Stephen Rees's blog

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

The Surrey Decision

with 4 comments



The Mayor’s Council has decided to support the choice of the electors in Surrey who want SkyTrain over LRT. I am not going to get into why that might be, since they are mostly new Mayors (good) and I have no doubt that the strongest instinct for human beings in group situations is don’t be the awkward, difficult critic. Try and find some consensus, or if you prefer, don’t block their favourite project this time as next time they will block yours.

The difference between SkyTrain and LRT is not the technology. The whole point about the Plan was that it was a real effort to try to match transit technology to the desired land use. There was actually a diagram I saw, not so long ago, that showed how buildout of Surrey LRT would see service on all of the major arterials. This would have facilitated building four to six storey apartments over commercial at street level all along the main roads while a mixture of “missing middle” would fill the bits in between. The Light Rail trains would have priority signals at intersections and exclusive right of way – so not streetcars. This produces journey times door-to-door comparable to grade separated – but without the escalators. Stations on LRT are cheap, and can be relatively close to each other. While the train is loading/unloading, the traffic crosses in front of it.

SkyTrain’s main selling point for electors (boomers: older white males) is that they don’t get in the way of the cars. Because the trains are small, and automated, you can build elevated structures (much cheaper than tunnels) along the highway alignments – see Millennium Line, Evergreen Line. Stations are more widely spaced than LRT. That is because to get people up to the platform you have to offer a faster ride for longer distances. Basically SkyTrain endorses sprawl: it makes longer distance commutes tolerable because the train is faster.  The Canada Line, by the way, is not SkyTrain and it isn’t fast. It’s just not as slow as the jammed up traffic on the surface.

SkyTrain does not have a driver. That means instead of running long trains with long gaps between them (like Edmonton) you can run short trains at shorter intervals, like the Millennium Line, as the cost is the same, but the service level much more attractive. Stations are expensive as they have to have elevators and some escalators. Ideally lots of entrances and exits to make transfers convenient (something the Canada Line deliberately ignored to keep the initial capital cost down) as the punters don’t like to have to cross two six laners just to catch their connecting bus which stops far side of the traffic signals and won’t wait for you.


The development pattern produced by SkyTrain is now most clearly visible at Brentwood. The Lougheed Highway and Willingdon are both wide stroads with fast traffic. The station is surrounded on three sides by high rises. This does not look like a Walkable City. Yes, it is indeed Transit Oriented Development. But it is not at human scale. I used to think that the views made possible by living high up, would compensate for the inconvenience of waiting for the elevator (no one walks up to the 40th floor). But if all you can see out of your windows are the serried windows of the high rise across the street …

That is what the region has now endorsed for Surrey. The population and the overall density won’t be much different, but the point density at transit stations will be very different. But that allows the bits in between to stay something like they are now for longer. So not only do you not have to wait for a streetcar to finish loading, but you can also stay in your present accommodation.  No wonder it appeals to the sort of people who will vote for Doug McCallum.


Hours after I first posted this opinion piece some new analysis came to my attention from the Georgia Straight 

Written by Stuart Parker it is worth your time

…why Surrey could choose an LRT without sufficient public buy-in for the project and then have that project defeated by a candidate claiming that he could fund a $3-billion asset using $1.6 billion of other people’s money that they had set aside for a different project.

Who is Stuart Parker? “Stuart Parker teaches international studies and history at Simon Fraser University. He ran for Surrey council in 2018 as a member of Proudly Surrey.”

Note also there is a comment by Frank Bucholtz under the article which endorses it.

Towers at Marine Drive Station

High rise towers at Marine Drive Canada Line station


Written by Stephen Rees

November 16, 2018 at 8:25 am

4 Responses

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  1. Excellent commentary, Stephen.


    November 16, 2018 at 8:54 am

  2. Very nice summary Stephen.

    What was on the table was a plan to grow Surrey into BCs largest city and connect all its neighbourhoods and shopping areas to one another.

    What is now being pushed forward is a plan to connect Langley to Vancouver.

    While most of Metro Vancouver screams that they aren’t getting their fair share of transit spending Surrey has chosen to give theirs away.


    November 16, 2018 at 10:17 am

  3. Connecting Langley was always in the plan, it just wasn’t the first priority. There will be some benefit to the region in terms of a greater incentive to use transit rather than Highway #1. Of course, that has recently been widened and has already filled up, and pressure is building to widen it some more out to Abbotsford. The #555 bus has been very successful – but could have been introduced much earlier by converting the hard shoulder to an exclusive bus lane as was done a while back for Highway #99. And that could still be done for the period until the new SkyTrain opens – which will be counted in years.

    It is also worth noting that Translink is still saying that within the present funding envelope, a Skytrain along Fraser Highway would not go all the way to Langley in one project: it will have to be done in two stages unless additional funding is found.

    Stephen Rees

    November 16, 2018 at 10:56 am

  4. There was a third party study a few years back that recommended Skytrain along Fraser Highway to Langley as a high ridership corridor (200k/day). However, on King George and 104th, bus rapid transit was recommended as it would provide an exclusive lane and good pedestrian access, and allow similar ridership and travel times to LRT, at a fraction of the cost.

    I have always thought the B-Line services should be actual BRT (and so far, only portions of the now-defunct 98-B Line actually met that criteria). There is an opportunity here to build out the 96 B-Line on King George as a proper BRT, similar to the Viva BRT in York region, Ontario.

    Sadly, some of the nuances have been missing in the Surrey transit debate. I don’t think it would be appropriate to put Skytrain on King George, but it does make sense on Fraser Highway – they’re different types of roads after all.

    Mark Lister

    November 17, 2018 at 12:39 pm

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