Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Montréal and Sapporo

Though the Japanese city of Sapporo is most similar to the Texan cities in terms of how its core was initially built, I cannot help as a Montréal resident to notice the many similarities between the two cities. To the point where I have called Sapporo "Japan's Montréal".

  • Both cities have harsh winters with plenty of snow. Montréal's winter is a bit colder, and Sapporo is much snowier, but they face much of the same challenges with the winters:
Monthly average temperatures (in celsius) for Montréal and Sapporo
Monthly average rainfall and snowdall

  • Both cities have rubber-tired subways, initially built in expectation of international events, namely the international exposition of 1967 in Montréal and the winter Olympics of 1972 in Sapporo.
  • Both cities were the hosts of Olympic games in the 70s, the winter games of 72 in Sapporo and the summer games of 76 in Montréal. Both have kept traces of these events, the Olympic Stadium is the most recognizable building of Montréal and Sapporo still maintains the ski jump tracks built for the Olympics, using them as museum of winter sports and has vantage points for the city.
  • Both cities are pioneers of bikesharing in their respective countries, Montréal has BIXI, Sapporo has Porocle (for Sapporo Cycle... the only thing I'd say in defense of the name is that it looks better in katakana).
Porocle, Sapporo's bikesharing program, sponsored by... KFC?
BIXI, Montréal's famous bikeshare,which served as the basis for the Citibikes in New York
  • Both cities have underground malls in the downtown area. Sapporo has Aurora Town under Odori park, Montréal has the RÉSO (30 kilometers of underground tunnels, making it, according to some sources, the largest underground city complex in the world).
  • Both cities are known for beer. Many have heard of Sapporo because of the beer and probably don't know it's a city in Japan. Montréal is the home of Canadian beer giant: Molson, and has breweries from the other Canadian beer giant, Labatt. Both cities have a local craft beer industry of note.
  • Both cities used to be inhabited by native people ultimately displaced through colonization: the Ainu in Sapporo (in fact, Sapporo is not a Japanese word, but the transliteration of the Ainu name of the region). Montréal was founded on the former Iroquois village of Hochelaga, which name is still used to describe a neighborhood of the city.
  • Both are located on plains with nearby farms, with hilly regions close.
  • Both have messy, fat local food. Sapporo has the Jingisukan (Genghis Khan), which consists of mutton cooked in a copper bowl on which a piece of lard has been melted beforehand. Montréal has poutine, if you don't know what it is, you don't know what you're missing.
Sapporo's jingisukan... they actually give you a plastic apron to ward off the splatter of melted lard that inevitably happens

Poutine! Fries, gravy sauce and cheese curds put all together. This particular one also has sliced sausages

I hope I have made my case for the similarities between the two cities. Anyway, I'm not campaigning for twinning the cities and organizing a Montréal-Sapporo festival... yet. This is an urbanist blog, so let's look at the development models of the two cities.

Urban models of development: Sapporo and Montréal

Montréal and Sapporo follow two very different urban regulation models. Montréal is quite uniform overall, being a bit European in the sense that it has entire neighborhoods of 2-3 story buildings packed really closely together and tends to favor uniformity with zoning regulations.
Multiplexes in the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, built in the early 20th century
Lasalle, a 1970s-suburb, this particular area is made up of only 2 housing model, duplexes with front-loading garages and 4-plexes (2-story, 4 units, plus one in the basement) with side-loading garages (not shown here), in many ways an adaptation of the Plateau but with priority given to cars rather than transit
Meanwhile, Sapporo follows the Japanese model that results in eclectic neighborhoods, with multi-family and single-family housing close together, with occasional mid-rises/high-rises in otherwise low-rise areas. The one uniform trait is that tall buildings tend to be on wide streets (regulations capping building height with street width) and near transit stations, and that buildings on narrow streets are almost all low-rise. This model is much better at allowing cities to evolve and grow, whereas the European-inspired model of Montréal is hostile to rapid area changes. It also enables mixed used development much more readily.

A 10+-story apartment bloc towers over a street of low-rises
All of these are single-family houses, but even then they manage to be eclectic, with each house being of a different model
This is THE exception I've spotted where the same apartment bloc model was built en mass on a section of a street
Unfortunately, I seem not to have taken pictures of the Shinsapporo (new Sapporo) station area, which suffered from severe "tower in a parking lot"-itis.

What is the result of these two modes of development?

Some data

First of all, images of Sapporo and Montréal from the sky, where you can see urban development and how it spreads:
Montréal, the core city occupies most of the island
Montréal's suburbs seem to develop in nodes, because of the agricultural protection law, which limits how cities can sprawl, by limiting developments to "white zones" centered around old villages, causing developments to "skip" agricultural fields. Sapporo develops more as a mass radiating from the center.

Now, to compare the size just of the two core cities of the metropolitan areas, excluding inhabitable water, hills and other cities.
Sapporo to the left, Montréal to the right: quite similar in size
 Now, the population of each core city and the population of the respective metropolitan areas:
  • Population of the core city
    • Montréal: 1 621 000
    • Sapporo: 1 914 000
  • Population of the metropolitan areas
    • Montréal: 3 821 000
    • Sapporo: 2 606 000
  • Share of the metropolitan population residing in the core city
    • Montréal: 42%
    • Sapporo 73%
So Montréal's metropolitan population is much higher than Sapporo's. Yet, Sapporo's population is greater than Montréal's, and denser.

What is of greater interest is where residential constructions are happening right now.
  • Number of new residential units, average from 2004 to 2006, for the core cities
    • Montréal: 8 767
    • Sapporo: 21 600
  • New residential units, average from 2004-2006, metropolitan areas
    • Montréal: 24 538
    • Sapporo: 27 367
  • Share of new units built in core city, average 2004-2006
    • Montréal: 35%
    • Sapporo: 79%
New housing units per year, for the years I could find data for
What's interesting here is that, if we use new housing as a proxy for where new residents go to, in Sapporo, despite the higher density of population than Montréal, most new constructions happen in Sapporo itself, not its suburbs. In fact, the share of new constructions being built in the core city is higher than the city's share of metropolitan population (79% of new housing, 73% of population), meanwhile the opposite is true in Montréal (35% of new housing, 42% of population). What this indicates is that the city of Sapporo is growing faster than its suburbs and is likely to maintain a major share of the metropolitan population. Meanwhile, Montréal's metropolitan area is sprawling, suburbs are growing much faster than the core city which is choked by its inability to keep growing housing supply to deal with rising demand, a problem that doesn't affect Sapporo it seems.

Montréal also suffers from a much more developed freeway system, which are free to use (apart from a recent bridge that has a modest toll). This allows suburbs to spread much farther than in Sapporo.
The freeways are in orange, notice the dense network in Montréal and contrast with the few freeways of Sapporo that go around the city

Subway and TOD

The ability to add housing where it is in demand also leads to an interesting effect regarding the subway. 

First, let's look at the two subway systems:

Montréal's and Sapporo's subways to scale
 If you have the impression that Montréal's subway system is bigger, that's because it is.

  •  Number of stations
    • Montréal: 68
    • Sapporo: 48
  • Track length
    • Montréal: 69 km (43 miles)
    • Sapporo: 49 km (31 miles)
So Montréal's subway network is more extensive. is it a clear win for Montréal? Not quite.

  • Subway ridership
    • Montréal: 219 million passengers per year
    • Sapporo: 210 million passengers per year
  • Annual ridership per kilometer of track
    • Montréal: 3,16 million passengers/km
    • Sapporo: 4,29 million passengers/km
  • Annual ridership per station
    • Montréal: 3,22 million passengers per station
    • Sapporo: 4,38 million passengers per station
So overall, both subway networks serve roughly the same population, but in terms of ridership per station or per kilometer of track, Sapporo's subway is much more effective, offering 35% more riders than Montréal's subway.

What gives?

Well, my theory, from having seen Sapporo and Montréal up close, is that the Japanese mode of development is much more conducive to TOD than Montréal's European-flavored mode of development. Indeed, I've pointed out recently that many of Montréal's subway stations that have been around since the late 60s have seen little to no redevelopment around them, with many areas being severely below optimal density, with few jobs or attractive commercial areas around. Meanwhile, areas around transit stations in Sapporo, whether in the downtown area or in the fringe of the network, tend to attract high-rise residential blocks and compact, urban-styled malls. Since Montréal's zoning prevents these from happening in areas that are already built, malls and high-rise developments occur outside the subway network's coverage, inciting people to take cars to reach these developments.

Here is a prime example:

This is a mall located at the edge of the Green line of Montréal's metro, the Carrefour Angrignon. The mall was built years after the metro was built.
Carrefour Angrignon and Angrignon metro station
The mall is not only of a typical suburban form, surrounded by plenty of parking, but it is located at a 10-15 minute walking distance from the subway station. What is built over the subway station then? Nothing, nothing at all. There's just a corner store in the station itself and a surface bus terminal.

Meanwhile, let's look at a mall likewise located at the end of a Sapporo subway line and contrast:
Mall near Miyanosawa station
I've taken pictures of this mall while on my trip to Sapporo:

The only parking lot in front of this suburban mall is a bike parking lot
Cars must take the ramp to their own parking upstairs
This is an urban, compact mall with parking built over the mall rather than around it. It is also much closer to the station, a mere 2-minute walk away, it's even connected to the station with an underground passage for the winter.

Montréal's subway performs very well in terms of ridership for a North American subway, but the reality is that this is mainly due to two things:
  1. The presence of dense streetcar suburbs connected to the downtown area by the subway
  2. Express buses and commuter rail feeding the subway network by connecting to the downtown area, then having users take the subway to distribute themselves around Montréal
There has been very, very little TOD in Montréal apart from some construction downtown, and the station on the South Shore, in the suburb of Longueuil, which was in an undeveloped area that is enclaved by highways on three sides, making it disconnected from the rest of Longueuil.

Sapporo also has a much better performing regional rail system, while Montréal has a few piecemeal commuter rail lines. 76 million people take trains each year in Sapporo, versus 19 million taking commuter rail in Montréal.

Where Montréal beats Sapporo hands down in transit use is the bus system, just the core city's bus service carries about 240 million passengers each year (suburban bus services can add maybe another 80 millions), versus 105 millions for Sapporo's now private bus networks. But where some might see this as a positive, I will see as a negative... Sapporo's mode share shows that though people use transit a bit less, they walk and bike in much greater numbers than in Montréal. The result I guess of strategically placed density and mixed use. Where Sapporo residents would walk, Montréal residents might have to take the bus, because the area is car-oriented and inhospitable to pedestrians.

Mode shares of Sapporo and Montréal

I think that in a well-built city, dense, with a good mix of uses and with decent biking infrastructure, the role of buses is essentially a niche role. Buses, because of the wait times and the high number of stops, are slower than bikes in urban areas. And below about 800 meters (half a mile), walking, at least for an healthy adult, is likely to be faster than taking the bus, even a frequent one with headways of 10 minutes, once one takes into account the waiting time and the detour to get to bus stops, even if the bus line goes straight to the destination.


OK, so what do I gather from this analysis? First, that lax zoning is a boon to transit investments, as it results in automatic TOD which maximizes transit use on rapid, high-capacity lines. The Japanese mode of development, chaotic as it is, makes it less necessary to build very large subway networks as developments concentrate along the lines and reduces the need to extend the network further.

Second, the Japanese model of development keeps core cities strong by allowing a lot of new housing to be built in them, so less people are forced to move out due to housing shortages. Indeed, going by the new units' data, it seems that Sapporo will grow faster than its suburbs in the near future, whereas Montréal is stagnating and allowing its suburbs to grow at a much faster pace, losing more and more to sprawl, a fate that is common to most North American cities.

I have not spoken of housing prices, but I must point out that Sapporo is a very affordable city by most standards, even compared to Montréal, which is pretty affordable for a big Canadian city. Here is a short report on average housing prices provided by for the central ward of Sapporo.
If you can't read Japanese , what this says is that the average price for a studio is around 300$ per month, 400$ for a 1-bedroom apartment, 700$ for a 2-bedroom apartment and 900$ for a 3-bedroom apartment. In the downtown area. The sample size is low, but old condos of more than 770 square feet sell on average for 175 100$, meanwhile single-family houses sell for about 330 000$.

Some people say higher densities correlate with higher housing prices. This doesn't seem to be the case for Sapporo.

Again, much can be learned from the Japanese mode of development. Though some may be put off by the resulting dense neighborhoods of eclectic buildings, it seems to me that we ought to reform the way we build cities more in the Japanese way. Without necessarily dropping everything and copying them wholesale, there are quite a few aspects of their way of doing things that ought to be emulated.


  1. The comparatively low rents in Japanese cities is a real eye-opener for the density vs. rent argument. Are there similar examples in other parts of the world, particularly in the west?

    1. I don't know many places in the developed world with Japan's strong pro-development bend. Most of Europe seems to firmly believe in height-limits and harmonious, uniform urban areas. Germany has been described as having relatively affordable housing, but I don't have any source to see whether that's a correct assessment or not.

    2. Charlie Garder at Old Urbanist did an interesting comparison between density and housing prices between the US and Mexico a little while back. While Mexico isn't much for high-rises, they have very high homeownership rates by allowing small lot sizes and correspondingly small houses. It's similar to what you see in the residential "suburbs" of Tokyo. I wonder if Brazil might have some interesting stats with its varied city types. I agree that Western Europe is a difficult one, but might there be some places on the fringes that are more forgiving, like maybe Eastern Europe or even Russia?

  2. Thanks for the fascinating article. I grew up in Montreal but don't know Sapporo except from your blog.

    I do have a few questions about your housing numbers. Do the two metropolitan areas have similar population growth rates? If not, how does the difference impact density and affordability? Also, I remember you mentioned elsewhere that houses in Japan are demolished sooner than in North America. Do you have an idea what percentage of housing construction is simply to replace units that are demolished, and if the percentage would differ in any significant way between Sapporo itself and its metropolitan area?

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      My numbers were from the Japanese Land Survey (available in English), using the data for the dwelling units by year of construction. It is indeed possible that a part of it is in replacement of earlier housing units, to a lesser extent, the data for Montréal also is about housing starts, so some of them may also be in replacement of earlier housing.

      However, comparing the 2003 and 2008 surveys, the number of dwelling units in the city of Sapporo increased from 879 900 in 2003 to 985 400 in 2008, a gain of 105 500 in 5 years, or around 21 000 per year, so it seems most new units are not in replacement of earlier ones, or at least are much denser than what they replace. Also, the number of unoccupied units increased from 110 000 to 140 000.

      Yes, you read that correctly. The vacancy rate in Sapporo is 14% going by this data, more than twice the rate in Montréal according to the census, which is 6,6% (813 819 total dwellings, but only 759 946 are "occupied by usual residents"). It means that between 2003 and 2008, Sapporo added 105 000 dwellings, but saw an increase of 30 000 dwelling units that were unoccupied. That sets the stage for filtering and affordable housing, I think, but may make older, less attractive spots start to look like ghost towns as the residents start looking for better, more recent apartments in more attractive locations (as if old danchis weren't creepy enough as it is!).

      From searching on, it seems plenty of old houses are made into rentals if they don't find a buyer, perhaps to help the owner pay the taxes on his property while finding a buyer. For instance, 450$ a month for a 1000-square-foot single-family house at a 3-minute walk from a train station:

      Okay, that's a particularly cheap example, but there are many decently-sized single-family houses more than 20 years old that are for rent at prices under 1000$ a month.

      As to population, the region of Sapporo is growing in population, but less than the region of Montréal. Still, the context is different, the Japanese aren't keen on immigration and have a low birth rate, so their population is declining. If Sapporo is growing, it's because rural regions are losing population.

      Furthermore, I just found a great site about population trends

      If I look at the page for Sapporo:

      I notice that of the 25 000 new residents of Sapporo between 2010 and 2013, 10 000 came from the central Chuo ward, the fastest growing of them all. Meanwhile, the wards outside the reach of the subway are all stagnating or losing population.

    2. Thanks for the reply. That combination of vacancy rate and new construction is an interesting demonstration of the point of your filtering/gentrification article.

    3. Interesting note about the vacancy rates. I wonder what the turnover time is in Sapporo versus Montreal. A high vacancy rate isn't necessarily a bad thing if the units turn over quickly, and in that case would probably indicate a higher rate of people moving around (call it a higher baseline vacancy rate maybe?). It's sort of how the baseline/natural unemployment rate is different in different countries. Historically I think it was something like 5% in the US, but closer to 10% in France for instance. Maybe there's a similar dynamic here?

    4. I couldn't tell you what the turnover rate is. That being said, around 122 000 of the unoccupied units according to the survey are either for rent (108 000), for sale (9 000), under construction (2 000) or serving as secondary housing (3 000), leaving around 17 000 that are vacant without justification, I'm guess these are abandoned houses and apartment blocs. So owners of most of these units seem to keep the hope that they will find tenants for their property.

      In all of Hokkaido, there are 109 000 dwelling units that are vacant without justification and are neither for rent nor for sale, which represents 30% of all unoccupied dwelling units. Much worse than the 11,5% they are in Sapporo. But that's not surprising considering the population decline of Japan.