» Vancouver’s plans for a Broadway rapid transit line could come in the form of SkyTrain rapid transit or light rail.
With 40,000 students and almost 10,000 employees shoehorned into the tight space between the Strait of Georgia and the City of Vancouver, the University of British Columbia (UBC) is made for rapid transit. It’s an ideal terminus for a major public transportation line, with thousands of transit-friendly people ready to line up to commute to other parts of the region.
Indeed, the existing buses connecting UBC to the rest of Vancouver are jam-packed along their routes, with up to 100,000 riders making the link daily. The University has been envisioned as the eventual destination of one of the region’s rail lines since the automated SkyTrain Expo Line first opened its doors in 1985. With the active and pedestrian-heavy Broadway corridor serving as the connecting spine and the Millennium SkyTrain designed specifically to allow for an eventual western extension down that street, it has been assumed for years that UBC would get SkyTrain service at some point.
Several months after the successful opening of the Canada Line between downtown Vancouver, the airport, and suburban Richmond, transportation authority Translink has begun its study of six options for the future development of the Broadway corridor. Though a 12 km SkyTrain link is being considered (as shown above), so are bus rapid transit and light rail alternatives, each of which could offer good mass transit at a reduced price compared to the automated metro service offered by SkyTrain.
With the region facing a serious long-term budget gap, can it place economic concerns above the benefits of a more expensive expansion?
Jarrett Walker discusses the options on Human Transit, arguing that while extending the Millennium Line from its current terminus at VCC-Clark to Arbutus Street (about two-fifths of the way to UBC) is an important step, the lower densities west of there imply that a cheaper street-running light rail alternative could connect to UBC along the remainder of the routing. East of Arbutus Street, the light rail line could continue northeast along an existing rail right-of-way (including that of the ephemeral Olympic Line Streetcar) to the Canada Line Olympic Village Station and and Main Street Millennium/Expo Lines Station.
This alternative would provide connections to the Canada Line for both UBC and Millennium Line riders at a cheaper price than would be possible with a fully tunneled SkyTrain route, expected to cost up to C$2.8 billion. This would give riders from both sides of the region direct access to the very dense Fairview district (near City Hall) and allow one-transfer rides to UBC from anywhere with a rail link. The emphasis here would be on connections. (The light rail/SkyTrain alternative alignment shown below.)
Two fully light rail options and the bus rapid transit option would be less advantageous, as they would limit access to Fairview from the east side of the region by requiring a transfer to get there. (One of the light rail alternatives shown below.)
The question, though, is whether any of these options satisfy the strong transportation demand of the Broadway corridor. With expected ridership of 150,000 passengers a day, can a street-running light rail line from UBC to Fairview handle the traffic? Today’s buses, running every 90 seconds at peak, are overcrowded; it would be difficult to offer light rail trains at similar frequencies because of their long lengths and interaction with surrounding traffic, meaning that capacity would not increase nearly as much as it would with SkyTrain. Light rail, in other words, would leave little room for future growth.
Moreover, should riders hoping to get to UBC be expected to settle for 16 mph average speeds on light rail or buses — the fastest they’re expected to run even with exclusive lanes? The Canada Line travels at a significantly speedier average speed of 22 mph.
Today, downtown Vancouver has a 49% transit commute share, pretty high for any city; on the other hand, UBC is only able to attract 27% of commuters by transit (despite a very high student population), and Fairview’s even worse, at 21%. A relatively slow light rail line cannot provide the kind of mobility improvements possible with a fast, automated SkyTrain line.
The advantages of building the route as a SkyTrain line accrue as you zoom out, too; combined with the proposed Evergreen Line, a new UBC route could provide a direct link from Coquitlam and Port Moody to the city’s western edge, serving as the region’s new east-west mainline. By expanding the transfer-free links to UBC, the number of transit riders can be expected to increase substantially.
Meanwhile, while it is true that density decreases substantially west of Arbutus Street, even those neighborhoods have population densities of 16,000 people per square mile, not too low — and there is plenty of room for transit share growth among higher income residents there if faster options were offered. The Canada Line’s south Vancouver stations have been very popular, despite their similarly only moderate densities in the surrounding areas. Meanwhile, the massive population at the UBC end of the corridor should obviate concerns about limited ridership from stations between there and Arbutus, since trains will fill up from the beginning of the route. Light rail would slow down the commutes of tens of thousands of daily transit users.
As Translink considers its options over the next few months, it will have to put any projects within the context of its difficult financial condition — which means, given few resources, a full-length Millennium SkyTrain extension from its current terminus to UBC seems unlikely. That said, if there is political will to promote a SkyTrain extension to UBC, provincial and regional officials will be able to assemble the funding; the money should not be the limiting factor in choosing the appropriate technology for this corridor.
In the coming months, Translink will produce more detailed information about the corridor, including projected ridership and transit times for each technology. If those figures come out strongly in support of the SkyTrain alternative, as I would bet, it would be unfortunate to select either light rail or bus rapid transit alternatives for the line.
Images above: Alternatives for Vancouver’s Broadway Corridor, from Translink