July 24, 2015

Op-ed: Why the referendum defeat was a good thing

As Gabriel Metcalf notes in the post below, “San Francisco does not have a massive network of regional public transit connecting hundreds of different high-density, walkable communities to the city.”  So those who can afford it cluster in San Francisco.

Does the decisive No vote in the referendum mean the end of our regional vision – one that aimed to provide a rapid-transit network joining regional town centres so that it would be possible to live in dense, walkable communities throughout Metro while having fast access to other centres across the region, especially for jobs?

Elizabeth Murphy in a Sun op-ed argues that the defeat of the referendum was a good thing because it meant the rejection of that regional vision.

Opinion: Transit plebiscite vote was a rejection of TransLink’s plan


The 62 per cent No vote result in the transit plebiscite was not simply a rejection of the sales tax or a renunciation of TransLink; it was, more important, a rejection of the plan generally. …

The plan was also rejected in Vancouver. Although it had the biggest ticket item, the Broadway subway, putting most of the resources into only one corridor, with the huge tower development that would follow, is a mistaken direction that needs to be reconsidered.

Rather than a few mega-project corridors, we need to look at the transit network as a whole. If the transit resources were more broadly distributed using more affordable technology, benefits would be achieved throughout the region. …

Improving service on all arterial routes would achieve much broader benefits at a significantly lower cost. The most cost-effective electric technology is the trolley bus. Most of the infrastructure exists already in the city. It could be expanded and improved as a clean, quiet transit system. Some areas would also support streetcars since the city was originally designed for streetcars.

Perhaps it is time to ensure there is enough electric transit capacity to support what we already have zoned rather than planning for more development than is sustainable.

Full op-ed here.

So, no more upzoning, no more density – certainly no more towers in Vancouver.  No more rapid-transit lines, especially along Broadway – just more trolleys.  And for the region, the old interurban lines – upscaled versions of the trolleybus along abandoned rights-of-way.

Prediction: Vancouver becomes a disconnected island of super-affluence, the population pressures are shifted to the suburbs, along with the traffic congestion and overcrowding on the transit system.  Jobs continue to cluster in downtown, along Broadway and at UBC, without sufficient transportation capacity to serve them.  There is no regional consensus, or funding.   Nor a willingness of west-side neighbourhoods to rezone, not even for the Jericho lands.

And so long as there has to be a plebiscite for any new transit funding in the region, no change in the status quo.

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  1. Does anyone have any stats on what form of public transit is the most subsidized in the Translink area? IE if we factor in capital costs which form of public transit gives us the least amount of subsidy.

    I would think a fully utilized Skytrain would be the least subsidized but I would like some actual data.

    1. The transit system only works as a network with transfers, determining the ‘subsidy’ for any one part of it is very tricky (and easy to game to produce the result you want). Read up on Paul Mees and “Network Effect” for more.

    2. There’s also different measures of subsidy. Are we talking customers per service hour, customer-km per service hour, farebox recovery … In general, the West Coast Express and low ridership buses do the worst on these measures while Skytrain does the best. If we include capital costs, then Skytrain does a bit worse.

      Translink’s system performance metrics do a really good job at both explaining the nuances of your question while giving some specific numbers.

  2. While we’re at it, why don’t we take the next step and get rid of all those HOV lanes in and out of the city? They’re just a gateway drug to transit; you put more than one person in an automobile and all hell breaks loose. Just ask Rob Ford:

    “These HOV lanes are a complete disaster, I see people just going down the HOV lanes and saying basically catch me if I can….. obviously you got to watch the cops over your shoulder …but it’s not just me a lot of people have, I think it’s a pain in the rear end those HOV lanes.”

  3. “Improving service on all arterial routes would achieve much broader benefits at a significantly lower cost.” This is an interesting point, and would be worth considering if the author had pointed out that real improvement would require a network of bus / transit lanes and signal priority on the scale of what Zurich has done. But as it is, the article comes across exactly as Gordon describes. Sigh . . .

    1. Eric, I could not address all the details of how each system would be implemented in one article. Only so much space. Perhaps next time. But yes, for rapid transit applications there are many things that can be done with electric trolleys to make them a viable affordable electric option which i know you have advocated for.

      1. Elizabeth, Maybe was being too crabby about this. But transit lanes are essential for good quality transit on crowded city streets – otherwise ‘bus’ means slow and uncomfortable. “Bus lane” is only two words.

      2. The city looked at this option in the UBC Rapid Transit study. It did not perform well at all.

        From a network point of view, Broadway much more important than parallel roads. 4th/6th do not connect well with bus routes at Oak, Granville and Arbutus thus limiting ridership.

        16th and King Ed don’t connect well with Expo Line and have little residential density or jobs along them.

        As well, the Expo Line runs at a diagonal so distances and thus travel times are shorter at Broadway rather than streets to the south. Then the Evergreen Linr connects with Broadway.

        I understand the theory behind broader network improvements but on the ground, rapid transit on Broadway is the option that will produce much greater transit ridership and thus decrease car trips the most.

  4. San Francisco may be expensive, but all of the density added to Vancouver has not made Vancouver affordable either. In fact Vancouver is the second least affordable city in the world, second only to Hong Kong, which is also very dense.

    Further, what my article points out is that there is no lack of existing zoned capacity for development. The recent city Coriolis report confirmed there is enough existing zoned capacity for the next twenty years. It also confirmed that very little of the rezonings approved over the last six years has been built out to date. So there is lots of room for further growth.

    Current rezoning processes such as Jericho will add even more development, but there is no need to make it another Metrotown or Oakridge.

    Even if a subway was approved, it would take decades before it was completed. In the mean time our city would become more congested because most of the transit budget has been funneled into only one corridor while the rest of the transit system is inadequate.

    My point is that the broader system should first be addressed with more affordable electric options that can be implemented right away. The main problem on Broadway now is during peak hours and that should be immediately addressed as well as other areas of the city and region that need improved service.

    I am surprised Gord that you would be opposed to trolley buses as being part of the transit solution. Especially since it was you when you were on council that helped to ensure our trolley system was retained while most in North America were being removed. I thank you for that and hope at some point that all diesel buses in Vancouver will be converted to electric trolley for both local and rapid transit applications.

    However, in my article I also advocate for other forms of electric transit including streetcars and LRT that are more affordable and can be applied more broadly at a regional level and therefore more likely to gain regional support. The system as a whole needs to be addressed before only a few corridors.

    1. Trolleys are best for short, local trips, and Vancouver is served pretty well. However, the bulk of the improvements offered in the Mayor’s plan were not for transportation at this scale. We need funding to improve regional connectivity, otherwise new residents are going to commute from (and between) Metro Van suburbs by car. This is where future increases in automobile traffic are most likely to come from.

      Many commentators have kicked at the Broadway subway as a Vancouver vanity project, but the corridor is a key employment centre for the Lower Mainland that draws workers from across the region. Except in the immediate radius of Broadway-City Hall station, transit will only get you around central Broadway by crowded bus along congested roadways.

      The problem on Broadway is capacity. The Broadway subway has strong support from technocrats because they know it is the only way to free up road space on the surface. Trolleys, diesel buses, and surface light rail are unlikely to improve commutes along the Broadway corridor, or across Burrard Peninsula more generally.

    2. “Zoned capacity” has been proven to be rather meaningless. A lot of it can’t be developed effectively and even if it was developed, the net increase in a particular development may not be that much. As well, a lot of affordable housing and retail would be destroyed in the process. And, given high land costs, much of the development would not be anywhere near affordable.

      New high density development is certainly a lot more affordable than $1 million plus single family houses. If it were not for the new development, many people could simply not afford to live in the city. While technically true that it perhaps has not made Vancouver more affordable, it is certainly true that Vancouver would be much less affordable without it.

      As far as Jericho goes, it would be great to have a lot of homes there that families can afford. Building towers will enable more people to live there while maintaining a lot of greenspace. Children should be able to live near beaches and parks instead of being forced to live around old malls in the burbs.

  5. It all comes down to housing affordability. It’s insane. Prices are still jumping 10+% a year! People are moving out to the burbs. It’s just too expensive.

    Historically, in other cities, people only moved to the burbs when they wanted a lifestyle change. Got four kids, didn’t want the noise and hustle and bustle. Wanted to slow down and get the white picket fence instead of an apartment in the centre of the action. But, in Vancouver, our crazy prices are forcing everyone out, even people who really want to stay. People with deep ties to their communities. People who love the walkability of their local, urban neighborhoods. People who walk, take the bus, and cycle. Families with just one or two kids that want to raise them in the city.

    But, they just can’t afford it. Most people aren’t moving into 4000 sqft houses in the burbs, they’re just moving into condos in Burnaby, Surrey, Port Moody, New West, and still struggling to make mortgage payments.

    So, instead of throwing huge barrels of public money in a failing attempt to keep people barely housed and barely afloat in places like expensive Coal Harbour, expensive Yaletown, expensive Olympic Village, expensive UBC endowment lands, and the Jericho Lands (which I have no doubt will be even more expensive), why not try spending the money improving transit in places they’re already moving to, which is the burbs?

    1. Or better yet, let’s demand our federal politicians develop spines, and tackle the problem that is driving up the cost of housing in Vancouver. It’s under their control after all.

  6. Notice the common meme:

    The article is illustrated with the parisian T3, and suggests it could cost $40M/km to build.

    for $40M/km, you can get may be the one way Portland streetcar loop, the illustrated T3 costs $100M/km…no mention of operating cost, cost per rider,…

    Does a tram like the T3 could be enough for Broadway?
    The T3 is built for a max demand of 4,000 passenger per hour per direction (notice also the 3.5km average trip length):


    The demand for the Broadway subway could be twice more and could generate 12,000 passengers per hour per direction on the existing Millennium line (due to transfer free) ( average trip length could be also in excess of 10km, the longer the trip is, the more important the speed is

    Sure, an LRT could address the Broadway demand, but then let’s illustrates the article with such LRT – I offer to Elisabeth Murphy the below picture free of right for her next article


    beside this not so minor quibble, Elizabeth has a point:
    the fact that even in Vancouver proper, the referendum didn’t pass, tend to illustrates that the constituency is not sold to the plan, and the Broadway subway.

    Eric is right: it is time to turn our eyes on Zurich, which has go through the exact same experience (lost referendums on subway):

    -let’s consider our surface transit as the important foundation it is to build a comprehensive transit network.

    As mentioned before, this foundation got mistreated in the recent year by the current Vancouver’s council. It is now time to change that, and introduce simple, cheap, and still very efficient measure, such as bus lanes, to improve our Transit efficiency and attractiveness.

    1. Voomy, I am not advocating for LRT on Broadway. I will not be looking towards Asia as an example of what we need here as your picture suggests.

      What I am saying is we need to stop being held hostage by one subway project and to deal with the very pressing immediate needs of the transit network system that can be substantially addressed with more affordable transit options now. Those commuting to UBC do not all have to go along Broadway. They can be better dispersed at peak travel times with express electric trolley buses on a variety of routes. There are many options that can be implemented now. Once the network is properly addressed and funded, then we can still look at certain areas that need bigger ticket investments when the funding is available.

      1. This sounds like the Best Bus option from the Broadway alternatives analysis. It isn’t actually cheaper (once operational costs are accounted for) than a subway in the long run, and we get far less for it. If we think about the region’s transit network as a whole, there’s a big obvious gap in it: the Broadway subway.

        I’m sorry to berate you Elizabeth, but you’re second guessing Translink’s network planning ability. I trust their planning implicitly because they do a really good job at it, they show their work, and they don’t fudge the numbers like almost every other transportation planning agency. Translink has public documentation on every point you’ve raised in your article and they’ve pursued the most worthy projects. Unfortunately, the referendum, the province, and Jordan Bateman have convinced the electorate that this jewel of an agency is incompetent, and you’re falling for the trap.

        1. Actually Jordan Bateman’s focus on TransLink governance and increasing taxes are only a small piece of a much bigger picture. However, I do agree that TransLink has become dysfunctional. In my opinion, as I said in the article, we need to get back to regional governance of TransLink and full provincial/federal funding for a functioning transit system.

          1. Translink’s accountability and funding structure do need help, but their transparency and expertise transportation planning is supurb. You’re drawing with crayons.

  7. In other words, the referendum loss puts us one step further toward San Francisco-style regional planning dysfunction.

    The only silver lining is that the Province could become a force for good regional policy should the government change. I don’t get the sense that California has as much power over the Bay Area.

  8. First of all, I don’t understand how people can keep opposing Broadway because it’s just one short corridor. It is horribly congested and used by thousands and thousands of people. Yes it’s expensive, but it would help a huge number of people.

    However, I do agree that overall regional transit coverage is important. This was addressed in the mayor’s plan with the 25% increase in bus service, a benefit overlooked by most and the one that I most looked forward to. There were to be huge increases in bus service all across the region, with more frequent buses and with service to more neighbourhoods. Isn’t this exactly what the article says we need?

    The Broadway subway shouldn’t punished for being expensive. The corridor needs relief, and there’s no other option. It wasn’t going to be built in lieu of overall network expansion, but alongside it. Not to mention that the truncation of the 99 B-Line would have provided many buses to be redistributed across the region. The entire plan was extremely well thought out, and truly gave something to everybody. But I guess now we’re back to square one.

    1. “there’s no other option.” I think this is part of the problem, instead of making the case that the M-line extension as a subway is the best option it has been sold as the ONLY option. It may be the best by some criteria, but it is not the only good option. But all the other good options require dedicated transit lanes, and the better ones require multiple dedicated transit lanes on multiple routes (e.g. 41st Ave).

      Elizabeth is right that multiple transit lines could provide good transit service along the Broadway corridor and to UBC (but only with exclusive transit lanes). Electric trolley bus rapid transit could provide enough capacity (but is not necessarily the best option for every route).

    2. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there seems like very little in the way of employment centres on Broadway from Burrard all the way west to until you get to UBC.

  9. San Francisco is not nearly as unaffordable and dysfunctional as Vancouver. We sold out to expensive tiny condos and ugly monster houses that are undermining our livability and affordability while we are losing our heritage and character. The inflationary development pressures in the corridor style planning are actually adding to this lack of affordability. Doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. We need to reconsider what we are doing because it isn’t working. That is the opportunity of the failed plebiscite. We can now figure out a plan B that will work.

    1. I hate to be argumentative, but this is exactly the philosophy that led to San Francisco being one of the most phenomenally expensive cities in the world. No growth. No density. No regional plan. Anemic investment in transit that fails to serve a rapidly growing population of diverse income levels. I disagree that the indefinite delay of essential transportation infrastructure across Metro Vancouver means we can fish around for something else that really works, or that such unspecified solutions will be more politically palatable.

      San Francisco only appears more affordable than Vancouver when $100,000+ tech salaries are included in the analysis. The reality is that the prices of apartments, homes, and especially rents are are very much higher than Vancouver and that people without lavish professional incomes have a much more difficult time remaining in San Francisco than the average worker does in Vancouver. It is particularly difficult to save for a down payment in the Bay Area when your monthly rent is $3000 for a one-bedroom apartment.

  10. I was under the impression that a key part of a liveable region strategy was to ensure that you could live near where you work, and work near where you live. So how is concentrating the majority of future regional office development along Broadway and in downtown good for the region? The majority of population growth in the region is outside Vancouver.

    So, by prioritizing development on Broadway (which is really what the subway is about), we’re saying that future inhabitants will be forced into much longer commutes from their homes in Burnaby, Richmond, Surrey, Coquitlam to their jobs on Broadway and downtown. Those regional town centres are already suffering from the growth of office space downtown, and adding gazillions of new towers along Broadway will just hollow them out.

    This might be cool for the people who live in central Vancouver, but it’s certainly not good for the region.

    And don’t forget that one of the primary reasons Broadway is so congested is because of the heavily subsidized Upass. I bet if we forced every employer in, say, Richmond, to provide “free” transit passes to their employees, there’d be massive increase in usage there.

    1. I think we have to distinguish between what Vancouver is doing and what the region is doing.

      If Vancouver plans to have a subway on Broadway then it makes sense to have the growth in residential and jobs in that area. I would say the same for the other municipalities. So yes it is ok if Richmond, Surrey etc. have job centers and residential growth just make they do it on rapid transit lines.

      I do not agree with any city putting jobs and population in office parks and low density housing. That would be too costly for our transit system and people may not commute by transit even if a free bus is provided.

    2. If there was no U-pass, Broadway and the other roads to UBC would likely be congested with cars. It’s simply a lot of people travelling to UBC.

      The UBC U-pass is not subsidized. The per person cost of the pass is low because all eligible students pay.

      A really simple cheap interim measure is to make cycling to UBC safer, at least for the commuters who live in Vancouver or fairly close by like Richmond, North Shore. It seems neither the City of Vancouver nor UBC are interested in low-cost solutions.

        1. There are other ways. They just need to choose streets that have gradual slopes to go up the hill.
          But yeah, an elevator (or funicular) from Spanish Banks up the hill to campus would be marvy.

            1. NW Marine is a gentle grade. Assuming a bike with more than 3 gears, pedaling slowly up the hill in the lowest gear while enjoying views of the strait, Bowen Island and eagles is not exhausting at all. A little bit of exercise every day is healthy I heard.

          1. @NW Marine. Yes that is a very beautiful and enjoyable route but it is not direct from 10th avenue and thus I would not call it a AAA route. Norway’s bike elevator costs 2,000 to 3,000 per meter. So a 1 km route would cost between 2 to 3 million. That is well below the costs of other separated bike lanes in the city so the city could afford it.

    3. Any height can be pedalled up if the way up is gradual enough. Ideally there should be multiple ways to get up the UBC hill by bike. Probably the easiest to implement would be Chancellor Blvd. They could easily put a wide two way cycle path on each side with all that room.

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