Underground Skytrain Oxymoron Puts Vancouver on the Wrong Track

This August marked the 5th birthday of the most expensive transit project in Vancouver’s history, the Canada Line.

As thousands of commuters wait too long to board the 99 B-Line to UBC, Vision Vancouver and select media blow their horns about the “wildly successful” Canada Line, hoping to drown out the controversy and reckless spending the construction of the line brought.

Vision clearly hopes that Vancouver voters will forget the debacle of massive business disruption and lower-than anticipated ridership that is the line’s true legacy. Cambie corridor small businesses suffered an ill-planned and expensively executed “big dig” along their boulevard, damaging businesses and disrupting the lives of local residents. Time has passed but it looks as if Vision Vancouver learned nothing from the first debacle.

The Vision PR machine at city hall is now trumpeting its proposed “underground skytrain” along Broadway. They want us to believe that the only solution to long lines of passengers is an underground skytrain.

“Underground Skytrain” is not only an oxymoron. It fails the smell test in economic and practical terms as well.

Mayor Robertson is proposing a subway along the Broadway corridor at a cost of nearly $3 billion. The fact is, we have a finite budget to improve transit from Commercial to UBC. Let’s invest those hard-earned tax payer dollars on a system that is the most cost effective possible. We get more bang for our buck with a network of streetcars or some form of light rail throughout the entire city then we will from one line only, Commercial Drive to UBC.

There is an infinitely better way.

This 12 kilometre stretch is currently moving passengers mainly by the 99 B-Line, which has a current demand of 1, 000 passengers per hour. A single street-level line would provide better service to all residents along the route, more opportunities for local independent businesses, and supports vibrant distributed communities.

According to a 2008 study by UBC Professor Patrick Condon and fellow researchers that examines alternatives to an underground extension of the Millenium Line to UBC, a tram to UBC is fifteen times less expensive than a subway.

Condon stated that the underground skytrain option is undesirable and suggested that the money budgeted could provide European style electric powered trams at street level for the entire Lower Mainland. His study compares Vancouver’s situation with Portland, Oregon’s recently adopted tram technology after voters rejected a more expensive system in a city referendum.

If we take the $2.8 billion that has been designated to improve transit along this route, we could install 175 km of modern streetcar service. This would not only provide far more mass transit for the city, it would involve far less disruption of business and day to day life than the Skytrain option.

Vancouver expanded as a city with a streetcar system.

Local streetcar advocate, Peter Finch, says that much of the engineering has already taken place. Careful grading has already been done along Broadway and West 4 Avenue to allow for active tracks. Infrastructure, such as rectifier stations to power streetcars and trolley buses, is already in place (since the last streetcars stopped running in 1958). These measures therefore reduce the cost of building a streetcar line from $70 million to $25 million. Here is another case of more kilometres of transit for less money, and one third cheaper than it would cost in many other cities that did not have a history of a streetcar system.

Residents and business owners in the Kitsilano area have already called upon Translink and the provincial government to consider the enormous disruption that would inevitably come with a subway project. It was at a meeting of these concerned citizens in April 2009 that Professor Condon summarized the findings of the 2008 study mentioned above.

Skytrain should be known as ‘Sky High Cost Train’. A decision to use this over-priced and more disruptive technology instead of at grade trolley options would put our city on the wrong track in terms of transit development.

As Vision plays with words again and tries to convince us that speed is more important than fiscal responsibility, it’s important to scrutinize their claims.

Much ado has been made of Skytrain’s travelling speed and resulting reduction in passenger trip time. These studies fail to account for boarding time and distance to stations. When determining the length of a passenger’s trip, we must include the time it takes to walk below ground level to board and back to street level to continue with the commute. With light rail, access is direct roll in, roll off and is more convenient for all passengers, including seniors and those with mobility challenges.

The cost to taxpayers does not justify a single subway line. Passengers want a service that works, with frequent trips and convenient stop locations.

Let’s not allow the current council to advocate for ostentatious and over-priced projects at the expense of democratic, efficient, practical transit systems that work for the maximum number of residents.

A COPE City Council will advocate for a network of transit rather than one measly line. A COPE City Council will prioritize an improved transit system that works for everyone in Vancouver!

Tim Louis is running for Vancouver City Council. 

Special thanks to Peter Finch for offering his knowledge of rail transit systems.


This entry was posted in Broadway Corridor, City Hall, COPE, Election 2014, LRT, Planning, Transit, UBC, Vision Vancouver. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Underground Skytrain Oxymoron Puts Vancouver on the Wrong Track

  1. Robert Sutherland says:

    Vancouver’s street pattern is an aproximate grid and the city neighborhoods and its very “bones” are based on the streetcar which created the blue-print for complete communities balancing land-use, walking and transportation. Currently Vision is hoisting a wrongly thought out “nodal” form of development which may arise out of wishful thinking that planners can by-pass meaningful community engagement.

    The streetcar thus is not only a mode of transportation but represents a principal with its roots in the past and promise for sustainable, human scaled and low-carbon communities in the future.

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