Living car free in Surrey
Car free? In Surrey?
Yes, it is possible, and no, it’s not too much of a pain, thanks to long range planning and recent investments in transit. And with a range of transport innovations coming on stream, going car free will soon become easier than ever.
Why am I car free?
More than anything, driving is expensive. As a teen, my parents weren’t willing to buy me a car and pay for the expense. I chose to direct my minimal, part time job earnings towards eating out with friends or seeing movies. The provincial driving restrictions for graduated learners just added another level of inconvenience to car use while young.
Last summer, I actually had to use a car as part of the Census brigade. I was able to borrow my grandparents’ second vehicle, though I had to pay for insurance and gas. Ironically, even though I only activated it for three months, I ended up in a death spiral where I was both driving so I could work, and working so I could drive. My pay was so low, and driving expenses were so high, that there was little money left after making my vehicle payments. During this time, I also discovered that during rush hour, driving was only slightly faster than my regular bus route!
Location, location, location
If I were traveling around my community of Cloverdale, being car free would be a struggle. For one reason or another though, most of my life is oriented along the SkyTrain network. Most of my friends live along it and the SFU campuses are all connected by it. For a night out, I can SkyTrain downtown and walk around.
If I want to see a movie, I can visit Scotiabank near Burrard, Tinseltown near Stadium, Silvercity at Metrotown, and, just opened recently, Landmark at New West. If I need to mail something, I can drop it off at Shoppers at Commercial-Broadway. If I want to visit Whole Foods, it’s just a block from Broadway-City Hall. If I’m going on a trip, I can take the Canada Line to YVR. For a visit to Lonsdale Quay, I can transfer to SeaBus.
What makes the SkyTrain even more convenient is the network’s speed and its consistency. I know that a train is going to come at least every five minutes, barring a track intrusion or haywire car set. And with travel time from one end of the Expo Line to the other at about 40 minutes, the trip is not overly long either.
How I live car free
As described above, most of my travel is along the SkyTrain. I predominantly use the Expo Line, with occasional trips on the Millennium and Canada Lines. My main bus in Surrey – the 320 – comes every 30 minutes throughout the weekdays, and although the route is a bit slow and circuitous for my liking, it gets me to Surrey Central. Five years ago, frequencies were much worse on the 320 and other Surrey buses. Now, outside of Sunday schedules, I know that I won’t have to wait an hour if I miss a bus.
Technology has helped significantly. Five years ago, you had to plan your trip via paper schedules or through TransLink’s website. With my iPhone, I now have a variety of options to plan my travel. With the built-in Google Maps app linked to TransLink schedule data, I can instantly bring up several transit trip options and choose my favourite. When I’m at an unfamiliar stop, I can text the bus stop number to view when the next one comes, allowing me to decide whether to wait or try different options (this happens frequently on Robson Street where walking is usually faster!). Recently, I’ve started using the independent Next Bus app, which shows me real-time arrival times. If the bus is late and I’m wondering what’s going on, I use TransLink’s new mobile real time map, which shows me where the bus is along the route.
Baby I can drive a car
I’ve recently added car sharing to my spectrum of transport options. Zipcar and Modo have never really appealed to me as the costs seem high and the inflexibility frustrating (you have to return the car to the same spot you got it from). car2go completely blew up the car sharing model and has created a fantastic service for Vancouverites. With a fleet of hundreds of smart cars around the city, users can check out a car and park it anywhere, paying by the minute. With an iPhone app, I can see if there are any available vehicles nearby, set a 15 minute reservation on the vehicle of choice, and check it out using a car2go smart card. When I’m done, I just park in any residential permit area, and check it out with the card.
I’ve been using car2go on late nights after a movie downtown. The bus that I’d usually take – the 17 – is quite a distance from the theatres and runs on reduced frequencies at that time. When splitting the cost with my boyfriend, car2go ends up being equivalent to the cost of a one-zone fare, if that.
Celebrating its one year anniversary and phenomenal adoption rate, car2go recently expanded its service zone east to Renfrew and south to 49th, covering almost the entire City of Vancouver. While I know that this service requires a certain density and demography to function, and thus will be unlikely to arrive in Surrey anytime soon, it is a very convenient option when visiting Vancouver.
Car share options like car2go really fill a mobility void – either when transit is not a great choice, or when taxis are too expensive! Sometimes taking a car makes the trip much more convenient and enjoyable, and car shares allow you that choice without having to commit to paying gas, insurance, or vehicle payments.
Riding on two wheels
Bikes are beginning to see their big day too. While I personally don’t use my bike on a daily basis, I have taken it on the bus and SkyTrain and found the experience fairly convenient. I have a cheap, heavy mountain bike from Canadian Tire, but it gets the job done. My boyfriend, who currently lives in Vancouver, has made biking a daily transport option. He regularly bikes to work on Broadway and sometimes ventures into downtown for meetings. When we move to Surrey, he’ll be storing his bike at a secure locker at Commercial-Broadway station, allowing him to SkyTrain in and then complete the trip to work on bike rather than B-Line if the day is nice.
When Downtown, I often will walk to my destinations as the trip feels fairly quick, there’s lot to look at, and the buses are rather slow. However, if a bike share was active in Vancouver, I suspect I would use it quite often. My destinations are usually a fair distance from the SkyTrain stations, and grabbing a bike to get there would shorten the commute in half at least. With the new separated bike lanes, I would feel confident enough to ride downtown – I can say with certainty that without them I would not be thinking about biking in Vancouver. When the long promised bike share is launched, I have no doubt it will join my car free transport options. If successful downtown, I hope to see it replicated at UBC and other regional town centres.
Car free in Downtown Surrey
With my impending move to Downtown Surrey from Cloverdale, I will soon be located directly on the SkyTrain line and cut my travel time in half with the removal of my 320 bus ride. However, it has got me thinking about some of the car free travel options in Vancouver and how they could be adapted to suit our future downtown.
Walking in Downtown Surrey is a bit of a drag. The blocks feel long and there’s not much to look at. While I enjoy walking University Drive, from 108th to 104th, and through Holland Park, the rest of the City Centre is far from a pedestrian haven. Yes, there’s sidewalk connectivity, but that doesn’t make for a good experience. This reality has me questioning whether I’ll walk to buy my groceries or just hop on the SkyTrain and head to New West or Metrotown. That possibility of living in Surrey but leaving town for everything should concern politicians and planners looking to make a strong and complete downtown. I realize that much of this can be solved over time through re-development, but there needs to be a recognition of this reality today too.
Biking can solve a lot of the downtown’s distance issues. While many stores are located at Central City, there’s still a range of big box retail lining King George, which is great to access if you drive, but not so convenient if you’re car free. The distances needed to travel to these destinations are perfect for biking. While I recognize the City has striped bike lanes of some of the main streets in the downtown, the infrastructure is nowhere near what it needs to be to making biking the mode of choice downtown.
With fairly quiet streets outside of rush hour, there’s more than enough room to build separated bike lanes on major roads like University Drive, Old Yale Road, Whalley Boulevard or 102 Ave. Furthermore, building the infrastructure now, before all the new development comes in, will help cement downtown as a place where active and sustainable transportation gets priority over cars, an essential component of a real city centre. With the infrastructure in place, and a growing population, a bike share could be a reality with time.
Car sharing could also help fill the mobility gap downtown. Whether its to get to a restaurant in the City Centre, go shopping at Guildford, visit a friend in Delta, or go swimming at Newton Wave Pool, car sharing would help supplement the existing transit options, which are rather hit-or-miss for travel within the Surrey borders.
Century Group, the developers of CityPoint at Gateway, included a car share space in their towers. Modo, a locally owned and operated car share service, currently has one car in that tower, and has brought another one to the City-owned parking lot at the Rec Centre. The hassle with Modo is that I would have to return to vehicle to these spots, removing much of the convenience factor. If a Modo vehicle was located in my building, Park Place, I suspect I would use it from time to time. A car2go service would be the optimum solution, but again, this depends on mode shares, densities, demographics, and destinations, meaning it’ll be some time before it comes to Surrey.
Light rail transit within Surrey would be the biggest game changer. The biggest reason I can be car free is because of the SkyTrain connection. When we bring those rapid transit connections to other parts of the City, more and more people will be able to make that switch. Within the downtown, we won’t be able to reduce the insane width of King George, or reduce the traffic driving along 104th, until those alternatives are built across the City. People need to have that transit option to get downtown, otherwise they will continue to drive here, negating the densification wins of new development. To create a true downtown where people are the priority over cars, more Surrey communities need that rapid transit connectivity.
How do we accelerate the shift?
With regards to walking, the City needs to be far more aggressive in its development plans. Pedestrians cannot and should not only be the priority at Central City plaza. The City needs to have a better future road network plan with a smaller grid designed for people over cars. All developments within the downtown should be required to include either urban residential frontages or street level retail to activate the sidewalk and make the urban landscape more interesting and safe.
The City should start building a separated bike network downtown now, before new residents become too accustomed to wide lanes, long roads, and narrow, fading bike routes. Vancouver’s design template of movable planters to physically separated bikes from cars provides Surrey with a great method of greening the streets cheaply while improving cyclist safety. Biking should me a mode of choice downtown.
We need to do research on the effects of living next to SkyTrain. Previous studies from the 90′s showed that residents living next to Joyce Station in East Vancouver have a dramatically lower car ownership rate than the norm. What is the situation like in Surrey? Are all the people moving into Quattro, Urban Village, CityPoint, and Park Place driving cars? These developments obtained permission to slightly reduce the amount of parking required – was it too much, not enough, or just right? Are these new residents using cars as their primary mode or are they riding SkyTrain most of the time? We need to do this research to help guide further build out of the downtown.
How can the City make car sharing more viable downtown? By duplicating and expanding the efforts done at CityPoint. If every new tower or condo included at least one car share spot, open to residents and the public, residents who are car-free will be much more likely to use the service. Have the City work with existing car share services to see what else can be done to grow the market of users. Modo and the City should be doing far more to tell residents about the existence of the car share option downtown, whether through direct mail drops or advertising on SkyTrain. There needs to be a two pronged approach to expand both the infrastructure and the knowledge base about car sharing.
And of course, the City needs to be more direct and creative about its plans for Light Rail. Its current whisper campaign is not enough to secure Light Rail for Surrey. The major impediment to getting it off the ground is money, which is where we need the Mayor and Council to come up with politically acceptable funding plans for LRT and champion them loudly to the community, to TransLink, and to the Province.
Living car free in Surrey is possible, but there’s more work to do to make it an increasingly attractive and viable option for residents. We need to recommit to build complete, compact, walkable communities connected by frequent and convenient rapid transit. We must supplement transport options in these places with safe, separated bike lanes, and flexible, low cost car share services. In return, we will have a community where congestion is low, where obesity is on the decline, where air quality is improved, where emissions are reduced, and where livability is high.