Stephen Rees has a characteristically thoughtful post about contrasting strategies for developing livable, walkable, transit-oriented development.  And since he’s talking about something I alluded to this morning, I thought I’d take a minute to say just what reservations I have about building a lot of light rail into low-density areas.  Here’s Rees’ account of the transit planning strategy he likes:

You cannot have transit oriented development unless there is transit there to make it work. Kitsilano did not become a desirable residential neighbourhood until the streetcars started running. And when they first appeared they ran through a very empty area – which quickly started to fill up as houses sprang up almost like mushrooms overnight.

The strategy is simple and elegant.  Build transit out into low-density areas, and then when those areas develop, they’ll develop in livable, transit-oriented ways around the existing transit.  But if you don’t build the transit first, then when those low-density areas start to develop they just turn into low-density sprawl.  As Kitsilano went in the first half of the twentieth-century, so Langley could go in the first half of the twenty-first.

Rees knows there’s a big difference between transit-planning before the Second World War and now.  When rail lines first got laid on the west side of Vancouver, most people didn’t own cars.  Not so now.  So here’s my worry.  Suppose Translink ran lots of at-grade light rail out to low-density areas of the suburbs.  What would stop developers from building even more low-density sprawl, even further out in to the Valley?  Because now all that light rail makes people’s commutes that much easier.

What would stop that from happening?  Mayors who insisted on transit-oriented development, that’s what.  Some mayors — PoMo’s Joe Trasolini looks like the real hero here — have done just that.  But others haven’t.  Look at the development around King George station.  This is not a walkable neighbourhood, and not because no one ever gave it a rail line.  So why should Translink run rail out into low-density sprawl when, for all they know, they’re laying the groundwork for the twenty-first century’s park-and-rides?