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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Direct light-rail line to campus the way to go, UBC says

with 14 comments

Frances Bula in the Globe and Mail has been talking to Pascal Spothelfer, the university’s vice-president of community partnerships. He seems not to understand that the way to make a partnership is to look at the combined interest of both – or all – parties rather than than your own self interest. Of course UBC wants to get more people onto transit than the current bus lines can carry – and as usual all eyes are on the Broadway corridor. Prior to today, the City has been favouring an underground line from VCC to Arbutus, with bus the rest of the way. The city’s engineers have delivered an update today (see foot of this post).

I am a bit reluctant to open up the comments on this since it will almost inevitably revert to the tired old debate of SkyTrain vs LRT. What we really need to be talking about right now is what do we do to resuscitate Translink – which is starved of operating dollars and is busy cutting service in much of the region in order to get some more service into areas where there is now severe overcrowding. For UBC to be pushing its own agenda at this time seems more than a little insensitive. For the decisions that matter will not be made in the City of Vancouver, which is unlikely to be swayed by views of the unincorporated area to its west. UBC’s population may be growing, but they don’t vote in City elections. And the areas that are going to be impacted by whatever is built are some of the most expensive and politically influential bits not just of the city but the province.

And, like it or not, rapid transit is – and always has been – a provincial issue. “TransLink typically only takes on a big transit expansion once a decade. ” And that being the case, really ought be concentrating its attention on the part of the region that is growing fastest, has the greatest current and future car dependance, and is currently grossly underserved by transit of all kinds. Any new dollars that Translink gets seem to me should be ear marked for Surrey, so that the 555 Highway #1 rapid bus can have a park and ride and service connections into Surrey (instead of blasting straight through non-stop) and the #96 B-Line can be extended along the rest of King George all the way to White Rock. Rapid bus may not be as sexy as light rail, but it can at least be introduced in the next few years, given some political will.

Next year we will have a new provincial government. Let us dream a little and imagine that it is not only NOT the BC Liberals, but also the NDP with some significant Green influence – given last night’s federal by-election result of 34.3% in Victoria. That new administration might well want to reconsider the once a decade track record, and conclude that what BC’s major urban area needs is a program of steady transit expansion – with perhaps a moratorium on major new road building projects. Stop talking about six lane Patullo replacement and a new Deas Island crossing, start talking about managing the steady decline in driving that we have been seeing and how to provide all kinds of alternative ways of getting around. Don’t put all your investment into one big project, but start a long term program of continuous improvement in affordable increments. And the only way that gets thrown into doubt is if there is some change in funding strategy from other levels of government. As long as Canada is cutting is transit spending, and province is playing blacktop politics (where the NDP has a very similar record to the small c conservatives) Metro Vancouver needs a strategy that it can fund – likely from road user charges and parking fees.

The other thing that gets put back on the table with the a new provincial government has to be land use and higher education. Making universities behave like businesses was really silly since UBC had land that could have been used for student housing and might well have gone some way to cutting the distance that “140,000 people a day” have to travel. Allowing university land to be developed for market housing only makes sense if you view UBC as a commercial venture with a cash bottom line that overrules any other consideration. That does not seem to me to be a sensible way to run any educational service – or any public sector enterprise come to that. Of course we cannot unscramble that egg now, but we can resolve to do much better in future, and putting both UBC and SFU into downtown(s) was a good first step – but not nearly enough.

It also means that the region gets effective land use powers to overcome local resistance to increased density at rapid transit stations and along transit lines. I am not at all convinced that we could adopt a Hong Kong model, but given that developers pay for so much transportation and parking infrastructure now, diverting that to a broader toolbox of urbanization and public space management seems to make a great deal of sense.  As Brent Toderian has been saying – it’s not about the bike lanes it’s about building better cities. But it also seems to me that it is insufficient for one or two cities to follow that strategy while the rest continue with business as usual. We need a regional approach, both at setting priorities for major infrastructure investments and also to tackle the shape (as opposed to serve) development role.

POSTSCRIPT see the latest BC polling – and Bill Tieleman’s view – in the Tyee and here is the presentation that went to Council today – pushing for underground on Broadway all the way to UBC

“Given the impacts of surface rapid transit west of Arbutus, a Broadway Subway should be extended all the way to UBC.” staff presentation

Written by Stephen Rees

November 27, 2012 at 9:48 am

14 Responses

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  1. The big problem with ignoring the Broadway corridor in favour of expanding transit in Surrey is that a lot of Surrey trips end up in Vancouver. The Broadway/Commercial station is bursting at the seams with traffic – it has almost twice as much traffic as the next busiest station. And the Expo line is at crush capacity between Broadway and downtown during the rush hour. It does little good to expand transit in Surrey if a lot of those people won’t take it due to overcrowding, or if people currently using it in Vancouver are crowded out of it.
    What’s desperately needed is to extend the Millenium line through to at least Cambie and the Canada Line to connect the rapid transit network and relieve some of the pressure from Broadway/Commercial through to downtown. That’s an improvement that will benefit transit riders across the region.
    If we extend the Millenium line, I think it makes sense to go right through to Granville to benefit the extremely busy hospital district as well. Extending it all the way to UBC doesn’t really seem warranted right now, but it’s better to bite off the most important part as a piece that can be digested first as long as we can extend it later as needed.

    Sean Nelson

    November 27, 2012 at 10:22 am

  2. Apologies, my comment that “Broadway/Commercial” being “almost twice as much traffic” as the next station (which is Metrotown) was incorrect – but it IS almost twice as much as the third in line (Waterfront).


    Sean Nelson

    November 27, 2012 at 10:39 am

  3. Sean – as your reply hit the comment page, so did a bunch of tweets about the City Engineer’s presentation . There is a lot of new information – and the city is going to be pushing for underground not surface light rail as UBC prefer. I have now added the link to the presentation

    Stephen Rees

    November 27, 2012 at 11:06 am

  4. Great presentation from the city.
    Nothing is said about the financing…Surely UBC could pay for part of it if they want to badly a subway. Isn’t it time for Stephen to exhume from his files the post about the “transportation tax”that helped European towns to build, expand and maintain their transit systems?

    I wonder why the city staff are showing in the presentation the oldest type of LRT used in Portland. The newer ones (used since 2009 at least–according to my photos) look sort of like the SkyTrain in the presentation.

    One of the niftiest fast bust system I have seen and used is in Eugene Oregon… what the photo doesn’t show is that there are doors on both sides and that there are ramps on all doors that –unlike our buses–slide in and out instead of unfolding. Bikes are stored inside. These buses are hybrids (diesel-electric). And they announce stops plus on which side doors will open in American and Spanish…

    Being my usual picky self I have to mention that In other places Automated transit like SkyTrain, VAL etc. are in the same classification as LRT and that non automated LRT and streetcars are simply called tramways…

    Red frog

    November 27, 2012 at 2:44 pm

  5. Redfrog: You wonder why the city staff is using the worst picture of LRT it could find 😉

    I don’t 😉

    However, it didn’t put picture of LRT accident: It should have: Transport2040 put emphasis on pedestrian safety, but insuring a 30km/h LRT average speed suppose have it ramming thru at “high speed” in the middle of Broadway: That begs the safety question:


    November 27, 2012 at 11:14 pm

  6. The City of Vancouver is wrong, at this time, to advocate for an underground LRT along West Broadway to UBC. Stop calling the “Broadway line”, and start calling it the “UBC line”, and you will see my point.
    The City’s report compares a Broadway subway to a Broadway street-level LRT. Of course a streetcar or street-level light rail along BROADWAY is going to compare badly to subway, in terms of capacity and speed. West Broadway is already so congested.
    Trying to force the most complex and expensive, highest capacity transit line in Vancouver through one of the most congested arterials in Vancouver is pure folly. It would be easier to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle. It can be done, but at what cost?
    The most appropriate solution, with due consideration for costs, regional transit priorities (i.e.: Surrey, etc) and timeframe (10 years from now to build the subway, minimum) is to build a mainly street-level light rail along the CPR corridor, the Arbutus corridor, and West 16th Avenue. Compare THIS route to a Broadway subway on cost, construction time and capacity, and it prevails.
    Of course this would upset those who live along 16th, and they will oppose it, but let’s get realistic. If a subway IS constructed along Broadway and 10th, there would be a massive increase in traffic disruption for a several year period during construction, and a consequent transfer of traffic to 16th Ave. See the effect on Granville, Main, Oak Streets, etc. when Cambie Street was closed. Some of those who switch to 16th during construction will never go back to Broadway/10th Ave afterwards.
    A streetcar or LRT along West 16th could dip into short cut and cover tunnels at major intersections, as does the Skytrain between Victoria Drive and Rupert, and as do portions of the Calgary and Edmonton LRTs.
    Such a route/technology option would be FAR less expensive to build than a Subway LRT (Skytrain), and could be built in a much shorter timeframe.
    If anyone thinks that a Broadway Subway can be built for $3 Billion, they are dreaming. Look at the cost and disruption of the Canada Line construction. The only really congested part of that line (in Vancouver) was the northernmost portion, from King Edward to Downtown – a few kilometers. By comparison, the congested and difficult part of the Broadway line will be practically the whole thing – many kilometers – from VCC to the UBC Gates.
    Vancouver says that if a Broadway subway is constructed with a tunnel boring machine, it will have little disruption on Broadway during construction. This is absolutely untrue and misleading. Tunnelled subways require MASSIVE surface excavations for stations, electrical substations, track switches, ventilation systems, emergency exits, equipment and dirt removal, etc. If a subway is built along Broadway, even using a TBM, the street will be significantly disrupted (read: closed) for several years, at least.
    I fully realize that the City of Vancouver’s position is a negotiating tactic – ask for the moon, in hopes of getting something less – but can’t we be more mature than that, these days?

    For goodness sake, Translink and the Province are crying so poor right now that they cannot even afford to finish off a bus rapid transit facility that is partway finished (the156th Street transit exchange in Surrey), and I am sure the same applies to numerous other projects, programs and initiatives.

    So why ask for a $3 Billion project (read: $5 Billion) when there is NO chance of such happening in the near future. That is just rude and/or deluded.
    Meanwhile, Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts proposes THREE street-level LRT lines for her city, probably at less cost than the Broadway subway line. Who looks more reasonable? Chop the Broadway project in half, as Vancouver suggests, and what would we have? Certainly not a UBC line. That would simply move the transfer bottleneck from Commercial to Arbutus. Not worth $1.5 Billion. Chop Watts’ proposal in half, and what would we get? At least one new rapid transit line for Surrey.
    So why did Vancouver do it? Translink has set a trap, and the City fell for it. During its public consultation process, Translink set out limited options and false choices. This created unholy alliances between transit advocates, Broadway businesses, and some developers. In this economic climate, it will fail.
    If transit facilities are spread among two parallel corridors, rather than squeezed into one, it will provide more benefits to more people. And it will open up new areas for development that may help fund the transit line and other amenities, following the “Hong Kong model” of transit finance.
    If Vancouver thinks that it can get the province to tunnel the Broadway line, as it did the Canada line under Cambie, it is living in the past. That was a different era. Lots of provincial money, and lots of hype for the Olympics. When the cupboards are bare, you don’t ask Santa for a gold plated train set.
    Finally, Vancouver quotes Alan Jacobs in its recent presentation: “Going underground is the only way to deliver Broadway as a Great Street.” This is surely a misappropriation of Jacobs’ ideas. West Broadway is already a great street. Disrupt it with several years of major construction, and its greatness will be destroyed. Put rapid transit on another street, reduce the number of express buses and traffic congestion on Broadway and 10th, and these streets can become even better.

    Adam Fitch

    December 3, 2012 at 5:57 pm

  7. @ Adam, I beg to differ on the disruption of tunneling. The Canada Line tunneling methodology was the worst ever proposed for a built-up urban area and should never be used as an example again. If this was London — or any other jurisdiction with more maturity in transit and urbanism – any consultant or contractor that proposed open trenches in streets for years would not have been awarded the work. Cut and cover is now practically guaranteed to be a No Go on Broadway because of the fiasco on Cambie, thank the god of your choice.

    Moreover, station boxes can be covered with temporary steel bridge-like structures with the spoil taken out through the sides, either via adjacent properties that can be bought for this purpose then sold in a pre-excavated form to private developers or public institutions afterward, or by temporarily closing less-travelled side streets.

    Again, if this were London then the federal government and other agencies senior to local government would act as guarantor therein ensuring deep financing discounts. The Crossrail project in London (currently under construction) will receive over a billion pounds in financing savings on an 18 billion pound, 113 km rail project. Similar deep discounts on project financing were made possible recently on a hydroelectric project in Labrador when the federal government stepped in as guarantor. Placing such projects under public sector purview has huge advantages.

    And if the federal government cared to do a modicum of planning for the nation’s future it would realize that enhancing public transit in Canada’s major cities has significant positive advantages with respect to energy security, lowering emissions, freeing up family discretionary spending by offering savings on less private vehicle ownership, and providing one of the greatest economic stimulators ever conceived by tying development and land use planning to transit.

    Under federal control a national transit plan would offer deep discounts not only on financing perhaps 50 transit projects in the country’s 25 largest cities, but bulk order (volume) discounts on unit prices for things like rolling stock and materials, and would also make it possible for the cost of tunnel boring machines and tram factories to be shared between cities, and also for innovation and good old R&D in stuff like developing low-emission concrete and steel using cleaner energy sources.

    A national prerogative on transit would have deep and positive implications.


    December 5, 2012 at 10:29 am

  8. OK, MB I accept your arguments on the advantages of bulk buying and national planning and the economic advantages of transit development. I also concede that I used the Canada Line construction method as an example, when there are other ways of doing things.

    But, even where a tunnel boring machine was used on the Canada Line, full street closures were required for station boxes at Granville/Georgia/Robson, Granville/Pender/Hastings, and Davie streets. These sites were too constricted to allow for the urchase and later sale of additonal properties.

    I believe that,uUp until very recently, the province of BC had a law that prevented Translink (or even the provincial government itself) from purchasing land and selling it at a profit. Don’t know why. I would assume that it was a ideological leftover from the NDP days.

    Anyway, if this law is changed, it could make a big difference for projects in the future.

    But my main point is that Vacouver does not need a subway train on West Broadway at this time, when there are much less expensive, more practical and better alternative options available, and when Surrey, which is truly competing with Vancouver on this matter, is promoting a better alternative.

    Vancouver is a great city, but it is not London. It is one of at least haf a dozen major cities in Canada, and Canada is less than half the population of the UK.

    Adam Fitch

    December 5, 2012 at 11:18 am

  9. Adam, if it wasn’t for the small city at the end of the line (UBC) I’d agree with you about west Broadway. And there are those inconvenient pedestrian-activated lights every 180m for 38 blocks with 100,000 people a day travelling through them to UBC. In my experience of living on or near Broadway for over three decades and schlepping to UBC for four years (a painful experience, that was), a subway is a generation too late in my opinion.

    Despite its recent development, Surrey Centre has a small fraction of Broadway’s 8.5 km-long residential, business and employment density, and it’s very negligible a km either way on King George. But I agree that Surrey should be given priority after (or at the same time as) Broadway, namely to help build the city in future with a serious orientation to decent transit.

    Enter high-capacity, inter-suburb light rail on King George (stations at ~1 km) and neighbourhood trams (stations every ~400m) on feeder loops. Roads like King George are wider than Broadway and have a lot of capacity to accommodate intensely-used surface LRT stations while keeping pedestrians safe. There are several design approaches available to ensure their safety if given enough real estate. Urban design will play an increasingly important role in ensuring that neighbourhoods offer as many necessities to life as possible without having to drive a car, and when they don’t, to offer exceptionally convenient transit.

    It’s very disappointing to keep hearing light rail versus SkyTrain arguments when a totally irresponsible and purposeful funding void and transport management structure was artificially manipulated by the province. We need both regional and local transit options now. It doesn’t have to be so, and the feds have to wake up sometime early this century and realize how much our cities contribute to the nation, and how much they have been shorted.


    December 5, 2012 at 3:22 pm

  10. Amen to all of that

    Stephen Rees

    December 5, 2012 at 3:33 pm

  11. Regarding comparing London to Vancouver, I was trying to set up London as a model . . . or as a mentor.

    Arguably, their per-capita transit-km are far greater than Vancouver’s, certainly well beyond its population ratio of 3.4 times Vancouver’s (Greater London is 8.5 million … it’s 9.3 million if you include the towns and villages beyond the greenbelt but still reachable by transit). And their per ridership costs may well be a lot lower there than here just because a much higher proportion of Londoners use the system. Their attitude about protecting the historic city by placing its primary transportation below ground, and garnering public acceptance for funding it via local and senior governments, is admirable. Chelsea is still pretty much intact despite huge population increases and the Blitz.

    Now consider that with current growth rates Metro Vancouver will exceed Montreal’s by mid-century, which is currently about 40% of London’s. We’d certainly better have far better public transit in place before then. We can’t rely on attitudes that built the World’s Widest and Stupidest Bridge to get us there.

    The Docklands Railway evolved when the Canadian developer of Canary Wharf realized just how large the employment demographic that evolved was. Ergo, the need to extend the Jubilee Line that was far better at meeting demand. The developer offered to pay a “substantial” portion of the costs, but that ended up being less than 5%. The DR and JL complement each other, much like Surrey and Vancouver could, and both are needed to fill specific roles. I believe there is a similar relationship between regional rapid transit and local access, fast and slower, grade-separated in the densest areas and surface elsewhere.

    We need it all.

    [Info from Wikipedia and Transport for London. More research is need on per capita comparisons … emissions, rail vs asphalt, etc.]


    December 5, 2012 at 3:47 pm

  12. yes, vancouver deserves more transit, and yes, the federal and provincial governments should be funding transit with more priority than they do, but funding demands these days are just so huge, that where a less expensive solution will solve a problem, even temporarily, it should be considered more heavily.

    I am a realist when it comes to politics and planning. I do not believe that the approach of taking a negotiating position is appropriate.

    That is why i said what I did about london. What is London’s population as a proportion of the UK’s?

    How does that compare to Vancouver’s as a proportion of Canada’s? There is your political answer. The federal gov’t has contributed close to $1billion to Vancouver for rapid transit projects in the last decade (Canada Line and Evergreen Line) and I just don’t think that it is realistic that they will do so again for the Broadway Line. Not when there are lower cost solutions. they did hold out on the Canada Line for some time, and pushed for some cost saving reductions.

    Adam Fitch

    December 5, 2012 at 4:17 pm

  13. Adam, you draw a clear picture of where you stand on transit in Vancouver, notably on funding, and I respect that.

    My view perhaps focuses more on the tremendously underrated role cities play currently in the national economy, and the supremely important role they must play in the next few decades with respect to fundamental and necessary changes to urbanism. Our cities are as important to the nation if not more so then our natural resources and occupy a top position as economic engines and as the largest ‘marketplaces’, and as the primary loci where energy security and mitigation of climate change must be addressed well before mid-century.

    It’s not a surprise that our cities are downplayed in federal support in Canada as we remain drawers of water, hewers of wood and pumpers of oil in the public and institutional psyche. Britain (and Japan and Korea and Taiwan and …) does not have such abundant resources and therein funnels more public capital into its cities, amongst other non-resource funding targets, and has threin developed its financial, industrial and other sectors into more mature forms with relatively more efficacy that we.

    Canada has slightly more than half the population of Britain, but over 80% of its population lives in urban areas. Cities in the UK may offer similar stats (needs confirmation), but they arguably do a much better job at sustainable urbanism and resilience, not in the least with direct funding by the British government. According to the Wikipedia stats, the electric-powered Underground alone moves about 200 times Greater London’s 8.5 million population every year, or over half every day. Given that the UK pays a huge premium on imported oil (their North Sea reserves have been decline for over 10 years), and that the world supply of unconventional oil will never make up for the declines in the massive conventional fields since 2005 for more than a few months, Londoners are fairly well prepared for any disruption to supplies or price spikes. Most Canadian cities cannot make this claim and remain ill-prepared as long as they remain highly dependent on – and specifically designed for – cheap oil, and are therein prime targets for emission reduction policies.

    For every dollar the feds take from Metro Vancouver’s gas taxes they return 8 cents. Spending $1 billion on transit over 10 years here is a very small drop in the automobile subsidy bucket; lowering the subsidy by only 20% over 10 years will theoretically free up enough funds to complete the regional rapid transit system and roll out light rail and new buses all over. Reallocating funds from subsidizing resource extraction (e.g. industry pays for only half of the horrendous volumes of natural gas it consumes in the oil sands) and roads are two of several ways to apply more appropriate funding levels to moving people in our cities instead of cars. Pricing carbon nationally is another. I also believe we can reallocate funds within existing federal budgets and tax a bit more without deficit spending and increasing the national debt, though that will be a fine balancing act.

    It’s a matter of priorities.


    December 6, 2012 at 11:24 am

  14. Adam, I appreciate your advocacy for public transit and your willingness to write opinion pieces in the Vancouver Sun. (unfortunately links to a paywall)

    However, I have a few quibbles and put them in a letter to the Sun which I copied below. I have no idea if it will get printed, or how much of it will be edited out.

    FYI, I too was thinking that a tram could travel on 16th to Arbutus, but then swing south to King Edward and ultimately to New Westminster via Kingsway, Nanaimo, 22nd Ave, Burnaby General Hospital, BCIT and Canada Way, returning on 12th Street, Kingsway, Main Street, 1st Ave / 4th Ave, Chancellor Blvd, East Blvd then 16th Ave. This would serve the entire length of the Burrard Peninsula pretty well midway between the Expo Line and the Millennium Line.

    What severely tempered this idea was encountering major upgrades to underground services on W 16th and Kingsway, both still ongoing after more than six months, and both stretching over several km. These services were everywhere (in the centre, in the outside lanes, in between) and were major.

    Now perhaps it would be worth it to relocated said Kingsway utilities away from what could be a centre median devoted to several converging LRT lines, but one shouldn’t under any circumstances be under the illusion that it won’t add several hundred million to the cost of light rail and disrupt the corridor for years. Cities like Edinburgh and Strasbourg were plagued by tram construction delays, businesses complaining about losses on every route, and massive cost overruns. These cannot be ignored.
    Then again, Kingsway is not Broadway, and a fenced median with one or two signalized pedestrian crossings between stations spaced I km apart could be feasible.


    Adam Fitch had the most persuasive argument of all the recent Sun opinion pieces regarding an LRT on Broadway: to remove it (Forget about a Broadway subway, think LRT along West 16th, The Sun Opinion page, Dec 11).

    However, while Fitch addressed construction issues for a subway, he ignored many of the same issues for LRT. The reality on and below the ground – and safety — are often overlooked by light rail aficionados and planners who rarely build anything.

    Metro Vancouver is just completing a major water main installation over several kilometres on West 16th. How much would a tram line track bed have to duck and weave to avoid such services as well as to “dip below” intersections, as Fitch advises? Subway station excavations can be covered, underpasses and their approaches cannot.

    Relocating underground utilities and grade separation will jack up the costs of LRT significantly, therein exposing its low-cost justification as so much pre-engineering PR gloss.

    The Rail Rapid Transit (subway) option TransLink has studied is estimated to move 300,000 people a day within a decade, serving both Broadway and UBC destinations. Today upwards of 150,000 are schlepped in buses, half from outside of Vancouver.

    How much will we have to pay to have LRT merely replicate the existing bus service, let alone provide any gain in ridership on Broadway or any other parallel route?

    If the prime motive is to address the challenges we face this century in part by providing transit alternatives to the private car, then quality of service (i.e. frequency, speed, capacity and urban development orientation) are the top project justifications.

    If a noble goal was set to take 20% of the funding and “external costs” (read subsidies) that has supported our regional car dependency over the last half century and instead devote it to transit for the next decade, then there would be enough to finish the regional rapid transit system (including a Broadway subway), roll out LRT and buses where they are actually justified and have enough change to cover operating costs for years.

    To illustrate, over the last six decades we’ve had every level of government directing hundreds of billions in public funds to a gross overcapacity of road space in the region well beyond that required by commerce. Clearly, with over one third of our urban land now devoted to asphalt with its attendant high maintenance and health care costs (accidents, air pollution, etc.), this is unsustainable.


    December 11, 2012 at 10:47 am

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