November 8, 2018

SFU: Want More Skytrain? Do the Numbers (Part I)

This week, Alex Boston, the Executive Director of the Renewable Cities program at SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, wrote an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun on the proposed two big changes threatening to upend phases 2 and 3 of TransLink’s Mayors Plan.

Boston’s piece is a call, if slightly veiled, to Vancouver’s Kennedy Stewart and Surrey’s Doug McCallum to do what they were elected to do when it comes to regional matters — understand all the issues in a city which are regionally dependent or impactful, obtain support and confidence from your respective councils on big ideas, and work collaboratively with the other mayors and the TransLink Board to realize them.

But of course as you may know, it’s never that easy. And much like the housing crisis, there may not even be agreement on what the two problems are. 

Boston makes his position, and that of many academics, planners and pundits, that in the end, nothing should be done (or re-done, or undone) without a business case.

Since his accompanying, longer piece published on the Renewable Cities website includes some numbers, it’s a bit more compelling for those who are, shall we say, extra passionate about this issue.

Most interesting is the table comparing employment and resident densities — and the relative thresholds for shifting between transit type — of TransLink, the GTA’s Metrolinx, and the Government of Ontario.

(One assumes that, in addition to residents and workers, variegated student populations are also accounted for specifically due to the question of rail to UBC.)

What’s striking in looking at the table, and thinking about Boston’s argument in favour of business cases, is where the gaps are. While Translink has very granular density threshold guidelines in place for the lower-capacity, ‘bus end” of the spectrum, it’s not clear they’ve established similar thresholds for subway/Skytrain, rapid rail/bus, and commuter rail, as have the transit authorities in Toronto and across the rest of Ontario. If they do, they’re keeping them a bit too quiet given the present debate.

Toronto also takes the extra step, ala Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan, of linking demand thresholds to mode share targets.

Thus, one of the questions Boston’s deep-dive analysis prompts — whether he intended to do so or not — is whether aspects of TransLink’s Phase 2 and Phase 3 plans may have been developed without the benefit of a full set of demand guidelines, from which a bullet-proof case for high-speed, high-capacity solutions could be formed.

And so, while it should not be a reason to shy away from dissecting the plans, Kennedy and McCallum had better be prepared — back to Boston’s central point — to do an even better job of justifying their very specific remedies.

If indeed density thresholds, carrying capacities, and service standards have been established and agreed upon between the mayors and TransLink, and the mayors agree that transportation planning entails defining not ‘shovel-ready’ but ‘shovel-worthy’ projects (as Boston testified to as a witness at the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities this past May on Ottawa), then maybe all this recent talk about extending or swapping in Skytrain is just that — talk.

Maybe, just maybe, the mayors didn’t want to bore us all with the reality of business case writing. Which is a process unto itself, a veritable rabbit hole, down into the warren of wonk.

Yet, with campaign season well behind us, maybe we’re all finally ready for some data-driven decision-making.

Tomorrow, Part II — a comparison of some of the metrics that would, in part, form business cases for the UBC extension, and Surrey and Langley Skytrain lines…and how they’re very, very different.

Photo credit: Colin Knowles, “Skytrain abstract 6

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  1. Mention of Toronto and the Government of Ontario evokes the depressing saga of The Scarborough Subway. At the beginning of the decade it looked like Toronto suburb of Scarborough was going to get the green light for an LRT network. That is until Mayor Rob Ford convinced the citizens of Scarborough that an LRT was for second class citizens and they deserved a subway . It appeared irrelevant that the subway would be exorbitant to build and operate. Planners, politicians, and citizen’s groups are arguing about this to this day. If anyone cared to research Scarborough subway on the internet they could acquire a sad premonition of how the situation could devolve in Surrey.

  2. Alex Boston’s piece was a breath of fresh air. He elucidates the vital need to marry land use planning with transit planning at the senior, regional and local level, and cites the California state funding criteria as a model. The SkyTrain vs LRT arguments posted here and elsewhere are overly circular and become stale without including the important external influences Boston draws attention to.

    Holistic, joined-up thinking starts with the question, what is the future of the city-region? The Metro 2040 Shaping Our Future growth strategy has gone quite far and remarkably obtained unanimous approval from so many participants. But it remains only a guideline or foundation for individual and neighbouhood-level business case studies that have yet to be formulated. Changing out Surrey’s LRT route for a single SkyTrain route was obviously a political decision that disrespected a decade of both regional and local planning, and it was done in the absence of transit-oriented planning for communities like Fleetwood and Langley City. Moreover, the business case will probably be weaker than with the original LRT project once one goes beyond ridership and operational stats and technology and deeper into community urbanism and economics. I suspect, but have no business case to prove it ;-), that Surrey’s LRT plan has a better business case with respect to land use planning, continuous streetscape exposure and job / population density (even with trams stuck in traffic jams) than SkyTrain along the Fraser Highway given the gap-tooth urbanism there. That is more of a comment on location, not on mode.

    There are those who would trade Surrey’s LRT for the entire Broadway Line even though there are huge economic, demographic and geometrical differences. This is where business cases can make a real difference to determine the justification for higher project expenditures. A future-proofed business case may coalesce fairly easy around a UBC extension of the subway once planned and potential development on campus and the Jericho Lands are accounted for, as Boston acknowledges. But Boston didn’t comment much on the Making Room initiative or the big 500,000+ m2 empty space called the UBC golf course (owned by the Musqueam), both of which could add tens of thousands to the population and hundreds of commercial / retail / office / institutional spaces on top of everything else west of Arbutus, including catalyzed development and ridership demand from merely approving a major transit project. This puts land use on equal footing with transit.

    I think the province has a larger role to play in regional planning. So far it has been content to monkey with the regional governance structure, largely to bend it to its will (a big problem with the BC Liberals), and to deliver funding proportionately less than its share of regional tax revenue and leaving the Metro to make it up. If Victoria wants to fight climate change while concurrently developing LNG, then some commenters are urging them to decarbonize the remaining parts of the economy though electrification, and induce cities and regions to adopt transit and walking-based smart growth land use planning principles, and subsidize the decline of fossil fuel-based automobile transport and green up building energy systems.

    In that respect, the province (and if possible, the feds) could offer say a 10-year program with generous but graduated funding levels to cities: more money to cities who approve high-level, low carbon land use planning policies for humans and transit; less money for lower levels of the same. That may be just a crazy idea, but if regional governments were offered the choice, my bet is that the mayors will jump on it with both feet after decades of scraping by on the crumbs.

      1. Indeed a very detailed report. Thank you very much for sharing.

        Rapid rail shows the only positive and better biz case than LRT. Section 3.1 and3.2 on pages 349 clearly show the life cycle benefits of a truly RAPID line, for example.

        Yet, LRT was chosen. Why ?

  3. Business cases are super important and all our transportation projects should show good business cases. The table Alex Boston created with ‘thresholds’ of residential and job densities does not contribute much to any discussions about business cases. The reason is the huge variation between construction costs in different projects. A LRT may cost as little as 40 or 50 million per km to more than 150 million per km. Obviously the amount of ridership needed to justify a LRT that costs 40 million per km will a lot less than a project that costs 150 million per km. Even population and job densities are imperfect for higher order transit (skytrain/LRT) as a significant amount of ridership may be be from feeder buses. As noted by N above business cases were done for both Broadway/UBC and Fraser highways. Both are out of date for costs and maybe ridership projections but are still fairly useful in understanding the broad strokes. That said for Broadway the business case looked at the full route to UBC and I would love to see phase 1 (Arbutus) and 2 looked at seperately as business cases.

  4. I think the Planning profession has done a rather poor job of translating their view of the world to the general public and further translating it to public support. Can they be to blame though? Planners tell people things they don’t want to hear. Couple that with a world where increasingly facts and educated opinions don’t matter. Bold lies and untruths are spoken freely by Politicians for the purpose of holding or gaining power under the concept that any lie can be regarded as truth so long as it is adequately repeated.

    We live in a world that is increasingly anti intellectual. Quite ironic as it comes at a time when we are at our most technically advanced point. The point being, all this stuff mentioned here might in the end have very little influence on what actually gets built, because at the end of the day it’s a political decision. The challenge is how do we influence the right choices being made? Retreating to the world of data will be of no help although it might help point the way as to what choices should be advocated for…it will do little to actually get the political momentum needed to get a project built.

    I don’t have any answers. I think in general building Transit of any sort is good. It’s better than building a freeway or 10 lane bridge. I think we live in a region where the risk of building a white elephant is low. Ridership and development will eventually catch up over the course of decades. This development may not happen where we wanted or intended, but it will happen. That’s not true everywhere, but here with our skewed real estate market, high insurance and fuel costs and lack of freeway infrastructure we can probably get away with it.

    The key however is to build communites where people live work and play in close proximity. This has the lowest infrastructure load regardless of transportation mode. Unfortunately that looks a lot like telling people what is good for them which is our biggest problem. The masses want easy answers. To have it all and give up nothing. They’ll throw their vote to whoever promises that without any rational thought on their credibility to deliver. Experts are mistrusted. It’s the guy who rails against the intellectual establishment who gets the vote. Very depressing I know, but that is the problem we face. It’s not the crunching of the data…it’s that data itself is considered the enemy. Whoever can figure our way out of this will do humanity a great service.

    1. So true. I notice some people with the attitude that everyone can live a 1950’s suburban lifestyle (and everyone wants to). People who have learned that this is not possible and are exploring alternatives are looked at as a threat. In fact they even see those doing alternatives as the cause of why they can’t get what they want.
      Isn’t there a saying, don’t shoot the messenger?

    2. So democracy ought to be scrapped? Have a monarch with “trusted” advisors decide what’s good for the populace ? Forget public discourse because unelected experts know best?

      Is that the system we have in Canada today, for four years, as every fours years we elect a monarch with trusted advisors who does whatever he wants, until either confirmed or replaced ?

      Should it not concern us that the Surrey council and the Surrey mayor were elected on a strong “SkyTrain is better than LRT” platform ? What does that tell us about the experts, or the populace, or the lack of communication between either?

      “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Winston Churchill.

      1. What does it tell us about the populous? Obviously people want more than they deserve or can be justified. How well is that going to go?

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