UBC SkyTrain will haunt us for generations to come


I am so disappointed that Vancouver city council voted by a margin of 9 to 2 to approve the SkyTrain extension from Arbutus all the way to UBC. Even the three Green councillors all voted in favour of this very un-environmental proposal!

As I pointed out in my recent blog on this topic, UBC professor Patrick Condon, who has spent 25 years studying green infrastructure, and many other experts have deftly explained how SkyTrain technology is the least green of all public transit options. For one, it uses massive amounts of concrete, the production of which emits high levels of greenhouse gases. Compare this with at-grade LRT, which requires no concrete at all.

GHG-emitting concrete production aside, let’s look at the environmental impact of concentrating the estimated $2.83 billion on this one SkyTrain extension. Instead, with a $288-million, at-grade LRT line from Arbutus to UBC, you could spread around the money saved and build other transit lines throughout the city, getting far more environmental bang for your buck.

All in all, a very green disappointment at Vancouver city hall — one that will haunt us for generations to come.

Posted in Broadway Corridor, City Hall, climate change, COPE, economy, fiscal responsibility, Green Party, LRT, Planning, Skytrain, sustainability, Transit, TransLink, transportation, UBC, Vancouver | Tagged | 1 Comment

The sky-high price of gullibility: the case against underground SkyTrain to UBC


At-grade Light Rapid Transit in France.

The possibility of an underground Broadway SkyTrain all the way to UBC has been in the news again lately. I so hope that this does not come to pass. Let me explain why.

First, let’s talk briefly about some of the terminology. LRT, or light rapid transit, is at-grade rapid transit typically on rail. Grade-separated LRT is LRT done underground or raised overhead. If it is grade separated, it doesn’t need to be concerned with intersections and other traffic flow, and can therefore be automated.

In days gone by, grade-separated LRT was referred to as ALRT or automated light rapid transit. In Vancouver, ALRT is now commonly referred to as SkyTrain. Without the need to stop for traffic, travel times are slightly faster with SkyTrain than with at-grade, conventional LRT.


The 99 B-Line rapid bus from Commercial Broadway to UBC carries over 17 million passengers annually. [Photo courtesy WP]

Rapid bus is sometimes referred to as LRT on wheels. With rapid bus, busses have a dedicated bus lane and a device onboard to signal upcoming green lights so the bus has the right-of-way at any intersection. No red lights to wait for. Its third and last feature is pre-paid boarding, which shortens boarding time.

Now that we have the definitions out of the way, let’s look backward in time to when I was on city council and we were debating what mode of transit should be used to connect the Richmond airport with downtown Vancouver in advance of the 2010 Winter Olympics.


Vancouver’s Skytrain is grade-separated LRT, with a sky-high price tag to match.

The conventional wisdom at the time was to go with underground SkyTrain at a projected cost of $1.8 billion. I still remember my fellow councillor, Fred Bass, asking staff how much a rapid bus option would cost. The answer was approximately 20 percent of the underground SkyTrain, or about $300 million. Councillor Bass then asked for an estimate of the comparable travel time. Underground SkyTrain would only beat the rapid bus option by about three minutes from the airport to downtown!

But the final and, perhaps, most important question, Councillor Bass asked was to compare ridership estimates. Due to the slightly longer travel, rapid buses’ estimated ridership would be approximately 80% of an underground Skytrain option.


Calgary’s at-grade LRT is windpowered, [Photo David Dodge, greenenergyfutures.ca]

Clearly, rapid bus was the preferred option if one used a cost-benefit analysis. For only 20% of the cost of SkyTrain one would obtain 85% of SkyTrain’s estimated ridership. More importantly, the cost savings of approximately $1.5 billion — 80% of SkyTrain’s cost — could have been used to make public transit in all of Metro Vancouver free for all other modes, in perpetuity: buses, SeaBuses, West Coast Express, and all other SkyTrain routes, including the Expo line.

Alternatively, the cost savings could have been used to provide a rapid-bus solution on all major arteries in metro Vancouver.

An excellent Tyee article, by distinguished UBC professor Patrick Condon, points out that the cost per kilometer of the underground Broadway SkyTrain to UBC is now estimated at $490 million per kilometre, for a total of $2.83 billion — and that’s for only about 5.8 kilometres of new line. Just as bad, it will drive the construction of yet more unaffordable condos.

By comparison, for only $50 million per kilometre — or about 1/10 the cost! — we could implement at-grade LRT, not just for the UBC extension from Arbutus, but for the entire Millennium line expansion, which is now estimated to cost a whopping $7 billion. In that case, the cost savings of 90% would equal about $6.3 billion. With such a huge amount of freed-up money we could implement at-grade LRT on every major street in Vancouver. Think of how much that would do to help the average resident and make Vancouver truly the greenest city on Earth.

Please note: I’m sorry for the error, but some of the figures were wrong in the last two paragraphs of this blog. They were corrected Feb. 13.

Read more:

CBC: As transit expands, Metro Vancouver struggles to keep homes affordable

Patrick Condon: Am I the Last Voice against SkyTrain to UBC?

Tim Louis: Underground SkyTrain oxymoron puts Vancouver on the wrong track

Vancouver Tenants Union

Posted in affordable housing, British Columbia, Broadway Corridor, COPE, developers, economy, fiscal responsibility, gentrification, LRT, Planning, Skytrain, sustainability, Transit, TransLink, transportation, UBC, Vancouver | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Power + expense accounts = Moral drift

plecas-reportThe report by BC’s Speaker of the House, Darryl Plecas, was released Jan. 21st to the legislative committee looking into the alleged misdeeds of Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz and clerk Craig James. Sadly, it confirms what many in the legislature already knew and most people rightly suspect: That an atmosphere of entitlement is created in the minds of many as soon as they are in a position of social power and have access to an expense account.

You have to read it to believe it: Truckloads of expensive liquor. A very expensive wood-splitter. Luxurious, lengthy overseas excursions. And the list goes on. But one item that particularly stood out for me was a so-called retirement allowance in excess of $300,000 — this for an individual who already has a very generous pension plan.

The Plecas report prompts me to ask a philosophical question: Why does it appear to be the case that so many individuals lose their moral compass as soon as they have access to an expense account along with some sort of power?

All this reminds me of something that happened repeatedly during my six years on Vancouver city council. The city clerk would annually publish a report listing all expense reimbursements for each city councillor. At the risk of giving the impression that I’m tooting my own horn, I was always the only city councillor with “nil” adjacent to my name.

I felt that as we were already generously paid, and since councillors were spending taxpayers’ money, I didn’t need to be reimbursed for any expenses. This would infuriate some of my fellow city councillors, one of whom complained directly that my failing to submit reimbursement requests for myself made him look bad to voters.

When I was chair of Vancity credit union’s board of directors, as was the norm, I was given a corporate credit card to be used for any business-related expenses. I didn’t use it once throughout my two-year term! I felt that if I took someone out for lunch, even in my capacity as chair, this was an expense I should be willing to cover myself.

The public expects those in a position of power to act in a selfless manner. As a society, we must work to eradicate perqs. This is especially true given the tough financial situation so many people find themselves in.

Posted in BC Liberals, British Columbia, economy, fiscal responsibility, NDP, Vancouver | Tagged , , | Leave a comment