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Who’s the greenest in the land? Vancouver, then Seattle, then Portland

January 11th, 2010 · 21 Comments

The crew that run the Cascadia Scorecard love to compare these three cities and here are their latest numbers.

To their own surprise, they’ve ranked Portland as the laggard. But I’d love to study these numbers more, as I have to wonder if they are pulling stats from just Vancouver proper or the whole region, which could change the picture significantly.

Interesting, too, that they have named the Canada Line as one of the reasons Vancouver is so green. I loooove taking the Canada Line — it has become our family’s public limo — but I hear much chatter from those in the know that it took so much bad, unenvironmental concrete to build that line that the GHG deficit won’t be paid off for decades to come.

I await all your brilliant analysis on Alan’s article.

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  • Mr Clean

    lots of comments on the Tyee site where the article was published:

  • Chris

    Alan does mention that he had to use some regional numbers in the analysis, and that newer numbers might favour Portland over Seattle.

    Vancouver really benefits from decisions made decades ago that have affected land use patterns today – mainly the decision not to build freeways. Too bad the BC Liberals are so gung-ho on expanding freeways in the Lower Mainland, as that will have negative impacts fro decades to come.

  • Bill Lee

    The story was also in on Thursday 07 January with far more comments so far than the link to Sightline Daily of January 10 that Fraces linked to above. There is a tagline on the Sightline Daily site “Editor’s note: This piece ran on the front page of the Tyee on Thursday.”

    [ Fraces? The cutline on the Pierre Martineau’s story on CBUF Radio-Canada where Fracas Bula, (surely it’s fracas for all the screaming going on here) opined, en français, about the media scene with “Canwest endetté” . It starts online at Le téléjournal/Colombie-Britannique archive page for Friday 8th, starting about 3min:30sec into the scripts. ]

    This survey is a basis for humans, not for all the living things in the regions, and never mentions the air sewers and water sewers or land dumps where we conveniently toss our excreta away into oubliettes of air, water and landfills.
    Green would talk about the animals, plants, the air and the waters that surround us and support us.
    This is a who-has-better-urban-structure not an Ernest Callenbach vision of Green.

  • Paul

    It’s awesome reading the comments on the Tyee…nothing is ever good enough and everywhere else is better than Vancouver. But I guess that’s how we got to where we are today, right? Still, the whining is soooo boooooring!

    As for the placing of Portland, I agree that it should be at the bottom. My personal measure of “green” is how easy it is to get everything you need in your own neighbourhood on foot. If you can buy or procure a pair of pants (or a skirt..whatev), a loaf of bread, some veg, a child’s toy, a bottle of wine, and a book all within walking distance from your home, you’ve got it greenly good. If your job is walkable, that’s a ++.

    And yeah, by those measures Walmart counts as greenmaking.

  • Joe

    based on the way Vancouver and area handle waste water, I don’t think Vancouver deserves to be called green on any list

  • mezzanine

    what? a positive comment about the canada line from ms. bula without a rebuttal from the LRT crowd? 😉

  • Lewis N. Villegas

    Hail Canada Line!

    Consider that we are the first city in Canada to have a hard-wired connection from the Airport to downtown. From the ones I have experienced: Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec, and Halifax do not. To boot, we are well set up to start a trend.

    Consider that there will be a huge number of Canadian officials arriving to partake of the Olympic experience. All of them will be riding France’s Family Limo, and all of them will be going back to Ottawa saying, “We Want One!”

    There were mistakes made along the way. But the Canada Line concept is right, and we can’t take any credit for creating it. Toronto and Montreal have been talking about it for years. Vancouver was just the first Canadian city to get it done.

    Score one for the Olympics.

    [You can take Max to the Portland Airport, I believe. And friends in Seattle have complained that their brand new LRT stops about 1/4 mile short of SeaTac terminal].

  • Dan Cooper

    I think it’s arguable that Vancouver is on top, but not that Seattle is ahead of Portland – if for no other reason than that Seattle essentially has no functioning public transit.

  • Dan Cooper

    To put it another way, it doesn’t do you any good to live in a neighbourhood dense enough to be served by public transit – which seems to be the measure in the article – if there is no public transit to take.

  • MB

    I am originally from Calgary (moved to Vancouver’s Chinatown 31 years ago to major culture shock), so the view from the bottom is always upwards. That’s not to say the old inner city streetcar neighbourhoods couldn’t show the way to changing that city’s vast and monotonous outer suburbs.

    And we mustn’t lose sight that it’s the car owners from said vast and monotonous suburbs driving to the huge park n’ ride parkades that give Calgary a contradictory distinction: high LRT ridership coupled with the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of the five largest Canadian cities (J. Kenworthy et al).

    Light rail afficiandos have major snit fits with info like that (just wait a day or so here …), not to mention the inconvenient truth about the tragic level of otherwise preventable accidental deaths from collisions at level crossings. Dozens have died needlessly in Calgary so far. (And please don’t be so callous as to bring up suicides.)

    This is not to say light rail can’t be done right.

    First and foremost it must be safe, which means it shouldn’t be implemeted as cheaply as possible and avoid grade separation where it’s justified (e.g. the densest areas). We already know about the lack of funding for transit from senior governments (compared to building freeways). Fighting over the crumbs only detracts from fighting to redirect our tax dollars to more sustainable investments. We need it all: subways in our largest cities, hundreds of kilometres of rapid light rail in our suburbs, streetcars in our neighbourhoods, commuter rail joining cities in all regions, and last but not least, thousands more buses. The challenge of peak oil will surely illuminate this issue during this decade.

    Second, it must be integrated with new adjacent land use measures aka Transit Oriented Development to keep ridership elevated, subsidies limited, and sustainable neighbourhoods successful.

    Third it must support existing destinations and employment centres.

    Fourth, clear distinctions should be made with urban passenger rail between regional rapid transit (fast, fewer stops, longer trips), and local neighbourhood streetcars (slower, more stops, shorter trips ). Urban rail could eventually become gradated like the road system.

    Fifth, in my opinion the funding for rail transit should accommodate major urban design treatments — notably at the human scale — for the planned routes, exemplary station architecture, and significant public consultation. Designated rail will outlast most buildings, and will provide service for billions of trips over a century.

    Comparing the city of Vancouver to Seattle and Portland accomplishes another unstated goal: it exemplifies sustainability over all other West Coast and midwest North Amercian cities. That is a good thing. Including the less dense and more car dependent suburbs will no doubt lower the rating, but density isn’t everything.

    Burnaby, though overall less dense than Vancouver, is distinguished by four urban town centres well-served by rapid transit. It has also has retained 25% of its land area in parks, the majority in conservation areas. That is one mother of an urban carbon sink. Several ancient salmonid streams remain largely intact, albeit fragmanted, something Vancouver cannot brag about in its zeal to promote sustainability.

    This all just goes to show that any analysis of urban sustainability must be wholistic in its approach, especially with regard to transit and land use planning.

  • Joe

    “And we mustn’t lose sight that it’s the car owners from said vast and monotonous suburbs driving to the huge park n’ ride parkades that give Calgary a contradictory distinction: high LRT ridership coupled with the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of the five largest Canadian cities (J. Kenworthy et al).”

    that is interesting. but when i did a quick search, i also learn that the vast majority of Calgary’s GHG is from electricity and natural gas.

    Obviously without the ability to draw on Hydro, that electricity is coming mostly from Coal. So I think you are overstating your case for the vehicles. Also, Calgary’s ‘huge’ Park and Rides account for less than 10% of daily riders – even if you take 10% away from the ridership totals, still very very impressive numbers for LRT in Calgary.

    anyway, this is getting way off topic, but since you brought it up…

  • mezzanine

    @Dan Cooper, don’t discount the bus – a robust bus system is still important for good, effective transport and staying green. In 2007 Seattle had more people taking transit to work than vancouver or portland. And this was before LRT was working.

    @Joe, I admire calgary’s LRT numbers, but one of the things that still bugs me are the park and rides. those are areas where we are still catering to the car and wasting TOD potential.

  • MB

    Interesting. By the same token in the same study NYC has higher per capita emissions than Calgary, yet almost half of Manhattan residents don’t own cars and take the subway. Coal figures even more to the GHG equation in the eastern seaboard for electricity generation, it seems. Yet they have created a magnificent and otherwise largely sustainable city.

    BTW, Atlanta had the highest per capita emissions of any major city on the continent in Kenworthy’s study.

    But high ridership figures on Calgary’s C-Train system doesn’t make it a transit city. The most defining visual element in Calgary outside of the 1940s ring remains its hundreds of kilometres of sound attenuation walls lining the supersized arterials throughout its low density, sprawling suburbs, and it’s million people spread out over 300 square kilometres. LRT has done very little to counter the outward signs of car addiction there. That’s hardly a new paradigm in North America, but land use has to change to a transit orientation, and foster compact neighbourhoods and conservation when fossil fuels inevitably escalate in price.

    Only recently has Calgary tied denser land use to transit in the burbs and has seen significant development clustered around its C-Train stations as a result. Still, a sense of appropriate mixed use planning and urban design is largely absent, as seen when you compare the malled up, car-dominated area surrounding the Anderson Road suburban station to the area around Kensington station, which is located in a delightful inner city neighbourhood that predated light rail, and that remained largely untouched.

    LRT, despite its efficiencies, makes a city decent and beautiful only with a deliberate and focused effort. I suspect proposing things like laneway housing in established single-family areas along light rail lines would meet with much stiffer resistance in Calgary than the Ecodensity and the prior City Plan Visioning initiatives were to Vancouver. And anything remotely resembling a Livable Regions Strategic Plan … well, dontcha know that’s communism?

    Of course, Metrotown is a bit of a black hole from a design perspective, but it is functionally efficient, a comment that extends to the high ridership on the Expo Line that justified its existance. I’d like to see a comparison of Calgary’s Chinook mall or Anderson to Metrotown, all factors considered. Moreover, I’d like to see a study of tax expenditures on roads in various cities, and a calculation of the automobile subsidy for comparison purposes. Perhaps some planning grad could take that on as a dissertation someday.

    I was in Calgary early last month visiting family, and I flew into a blizzard. It was 31C below when I left a week later, and it plunged to a record 45 below mid-month. My dad, who is 88, had his high-efficiency gas furnace on full tilt throughout December and was housebound. He still drives out of necessity (the city authorized his multi-family senior’s complex in an area with poor transit and little shopping). His groceries had to be delivered. It’s people like him that I worry about when the price at the pump tops $2 / litre, and the heating bill exceeds their ability to pay, and where they live too far away from everything. The 20th Century is over, and we have to do it differently.

  • grounded

    Here’s another international take on Vancouver’s pursuit of sustainable development:,0,3186139.story?track=rss

  • While it is important to celebrate our progress, all cities, including Vancouver still have a long ways to go. Just because we are in front of the pack that is bringing up the rear, we should not get too high on ourselves. While our per person GHG emissions are at 4.6 tonnes per person, Barcelona’s are only 3.0 tonnes per person. We need to get it down to around 1 tonne per person

    Lets become a better transit city than London and a better cycling city than Copenhagen.

  • Joe

    i don’t know how i wound up defending Calgary in this! i’m in no way saying that Calgary has a better overall Green-mindedness than Vancouver, but one thing that bugs me still about Van is how we handle our waste water. and Calgary (don’t bite my head off) is the shining example to follow in this. Tertiary waste water treatment anyone?

  • MB

    You’re right, Joe. But it’s for practical reasons, not because Calgary has gotten green religion.

    The reason Calgary practices tertiary waste water treatment is because there are other cities upstream and downstream who depend on the Bow River for both their drinking water supply and as a destination for their sewers. That brings into mind the California saw ‘from toilet to tap’.

    This doesn’t mean that Calgary currently has more stringent water conservation measures than other average Canadian cities. That will undoubtedly change in future. Evidently the glaciers on the eastern slopes of the Rockies — which are the primary sources of water for the majority of prairie rivers — have lost about 30% of their mass over the last few decades due to global warming.

    Goodbye green suburban lawns and car washes.

    Some may say that building the planned multi-billion dollar pipelines to the West Coast to export oil from the tar sands to Asia is short sighted. Perhaps so. Maybe they should consider building pipelines to Alberta to export our abundant (and expected to increase with climate change) rain water, at our price, of ciourse.

  • Dan Cooper

    Thank you for the data, mezzanine. I apologize if I came across as knocking the bus. Actually, what I was trying to say is that Seattle has no transit, including buses. From what you posted, I seem to be wrong about that of course. It seems odd to me, though, as I visit Seattle regularly to see family, and can’t remember even once seeing a bus on a city street, though I do sometimes see them on the freeways, going to and from the ‘burbs. Very different from Portland or Vancouver, where it seems you never go five minutes without seeing one (except of course when you’re waiting in the rain without a shelter!).

  • Dan Cooper

    I seem to be into dual posting, but here goes: my negative impression of Seattle transit also comes from my father, who worked for years in the US in public transit system management. He commented a number of times that Seattle’s transit system has been an ongoing joke for decades among those in the business. Who knows, though, maybe it’s changing?

  • Joe

    @MB my point is not to say how great Calgary is – but to point out how weak we are in our waste water treatment. whatever the reasons are for Calgary to do it – hats off to them for getting it done.

    Meanwhile, we continue to pollute Burrard inlet, the harbour and god knows what else by not addressing this issue. This is a multi-billion dollar problem that the Lower Mainland and Victoria keep ignoring and it is only going to get worse before it gets better.

  • MB

    Joe, I agree wholeheartedly. Dumping raw sewage into the ocean is abourt to change in Victoria, but of course there is much debate on where to locate the treatment plants.

    Dumping primary treated effluent into the ocean is almost as bad. Secondary treatment is much better, but our wealthy society cannot justifiably argue against tertirary treatment for much longer.