Cascadia mega-region should build hub cities for smart growth: report

Sep 24 2020, 1:29 am

A new report calls for the creation of hub cities on underdeveloped lands in Cascadia, and connecting them to the three major urban cores by high-speed transit.

This is the “bold approach” needed for sustainable growth in the mega-region covering Vancouver in British Columbia, Seattle in Washington State, and Portland in Oregon, according to the report by Boston Consulting Group, commissioned by Cascadia Innovation Corridor.

Currently, the mega-region has a population of nine million residents, increasing by about 1.7 million people since 2005. Over the past decade, 800,000 jobs have been added to this area.

Between now and 2050, Cascadia’s population is forecast to grow by between three million and four million people, with 2.3 million people accommodated by the current densification trends.

This includes 850,000 people through continued densification, 650,000 people through densification around planned public transit projects, and 800,000 people through accelerated densification of mid-sized cities. It means there would be a gap of 1.3 million additional residents who would not be accommodated through planned or expected growth.

Approximately 380,000 new homes will need to be constructed to accommodate this population growth in a way that prevents a rise in home prices.

To ensure livability and sustainability standards do not falter, “incremental improvements to the status quo” are not the solution, states the report.

There are economic efficiencies from further integrating the region, but as shown by the report’s case studies, no other mega-region in the world has been able to fully address the growing pains of providing affordable housing, good jobs, and efficient commutes.

By creating hub cities on underdeveloped lands and connecting them to the regional urban centres with high-speed transit, this will embrace growth, minimize environmental impacts, catalyze affordable housing, and reduce traffic congestion.

Strained housing supplies and overwhelmed transportation systems are a direct result of a failure to accommodate growth, whether it be in Cascadia or other mega-regions.

Within Portland and Seattle, there has been a 70% to 80% growth in mega-commuters — people who commute more than 90 minutes each way — between 2010 and 2017, equating to over USD$7.1 billion in lost productivity annually.

“This urban growth has created jobs and increased access to resources for many, but it has not come without challenges. Long commutes and a lack of affordable housing have come to define successful mega-regions almost as much as their strong economic performance and world-class workforces,” reads the report.

The growth needs to be built vertically, given the obvious geographical constraints of the mega-region, especially Metro Vancouver. But there is a “middle ground” with the approaches of other mega-regions, instead of following any of the extreme strategies; the strategy of the Texas Triangle (Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio) of spreading people out has increased affordability, while the strategy of the Bay Area (San Francisco and San Jose) of density helps reduce emissions, according to the report.


Examples of mega-regions around the world. (Cascadia Innovation Corridor)

However, if the status quo prevails, Cascadia will see worse traffic congestion by 2035 than what Los Angeles and San Jose currently experience. Commutes will become substantially worse over the next 30 years, even when autonomous vehicles and public transit ridership growth are accounted for. By 2040, Cascadia will also become less affordable than San Francisco and New York today.

“Simply adding more people to those cities will not be sufficient to meeting our goals, however. As the populations of mid-sized cities increase, we must be thoughtful about how that growth impacts the mega-region as a whole,” continues the report.

“This model takes the strengths of the traditional approaches to growth… while avoiding the accompanying pitfalls. By spreading dense cities throughout the mega-region and ensuring they are connected by high-speed transit, our model combines the emissions-limiting power of densification with the affordability of sprawl. Most importantly, it addresses all three pillars of a sustainable mega-region: reducing emissions in our environment, avoiding additional congestion on our roadways, and providing affordable, accessible housing.”

The envisioned high-speed rail (HSR) transit line, connecting the regions of Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, is integral to this plan. The current BC provincial government previously indicated it would like to see the HSR’s northernmost terminus located in Metro Vancouver’s suburban city of Surrey, which would help grow it as a hub city.

Vancouver Seattle Portland high speed rail

Cascadia high-speed rail business case, July 2019. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

The report proposes a timeline for key actions to be achieved towards the vision.

By 2025, there should be a complete alignment in the planning, vision, and mitigation actions from existing cities and regions. The hub city selection process would be initiated, and by this point HSR will be decided.

Then by 2035, the location of the hub cities will be established, with construction either planned or underway. Employers from key industries — bringing jobs and people — and post-secondary and research institutions will be committed to these hub cities.

The HSR, connected with the regional public transit networks, should be fully operational by 2045.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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