SkyTrain critic's "alternative" to Broadway subway is half-baked

Introduction

Critics of SkyTrain as a technology and rapid transit option are everywhere. Largely motivated by a fear of all megaprojects with high capital costs, SkyTrain critics are vocal, active, and will stop at nothing to act on this fear. They deny the productivity and developmental benefits that the system has given our region, and they refuse the potential that SkyTrain has to continue to be useful to our region if extended further.

With a $3 billion capital cost, it’s no surprise that numerous SkyTrain critics, fearing the investment cost, have scrambled to promote or find alternatives. “Just another SkyTrain critic” was my first response when I first read about an “alternate proposal” for a Light Rail Transit (LRT) line on 16th over a Broadway subway crafted together by Adam Fitch – a planning technician for the Thompson Nicola Regional District – just over 1 year ago when it was featured suddenly in the Vancouver Sun.

But, the response seemed to be triggered by an absolutely valid series of concerns over the impact on businesses on Central and West Broadway if an at-grade LRT were to be built on Broadway itself – including the loss of parking, impacts to parallel cycling routes, and expropriation at a few properties (particularly at Broadway and Kingsway/Main) where it would indeed be necessary. I suspected that Fitch crafted the idea to counter the imminent disappearance of LRT consideration from public policy in Vancouver.

Graphic showing Adam Fitch's LRT proposal - as reuploaded onto the Georgia Straight
Graphic showing Adam Fitch’s LRT proposal

Forget about a Broadway subway, think LRT along West 16th – Vancouver Sun

…The most appropriate solution, with due consideration for costs, regional transit priorities (i.e. Surrey, etc.) and time frame (10 years from now to build the subway at a minimum) is to build a mainly street-level light rail along the CPR corridor, the Arbutus corridor, and West 16th Avenue to UBC. Compare this route with a Broadway subway on cost, construction time and capacity, and it prevails. [READ MORE]

Over the years, this idea continued to circulate in the local discussion scene. It has been featured on a number of regional transit issues outlets, including: Price Tags, Stephen Rees, Rail for the Valley (obviously) and – most notably, but not surprisingly given the paper’s perpetual pro-LRT bias – the Georgia Straight newspaper, in a feature with an intimidating headline that immediately implies that the alternative is “better” – or at least, as reviewed by editor Stephen Hui.

Critics of the planned Broadway SkyTrain wasted no time backing this idea, calling it the next big thing, triumphing it as a “realistic priority” and denouncing the SkyTrain extension proposal as “another megaproject” in the comments for this article.

I find it unfortunate that these people were given this opportunity to further this cause, because it honestly surprises me that the idea – despite the objections from many others aside from myself – has not already died. The fact of the matter that some editors at the Georgia Straight (among others) haven’t seen is that the 16th Ave LRT and B-Line combo idea is a poor, discredited and badly planned idea from someone who doesn’t have a clue how this city works.

A 16th Ave LRT just doesn’t work

I contend that advocating for this idea is a collosal waste of time and money for three simple reasons:

  1. No benefits to Central Broadway riders

  2. Few, if any, benefits to UBC students

  3. Doubling of annual operating debt

Let’s put it into context:

Map outlining LRT proposal by Adam Fitch, planned Broadway SkyTrain and major Broadway business and activity areas.
Map outlining LRT proposal by Adam Fitch, along with planned Broadway SkyTrain and major Broadway business and activity areas. Dashed portions in tunnels.

Take a look at this stylized map showing both the routings for the planned Broadway SkyTrain extension and Adam Fitch’s LRT proposal. Notice how the planned Broadway SkyTrain services all of the busy business and activity districts on Broadway, but the LRT misses them – making the only possible benefactors the rider from either existing SkyTrain Lines, Broadway & Arbutus, and residents along the 16th Avenue corridor.

What this show is that there are clearly no benefits to Central Broadway riders – which actually make up a significant majority of the current 99 B-Line’s ridership, as opposed to UBC – and the West Broadway business district is missed as well. That’s millions of dollars in economic potential that could be unlocked, but that isn’t happening under Fitch’s plan. In what would quite possibly be the least equitable planning move in Metro Vancouver transportation planning history, billions of dollars would be spent to benefit only a small portion of the tens of thousands who are actually facing the problems that riders are facing on the Broadway corridor daily.

RRT ridership boardings and alightings on Broadway - from TransLink report, referenced on Voony's blog
RRT ridership boardings and alightings on Broadway – from TransLink report, referenced on Voony’s blog

As many, the Adam’s proposal apparently assumes that the main demand is on UBC. It is worth to mention that the numbers ran by Translink suggests that the highest demand is on the central Broadway portion (Voony’s Blog)

It was one of the shortfalls I mentioned in my original letter to the sun responding to the concept. The City of Vancouver’s report on Broadway rapid transit finds that the Central Broadway area generates at least as many trips as UBC, if not more.

It is extremely important to bring any rapid transit to where the anchors and trip generators actually are – both at the ends and along the route itself. That’s why the Canada Line uses the Cambie Street corridor, as opposed to either Granville or Arbutus Streets – because it provides strategic connections to busy anchors like Central Broadway, City Hall, various major hospitals, Queen Elizabeth Park, and Oakridge Mall along the way.

Map outlining LRT proposal by Adam Fitch and major Broadway business and activity areas.
Here’s the same map again, but with the LRT proposal on its own. See the discrepancy?

The indirectness of the proposal also has some other consequences: the proposal is 2.3km longer than any route going down Broadway, an additional distance that not only adds to the proposal’s capital costs – it brings up the travel times as well.

the Adam Fitch LRT proposal is 2.3km longer than any route on Broadway, including the current B-Line
the Adam Fitch LRT proposal is 2.3km longer than any route on Broadway, including the current B-Line

On top of the longer line distance, while parts of the line will be capable of 80-90km/h operation like SkyTrain – supported by crossing gates and some tunnelling – there are several portions of the line that will need to be limited to 50-60km/h speed limits – further dampening the supposed speed benefit:

Speed restrictions on some parts of the proposal corridor, limiting trams to the speed of the parallel road, are necessary in order to maintain community safety, structure and integrity.
Speed restrictions on some parts of the proposal corridor are necessary in order to maintain and preserve community safety, structure and integrity.

As a result of the longer distance combined with the speed restrictions, the proposal fails to offer a significant benefit to the one possible travel crowd that could seriously benefit: the UBC traveller; which brings me to my second contention: the Fitch proposal offers few, if any, benefits to UBC students.

With the longer route and deferred connections, it’s reasonable to think that many riders – especially in non-congested off-peak hours, when the 99 B-Line trip takes as little as 30-minutes end-to-end – will opt to continue using the 99 B-Line on Broadway.

This especially applies for UBC students who live on campus, where the 99 is an important connection to businesses in Point Grey/Sasamat, West Broadway and Central Broadway. Fitch’s proposed LRT links fewer business centres, with the first major business cluster from UBC being reached when the line hits Dunbar – a full 6km away, twice as far as Sasamat. Meaning, for items and needs like groceries, doctor’s appointments and other outings, UBC students likely won’t be utilizing the billions of dollars spent on Fitch’s LRT – they’ll be continuing to use the 99 B-Line.

Which brings me to the third reason why Fitch’s LRT proposal is an extremely bad idea: with the required retention of the 99 B-Line, the Fitch LRT proposal doubles the annual operating debt of providing Broadway-UBC corridor transit. By not replacing the 99 B-Line, the operating cost of providing UBC-Broadway corridor transit can only increase.

Versus the current (“business-as-usual”) setup that includes the 99 B-Line, the planned Broadway SkyTrain is expected to save $7 million incrementally in annual operating costs (see: design guide). With estimates already pitting the operating cost of a separate LRT on Broadway itself at over $10 million annually by 2041 (in 2011 dollars), the operating debt with the Fitch LRT simply doubles over the existing setup.

The bigger picture

I could go so far as to say that the Fitch LRT proposal hurts the entire region, because it is really that short-sighted in terms of practical thinking.

As aforementioned, the planned driverless SkyTrain extension is expected to save $7 million in annual operating costs – savings that could be redirected to improving transit around the region. With over 54,000 new transit trips daily attracted around the region – more than double other studied options, including any theoretical LRT on Broadway itself – the planned Broadway SkyTrain generates new fare revenue. That would have also been a serious contributor to expanded transit around the region.

The elimination of the 99 B-Line also means bus services improve throughout the region – because the 99 B-Line consumes more than half of TransLink’s articulated diesel bus fleet. These buses could be redirected to other busy routes in the region to address growing transit demands.

With the Fitch LRT proposal, none of these improvements are able to materialize.

The introduction of the Canada Line and the displacement of several articulated 98 B-Line buses allowed capacity to be improved in services around the region, and in new travel markets such as Surrey. Seen here isa 96 B-Line bus departing Newton; the bus rapid transit route was introduced in Surrey just last year. Photo credit: The Buzzer
The introduction of the Canada Line and the displacement of several articulated 98 B-Line buses allowed capacity to be improved in services around the region, and in new travel markets such as Surrey. Seen here is a 96 B-Line bus departing Newton for Guildford; the express B-Line route was introduced in Surrey just last year. Photo credit: The Buzzer

Such bus service redirection can also take from the numerous other high-frequency bus routes that connect to UBC from different parts of the city, usually during peak hour periods. These are the:

  • 43 Joyce Station – via 41st Ave and Oakridge
  • 44 Downtown – via 4th Ave
  • 84 VCC-Clark Station (ALL-DAY) via 4th Ave, Olympic Village and Great Northern Way
  • 480 Bridgeport Station (ALL-DAY Weekdays) – via Kerrisdale and Marpole

The planned Broadway SkyTrain is the only option that offers the significant travel time benefits (cutting travel time between Commercial-Broadway and UBC in half, to 19 minutes!) that could enable the truncation of some of these routes to save even more money annually. For example: the 44 duplicates the 84, and is likely to be eliminated in favour of the faster connections downtown riders will get by utilizing the Broadway Subway with connecting routes and the Canada Line. The 480 could also be eliminated, perhaps following my suggestion. However, with the incremental operating cost savings, bus service on even these routes could theoretically be increased without costing more than the transit on the Broadway-UBC corridor today.

By denying these benefits and choosing an alternative simply because it offers the prospect of less initial capital cost, the region loses out on better transit both on Broadway itself and elsewhere.

Conclusion

Responding to the Straight over the mention of Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson being on record for supporting the planned Broadway SkyTrain extension, Fitch rather arrogantly proclaimed in the opening of the recent article on his proposal:

“He’s wrong on probably four or five fronts.”

But, as an upvoted commenter pointed out, he didn’t list a single one. Which I think highlights another problem with critics who fear studied and decided megaprojects and act quickly to try and debase them: they don’t do a good job at it. In this case that doesn’t help, because I think that the City of Vancouver has done an excellent job at laying down the benefits and the business case of a Broadway SkyTrain extension – probably much to the dismay of many critics who have already quit.

As for Adam Fitch’s 16th Ave LRT proposal, it’s evident that not only does it have no case – it really has no argument either.

*****

Author’s note: Thanks for reading this far! I encourage you to subscribe to my blog by clicking the “follow” button on the left sidebar! As I previously mentioned, I will be detailing why there is really no alternative to the Broadway subway – how its business case is proven, and why any alternatives just do not work – in a follow-up article.