May 12, 2022

Ken Cameron: How the Spadina Expressway Gave Vancouver SkyTrain

Ken Cameron, the now-retired strategic planner for the Greater Vancouver Regional District (now Metro), asked me recently whether I had ever appreciated the connection between Vancouver’s SkyTrain and Toronto’s infamous Spadina  Expressway proposal.  “News to me.” I said. “Tell me more.” 

And Ken did, here in this piece that illustrates once again how politics, technology and urban planning can be essential ingredients in the sausage-making of cities. 


By Ken Cameron

When I started my first professional planning job at the Municipal Research Branch of the Ontario government in November 1970, I soon realized that I had arrived at a turning point in the province’s politics. The venerable John Robarts announced his resignation as Progressive Conservative Party Premier, touching off a hard-fought leadership race that was won by the competent but bland Minister of Education, William Davis.

Davis sought to continue Ontario’s leadership role as a constructive partner in Confederation and nation building, particularly by supporting the aspirations of Quebecers to be masters in their own house. The October Crisis, including the murder of Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte a few months earlier, had made it clear that the stakes in the search for national unity could not have been higher.

But first the Conservative Party would have to earn re-election. The party had been in power for 28 years at that time, relying on a base in rural and small-town southwestern Ontario for its success. Faced by an energetic new NDP leader, Stephen Lewis, the Conservatives seemed out of touch with urban voters, particularly in the rapidly growing communities in and around Toronto. Davis and his advisors, who would later be dubbed “the Big Blue Machine,” decided they needed a defining issue to show their appeal to city voters.

They found that issue in the controversy over the completion of the Spadina Expressway in Toronto. The project would have extended the existing expressway south into the heart of one of Toronto’s most dense, diverse and politically active neighbourhoods. A highly successful campaign of opposition had been mounted, including such luminaries as the activist Jane Jacobs, the media guru Marshall McLuhan and the artist Harold Town.

It was hard to identify a compelling provincial interest in the controversy – the road was a Metropolitan Toronto facility consistent with long-standing plans. The only approval needed from the Province was authority for Metro Toronto to borrow the necessary funds for this capital project. There was no doubt that Metro could carry the debt for the project, and my superiors at Municipal Affairs advised the government that provincial intervention would be a significant incursion on local autonomy. In Ontario there was, however, a long tradition of such incursions where a provincial policy (or political) interest was at stake, and my superiors’ advice had little impact. The decision was made to deny the borrowing authority, effectively killing the expressway.

The Premier’s handlers carefully crafted his announcement to appeal to those who believed that city planning and city government needed to be reformed and moved away from the interests of the developers and the road builders. “Cities were built for people and not cars. If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop.”

And it worked: with the help of grateful progressives in Toronto, the Conservatives won a majority government in the provincial election held in October 1971.

But the announcement immediately begged the question of what a provincial policy to support alternatives to freeways would look like. Continuing investment in transit, including the rapid transit line that was to share the Spadina corridor, was relatively easy, but not exactly the bold and innovative approach that would be expected by activists and those who sought justification for the trampling of Metro Toronto’s local autonomy in planning and transportation. Part of the response was therefore the creation of a new provincial entity, the Urban Transportation Development Corporation (UTDC) to enter what was considered to be a burgeoning market in light rail transit systems. This was seen as an opportunity not only to meet the needs of cities in the future but also to spawn a new high-tech industry in Ontario.

In subsequent years, UTDC developed systems incorporating linear induction motors, steerable trucks and driverless system controls, all packaged into a product intended for medium demand markets such as suburbs and downtown people movers and called Intermediate Capacity Transit Systems. Most medium capacity rail systems used generic technology, so rolling stock from different manufacturers could be used as a system might expand. On the other hand, by its very nature the UTDC ICTS system was “proprietary;” only equipment from UTDC could be used. For these reasons, it soon became clear that selling ICTS systems to transit properties whose priorities were reliability and flexibility for expansion rather than innovation would be a significant challenge.

Meanwhile, in Greater Vancouver, the Livable Region Proposals (1975) set out a vision for a region with a metropolitan core and four regional town centres (Burnaby Metrotown, downtown New Westminster, Coquitlam/Port Coquitlam and Whalley in Surrey) along an axis south and east of the core, shaping the rapid growth in the suburbs and focusing new development on terrain that was not suitable for agriculture and not in the floodplain. A strategic component of this concept was to connect these town centres with each other and with the core by rapid transit.

The Greater Vancouver Regional District (precursor to Metro Vancouver) had no powers in transit and therefore no ability to develop such a rapid transit system. It therefore sponsored a study of rail transit routes and technologies. The study was directed by a Steering Committee of municipal officials chaired by Fritz Bowers, the brilliant UBC professor of engineering who, after serving as a member of Vancouver City Council, had been appointed City Manager. Significantly, one provision of the terms of reference for this study was that technology options should be limited to systems that had a proven track record in revenue service somewhere. Therefore, the study tended to focus on the use of ‘Light Rail Transit’ or LRT. With these systems, the word ‘light’ relates to the tracks and infrastructure being light and using surface and street-running rights-of-way where appropriate, instead of a “heavy” rail system using exclusive rights-of-way and subways.

When I came back to Vancouver in 1978 to a position with GVRD in planning, the rapid transit study was well under way. The Director of Planning, Gerard Farry, had had the good sense to offer the project office space in the building that was home to the Planning Department. This was a move that brought the transit planners and the regional planners together under one roof, encouraging collaboration to identify measures that reinforced both planning and transportation goals. It was a tactic I would use later in the early 1990s when as Manager of Strategic Planning I offered to house the Transport 2021 planning staff within our space.

It was at this point that the national unity crisis entered the picture. The election of the Parti Quebecois in 1976 had brought the future of Canada and the future of Quebec into focus. Premier Davis was playing the strong leadership role expected of Ontario in ensuring that the provinces took an active and constructive approach to the search for solutions, inspired by the 1979 report of a federally appointed blue ribbon task force co-chaired by John Robarts and Jean-Luc Pepin.

After the first Quebec referendum on sovereignty failed by only a narrow margin among Francophone citizens, constitutional negotiations between the federal government and the provinces began in earnest, culminating in the repatriation of the constitution (although without Quebec’s consent) in 1982. I don’t know the details, but a lot of horse-trading was going on between the leadership in British Columbia and Ontario, perhaps as a result of the amount of face-to-face contact between the premiers and other officials of the two provinces in constitutional discussions. The spotlight inevitably landed on British Columbia’s need for a rapid transit system and Ontario’s company that produced an innovative system (Advanced Light Rapid Transit or ALRT, as the ICTS system was rebranded) with Canadian technology that was proving hard to sell. A win-win, at least at some Olympian level, surely.

Among those involved in Vancouver’s rapid transit study, there was consternation as this proposal emerged and its political backing became evident. ALRT was not a technology that had been proven in revenue service, and the train sets developed by UTDC were smaller and shorter than any other rail system except “people movers” used in airports and at World’s Fairs. It was not known how the linear induction motors would function in snowy weather, of which Vancouver has some. These minor quibbles were given short shrift by the provincial officials tasked with making the deal work. A full-court press was put on to persuade the local elected officials to go along. At one point, I was asked to accompany the Chair of our Board, Councillor Allan Emmott, to a demonstration of the system at the ALRT test track in Kingston. Before I left, when I asked my superiors what my role would be, I was told “smile a lot, avoid any kind of commitment and for God’s sake don’t let the Chair sign anything!”

The clincher emerged when British Columbia decided to make a bid for a World’s Fair in 1986, initially with a transportation theme. A demonstration section of the ALRT, later named SkyTrain, would be installed, with federal funding, along Terminal Avenue east from Main Street.

The region’s politicians were successful in avoiding any financial commitment to the new system, leaving the Province to construct and pay for what became the Expo line with later extensions. They were able to ensure that the whole rapid transit network developed as envisaged in the Livable Region Proposals to connect the regional town centres and the core. This was no mean feat, because at one point the provincial minister responsible mused about building a line between Surrey, of which he had been Mayor, and Richmond, his constituency as a member of the Legislature.

What became known as the SkyTrain technology never took off elsewhere. It was used for a line serving Scarborough in Toronto but soon replaced with a real subway extension. It has, however, come to define what rapid transit means in the Vancouver region. And it all started with the Spadina Expressway.


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  1. >What became known as the SkyTrain technology never took off elsewhere.
    >It was used for a line serving Scarborough in Toronto but soon replaced
    >with a real subway extension.

    ICTS hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, but its market failure does tend to be exaggerated. Besides the SkyTrain and the soon-to-close Scarborough RT, there’s 13 km of ICTS in New York, 18 in Seoul, 30 in Beijing, and 46 in Kuala Lumpur.

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