In February I previewed the technology debate about Vancouver's dense Broadway corridor, the last major high-density corridor in the city that doesn't have rapid transit. It's the dark orange east-west line on this map of the current network:
Vancouver's transit agency Translink has now announced preliminary options. All the options extend to the University of British Columbia (UBC) at the west end and to Commercial Drive, the main connection point with SkyTrain's Expo Line, on the east, though some make other connections with SkyTrain as well.
The current options (click links for maps) are:
- A Bus Rapid Transit alternative, which appears to mean exclusive bus lanes for limited-stop bus service, Line 99, that already exists on Broadway. This is very low cost, but if taking surface lanes from traffic were politically easy it would have been done by now.
- A basic Light Rail alternative the length of Broadway, with some sub-options east of Main St.
- A more extensive Light Rail system with two lines, one as in #2 and the other with a line along South False Creek from Main Street station, joining Broadway at Arbutus.
- A rail rapid transit option. This is presumably an extension of the SkyTrain Millennium Line, all the way out Broadway to UBC.
- A combination option, which picks up on an idea I've pushed for a while. SkyTrain (presumably) extended to Arbutus St. Then light rail to UBC, using Broadway west of Arbutus and then along South False Creek to Main St. More on this below.
- A best bus option, improvements to all the bus corridors to UBC, obviously included to provide a "no project" alternative to which to compare the others.
Unfortunately, these preliminary options may be just too preliminary, as they lack detail on crucial things that I'd need to know if I were forming an opinion as a Vancouver citizen.
First and most important: The single largest flaw in the whole region's rapid transit network is the lack of connection between the Millennium and Canada Lines. (Throughout this post, I use "Millennium Line" to mean the north side of the yellow loop on the map below, where the line runs alone and ends before it gets to the Canada Line. I use "Expo Line" to refer to the dark blue line, much of which is currently duplicated, confusingly, by a continuation of the Millennium Line.) The gap is unmistakable:
Note that a new SkyTrain branch off the Millennium Line into Coquitlam is also planned. This will increase volumes of trains and passengers on the Millennium Line, and thus also increase the number of people frustrated when the line ends before really reaching the Canada Line connections or the city. So it's important to be clear whether "rail rapid transit" means a SkyTrain Millennium Line extension -- the only project that solves this gap problem.
Second, the website is silent about station locations or spacing. I presume these options are all designed to stop about once per km as the rapid bus does now. But some of the light rail options through South False Creek use a segment of track that is also being considered for a "streetcar," and that word typically means many stops and low speeds. Do not wade into this debate until you are absolutely clear about the difference between streetcars and light rail! If you want rapid transit to UBC, then the light rail options need to be light rail in the North American sense: in an exclusive lane and mostly stopping no more than about once per km. But if some people along the same line are visualizing a "streetcar," which means lots of stops and sometimes mixing with traffic, the result may not be rapid enough, or reliable enough, to do the UBC job.
Third, there isn't a clear statement about whether these lines would be elevated, underground, or on the surface. The website presents all of these options where they exist, as though this is a detail to be worked out later. If I lived or worked on the affected streets I'd definitely refuse to have an opinion until that was made clear. I'm sure this will be a central concern of the next phase of work, but I'm not sure that public feedback is going to be very decisive or meaningful until the profile options (elevated, underground, or surface) have been described in local detail. (UPDATE 2: TransLink staff responds to the this critique, and explains their public outreach methodology, in a comment here.)
Finally, I have to say I do like the combination option, which is something I've suggested before:
This option builds the expensive SkyTrain technology only to Arbutus Street, which is really the end of the dense or densifiable part of Broadway. West of Arbutus you're in redevelopment-resistant single-family neighborhoods with UBC as the only remaining high-ridership destination.
But if you like this option, I suggest a few questions to ask about its details:
- Don't we need an alternative with SkyTrain to Arbutus plus Bus Rapid Transit, rather than light rail, to UBC? A SkyTrain+light rail combination option is going to be very expensive, and could be shot down if it doesn't have a cheaper solution in its pocket that still solves the problem of connecting the Millennium and Canada Lines.
- Does light rail via South False Creek really provide the cross-regional travel time that UBC needs? Think about a trip from UBC to anywhere on the mid-Expo line, such as Joyce or Metrotown. Would you ride light rail all the way to Main Street station, a longer travel path than you have via the bus today? Or would you transfer at Arbutus to the Millennium Line and then transfer again to the Expo Line, one more connection than you have to make today? (Or would you just ride the 41st or 49th Avenue bus the whole way, as you may be doing now?) Is there a risk of spending billions and ending up with something that's no faster than the current bus, at least from the perspective of some major UBC markets?
- Is Main Street station, which hangs directly over a busy arterial at one of Vancouver's worst traffic chokepoints, really a place where you can bring light rail right up to SkyTrain and transfer huge volumes of people, while keeping light rail completely segregated from traffic?
To sum up, the most important things to watch out for at this stage of the project are (a) the ever-present danger of light rail deteriorating into a mere streetcar that will be too slow to be useful for UBC trips and (b) the need to focus on the gap in the Millennium Line as a structural problem in the entire region's network.
As often happens, the debate is in danger of being narrowly framed as "what do we do for Broadway and UBC?" as though people along the line are the only constituency. Actually, many people making major suburb-suburb trips (Coquitlam to Richmond, say, or Simon Fraser Unversity to the airport, or many others) are going to have a major stake in the outcome.
Vancouver's regional planning is committed to developing Coquitlam and Richmond, among other places, as major highrise mixed-use activity centers. All such centers must have convenient rapid transit to each other, not just to Vancouver. The SkyTrain network doesn't do that yet, and this may be the last chance to set that right.
Closing the gap will be expensive, but the result would be a project that serves the entire region, not just the Broadway corridor, and that could make a difference at funding time.
UPDATE 1: Commenter FD thinks I've stepped over the line into advocacy:
I thought your position (manifesto?) was that you didn't take positions on active projects, using them only to draw out key issues. What's different here? Is your key message about the regional impacts & benefits of the options (Coquitlam/Richmond)? Seems a bit too much like you want to point out your favourite option...
It's a grey area, because I used to live in Vancouver and have obviously thought about this as a resident. But what I'm really doing is suggesting a couple of evaluation criteria.
It's always tempting to study a corridor as though it only serves the neighborhoods along the corridor, but this is never completely true and in the case of Broadway it's massively not true. The Broadway corridor presents two big challenges that are not about Broadway at all:
- Closing the SkyTrain network gap, or facing serious long-term regional mobility barrier as a result. As Richmond and Coquitlam become bigger, denser places, do you really want everyone going from Richmond (or YVR) to Coquitlam (or SFU) to drive, simply because the rapid transit network fails to serve them with a reasonable number of connections? Can you think of any reasonably successful big city rail transit system that has such an obvious network gap in such a consequential place, and that isn't trying to fix it?
- Ensuring that if rail gets built to UBC, the result is some kind of mobility improvement for UBC -- service that's faster, more frequent, more extensive, and/or more reliable than the existing buses. This may be hard, because the existing buses to UBC are pretty intensive, and there are lots of low-cost projects -- such as the 41st Avenue B-Line -- that can make them incrementally better. Some placemakers will argue that mobility isn't important, and that it does make sense to build a rail line that doesn't take anyone anywhere any faster than they can go on the buses now. If the Vancouver region makes that decision consciously, then fine. But if so, be clear that that's what you're doing.
So with thanks to the commenter for keeping me honest, my real point is this:
The most effective rapid transit projects, in ridership terms, are the result of combining many markets, and many constituencies, and many goals, into one service. Beware of proposals that say we should serve these people and not those, or that a corridor is local but not also regional. Dividing and diminishing the market in this way means a weaker political base for the project, and a weaker ridership outcome if the project gets built.
(Next post on this topic here.)