Integrated policy that includes land use and transportation planning can reduce car-dependency in cities. One of the best examples in North America can be found in the heart of the city of Vancouver that is part of the third largest metropolitan area in Canada. Interestingly enough, a growing number of its residents walk to reach their final destination around the downtown core, irrespective of other options available to them. This case study will explore the strategy taken by the City of Vancouver to allow that situation.

Metro Vancouver – The region

The greater Vancouver metropolitan area (also known as “Metro Vancouver”) is considered the third biggest metropolitan area in Canada after the ones of Toronto and Montreal, and it had a population of 2,313,328 as of 2011 (Statistics Canada, 2012a). Out of this number, the city of Vancouver had a population of 603,500. Due to its mild climate in comparison to other parts of Canada, and the city’s good reputation as the most livable city in North America, the metropolitan area is projected to have additional 1,000,000 dwellers by 2040 (Metro Vancouver, 2014; Slattery, 2015). The region’s main economic sectors are trade (due to its location near the country’s gateway to the Pacific Ocean, connecting Canada with East Asian markets), tourism, and the film industry.

The public transit modes offered to the Metro Vancouver’s residents are quite diverse. Translink is the operator of most public transit services in Metro Vancouver, and that includes buses, the Skytrain (see figure 1 – the oldest and one of the longest automated driverless light rapid transit systems in the world.), the SeaBus (a passengers-only ferry), and the West Coast Express which is a commuter rail service operating in peak hours between Vancouver and a few suburbs.

The City of Vancouver is also trying to improve cycling and walking by creating bike lanes and greenways to facilitate walking and cycling and make them safer, especially around the downtown core. The city of Vancouver had to integrate transportation and land use in order to optimize the transportation network and reduce the trips made by private cars originating in the city every day. These steps are part of the 2040 Transportation Plan created by the City of Vancouver, in order to alter the current situation in regards to transportation, and reduce the use of private cars even more by shifting to other transportation modes (City of Vancouver, 2012).

The main problem – Growing population across the region

The city of Vancouver needed to ensure that the car traffic flowing through the city is not growing in accordance with the rapid growth of some suburban areas and the city itself. Such growth would lower the quality of life for the city’s dwellers while lowering its economic attractiveness and the high reputation score for livability that the city has. Here are the main aspects this problem involves: 

  • Economic and technological challenges – ensuring an efficient transportation network that allows people to go to work in the Vancouver’s downtown core and the surrounding area, irrespective of where they live in the city or even in other parts of the urban region. The challenge is even bigger than other North American cities, since there are no freeways entering the city of Vancouver due to protests that took place back in the 1950s, when the city considered turning parts of the historic China Town into a freeway (Internet Archive – WayBack Machine, 2016). Therefore, any public transit mode using the road infrastructure would have to take into account a relatively low driving speed of up to 50 km /hr.
  • Socio-geographical challenge – many built areas in Vancouver and its periphery consisted of neighborhoods of private homes since the early days of Vancouver. An integrated policy for housing and transportation that involved densification of certain areas was needed in order to support and increase the efficiency of the city’s transportation system. In addition, the metropolitan area is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, as well as mountains, so the city has no room for expansion (see figure 2). Therefore, building transit-related infrastructure would have to be done within the city’s boundaries, sometimes altering an area’s urban design, creating more dense areas.

Metro Vancouver's Map (Google Maps)

Metro Vancouver’s Map (Google Maps)

  • Environmental challenge –Vancouver aims to be the greenest city in the world by 2020, and that involves a massive reduction in carbon footprint (City of Vancouver, 2015b). One of the major sources for GHG emissions in every city is transportation, and in Vancouver specifically, transportation contributed 34% of the GHG emissions as of 2011 (City of Vancouver, 2012).

Analysis of the case

This section will analyze a few measures that have been taken by local infrastructure managers in the Metro Vancouver area in order to reduce the road traffic. First, it’s important to mention that as of 2014, 50% of the trips originating in the city of Vancouver were by either public transit, walking, or cycling. Table 1 summarizes the past and current trends in regards to transportation mode share in Vancouver. 

Year Walking, Cycling, Public Transit – Altogether Motor Vehicle
2008 40% 60%
2011 44% 56%
2014 50% 50%

 Table 1 – Transportation Mode Share in Vancouver (City of Vancouver, 2015b) 

Moreover, it is important to look at each alternative transportation mode independently in order to understand which mode contributed most significantly to the reduction in motor vehicle use. Figure 3 is showing us that walking contributed the most out of all alternative modes to the reduction in motor vehicle use for trips originating in the city.


Alternative Transportation Mode Share (City of Vancouver, 2015b)

While the share of biking remained steady on a range of 3-5% and the use of transit went down from 23% to 18%, walking went up significantly between 2008 and 2014, from 15% to 26% of all trips originating in the city. Therefore, this case study will focus mainly on walking as means of transport in Vancouver, and the steps that were taken mainly by the City of Vancouver in the past few years in order to get more people to walk to work or to run errands instead of driving.

A growing transportation mode in Vancouver – Walking

The city of Vancouver sees walking as a top priority out of all transportation modes, followed by cycling, public transit, taxi/car share, and private vehicles. That being said, the city declared that whenever a new road is designed or an existing one is altered, opportunities for including walking and cycling will be reviewed wherever possible, since some streets are limited in terms of space. Figure 4, taken from the transportation 2040 plan created by the City of Vancouver, shows the hierarchy of transportation modes that guides the city’s official policy in regards to the priority the city gives to each transportation mode. Walking is the current top priority.

Priorities for transportation modes (City of Vancouver, 2012)

Priorities for transportation modes (City of Vancouver, 2012)

The 2013 pedestrian volume and opinion survey conducted by the City of Vancouver reveals a few trends in regards to walking in the city (City of Vancouver, 2015a): 

  • The busiest streets for pedestrians were all around the main streets of the downtown core (e.g. Granville, Georgia, Pender, Howe, Robson, and Burrard) next to three Skytrain stations: Vancouver City-Centre (The Canada Line), Granville and Burrard (The Expo Line and the Millennium line).
  • Busy street blocks outside the downtown core were mostly ones where either rapid bus line stations were located (The 99 B-line) or Skytrain stations (e.g. Commercial Drive station, Broadway-City Hall).
  • 59% of pedestrians surveyed in the downtown core walked the entire distance, while the remaining 41% used another mode of transport, such as transit, in order to complete their trip.
  • 51% of pedestrians surveyed in neighborhood centers outside the downtown peninsula completed their entire trip on foot.

It seems like the majority of people in these dense area used walking quite extensively, and in order to understand how this situation was possible, it is important to understand the physical structure and density of certain parts of Vancouver.

Vancouver is considered the most densely populated Canadian municipality (Statistics Canada, 2012b). However, there are differences in density levels among different parts of the city. As of 2011, the population density for the entire city was 5249 people per square km, but the downtown peninsula had a much higher population density of  17,138 people per square km, and as mentioned before, that’s the area where most trips on foot occur (Vancity Buzz, 2012). The area’s population almost doubled itself within a decade from 27,988 people in 2001 to 54,690 people in 2011, adding 26,702 people in that period. Another area that was repurposed for a more densely populated neighborhood is the Renfrew-Collingwood area that grew from 44,946 people in 2001 to 50,495 people in 2011 thanks to a change in land use, and the proximity of the area to a Skytrain station. Such population density creates ideal conditions for people to run errands walking, and to even walk to work, especially given the mild range of temperatures throughout the year in the area, and the active/outdoor culture of the West Coast. This YouTube videoshows the downtown peninsula area and how densely populated it is.

Which steps did the City of Vancouver take in order to increase walkability?

Looking at the macro level, the City of Vancouver tried to provide an integrated mix of accessibility (mixed-use areas, giving access to all sort of need within walking distance) and mobility (using the population density to support transit and connectivity to the larger region). Using a common North American method to direct and guide land use called “Zoning”, the city determines what kind of developments are allowed, not allowed, and encouraged in each zone of the city (City of Vancouver, 2012; Tumlin, 2012). Mixed-use zones allow for people to live, work, and play at the same area, and walk or cycle to their destination. This is achieved by creating “complete communities”, where people can find shops, schools, and other services provided within walking distance based on a balanced planning of commercial, institutional, and residential buildings. Vancouver’s downtown core, and other neighborhood centers were designed around this idea, and the population density in these areas support other means of rapid public transit such as the Skytrain, and buses. The city’s guidelines to keep supporting the population growth while reducing the use of private cars mentions the prioritization of dense mixed-use areas that are served by frequent, high-capacity transit (City of Vancouver, 2015b).
Looking at the micro level, the City of Vancouver implemented a few elements of street design to increase walkability (City of Vancouver, 2012, 2015b): 

  • Providing generous space for sidewalks, allowing for safe and pleasant walk, while taking advantage of the relatively fine-grain street grid throughout most of the city.
  • Making the streets as accessible as possible for people with walking disabilities , making sure the sidewalks are unobstructed, and that there are ramps in most major pedestrian crosses. This way, the streets become inclusive and accessible to everyone.
  • Creating streets that are visually interesting, by designing buildings that support a people-friendly environment to maintain visual interest for people walking or biking.
  • The VIVA program that creates vibrant pedestrian spaces, by temporarily closing streets for all sort of activities such as leisure, and arts.


Vancouver has become a major global population center that successfully implemented a strategy to integrate land use and transportation planning in order to reduce its residents’ car-dependency. By proper zoning that allowed the creation of mixed-use areas and complete communities, people could have access to most of their everyday needs without having to drive anywhere, and the densification of certain areas allowed further expansion of the public transit network to allow better mobility between different parts of the region.

In addition, proper street design made the streets more accessible to all kinds of population, and the experience of walking and cycling more pleasant for everyone. By taking those steps, Vancouver positioned itself as a world-leader in integrated land use and transportation policy.


CBC News. (2016). Low Canadian dollar helping film industry, manufacturing in B.C. Retrieved April 28, 2016, from

City of Vancouver. (2012). TRANSPORTATION 2040.

City of Vancouver. (2015a). 2013 Pedestrian Volume and Opinion Survey.

City of Vancouver. (2015b). 2020 ACTION PLAN Moving toward 100 % renewable energy is another way that Vancouver is working to become the greenest city in the world .”, 2015–2020.

Internet Archive – WayBack Machine. (2016). The revitalization of Chinatown. Retrieved from

Metro Vancouver. (2014). 2011 Population Density and the Metro 2040 Growth Model.

Royson, J. (2014). Current transit mishmash is worse than any of the options: James. Toronto Star. Retrieved from

Slattery, J. (2015). Vancouver ranked most liveable city in North America for 2015. Retrieved from

Statistics Canada. (2012a). Census metropolitan area of Vancouver, British Columbia. Retrieved from

Statistics Canada. (2012b). Population and dwelling counts, for Canada and census subdivisions (municipalities) with 5,000-plus population, 2011 and 2006 censuses. Retrieved May 2, 2016, from

The Canadian Press. (2012). Vancouver population growth outpaces national average. Retrieved April 28, 2016, from

Tumlin, J. (2012). Sustainable Transportation Planning. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley.

Vancity Buzz. (2012, May 7). Vancouver Neighbourhood Population Census 2011. Vancouver. Retrieved from 

This piece is the original writing of the author(s). The view points in the post is the author’s personal opinions and do not reflect IGLUS/EPFL’s viewpoints. The author(s) is the sole responsible person regarding the accuracy of the information presented in the post and will be liable for any potential copyright infringements.

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