Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘Abbotsford

Great debate over future commutes

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The Sun trots out all the usual suspects to talk about the current push to get Translink extended beyond Metro Vancouver (“Pemberton to Chilliwack”). It actually is a pretty daft idea right now, given that Translink cannot balance its books and is threatening to hike fares and cut service if it cannot get a new funding source.  So of course the surrounding communities are quite right to be concerned about why this is being pushed right now. It looks like a tax grab – for Squamish and the Valley to pay for transit in Vancouver.

The context has to be that Surrey is still very badly served – and has a transit mode share of 4%.

TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie acknowledges Langley and Surrey are lacking in efficient transit services, mainly because the cities came into the game late and transit patterns were based on trips to and from Vancouver

Which like all sounds bites is only partly true. The use of the word “efficient” is odd too – efficient for whom? The transit system – such as it is – came after the development. The land use pattern was typical North American suburbia – single land uses, widely separated,  with lots of space for cars to move and park. In fact the whole thing was designed with cars in mind – not people. The underlying assumption of the transportation engineers and land use planners was that everyone who mattered would drive everywhere. This pattern and preconception is being repeated, despite the fact that we know it is not sustainable – even in the short term. And the plans of the province to widen the major freeway within Metro simply reinforce that. The so called transit plan is to do a lot less, a lot later. By which time everyone will be stuck in a pattern that is hard to change.

Transit must precede development. Retrofitting car oriented suburbs is difficult, expensive and often less effective. Of course it is true that much of Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster grew up around the streetcar in a dense walkable pattern. But equally much of the outer areas grew up around the interurban and railway stations. It just that there has been a lot more development in recent years, when we were enjoying cheap energy and built as though there was no tomorrow. We need more transit oriented development (TOD)- the only kind that is going to be viable soon – and we cannot get that without the transit service. My bet would be that if passenger service is reintroduced on the old BCER tracks there will be a lot of interest in doing TOD around the stations – and recreating the walkable urban centres we used to enjoy before the spread of the “plaza” and the “power centre”.

George Peary the Mayor of Abbotsford spouts nonsense –

“Light rail transit might be a solution, but it’s very expensive and won’t happen overnight, he said, while reviving the old Interurban rail line isn’t viable because it runs along old milk routes, not through residential neighbourhoods.”

The old Interurban runs north south through Abbotsford. That’s nothing to do with milk but everything to do with geography – and the fact that the line was built before Sumas Lake was drained. Light rail is not “very expensive” if you have existing tracks and you want to use what you have and plan accordingly. But Abbotsford’s plan is now to build transit along South Fraser Way and try to get redevelopment onto the parking lots to turn the “corridor” into a real urban street. This is far sighted – and much less “expensive” than watching the whole lot become a wasteland, when the cost of fuel leaps again and people simply cannot afford to drive so much. What could “happen overnight” is the conversion of the curb lanes to exclusive bus lanes. A number of cities have done this as a way to make the bus more attractive – and add additional features over time to spread the cost and help build the ridership towards one that will support rail. How successful that is depends very much on the developers’ confidence that the bus service will indeed persist and improve. It is not an easy sell, especially when transit systems across North America – facing exactly the same challenge that Translink does – are cutting service and raising fares to balance their books in the face of rising demand. Investing in tram tracks looks like a real commitment to a new system in a way that diamond lanes don’t.

Getting some passenger service onto the interurban need not be very expensive. It would not be ideal in Abbotsford perhaps – though it seems to me that the rail corridor through town is in need of a stimulus – but in other parts of the Valley it would serve most of the post secondary educational institutions rather well. The reason it could be relatively inexpensive is that the right of way – and the right to run passenger trains – still belongs to the Province. And the Washington Group who own the tracks and run an occasional short freight train – are not averse to a deal.  As usual, the best is the enemy of the good.

Possibly the least likely scenario is the one espoused by Kevin Falcon who talks about SkyTrain reaching Langley by 2030. Not only is that just not good enough to deal with present challenges but it is also nowhere near likely to get outlying communities to sign on to his  expansionary plans for Translink.

Chilliwack has probably had the right idea all along. Stay clear of suburban sprawl and concentrate on being as self contained as possible. Most people who live there work there too. There is not much inter-city commuting to or from Chilliwack. It is still almost completely car dependent, and its transit system is quite appalling. But that is the choice the voters there made.

By “improving” the Sea to Sky, that choice has been lost to Squamish. The developers who pushed for this in the name of the Olympics will take a bit longer to get there huge returns – but it will still happen, becuase there are plenty of people who can still be suckered into long driving commutes. Becuase that is what has been happening for the last 60 years and people still do not seem to have understood that is the problem.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 3, 2009 at 10:35 am

The Abbotsford Report

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If you had told me six months ago that the City of Abbotsford wants to see exclusive tram tracks in the curb lane of its main drag (South Fraser Way) I would have wondered what you were smoking. But today that is almost exactly what happened.

The Interregional Transportation Select Committee was supposed to look at how to deal with the growing demand for travel between Abbotsford and its neighbouring communities. As I pointed out earlier, the real issue is east – west travel south of the Fraser River. The problem is that the proposed widening of Highway #1 stops at the Langley boundary – although a short “hill climber” lane is being built on the westbound side of Abbotsford. A lot of people think the interurban line should be better used than it is at present, but in Abbotsford it runs north – south.

The IRTSC identified a “horseshoe route” than runs through most of the major traffic generators within the city. The idea is that this is the core of the transit system: the OCP identifies the need to densify, and the horseshoe will be the axis along which this development will occur. It does not have to be trams straightaway: it could be a frequent bus service, with suitable traffic priority measures at first with incremental improvements towards a full transit system. The main thing is that the direction is set and a commitment made. New transit routes that cross regional and city boundaries will have to connect into this core route.

The recommendations of the committee’s report were approved in principle today. Below I reproduce the text of that document (it is only two pages long).  I think congratulations are due to all concerned.

The committee was chaired by Councillor Lynne Harris: its members were Alvin Epp, Bob Burkinshaw, Brian Vogler, Craig Toews,  Dave Kandal, Councillor Dave Loewen, David Krueger, Jim Gordon, John Buker, John Visers, Manny Dhillon, Moe Gill, Nathan Pachal, Russ Mamel as well as your humble scribe.

Jon van Dongen MLA and Jim Houlahan of the CAW also were kept informed of the discussions throughout.

Thanks are also due to Linda Gronkjaer who acted as Committe Clerk  as well as members of the City’s planning and engineering departments who did a lot of work, often late into the night.




Key Considerations or Assumptions:

  1. The Livability Accord (Langley, Abbotsford, Surrey and Coquitlam) projects that 65% of the growth in the Lower Mainland in the next 10 years will be accommodated in these 4 communities;

  2. Key investments and planning strategies are required in public transit both in and between these communities in order to progress from car dependent communities to more sustainable forms of transportation;

  3. Investment in transit will pay for itself by encouraging the higher density called for by Abbotsford’s OCP as the City seeks to become more sustainable;

  4. Local, regional and senior levels of government need to work as partners in the achievement of important shared regional and inter-regional transit objectives;

  5. There is growing public support for alternative modes of transportations such as light rail. Indeed, experience elsewhere suggests that rail is the mode of transit most likely to persuade large numbers of the public to abandon their automobiles;

  6. It is important to look beyond the current situation and design transit to drive economic and smart urban development in the valley for the future; and

  7. Now is the critical time to focus on the “big picture” and to develop a vision for transportation for the future, both within Abbotsford and Inter-regionally.


Be it resolved that the City of Abbotsford approve in PRINCIPLE the visionary concept presented by the Inter Regional Transportation Select Committee including the following recommendations:

  • Protection and development of all transportation corridors associated with the “Horseshoe” concept within Abbotsford (between UFV, the Entertainment and Sports Complex, Historic Downtown, Civic Plaza, South Fraser Way business district and the Abbotsford International Airport) including potential inter-regional transit connections: This would include the McCallum Road and Clearbrook Road / (Whatcom Road) interchanges; and McCallum Road, Marshall Road; South Fraser Way; Mt. Lehman Road and Clearbrook Road.

  • Support for the principles regarding regional transit as outlined by the Livability Accord.

  • Support for the establishment of a Light Rail Committee to include the Mayors and Councillors of all South Fraser Regions to explore further at grade rail opportunities and in particular, development of a working partnership with the City of Langley, the Township of Langley and the City of Surrey to establish a transportation network supporting the light rail concept.

  • Support for and possibly host a potential demonstration project in Abbotsford for light rail in conjunction with the Vancouver 2010 Olympic demonstration project.


Abbotsford is one of the fastest growing communities in B.C. with a strong economy and business focus. We are poised to be leaders in transportation within our community and inter-regionally. The City is home to University of the Fraser Valley, the Abbotsford International Airport and the Abbotsford Regional Hospital and Cancer Centre – all of which require significant transportation improvements in order to fulfill their mandate successfully.

With a common vision, Abbotsford will lead the way for the next 20-30 years working with all levels of government which can no longer ignore the desire of citizens to move throughout the community and region more efficiently and with expanded transit choices.

Can you imagine a common goal for all communities south of the Fraser to coordinate and plan transportation needs well into the future and to contemplate options that provide for a sustainable and economically viable transportation vision, meeting environmental, educational and social needs?


All levels of government need to work together with the communities south of the Fraser to provide support and funding for the most economically sustainable mode of transportation for the future. It is important to note that the light rail transit is considerably cheaper than for a Skytrain concept.


Working with City Staff, this plan is achievable in incremental stages. Embracing the concept is absolutely essential and the time is now!



Councillor Lynne Harris

On behalf of the Inter-Regional Transportation

Select Committee

Written by Stephen Rees

November 3, 2008 at 4:36 pm

Posted in transit

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Abbotsford’s new direction

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For the last few months I have been attending the Select Committee on Interregional Transportation set up by the City of Abbotsford. To some extent this was prompted by a meeting I spoke at there a while ago, when the University of the Fraser Valley students Environment Society held a forum on rail for the valley. There have been all kinds of proposals and studies done on this subject over the years – and more are under way now in various guises. The FVRD, for example, has been trying to damp down citizen enthusiasm for rail with its own study that dismisses it as uneconomic. The potential for rail as an alternative to freeway widening was, of course, always blithely dismissed by the Province, who never really wanted to look at any alternatives. And in a spectacularly inept bit of back pedalling when the Province did announce its “transit plan” (the $14bn one that was to paid for by everyone else – not one of whom had been consulted) the Fraser Valley was left out completely, and promises for Langley and Surrey were as far off into the future as possible. Some SkyTrain extension beyond its present King George terminal, but it would not get to Langley before 2030 at the earliest.

The general mood of the South of the Fraser seems to be one of simmering discontent. The BC Liberals seem to have regarded this as home turf where they could not be displaced, and therefore seem to have stuck to the “not enough people” argument for far too long. These communities are where growth is going to occur, and the Mayors of Langley, Surrey, Abbotsford and Coquitlam have all signed a “Livability Accord”. 65% of the growth in the Lower Mainland in the next ten years will be accommodated in these four communities. Even right wing politicians like Jordan Bateman in Langley are promoting streetcars or light rail as a way of making transit more attractive and permitting denser, transit oriented development. Indeed, the developed parts of Surrey are denser in total the developed parts of Burnaby. But the level of transit service is abysmal.

Sensing this mood, I have been advocating that a pilot or demonstration project is what is needed now – not more studies. This is because studies actually do not win many arguments, and tend to lead to more debate and more studies. Indeed, as a consultant in private practice, I was only too happy to be commissioned to do a study – because of the high probability of subsequent work created by the release of the “final report” – which was usually anything but. People are, of course, skeptical – and quite rightly. But the fond memory of the interurban between Chilliwack and Vancouver is strong, and local enthusiasts have been fanning those flames for a while.

Modern transit is actually rather different to the electrified Pullman cars that shuttled up and down the Valley for fifty years – until more than fifty years ago. But in 1968, for Expo, train service was restored briefly. And a lot of people are still wondering why trains seem to have been left out of most Olympic plans.

The Select Committee turned out to be an interesting and diverse crowd. There were two (sometimes more) councillors – and different staff at different times. Most members were local citizens who had expressed an interest or were members of one of the rail advocate groups. There were a smattering of others, like myself, with some professional interest but who came from away. The Committee, by the way, did not pay for travelling expenses, so I picked up the tab for my monthly treks out to the east, and most times for supper too (except for last night when pizza was brought in). I tried hard to find a way to do the trip by West Coast Express but was defeated by the lack of transit accessible accommodation near City Hall.

At the first meeting, back in June, I thought we were going to be arguing about freeways and intersections. Much was made of the need to incorporate Abbotsford Airport as it draws passengers from a wide area. The Interurban is also problematic for Abbotsford. Interregional connections that are most important are east-west. Mostly to Langley. Chilliwack having been, for most of recent history, sucessfully isolationist (most people who live in Chilliwack work there too). Mission has West Coast Express of course – and there is a timed bus that meets every train to connect to and from Abbotsford. But even so it is only really useful for travel to Vancouver in the early morning, and most of the travel in general (not just commuting) around Abbotsford is to adjacent communities.(Abbotsford and Mission share local transit service provision).

The Interurban was built before Sumas Lake was drained, so its route is not direct. In fact in Abbotford it runs due north – south from the river to the US border at Huntingdon. And travel in those directions really did not concern us very much at all.

For years, Abbotsford has had very low transit service,as local politicians were reluctant to pay towards empty buses. Kelowna, which is of comparable size, has twice the amount of transit service.

South Fraser Way - the main drag through the centre of Abbotsford

South Fraser Way - the "main drag" through the centre of Abbotsford

But a quick glance around the city shows low density development, quite a lot of farmland and a major freeway, with a new lane being added in its generous median. So at the first meeting, I was not at all surprised that the Chamber of Commerce made a strong pitch for a “multi modal” approach.

But over the summer the world changed. And so did Abbotsford. Abbotsford’s OCP calls for higher density development. But without better transit, that will not happen. In the fall sheet change, transit service increased significantly, with an emphasis on higher service frequencies on the busiest routes. This will not be an isolated change but is a signal of more to come. Oil prices peaked, and house prices tipped over the crest too. Development faltered, and then the credit crunch hit.

People travel in the summer – and so do their families – and people on the committee started talking about what they and their children experienced elsewhere. Modern transit no longer seemed a distant prospect but both doable and necessary. I am not going to reveal what our recommendations are before Abbotsford Council has seen them, but I will say that I have been surprised – not least because last night we approved the report unanimously. Throughout the discussion has been positive and respectful. We are also getting a bit worried about what the outgoing Council might think. But we do know that the staff – and the new City Manager – are very progressive. We did promise to report before the Civic Elections, and we will do so.

What is also relevant is that my shtick has also been going down well in Chillwack and Langley. Not just me of course, but a whole band of rail advocates – although there have been some fissures, I’m afraid. And in local politics they do seem to be inevitable. Turnout in local elections is notoriously low – below 30%. But those who do get involved are committed – and often driven. There is also change in the air. Simple demographics and aging boomers, with lots of new people arriving. Some of whom are now comfortably established and secure enough to raise their heads above concerns of simply getting established. It is probably significant too that Abbotsford has grown by incorporating neighbouring communities – and that at a time when bits of Langley and Surrey were splitting off those cities. So they know about building consensus.

After the Council Meeting on November 3, I will either put the report on here, or post a link to it. Be prepared to be surprised and, I hope, pleased

Written by Stephen Rees

October 24, 2008 at 12:02 pm