Every rail-rapid transit proposals in Metro Vancouver started off as (mostly) at-grade light rail.

Rapid Transit Project Public Meeting Ad from the 1970s. Picture from rickie22

If you’ve ever ridden the MAX light rail system in Portland, I’m sure this is what the original rapid transit planners had in mind.
We ended up with SkyTrain because essentially the federal government wrote a big fat cheque to help support high-tech jobs in Ontario. Urban Transportation Development Corporation, the creators of SkyTrain, was an Ontario crown corporation. Since that original decision to build SkyTrain, the provincial government has never looked back.
Mark I SkyTrain Car

The Millennium Line was originally planned to be light rail until the provincial government “undertook a comparison of light rail (LRT) and SkyTrain technologies.” In 1998, the provincial government proceeded to unilaterally decide that SkyTrain was the solution.
Rapid Transit Corridors Within Greater Vancouver
From 1995, Rapid Transit Corridors Within Greater Vancouver.

The same thing happened with the Evergreen Line. TransLink was originally going to build light rail, but the province released a completely unbiased business case which proved that SkyTrain was the way to go. The province unilaterally took over the management of the Evergreen Line project, and paid the extra cost of converting from light rail to SkyTrain.
The original vision for getting rail rapid transit to Richmond put both light rail and SkyTrain on the table. Because the Canada Line was a P3, a fully-automated SkyTrain-like system was built instead of the real McCoy, but still no light rail. So, what does this have to do with the title of this post?
The City of Surrey is committed to supporting the construction of light rail along King George Boulevard and Fraser Highway. Surrey’s Mayor Linda Hepner has even promised light rail by 2018 regardless of the failed transit referendum.

While some urbanists and transit geeks will debate the benefits of various transit technologies until they are blue in the face, in Metro Vancouver, it’s really just wasting energy.
Given the history of rail-rapid transit in Metro Vancouver, it is likely that Surrey Light Rail will become SkyTrain along Fraser Highway. In a recent interview, Peter Fassbender hinted at SkyTrain. There is no doubt in my mind that the province is working on a business case for SkyTrain along Fraser Highway right now.
I don’t know why both the NDP and BC Liberals are in love with SkyTrain, but the fact is that rail-rapid transit in Metro Vancouver equals SkyTrain.
I used to spend a lot of effort plugging the benefits of building light rail over SkyTrain, but I’ve come to learn that it is more important to promote the value of funding frequent, fast transit service.


  1. I am confused Npachal. If you prefer light rail but yet say the business case was unbiased. The results seem very clear:
    These recommendations reflect the following findings from the business case:
    1. Ridership – ALRT will produce two and a half times the ridership of Light Rail Transit (LRT) technology;
    this is consistent with the ridership goals in the Provincial Transit Plan.
    2. Travel Time – ALRT will move people almost twice as fast as LRT (in the NW corridor).
    3. Benefits and Cost – ALRT will achieve greater ridership and improved travel times at a capital cost of
    $1.4 billion, with overall benefit-cost ratio that favour ALRT over LRT.
    4. System Integration – ALRT will integrate into TransLink’s existing SkyTrain system more efficiently than
    Based on that, why would you prefer light rail?

    1. Many of those business cases aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. I’ve read several that estimated long term LRT ridership barely above that of a B-Line bus. As if quadrupling capacity, improving travel time and reliability, and smoothing the ride so Thomas feels comfortable wouldn’t attract anyone. When an “analysis” does something so blatantly dishonest it’s no surprise the ALRT numbers are 2.5x as big.
      I’m happy to say that the most recent TransLink studies for Broadway and Surrey did a great job of levelling the playing field. All technologies were given a fair shake.
      As already noted BRT came out in first place for the intra-Surrey routes. Rail simply couldn’t match the efficiency of express buses. The Langley link, because of its length, purpose and alignment should be an extension of the existing SkyTrain system.
      At grade LRT can and does work in many cities. France has many efficient systems that seem to have none of the problems identified in Edmonton.
      Calgary has an at grade line that manages to do something I think most of the people here find incomprehensible: attract more passengers per catchment population than SkyTrain. The original Calgary line runs along an old freight corridor with little housing to speak of. The nearby population lives in cul-de-sac laden, low density suburbia while the land around the stations is a mix of large commercial buildings and malls, both surrounded by acres of parking. So how can transit survive, let alone thrive, in such an unfriendly environment?
      I think the key is the quality of the right of way. It’s essentially at grade, but there are almost no level crossings. Few roads cross the tracks and the major ones that do are grade separated.
      As mentioned by others all our SkyTrain lines were originally going to be like the very successful southern line in Calgary: old rail lines with grade separation at major intersections. Our leaders chose a different path, one that has turned out to be very successful as well, albeit with a much larger price tag.
      What Surrey is trying to achieve is very ambitious. They’re trying to convert a prototypical car suburb into a quaint European town centre and I think they’re going to fail. Putting LRT on King George and 104th makes little sense today. LRT on Fraser Highway is more reasonable, but why re-invent the wheel when SkyTrain is already pointing that direction?
      Does LRT have a place anywhere in Metro Vancouver today?
      For regional LRT it comes down to the availability of high quality rights of way. I think False Creek/Arbutus and all the active freight railways need to be preserved for future use. What makes no sense today might be a no brainer 50 years from now. If you act like Richmond and put large buildings across your old rights of way then buses or expensive grade separation become your only options.
      Urban LRT is a whole different kettle of fish. It’s intentionally slower with more closely spaced stops. You build it when demand is too high to accommodate economically with buses. While there aren’t any clear candidates for conversion today, there are some very busy articulated bus routes in Vancouver that will be cheaper to operate in the future as tram lines.
      Finally we need some rule changes in Canada to permit light rail vehicles to use existing freight railways. That would permit all day, bi-directional express rail service to distant suburbs at lower cost and impact than heavy rail solutions like the West Coast Express. Germany manages to mix trams, high speed passenger service and freight on the same tracks. We should be able to figure it out too.

      1. @ David, “Many of those business cases aren’t worth the paper they’re written on” The purpose of the unbiased business case was supposed to compare Skytrain to LRT. What part did you disagree with? Did you think the LRT could go faster or more frequent? Or that skytrain goes slower? What part?

        1. The problem is they weren’t unbiased. They often included ridiculously low LRT capacities, insanely high construction costs and pathetic top speeds even where dedicated rights of way were available. There are dozens if not hundreds of examples in the world proving them wrong yet they persisted in doing studies with flawed assumptions.
          As I said, the most recent TransLink studies were excellent. They used realistic travel times, costs and passenger numbers to arrive at their conclusions.

          1. Capacity is a function of speed and frequency of trains. Which is a huge factor when selecting a technology if you want people out of their cars.
            So tell me what was the business wrong about speed? 60kph or frequency 5 minutes?
            Please tell me.

          2. Capacity is size of train multiplied by number of trains. Speed is a different characteristic.
            You asked specifically about 60km/h speed limits and 5 minute headways. Both seem reasonable in areas without grade separation.
            I’m uncomfortable spending too much more time on this since you’re clearly fixated on the Evergreen line while my comments were always intended to be a wide brush covering a dozen or more reports that clearly berated all other technologies from bus to heavy rail. There was a systematic effort to justify the choice of SkyTrain and more SkyTrain that simply wasn’t fair.
            If you’ve read my other comments you’ll see I support SkyTrain plus BRT in Surrey/Langley because it was the logical outcome of a well run study.
            If you want the worst abuse I’ve seen in BC it’s the ridiculous claim that LRT cannot move more than 5000 pphpd. Look around and you’ll find LRT tracks carrying 2, 3, 4 times that number every weekday. In Germany and Asia there are some streets carrying more than 30,000 pphpd entirely at grade.

      2. Capacity is irrelevant unless capacity is a problem, which it is not on almost all bus routes that are not the 99-B Line. Nobody cares how big the vehicles are unless the vehicles are full.

        1. Capacity is a function of speed and frequency of trains. Which is a huge factor when selecting a technology if you want people out of their cars.

          1. Frequency is relevant. Speed is relevant.
            Capacity? No, not relevant to the end user unless capacity is tight. If I take a local bus route that has 10 minute service (70×6=420 pphpd) and replace it with artics that come ever 15 (120*4=480 pphpd), look I’ve increased capacity! Marvelous!
            But wait, I’ve just cut frequency by 30%, increased the average wait time by 50%. The only way that’s beneficial to anyone other than Translink’s payroll is if our 10 minute service was so crowded that the extra capacity of the artics is actually *used*. And when we’re talking Surrey Light Rail, we won’t be in that situation for a long time.

        2. Since we’re talking about BRT, LRT and RRT for major corridors in Surrey facing enormous growth in the near future and not under-utilized bus routes, capacity is an important consideration.
          In the case of King George and 104th capacity needs are one of the main reasons why BRT was selected as the best technology and why so many people are scratching their heads at the mayor’s decision to go with a far more expensive rail-based system.
          I believe all the proposals on the plebiscite were politically motivated. The technologies, routes, and timelines were all carefully manipulated to appeal to voters instead of solve actual transportation problems in the most efficient ways. The subway in Vancouver was cut short so it wouldn’t take so much money away from other cities. The BRT system in Surrey was deliberately changed to something more expensive so Surrey voters wouldn’t feel gipped, but wasn’t upgraded to include SkyTrain because that wouldn’t have left enough crumbs to sprinkle across the rest of Metro Vancouver.
          As has been so often the case in BC, politics is trumping sound planning. Get ready for more twists and turns as Ottawa, Victoria and Surrey come up with plans to pay for it all. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more technology changes on every route and maybe even a change in the routes themselves.

      3. David, while I appreciate your detailed view on LRT, I think there are a couple of points you missed on Calgary’s C-Train.
        The success of the original Southern Leg was and is still completely dependent on the automobile. The park n ride lots are massive and dominate the station environs. Everyone drives to the stations from the sprawling suburbs. Even with their good-on-paper ridership, Calgary maintains one of the highest car ownership and VKT rates of Canada’s largest cities. One alderman justified his vote for massive new subdivisions in the Southeast on LRT’s ability to “control growth.” In essence, LRT justified sprawl. And the now developed SE is still waiting for their line in, until recently, Canada’s wealthiest province.
        Using the very active CPR right-of-way was seen by some as a way to cheapen the front-loaded capital construction costs by back-loading the land leases into the operating costs column. Therein, the stations are placed where no one wanted to go on foot, except for the few who work in the rail industrial zones. They missed the front door of Chinook Centre by over a half km, and that forced one of the largest shopping complexes in Western Canada to run a shuttle bus to the station. Imagine if Metrotown or Brentwood or Surrey Centre stations fell 500+ m short of the malls due to an exceedingly inadequate construction budget.
        It took the planners 20 years to learn about marrying rail transit to dense development, and when they did it was initially hideous. The massive residential tower blocks by Heritage Station, for example, may be a short walk from transit, but try to get an elderly grandmother to live in a tower complex with poor shopping and non-existant neighbourhood planning. Said Chinook Mall could have become a small self-contained city unto itself if all its amenities were enhanced with a rail line into the centre of the complex (under ground, elevated, at grade on the adjacent McLeod rail …) which could have stimulated higher density housing, all of the above within a 5-minute walk. Moreover, if 10-15% of the combined road construction budgets for the city over the last 20 years was diverted to transit, Calgary could have built out all its proposed C-Train lines with billions left over and the roads would be cleared of single-occupant cars for commerical vehicles.
        Accidents at level crossings have killed and injured so many people that the planners decided to grade-separate most of the new West Leg. It looks remarkably similar to SkyTrain, except where it dips below the roads. They also learned to integrate the line into existing prime development sites like Westbrook Mall and 69th Street on Signal Hill.
        Light rail certainly has its place, but its execution in Canada has been and still is on a steep learning curve.

        1. Imagine, some people actually like cars and houses with a yard.
          LRT downtown Calgary has created a blighted ugly canyon between high rises dead after 6 pm.
          Tunnels downtown or under busy roads are a must. Good that Calgary planners learned that for the west leg, but did they in Edmonton or Surrey ?
          LRT at grade for busy roads is a desaster. Park and ride makes sense too in many cases and is surely missing in MetroVan in outlying stations. Will they have this for the new Langley / Surrey LRTs ? TransLink could thus becomes one of the largest driverless vehicle operators. Maybe Evo2 ?

        2. If done a lot better, thousands of Calgarians can still enjoy houses and yards and be within walking distance of high quality transit services.
          C-Train (and all rapid transit) should compete directly with the auto and strive to replace it where possible. That is most feasible when development and zoning is transit-oriented, not auto-dependent.

      4. @David
        Yes I am fixated on the evergreen line because I have not seen a business case for Surrey to look at LRT verses skytrain. I would guess that the analysis would be similar. Yes capacity is a function of speed and frequency. The capacity of the actual train is a factor but it is just one of many when we are looking at how many people can we move in an hour. If the train is slower we move less people. If the train is less frequent we move less people.
        Those things matter.
        As for at grade, yes I agree it can be at grade. Skytrain is built at grade on the way to the airport.
        The key is that the mode of transport is physically separated that is important then it can be fast and frequent.

    2. Skytrain is the right choice
      Skytrain extension from King George to Langley is better than LRT for the following reasons:
      1. According to “Surrey Rapid Transit Alternatives Analysis Findings to Date”.a TransLink document,
      Alternative 4 is projected to have 200,000 daily boardings
      (2041) and generate 24,500 additional daily transit trips in the
      region. It has the highest ridership and provides the greatest
      travel time savings. It also generates the most quantifiable
      transportation benefits at the highest lifecycle cost.
      2. In the long run, Skytrain is much, much cheaper than LRT. The value of time savings over the life of Skytrain is $12.58 Billion. Please see the details at SurreyBCnews.com/skytrain_for_surrey
      Also Surrey-Langley link should be the first project for rapid transit in Surrey.

      1. You are assuming that Vancouver will remain the centre of Surrey’s universe. Those time savings only occur on longer trips and are nullified by fewer stations and by stairs and escalators on shorter trips.
        The beauty of a change in mode, a forced transfer, in a place that is determined to become an economic/cultural centre in its own right is it creates a reason not to continue to Vancouver or elsewhere. SkyTrain zipping through will hinder Surrey’s ability to create it’s own viable centre.
        They’ll also get four rapid transit lines pointing to that centre rather than the two they’d get with a simple extension of SkyTrain.
        I think the region will benefit if Surrey is successful in creating another downtown.
        And we need to see LRT functioning well so they better do a good job of it. We’re always loath to try something else no matter how well it works “over there”. But we’re happy to accept it after it works well right here.

    3. Skytrain for Surrey, not LRT
      1. Skytrain is Faster than LRT
      According to a TransLink document “Surrey Rapid Transit Alternatives Analysis Findings to Date “, Surrey City Centre to Langley Centre, Skytrain will take 22 minutes, but LRT will take 29 minutes.
      2. Skytrain is Safer than LRT
      According to YouTube video “Destroyed in Seconds Houston Metro Rail” there were 62 accidents in just 1 year.
      Calgary LRT is not safe either. Just Google the following news.
      Pedestrian killed by CTrain was 43rd accidental death on LRT system (Calgary Herald)
      2 pedestrians hit and killed by CTrains in 24 hours (Global News)
      And What about Edmonton LRT?
      Metro LRT to cause major traffic delays – Edmonton – CBC …
      Edmonton’s Metro line LRT broke down 11 times in November
      edmontonjournal.com › News › Local News
      2 killed by Edmonton LRT train ID’d – Edmonton – CBC News
      Skytrain is in Vancouver since 1985. It has proven to be a very safe system.
      3. Skytrain is Cheaper than LRT
      Initial construction costs may be lower for LRT, but Skytrain saves time and time has a money value. 100,000’s riders will save time every single day for 100 plus years. The present value of time-savings, according to conservative estimates, is $12.58 Billion. Thus Skytrain is much, much cheaper than LRT.
      (For details, please visit http://www.SurreyBCnews.com/skytrain_for_surrey)
      Skytrain is much better than LRT. Skytrain also has a better frequency than LRT. Other cities like Vancouver, Richmond, Burnaby, New Westminster, and Coquitlam have the Skytrain system. Skytrain stations also attract huge development. Just look at Metrotown, Brentford, New Westminster, Lougheed Centre, Richmond Centre, Marine Drive, Oakridge, Surrey Centre, Gateway, and King George stations
      There’s absolutely no logic to have LRT, no business case whatsoever.
      It is insane to think of LRT on 104 Ave. between City Centre and Guildford Centre as this portion of the road is already too congested. There are also too many lights. This will become even worse with time. I think best option for this portion of the route would be subway.

      1. Funny then that so many LRT/streetcar systems are being built worldwide and relatively few elevated systems like SkyTrain. I guess all those decision makers are just plain dumb.
        If SkyTrain promotes the type of development that requires longer commutes then travel time on SkyTrain becomes longer than LRT and all your economic justifications go out the window. LRT/streetcar is better for tighter urbanization and SkyTrain works better for more distant hub type development.
        You might have a point about safety… or not. If more LRT lines can be built than SkyTrain lines within our fiscal limitations then the potential to get more people out of cars with LRT will make more of our roads safer. Transit has an excellent safety record compared to cars.
        I’m not cheer leading for either – both probably have a role to play.

    4. Skytrain has proved to be a very safe system.It’s way better than LRT.
      LRT causes accidents causing death and destruction of property.
      See what’s happening in the cities with LRT. Just Google the headlines
      1.Pedestrian killed by CTrain was 43rd accidental death on LRT system
      2. Destroyed in Seconds Houston Metro Rail- YouTube video
      3. Drivers could be stuck at LRT crossing for up to 16 minutes: Metro LRT ..
      4. LRT shut down after crash with cyclist – Edmonton – CBC News
      5. Man struck and killed by CTrain in northeast Calgary | CTV Calgary …
      6. Man found dead near CTrain tracks in city’s south | CTV Calgary News
      7. Link light-rail service halted by car crash in Rainier Valley | The Seattle ..
      8. Person struck, killed by light rail train in Seattle | Q13 FOX News
      9.Crash closes light rail tracks, busy road for hours | KIRO-TV
      10. Seattle Light Rail Hazard Analysis Shows High Collision Potential and …
      11. Light Rail Increasingly Dangerous | The Antiplanner
      12. Portland Streetcar collisions? Nearly 1 a week, reports say …
      Accidents, traffic delays, street closures, congestion,slower than Skytrain. Who’ll want LRT?

  2. “Every rail-rapid transit proposals in Metro Vancouver started off as (mostly) at-grade light rail.” Well, not quite. Bus rapid transit (BRT) was a serious contender for a number of routes including the Canada Line and Evergreen Line.
    BRT came in with by far the best Benefit Cost ratio for the Evergreen Line, and rates very well for both Surrey / Langley lines (despite strangely restrictive assumptions that limit capacity in the 2nd stage studies).
    There are lots of good rapid transit options to choose from, including Light Rail, SkyTrain and BRT.

    1. An excellent point, Eric. Diversity in transit choice will ensure adaptability to the many differing circumstances presented to us in cities.

  3. That’s a good way to look at it. Look at the function and not the details of the technology. They all bring people from one place to another.
    The only differences would be ridership and cost. Some people feel it’s beneath them to take a bus so would only do a type of rail. Skytrain costs a lot. (I feel it’s worth it.)
    I could imagine that most people don’t even know that the propulsion system of the Expo and Millennium lines are different than the Canada Line. It took me several weeks when I first rode the Skytrain before I noticed that there weren’t any drivers.
    If the Expo Line got extended to the South East from King George, there still could be surface light rail lines connecting to it.

  4. Who cares about light vs heavy rail as that is merely a technical decision. Skytrain is proven, driverless and loads of expertise to maintain tracks and cars in Lower Mainland. Life cycle costs matter. Is light better than heavy here, and if so, why and by what % ? 2%? 10%? 33%? 50%?
    What matters more is as little level crossings as possible, as little noise as possible, reliability and as little separation between left and right of train as it bisects a community. Trains at grade work in less dense neighborhoods but tunnels are required for major road crossing or in dense neighborhoods.

  5. npachal, I hope you were also being sarcastic in holding up Portland’s MAX as something to emulate. In my experience, downtown it’s almost faster to walk than use the max, considering how long you have to wait for a train to show up, and the fact it has to stop at all intersections. The only thing better about it in my opinion is the bike racks they have on board.
    Here’s a previous discussion on this very blog:
    A commentator from Portland writes in the comments:
    Another factor was the selection of light rail as our “rapid transit,” and this is where the comparisons are not fair. You cannot compare MAX light rail with SkyTrain because they are entirely different animals. We, for better or worse, didn’t think big when we began MAX in the 1980s. We viewed transit from a bus-centered perspective that saw any fixed guideway as an improvement and thus committed to a form that was limited by surface alignments through the urban core and short train lengths dictated by block size. A manned overbuilt streetcar mode — which is really what LRT is — is not nearly the level of service that an umanned grade separated heavy rail system is. We will never have SkyTrain’s density.
    The Province sure didn’t make a mistake picking skytrain over LRT.

    1. I mean, just look at the stats:
      Portland Max:
      Length: 96.1 km
      Capital Cost: $3 billion
      Frequency: Every 10-15 minutes
      Ridership: 116,800 avg. weekday boardings in 2015
      Canada Line:
      Length: 19.2 km
      Capital Cost: $2 billion
      Frequency: Every 3.5-7 minutes (depending on part of line)
      Ridership: 136,259 avg. weekday boardings in 2011
      Am I missing something? LRT proponents unironically point to Portland as their transit aspiration. Seems pretty sucky. Someone please explain this dissonance.
      Wiki sauces:

      1. Yes, you’re missing something : inflation.
        Construction on the first leg of the MAX was started in 1982.
        A more fair comparison would be the latest leg, portland to Milwaukie. 11.7 km for 1.49 billion. Not such a slam dunk against 19.2 / 2 billion (CAD) for the Canada line.

        1. Bro, im being extremely generous to MAX. That 3 billion estimate is the capital expenditure only until 2004!!! Yet the ridership estimate is from 2015. And you are correct to note inflation skews the estimates… against MAX.

  6. I note that London, Paris, Toronto and other cities have chosen or are considering switching to automated train control, like SkyTrain. The primary reason is because this allows much greater frequencies on already overcrowded but fast grade-separated lines. Frequency is one of the most important considerations in improving the quality of service at an affordable permanent operating cost in dense cities. SkyTrain has proven to be an efficient rapid transit service linking the bigger cities where requent high capacity service is required primarily due to its high frequency capability — and that’s without realizing its full capacity if 30% more trains were purchased.
    In my opinion, light rail has its place where density is a bit lower, but still high enough to attract ridership, and speeds and frequency are lower, and where lower land prices and more available space make the lower capital costs of surface rail a pretty good fit. South of Fraser communities could build a legacy LRT network, but it needs to be carefully planned. But the higher operatnig costs with drivers and the very problematic high-risk situations created where trains are comingled with road traffic must be addressed. Risk assessements must form a large part of the planning and analysis processes.
    There is still great confusion out there over what constitutes regional (fast, requent, high-capacity) transit and local (slower, less frequent) service. They cannot easily be interchanged. Proposing trams on Broadway (rhetoric about absurdly low capital costs, Euro-urbanism, and buying every UBC student a Prius with the savings aside) is one example of the nonsensical maintenance of slow local service where a parallel fast/frequent regional service is long overdue. I also believe that proposing SkyTrain on the Fraser Highway to Langley City may be making the same mistake, but in reverse order due to the lower existing and proposed population and employment densities that would never justify 75-second headways between 6-car trainsets. It strikes me that this latter suggestion is being made without regional context. Langley City is not Surrey or Coquitlam Centre and the existnig demand certainly cannot be equated with the far, far higher existing demand in the Broadway corridor.
    Unlike Daryl Dela Cruz whose research backs SkyTrain in Surrey, I have no research data to back my gut which tells me something different: that light rail could take over from SkyTrain in Surrey Centre similar to Paris where the peripheral light rail Francilien system takes over from the Metro and RER (some RER lines are automated), as long as there is a direct walk-off walk-on capability at stations. The regional context must be accounted for. LRT could extend all over Langely, South Surrey, White Rock and Delta. King George – Lougheed to Coquitlam Centre, and perhaps eastwards to Maple Ridge and over the Golden Ears to Langley City via 200th Street which would create a large loop with several touchpoints with SkyTrain. The most heavily-travelled sections (e.g. King George to the #10) could have an express light rail option with, as space permits, station bypass rails.
    But seeing new data on modern BRT arise every year also indicates this rubber-tired option is more flexible and cheaper than LRT, and even takes on similar characteristics, such as well-designed stations and dedicated lanes. However, it doesn’t signify a commitment to accompanying new transit lines with a land use and urban design response, at least not yet as buses are still so ubiquitous on anonymous arterials and are associated with suburban malls surrounded by vast parking lots. Commiting to the more expensive LRT in suburbia could provide the impetus to finally designate malls as town sites of the future and to convert the oceans of asphalt to residential, commercial/retail and parks, and to incrementally upzone adjacent large lot subdivisions.
    A few years ago Jarrett Walker posted on the light rail versus SkyTrain debate on Broadway, and it illuminated the important differences. The extensive comments are very informative too.

    1. I agree completely.
      I’d also point out that I think that the cost of “expensive” transit has to be compared to the cost of “expensive” real estate. Commuters generally have to weigh their cost choice between paying transit fares vs paying rents closer to the city. After 10 more years of real estate appreciation, pretty much everyone with a 9-to-5 job will need to commute because the cost of a transit pass will be minuscule compared to the cost of city rents. Grade separation is crucial for moving so many people.

    2. Very well written as usual MB.
      BRT is easily built in stages because of the inherent flexibility of the vehicle. It can easily jump down to a local road with no special markings or up to a dedicated transit lane on a freeway. Commitment to a corridor can be made like it was with the 98 B-Line in Richmond or the busways in Ottawa. BRT with fancy stations isn’t much different from LRT in the statement it makes.
      Thanks also for the reminder from Jarrett Walker. Unfortunately it gets bogged down in extremes. Fast doesn’t matter a damn if it doesn’t stop where you want it to. The discussion I’ve had about the #351 bus is a perfect example. Once outside Surrey it stops in the middle of nowhere, almost the middle of nowhere and SkyTrain. The fact that it’s the fastest vehicle on Highway 99 is irrelevant if you aren’t heading for Vancouver, YVR or Richmond Centre.
      When TransLink operated super express versions of the 99 B-Line that ran non-stop to UBC they were usually half empty. The number of passengers going end-to-end, even in an extreme case like that, isn’t nearly as high as planners seem to believe.
      Unfortunately people have been conditioned to expect both high speed and door-to-door service. It means there are a huge number of potential transit customers who will not take any form of transit, regardless of how fast, if it doesn’t deliver them within 200m of their destination. We cannot possibly locate all homes, schools and work places along rail lines with high speed service in every direction and stops just 400m apart. Like a certain chief engineer was fond of saying “I canna change the laws of physics”.
      Rather than focus on technologies and routing we should be talking about the buildings that those routes serve. Like the expectation of rapid door-to-door travel, the post war population has been fed a steady diet of unsustainable land use patterns. We rezoned corner stores out of existence even in places where they’re commercially viable. We told our children to crave a detached house on a 1/2 acre lot far from the hustle and bustle of anything. Even where we did build housing and services close together we ensured isolation with cul-de-sacs and fences. A 200m stroll was replaced with a 1km journey through winding streets.
      Let’s build complete communities, mixed uses, scatter shops and services like we scatter elementary schools within our residential areas. Let’s make it possible to walk places again. Then we can talk about how best to join those communities to each other.

      1. “… the post-war population has been fed a steady diet of unsustainable land use patterns.”
        You certainly got that right!
        I also agree that land use and transit needs to be considered as two parts of one package. I would also throw in better quality urban design and architectural standards for each new or improved transit route.
        Getting back to Jarrett Walker, he reiterated over several posts and in his book that the street grid pattern is very efficient with respect to transit service. The linear corridor within the grid can achieve very high quality service levels if done right. I’m thinking again of Broadway which possesses some very unique characteristics. A full-bore subway coupled with an impoved Number 9 bus service on the surface and (hopefully!) an expanded pedestrian realm and land use response would create one of the most successful “joined up thinking” planning exercises on the continent with a super-dynamic transit service featuring both fast/regional and slow/local components.
        I suggest that the residential and employment density along Broadway has already justified a subway for decades, and any further density increases using high rises need only occur perhaps in the Central Broadway section. That is, the land use response to a great new transit service could take the form of upzoning for primarily low and mid-rise development, not the walls of 45-storey towers some university profs unjustifiably fear will cluster around every station.
        Broadway is also blessed with a dense cross street network that should be protected and enhanced. Transit users would be easily dispersed from the corridor by no less than seven perpendicular bus routes and one additional subway, and 25 bike/pedestrian/commercial vehicle secondary signalized crossings. The cross street network would be threatened by a dedicated LRT median.
        King George highway, by comparison, could accommodate in my view a dedicated light rail line in a separated median without severing many secondary cross streets. There could be an accompanying program to foster better development projects, more fine-grained zoning allowing continuous commercial shops in a plethora of sizes, wider sidewalks and a much higher quality pedestrian experience, especially connecting to stations. The strip malls along King George could be converted to self-contained villages served by generous LRT station structures and radiating bus routes.
        It really doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to work this out, just the political will to toss out the old and discredited planning models that still elevate the automobile above all other considerations. If Surrey truly wants to be a city that rivals Vancouver in planning initiatives, then it needs to stop the braggadocio about becoming BC’s first city this century and start removing the massive acreage of low value parking in its vaunted core and convert the land to much better uses like housing, offices, commercial/retail and parks. It must also work very hard to get out of the bedroom community mentality and create an economic gravitational pull of its own where more commuters commute within its own boundaries on foot , bike or transit instead of hoping over a bridge to far away jobs, a bridge that synmbolizes all the urban planning failures commited over the last 70 years.

    3. I tend to favour a backbone using SkyTrain along Fraser Highway to Langley (which, in future, will serve double duty as short haul rapid transit to Surrey City Centre (from the Fraser Valley) as well as long haul rapid transit to downtown Vancouver.
      In addition, as seen with the Edmonton LRT issues, with Fraser Highway being diagonal, an at-grade LRT down Fraser Highway would wreak havoc with traffic in both north-south and east-west directions. The L-Line follows 104th and King George Blvd so doesn’t cut across as many arterials.
      Review the 1995 report that Nathan posted. Look at the number of grade separations required for the Lougheed/Broadway Enhanced LRT option.
      Would that number of grade separations also be built into a Fraser Highway LRT?
      Surrey can build lower capacity LRT along 104th and King George Blvd. to feed Surrey City Centre (with lower impact than a diagonal route). For a southward extension, the sparse areas between White Rock and Surrey probably wouldn’t slow an LRT much either.
      Likewise, Richmond can also built LRT along Railway Ave. from Steveston to feed its downtown, the Oval distroct and Canada Line.

    4. I did a fair amount of research (mostly due to the TV opinion pieces about the Skytrain that came out when the rail in the guideway from maintenance sheared off the power shoe) and BRT can go as high as 38,000pphpd if it’s a “two lane” system (which is the capacity of TransMilenio in Bogota, Colombia) which puts it right in the same capacity range and speed of all LRT turnkey systems offered by Bombardier, Siemens, Alstom and such as well as encroaching on their middle Metro systems (which top out at 40,000pphpd.) A single lane BRT (which is all Metro Vancouver could realistically have without building BRT Guideways too) tops out at 20,000, but that has some technical requirements in regards to fueling and greenhouse gas emissions that would make it unfavorable in Metro Vancouver. Still, nobody said it has to be diesel, or driver-driven. Automated battery-electric buses or running LRT-style overhead wires are also options for BRT, they just haven’t been explored very much. BRT cost estimate often don’t consider these, only the the “cheapest” configuration which are diesel buses which require drivers.
      BRT only has two major downsides that LRT doesn’t have, Buses are only designed to last 15 years, while you may keep LRT cars for 30, ones designed to operate at-grade trend to require repair costs on par with replacement, per accident. When you run BRT/LRT/RRT grade separated, the lifecycle costs for BRT become higher as you have to replace the bus 3 times for every 1 time you would replace a subway car. But like RRT/LRT, a BRT needs dedicated lanes and signal priority. So our B-line systems are not really a “BRT” in this sense because they don’t have dedicated lanes throughout their entire route.
      “Streetcar” mode light rail is 8000pphpd max. Above that, it needs it’s own lane and then becomes “light rail transit.” LRT, People Movers (basically rubber tyre transit vehicles with a “guide/power rail”, and Monorails tend to cover this space between 8000 and 40,000. The Innovia Metro and comparable driverless offerings from other manufacturers tend to put 12,000 pphpd around the low end and the upper-end is usually based on 6-car configuration. Anything with more than 6 cars falls into “Subway” class metros and Commuter rail which reaches 120,000pphpd mostly accomplished by having long trains with lower frequency.
      It’s taken a few decades, but transportation engineers see that Frequency is the most important deciding factor in IF someone takes transit. Speed is what determines if they will favor transit over the car. And reliability (own lane, low accident risk) is what determines if people continue to use it. You can’t have a slow, infrequent transit system with a schedule similar to a bus, because that only benefits people who have no other option. Since most people South of Fraser need a car for at least one activity, offering them a slow train that isn’t where they want to go, and isn’t frequent enough to leave the car at home, is foolish.

    1. Bombardier is a private company. The article doesn’t mention that the recipient of the grants is the aerospace division, notably on launching the troubled C-series jet which is desperately trying to nudge over Boeing’s 737 business without success.
      On the other hand, the train division is one of the largest in the work and is deeply embedded in European rail systems, from trams to high speed intercity and freight. Bombardier also helped build China’s extensive high speed netowork.

  7. My understanding is that the pie in the sky best way to build rapid transit networks is to start with BRT then when you have the ridership you move to high capacity rail. Which is what Vancouver did with B-line on granville -> Canada Line and is trying to do with the b-line on broadway-> skytrain extension. Why Surrey insists on jumping in with light rail before BRT + building demand I’m not sure. I mean, I know why – trains are nice and we all prefer them to buses, but in a regional funding crunch I don’t get why there isn’t more pressure for them to start their rapid transit network with BRT first before they get shiny trains. I suspect BRT would meet Surrey’s needs for many many years while saving big $$ compared to LRT.

    1. “…regional funding crunch …”
      Apparently there is no funding crunch at any level when it comes to creating excessive road space.

  8. What I’d really like to see is the money that is going to be spent on a bridge replacing the Massey Tunnel to instead go towards rapid transit. Do I care if it’s Skytrain or LRT? Not really. I just want to get out of my car and right now, that’s not a reasonable or convenient option. Living in the Sullivan Heights area of Surrey, near No. 10 Hwy and King George, I dream of the day when I can ditch the car and ride the rails. Let’s just do it. Building that bridge over the Fraser is sheer folly. We need to get people like me out of our cars and onto pubic transit.

    1. We need both public transit and road infrastructure in a growing region. It is not one or the other ! Massey Bridge is for future commercial growth not just commuters. Fraser River will be expanded into major commercial ports and that needs highway infrastructure.
      MetroVan has 30+ ports and more bike lanes or more transit does not help their expansion as Canada’s only major Pacific export / import hub.
      Think AND not OR !

      1. AND (freeways and transit) is not compatible with meeting our GHG reduction commitments. Building urban freeways in 2016 is a climate crime.
        We need to start taking climate pollution seriously when making infrastructure decisions.

        1. Yes that is the key rapid transit comes first. They should expanded skytrain to Langley before they replaced the port mann bridge.

    2. You may not care if its SkyTrain or LRT, but you should care about how either is designed and implemented – i.e. mainly whether it is built using a shared (in street) or exclusive right-of-way (grade separated guideway).
      Ultimately, you don’t want to get out of your car and end up moving slower than before (see recent Edmonton example).

  9. So in an article titled “Light Rail is the Only Way to Go…” you’ve made absolutely no case for why LRT would be better than SkyTrain. So what’s your argument?

  10. When we’re talking about LRT and LRT vs BRT, how come nobody brings up driverless technology, which in my opinion will render LRT obsolete. If not a fully autonomous bus, at the very least you could have bus trains – a human controlled lead bus with driverless buses following behind. Volvo successfully demonstrated this technology 4 years ago. http://www.businessinsider.com/volvo-successfully-tests-road-train-2012-12 So the capacity advantage of LRT over buses is about to disappear.
    If BRT can match LRT’s capacity, while at the same time costing a small fraction of what LRT costs, it would be crazy to build LRT in Surrey.

    1. I think it’s reasonably likely driverless technology will make much of our transit infrastructure obsolete in the coming decades.
      Our current planning method is to keep the cost of mobility artificially low through massive government subsidies, which causes a large demand for many low-value trips. Then we attempt to build the infrastructure able to accommodate this unnaturally high demand for mobility.
      A better approach would be to reduce subsidies to mobility, and allow our currently available mobility resources to be allocated through a price mechanism, rather than through queuing (congestion). Just an economist’s perspective. See the first fundamental theorem of welfare economics… something to think about at least – if it doesn’t apply, then which assumption is being violated?

      1. Absolutely if people had to pay the full cost of driving and taking transit queues would stop people live closer to there jobs and the amount of people walking and biking would skyrocket. We would all pay less in taxes. The left and the right should champion this solution.
        A side note for new technologies check out http://www.skytran.com/ a type of PRT.

    2. Driverless / self-driving bus trains sound promising. But the major focus in the media seems to be stuck on self-driving cars which will still require the maintenance of the vast road network, subsidies and a huge amount of land.
      One recent piece on the CBC featured the director of planning for Toronto who iterated on the lack of need for dead storage space for parking with self-driving cars, which will free up a significant amount of land currently occupied by parking lots and parkades. But I really don’t see how maintaining a new variation of personal transportation will be so revolutionary that road space can be converted to other uses in revolutionary quantities. By comparison, public transit vehicles move orders of magnitude more people on less land using less energy and at less cost irrespective of the characteristics of personal transport.

      1. if you wiki autonomous cars PWC says the total amount of cars will decrease 100 fold IE from 245 million to 2.4 in the USA. I would assume that would decrease the amount of road use by a lot and government waste associated with it.

        1. PWC is wrong or you misunderstood.
          Car ownetshipwill drop somewhat in dense cities as we will get more car share options and driverless cars but not down 99%.
          Missing is also population growth. The US is growing by one Canada a decade. Loads more people, loads more transportation vehicles required. Like the horse 200 years ago those that can afford it will get their own vehicle even if they share rides once in a while.

          1. I did not misunderstand as you can see if you wiki autonomous cars and read possible effects. You can say PWC is wrong but I would still take a PWC prediction over yours.

      2. You keep going on about subsidies. People who drive cars often pay far more in income, consumption or property taxes as they have higher incomes, buy more or live in fancier homes. Roads are used by all, directly or indirectly for the food, goods and services they require even if they bike or walk. There are a few car free small villages in Europe, usually in very hilly regions where towns were built before cars existed. Doable but inconvenient , and a lot more expensive to shuttle stuff around. I have been to a few in Italy, or Switzerland. They also exist in France or Spain, perhaps elsewhere.
        I don’t buy your subsidy argument for road use, except free parking. If you drive you at least pay hefty surcharge gasoline taxes. Those that pay lots of taxes also expect something in return, perhaps a paved road to their front door. Those that park pay nothing perhaps for 90% to 95% of the day/week/year.
        What IS subsidized is parking in expensive neighborhoods as people park one or two cars in their garage and another one or two for free on the road. Or they convert the garage to a studio they rent out, use for the kids or for their exercise studio. Kits, for example, has lots of 3-4 story condo or apartment buildings and I’d venture to guess that 30-50% of all cars are not parked under the building but on the street. You want a green city: charge market value for that private car on a public road, say $100-500/month. That is the primary reason I voted against the transit proposal: mayors & councils – allegedly green and trumpeting sustainability – everywhere chose not to charge enough for private parking use of public roads. If we billed a mere $2000/year extra for each car parked on public roads times 500,000 cars in MetroVan there would be a billion $s for transit or the homeless. A clear misalignment of taxation or subsidy if you want.

          1. That is why cities have a higher proportion of homeless, students singles and low income people and vote more left. All those groups have no car or a far higher probability of not having a car.
            But let’s not get facts in the way of wishful thinking.

          2. Facts are: car ownership rises with income levels.
            Income levels car ownership
            And you will see a few dozen research reports from numerous countries too numerous to mention.
            Yes if you live in Yaletown or Kits and bike or walk to your $100,000 job at Google downtown you are the exception to the rule [ and many folks that blog here are probably in that higher income, university educate, male under 35, bike loving urban minority ]. Congratulations. Not many are this lucky ( and of course to not insult the few women on this blog )

          3. I don’t think fact means what you think it means. But I’ll leave this for now before you shoot yourself further in your foot.

          4. One fact I do understand is that Manhattan has a 60% transit ridership rate, and even six-figure executives ride the subway because it’s the best way to get around the island.

  11. There are a lot of opinions on the topic, but the matter is rather simple. The matter is what kind of capacity and line speed do you want to pay for? How big and fast do you want the tube to be? You can make low floor streetcars work at 25k pphpd as much as you can SkyTrain. What you find however when you peg it to these parameters is that the costs look the same. Fast, frequent LRT has its cost and it costs very similar to SkyTrain. Slower but more neighborhood friendly LRT has its cost, but you forgo speed for better opportunities at urban development. Too much is lost in demonizing one technology over another. It’s all about what sort of capacity and speed you want to build. Try to fool yourself and it will show. You can’t build fast, frequent LRT that will blend seamlessly in the streetscape. It will be slow and either hold up traffic or be held up by it. You want quick and fast, its building over or under. As you progress between the two there is no black and white…only varying shades of gray from dark to light. Decide what you want and stick with it. Generally speaking, the Germans have it right. Lower speed more urban friendly streetcar systems that serve the inner ring, higher speed suburban systems that feed the people in. Plenty of space for both SkyTrain and conventional LRT. The trick is using the right tool for the right job. SkyTrain gets you from hub to hub quickly and easily. LRT gets you to the hub much more quickly and reliably than the bus. Yes, while there are lots of LRT systems that do the “hub to hub” thing, those are the ones you really want o compare SkyTrain to. Keep the apples with the apples.

  12. Yes, the original ALRT (Expo Line) was originally chosen over LRT because of a big fat cheque from the Feds, and was also justified by a biased study that mixed theoretical future capacity with actual as-built construction costs. An accountant would be disciplined if he/she ever did that.
    However, now that we have Skytrain, it makes sense to continue to extend the system rather than force all passengers to transfer trains in Surrey. Toronto is now sorry they built ALRT as the eastern extension of their Subway system.

    1. If that were true about Toronto, then they would not be planning to implement driverless train control to achieve greater frequencies in their subways. Ditto London, Paris, Copenhagen ….
      And not all passengers travel to Surrey and are affected by transfers.

  13. I actually don’t care what they build, but it MUST BE Grade Separated!!! If its at grade then don’t bother its complete waste of money.

    1. Indeed, my (young?) friend, indeed !
      Look at the disaster in Edmonton of their at grade LRT near UofA, at 51 Ave, north of downtown near NAIT .. or at Calgary’s blighted 7th Ave corridor. Subway in cities, or at grade once no houses nearby.
      This quiet, fast, modern, hanging mag-lev train http://www.skytran.com is worthy a consideration but might not be practical in inclement weather and too new a technology.

  14. Streetcar at half the speed of Skytrain?
    Here’s an actual experience of Edward Keenan Columnist, Toronto Star. Published on Tue Dec 09 2014.
    “Yesterday morning, I got onto the 504 King Streetcar and took a seat.
    It was an interesting, comfortable ride.
    There was just one catch: it took 42 minutes to get to the corner of King and Yonge, about twice as long as the 20 to 25 minutes the same trip takes on the subway.”
    So streetcar took about double the time as compared with Subway (underground train with its own right of way).
    LRT as planned by city of Surrey will be like the 504 King streetcar running at-grade ,in the center of street. Speed has to be low, otherwise there is risk of accidents.
    Skytrain is the real Rapid Transit System. LRT is useless and waste of money.

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