Opinion: SkyTrain expansion is unquestionably Metro Vancouver's way forward

Oct 28 2021, 11:31 pm

Quality public transit that is fast, frequent, and reliable, accompanied by land use policies that support optimal transit-oriented development, continues to be the most effective way to tackle Metro Vancouver’s long-term transportation and housing needs, and economic prosperity and climate action aspirations.

We have a proven SkyTrain system that delivers these attributes, and it has continuously led to regional residents asking for a larger network of this system to establish more convenient links to destinations and connections.

The two key features of SkyTrain are its complete automation — enabling greater flexibility in frequencies and scheduling when train departures do not depend on drivers — and its full-grade separation (elevated, tunnelled, trenched, and/or fenced-off ground level), which removes variables that are detrimental to reliability and speed compared to street-level rapid transit systems.

In 2019, when North American public transit agencies, government officials, and transportation-related businesses converged on Vancouver for the Railvolution conference hosted by TransLink, two of the most common observations made by experts was the superiority of SkyTrain compared to their non-grade-separated systems at home and the level of transit-oriented development that can be found next to stations.

Over three decades after SkyTrain first began operating in the region, its attributes are now being adopted by other major public transit networks for their latest expansions.

Montreal is currently constructing the $7-billion REM — a brand new rail transit network spanning a total route length of 67 km, not far off from the entire current 80 km length of our SkyTrain. And just like SkyTrain, it will be fully automated and completely grade separated. Plans were developed relatively quickly, with a public-private partnership first established in 2015 and construction commencing in 2018. REM will open in phases between 2022 and 2024.

In late 2020, CDPQ and the Quebec and Montreal governments announced REM would be further expanded beyond 2024 with REM East. With an additional 32 km and 23 stations, REM East would grow REM to a total network size of 99 km and 49 stations. And this is all in addition to the existing Montreal Metro subway’s 69 km with 68 stations.

CDPQ, the pension fund of Quebec, pursued REM following its success as a major private investor in the Canada Line.

REM Montreal train network

2024 completed route map of the REM train network in Montreal, with the station for Montreal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport highlighted. (REM)

ontario line changes

2030 route map of the Ontario Line in Toronto. (Metrolinx)

Toronto is also pursuing a fully-grade separated and automated system for its $11-billion Ontario Line — a relief line for existing overcrowded subways from suburban communities into downtown Toronto. Major construction is expected to begin in 2023 for completion in 2030.

In their pitch to the public, Ontario government officials and transit agency Metrolinx have repeatedly specifically highlighted TransLink’s SkyTrain as the model example for their envisioned system. The use of fully driverless trains accompanied with grade separation was even termed as “jaw-dropping” technology by Ontario premier Doug Ford, when describing how the Ontario Line will differ from the TTC subway.

Seattle’s first Link light-rail transit (LRT) line opened in 2003, and it has since grown to a network size of 42 km. While the system is not automated, recent and future expansions have incorporated significant grade separation, learning from the early segments of the Link system that saw issues from their street-level routes.

Earlier this month, a $2.4-billion, 7-km extension of Link reached completion. But this is far from being their only rail transit project. Currently, the Seattle region is busy constructing five Link extension projects totalling 54 km of additional routes. These extensions will open between 2022 and 2024, bringing Seattle’s Link system to a total length of 96 km — exceeding the entire length of SkyTrain, even with the 2025 opening of the Millennium Line Broadway Extension to Arbutus included.

Much can be said about considering quantity (network size) and quality (speed, frequency, and reliability) when it comes to rapid transit expansion, and there is certainly a need to achieve both aspects in Metro Vancouver within the framework of Transport 2050, the region’s upcoming 30-year strategy that will guide future transportation expansion priorities.

Counterpart regions like Montreal, Toronto, and Seattle will need substantially larger arterial public transit networks across multiple high-capacity modes to serve the needs of their respective regions, as these regions are substantially larger in population and geography, and economic output. For this reason, Metro Vancouver’s network will always be comparatively smaller, although there is of course a need for an exponentially larger network than what exists today.

Metro Vancouver’s current population is currently about 2.8 million, and it is expected to grow by about one million people to 3.8 million by 2050. Metro Vancouver’s urban development — where people live and work — is constrained to just 850 sq km, with the region’s remaining land mass protected from development due to various designations such as the agricultural land reserve, regional parks, conservation areas, and North Shore mountain watersheds. This region otherwise has a total land base of just under 2,900 sq km, with the City of Vancouver accounting for only 115 sq km.

metro vancouver land use metro 2050

Metro Vancouver’s land use, Metro 2050. (Metro Vancouver Regional District)

City of Montreal’s size compared to all of Metro Vancouver. (TransLink)

City of Montreal’s size compared to all of Metro Vancouver. (TransLink)

In contrast, the City of Montreal has a municipal population of about 1.8 million within 432 sq km, and a regional population of 4.3 million within 4,600 sq km.

The City of Toronto — not including any suburban municipalities within the vast Greater Toronto Area — has 2.8 million people within its jurisdiction size of 630 sq km. The City of Seattle has a municipal population of about 740,000 within 370 sq km, and a regional population of four million within 21,000 sq km.

A case can be made that Metro Vancouver’s land use patterns, form of urban development, and the culture that comes from population demographics have increasingly more in common with Asian cities than North American and especially European cities.

Two similarly land-locked Asian hubs come to mind, and they each have SkyTrain-like systems [on steroids] for their backbone arterial public transit network.

The city state of Singapore has a population of about 5.5 million within roughly 570 sq km of its total land base of 730 sq km.

The entirety of Hong Kong is just 1,100 sq km, but the area of urban development that this city of 7.5 million people and its vibrant economy is squeezed into just 25% of its land base — roughly equivalent to Vancouver, Burnaby, and New Westminster put together.

And unlike most North American regions, Metro Vancouver does not have a comprehensive or high-capacity freeway network due to decisions made half a century ago that killed plans to extend north-south and east-west freeways to reach downtown Vancouver and through the North Shore. The region’s network of highways and width for the largest of routes pales in comparison to the highways found in far smaller urban centres in North America, and even to the highways of the European cities that are deemed models to follow by the most Europhile planners and urbanism advocates. The same distances by car travel in the Montreal, Toronto, and Seattle regions cannot be achieved in the same travel times in the Lower Mainland, not even close.

While it is increasingly fashionable to assert there is too much road space dedicated to cars and that this results in too many cars in the region, this is far from the case when real usable alternatives have not been provided to most of the region.

The region’s emerging issues with traffic congestion deal exclusively with the lack of alternatives, not the non-existent overabundance of overly sized roads.

North Shore municipalities, for instance, have not seen any new additional road capacity across Burrard Inlet for over 60 years. There are just nine lanes of roadway across Burrard Inlet — six lanes on the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge and three lanes controlled by counterflow on the Lions Gate Bridge — serving as the primary routes for North Shore residents to access the bulk of businesses, opportunities, and services to the south of them, and for interregional access north to the Sunshine Coast, Squamish, and Whistler.

car insurance

Lions Gate Bridge. (Shutterstock)

The North Shore’s growth has long been stunted by the lack of transportation capacity improvements, and the introduction of alternatives that are competitive to the convenience and speed of car travel. Under existing conditions, regional residents who drive — especially those pushed to the outskirts in pursuit of housing affordability — should not be vilified for making highly rational cost-benefit choices that greatly reduce their travel times, allowing them to spend more time with their families, on social life and personal development, and on leisure, outside of work and school.

The North Shore is the only sub-region of Metro Vancouver to not see any major transportation investments in over half a century, and the only sub-region not served by SkyTrain.

A technical study released earlier this month by North Shore municipalities and First Nations found that a west-east SkyTrain route from Park Royal to Phibbs Exchange that crosses the Second Narrows to reach Brentwood Town Centre and Metrotown via Willingdon Avenue in Burnaby, and downtown Vancouver via Hastings Street would reduce traffic volumes on both bridges combined by about 50,000 vehicles per day. That represents a quarter reduction of the existing combined traffic volumes of about 190,000 daily.

The pent-up latent demand for good alternatives as a result of measures that bring out positive enforcement is immense.

While SkyTrain extensions to UBC and the North Shore should be pursued concurrently, North Shore SkyTrain would have a greater positive impact on Metro Vancouver as a whole, if not at least equal, than completing the Millennium Line extension from Arbutus to UBC.

September 2020 map of North Shore SkyTrain route options. (Government of BC)

north shore connects burrard inlet rapid transit skytrain

Burrard Inlet Rapid Transit concepts of two North Shore SkyTrain lines via the Second Narrows: Gold Line from Park Royal to downtown Vancouver via Hastings, and Purple Line from Park Royal to Brentwood Town Centre Station and Metrotown Station via Willingdon Avenue. (North Shore Connects)

More broadly, historically, transportation infrastructure as a whole in Metro Vancouver has been grossly underfunded — it has not kept up with the pace of population and economic growth.

The region should also not shy away from SkyTrain because of its cost. Comparatively, building more SkyTrain is substantially cheaper than more freeways, especially in a region that lacks space for more major roads. If the Expo Line and Millennium Line were operating to their full potential with maximum train lengths and frequencies, they would each be equivalent to the capacity of a 17-lane highway, while the Canada Line would be comparable to a 10-lane highway.

And the optimal features of SkyTrain compared to street-level LRT systems bring results that can often be forgotten or taken for granted. The Portland region has a similar population and geographical size as Metro Vancouver, but its slower street-level MAX LRT system sees just 131,000 daily boardings (pre-pandemic) on a network size of 96 km with over 90 stations. In steep contrast, SkyTrain sees 526,000 daily boardings on 80 km with 53 stations.

But there is another problem. Historically, Metro Vancouver has built one SkyTrain extension roughly every decade. This sluggish pace of expansion can no longer continue, if we are to address the region’s most pressing issues.

The 2020s will see at least two SkyTrain extensions built — the Millennium Line Broadway Extension to Arbutus (construction 2021-2025) and the Expo Line Surrey-Langley Extension to Langley Centre (construction 2024-2028). But this is an outlier that, to the credit of the BC NDP, rectifies the previous political deadlock, when a provincial government, led by BC Liberals leadership disinterested in urban ridings, put the future of public transit expansion into a divisive 2015 plebiscite.

If the provincial government at the time had not put up barriers and allocated funding for TransLink’s plans, the Broadway Extension to Arbutus would have opened in 2020 and at a cost of about $500 million lower than the current budget of $2.8 billion. Attention and available resources at this very moment could be turned to completing the Millennium Line from Arbutus to UBC. Currently, only highly preliminary planning has been performed on the UBC extension; route, station locations, and costing have not been determined.

But other than rectifying mistakes, the BC NDP have lacked a certain zeal for public transit expansion, unlike their counterparts in Quebec and Ontario, who happen to be on the opposite of the political spectrum.

Montreal’s REM planning process was initiated by former Quebec premier Philippe Couillard in 2015. And a year after being elected, Ford in 2019 rolled out a $28.5-billion plan for five new subway extension projects in the Greater Toronto Area, including the Ontario Line, with $11.2 billion in provincial funding promised.

In 2008, during the latter period of Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals, the provincial government proactively announced a $10 billion public transit expansion blueprint that included the SkyTrain Evergreen Extension, an extension of SkyTrain in Surrey, the full SkyTrain Broadway Extension from VCC-Clark to UBC, major upgrades to existing SkyTrain infrastructure, and extensive RapidBus routes. All of this was aimed for completion by 2020.

Before being put into political exile, Campbell initiated the Evergreen Extension, cancelling the street-level LRT project in favour of a seamless SkyTrain extension, given its significantly higher benefits with only a marginally higher cost of about $150 million.

Proposed SkyTrain expansions in 2008 by Premier Gordon Campbell. (Government of BC)

Proposed RapidBus routes in 2008 by Premier Gordon Campbell. Most of these routes have since been achieved. (Government of BC)

Earlier this week, the BC NDP announced more ambitious climate action targets of achieving a combined public transit and active transportation (walking and cycling) modal share of 30% by 2030, 40% by 2040, and 50% by 2050, province-wide. As well, there is a target of a 25% reduction in travelled distances on the car mode by 2030.

Doubling down on good public transit expansion is absolutely crucial to achieving these targets, and improved public transit also contributes to more walking and cycling.

New rapid transit should be greatly accelerated to reach every urban area pocket in the region separated by the Fraser River, Burrard Inlet, regional parks and conservation areas, and farmland. TransLink’s yet-to-be-finalized Transport 2050 plan calls for this, with 310 km of additional rapid transit corridors identified, achieved through a combination of SkyTrain, street-level LRT, and bus rapid transit (BRT).

Other than the SkyTrain projects to UBC and Langley Centre, the regional vision identifies three other major corridors for further exploration of a grade-separated design, including 41st Avenue from UBC to Metrotown in Vancouver/Burnaby, King George Boulevard from Surrey Central to at least Newton in Surrey, and North Shore to downtown Vancouver, Brentwood Town Centre, and Metrotown via Second Narrows, Hastings Street, and Willingdon Avenue. To its credit again, the BC NDP completed a high-level technical study on the feasibility of SkyTrain extension options to the North Shore, but it has stopped short of seriously pursuing the report’s findings for accelerated implementation, despite the obvious need.

While the region needs to continue growing its backbone arterial public transit network, SkyTrain, it is also true that some corridors that serve secondary or tertiary purposes do not warrant something as heavy duty as SkyTrain. Corridor-specific technology decisions should be guided by the identified need, not funding constraints. As was seen with the debate over the cancelled Surrey Newton-Guildford LRT project, street-level solutions like LRT and BRT should not be pursued for expediency and lower cost reasons, especially for expanding the backbone network in high-growth corridors.

Transport 2050 brings up the notion of the possibility of automated buses running in city streets, and dedicating limited road space for separated right-of-way bus lanes. But even if automation becomes a proven option for bus rapid transit, it would still be inferior to fully-grade separated solutions, as these buses crossing through intersections would have to follow the speed limits of the road and could come into conflict with increased active transportation priorities. For the same reasons, the planned speed limit of the Surrey Newton-Guildford LRT was 50 km/hr.

The region’s undeniable affinity with SkyTrain will only grow after the 2025 opening of the six-km, six-station Broadway Extension to Arbutus, which will have a deeply transformative network-effect impact on how Metro Vancouver residents move around, as well as the 2028 opening of the 16-km, eight-station Surrey-Langley Extension to Langley Centre. The opening of both extensions will bring the SkyTrain network to a size of just over 100 km with 68 stations.

broadway subway broadway extension skytrain millennium line november 2020 map

SkyTrain Millennium Line Broadway Extension map. (Government of BC)

UBC SkyTrain

Map of a possible concept for the route of the Millennium Line extension to UBC. (UBC)

surrey r1 r6 rapidbus routes

Map showing the future Surrey-Langley SkyTrain Expo Line extension (blue), future new R6 Scott Road RapidBus (red), the existing R1 King George Boulevard RapidBus route (green), and future R1 King George Boulevard RapidBus extension beyond Newton to South Surrey and White Rock (black). (City of Surrey)

translink transport 2050 rapid transit

Transport 2050’s rapid transit expansion plan. (TransLink)

The region’s attitudes towards public transit changed upon the opening of the Canada Line more than a decade ago. Ever since, up until the pandemic, ridership has been on the upswing trend, and there has been a desire for more SkyTrain extensions from residents, businesses, and municipal governments, eventually leading to the sharp rebukes of the Evergreen LRT and Surrey Newton-Guildford LRT. Every corner of the region now wants to be considered for a SkyTrain extension.

This is in stark contrast to the discourse that surrounded the planning of the Canada Line in the early 2000s, when local leaders had doubts over the need and high ridership projections, deemed it not worth the high cost, suggested buses could do the same job, and disparaged SkyTrain as an unwanted “crime train.” While there are some obvious long-term capacity design flaws, it is extremely unlikely the Canada Line would have produced the same ridership and network-effect results it saw over the past decade if it were a street-level LRT system, which was contemplated early on in planning.

With the limitations to expanding West Coast Express service with more frequencies, directions, and routes, SkyTrain is also the de facto commuter rail of Metro Vancouver.

Transport 2050 provides a largely locally-driven blueprint for transit expansion in Metro Vancouver, but as history shows, it will be up to the BC government, with further backing by the federal government, to push these major infrastructure ideas into actual implementation.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

+ News
+ Transportation
+ Opinions
+ Urbanized