How did oil-guzzling Calgary overtake Vancouver in the Economist’s Liveability Index?

Lovely, lovely Vancouver. Image: Getty.

Vancouver residents felt a sting to their sense of urban pride when they saw last autumn that their city had lost to Calgary in a ranking of the world’s best cities by the Economist magazine. The magazine creates the index for their professional, globetrotting demographic.

The Economist’s “Global Liveability Index” by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) surveys and analyses 140 cities using both objective and subjective measures including qualities they believe to be important to have a nice day. Categories include stability, health care, culture and environment, education and infrastructure. Vancouver won top global bragging rights for four years in a row, starting in 2007.

Back in 2011, Melbourne beat us out; Melbourne is the kind of city that Vancouverites might call an “esteemed peer”. Vancouver and Melbourne could be considered cities of the same kind: with waterfronts designed for recreation, and an economy fuelled more by café culture than by industrial parks and a commitment to “green”. But this is the first year Vancouver did not receive the top ranking among Canadian cities.

Calgary, the city that beat Vancouver, is the poster city of suburban sprawl. Oil-guzzling is a sport as Calgary continues to absorb growth by expanding into the hinterland.

Although the trend may be starting to turn around, Calgary has long led the pack of Canadian cities with a high per centage of residents living in car-dependent suburbs.

Calgary’s economic development engine is not the knowledge-based high tech sector, not services, not manufacturing; it is primary resources. Conventional energy extraction accounts for nearly one-third of Calgary’s GDP, according to Calgary Economic Development. How could Vancouver have changed so much that Calgary is now considered “more livable?”

The reason given for relegating Vancouver to sixth place this year, and elevating Calgary to fourth place, is “stability.”

Lack of stability

Vancouver has been ecodensifying for over a decade. In his end-of-career address to the Canadian Institute of Planners in 2004, the former co-director of planning for the City of Vancouver, Larry Beasley, attributed the success of Vancouver’s model of urban planning to its neighbourhood scale.

This type of planning ensured widespread citizen participation and built a “living first” downtown. The premise was that good jobs would follow a good place to live. Also, they valued urban design which in turn valued sustainability and social equity.

Beasley boldly claimed that if other Canadian cities could learn these lessons too, Canadians would become “true experts at city building” for the world to follow. And for a decade or so, cities from Brampton to Dallas to Abu Dhabi followed the Vancouver model, and the truth of Beasley’s conviction became self-evident.

But now, according to the economic elite, the Vancouver way, and local opposition to the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific Coast, are threatening investor confidence in the stability of the democratic process in Canada.

Alberta has taken offence to the civic and political opposition to the pipeline. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley threatened to block refined petroleum shipments to B.C. and wine shipments from B.C. to Alberta. Others accuse B.C. of being one provincial government that is, “holding another to ransom”.


Is Vancouver slipping?

The dark side of Vancouver’s livability agenda is rearing its head. The cost of land and housing have skyrocketed, leaving a very different picture of “living first downtowns”. At the same time as they grow in popularity, support and enthusiasm for higher density neighbourhoods and attached housing is tempered by growing negative associations.

These negative issues include: lack of affordability, polarising class dynamics, crowding, loneliness, social isolation, dysfunction, drug abuse, lack of neighbourliness and community life. There is also concern about risks to cities in the future, from deteriorating air quality (notably, from forest fires) to flooding and other climate change-related risks.

Add to this the wild cards of the upcoming municipal elections in Vancouver. These crises make clear that there are flaws in the Vancouver model of urban livability. They factor into a shifting sense of Canadians’ support for, and hesitancy about, the value of compact urban living and the value of Vancouver’s planning wisdom.

The EIU analysts admit that the difference between the cities at the top of its list is small. In the midst of a lethal drug crisis and affordable housing shortage, is livability good enough in Vancouver to even merit a sixth place finish?

A reversal for what makes a city livable

Aside from that, however, what the reversal in ranking between Vancouver and Calgary signals is a reversal of rules for what makes a city livable in the eyes of the global elite.

These EIU ranking results signal that the stakes are much higher than local; the world’s economic elite are watching. And they lack a feeling of “stability”.

It signals that the Vancouver model of urban development, once the halcyon of livability and the model for all others to try and follow, is not losing ground because of its starry eyed optimist views, a “Mayor Moonbeam” parody of its own reality. Nor is it losing ground because its leadership is “too cozy with developers.”

Vancouver is losing ground in the minds of the global elite for the most existential of reasons. It is a model of neighbourhoods as the building blocks of planning, where the neighbours are invited and expected to have a voice. Compared to Calgary, this appears to be a marker of instability, to the extent that they cannot predict how much Alberta oil the city is willing to act as throughput for.

In other words, Vancouver is losing ground because its planners have been laying the political, economic and cultural groundwork for an urban economic alternative to primary resource extraction and expansionist oil-dependent suburbanisation.

There is no question that Vancouver does not have a perfect model. What is at question is whether Vancouver will ever have the chance to refine the model, or whether Vancouver will face a geyser of pressure to revert to a model that offers more “stability” — for the readers of the Economist Liveable Cities index, at least.

The Conversation

Meg Holden, Professor and Director, Urban Studies and Professor of Geography, Simon Fraser University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.