its student ghetto on the Plateau, Toronto used to around Kensington Market, Paris has the Left Bank. It brings a dimension of life to a city that Vancouver, for all its dynamism, lacks. The nightlife, if you want to call it that, of Granville Street and Yaletown, with all its issues, is oddly truncated because students don’t live within walking distance. So what do you get? People who drive in from the suburbs to get drunk and fight with each other. A student area/university could be east of Granville, maybe with the development around Woodward’s and what’s coming in around it with SFU, or maybe the Cambie area now that they’ve put all the local businesses out of business. Or maybe, if there’s a complete housing collapse, Southeast False Creek. That would make a great campus. It’s not what it was set up for, but we could adapt it. Take out the gourmet cookware ranges and the European toilets. Put in shower stalls.

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