SPECIAL FEATURE: UBC-Broadway subway needs to be top regional priority

Dec 19 2017, 3:09 pm

With funding for public transit tighter than ever, a debate is slowly emerging over which city’s rapid transit priorities should be realized first: Surrey’s light-rail plan or Vancouver’s vision for a UBC-Broadway subway?

There is no question that Surrey’s ambitions for improved public transit are important and should not be ignored. However, the demand is clearly evident for a Broadway subway to be designated priority given its immense ridership potential and importance for the entire region.

Furthermore, the only solution to the Broadway Corridor’s transit woes is an underground continuation of our existing SkyTrain Millennium Line.

Broadway’s explosive demand is undeniable

Broadway’s transit ridership is absolutely unparalleled. It is North America’s busiest bus route with 110,000 people using the Broadway buses every single day. The vast majority of these riders use the highly congested 99 B-Line rapid bus, which comes as often as every single minute during peak hours.

However, despite the high maximum frequency, 2,000 passengers are still passed by full buses at Commercial-Broadway Station every morning peak period. Not much can be done either to alleviate severe crowding and lengthy waits as adding more buses is simply not possible with these already high frequencies. The Broadway bus situation will only continue to deteriorate, especially when the SkyTrain Evergreen Line is completed in 2016 and increases Commercial-Broadway Station’s passenger volumes by 25-percent.

The 99 B-Line’s ridership is significantly higher than the local bus trolleys on Broadway combined. It is an indication the average person greatly values their time and desires speed and convenience.

Equally important is the Central Broadway Corridor’s status as a major regional destination and employment hub: it is only second to Downtown Vancouver in importance and completely outflanks other regional town centres including Surrey City Centre. Central Broadway could very well be considered as Metro Vancouver’s second Downtown area.

In total, more than 50-percent of total trips to the Broadway Corridor are from those living in neighbouring suburbs outside of the City of Vancouver. Central Broadway is also the region’s second largest transit destination (after Downtown Vancouver) with 80,000 trips made per day.

UBC also provides the Broadway Corridor with an additional 80,000 daily trips for a combined total of 160,000. On its own, the University of British Columbia is equivalent to another Broadway Corridor: combining its number of jobs (13,900) and students (50,000), UBC has nearly as many jobs as Central Broadway.

The University’s expansion in recent years has also been immense and these developments, including entire new dense neighbourhoods for 15,000 people, are far from over. Much more is being planned for a campus that is always seemingly under construction.

UBC is not the only regionally significant institution located along the Broadway Corridor either. At the core of Central Broadway is the medical and health care precinct, where such institutions as the Vancouver General Hospital (the province’s largest hospital) and the BC Cancer Agency are located. This is the largest health care and medical research precinct in the entire province and these several city blocks employ 10,000 people.

In addition, on the eastern end of the Corridor next to VCC-Clark Station is the Great Northern Way Campus (UBC/SFU/BCIT/Emily Carr) as well as Vancouver Community College and its 6,000 students.

So far, I have only touched based on the Broadway Corridor as we know it today. According to a KPMG study released last week, by 2041 the employment and population of the Broadway Corridor could increase by 150,000 and this would be accomplished by existing zoning and policy. This high growth is in the forecast even without a Broadway subway and the natural tendency to allow greater density near rapid transit.

Density around the 99 B-Line bus stops within an 800-metre radius. The 99 B-Line stops are also the proposed locations for the subway stations. As shown below, each of the 5 Central Broadway B-Line stops is equivalent to a Metrotown Station or greater. (Image Source: Mayor of Vancouver)

To provide you with some further perspective, “a UBC-Broadway subway would exceed Canada Line ridership on Day 1.” That is Mayor Gregor Robertson’s new tagline for the City of Vancouver’s public awareness campaign to build an underground extension of the SkyTrain Millennium Line along the Broadway Corridor to UBC.

While the tagline is quite true, it is an understatement of the Broadway Corridor’s actual rapid transit ridership potential; forget about comparing a Broadway subway to the Canada Line because a more appropriate comparison would be the original SkyTrain Expo Line.

By the time the Broadway subway opens (2021 at the very earliest, and that is being extremely generous given the current rate of progress), the new UBC-Broadway underground extension of SkyTrain has the potential to match or even exceed today’s Expo Line daily ridership of 220,000.

  • UPDATE (Wednesday, March 6, 2013): TransLink has released its own study on UBC Rapid Transit. It has stated that an underground extension of SkyTrain to UBC is the preferred option given that it will attract 320,000 riders per day by 2041Other ground-level LRT and subway/LRT-combination options will bring less than half of the ridership a full subway to UBC will bring.

That figure might seem like a gross overestimate to some. However, I would say otherwise. First of all, there is the existing and projected Broadway Corridor demand as outlined above. Secondly, consider that any rail rapid transit line down Broadway is a minimum ten years away. Ridership and demand will only greatly increase during such a period just as it did over the last decade (e.g. the Expo Line’s daily ridership in 2006 was 150,000; today, it is 230,000).

Prior to the completion of the first phase of the Millennium Line in 2001 (Commercial-Broadway to Columbia), the City of Vancouver and Translink commissioned detailed studies on phase 2 of the project – an underground extension under Broadway to UBC. The study was based on a 2005/2006 phase 2 line opening date, and even then (prior to the Canada Line and other organic ridership growth experienced over the past decade) it estimated a daily ridership of 140,000 upon opening.

Finally, based on our experience with the Canada Line, transit ridership growth will likely be exponential with the introduction of a Broadway subway to UBC. During its planning phase, studies on the Canada Line estimated that it would take four years for the new service to achieve an weekly average ridership of 100,000 per day – the ridership level where fares will cover operational costs. Instead, the Canada Line reached this goal within its first year.

Those who opposed the Canada Line, claiming it would never come close to reaching its ridership projections, were quickly silenced given its immediate success.

Keep in mind that the Broadway subway is not a standalone rail rapid transit line like the Canada Line. The Broadway subway will be a continuation of the existing SkyTrain Millennium Line infrastructure, meaning trains will run continuously from Coquitlam Centre (via the new Evergreen Line) to UBC. When complete, it will take less than an hour by a one-train ride to travel from UBC to Coquitlam Centre. Just imagine the appeal of that connectivity, accessibility, mobility and speed.

Can you imagine a one-train ride from UBC to Coquitlam Centre in under 1 hour? And, of course, 20-minutes from UBC to Commercial-Broadway…always. (Image Source: Mayor of Vancouver)

The Broadway subway will be a game changing boost for our region’s public transit system: it will be a quick connection to the region’s second largest employment area, as well as the countless destinations along the way including UBC as its westernmost anchor. The new extension will greatly increase accessibility to these regional destinations and centres.

As our rail rapid transit system expands as one continuous network, the entire transit system becomes much more faster, convenient, and easier to use. These factors are the greatest determinants over whether someone will keep their car parked in the garage and take transit or drive to their destination.

Last week’s KPMG report also stated that “a subway would enhance the connections among regional town centres to the UBC-Broadway Corridor, which is the second largest business centre in the province after Downtown Vancouver, with more jobs than the next eight largest Metro Vancouver town centres combined. This includes Surrey City Centre, discussed further below.

(Image Source: KPMG)

The Broadway subway will greatly increase ridership on the Canada Line given the speed and reliability the service now offers between Commercial-Broadway Station and Broadway-City Hall Station (Cambie Street) – a span that is currently served by the 99 B-Line. It will make the Canada Line a feasible and attractive transportation option for many more people. The Expo Line, Millennium Line, Evergreen Line (2016 opening), and the bus network will also see ridership increases because of the Broadway subway.

For those traveling to SkyTrain from a bus transfer (whether it be in the suburbs or Vancouver), the Broadway subway means quicker travel times en route to their final destination along the Broadway corridor or anywhere else in the region.

Not LRT; Broadway subway is the only solution to our needs

There is also another great debate over what type of rail rapid transit technology should be built on the Broadway Corridor. As outlined above, the Broadway Corridor’s explosive demand and potential warrants something that not only withstands present strong demand but also meets the needs of ridership growth over the long-term.

Once again, any rapid transit line down Broadway must also be quick, convenient, frequent, and reliable if it is to be an attractive transit option and competitive to the travel times of driving. These characteristics will also greatly determine the carrying passenger capacity of the rail system.

While some argue for a cheaper ground-level, full-grade separated light-rail transit (LRT) system, such a system would already be at capacity on Day 1. A select few have also argued for a streetcar system (a ground-level train system mixed in regular road traffic with stop spacings of about 300-metres apart), which offers even lower capacities and speeds than a proper LRT.

At a great financial cost, these LRT or streetcar systems offer little improvement over the Broadway Corridor’s existing bus capacity. In other words, a LRT or streetcar system would essentially be a very expensive version of our existing Broadway Corridor buses. Only an underground extension (subway) of the existing SkyTrain Millennium Line from VCC-Clark Station to UBC via Broadway can serve present and future demand.

Some of my key arguments why LRT/streetcar is not an realistic option and an integrated underground SkyTrain extension is the only real solution:

1) Short-term pain for long-term gain: Some LRT and streetcar proponents base their preferences solely on cost. However, considering the scope and lasting impact of such a system, the cost of a project should never be the sole deciding factor over another technology. The financial cost of building the system and its temporary construction impact will be irrelevant and long forgotten decades from now.

On the other hand, the decision makers of this generation will be remembered in 10 or 20 years if the Broadway rapid transit line is grossly under-built and under-designed. The construction of the system is merely a one-time (short-term) cost while the infrastructure’s lasting impact (positive or negative) is for generations to bear.

We must always remember that infrastructure is here to stay for a long time, it is going nowhere. So, if we are going to build it, we better build it right the first time.

While the potential cost of an underground SkyTrain line from VCC-Clark Station seems daunting and unaffordable (up to $3-billion), it is certainly within the range of affordability given the province’s history with recent major mega-projects and the funding models implemented, with all levels of government and even the private sector sharing a piece of the pie. For the Broadway project, the funding partners will likely be: the provincial government, the federal government, Translink, UBC, the City of Vancouver, and a potential contribution from the private sector.

While present and future demand west of Arbutus Street certainly warrants the construction of the subway all the way to UBC, an interim compromise (unideal as it may be) could be met by building the extension up to Arbutus (the 99 B-Line would terminate here instead). This could reduce construction costs by half over the short-term, leaving the remaining route to UBC for future generations to build.

2) Apples and oranges: The unrealistic low-cost estimates made by some LRT and streetcar proponents are taken from countries where construction costs are generally lower and calculated differently (i.e. not including the cost of land acquisitions). This methodology of determining costs can also be highly flawed considering no two routes are the same. For instance, low-costs can be greatly deceiving when such cost estimates are drawn from the costs of new systems that re-use existing rail lines – this is certainly an extremely poor comparison for Broadway.

In the past, proponents have also failed to include the high costs for purchasing the many light-rail trains required (millions per car) and the need to construct a large maintenance/operations yard somewhere along the Broadway Corridor. In other cases, they include certain aspects that give LRT the potential speed and capacity it could have, but exclude the higher construction costs that are needed to achieve a higher speed and capacity.

3) Inferiorities: Simply put, LRT and especially streetcar would not offer the capacity that a fully grade-separated option like a underground SkyTrain extension would give. There are currently no other urban LRT systems operating at the speed and capacity required for the Broadway Corridor.

More importantly, on-street full-grade separation would be needed for LRT if it were to even make a futile attempt to meet the high ridership demand of the Broadway Corridor. Sidewalks on the street would have to be narrowed to allow for space for station platforms and a twin pair of grade-separated tracks to be built in the middle of the street. 90-percent of street side parking spaces would also have to be removed to make way for the LRT.

In addition, 62 of the 67 intersections along the Broadway LRT Line’s route will have turn restrictions resulting in diverted traffic (getting across Broadway will only be possible through major street intersections). A sharp increase in local side street traffic will be a result of the diverted traffic, along with severe negative impacts on neighbourhoods and cycling routes, and it will no doubt cause long-term strife for local businesses.

Remember the Canada Line? An LRT down Broadway would divide the street and be just like building a permanent cut-and-cover down the middle of the road. It would kill the urban fabric and walkability of the street. Did I also mention long street-level LRT trains blazing down the street every 3 minutes max. in order to keep up with ridership demand? (On the other hand, SkyTrain’s full-grade separation and automation allows for frequencies as high as every 90-seconds) How exactly is LRT safe and reliable when it will be so accident prone along a busy street like Broadway?

The upper limit of LRT’s carrying capacity on a street like Broadway is 7,000 passengers per hour per direction (pphpd) while SkyTrain’s capacity is 25,000 pphpd. The underground SkyTrain extension option would also take just 20-minutes to travel from UBC to VCC-Clark and would be relatively reliable and safe given its full-grade separation and automation, whereas LRT would take 50-percent longer and is at much greater risk of lengthy service interruptions given the possibility of collisions with pedestrians and vehicles at intersections.

4) Efficiencies: An underground extension of the SkyTrain Millennium Line will allow passengers the capability for a seamless one-train ride from the existing train network (from Coquitlam Centre!). This will also greatly bolster ridership and fare revenues while also allowing operators to achieve economies of scale by utilizing the same trains and [albeit expanded] maintenance yards. However, forcing passengers to make an unnecessary, tediously long transfer from SkyTrain to LRT/streetcar will achieve anything but the contrary.

As the saying goes, “time is money.” From our experience with the Canada Line (or even with some logical thinking), we should have learned what people desire most: frequency and speed.

5) A Broadway subway is necessary given the corridor’s demand and importance. It is a major piece in completing our region’s backbone/primary transit network: Major cities with world-class transit systems have multi-layered transit systems centred around a high-capacity, frequent, and fast backbone network (such as a subway/elevated train network and/or an regional express train). Multi-layered transit systems are built on different modes of transit technology such as buses, streetcars, subways, and regional express trains, just like how the road system is also multi-layered built with back alleys, side streets, major arterial roads, and highways.

Surely, you would not drive on side streets to get from one end of the region to another end, so why would we do the same with its public transit equivalent? The local bus.

There is no “one-fit-all” solution to our road and transit systems. Every transportation network needs primary arteries to work (even our blood streams of veins, arteries, and capillaries!).

In Vancouver, our backbone/primary transit network is SkyTrain. The bus system, composed of both local and express routes, is part of our secondary transit network. There is certainly a place for LRT and streetcar in the region, however, they belong on secondary corridors of importance (e.g. 41st Avenue, Arbutus Corridor, Hastings Street) and not primary vital corridors like the Broadway Corridor.

6) A regional and rationale design: LRT and streetcar proponents often do not place enough emphasis or even acknowledge the need for a Broadway transit line that puts regional accessibility and mobility first. Instead, they overemphasize and focus solely on the importance of the “locality” and “neighbourhood-ness” of what a LRT and streetcar system will provide over something like a subway. A local bus service that runs every 10-minutes, like the #15 Cambie bus that complements the SkyTrain Canada Line below it, would provide a very similar type of local service that streetcar and LRT would offer to Broadway.

Supporters of LRT and streetcar on Broadway are also over-focused with their desire on the potential urban change LRT and streetcar might bring instead of giving more weight to its potential role for accessibility and mobility on a regional picture. Moreover, they are apathetic about the need for speed, frequency, and capacity.

Surely, the average Vancouverite does not intend to spend a billion-plus dollars on a #9 trolley bus with steel wheels. Moreover, regional big-picture thinking is required given that the City of Vancouver’s borders are invisible. Vancouver and its many neighbourhoods are very much a part of our large fluid region.

Images: City of Vancouver


Surrey LRT or Broadway subway?

Putting aside the argument on the overwhelming transit demand and potential on the Broadway Corridor, there is also the growing public debate over which project should be prioritized: the City of Surrey’s proposal for LRT or the UBC-Broadway subway? In an ideal world, both would be built simultaneously but given the limited financial resources of Translink and the provincial government this is highly unlikely.

I personally do not believe in pitting one city against the other given that transportation issues are regional issues and require regional collaboration. I see great merit in the intent of Surrey’s LRT visions and believe both should be built simultaneously if we were in an ideal world. However, for argument’s sake, if it really came down to a discussion of what should be the top regional priority, there is no other answer than the Broadway Corridor.

Harsh it may be, let me put it this way: despite its intentions to become the region’s “second Downtown” (even though this is clearly a title that Central Broadway has earned), Surrey’s long-promised development is anything but and has been largely “hot air” rather than real action with measurable results. It has also not done itself a favour by continuously approving urban developments that only act to encourage further sprawl and car use.

These low-density neighbourhood and commercial developments do very little to increase transit ridership without major subsidization of operating costs. And when a transit system is tied down to high subsidization costs, it certainly makes future expansion of the system much more difficult.

Unlike the Broadway Corridor, Surrey City Centre is not a major employment centre nor an important regional destination. Moreover, Richmond and Burnaby’s town centres have produced much more in real results than what Surrey has been able to. In addition, as noted above, the Broadway Corridor has more jobs than the next eight largest Metro Vancouver town centres combined. This includes Surrey City Centre.

You may have also heard before that “Surrey is going to overtake Vancouver’s population very soon.” It is true that Surrey’s population will likely exceed Vancouver’s, given that it has a geographical area more than double its size, but that day will not be anytime soon and perhaps not even in the next half-century.

It might also be worthy to note that Vancouver’s population is still growing and its urban density and development is unmatched and not replicable. Population density is what drives transit ridership, not overall population (e.g. NYC vs. Metro Los Angeles; Vancouver vs. Surrey).

Furthermore, Vancouver is [and forever will be] the region’s most vital economic driver and main destination. It is the heart of all of Metro Vancouver.

Central Broadway alone comprises of 17% of Metro Vancouver’s regional town centre jobs, while Surrey Metro Centre stands at just 4%; UBC has almost as many jobs and students as Vancouver’s Central Broadway. (Image Source: Mayor of Vancouver)

But what about the argument that the City of Surrey’s LRT vision will help combat the municipality’s addiction with sprawl and car use? Could LRT be used as a tool shape the growth of Surrey?

Instead of more rail rapid transit, Surrey would be much better off with more and improved bus service over the short-term. Local bus networks and particularly rapid bus services are prerequisites to higher, more frequent forms of public transit such as rail transit – all of which are absent from this city. However, Surrey has an abysmal local bus network that would do little to support and complement the ridership of new rail rapid transit service.

Local bus networks normally exist to serve as ridership feeders to high-capacity, frequent rail rapid transit (for Surrey’s case, SkyTrain/LRT). It is all part of a layered public transit network just like our layered road network of side city streets, major arterial streets, and highways.

Rather than quickly introducing LRT, a more comprehensive and frequent local bus system in Surrey would be the first and most effective step towards improving the city’s public transit system. Surrey might also be getting ahead of itself considering that the B-Line (rapid transit bus) has been the true test of a corridor’s potential for higher and more expensive forms of transit such as rail rapid transit.

A corridor’s true ridership potential should be tested out with a parallel frequent, rapid express bus service before spending hundreds of millions or more likely billions on rail rapid transit. Diving head first into expensive transportation infrastructure may be a bit rash considering B-Line services have appropriately been the precursor to all rail rapid transit in the region:

  • 99 B-Line used to run all the way to Lougheed from UBC before it was short-turned at Commercial-Broadway upon the completion of the SkyTrain Millennium Line’s first phase in 2001;
  • the 97 B-Line currently runs between Lougheed Station and Coquitlam Centre, but will be discontinued when the SkyTrain Evergreen Line opens in 2016;
  • the 98 B-Line (40,000 riders/day) used to run between Waterfront and Richmond Centre before the SkyTrain Canada Line and its parallel train stations replaced it in 2009;
  • and the current 99 B-Line (60,000 riders/day) between Commercial-Broadway Station and UBC is an obvious indicator of the need for (and the performance of) a Broadway subway. The proposed station locations of the Broadway subway will parallel the bus stops of the 99 B-Line.

Translink has just implemented the 96 B-Line service in Surrey, an express bus route that runs from Guildford Mall Exchange to Newton Exchange via King George Boulevard. It runs seven days a week from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. with a 7-8 minute frequency between the morning rush hour and evening. The route the 96 B-Line operates on is also a proposed route for Surrey LRT; this B-Line will be the true indicator of the Surrey light-rail line’s ridership potential.

On the matter of the potential ridership of Surrey LRT, according to Translink’s Surrey Rapid Transit studies, the potential is relatively limited. Even the best LRT option (3 LRT lines and 1 bus rapid transit line for $2.1-billion) that will provide the most comprehensive coverage to Surrey will attract a ridership of 139,000 per day… in the year 2041.

If Surrey LRT were completed in 2021, Translink projects daily ridership will be just 69,000: this greatly pales in comparison to the Broadway Corridor’s demand not only today but also in the future with a subway.

Simply put, you prioritize where demand already exists. And the demand for an underground SkyTrain extension on Broadway is literally overflowing. An investment on a Broadway subway would bring the greatest per capita return and greatly benefit the entire Metro Vancouver region rather than just one municipality: Surrey.

Thanks to Krasimir Zhelev, here is a great analogy to end things off here: “We have two kids. One that has clothes that fit, one with clothes that don’t. You only have so much money, who do you buy clothes for first?” Planning for the future is great, but there is an actual need for a Broadway Corridor rail rapid transit line today.


What are your thoughts on an underground extension of the existing SkyTrain Millennium Line along Broadway from VCC-Clark Station to UBC? Let us know by commenting below.

Written and researched by Kenneth Chan, the Deputy Editor at Vancity Buzz. Follow Kenneth on Twitter at @kjmagine.

Featured image credit: San Francisco MUNI Central Subway

Footer image credit: Mayor of Vancouver

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