Canadian Architect


Viewpoint: Subway Follies

March 19, 2018
by Patrick M. Condon

Transportation infrastructure influences the shape of cities for centuries. The road pattern of ancient Rome still provides settings for a thousand sidewalk cafés, long after most Imperial buildings have crumbled to dust. Yet governments seldom think carefully about how their transit decisions will influence future city form and the quality of experience enjoyed by—or inflicted on—our children and grandchildren. This is evident in Vancouver, where I am a professor of urban design at the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Along part of the city’s Broadway Avenue corridor, current officials insist on building an absurdly expensive ($400-million per kilometre, and rising) subway. Why? Ostensibly because it’s faster, doesn’t conflict with street traffic, and is theoretically capable of moving more people. But other high-capacity surface rail options can be had at less than a fifth of the cost. Toronto also has donned blinders in insisting on an as-yet-unfunded $3.5-billion one-station subway extension of the Bloor-Danforth line. Their choice is especially shocking given an earlier provincial government offer to pay for a high-capacity surface light rail system to serve the same district. Toronto is leaving billions on the table to satisfy its urge for a subway, seemingly compelled by a desire for Very Big Things.

subway, Toronto, Vancouver, LRT

The alluring high-speed underworld. Photo by Aaron Yeoman.

This is sad, because both cities once enjoyed extensive surface rail transportation—systems that served not just one corridor, but many. Both Vancouver and Toronto are examples of North American “streetcar cities,” built largely between 1890 and 1930, when migrant workers flocked to them and electric streetcars that served every arterial in the city. The legacy of this system is all around us. Both cities have a “sense of place” derived from their low-rise linear corridors that are now some of the most attractive and vibrant neighbourhoods. These residential districts have been fertilized by the street railway system that served them. Surface rail provided an even number of customers for each street section, insuring a similar distribution of commercial and then cultural services everywhere. The system induced a perfectly walkable density, with a symbiotic relationship between the customers and streetcars.

So if surface rail works efficiently and afford­ably, then what is the impetus behind such a costly venture as a multi-billion-dollar subway extension? Well, follow the money. Around every station will sprout a forest of high-rise condo towers, both to supply the astronomical need for density needed to both feed and justify the subway, and the development taxes needed to pay for it. Our future cities will boast shimmering necklaces of these towers strung along our rapid transit system. But what of the vast majority of residents who will live far beyond a ten-minute walking distance of the stations? For the cost of one short piece of subway, you could provide high capacity, comfortable, surface rail for an entire city. This more evenly distributed approach would capitalize on the huge investment made in the last century to create these “streetcar cities,” and would reinforce the qualities of the neighbourhoods that we hold dear.

City builders are now faced with a choice: we can construct a few expensive subway lines to serve largely unaffordable tower districts, while outlying neighbourhoods depopulate and their commercial streets decline. Or we can capitalize on what already exists—the above-ground world—with a surface-transportation system that strengthens the existing structure of our cities, and restores urban enclaves that are more walkable, affordable and sustainable.

Which kind of city do we want?

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8 Comments » for Viewpoint: Subway Follies
  1. Peter Romich says:

    It’s not really a case of either/or. Will the new subway line being built on Broadway in Vancouver really spike property costs above their already absurd levels? (Would a change above $2million really matter much to a local? It’s already beyond their reach). And what local community is left on that corridor to be preserved? Pretty much every heritage building on the Broadway corridor was levelled ten or more years ago and replaced with a thoughtlessly designed retro-80s monstrosity.

    But the Broadway subway is absurd as it will only go as far as Arbutus. Meaning thousands of UBC students will have to disembark there and then catch the b-line bus. So what is the point? Well, it’s a start if nothing else.

    At the same time, Vancouver badly needs trams to act as a speed dampener for commuters in a rush. Kingsway and Hastings are two obvious candidates. Main street and Commercial Drive as well.

    • Rob Sutherland says:

      Three Billion for an “absurd” subway to Arbutus or a streetcar network including service all the way to UBC.
      “Eyes on the street” and superior accessibility offering comparable capacities to Skytrain with modern LRT ; annual cost savings on upkeep vs subway, etc.
      Either/or seems valid to me.
      A generation’s transit budget blown on a 5k subway to nowhere … but “its a start?”

      • Rico Jorimann says:

        You know that they there is a report reviewing the various options including the costs (now outdated) / benefits of the various options. That report looked at the entire length to UBC but most of the benefits and 2/3 of ridership is East of Arbutus so the cost benefit of an extension to the millenium line has a better cost benefit than the full route. It is very clear that from a public transit point of view the millenium line extension is the best option. I should also note the Broadway extension would access the second largest job concentration in the metro (Central Broadway), Vancouver General, significant residential density and good connections with major north/south bus routes. Then of course there is the improved access to UBC, while the line will not go all the way to UBC it will pass the most unreliable and congested as well as overcrowded parts making the trip much nicer….so hardly a subway to no where.
        A note about costs, last I heard was 1.85 billion (2014 estimate but expected to go up as is LRT costs). In fact speculation is the major increase in the costs is real estate costs….which would impact LRT costs way more than Skytrain costs as the Skytrain operations centers are far distant from downtown and I venture a guess the land for a LRT operations center big enough to hold enough trains for the Broadway line would be 400 million alone (it would likely have to be around Terminal…how much is land around Terminal? Last time Dr. Condon talked about how great a LRT on Broadway would be he was quoting costs/km that did not even cover the costs of the trains themselves (Broadway will need a lot of trains). On that note, the Broadway study noted that for Broadway with its significant number of very large cross streets…with significant transit usage on them (Main, Cambie, Oak, Graville, Burrard….) means signal priority (and speed and reliability) will break down after about 7,000pphpd….which is about 1/2 the capacity of the current layout of the millenium line (not running any 5 car trains). Of course they don’t expect to hit 7,000ppphpd on a Broadway LRT for 10 years so what could go wrong (when has good public transit ever met projections in Vancouver? Oh wait it usually exceeds them…what could go wrong).

        • Zweisystem says:

          The problem with the SkyTrain Lobby, is that they are about three decades out of date.

          What we call SkyTrain is in reality three different railways, with two (Expo and Millennium/Evergreen Lines) close cousins, while the Canada line has more in common with LRT than with the rest of the Innovia system and is not compatible in operation.

          The North American standard for building a subway is that customer flows on a transit route should exceed 15,000 persons per hour per direction (20,000 pphpd in Europe) before a subway is considered.

          Maximum transit customer flows along Broadway are less than 4,000 pphpd.

          In Vancouver, subways are built strictly for politcal prestige, nothing more.

          Light rail or the modern tram, made light metro or what we call SkyTrain obsolete decades ago and in fact only seven of the proprietary ICTS; ALRT;ALM;ART Innovia systems have been built in 40 years and not one new “Innovia SkyTrain” built in the past decade; while during the same period over 200 new build light rail/tram systems have been built or now under construction. Added to the 350 existing “heritage” and update tram/streetcar system in operation, now totals over 550 LRT/tram systems in operation or soon to be in operation around the world.

          The reason for this is simple, LRT can carry more people cheaper than SkyTrain; LRT is cheaper to build, operate and maintain, than SkyTrain and LRT is far more flexible in operation than SkyTrain.

          What makes a tram or streetcar LRT is simple, it is called the “reserved” or dedicated rights-of-way, which enables modern LRT to operate unimpeded by road traffic. priority signalling at intersections, means the trams on the R-R-o-W’s always have priority, something well known in every major city around the world that operates with light-rail.

          Arguments to the contrary are nothing more than “troll” inspired ‘men-of-straw” arguments.

          Example: 2 car couples sets of trams, operating at 2 minute headway’s (B-Line buses operate at 3 minute headway’s) can carry in excess of 15,000 pphpd!

          The current cost for the Broadway subway, based on the one station, 5.5 km proposed subway, replacing Toronto’s sole SkyTrain system, is now over $3 billion, compared to LRT’s cost of less than $45 million/km, or put another way For $3 billion, one could build 66 km of LRT in Vancouver!

          Unknown to much of the public by TransLink, is that Transport Canada’s Operating Certificate for the Innovia SkyTrain lines limits capacity to 15,000 pphpd, much less than LRT, which has proven to carry more than double this number in revenue operation!

          To increase capacity a further $3 billion must be spent updating the Innovia lines!

          Thus for a fraction of the cost of a SkyTrain subway, LRT on Broadway could carry more people, much cheaper than SkyTrain.

          Remember only seven (7) of the Innovia SkyTrain have been built in 40 years (only 3 are seriously used for urban transit) and the reason is simple, their planners can do the math of building and operating transit, which our planners cannot.

          Modern light rail is cheaper to build; cheaper to operate; cheaper to maintain and has a higher capacity and it is time that City of Vancouver Engineers and TransLink admit to this.

    • Zweisystem says:

      There is much confusion of what light rail is, compared to a streetcar or tram.

      Today’s modern tram are modular and by adding more modules, size can be increased easily and today some trams are as long as 56 metres (Budapests Urbos-3’s) and carry upwards of 350 people.

      A tram’s speed is mostly dictated by the quality of right-of-way it operates on and for trams that operate as a streetcar, in mixed traffic, tend to have maximum speeds of 70 to 80 kph.

      What makes a tram light rail, is that it operates (1) on a “reserved’ or dedicated rights-of-way and (2) has signal priority at intersections, thus giving the tram unimpeded operation; free from interference of road traffic. Light rail gives a metro or subway service at a fraction the cost of a subway.

      Trams operating as light rail have maximum speeds of 80 to 100 kph., though in revenue servcie, with stops every 500 to 600 metres apart, top speed is not reached.

      Thus light rail properly designed should cost no more than $35 to $45 million//km, yet provide capacity higher than the present Innovia SkyTrain can legally carry.

      The one downside for LRT on Broadway is that one traffic lane would disappear for the tram’s reserved R-o-W or vehicle capacity would decrease by about 1,200 persons per hour per direction, but amply made up with LRT, with a potential of over 20,000 pphpd!

      The comparatively inexpensive construction costs, when compared to subway construction and cheaper operating an maintenance costs and the inherent flexibility of LRT made expensive light-metros like SkyTrain, obsolete.

      The singular fact, that during the 40 years the proprietary Innovia SkyTrain has been on the market it has had at least 4 name changes from ICTS to ALRT to ALM to ART, yet only 7 such systems have been sold and built. Only 3 are seriously used for urban transit (this will drop to 2 when the TTC abandons their version of SkyTrain, SRT, due to the guideway being life-expired).

      During the same period, over 200 new LRT lines have been built and many of the 350 existing heritage tram line in operation have been upgraded to a LRT standard!

      Innovia SkyTrain has a strong following in Vancouver and like the monorail lobby in Seattle, they make a lot of noise, use questionable statistics, love “man-of-straw arguments” and hide in their own little SkyTrain world, while the rest of the world has moved on.

      Noted American transit engineer, Gerald Fox, in critiquing the Business case for the Evergreen Line, stated:

      “It is interesting how TransLink has used this cunning method of manipulating analysis to justify SkyTrain in corridor after corridor, and has thus succeeded in keeping its proprietary rail system expanding. In the US, all new transit projects that seek federal support are now subjected to scrutiny by a panel of transit peers, selected and monitored by the federal government, to ensure that projects are analysed honestly, and the taxpayers’ interests are protected. No SkyTrain project has ever passed this scrutiny in the US.”

  2. Rob says:

    It suddenly got quiet around here – where is the skytrain lobby?

    • Rico says:

      I don’t tend to monitor every post I put up and don’t consider myself one of those fictional ‘Skytrain Lobbiest’, more like an anti bullshit lobbiest. When I see things that are verifiably false I usually can’t stop myself commenting. And when those same people keep saying the same things even after being corrected it makes me even more annoyed. Certain people posting above keep getting away posting imaginary facts and if no one calls them on it people may make decisions based on poor information. Zwei originally argued against the Canada line saying it won’t get the ridership projected (it did), then he stated it its max capacity can’t be expanded from the current capacity….then Translink ordered a bunch more trains…to greatly expand capacity. Same thing with the Evergreen line…it will never meet projections…can’t expand capacity without 1 billion to redo the electrical systems…then Translink anounces new train orders and that frequency on the Evergreen line will go up when they get here…for years he liked to say how the Skytrain lobby inflated the Skytrain ridership numbers…then fare cards came in and it turns out ridership was under reported. Then there is the doesn’t get people out of cars…well Stats Can seems to say Metro Vancouver is the most successful city greater than 1 million in North America with improvements to transit and active transport…and Zwei actually said this…’Stats Can is part of the Skytrain Lobby’ Or claiming transit use in Richmond South Delta is dropping due to the Canada line when it is climbing based on bus boardings or Stats Can. I hope you are noticing a trend…nevermind the rainbows and unicorn estimates for LRT (compared to made up Skytrain costs). That does not even start to talk about his current post…although his only 7 in 40 years is beauty, google automated metro…or mini metro. Interesting fact, the King street street car currently has a capacity of 2,500pphpd. This is somewhat constrained by vehicle size but understand a street car in Karlsruhe with multiple lines feeding into a pedestrian zone with almost no street conflicts is not the same as Broadway. That is why the Broadway study looked at the capacity of street running LRT on Broadway including how long the vehicles could be and how many vehicles could be supported with transit signal priorty (remembering the cross streets like Main have lots of transit too). That answer was around 7,000pphpd, enough to meet demand right now but not for long. Zwei should probably stop quoting the Gerald Fox study from 1989…using I presume data from 1988 at the latest (so the troubled first 2 years of the Expo line). The data is pretty easy to get to replicate his study for current years and Skytrain destroys the systems he compared it too in the study. I guess bottom line if you were a betting man in transportation placing a bet against Zwei will probably pay off. I hope they build the Broadway line and we can look back at this after a couple of years of operations and say Zweis perfect record of being wrong continues.

      • chester says:

        Patrick Condon characterizes the Broadway Subway as an absurdly expensive extravagance. No doubt similar sentiments were expressed more than a century ago with respect to Vancouver’s streetcar system.

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