November 9, 2018

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

Yesterday’s post about the Vancouver Sun op-ed by Alex Boston scraped the surface of what could comprise an effective business case for Skytrain south of the Fraser, let alone what numbers may (or may not) have been used to justify LRT in the first place.

Did Translink miss some data? As I hinted in Part I, perhaps they simply missed communicating the most relevant, top-line numbers the public have an appetite — and capacity — to understand (no offence to all of us).

But let’s assume they made a whole raft of calculations, such as those that can be found in “Regional Transportation Investments: A Vision for Metro Vancouver (Appendices)“, pointed to me by  Boston’s colleague Keane Gruending from the Centre for Dialogue. The Centre’s own analysis on this file is reminiscent of their Moving in a Livable Region program around the time of the 2015 transit plebiscite, which attempted to hold our leaders accountable (and the politics in check), using a facts-first approach.

Boston’s deeper piece on the Renewable Cities website also reminded me that a lot of the debate on whether to pause Phase 2 and 3 of the Mayors Plan to once again deal with the Skytrain question often fails to deal with two important metrics tied to land use: jobs density, and CO2 emissions.

On the first metric, it begs further drill-down into the case for the UBC Skytrain extension proposed by Mayor Kennedy Stewart.

Transportation demand between UBC and the rest of the Lower Mainland — for which we could consider the current Arbutus Street terminus to be the obvious transit interchange — may never be perfectly balanced between the two main user populations:

  • UBC/UEL residents travelling eastbound, for major nodes including downtown, midtown, Oakridge and the Arthur Laing Bridge (daily to weekly, or less frequent)
  • Non-resident UBC students, faculty, and administration, and UEL labour force, travelling to campus (daily)

Complex and diverse as the two population patterns may be, it’s clear demand exists between jurisdictions. And, it’s not bound to change unless UBC student capacity greatly fluctuates, or UBC and the province open up greenfield University Endowment Lands for development.

Demand there is relatively constant and predictable; thus, a business case can be made (or unmade) on the basis of ‘pure’ measures of transportation demand. If anything, Stewart should be charging TransLink and city staff to fill holes in the data table on density thresholds, as mentioned in Part I yesterday. Some rationale must exist for reaching and fulfilling that level of demand, and ideally also establishing a vision that will result in specific mode share targets, as in Ontario and the City of Vancouver itself.

Now, contrast that with Surrey and Langley — wherein there are inherent problems reconciling today’s demand-side data against the demand we project for the future. Or, perhaps more accurately, the type of demand we want to encourage.

All you have to do is look at chart 1 in Boston’s longer piece — Greater Vancouver personal transportation greenhouse gas emissions — and it’s obvious that, even with the Mayors Plan in place, we’re already screwed.

Rather than throw up our hands, obviously we must continue to mitigate, and aggressively reduce, total GHG emissions from transportation. We just can’t stop, we have to do better, and quickly.

And that must include making concerted efforts to develop and intensify job density close to all forms of housing — both matching high levels of job density with high residential density, and using increased jobs density as levers to trigger new densification in currently low density neighbourhoods.

In the case of UBC-Arbutus, not only could a business case feasibly be made for Skytrain, it’s likely that few people have an appetite (or a matching business case!) to turn the UEL’s carbon sink into condos.

Though, many have suggested that bringing more residential density to Dunbar, Point Grey and Kitsilano would be sufficient, and is necessary. New zoning by-law amendments passed in September, of course, would allow for this to begin at the level of duplexes; and, of course, this is already under threat of being rescinded by the new council.

But on the matter of bringing Skytrain to Langley and Surrey, the argument that the same business case can be made rests under the cloud of two massive, problematic assumptions.

One, the idea that the demand we need to accommodate is for travel outside of both Surrey and Langley.

In fact, the data shows the opposite. The vast proportion of demand is for intra-urban travel; that is, most people are trying to get between town centres.

The data from 2011 Translink Trip Diaries is clear, and it’s doubtful to have changed much in the past seven years: three-quarters of trips south of the Fraser never leave south of the Fraser. Most trips are by personal motor vehicle, and are for workplace commuting or school. Do these patterns necessarily justify the highest-speed, highest-capacity solution? It’s a question Surrey’s Doug McCallum has not answered with equally strong data, or analysis.

The second problematic assumption for Surrey — that building high-speed, high-capacity rail networks will necessarily fulfill demand, as predicted. (Granville Bridge, anyone?)

In the case of UBC, Skytrain is often considered a remedy for the problematic decision of having sited one of North America’s largest university campuses on a forested peninsula 8-15 kilometres away from residential neighbourhoods, commercial centres, and transportation hubs. That was then.

Today, we cannot immediately consider Skytrain the best first step for accommodating urban growth in a long-term, sustainable manner. Rather than solving a problem that exists today and leaving openings to adjust in the future, jumping to Skytrain in Surrey could risk creating one of two not-insignificant problems:

  • Under-utilized capacity, because either growth projections are wrong, or more jobs come south of the Fraser
  • Unnecessarily long commutes and congestion, because growth projections are right AND job growth south of the Fraser doesn’t keep pace with population growth

What we should be equally focused on is land use — and bringing more jobs, more residential housing density, and diversity of transportation choices, to Surrey and Langley.

In the end, Boston’s article reminds me is that it doesn’t really matter which future scenario coms to pass, because the point is to not begin by assuming Skytrain, and then look backwards at risk.

Deciding to build Skytrain — the highest cost, highest speed and highest capacity rail option we have to consider at this time in BC — must be preceded by a rigorous business case built on data which takes the region’s economic, environmental and population health into account. It’s not just a matter of sound approach to integrated land use, it’s a matter of sound governance.

Photo credit: Colin Knowles, “Dirty Skytrain Windows, 3

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  1. Re the statement: “or UBC and the province open up greenfield University Endowment Lands for development”. The UEL is independent from UBC. It is a common misconception that UBC has any say over the UEL. The UEL is an area administered by the province.

  2. I think your argument and Alex Boston’s demand for good business cases before investing in these billion dollar projects is noble. I think it is good to be skeptical. However, I see a few things that undermine this:

    1) Every jurisdiction in the Lower Mainland wants rapid transit, whether reality justifies it or not.
    2) Rapid transit projects have been built in the past with arguably weaker business cases (Millennium Line, Evergreen Line)
    3) The alternative LRT plan had a weaker business case. Translink commissioned a study investigating rapid transit options south of the Fraser River. The LRT plan that was adopted performed significantly worse on several metrics including travel time, new riders and GHG reduction at a marginally lower cost.

    It would be very hard to come up with some kind of threshold criteria for rapid transit in the Lower Mainland. The problem is the cat is already out of the bag. You can’t tell Langley it can’t have rapid transit when you already gave it to Coquitlam.

    I think a better alternative is to have a ramping up program where transit service is gradually upgraded and new investments in transit require municipalities to create plans for matching land-use development. We already see this to an extent with routes upgrading from bus route to B-Line to rapid transit.

  3. All I can say is “Delusional”.

    SkyTrain is adated and now obsolete proprietary mini-metro, that was made obsolete by light rail in the late 1980’s.

    Yes, that’s right, LRT made what we call SkyTrian, obsolete by the late 1980’s.

    Only seven were built, under three marketing names and only three seriously used for regional transit.

    SkyTrain is hampered by lack of capacity; higher maintenance and operating costs is now considered an “Edsel” type system.

    Now, Bombardier has indicated very strongly (they just made redundant 5,000 workers) that production will cease on the Innovia proprietary railway when the last of the Vancouver order is finished. The Innovia production line will be dismantled and mothballed, and a new production line established for more lucrative orders.

    With no sales in the past decade, SkyTrain is going the way of the Dodo bird.

    The Broadway subway is another daft plan, which will cost at least $3.5 billion when completed to Arbutus and for what? There is no benefit.

    Those who want or plan for SkyTrain are latter day Luddites and are stuck in a 1980’s world. Today, the inherent flexibility of LRT, makes it the transit choice around the world.

    Surrey’s demand for SkyTrain is going to lead regional transit into a cascade of huge costs, like the $3 billion Expo Line rehab and more.

    Tally this: Broadway SkyTrain subway – $3.5 billion; LRT to Langley – $3.2 billion plus; Expo Line rehab – $3 billion. $9.7 billion, most of it unfunded! There is absolutely no business plan that would accept this.

    Why is the cost going up dramatically? The cost of cement and steel are rising 2 to 3 times faster than the annual rate of inflation and SkyTrain uses one hell of a lot of cement, about 10 times more than light rail.

    When one comes to business plans, Translink’s are easily shredded by real experts, which we do not have in this region.

    The following comment is from Gerlad Fox, one of the most respected transportation engineers in North America:

    “I found several instances where the analysis had made assumptions that were inaccurate, or had been manipulated to make the case for SkyTrain. If the underlying assumptions are inaccurate, the conclusions may be so too.” And adding: ” It is interesting how TransLink has used this cunning method of manipulating analysis to justify SkyTrain in corridor after corridor, and has thus succeeded in keeping its proprietary rail system expanding. In the US, all new transit projects that seek federal support are now subjected to scrutiny by a panel of transit peers, selected and monitored by the federal government, to ensure that projects are analyzed honestly, and the taxpayers’ interests are protected. No SkyTrain project has ever passed this scrutiny in the US.”

    Only 7 built in 40 years, compared to over 200 new build light rail systems and not one SkyTrain has ever been allowed to compete against LRT.

    Speaks volumes doesn’t it.

    Weaker business case for LRT? If LRT has a weak business case, then there is no business case for SkyTrain, if there is, call the fraud squad!

    1. (1) The business case for Skytrain will be much better when density & rapid transit value capture are included —(2) Langley is one of metros slowest growth areas because there is no Skytrain—– Chicken or the egg ?

      1. This is honestly a useless and poorly made point. Alex Boston is saying that Langley City is barely growing. If Langley as an agglomeration isn’t dense enough to support RRT now, then the corollary is that Surrey definitely wasn’t in the early 1990s.

        Regarding slow growth in the city, it’s balanced out by Cloverdale and Langley Township’s population and growth projections. How quickly was Whalley growing as a portion of Surrey growing before the Skytrain arrived in the early 90s? I was pretty young then, but I don’t remember seeing much growth then, and there certainly isn’t a lot of evidence left of much pre-Skytrain growth. Skytrain was clearly an inflection point.

        Langley Township is in a similar boat. It’s growth has plateaued because it’s not desirable enough to draw higher density as-is. It’s got similar crime and violence problems to Whalley in the 90s. The areas around it are growing really fast though. A Fraser Highway extension should do a pretty decent job of hitting the Township, Cloverdale and Fleetwood commuter sheds while giving downtown Langley a focus and reason for growth.

        1. Good point on the proximity of Cloverdale and the urbanizable parts of Langley Township to Langley City.

          However, to clarify: the urban containment area of the Township is only 25% of the entire Township area. The remaining 75% is in the ALR or under environmental / park conservation.

          1. Ah, but those urbanizable parts (Willowbrook and Brookswood, let’s say Murrayville doesn’t count) make up over 44,000 people; 204k total when counting Langley City, Cloverdale and Fleetwood. For comparison, Newton and Guildford have 184k together.

    1. Actually no. LRT works and has an international reputation for ecconomic and flexible operation, with now over 600 such system in existence.

      SkyTrain, a yesterday;s proprietary transit system that has few takers, with only 7 such systems built in 40 years and only 3 seriously used for urban transport, which will dwindle to two, when Toronto tears theirs down.. No one wants the damn thing except for metro Vancouver.

      Actually, rapid transit does not attract ridership, it is modern LRT that has proven to attract the all important motorist from the car.

  4. I couldn’t really follow this post. Why are you arguing for a business case when one was already completed? Is this just more of the usual pleas for consultation as a cover for opposing something? The conclusion of the post seems to suggest we need to choose between expanding the transit system or encouraging better land use. But it seems like a no-brainer that we need to do both, and that expanding the skytrain is a powerful tool for encouraging and supporting better land use decisions.

    The original op-ed is correct that the easiest win, leaving politics aside, is to densify more around existing stations – but we can’t leave politics aside, so who is willing to take on single family home owners? In this regard, I think a good plan for municipalities (at least in some cases) would be to think smaller. e.g. When considering zoning changes in the SFD Oakdale area NW of Burquitlam station, Coquitlam found that the part of the neighbourhood that was very close to the station was generally in favour of upzoning while those further away were generally opposed. Similarly in Port Moody, there is general opposition to more development, but in the areas closest to the stations, people are generally in favour (e.g Coronation Park neighbourhood).

    So rather than taking on a grand plan like rezoning the whole city (e.g. for duplexes), maybe just rezone a block or two around 29th avenue, Sperling, Lake City Way and so on.

  5. A business case regarding the proposal to extend the Millennium Line to UBC by dint of necessity will have to account for:

    * Land use potential (1), based on prior experience and planning policy. UBC is densifying. It’s daytime campus population (students, faculty, staff and residents) will arrive at 100,000 people before 2040. It has not used the majority of its land for development yet.

    * Potential development of the 125 acre undeveloped clearing known as the UBC golf course (2), by its owner: the Musqueam Nation. The Musqueam are experienced developers. Golf is a low value land use compared to mixed use development. It’s a no-brainer, and this site offers a measurable bump in eventual rapid transit ridership.

    * Making Room is not dead (land use potential point #3). It will likely go through revision. But make no mistake, the writing is in the wall for exclusionary low density zoning everywhere along the subway route, if not the entire city, and has great potential to boost ridership.

    * UBC’s stated intention to contribute to the costs of building on-campus rapid transit. A feasibility study (required as part of business case research) will stimulate UBC administration to come up with a number, and that will offset the Metro’s costs.

    * Lower tunnelling costs through the Jericho and UBC golf course sites where cut and cover will minimize disruption to the community and cut potentially $100 million off the per-km construction costs.

    * Project managers know how contract tendering becomes very competitive on larger, unphased projects where remarkably reasonable unit prices appear in the bids, driven by volume and quantity discounts. When a large rapid transit project is phased, these unit cost savings disappear, and the second phase costs are always subject to inflation over time. The Metro could wait decades for Phase II to materialize.

    * As Colin iterated, the carbon budget needs to be accounted for. I would add that it is essential that the CB be based on the 100+-year lifetime operations of the asset and, of course , the offsets to automobile dependency.

    1. KPMG study with benefits from 5+ years ago here

      I’d like to point out that while UBC has promised some form of co-funding we have not heard any specifics nor have we heard any suggestion of co-funding from Musqueam Indian Band that would benefit greatly too due to likely massive, to be announced upzoning of Jericho Lands (a few blocks west of Alma @ Broadway station) and Block F in UEL. Some initial applications from 2013 here and from 2015 here

      Worthy a few more blog posts.

    2. Alex, your first two points should *reduce* the need for a subway to UBC.


      Not doubt all the residents in those potential developments will work Downtown or Metrotown or just generally elsewhere instead of at UBC. Let’s just keep encouraging people to fling themselves across the region with overly expensive fast transit instead of making it attractive to live where you do your thing. There is not a single transit option that beats the carbon reduction of travelling shorter distances in the first place. UBC should be compelled to build primarily for staff and students. The Musqueam should be given incentives to direct much of their development toward the same thing.

      1. should Ubc students and staff be allowed to have partners working/studying outside the UBC campus?

        According to the above, this behavior should be highly discouraged. but how to achieve this dubious goal, Ron?

        Is providing fast access from UBC to the rest of the region not a way to make the campus more attractive for the families which members are not all employed/studying at UBC.?

        1. It boils down to an inescapable truth. Subsidies distort the market and cause people to do completely irrational things. We heavily subsidize transportation.

          I have a sister-in-law who lives walking distance to Lions Gate Hospital. She works at Abbottsford General. I can guarantee somebody from out in the valley does her exact same job at Lions Gate. It’s absurd.

          We’d have much more efficient and resilient cities if we had never subsidized transportation and put those wasted tax dollars right back in the pockets of citizens and programs targeted to ensuring the poor could afford to travel. We can’t undo the past. But building grossly over-sized and super-speedy systems to encourage irrational behaviour is subsidies on steroids.

          There would be a lot less need for couples etc. to have jobs flung around the region if we hadn’t gone down this path. There would be a more even distribution of jobs and more opportunity to choose a closer one. The time to start retreating from the gross inefficiency and flagrant waste of energy is now.

          Cities are in their infancy. They will not look and operate they way they have in future when they’re all many many times the size. You’ll never be able to keep up with exponential demand (population x distance travelled) by building more subways. We need to be smarter.

          1. I get it Ron. But there is a huge difference between compact towns and a metropolis. Job location is controllable only by a fortunate few. I don’t know one person who wasn’t downsized and forced to find another job elsewhere, sometimes in another city or province, or who had better opportunities presented to them elsewhere kilometres from home. Private businesses and public employers are always in flux to one degree or another.

            UBC is a planned commute limited to four years for most students, some living on campus, others living temporarily with the annoyance of shared accommodation in Mt Pleasant, and still others who schlepp in from the burbs from their rent-free parent’s homes.

            There are too many changeable living, family, working and educational circumstances to attain the dream of a walkable lifestyle for threescore and 10 years. Personally, I’ve done the entire gamut, from a 3-minute door-to-desk walk, to a 110-km, 3-hour inhumane commute by car, and one interprovincial move.

            Working at home, or close to home, is ideal, but what is the realistic proportion of our society that actually accomplishes that? What planner would promote only a 5-minute walking commute in every neighbourhood and not recognize the freedom of choices (or forced choices) that most people experience in a lifetime of mobility? What planner or politician or family would voluntarily limit their mobility to within 500 m of home?

            As reiterated ad infinitum, the Broadway subway would permit those longer and speedier commutes necessitated by a big hunk of our commuter world, while the two-block rythm of the Number Nine bus also provides mobility for the other half: the shorter and more local commute, which effectively complements walking. That corridor needs both.

        2. Alex Botta wrote
          “the Broadway subway would permit those longer and speedier commutes”

          a 10 minute saving isn’t much. Do you ride the Skytrain, or the Express Bus (Limited stops)?
          And no one wants a “longer commute”

          And the Broadway subway, like the Skytrain, doesn’t have the security gates planned, that act as a barrier to passengers until the train-gates open, preventing the 60 “MEDICAL EMERGENCY” that is suicides, on the Skytrain every year.
          Would the student population be more susceptible on a UBC run to “fall onto” the tracks.

          Public Address System: “Clean up on the Oak Street station. All trains halted for 2 hours. Bus-Bridge created from Main Street to UBC”

      2. Certainly the support staff are stressed in their commute to UBC. With the low (BC Government-controlled) wages out of the free market, housing costs near UBC are horrendous, so they live 15 km east.
        I heard that expressed quite often in CUPE contract talks.
        SFU has year round jobs with its tri-mester schedule system, while much of the support staff at UBC only works 8 months of the year, with summer off.
        You can’t live on 8/12 wages.

      3. Thank you, Ron! Finally some wisdom.
        “There is not a single transit option that beats the carbon reduction of travelling shorter distances in the first place.”
        While all this arguing and planning is going on, why don’t we challenge all of the region’s largest employers to shorten/green their employees’ commutes? Banks, schools districts, health authorities, retail chains – could all be compelled to make “best efforts” to act. Simply allowing teachers to switch worksites with a peer could drastically reduce the daily commutes of over 10,000 teachers. Zero cost to the school boards who are paying over $250million a year to cover absenteeism (and studies correlate long commutes with higher rates of absenteeism). Without two years, the demand patterns could look quite different for all these transit supply options.

  6. I am no transportation planning expert (but am a professional land use planner). I do however have a working brain and can see what is surely obvious: it makes no real sense to stop the proposed Broadway SkyTrain subway (gotta relish the oxymoron) line at Arbutus, and not push it through to its intended destination: UBC campus with its tens of thousands of students, employees, faculty, UEL workers and residents, etc. And that population is only going to grow, as has been pointed out by others. And adding more residential density to Dunbar, Point Grey and Kitsilano (as is inevitable, regardless of what Vancouver City Council does tonight) would only enhance the business case even further. Not to mention future development on the Musqueam lands, Jericho lands, etc. Stopping the line at Arbutus will only push all the current problems of mode change at Broadway and Commercial to Broadway and Arbutus, with all the attendant loss of speed, convenience and ridership. The reason the Broadway SkyTrain line is funded only as far as Arbutus has nothing to do with a business case. It is political: there was only so much money to be spread around between all the competing municipal wish lists, and Vancouver couldn’t be seen to get more than its ‘fair’ share, with other municipalities getting less. That would have fatally undermined the necessary political support for the Mayors Council plan.

    And just a comment about the transit technology issue (SkyTrain v other RRT systems v LRT, etc.): I have always thought that the SkyTrain technology was inadequate and undersized, from its first emergence back in 1986. Although real experts such as Jarrett Walker have argued for its efficiencies, which I acknowledge. Either way, we are now stuck with SkyTrain in this region, at least until the basic network is fully built out and the region can switch to something more updated and/or add a surface transit system as well. It makes no sense to switch travel modes or technologies at Arbutus, if that means commuters having to transfer off SkyTrain to a different vehicle (either at or below grade). So let’s get on with it and finish this thing already to UBC/UEL, which is where the vast majority of riders will be travelling to/from. It’s years overdue. And it’s not going to get any cheaper to build if we wait. Once it’s built and the region sees the full benefits, I predict that folks will look back on this one day and wonder what the fuss was all about.

    1. Jarrett Walker is no transit expert.

      SkyTrain or should I say ICTS – ALRT – ALM -ART, was at the time some sort of whiz-bang transit system, using discarded tech (the LIM’ s came from a German MAGLEV that could not turn corners). Today, what we call SkyTrain (now called Innovia ART) is a dated and expensive mini-metro that no one wants.

      Today, when SkyTrain is compared to light rail, it comes off very poorly, like a Ford Edsel, compared to today’s cars.

      SkyTrain costs more to build (a lot more); more to operate and more to maintain than modern LRT and it lacks the all important flexibility of operation, so important for today’s transit. Today, SkyTrain also lacks capacity, when compared to LRT and combined explains why none have been sold in the past decade nor why no one, except Vancouver wants to build with it!

      Why do we keep building with it?

      There are unsavory answers and massive denial, but the fact remains only Vancouver, in the entire world builds with it.

    2. So Ferry cross the Mersey, And always take me there, to the place that I love” Gerry and the Pacemakers, (1966)

      Boats and barges along Burrard Inlet to English Bay and the underused North Fraser River branch

  7. It was seriously considered in the 1930s to move UBC out to the Valley, Chilliwack, as a college. The army had an engineering training base there from February 1941.
    The UEL (also top of Simon Fraser University’s snow-capped peak, and the circle of UVic) is for “endowment” not for speculative housing. Would all these condo towers be empty if there was an Asian financial crisis?

    The “Skytrain” even in an unwanted new tunnel, (for which prep work has already begun, and new construction at the major north south arteries has had to accommodate a street-level-entrance to a proposed white-elephant tunnel), would still be orphan technology from a company now shunned even in Quebec, and with multiple accusations of international corruption in their railway line.
    Better to have a surface LRT line for the 10 percent of people who take the bus “to work” and “to school”

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