Yesterday’s post about the Vancouver Sun op-ed by Alex Boston scraped the surface of what could comprise an effective business case for Skytrain south of the Fraser, let alone what numbers may (or may not) have been used to justify LRT in the first place.
Did Translink miss some data? As I hinted in Part I, perhaps they simply missed communicating the most relevant, top-line numbers the public have an appetite — and capacity — to understand (no offence to all of us).
But let’s assume they made a whole raft of calculations, such as those that can be found in “Regional Transportation Investments: A Vision for Metro Vancouver (Appendices)“, pointed to me by Boston’s colleague Keane Gruending from the Centre for Dialogue. The Centre’s own analysis on this file is reminiscent of their Moving in a Livable Region program around the time of the 2015 transit plebiscite, which attempted to hold our leaders accountable (and the politics in check), using a facts-first approach.
Boston’s deeper piece on the Renewable Cities website also reminded me that a lot of the debate on whether to pause Phase 2 and 3 of the Mayors Plan to once again deal with the Skytrain question often fails to deal with two important metrics tied to land use: jobs density, and CO2 emissions.
On the first metric, it begs further drill-down into the case for the UBC Skytrain extension proposed by Mayor Kennedy Stewart.
Transportation demand between UBC and the rest of the Lower Mainland — for which we could consider the current Arbutus Street terminus to be the obvious transit interchange — may never be perfectly balanced between the two main user populations:
- UBC/UEL residents travelling eastbound, for major nodes including downtown, midtown, Oakridge and the Arthur Laing Bridge (daily to weekly, or less frequent)
- Non-resident UBC students, faculty, and administration, and UEL labour force, travelling to campus (daily)
Complex and diverse as the two population patterns may be, it’s clear demand exists between jurisdictions. And, it’s not bound to change unless UBC student capacity greatly fluctuates, or UBC and the province open up greenfield University Endowment Lands for development.
Demand there is relatively constant and predictable; thus, a business case can be made (or unmade) on the basis of ‘pure’ measures of transportation demand. If anything, Stewart should be charging TransLink and city staff to fill holes in the data table on density thresholds, as mentioned in Part I yesterday. Some rationale must exist for reaching and fulfilling that level of demand, and ideally also establishing a vision that will result in specific mode share targets, as in Ontario and the City of Vancouver itself.
Now, contrast that with Surrey and Langley — wherein there are inherent problems reconciling today’s demand-side data against the demand we project for the future. Or, perhaps more accurately, the type of demand we want to encourage.
All you have to do is look at chart 1 in Boston’s longer piece — Greater Vancouver personal transportation greenhouse gas emissions — and it’s obvious that, even with the Mayors Plan in place, we’re already screwed.
Rather than throw up our hands, obviously we must continue to mitigate, and aggressively reduce, total GHG emissions from transportation. We just can’t stop, we have to do better, and quickly.
And that must include making concerted efforts to develop and intensify job density close to all forms of housing — both matching high levels of job density with high residential density, and using increased jobs density as levers to trigger new densification in currently low density neighbourhoods.
In the case of UBC-Arbutus, not only could a business case feasibly be made for Skytrain, it’s likely that few people have an appetite (or a matching business case!) to turn the UEL’s carbon sink into condos.
Though, many have suggested that bringing more residential density to Dunbar, Point Grey and Kitsilano would be sufficient, and is necessary. New zoning by-law amendments passed in September, of course, would allow for this to begin at the level of duplexes; and, of course, this is already under threat of being rescinded by the new council.
But on the matter of bringing Skytrain to Langley and Surrey, the argument that the same business case can be made rests under the cloud of two massive, problematic assumptions.
One, the idea that the demand we need to accommodate is for travel outside of both Surrey and Langley.
In fact, the data shows the opposite. The vast proportion of demand is for intra-urban travel; that is, most people are trying to get between town centres.
The data from 2011 Translink Trip Diaries is clear, and it’s doubtful to have changed much in the past seven years: three-quarters of trips south of the Fraser never leave south of the Fraser. Most trips are by personal motor vehicle, and are for workplace commuting or school. Do these patterns necessarily justify the highest-speed, highest-capacity solution? It’s a question Surrey’s Doug McCallum has not answered with equally strong data, or analysis.
The second problematic assumption for Surrey — that building high-speed, high-capacity rail networks will necessarily fulfill demand, as predicted. (Granville Bridge, anyone?)
In the case of UBC, Skytrain is often considered a remedy for the problematic decision of having sited one of North America’s largest university campuses on a forested peninsula 8-15 kilometres away from residential neighbourhoods, commercial centres, and transportation hubs. That was then.
Today, we cannot immediately consider Skytrain the best first step for accommodating urban growth in a long-term, sustainable manner. Rather than solving a problem that exists today and leaving openings to adjust in the future, jumping to Skytrain in Surrey could risk creating one of two not-insignificant problems:
- Under-utilized capacity, because either growth projections are wrong, or more jobs come south of the Fraser
- Unnecessarily long commutes and congestion, because growth projections are right AND job growth south of the Fraser doesn’t keep pace with population growth
What we should be equally focused on is land use — and bringing more jobs, more residential housing density, and diversity of transportation choices, to Surrey and Langley.
In the end, Boston’s article reminds me is that it doesn’t really matter which future scenario coms to pass, because the point is to not begin by assuming Skytrain, and then look backwards at risk.
Deciding to build Skytrain — the highest cost, highest speed and highest capacity rail option we have to consider at this time in BC — must be preceded by a rigorous business case built on data which takes the region’s economic, environmental and population health into account. It’s not just a matter of sound approach to integrated land use, it’s a matter of sound governance.
Photo credit: Colin Knowles, “Dirty Skytrain Windows, 3“