Opinion: Rails in the street for Surrey LRT will only symbolize mobility

Sep 19 2018, 2:39 am

This is Part Two of ‘Surrey LRT and the Region’ – a two-part Daily Hive editorial piece on the Surrey Light Rail Transit project on a regional economic context. Click here to read Part One.

Portland’s downtown urban revitalization is often linked to the presence of its streetcar system, and this is often cited by Surrey LRT supporters as a key example of how such street-level transit systems can revitalize cities.

But there is reason to believe that more is at play that simply than laying down rail on the streets.

In 2012, Randal O’Toole, an urban and transportation issues analyst with the Cato Institute, went as far as calling streetcars as “the latest transportation fad” fuelled by recent US federal government policies.

While the streetcar is often credited for the creation of Portland’s vibrant areas, specifically the Pearl District, O’Toole says most of the catalyst was from the City of Portland’s program of handing out nearly a billion dollars in subsidies to property developers along the initial streetcar line to generate USD$3.5 billion worth of property development. Subsidies in the now-popular Pearl District alone reached USD$435 million.

Portland Streetcar

Portland Streetcar. (Shutterstock)

“Developers eagerly responded to these subsidies, transforming a railroad yard and warehouse area into the Pearl District’s mid-rise condos, apartments, offices, shops, and restaurants. The South Waterfront District was an industrial area that developers transformed into high-rise offices and apartments,” wrote O’Toole.

“Streetcar promoters never mention these subsidies. In 2003, Portland published a report on ‘development-oriented transit’ implying that all of this new development was due to the streetcar, never mentioning the hundreds of millions of dollars in other subsidies provided to developers.”

According to O’Toole, secondary factors like the microbrewery revolution and changing demographics had a much larger role in downtown Portland’s revitalization than rail transit.

“The more appropriate lesson from the Portland experience is about subsidizing development and coordinating land use policies rather than simply building a streetcar,” adds the Columbia University study.

“Other research suggests that rail investment alone is insufficient to produce benefits, and that appropriate local government policies, supportive zoning and effective planning implementation tools must be in place for development to occur near stations… Other local policies are just as, if not more, important for achieving development goals.”

“Rails in the street symbolize mobility”

TransLink projects the planned $1.65-billion Surrey Newton-Guildford light rail transit line (SNG LRT) will have an end-to-end travel time of 27 minutes along its 10.5-km-long route, just two minutes shorter than the existing 96 B-Line running on the exact same route.

The proposed $1.95-billion Fraser Highway light rail transit line (FH LRT) will have an end-to-end travel time of 35 minutes along its 16-km-long route, only about five minutes faster than the temporary Fraser Highway B-Line that will be launched by the end of 2019 as a precursor to rail rapid transit.

“Streetcars that replace bus lines are not a mobility or access improvement. If you replace a bus with a streetcar on the same route, and make no other improvements, nobody will be able to get anywhere any faster than they could before,” acclaimed international transit planning consultant Jarrett Walker, who is based in Portland, wrote in 2009.

“Likewise, if you build a streetcar instead of a good bus line, that money you spend above the cost of the bus line is not helping anyone get anywhere any faster.”

Fraser Highway Light Rail Transit LRT

Map of the Surrey Newton-Guildford LRT and the Fraser Highway LRT. (TransLink)

Then in 2010 during a debate on the technology that should be used for the Broadway Extension, Walker countered UBC Professor Patrick Condon’s pro-LRT arguments by stating that “the reason streetcars currently trigger investment is that rails in the street symbolize mobility.”

“The development happens not just because of what will be in walking distance, but because the rails in the street suggest you’ll be able to get to lots of places easily by rail. So rails in the street create redevelopment, which improves access. But they do that by offering an appearance of mobility. That may not be the same as actual mobility; in fact, it might be the opposite.”

Walker went on to suggest that people are generally smart and practical, and they will use the best option they have based on its overall convenience determined largely by the speed of travel.

“I speculate that the current ability of streetcars to generate redevelopment, compared to what excellent bus service can do, will diminish as it becomes more and more obvious that buses often run faster and more reliably than streetcars in many real-world situations, particularly on busy urban arterial streets,” said Walker.

But the following statement on the struggles of balancing the polarizing realms of idealism vs. realism in urban planning is perhaps the most important takeaway in Walker’s blog: “Ideals are essential in planning. Great urban planning is not just about giving people what they want now, but inspiring them to want something better. Urban planners will always be accused of ‘social engineering’ because most of them do want people to make better choices, as a result of having better options.”

Walker furthered: “Transit plans aren’t just about moulding the future, they also have to work for the people and institutions that exist now.”

Getting more people on transit should be the key goal

A 2017 study on the impact of streetcar systems by David King and Lauren Fischer from Columbia University, published in the Journal of Transport Geography, concluded that “new streetcar investments no longer primarily improve transit accessibility. Rather, modern streetcars are part of strategic amenity packages cities use to achieve real estate and economic development goals.”

Both planners and supporters of Surrey LRT often point to the ground-level LRT systems in Portland, Seattle, and even Phoenix as successful examples given their perceived transformation impact on urban development, while ignoring the transit-oriented developments emerging around many of the region’s SkyTrain stations.

Ridership on Vancouver’s SkyTrain system is also far higher than these LRT systems on a ridership per km of track basis:

  • Vancouver’s SkyTrain with three lines totalling 80 km of track and 53 stations has a daily ridership of about 480,000. As mentioned above, its regional population is 2.5 million.
  • Portland’s MAX Light Rail with five lines totalling 97 km of track and 97 stations has a ridership of just 123,000 per day. Its regional population is 2.4 million.
  • Portland Streetcar with 11.6 km of track in and around the downtown Portland area has a ridership of just 16,000 per day.
  • Seattle’s LINK Light Rail with two lines totalling 35 km of track and 21 stations has a ridership of just 81,000 per day. Its regional population is 3.9 million.
  • Phoenix’s Valley Metro Rail with one line totalling 42 km of track and 35 stations has a ridership of 50,000 per day. Its regional population is 4.7 million.

Over the long-term, the City of Surrey wants to go as far as building 140 km of LRT tracks on its streets.

City of Surrey light rail

City of Surrey’s draft concept of a long-term vision for light rail transit expansion. (City of Surrey)

Surrey LRT proponents have also cited planned and under-construction LRT systems like Calgary (Green Line), Toronto (Eglinton Crosstown Line), and Ottawa (Confederation Line) as examples of applications of the technology, but they have elected to not mention a key design difference: These systems are significantly grade separated, and the transit operators are increasingly acknowledging the need for grade separation.

Confederation Line Ottawa

Rideau Station, an underground station in downtown Ottawa as part of the new Confederation Line. (City of Ottawa)

For instance, more than half of the 19-km-long Eglinton Crosstown Line is grade-separated from its tunnelled and elevated tracks, and the 13-km-long Confederation Line is 100% grade separated with zero traffic intersections. To achieve the same grade separation standard under downtown Ottawa, there is a 2.5-km-long tunnel running underneath the city centre.

Surrey LRT does not enjoy this major attribute that creates a reliable and fast LRT system.

It is obvious the SNG LRT, which behaves more like a streetcar, can only achieve the latter objective. Beyond the short-term, LRT will only handicap Surrey’s real growth potential, which is largely driven by those in the region seeking housing affordability.

Lougheed Town Centre

Artistic rendering of the future of Lougheed Town Centre next to SkyTrain’s Lougheed Town Centre Station on the border of Burnaby and Coquitlam. (SHAPE Properties)

If Surrey’s problem with SkyTrain deals with the slower-than-anticipated growth that has been happening around its SkyTrain stations, compared to the success of Metrotown, Brentwood, New Westminster, Lougheed Town Centre, New Westminster, and Richmond City Centre, that has a lot more to do about Surrey’s inability to offer a basic level of services to its residents and businesses.

For instance, over the past decade, little has been done to acknowledge and properly address the municipality’s crime and public safety problems.

Those charged with promoting Surrey as a place for investment have also decidedly distanced the municipality from Vancouver, even though the namesake of the region will always be the ‘main attraction.’

Aerial view of the emerging downtown Surrey area, with Central City and Civic Hotel. (Shutterstock)

The greater speed, capacity, reliability, and frequency allowed by a SkyTrain solution has far more potential for getting Surrey residents out of their cars and into transit. Unlike the Canada Line, this is also the future-proof option of ensuring capacity meets growth, both planned and unplanned.

While the train has likely already left the station for the SNG LRT project, there is still a window of opportunity to ensure the future Fraser Highway rail rapid transit project is built within a regional context – as SkyTrain, not LRT.

The Fraser Highway corridor is far more of a regional corridor than the Newton-Guildford corridor, and SkyTrain was always envisioned for this in successive transit plans until the current Mayors’ Council presented theirs. The tail track of King George Station is even aligned with Fraser Highway for a future extension.

Ultimately, the whole debate on rail rapid transit in the South of Fraser should be about what kind of region we want to be as a whole.

Click here to read Part One of ‘Surrey LRT and the Region.’

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Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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