» Proposed extensions to the SkyTrain network could have it reaching to the University of British Columbia or southeast into Surrey.
Of all North American cities over the last few decades, Vancouver has pursued the most steady expansion program for its rail rapid transit system, called SkyTrain. The system, whose first line opened in 1985, was extended with new lines in 2002 and 2009 — and the Province of British Columbia is soon to begin building a fourth alignment. The region’s population has taken to the network, riding at a rate of about 350,000 trips a day, pretty good for a service district of about 1.5 million people. The question for regional planners, faced with limited funds, is where to stretch rail lines next.
Based on recent news, the choice may be to spend on building new rail rapid transit lines out into the suburbs south of the Fraser River, rather than within the existing and relatively dense core.
In its most recent draft growth plan, meant to shape the region’s development over the next few decades, the Metro Vancouver intergovernmental organization has recommended expanding SkyTrain further into Surrey, southeast of the City of Vancouver. The group has suggested that that project would be more effective in responding to new regional growth than a proposed new rail line running under Broadway to the University of British Columbia (UBC) in West Vancouver, previously assumed to be the next obvious step. The Translink regional transportation agency faces a structural deficit and has yet to complete its commitment to the proposed 6.8-mile Evergreen Line SkyTrain extension, which is supposed to begin construction next year with the goal of providing future service to Port Moody and Coquitlam. There isn’t enough money for both the Surrey and Broadway lines in the foreseeable future, so the latter may be pushed back indefinitely.
All this in spite of the plan’s endorsement of five goals seemingly in opposition to that strategy: Creating a compact urban core; supporting a sustainable economy; responding to climate change impacts; developing complete communities; and supporting sustainable transportation options. Though the region benefits from an urban containment boundary designed to keep new development within a reasonable perimeter of the urban core, encouraging growth in Surrey is roughly equivalent to promoting more construction in what are low-density areas today and are likely to remain so in the future.
In the past, three basic routes have been proposed for new SkyTrain service in Surrey, and these proposals are likely to inform any future investment. One route would extend 4.4 miles south from the existing King George station along King George Avenue to 64th Avenue; another would run 5.6 miles east to Guildford and then south to Fleetwood at 168th Street; a final alignment could extend the latter route another 5.5 miles to the City of Langley. The commute between King George Station and Waterfront Station, at the heart of Vancouver’s downtown, already takes 39 minutes to cover 18 miles — and that’s pretty fast by urban transit standards. So these new routes would encourage long commutes between the metropolitan core and these suburbs.
Can the regional group’s goals be reconciled with an investment in suburban extensions to the rapid transit lines? Indeed, wouldn’t such investments only encourage further growth far from the center, increase car use, and augment the production of greenhouse gases?
Yet there may be some realism in Metro Vancouver’s prioritization of the Surrey corridor over the UBC-Broadway line. It is true that there has been significant growth in the southeastern sections of the region in recent years. If you take the organization’s plan seriously, you might assume that local leaders want the Surrey Metro Center — located around the existing Surrey Central SkyTrain station — to play almost as important a role as downtown Vancouver in terms of attracting job growth. From that perspective, it could make sense to extend the transit system south from there, to provide suburb-to-suburban core services.
If Surrey is to take in a majority of the region’s growth, it is true that an efficient new transit line could play an important role in structuring growth so that it is transit-oriented and so that a larger percentage of trips are made by environmentally sustainable public transportation. A SkyTrain extension could be the way to achieve those outcomes.
Even so, there might be cheaper options that provide many of the benefits of SkyTrain without its costs. The Broadway and Surrey lines could likely both be built as non-grade separated light rail for the same price as just one of them as automated rapid transit. Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts has herself suggested that the most appropriate technology for her municipality is light rail. And the line all the way to UBC has already been discussed as a potential candidate for light rail or improved bus service.
Yet the Vancouver region has established SkyTrain as its preferred transit mode, and from that perspective it may make sense to continue investing in it over other technologies, because that would allow any new projects to interlink without connections to the existing system.
But the question of where to invest in new transit is not really about technology: It’s about regional growth priorities. If Translink’s next project is a billion-dollar down-payment in the suburbs, then it is clear where the area wants most of future development to be produced. Following the goals established by Metro Vancouver — basically, minimizing automobile use, reducing carbon emissions, and densifying the core — the best investment is invariably in a new line under Broadway to UBC. That route would run in areas that are already developed, encourage higher densities (if up-zoning is allowed), and reinforce the existing transit network by creating a cross-town corridor.
For a regional group whose representation extends far into the suburbs, however, those broader goals that they claim will orient future decision-making may in fact be less of a priority than their draft report suggests.