Concrete octopus: Some unrealized Vancouver rapid transit plans.

Here’s a fun artifact from the online archives of the City of Vancouver: a discussion of the Greater Vancouver Area Rapid Transit Study that aired on local cable TV sometime in 1971. [1]

That study recommended a rapid transit system with four arms radiating outward from downtown – or as one of the interview subjects puts it,

Essentially, they’re suggesting that a concrete octopus be superimposed on the City of Vancouver, with the head being located at Georgia and Granville, and the tentacles radiating out from there.

julius kane vancouver rapid transit study 1970

Dr. Julius Kane displays the dreaded concrete octopus.

The speaker, Dr. Julius Kane [2] of UBC’s Institute of Animal Resource Ecology, complains that the proposed system of “spokes leading to a central hub” would make the rest of the region “subservient” to the downtown core – a design he dismisses as “Victorian”. He goes on in increasingly apocalyptic terms:

It’s really hard to see why the planners want to repeat all the mistakes of Chicago, New York, and all other centres of this type, when they could draw upon the experiences of the decay that have been taking place in so many urban regions. … They’re going to contribute towards ultimate decay and the ultimate ruin of everything that makes Vancouver a pleasant or a desirable place to live.

Few urbanists today would think to blame rapid transit, of all things, for the decay that afflicted big U.S. cities in the early 1970s. The slur “concrete octopus” was usually used by citizens opposed to freeway projects, like the one that Vancouver (uniquely among big North American cities) had recently kiboshed.

However, Dr. Kane’s jeremiad anticipates complaints still being made about Vancouver’s SkyTrain system a half century later – that, just like the freeways it was meant to render unnecessary, it’s an ugly, overpriced monstrosity that chokes the life out of every neighbourhood unlucky enough to be embraced in its ever-extending tentacles.

Dr. Kane outlines instead a plan for tripling existing bus service, with modest infrastructure investments (bus-only lanes, overpasses, and tunnels) to make that service more efficient. In essence, he’s describing something like the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) system I’ve plumped for more than once on these pages.

More radically, he proposes doing away with fares, not only to help out poor folks but to make trips faster for everyone by permitting quick all-door boarding. (BRT presumes stations with faregates for the same purpose.) He figures this could all be paid for out of the dividends from investing the $300-400 million intended for a light rail system into treasury bills instead.

What I find interesting about the “concrete octopus” decried by Dr. Kane is how intuitive a design it is, compared to the one that was eventually settled on. The planners behind that 1970 study simply replicated Vancouver’s existing road network, running rapid transit lines on or near the four provincial highways entering the downtown core:

  • South via the Arbutus rail corridor, parallel to Granville Street / Highway 99
  • Southeast via the old interurban line, parallel to Kingsway / Highway 1A
  • East along Hastings Street / Highway 7A [3]
  • North on a new Burrard Inlet crossing parallel to the Lion’s Gate Bridge / Highway 99

vancouver rapid transit study 1970 proposed network

I recently spent some off-hours at the downtown library, looking at (and taking low-quality iPhone pictures of) the variety of rapid transit schemes proposed for Vancouver from the 1950s through the 1990s. I was curious to learn when, exactly, the two missing arms of the octopus – the Hastings arm and the North Shore arm – had been lopped off.

***

Prior to the late 1960s, it was assumed that any rapid transit network would be integrated into the freeway system planners were then keen to impose on the city. Here’s a lovely image from the 1958-59 Study on Highway Planning depicting the mid-century ideal of transportation efficiency. We’re looking east toward Burnaby Mountain, with downtown on the left:

vancouver freeway plan 1959

“A portion of the recommended freeway network.”
Source: A Study on Highway Planning, Pt. II: Freeways With Rapid Transit, Technical Committee For Metropolitan Highway Planning, 1958-59.

The authors of that report proposed an express bus network running on or alongside the freeway, perhaps dipping into a tunnel underneath the city centre. Here, a designated bus lane zooms transit riders above freeway traffic:

vancouver freeway rapid transit plan 1959

Gazing ahead to the far-off year 1976, the authors projected the busiest route in their freeway bus network to be the one due east of downtown – along Hastings Street.

vancouver freeway plan 1959 ridership projections

A few years later, the BC Research Council contemplated a light rail line running down the median of the freeway which it was assumed would soon be built to connect downtown with Highway 1. The alignment of that freeway (which would have flattened thirty or so linear blocks of Vancouver’s east side) would have been between Adanac and Venables Streets – about four blocks south of Hastings.

vancouver rail rapid transit plan 1962

Source: Rail Rapid Transit For Metropolitan Vancouver, BC Research Council, 1962. (Discussed here.)

By the late 1960s, planners had grokked that while it might be cost-efficient to slap a rapid transit line down the middle of a newly-built freeway, since hardly anyone lived by the freeway, ridership would always be limited.

A 1968 study reverted to locating rapid transit along routes where people actually lived and worked: east along Hastings and south towards Richmond, with “possible future transit corridors” stretching north, southeast, and – a new wrinkle – along West Broadway toward UBC.

vancouver freeways rapid transit plan 1968

Source: An Appraisal for the City of Vancouver of Transportation Systems and Routes Connecting Brockton Point Crossing to Provincial highways 401 and 499, N.D. Lea and Associates, 1968. [4]

The 1970 “concrete octopus” report reshuffled the priorities. Of the four routes recommended by the authors, the Kingsway and Arbutus lines were deemed the best value. A Hastings Street line, while it would attract the second-highest ridership at then-current levels of demand, was deemed to have only “poor to good” potential for future growth.

vancouver rapid transit study 1970 potential passenger loads

Present potential passenger loads, AM peak hour inbound.
Source: Report on the Greater Vancouver Area Rapid Transit Study, Deleuw Cather & Company, 1970.

The North Shore route – which was to be integrated into a premised third Burrard Inlet crossing near Brockton Point – had an even weaker growth forecast. Its main selling point was that without it a fourth crossing would soon become necessary. (A half century later, we’re scraping by – barely – with two.)

After the various Brockton Point bridge and tunnel plans petered away in the early seventies, a fixed transit link across Burrard Inlet was never again seriously considered. The SeaBus ferry was instead introduced in 1977 to connect downtown with the North Shore.

***

As the seventies arrived, megalomaniacal neighbourhood-razing schemes were falling out of vogue. Notice that this map from a 1972 study still has its rapid transit lines terminating at “Project 200” – a massive waterfront redevelopment proposal then in its death throes.

vancouver light rapid transit study 1972

Source: A Preliminary Study of Light Rapid Transit in Vancouver, GVRD, 1972.

Apart from that detail, it’s a fairly modest, mostly surface-level LRT proposal with two branches, one parallel to Kingsway on an alignment very close to our Expo Line, the other to Richmond via the Arbutus corridor.

A couple years later, the Richmond route was bounced temporarily out of the picture, as the Greater Vancouver Regional District began to concentrate on using rapid transit to juice the growth of Regional Town Centres in the suburbs to the east. Here we can see the shape of today’s SkyTrain starting to emerge…

vancouver livable region plan 1975

Source: The Livable Region 1976/1986, GVRD, 1975.

The GVRD’s 1978’s Rapid Transit Project expanded the menu again. It didn’t look at West Broadway or the North Shore, but it did evaluate a route through central Burnaby – similar to our Millennium Line – which it tossed out as low value. Hastings Street was again examined and rejected: the route as far as Boundary Road would be heavily used, but beyond that the number of potential riders fell off dramatically.

vancouver rapid transit project 1979

Potential rapid transit ridership – peak loads in the mid-1980s.
Source: The Rapid Transit Project Report, GVRD, 1979.

Although passenger volumes between New Westminster and Coquitlam were even more minuscule, Coquitlam’s designation as a Regional Town Centre made this route the third priority, after the Kingsway and Richmond lines.

Soon work began on the original SkyTrain – what we now call the Expo Line – which on its opening in 1985 reached as far as New Westminster. Over the next few years it was extended across the Fraser River to Surrey, connecting downtown with three of the four Regional Town Centres identified in the 1970s as priority transit destinations.

In the late 1980s, as the Expo Line closed in on its southeastern terminus and planners and politicians squabbled about what should come next, the Vancouver Province published a map showing five routes then under consideration: four variations of the promised branch line to Coquitlam and – just to keep things interesting – an extension down Hastings to the PNE.

possible skytrain extensions vancouver province 1988

Source: Vancouver Province. (Colour highlights added.)
Update, May 19 2019: For more on the rejected Edmonds-Lougheed extension (orange on map) see “A SkyTrain Historical Footnote”.

This was something less than a serious plan but something more than the idle scribbling of a bored graphic artist. In a 1990 interview, BC Transit president Mike O’Connor discussed resuscitating not only the Hastings route but a dedicated Burrard Inlet crossing, and added a few brand-new far-fetched ideas:

BC Transit is studying SkyTrain extensions – including a tunnel under Burrard Inlet – that could revolutionize transportation in the Lower Mainland.

The studies are being spurred by SkyTrain’s spectacular passenger growth, BC Transit president Mike O’Connor told The Sunday Province.

The only way to avoid an impossibly clogged service is to build new lines, he said.

“We have to be very careful that we don’t overload that first rapid-transit line.”

Without further extensions, he said, the system will reach capacity within 10 years – and put the big squeeze on commuters.

O’Connor said BC Transit is investigating:

  • A new SkyTrain line to the Pacific National Exhibition from downtown Vancouver, along either the waterfront or Hastings Street.
  • A new line from the PNE to Coquitlam Centre, either along Burrard Inlet or south of Burnaby Mountain.
  • A North Shore SkyTrain system and tunnel under Burrard Inlet to Vancouver.
  • A north-south SkyTrain line – or fast-bus route – along Boundary Road from the PNE to the north arm of the Fraser River.

BC Transit estimates the cost of new lines and equipment at $40 million per kilometre. [5]

The defeat of BC’s scandal-plagued Social Credit government in 1991 put a stop to such speculations. The newly-elected NDP had, while in opposition, hammered SkyTrain as a Socred vanity project. Their intention was to swap elephantine transit megaprojects for quick and gritty pack-mule solutions, such as negotiating with railways to run limited-service commuter trains. These efforts led a few years later to the introduction of the West Coast Express, operating ten trains a day on CPR tracks between Mission and downtown Vancouver, and technically sort-of fulfilling the outgoing government’s promise of rapid transit to Coquitlam by 1995.

That same year, the provincial government announced their plan for an all-new, modestly-priced, street-level light rail line connecting Vancouver to Coquitlam via the Broadway-Lougheed corridor.

The tortuous evolution of this line, which was eventually built with SkyTrain technology and truncated to a scenic tour of the shopping malls of central Burnaby, has been ably related by Daryl de la Cruz, so I’ll let him carry on the history lesson.

***

Richmond was added to the network with the opening of the Canada Line in 2009. Coquitlam had to wait for the extension of the Millennium Line in 2016. If current plans hold, by the mid-2020s SkyTrain will run along West Broadway as far as Arbutus Street and down Fraser Highway to some yet-to-be-determined point in the direction of Langley.

And beyond that? With recent grumblings from North Shore politicians about their traffic woes and overburdened bridges, might the northern arm of the concrete octopus someday sprout anew?

M.

1. This video was produced by the Simon Fraser Video Workshop, an extracurricular club at Simon Fraser University in the early 1970s.

2. Dr. Kane – who, it should be mentioned, was no more an expert on transportation than I am – is best known for having a species of toenail fungus named after him, and for being fired by UBC in 1983 for “improper use of the university computer and for using a research grant for private purpose”.

3. The Highway 1A and 7A designations for Kingsway and Hastings Street, respectively, have been officially retired from use, which came as news to me – they’re still prominently shown on Google Maps.

4. While most of the blurry photos on this page were taken from the original documents, I found this map of the 1968 freeway and rapid transit plan in Derek Hayes’ Historical Atlas of Vancouver and the Lower Fraser Valley.

5. “Transit System Plans On Track”, Vancouver Province, March 11, 1990.

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1 Response to “Concrete octopus: Some unrealized Vancouver rapid transit plans.”


  1. 1 Donald Nguyen August 11, 2019 at 9:58 am

    There’s still a 99A/1A sign on Kingsway and Boundary on the Vancouver side.


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