SkyTrain guideways are a common sight in Vancouver, particularly along the Lougheed Highway – and now up North Road as the Evergreen Line construction proceeds:





Since we’ve lived with them for about 30 years, it would be an exaggeration to say these concrete behemoths have been universally detrimental.  Indeed, I recall one study done after Expo Line construction which documented essentially no change in property values to those homes overshadowed by the elevated guideway – something that would not likely be true if it were a freeway overpass.

Is it just the absence of excessive noise and pollution of a SkyTrain line, or is it that we get used to something once it’s developed – regardless of scale –  and becomes a familiar presence in the neighbourhood?


  1. Well, first if all, SkyTrain guideways are much narrower than freeway overpasses so any impact is going to be much less.

    Secondly, the streets such as North Road, #3 and Lougheed were really miserable before SkyTrain. Either no sidewalks or narrow ones right next to high speed traffic. Richmond spent extra money and made #3 a much nicer place to walk. The guideway even provides rain protection.

    Then the SkyTrain replaces high volumes of noisy diesel buses making the streets quieter and less polluted.

    1. I reckon the reason that Richmond upgraded the No. 3 Rd sidewalks during SkyTrain construction is because of cost efficiencies. When there are contractors already in the area, everyone saves money. So, in a way, SkyTrain construction is a direct catalyst (in addition to indirectly via development attraction) for community/pedestrian Coquitlam is paying for streetscape upgrades to Pinetree Way to come with the construction of the Evergreen Line. They might not have done this otherwise… but if they did, it’d cost more to do so. There will probably be similar results.

  2. One before and after (ALRT) study that I think would have been very revealing concerns mapping one’s “sense of the region.” Hypothetically, Kevin Lynch-type mapping of one’s knowledge of the environment must have grown significantly from the local scale to the scale of the entire region served with the introduction of the elevated Expo Line. (See Lynch’s “Image of the City” for examples of such simple mapping techniques and results.)

    This would presumably be for everyone, but especially among younger and perhaps poorer people who for the first time could see where they were from a totally new perspective. There must have been a corresponding sense of independence that came with such enhanced mobility.

  3. Like everything else, isn’t context the most important determinant of impact? Lougheed from Boundary to North Road is a six lane highway. The Skytrain structure – whether in the middle or off to the side – is not that “large” within that context. It is quite different being underneath the Georgia or Dunsmuir Viaducts – or the on ramps to the Granville Bridge – or Burrard Bridge. The Canada Line was not wanted – as a structure – on No 3 Road but is hardly now the most significant issue now when assessing what needs to be done to make the centre of Richmond a walkable urban environment. Not that anyone seems to be doing very much about that either.

  4. Skytrain is really quiet. Except for the noise of trains breaking and starting at stations, it really is just a whoosh. When I first read about opposition to elevated rail lines and the history of their removal in New York, I really thought that people were wasting infastructure for a fad. Having moved to Chicago, I now understand how noisy and dirty an elevated railroad can be. What does Skytrain do right?

    1) The guideway directs the noise from the wheels upwards. Historical elevated railroads do not.
    2) The rails are well maintained and continuously welded. There are no clashes as the wheels hit a hard rail.
    3) The cars and especially the unsuspended parts of the car are lighter. The linear induction motor on skytrain (not Canada Line) moves the heavy parts of the train’s motor (the induction plate) off the vehicle and onto the structure. When a skytrain hits a bump, it hits it with much less force. This also reduces rail wear and tear.

    I really feel that the UBC line should be elevated over as much of it’s length as possible. Given the grades and off-grid route between VCC and Main/Broadway, the first section will have to be underground. But, if a suitable portal can be found, say by closing a block of 10th Ave at Cypress, or taking part of Connaught Park, the rest of the line can be elevated or at surface. This should dramatically reduce the cost of the line and have it built much sooner. This is possible only because the noise of the train is so dramatically low.

    One would have to also design the structure to avoid sightlines in Point Grey or to block out light from south facing facades. That becomes more difficult around stations, but not prohibitively so.

    1. You’re right that linear induction motor technology technology has something to do with it, but you did miss the versatility of those steerable bogies. I live next to the Expo Line, and the noise is quite tolerable. If you’ve ever stood under the 99’s terminus stop at Commercial-Broadway, you’ll know how noiselessly and quickly the Expo Line rounds that curve.

      Meanwhile, residents in downtown Calgary deal with loud squealing when the LRT trains round those curves from street to street. The complaints have been loud and many enough to be featured in their own newspaper articles.

    2. I wouldn’t support an elevated line along Broadway or 10th, but along UBC Boulevard and through the endowment lands an elevated line would work well. That is one of the reasons that I think the City and Translink should look further into a cut and cover tunnel along Broadway. This ought to be able to be completed in a shortish amount of time on each segment to minimize disruption. And station construction will be faster because they don’t have to be so deep. The Canada Line stations downtown were disruptive construction sites for a long time, and this needs to be figured in when evaluating the relative disruption between a bored tunnel and a cut and cover tunnel. And if necessary, the line should shift from Broadway to 10th Ave at Arbutus to avoid cut and cover along that section of Broadway. The goal in all of this is to take the cost down to $2b or less which ought to be doable considering that this is a fair bit shorter than the Canada Line.

      1. Keep in mind how much skimping when into the Canada Line construction. Stations on the Canada line are at least 30 meters shorter than they will have to be to accommodate skytrain, there’s sections of single track in Richmond and the stations are already overcrowded, soulless concrete boxes. I’d rather they spent a little bit more money and did the job right than skimp on everything and make a terrible experience for the transit user again. Underground stations don’t have to be so dreary and cramped.

        That said, an elevated track through the endowment lands makes total sense, and I really don’t know why they wouldn’t consider that.

        1. I wouldn’t call the Canada Line a “terrible experience”, but the stations do leave a whole lot to be desired. However, my numbers already include less skimping on the stations. The Canada Line was $115m per km. The Broadway UBC extension would be about 12.5 km – less than $1.5b at Canada Line prices. So I’ve put a couple of hundred million extra just to make this line and its construction better.

          1. Cad Line was cut and over the other will be bored tunnel. That is why the cost estimate for the Broadway line is significantly more.

  5. Another important factor responsible for Bombardier- built SkyTrain cars being a generally quite quiet is that they have steerable bogies (the unit that holds the wheels and connects them to the chassis of the train). When these SkyTrains enter a curve, instead of the wheels grinding against the rail and turning the train as a result, like a car’s tire rubbing against a curb and redirecting the vehicle’s path, a small electric motor is used to turn the entire bogie unit and generally keep the wheel from grinding against the rail. This is a very large part of why SkyTrain can turn much tighter corners than a conventional transit train and also why rail wear is lower. Most importantly, it’s why it is quite rare for SkyTrain to make a piercing, shrieking, grinding noise when it rounds a corner, unlike the SkyTrain Canada Line as it takes the curves around Little Mountain. When that line opened it was occasionally deafening inside the train. When the Central Link LRT in Seattle first opened, there was a section of curving track where neighbours had to endure deafening wheel-on-rail grinding until Sound Transit found the right combination of grinding down the rails and slowing vehicle speed.

  6. Think you could dig up that study you mentioned? I would love to take its facts and present them against Surrey Council and Board of Trade’s rhetorical “SkyTrain splits communities” nonsense

  7. People who complain about the impact of the elevated guideway on the city always fail to see the flip side: that Skytrain is far more pleasant to ride when elevated than when buried. Not only is it quieter, but the sweeping views are spectacular and make commuters’ ride far more enjoyable.

    Personally, I think the pluses of making transit such a positive experience outweigh the negatives of the guideway.

    1. I rode Expo Line to work roughly 900 times. Circumstances changed and I was on Canada Line for the next 800 or so. Circumstances changed again and I was on a bus every day. Last week I hopped on the subway section of the Expo line and today I was back on Canada Line for the first time in a couple of years. I was reminded of the things I like/dislike about subway travel.
      Here are some of them:
      + The stations offer shelter from the elements.
      – The stations offer no view or fresh air. I loved standing at the west end of the platform at Nanaimo Station. Langara is just a concrete box.
      + The ride is generally smooth and pleasant. I’d rather stand on SkyTrain than sit on a bus.
      + Canada Line trains are wide and offer many places to stand that aren’t directly in the path of passengers boarding or alighting. Expo trains not so much, but still better than the bus.
      – The view underground is always the same.
      – Artificial light sucks.
      – The Little Mountain curve is still really noisy despite the fact that Canada Line trains seem to have better soundproofing than Expo ones.
      – The Stadium chicane isn’t bad on a Mark II, but is noisy on a Mark I train.

      Like you I think the elevated nature of SkyTrain is one of the reasons for its success. I’ve taken more than one out-of-town relative on SkyTrain to show off the city.

  8. I would suggest that it is something else. The downward pressure on real estate value which comes from being overshadowed by a skytrain guideway may be countered by the upward pressure on real estate value which comes from being located near a skytrain line. Not every real estate purchaser or renter is that bright. They may need to actually see the skytrain in order to know that it is there. Once they know that it is there, they might be willing to pay more to rent or purchase a home nearby.

  9. It’s hard to predict people’s sentiment from development. Lots of effort is put in my north american planners to ensure sight lines are preserved and shadows are limited, yet some of the most walkable, mixed used neighbourhoods in the older cities of Europe have narrow streets and vertical multi-story buildings that have no setback. My guess is that it is the full experience of being at any given place, with factors such as noise, the presence or lack of other people, the feeling of safety, and the presence of greenery all forming people’s sentiment of a place.

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