Surrey’s reluctant rapid transit lab rats.

I have mixed feelings about the decision by Surrey’s new mayor and council to scrap the city’s planned light rail project.

The old plan was for an all-new $3.5 billion surface-level light rail network connecting downtown Surrey with Guildford, Newton, and Langley. $1.65 billion of funding was already secured for the Guildford-Newton section of the route, bids were being taken, and pre-construction was underway.

The new plan is to take the $1.65 billion and apply it instead to a continuation of the elevated SkyTrain from downtown Surrey to Langley. Beyond that it’s sort of fuzzy.

surrey rapid transit lrt skytrain

On the one hand, I agree with incoming mayor Doug McCallum and the majority of Surrey voters that the light rail proposal was a dud. At vast cost it would have done nothing to improve travel time between the four centres that couldn’t be achieved far more cheaply with designated bus lanes and traffic signal priority.

This isn’t merely the opinion of some random internet chucklehead: Metro Vancouver’s regional transit authority, TransLink, arrived at the same conclusion back in 2012 when it studied a variety of Surrey rapid transit scenarios.

surrey rapid transit lrt skytrain

From TransLink’s Surrey Rapid Transit Alternatives Analysis, archived at skytrainforsurrey.org. (Graph has been modified to highlight relevant columns.)

Comparing the “LRT1” option (the now-rejected light rail plan) with “RRT1A” (SkyTrain to Langley, plus Bus Rapid Transit on the King George-104th Avenue corridor), the latter was rated as superior in the categories of “Transportation” and “Financial”.

Surrey’s outgoing councillors apparently had other priorities than speed, capacity, and return-on-investment. As they saw it, a light rail network could be built more cheaply than SkyTrain, bringing slightly-more-rapid transit to more neighbourhoods more quickly.

I get the sense, reading some of the arguments against SkyTrain, that they’re being made by people who either never take transit, or if they do, aren’t in much of a hurry to actually get where they’re going.

For example, some Surrey boosters perversely make it a demerit against SkyTrain that commuters would be able to ride all the way from Langley to downtown Vancouver without changing trains. As they see it, a forced transfer at Surrey Central Station would discourage some riders from travelling onward, keeping their business in Surrey.

But the main anti-SkyTrain argument was summarized in that TransLink study, where the light rail option won out in the “Social & Community” and “Urban Development” categories.

What it boils down to is the widely held perception that SkyTrain’s elevated guiderails are a “blight on the urban landscape”.

I have a hard time imagining how guiderails could make Surrey’s mile upon mile of strip malls and low-slung office buildings any uglier. But thanks to the Photoshopping skills of the Fleetwood Business Improvement Association, I don’t have to imagine:

surrey fleetwood skytrain guiderail visualization

Fraser Highway and 160th Street, Surrey, with superimposed SkyTrain station.

surrey fleetwood skytrain guiderail visualization

Fraser Highway in Surrey, with superimposed SkyTrain guiderails.

Grim indeed! But it doesn’t really conform to my experience of Vancouver’s SkyTrain-centred suburbs, which I find quite congenial:

beresford street patterson station burnaby

Beresford Street near Patterson Station, Burnaby. From Google Street View.

rumble street edmonds station burnaby

Rumble Street near Edmonds Station, Burnaby. From Google Street View.

For some people high-rises and raw concrete are the workings of Mordor, to be opposed without compromise. I sympathize with their quaint tastes but also wonder why they go on living in a big city. To me the guiderails, footpaths, and glass towers give these neighbourhoods an endearingly retro-futuristic look:

pinetree way lafarge lake station coquitlam

Pinestreet Way near LaFarge Lake Station, Coquitlam. From Google Street View.

boundary road joyce station vancouver

Boundary Road near Joyce Station, Vancouver. From Google Street View.

The writer of the Georgia Straight op-ed linked above points to Lougheed Highway in Burnaby and No. 3 Road in Richmond as exemplars of ugliness. But they’re really not that bad…and most of the ugliness is a hangover from the decades of auto-centred sprawl that rapid transit is meant to curb:

lougheed highway gilmore station burnaby

Lougheed Highway near Gilmore Station, Burnaby. From Google Street View.

number 3 road richmond brighouse station richmond

No. 3 Road near Richmond-Brighouse Station, Richmond. From Google Street View.

I guess the deposed council had a different vision in mind for Surrey. Who knows, maybe it would have been great: as a non-Surreyite, I was keeping an open mind.

Since I rarely travel south of the Fraser River, King George Boulevard would have been a handy spot to experiment with a form of rapid transit that hadn’t been tried in Metro Vancouver. If light rail were successful there, it might have opened up new possibilities for expanding the network in other parts of the region.

And if, as I anticipated, it flopped, it wouldn’t inconvenience me that much.

Despite overblown warnings that killing light rail would mean losing the $1.65 billion designated for the first phase of the project and returning to square one in the planning process, the various levels of government seem to be on board with reallocating the money to SkyTrain. But it’s not clear yet how much SkyTrain can be built with $1.65 billion.

Assuming the whole $3.5 billion intended for both phases is still available for Surrey’s rapid transit plans (no-one knows yet where the remaining $1.9 billion will come from), how much will be left after the Langley SkyTrain extension?

Mayor McCallum claims that the SkyTrain cost estimates have been inflated, and that it can be built for the same price as light rail. In which case the Guildford-Newton section could be done using SkyTrain as well. But that’s almost certainly balderdash.

The SkyTrain For Surrey campaign, which steadfastly opposed the light rail plan in the days when resistance appeared futile, has been pushing for both components of the RRT1A option from that TransLink study: SkyTrain to Langley, plus Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) from Guildford all the way to White Rock.

surrey rapid transit options skytrain brt

BRT is a step up from a mere express bus route. It refers to a combination of designated bus lanes, traffic signal priority, and fare-gated stations with raised platforms for quick all-door boarding. A BRT route can’t carry as many passengers as light rail, but it’s way more flexible to build and operate:

  • It doesn’t require specially trained drivers. Its buses can be operated by anyone from the regular pool of drivers.
  • It doesn’t require its own operations and maintenance centre. The buses can be serviced along with the rest of the fleet.
  • It doesn’t need to be constructed all at once. Buses can easily switch back and forth from designated bus lanes to regular traffic lanes. (Also, unlike trains, buses can steer around accidents and obstructions.)

It would be great to have SkyTrain lines extending all over the region, but sadly SkyTrain costs a fortune to build, and it’s not getting any cheaper.

Light rail is more affordable, and offers a smooth and comfortable ride, but the speed advantage over an express bus isn’t enough to make the upgrade worthwhile.

BRT seems like a good compromise on routes where SkyTrain is unrealistic. At a moderate cost it offers moderate capacity, moderate speed – and maximum flexibility.

Or maybe I’m wrong. At any rate, I’d like to see BRT tried out somewhere in Metro Vancouver – ideally, somewhere out of the way, like Surrey, where I won’t be affected if it turns out to be a flop.

M.

In the wake of Metro Vancouver’s 2015 transit referendum I made the case for spending more on buses and less on pricey rail projects. A couple years later, worrying that “cost disease” would soon make rail projects unaffordable, I said: hmm, on second thought, better start building them now. More recently I argued that the character of Vancouver’s low-density, family-friendly neighbourhoods could best be preserved by stacking singles and seniors in high-rise clusters.

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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