One of PT’s most thoughtful commenters, YVRlutyens, wrote this response to “Cat, Meet Pigeons: Was Portland Light-rail worth it?” It deserves a more prominent placement:
Save for Calgary, the North American LRT experiment has been something of a flop, and many people now see that. LRT (Light Rail Transit) just don’t add much more than buses besides cost, and when you try to build more of an exclusive right of way, you pay just about as much as a Metro with markedly inferior service. (In Toronto they seem to manage to pay even more than a metro with very markedly inferior service, but that’s what you get when the whole transit establishment becomes beholden to a failed idea.)
Part of the LRT movement was based on the perfectly laudable desire to increase capacity on overcrowded bus lines. But that goal seems to have obscured the other important goals of increasing speed and frequency. So American transit agencies spent a bunch of money building LRT but in doing so didn’t actually increase the service that much. The predictable result is that bus riders switched to the LRT lines, but the whole system didn’t add many new riders nor did it become more relevant to the city as a whole. (And with articulated buses and double articulated buses, the capacity of bus lines is less of a constraint.)
The very much disingenuous support of LRT on Broadway uses the same type of arguments: the 99 has this many riders which can be accommodated by the capacity of LRT, ergo there is no need for a metro. Too true. But with a metro you would add a tremendous amount of service – speed and frequency – that didn’t exist before. With LRT you’re still spending $1b+ without actually adding that much at all.
The Condon argument was worst of all. It was essentially replacing all the trolley routes with streetcars for the price of the Broadway Line. But this plan added no transit service at all. It was spending two billion on next to nothing. But it did let them create maps full of red lines that made it all look good compared to the short red red line denoting the Broadway Line. That a bunch of grad students at UBC were taken in with this plan reflected poorly on grad studies at UBC. I was a fan of LRT in 2nd year undergrad. Started to re-think in 3rd year. That grad students haven’t figured this out shows a lack of critical thinking.
One reason I’m so prolix on this point is because of the stupid Transit City Plan in Toronto. That thing made no sense. It was way more expensive than BRT, even more expensive than full metro in some cases, yet offered tepid improvement in transit service. Unfortunately the transit establishment got behind it. Part due, I suspect, to the strange grip that LRT is able to exert on the psyches of the adherents – see grad students above – partly due to the general LRT fad, and partly due to rank tribalism. Rob Ford was against LRT, so people against Rob Ford decided to be for it a la the enemy of my enemy is by friend.
Now Rob Ford was no transit advocate, and he didn’t even know why he was right, but he was right. Subways make more sense for Toronto, and the Ford plan had more riders getting better service than Transit City. The “transit” advocates advocating for Transit City were bizarrely in support of a plan with fewer riders getting worse service.
On the specifics of Surrey, again the LRT plan adds next to nothing that a much cheaper BRT line couldn’t offer. And metro to Langley and Metro up and down King George would transform the place in a way that LRT couldn’t. And these metros wouldn’t just be about shuttling people in and out of Surrey but within Surrey as well. Actually a King George Line is more important than extending the Expo Line all the way to Langley, although I would do that eventually.
(One reason for the King George Line is that it could be extended all the way to White Rock. When we get true high speed rail to Seattle, which is admittedly well off in the future, this will have to connect to the local transit system. True HSR requires a whole new line which would require a whole new tunnel into Vancouver. And a sensible HSR system would also have a station south of the Fraser. (I know the HSR advocates have proposed a route up the Pacific Highway corridor and also along the BNSF tracks, both of which have merit. But neither would allow a station south of the Fraser in a very useful spot.)
If we were to build a whole new tunnel into Vancouver, it would always be more useful as a local transit tunnel than as part of an intercity HSR. So it would make sense for HSR to terminate in White Rock and connect with the King George Line that would have six stations in Surrey and then act as an Express Line into Vancouver with stations just at Metrotown, Broadway and Downtown. This would sacrifice some speed, but the express portion would be fast and would allow more convenient access to all parts of the city besides just downtown. And eventually Expo Line ridership will outgrow the current capacity increase program, and an express line would be then most welcome. This is all well in the future, we’ll start talking about it in 2040, but that is no reason to ignore how current transit systems can be used in the future.)