Archive for the 'Transportation & Cities' Category

Quick and dirty: Once more on cost disease.

After stumbling across my old blog post on “Cost disease and Canadian transit”, the writer and transportation researcher Stephen Wickens sent me a link to a study he authored earlier this year:

Station to Station: Why Subway-Building Costs Have Soared in the Toronto Region

It’s an in-depth look at the question I asked, and failed to answer, in my original post and its 2019 follow up: why are modern rapid transit projects so ridiculously expensive – even after you adjust for inflation – compared to similar projects from as recently as the 1990s?

Subways cost far more now in real dollars than they did decades ago, even though the latest projects have had fewer stations per kilometre and traverse simpler, less-dense contexts. The new lines are projected to cost more despite being delivered during an extended period of record-low borrowing costs. Further, these projects will be delivered using the province’s public-private partnership (P3) program, which is supposed to offer better value for the money.

Although this topic is old news to me and many of my readers – and to readers of Slate Star Codex, whose 2017 post “Considerations On Cost Disease” brought it to my attention – Wickens mentions that the extent of the problem has yet to be recognized by some of our decision-makers:

When asked why we were more efficient at delivering infrastructure in the 1950s and ’60s, the president and chief executive of Canada’s Infrastructure Bank, Pierre Lavallée, smiled and asked: “Is that actually true?” Moments later, SNC-Lavalin executive vice-president, Dale Clarke, responded with: “I think that [greater efficiencies in an earlier era] may be more of a perception than a reality.”

I wish I could say that Wickens’ study had cracked the question of why cost disease took off so dramatically around the turn of the millennium, but I’m afraid that, despite the impressive breadth of his research, his conclusions aren’t much more definitive than mine. Essentially, he concludes (as I did) that it’s the result of the convergence of a number of trends.

From Wickens’ summary of his study at BlogTO:

The biggest factors in these skyrocketing costs, the study finds, are station depths—some stations on the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension, completed in 2017, go seven storeys into the ground—as well as things like rising labour costs and reduced construction productivity, corridor clearing and maintenance, and the cost of delays and “political meddling in the planning process.”

Many of Wickens’ Key Recommendations line up with cost drivers I identified in my earlier posts: rising land values, “infrastructure clutter” complicating construction, and the short-sighted selling-off of disused rail corridors forcing planners to default to pricier alternative routes.

Others, like Wickens’ suggestion to “reuse excess soil beneficially”, would never have occurred to me.

I’m a little skeptical about at least one of his recommendations, “Expand the cost-crisis conversation beyond the usual transit experts”.

I’ve argued that one of the factors driving rising costs is that it’s easier these days for ordinary schmucks (like me) to keep on top of construction plans whose details, in the past, would have been known only to a handful of insiders.

As I wrote in 2019, “The internet has made it cheaper and easier for obstructionists to organize and demand pricey compromises.” Whether the compromises are for the better or the worse, they lead to expensive reversals of already-made plans – in other words, to “political meddling in the planning process”.

I’m not saying “let’s just leave it to the experts” – only that soliciting a wider range of opinions is unlikely to result in greater consensus, and may well lead to more expensive dithering over the drawing board.

If we’re looking for an honest answer to the question, “How were they able to build so cheaply in the 20th century?” part of it is that they had 20th-century ideas about how to get things done – with less community engagement and more guys in suits barking orders into telephones.

***

The above reference to budget-busting seven-storey underground stations is just one of many in Wickens’ study, which began as an attempt to figure out whether overruns on the Line 1 extension to Vaughan were driven by overly grandiose station designs.

Wickens repeatedly draws our attention to the added expense of bored subway tunnels – necessitating bigger, deeper stations – over the cheaper, shallower cut-and-cover construction used in the last century. Cut-and-cover has been ruled out in more recent projects because it tends to rile up residents and businesses along the affected corridors.

Vancouver readers will be interested in the discussion of the construction of the Canada Line, and subsequent lawsuits brought by Cambie merchants over the effects of having a huge trench outside their storefronts for three years.

canada line construction vancouver cambie street

Cambie Street in 2007. Source: Whatever2009, Wikimedia Commons.

Observing that the choice of cut-and-cover rather than a bored tunnel shaved $400 million from the Canada Line project budget, Wickens writes that:

Courts have awarded three merchants compensation for “injurious affection” totalling $181,040 (though that decision has been appealed), with 97 more cases still to be ruled upon. Even if the $60,000-plus payout average were to hold, a cumulative $6 million would still be a good tradeoff for a $400-million saving. [1]

True, but (as Wickens concedes in the following paragraph) many Cambie residents and business owners would raise a holler at that cold-blooded calculation. The root of the dilemma can be glimpsed in this comment, which occurs in a discussion of “under-investment” in Toronto’s 1959 University-Bloor-Danforth subway project:

Nine construction workers lost their lives and many more were injured on the job. Protecting lives adds costs, but it is not something we should ever economize on.

Never? Never ever? I mean, there’s always going to be some level of risk wherever you have soft, fleshy humans working in the vicinity of enormous metal teeth tearing into the earth. Today we’re willing to accept far less risk than we were in 1959, and in another sixty years our grandchildren may shudder at today’s level of unsafety. Imagine, workers standing out in the sun without OHS-mandated parasol-holders shielding them from harmful UV rays! They were a foolhardy breed, those cancer-ridden hardhats of 2020…

What if future planners decide that protecting the psychiatric well-being of people living in construction zones “is not something we should ever economize on”? What are we, monsters, knowingly exposing children, the elderly, and neurodivergent individuals to dust-filled air, the sound of jackhammers, and burly men using gendered language, just to save a few hundred million bucks?

Forgive me if my facetious tone makes it sound like I’m scoffing at the unnecessary deaths of those 1950s construction workers. I’m not – but it’s easy to imagine them scoffing at the level of safety-consciousness that has taken hold in recent years. In any case I suspect that that safety-consciousness is a big factor in the “rising labour costs and reduced construction productivity” mentioned by Wickens above, and if we’re not going to resist it – which, perhaps, we shouldn’t – then we’re going to have to find somewhere else to cut back. Don’t ask me, I’m all out of ideas.

M.

Update, Sept. 9, 2020: Stephen Wickens kindly emailed to suggest that I’d “misconstrued” one of his Key Recommendations. He’s right. Here’s his recommendation in its entirety:

1) Expand the cost-crisis conversation beyond the usual transit experts. Even people who never ride public transit benefit hugely from its existence and, with constraints on our ability to add more road space, the benefits of expanded transit will increasingly be more important than ever. The infrastructure cost crisis is growing, and without prompt and appropriate responses it will damage the long-term competitiveness of the [Greater Toronto Area], with harmful knock-on effects for all of Canada. Cities that make wise transit planning decisions will have major competitive advantages in the 21st century. Merely building will not be enough. If we spend foolishly, we undermine the public’s willingness to fund future projects, no matter how urgent they might be.

He’s not arguing, as I lazily implied, for “ordinary schmucks (like me)” to have greater input into the transit planning process. He’s merely saying that a wider range of decision-makers need to be made aware of the fact that cost disease, or the “cost crisis”, as he prefers, is a problem at all.

In fact, you could read a later Key Recommendation as advising that we ordinary schmucks be kept in our place:

9) Approve long-term transit plans based on real evidence. Politicians have hugely important roles to play in ensuring contracts are fulfilled and in choosing service-policies (ridership growth versus broader network coverage for example). They should also retain the best and most powerful role in the process: choosing which projects get approved and funded, but only from a menu of options prepared by transit experts who have been freed to exercise professional independence and publicly speak truth to power. The GTA’s multidecade descent into a transit crisis is rooted at least partly in an ethical breach that needs to be sealed off immediately. When politicians can interfere in preparing the menus of options, we inevitably waste and misuse experts by having them engage in “decision-based evidence making.” Planners and consultants need to be able to safely raise and study good options even if those options are seen as threats to projects promised by politicians in power, or seeking office. Often, the only options that make it to the table are unnecessarily costly and of questionable worth, while more practical solutions receive little or no consideration.

(In a democracy, the rules of polite discourse preclude us from saying, “Keep those uninformed plebes out of the planning process, they inevitably mess everything up”. We must instead direct our ire at the politicians elevated to power by those same uninformed plebes.)

Anyway, I have mixed feelings about Key Recommendation #9. I’m not sure I have much more faith in the wisdom of supposedly impartial transit experts than I do in the squabbling mayors, premiers, and prime ministers who continually rip up and rearrange their tidy plans.

Ideally the two sides offset each other’s worst tendencies – with the experts providing some ballast to politicians’ pie-in-the-sky promises, while the politicians rein in the experts’ tendency to prioritize current fashions in urbanism over the preferences of real, unruly humans. Perhaps the sides were better balanced in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, when Toronto constructed the bulk of its subway system at what now seem impossibly modest prices – but I’m not sure. Were experts really more independent back then? Were politicians really more deferential?

However we apportion the responsibility, the politicians and experts of 20th-century Toronto made a lot of what are now generally regarded as dumb decisions – a lakefront expressway; the Scarborough RT; subways stretching ever deeper into the suburbs while downtown stations became dangerously overcrowded. But they made those dumb decisions quickly. In 21st-century terms, they moved fast and broke things.

20th-century infrastructure was cheaper, in part, because decision-makers were willing to risk breaking things. They could take those risks because everything was cheaper – hence, the financial stakes for each decision were lower.

This update is now nearly as long as the original post. You should ignore my blethering and, if you haven’t already, go read Wickens’ study.

1. That $180,000 award to three Cambie businesses affected by Canada Line construction was later overturned by the BC Supreme Court.

Stephen Wickens hasn’t updated his blog for a while, but his 2019 article advocating a commuter rail “Smart Spur” to Scarborough Town Centre (instead of the planned $4 billion subway extension) makes a lot of sense to me. I haven’t been writing much about transit issues either, in part because I fear that, in light of recent events, mass transportation has become passé. If you’re looking for a more literary variation on how they used to do things better back in the 20th century grumble grumble goddamn rap music, I’ve got you covered.

Urban rethink.

If there’s one thing the pandemic has proven, it’s that we were right about everything all along.

Those of us who admired the Chinese government have found new reasons for admiration. Those of us who distrusted the Chinese government have found new reasons for distrust.

Those of us who fretted about deficits now have even bigger deficits to fret about. Those of us who favoured bigger government are certain that the current crisis has vindicated our arguments.

And those of us who argued for “taking space away from cars and using it for people” are more committed than ever to the cause…

I happen to like density, public transportation, and walkable neighbourhoods. So I’m not too vexed by the news that the City of Vancouver is using the pandemic as an excuse to do more of what it was doing already:

[T]he pandemic is creating opportunities, council heard Wednesday, like the massive reduction in cars driving and parking, allowing the city to make strides on long-standing goals of promoting active transportation for a more healthy, happy, environmentally friendly city.

But I had to laugh at the headline of the above story as it appeared in the print version of Thursday’s Sun:

pandemic forces urban rethink vancouver sun

“Pandemic forces urban rethink”, by Dan Fumano, Vancouver Sun, May 14, 2020.

What would an “urban rethink” actually look like?

Richard J. Williams argued in the New York Times earlier this month that the mid-20th century trend towards sprawl and suburbanization was driven largely by still-fresh memories of poor sanitation and plague in overcrowded big cities:

If density was disease for modernists, it followed that their cities were about keeping people apart. Look back at the utopian schemes for cities of the first half of the 20th century, and the same hygienic preoccupations come up again and again: There must be light and space and fresh air. The Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier wrote about these things in his book “Vers Une Architecture” (translated as “Towards a New Architecture”). Parts of the book read like comedy now – the author’s attempt to turn his own obsession with hygiene into an avant-garde manifesto. But it was serious when it was published in 1923, the Spanish flu pandemic having just run its course.

As the new millennium approached, and concern about hygiene receded, the old wisdom that crowded sidewalks were dirty and unsightly was supplanted by the conviction that density was terrific, that every family should be grateful to live in an 800 sq. ft. townhouse and ride the subway to work, and that the previous generation of planners who had pulled down tenements to build freeways and public housing projects were frauds and bullies and probably racists to boot.

But now, of course, it looks like hygiene is something we have to worry about again, so planners may drift back to sprawl and suburbanization:

The dense city might not turn out to be responsible for the virus when all is said and done – but as it did a century ago in relation to the Spanish flu, it might well start to feel like a cause. After months of social distancing, are we going to want to go straight back into the crowd? Even if we are allowed to, I doubt it.

With arguments like these gaining traction – here’s Steve Sailer elaborating on the Times article, and Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky making a similar case in Quillette – I wonder if Vancouver city staff will be forced to re-evaluate their priorities.

Take the Broadway subway that finally got the go-ahead last year, which will, upon its planned completion in 2025, fill an annoying gap in Vancouver’s SkyTrain network. Might it be postponed or cancelled outright when politicians are forced to grapple with the deficits that have been piling up during the shutdown?

There is a trendy line of thought that says – I hope I’m getting this right – that deficits don’t matter, that since governments control the supply of money they can print more whenever they need it, and that inflation can be controlled by simply regulating prices. Therefore we should spend our way back to prosperity with massive public works projects like subways and bridges, the costlier the better.

But if it turns out that public transit was a significant vector of infection – which at the moment looks plausible, though far from proven – then it may be foolish to continue building hugely expensive subways that no-one will be very eager to ride. There are more hygienic megaprojects that can be bumped to the top of the to-do list.

In BC’s Lower Mainland, a region of rivers and inlets, there’s always a demand for more bridges and tunnels:

  • Work had already begun in 2017 to replace the antique and overcrowded Massey Tunnel under the Fraser River with a new bridge, before the project was booted back into consultations with the change of government. It would be easy to get it back on track.
  • The new government also squashed hopes for a bridge to the Sunshine Coast, with the district’s MLA saying “it would not provide value for money”. But the study he was referring to specifically excluded “consideration of economic development benefits”, which could always be factored back in to justify reviving the idea.
  • If those projects aren’t ambitious enough, we could always take another look at the old, old dream of a fixed link between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

Over in the UK there’s the so-called Boris bridge. In 2018 Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s idea for an English Channel bridge came to nothing, but now that he’s prime minister, civil servants are obliged to take his whims seriously – so they’re at least going through the motions of considering a 20-mile-long, £20 billion bridge over the Irish Sea to join Scotland and Northern Ireland. Last I heard, the Scottish government was bitching that London hadn’t consulted them before undertaking the study.

boris bridge northern ireland scotland

“Boris bridge”, as visualized by The Sun.

Now, assuming it’s technically possible, I don’t think the bridge is such a bad idea. But it’s unlikely to be built, not just because of the eye-popping price tag but also because, with the UK’s devolved parliaments in Edinburgh and Belfast, the project would be scuppered by the same kind of grandstanding, blame-shifting, and legal obstructionism that make it nigh-impossible to build any infrastructure across an interprovincial border in Canada.

But if in the aftermath of the virus London is looking for something big, bold, and labour-intensive to lift British spirits – and to put a ton of potential Tory voters to work – then a massive bridge that travellers cross in their own hermetically-sealed automobiles might look better than, say, a £106 billion high-speed rail network that could end up whooshing half-empty trains past idling queues of resentful auto commuters.

M.

Speaking of bridges and tunnels, the BC government has embarked on yet another study of a rapid transit link to the North Shore; I touched on one of the previous studies last year when looking at some abandoned SkyTrain schemes. A couple weeks back I wondered whether, given the current difficulties getting infrastructure built, an un-building project might be an easier sell. I’ve mentioned Le Corbusier once before, in an essay that attempted to extract a consistent definition of that perennial media bugbear “populism”.

The Hastings SkyTrain alternate reality.

Having a couple leftover maps and newspaper clippings from my researches into Vancouver’s unrealized rapid transit plans, I thought I should find an excuse to share them.

Here it is: a commenter on my post on the Edmonds-Cariboo SkyTrain extension quibbled with my assessment that this widely hated late ’80s proposal might have been a better deal than the Millennium Line that was built instead.

This is a reasonable quibble. I’m not all that sure myself. Although I’ve hinted here and there, I’ve never really spelled out my conjecture that the Millennium Line was a wrong turn, and that Vancouver might have been better off sticking to its earlier plan for four routes radiating from the Central Business District:

vancouver ultimate transit network 1990 study

Source: Vancouver Richmond Rapid Transit Project, N.D. Lea Consultants / Reid Crowther and Partners, 1990.

A. North to the North Shore.
B. East along Hastings Street.
C. Southeast to New Westminster and Surrey.
D. South to Richmond.

Routes C and D are today’s Expo and Canada Lines.

Route A still gets a flutter of interest now and then, most recently in 2017 when the outgoing mayor of North Vancouver pitched a tunnelled Waterfront Station-Lonsdale Quay SkyTrain to take some pressure off the overloaded bridges.

And though it’s largely been forgotten now, as late as the 1990s transit officials had hazy notions of going ahead with route B, which would have entailed extending the Expo Line eastward from its current terminus at Waterfront Station to a Park & Ride at the PNE.

There appear to be no technical obstacles to extending SkyTrain beyond Waterfront. [1] In fact the idea was considered in the early stages of planning for what became the Canada Line. In this study from 1990, the routes marked G1-5, H1-5, and I1-5 would have looped the Expo Line southward toward Richmond via a tunnel entrance just east of Waterfront Station:

vancouver-richmond rapid transit downtown route options 1990

Source: Vancouver Richmond Rapid Transit Project, N.D. Lea Consultants / Reid Crowther and Partners, 1990.

These routes were ruled out as they would have required burrowing under architecturally sensitive Gastown.

Suppose the Expo Line had instead been extended eastward. Rather than undermining Gastown, the line might have followed the harbourfront at surface level or on elevated rails, and crossed south to Hastings in one of the less-cherished neighbourhoods to the east. From there it might have proceeded either overhead or via tunnel to Hastings Park and the PNE.

At some later date, whenever it came time to replace one of the two existing Second Narrows crossings, the line could be affordably extended across the new bridge to the North Shore – as in this map from a 1994 study: [2]

north shore transit options second narrows

Source: North Shore Transit Options, BC Transit, 1994.

But let’s assume that the extension terminated at the PNE. In that case the whole length would be about six kilometres. Travel time would be roughly ten minutes, versus twenty by express bus.

In the 1990s, BC Transit might easily have scrimped and built the whole thing on elevated rails, for around $60 million per kilometre, $360 million overall. [3] It would have been damned as a blot on the skyline, of course, but by now everyone would be used to it. And imagine the views from the train windows!

In recent decades, Vancouver’s centre of gravity has been drifting eastward, bringing wealthy new residents and rising prices to the East Hastings area. If TransLink (BC Transit’s successor agency) were to attempt a Hastings SkyTrain now, they’d be obliged to defer to concerns about community impacts and tunnel the whole way, at a cost approaching the half-billion dollars per kilometre budgeted for the upcoming Broadway extension.

Therefore I’m afraid that by the time such a line becomes necessary it’ll be too pricy to build. (See my post on rapid transit in the era of cost disease.)

In any case, the construction of the Millennium Line on a parallel route a couple kilometres further south has made the prospect of a future Hastings SkyTrain quite remote. A pity, because:

  • As shown in the maps below, the Hastings extension would have linked a number of densely-populated, rental-heavy, and transit-dependent neighbourhoods;
  • It would have serviced the eastern edge of Gastown, the Port of Vancouver, the Pacific Coliseum, and the PNE – all potential high-volume destinations;
  • It would have brought rapid transit to a new region of the city, instead of concentrating service in a narrow triangle of Vancouver’s east side;
  • Consequently it would have enjoyed high ridership from day one, rather than underperforming as the Millennium Line did in its early years. [4]
vancouver skytrain stations population density

Based on a map by Anthony Smith.

skytrain hastings extension population density

Based on a map by Anthony Smith.
For the assumptions behind this fanciful map, see [5].

Okay, okay, I foresee your objection: my maps conveniently cut off everything east of Boundary Road, while the Millennium Line extends clear across Burnaby and into Coquitlam. Which brings us to…

The Edmonds-Cariboo SkyTrain alternate reality.

I don’t begrudge the residents of central Burnaby and East Vancouver the speed and convenience of the Millennium Line. I rode it for a while myself.

But SkyTrain wasn’t built through those neighbourhoods in response to demand from existing residents. It was built there because Lougheed Highway was a big, wide road with nothing much on either side of it – meaning construction would be cheap, and the new line would spur the profitable redevelopment of low-density residential and light industrial properties along its route.

As I discussed in my 2015 post on planners versus riders, there’s nothing wrong with using rapid transit to shape the growth of the city. The downside is that in the short term, while your new line is used only by the few pioneers willing to live along its largely barren route, commuters who elected to live in already-developed neighbourhoods are stuck riding overcrowded buses.

This is particularly annoying because on a busy corridor like, say, Hastings Street, buses are constantly having to slow down for red lights, pedestrians, and cars backing into tight parking spots. Meanwhile a road like Lougheed, with its mile-long blocks, empty shoulders, and lack of pedestrians, is a perfect spot for high-speed bus service. For the cost of a single SkyTrain station an express bus lane could have been built clear across Burnaby.

Of course, the Millennium Line wasn’t built solely to spur development along Lougheed Highway. The goal was always to connect busy downtown Coquitlam, in the far northeast, with the even busier Broadway corridor.

skytrain millennium line history

For cost-saving reasons the lightly populated middle section was built first. Then the more technically challenging Lougheed Mall-Coquitlam stretch. Now, a couple decades into the new millennium, we’re getting serious about extending it to West Broadway – the neighbourhood whose population density and employment opportunities will at last justify the line’s existence.

The Millennium Line’s defenders will say that without the middle stretch the route would make no sense. But the Edmonds-Cariboo extension proposed in the late 1980s was meant as a cheap-and-easy shortcut to Coquitlam.

Under this option a Coquitlam-downtown Vancouver trip would have been just as quick as it is today, and wouldn’t have required a transfer. Because the route was substantially less costly to build, it could have been in service years sooner.

skytrain proposed edmonds-cariboo extension

The route was ruled out in 1991 by the incoming NDP government, who in opposition had derided SkyTrain as a “big white elephant”. [6] They may have had a point! But after a few extra years of dawdling the NDP decided they liked the technology after all, and the Millennium Line was born.

Suppose the Edmonds-Cariboo route had been chosen, and the line subsequently extended from Lougheed Town Centre to Coquitlam, as in the above map. The advantages I’ve already outlined. What about the drawbacks?

  • Several neighbourhoods that have enjoyed an economic boost from the proximity of the Millennium Line would instead have remained neglected. (Some residents might see this as benign neglect.) [7] However, much of that development would have been redirected to stops on the Edmonds-Cariboo route.
  • The network would have lacked the redundancy that the Millennium Line provides. Currently when a train breaks down on the central portion of the Expo Line commuters can bypass the obstruction via the Millennium Line. This is no small thing! (The completion of the Broadway extension will add another sorely needed bypass route.)
  • The overcrowding that currently afflicts the Expo Line between downtown and Commercial-Broadway Station (where it intersects with the Millennium Line) would instead persist all the way to Royal Oak. This might be mitigated by turning around some percentage of eastbound trains at Edmonds Station, but it is a serious shortcoming of the Edmonds-Cariboo design.
  • Without the middle stretch of the Millennium Line there would be no obvious way to link a future Broadway extension to the original SkyTrain network. It would have to be built as an independent line (like the Canada Line) with its own train yard and maintenance facility.

I see these drawbacks as serious but not decisive. I suspect that over in the alternate reality where the Edmonds-Cariboo and Hastings routes were completed there are transit nerds speculating about the missed opportunity of the Broadway-Lougheed SkyTrain, with similarly equivocal results.

M.

1. The option of extending the Expo Line beyond Waterfront Station will be closed off if the City of Vancouver ever follows through on its plans for a pedestrian plaza over the train platforms there. Although the plans leave a contingency for an additional commuter rail platform, they appear to rule out any future rapid transit line – tunneled or aboveground, north or eastbound – that might terminate there.

2. The 1994 BC Transit study North Shore Transit Options examined three different corridors by which SkyTrain could be brought to North and West Vancouver – via the First Narrows, Second Narrows, or a tunnel directly connecting Waterfront Station and Lonsdale Quay. The authors’ verdict:

[R]ail based transit was considered not to be a viable alternative in either the short or long term for the following reasons:

Low Ridership: … For ridership to reach the level that would make it cost-effective, a single rail link would be required to capture over 75% of all peak period, peak direction travel across Burrard Inlet. Given the distinct market areas for travel across Burrard Inlet, there is no single corridor which is likely to achieve this level of demand….

Minimal Travel Time Savings: … Most users of a rapid transit link to the North Shore would be required to travel to a rail station by bus and then transfer to the rail system. Transferring has been shown to be a deterrent to increasing transit ridership. With a relatively short trip across the inlet, it is likely that any travel time savings of a rail system would be offset by the need to transfer.

High Cost: … In 1989, a SkyTrain link between Waterfront Station and Lonsdale Quay was estimated to cost over $400 million…. There would also be a cost in getting rail transit to and from a new crossing.

Since (unlike the other routes discussed in this post) a North Shore rapid transit link remains a live, if remote, possibility, the study is still worth a read. You can find a copy at the downtown library.

3. My extremely crude cost estimate for the Hastings extension is based on the per-kilometre price of the mostly elevated Millennium Line, built in 2002.

4.Second SkyTrain line lags behind predictions,” Surrey / North Delta Leader, May 20, 2005. Three years after the opening of the Millennium Line, TransLink officials were putting an optimistic spin on ridership figures that were well below projections.

5. In mapping my hypothetical Hastings extension I’ve tried to stick to what might actually have been approved in the 1990s. If I’ve cheated it’s by being unrealistically generous in the spacing of stations: I’ve located them at Main Street, Clark, Nanaimo, Renfrew, and Highway 1.

A real-world version might easily look like Exhibit IX, above, with one crummy stop (at Commercial Drive) between Main Street and the PNE.

6.NDP calls SkyTrain big white elephant,” Vancouver Sun, May 4, 1988. Opposition MLA Bob Williams complains about a 3-cents-per-litre gasoline tax to pay for SkyTrain; Finance Minister Mel Couvelier points to how many construction jobs were created and says the project “met all our objectives”.

7.Transit Studying East Van Link,” Vancouver Courier, April 17, 1991. From a moment in history when Vancouver’s city council and a significant bloc of its citizens were united in resistance to what would become the Millennium Line. To quote a member of HASTE (Homeowners Against SkyTrain Effects): “SkyTrain is a raucous, screeching, horrible machine that has no place in residential neighbourhoods.”

Cutting corners.

Strolling down a quiet street in Vancouver’s south side my friend and I came to Oak Street, which at that time of evening is more or less a freeway: three lanes of heavy traffic in each direction.

As we waited for the light to change, a row of vehicles accumulated next to us, all signalling to turn right onto Oak. The traffic was unremitting, but the lead car nosed forward, looking for a break in the outside lane. Finally a gap appeared and the car squealed sharply around the corner, miscalculating the turn slightly and bumping one tire off the curb.

Five seconds later the light changed and the rest of the cars were able to make the turn.

As my friend and I crossed Oak Street, I said, “You know, sometimes I think they have it right in New York City, banning right turns on red.”

“They do?” my friend asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “There’s that line in Annie Hall where Woody Allen says something like, ‘The only cultural advantage to living in L.A. is you can make a right turn on a red light.'”

My friend said nothing: I think she disapproved of my quoting Woody Allen. I went on, “You’re only supposed to make a right turn on red when it’s safe to proceed. But what happens is, if there’s anyone waiting behind you, you feel pressured to turn right even when it’s not particularly safe. Like that lady a minute ago who bumped off the curb. She could’ve waited five seconds for the light to change, but she probably felt like she was holding up the line.”

I told my friend about a similar incident that I’d experienced while driving home a few days before. I’d been in a line to turn right at a red. Just as I reached the front of the line, the light turned green, and two pedestrians began to cross in front of me. I could’ve zipped in front of them, as most big city drivers would have, but I decided to play it safe and wait for them to cross – slowing the progress of the line by five, maybe ten seconds. The driver behind me broke out in furious honks and gestures.

“Next time,” I said, “I’ll be a little less cautious when I come to an intersection. Out of fear of being honked at.”

I thought back to this conversation a few days later when, driving down a quiet residential street, I noticed that I was speeding. I realized something embarrassing: I exceed the speed limit more often on side streets than I do on busy arterials.

On a street with multiple lanes, impatient drivers can easily veer around me when I stick to the limit – so I do. Whereas on a single-lane side street it isn’t possible for them to pass, so they pull up close behind me, prompting me to accelerate to preserve a comfortable driving distance.

Why do I react this way? Partly out of concern for my own safety: if I have to slam on the brakes I don’t want to be plowed into from behind.

But partly because I’m afraid of being thought uncool by the unknown person driving behind me.

I wonder what will happen when robot cars become ubiquitous on city streets. Will the robots, impervious to peer pressure, stick stubbornly to the traffic laws as written?

Or will human drivers, disgusted at having ceded the streets to a bunch of rule-abiding robot nerds, insist on tweaking their programming to make the robots cut corners as we do?

M.

Lloyd Alter at TreeHugger emphasizes the danger to pedestrians and cyclists of right turns on red. In April, in an essay about Jordan Peterson and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, I recounted another unpleasant crosswalk interaction from the pedestrian’s point-of-view. Back in 2016 I looked into a study that claimed crosswalk timers led to an increase in rear-end collisions.

A SkyTrain historical footnote: The Edmonds-Cariboo extension.

To my handful of regular readers: I apologize for these articles about Vancouver’s SkyTrain that are of very slight interest to local transit nerds, and of no interest at all to anyone else. I promise to return in the future to sexier topics, like the novels of C.P. Snow and illustrations in old editions of Pilgrim’s Progress.

While researching last month’s post on unrealized Vancouver rapid transit plans, I became curious about an abandoned plan from the late 1980s / early 1990s to extend the SkyTrain to Burnaby’s Lougheed Mall – not from New Westminster, as eventually happened, but from the vicinity of Edmonds Station.

For instance, this confusing map from a 1989 report draws a thick black line from the then-existing SkyTrain (which isn’t shown) through Burnaby’s Cariboo Heights neighbourhood to a proposed park-and-ride station at the Lougheed Mall, and onward to Coquitlam.

vancouver recommended transportation network improvements 1989

Source: Mainland-Southwest Region 2 Transportation Committee Recommendations, 1989.

This 1991 map from the Vancouver Sun more clearly lays out the two routes then in contention:

possible skytrain extensions vancouver sun 1991

Source: Vancouver Sun, Apr. 26, 1991.

To my annoyance, the handful of documents I could find online that referenced the Edmonds-Cariboo route were extremely vague about its alignment, where it would have joined the existing line, where its stations would have been located – were they seriously going to omit a stop at Edmonds & Kingsway? – and why it was eventually abandoned.

In the end I had to schlep around to the UBC, Burnaby, and Vancouver Central libraries to track down the information I needed. As a public service I’m publishing it here to save future researchers the trouble.

***

The original SkyTrain line opened just in time for Expo ’86, hence the name by which it’s known today – the Expo Line.

In the late 1980s work was underway to extend the line across the Fraser River to Surrey from its original terminus in New Westminster. With three of Greater Vancouver’s designated Regional Town Centres linked to the downtown core by rapid transit, the next step was to hook up the fourth, Coquitlam, as visualized in this 1975 map:

vancouver livable region plan 1975

Source: The Livable Region 1976/1986, Greater Vancouver Regional District, 1975.

The trouble with this route was that from Coquitlam’s point of view (to quote Burnaby’s Director of Planning, Anthony Parr),

it did not present rapid transit as an attractive means of travel to Downtown Vancouver … because of the need to double back and dog leg via New Westminster. [1]

The Edmonds-Cariboo route would have straightened out the dog-leg, bypassing New Westminster via a shortcut through Burnaby’s Cariboo Heights and Edmonds neighbourhoods, shaving almost ten minutes off a SkyTrain ride from the Lougheed Mall to downtown.

In terms of travel time, here’s how the proposed route would have compared to the network as it was actually built. (Travel times are from TransLink.)

Lougheed Station to Granville Station via:

  • Millennium Line (transfer at Commercial-Broadway Station): 26 minutes
  • Expo Line (via New Westminster; no transfer): 36 minutes
  • Edmonds-Cariboo extension (no transfer): 26 minutes

edmonds cariboo skytrain extension travel times

The downside was that this extension would have run through some quiet suburban neighbourhoods whose residents could be expected to raise a fuss – and they did.

The Edmonds-Cariboo route: 1986

As Anthony Parr put it in a 1986 memo to his boss, Burnaby’s Municipal Manager,

At this stage the … design that we have before us is no more than a conceptual representation – a dotted line on a map.

Parr is referring to BC Transit’s 1986 SkyTrain Extension to Coquitlam Transit Planning Study Summary Report, [1] which evaluated four possible routes connecting the Lougheed Mall and Coquitlam with the existing SkyTrain, as shown in the maps below.

skytrain new westminster lougheed coquitlam options 1986

Here’s how the authors of that report described the Edmonds-Cariboo option:

[T]his route would leave the existing line just before the Edmonds Station and use the abandoned B.C. Hydro alignment to the old Edmonds Loop.

The old BC Hydro alignment was subsequently turned into a walking path, the Highland Park Line trail. The Edmonds bus loop was at the corner of Edmonds & Kingsway.

Note that in every variation of the Edmonds-Cariboo route, the extension would have bypassed Edmonds Station. The transfer point would have been Royal Oak.

The report continues:

However, the line would encounter residential property even if the old right-of-way were utilized as one condominium development has been built very close to the south side of the R.O.W. and there are now three major high rise apartments on the north side. After crossing Kingsway, the line would follow Edmonds to a station at Canada Way. Since this section is primarily secondary commercial operations with the occasional old residential property, the extension could provide an opportunity to redevelop these properties to screen the Skytrain from nearby residences and to provide off-street parking. Most of the newer structures are adequately set back from the street.

The distance from Royal Oak to the next station at Canada Way would have been about 3.75 kilometres – almost as far as from Burquitlam to Moody Centre on the Millennium Line, the longest gap on today’s SkyTrain system.

Despite this weirdly long gap, there’s no mention of a station at the busy intersection of Edmonds & Kingsway. (This would be addressed in a subsequent report: see next section.) I suppose they were prioritizing speed and cost-whittling in order to make this option competitive with the New Westminster route.

It illustrates the tendency of early SkyTrain planners to avoid putting stations where transit riders might actually want to go, opting instead for brownfield sites where entirely new developments could be built around them…for instance, in a forest next to a freeway interchange (see below)…

After the Canada Way station, the line would continue north-east, enter Robert Burnaby Park at Sixth Street …

(That’s a goof: the western boundary of the park is at Fourth. The elevated guiderails would have loomed over a block of modest single-family homes on Edmonds Street between Sixth and Fourth.)

…and follow a proposed highway alignment through the undeveloped portion of both the park and the George Derby Veterans Affairs Hospital to a station south of the Stormont Interchange on Highway 1. Not only would this Cariboo Station provide a large Park & Ride lot with convenient access to Highway 1, Burnaby has plans for approximately 1500 units of medium density housing in the area.

The Stormont Interchange is Highway 1’s Gaglardi Way exit. I was unaware that there were once plans for a road – the Stormont Connector – that would have slashed across southeast Burnaby from this interchange to New Westminster’s McBride Avenue.

The line would then continue on a relatively high elevated section crossing Cariboo Road, the Brunette River, the Burlington Northern Railway and Highway 1. The route would proceed through a heavily-developed residential area to a station in the vicinity of Lougheed Mall.

The Edmonds-Cariboo route: 1991

Five years later, little progress had been made in advancing beyond the “dotted line on a map” stage.

In the interim, the provincial government had appointed a Coquitlam SkyTrain Route Advisory Committee to evaluate the various corridors, with construction of the first segment to Lougheed Mall slated to begin in mid-1992.

By 1991, as shown in a BC Transit pamphlet from that year called SkyTrain Coquitlam Extension, [2] the Advisory Committee had managed to nix one of the Lougheed Mall-Coquitlam routes. However, an East Broadway / Lougheed Highway option had been tossed into the mix:

skytrain lougheed mall extension options 1991

Source: SkyTrain Coquitlam Extension, BC Transit, 1991. [2]

(Sometime during the preparation of that pamphlet, an asterisk was added to the specs for the Broadway-Lougheed corridor. The Advisory Committee, it was explained, had rejected the route due to its much higher cost and opposition from Vancouver city council. But the Broadway-Lougheed route wasn’t to be counted out just yet…)

I haven’t been able to locate the report of the Advisory Comittee from which the information in the above pamphlet derives. I did find this Burnaby Now story by Dan Hilborn, from May 1, 1991, describing in some detail three variations of the Edmonds-Cariboo route. [3]

The first option would require the relocation of virtually every business on the south side of Edmonds Street at BC Transit’s expense. Going underground would raise the price by $60 million.

Under the plan, construction would be phased-in and property owners will be given the chance to relocate within blocks of their original location as the guideway is completed.

The second option follows the property line between Edmonds and 19th Avenue, and requires the purchase of 39 homes before reaching Sixth Street. It would allow for a linear park connecting Byrne Creek Ravine, Powerhouse [Park] and a proposed park at the corner of Canada Way and Edmonds.

Either of the two options will require the acquisition of another 16 homes and blocking views at five or eight residences on Edmonds between Sixth Street and the southern end of Robert Burnaby Park. The document does not state which side of the street the guideway will follow.

The third option along a northbound BC Hydro right of way requires no property acquisitions, but comes closer to a neighborhood of new homes around Imperial Street than to the proposed Edmonds Town Centre.

No matter which of three proposals is chosen, two homes and a small industrial property near Powerhouse Park must be purchased. The line will then come within 25 metres of two existing apartment complexes and follow the BC Hydro right of way to Kingsway and Edmonds.

Although a Kingsway Station co-developed with private business is described in the written report, the accompanying maps show the first stop at Canada Way Station.

The 6.7 kilometre Edmonds-Cariboo line will cost an estimated $245 million, carry about 10.6 million passengers annually and take 26 minutes from Lougheed Mall to downtown Vancouver.

If Edmonds is chosen, the alignment will traverse Robert Burnaby Park, wind its way along the Stormont right-of-way to a 1,000-2,000 space park and ride Sky Train Station near Cariboo Road, and follow the #1 Highway and Government Road to Lougheed Mall.

skytrain edmonds extension options burnaby now 1991

Source: “SkyTrain route debate”, Burnaby Now, May 1, 1991. [3]

So why didn’t it get built?

It was clear early on which way BC Transit and the province were leaning. Premier Bill Vander Zalm and Transportation Minister Rita Johnston – who would succeed Vander Zalm as premier – had both indicated their preference for the Edmonds-Cariboo route.

BC Transit President Mike O’Connor was quoted saying of the Columbia-Brunette corridor, “Technically, it doesn’t look that sound to us.” He went on:

“The most sound route from a technical point of view is the Edmonds corridor. It does more for the transit system as a whole.” [4]

In April of 1991 a leaked memo from Tom Parkinson, project manager of the Coquitlam SkyTrain extension, indicated near-unanimous support by the Advisory Committee for the Edmonds-Lougheed route:

“I am confident of the data – which now points clearly at Edmonds-Cariboo. Port Moody, Coquitlam, and Port Coquitlam have endorsed this choice.

“The New Westminster members of the Coquitlam advisory committee and (former Burnaby mayor Bill) Lewarne say they will do so at the very end, leaving [Burnaby councillor] Doug Drummond as a single no-sayer.”

BC Transit’s O’Connor was obliged to clarify his project manager’s comments:

“The Edmonds alternative – from a ridership, cost-per-ride, distance to downtown – is better. But that doesn’t mean it’s the one that is going to be chosen. There are other reasons to choose. …

“What I think Tom meant to say was that the committee, I think, accepts that technical data that that route has the best technical merit.”

After the leak, which led to the project manager’s removal, a New Westminster member of the Advisory Committee resigned, saying that the technical committee “seemed to be pointing toward a conclusion and didn’t seem to be leaving alternatives.” [5]

There followed a flurry of comments in the local media accusing the provincial government of “skullduggery”, [6] of having “juggled” the cost estimates, [7] of packing the “sham” Advisory Committee with Social Credit party hacks who were “rigging” its deliberations. [8]

When BC Transit went ahead with its promised community engagement, Burnaby Now‘s story emphasized the exasperation of the community:

“Disappointed” was the most common expression from the estimated 500 people who attended two SkyTrain Open Houses held at the Edmonds Community Centre on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

The surprising absence of all members of the SkyTrain advisory committee, a simple roughed-in map of the ‘Cariboo corridor’ and unanswered technical questions made the forums totally inadequate, said south Burnaby residents interviewed by Burnaby Now. [9]

skytrain open house burnaby 1991

BC Transit community relations officer Kim Rasberry explains the Broadway-Lougheed SkyTrain corridor route to Toby Louie.
Photo: Paul Clarke, Burnaby Now, May 12, 1991.

Much of this nitpicking, no doubt, was politically motivated. Despite having swapped out scandal-crippled premier Vander Zalm for the comparatively unhated Johnston, after fifteen years in power the Socred government was plumbing new depths of popular disapproval.

Bending to the onslaught of bad press, the government announced an independent review to determine “whether BC Transit data was biased in favour of the Edmonds-Cariboo corridor and why the Lougheed-Broadway proposal was pulled from the government’s terms of reference.” [10]

I could find no mention in the local press of the results of this review. But it didn’t really matter: what killed the Edmonds-Cariboo route was the utter walloping of the Socreds in the general election of fall, 1991.

The incoming New Democratic Party, citing the “massive provincial deficit now estimated at more than $2 billion”, announced that the extension to Lougheed Mall would be put off until “at least 1993” [11] and that the Socred-appointed Coquitlam SkyTrain Route Advisory Committee would be dissolved, later to be replaced by a new group, the Northeast Sector Rapid Transit Committee, whose very name communicated that the menu of options had been expanded yet again. [12]

In opposition the NDP had attacked SkyTrain as a ruinously expensive Socred hobbyhorse. The new committee would give both the Broadway-Lougheed and Hastings corridors a fresh look, but the minister now responsible for BC Transit (and future premier), Glen Clark, was “not impressed with SkyTrain technology” and was “looking closely at commuter rail as a relatively inexpensive and easy-to-implement interim answer”. [13]

Thus the first major transit project undertaken by the new government was the West Coast Express, introduced in 1995: five daily commuter trains each way between Mission and downtown Vancouver. Not exactly the rapid transit solution Coquitlam residents had been promised, but better than nothing.

As for what would eventually become the Millennium Line, it had to endure a half-decade of NDP second-guesses and changes-of-heart between its announcement in 1995 as a street-level LRT linking Coquitlam to Arbutus Street along the Broadway-Lougheed Corridor and its eventual opening in 2002 as a mostly-elevated SkyTrain extension from New Westminster to Commercial Drive.

By that time Glen Clark had been chased from the premier’s office amid a cloud of scandal, just like Vander Zalm a decade before.

***

In the 2020s, as the Millennium Line is extended down West Broadway – finally completing the route promised by the previous NDP government way back in 1995 – I fear we’re going to be confronted with the main shortcoming of the network design we’ve chosen: that it funnels so many commuters into just two overcrowded pipes entering the downtown core.

With this in mind, I can’t help but wonder if it was a mistake back in the ’90s to chuck out the Edmonds-Cariboo corridor.

Arguably, SkyTrain along Edmonds would have rendered the original Millennium Line unnecessary, freeing up money to build rapid transit sooner to Coquitlam, Richmond, and UBC. Maybe by now we’d be discussing adding a third route into downtown via Hastings Street.

I can see why South Burnaby residents objected to SkyTrain screeching through their neighbourhood. But for a fraction of the billion dollars that were eventually spent on the Millennium Line, the more offensive sections of the Edmonds route could have been concealed in tunnels.

However, as a resident of New Westminster for whom a Canada Way stop would come in rather handy, I admit I may be biased.

M.

Files referenced in this post:

1. SkyTrain Extension to Coquitlam

This is a memo dated Oct. 9, 1986, from Anthony L. Parr, Burnaby’s Director of Planning, to the Municipal Manager. It consists of Parr’s summary of the results of a BC Transit study of possible SkyTrain routes to Coquitlam, followed by the following documents:

  • BC Transit press release from Oct. 2, 1986: “Transit Study Shows Two Possible SkyTrain Routes to Coquitlam”
  • BC Transit report from Sept. 25, 1986: SkyTrain Extension to Coquitlam: Transit Planning Study Summary Report

2. SkyTrain Coquitlam Extension

A 4-page pamphlet published by BC Transit, dated Spring, 1991, discussing an ongoing study to select the optimal route for extending SkyTrain to Lougeed Mall and Coquitlam.

3. SkyTrain route debate

Four SkyTrain-related stories by reporter Dan Hilborn, describing fallout from the Edmonds-Cariboo route controversy, appearing on page 3 of the Burnaby Now newspaper, May 1, 1991.

Other sources:

4. “Transit Link”, Burnaby Now, August 1, 1990.
5. “SkyTrain official steps down over leaked project memo”, Vancouver Sun, April 26, 1991.
6. “Memo cites Edmonds as SkyTrain route”, Burnaby Now, April 24, 1991.
7. “Edmonds financial estimates queried”, Burnaby Now, May 1, 1991.
8. “Leaked memo causes furor”, Burnaby Now, April 28, 1991.
9. “SkyTrain routes debated”, Burnaby Now, May 12, 1991.
10. “Review causes delay”, Burnaby Now, May 12, 1991.
11. “SkyTrain delayed”, Burnaby Now, January 15, 1992.
12. “Fears laid to rest”, Burnaby Now, November 25, 1992.
13. “Clark hot on transit”, Burnaby Now, March 11, 1992.

 

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.

Prophylactic planning: Rapid transit in the era of cost disease.

A couple years back, Slate Star Codex published a widely-discussed article about what the author called “cost disease” – not the disease identified and explained by William Baumol, but a distinct and poorly-understood condition where prices in certain industries rise at a rate much faster than inflation.

This condition is particularly acute in the case of rapid transit infrastructure.

Since Slate Star Codex had limited itself to American data, I wondered whether Canadian rapid transit projects might be suffering from the same ailment. It’s difficult to compare infrastructure costs over time, as no two projects are identical. But looking at projects in Toronto and Vancouver, I found a noticeable upward tick since the 1990s, suggesting the presence of cost disease in Canada.

toronto vancouver rapid transit costs

(Click image for data and sources.)

(To emphasize, these are per-kilometre, inflation-adjusted prices that appear to be rising.)

Accepting that this wasn’t just a mirage created by staring too hard at a limited data set, I went on to argue that we should hurry up and start digging subways now, while it’s only shockingly expensive, instead of putting it off into the future, when it’s likely to be cripplingly so.

(But one could also argue that we’ve already missed our window, and that instead of blowing money on huge infrastructure projects that are unlikely to prove cost-effective, we should invest in a better bus network, or fleets of autonomous cars, or the latest Elon Musk fever dream, or what-have-you.)

For now, let’s assume what I can’t prove: that at least some rapid transit megaprojects are still worth the inflated price. If we want that to continue being true in the future, we need to smarten up the way we plan our rapid transit network.

In my earlier essay I mentioned four factors contributing to the spread of cost disease:

1. In the big cities where rapid transit gets built, land values have been rising at a rate far exceeding inflation, leading to higher property acquisition costs.

vancouver west side housing prices versus inflation rate

(Click image for data and sources.)

2. The accumulation of buildings, pipes, and wires – what I called infrastructure clutter – around potential rapid transit corridors makes construction ever more complicated.

3. We’re more safety-conscious these days, which means we build more slowly, carefully, and expensively than they did in the rough-and-ready 20th century.

4. We’re willing to spend more to protect our natural and architectural heritage from the negative side effects of construction, and to ensure full access for handicapped people.

Since then, other factors have occurred to me:

5. Population growth means there are ever more residents and business owners to object to the inconvenience of construction, the noise of passing trains, lowlife transit riders invading their fancy neighbourhoods, and other blights of public transportation. The internet has made it cheaper and easier for obstructionists to organize and demand pricey compromises.

6. We’ve gradually used up or sold off the most promising rights-of-way that came available in last century’s shift from rail to road as the primary transportation mode, leaving us no choice but to dig tunnels.

7. Related to point 6, for political reasons earlier city planners prioritized easy-(and therefore cheap)-to-build projects, leaving the most challenging (and pricey) pieces of the network to be dealt with by future generations – i.e., us. Look at Toronto, which has spent the last half-century pushing its subway ever further into the lightly-built suburbs, ignoring the pressing need for a new line downtown.

8. Related to points 6 and 7, modern planners may be more choosy than their predecessors about where to place their routes. Vancouver’s original 1986 Expo Line was built on an abandoned rail right-of-way four or five blocks from Kingsway, the busy road it parallels. Thirty years later, many Kingsway commuters continue to take the bus. Compare the current plan to extend the Millennium Line, which disregards the out-of-service rail line a few blocks to the north for a brand-new tunnel directly under Broadway.

millennium line broadway extension

Not coincidentally, the per-kilometre cost of the Millennium tunnel is expected to be over five times higher than the Expo Line.

skytrain construction costs

Millennium Line extension (6 stations, 5.5 km.) estimated at $2.57 billion (2018 Canadian dollars), completion date 2025. Source.

Of the above list – which I fear is far from comprehensive – most of the factors are driven by population growth, which means they’ll only get worse.

We could conceivably save money by skimping on factors 3 and 4 – by building more recklessly, noisily, and uglily. As an example, Surrey mayor Doug McCallum has suggested that the proposed Langley extension of the Expo Line could be built more cheaply if crews worked round-the-clock. Maybe so, but I suspect they’d only run up against factor 5: angry opposition from residents living near the construction zone.

This doesn’t mean we’re helpless against cost disease. Since the choices of today’s planners determine where future residents will live, we can predict where demand for transit should grow. And by thinking about why costs go up, we can predict which routes will be most expensive to build in the future and should therefore be prioritized, and which can be affordably postponed.

Some basic principles of cost prophylaxis. All else being equal…

1. Extending existing lines is cheaper than building new ones.

2. Building all in one go is cheaper than building in fits and starts.

3. Building where there’s nothing is cheaper than building where there’s something.

4. Coordinating with other infrastructure projects lowers costs. (Toronto’s 1966 Bloor-Danforth subway saved a bundle thanks to the farsighted inclusion of a lower deck on the Bloor viaductfifty years earlier.)

…But as I stated in my earlier post, planners are already well aware of the above strategies. If they fail to implement them, it’s only because it’s difficult: to anticipate which projects future politicians might prioritize; to coordinate between multiple agencies, levels of government, and private entities; to resist political pressure to cut corners and push expenses into the future.

I doubt I can offer any insights that haven’t occurred already to the experts. But I think they might give points 5 and 6 a little more weight:

5. Every project will stir up opposition. But well-off residents, because they rely on transit less, and because they tend to own their homes, have less to gain and more to lose from transit expansion. Their money, education, and well-groomed spokespeople make them more effective obstructionists. Therefore, try to put rapid transit into a neighbourhood before it fills up with yuppies.

6. If you’re hoping to preserve a corridor for future use, you’d be better off building now: to prevent future politicians from selling it off piecemeal; to prevent infrastructure clutter along the route; and to prevent residents from getting emotionally attached to it in its virgin state.

(Here I’m thinking of Vancouver’s Arbutus corridor – the rail line shown on the map above – stretches of which were colonized by gardeners from neighbouring properties during its years of disuse. When the city, after acquiring it last year from CP Rail after much haggling, tried to convert it to a paved bike path, nearby residents protested the despoliation of what they viewed as their private rambling grounds. I can just see the outcry in the future when the city attempts to pursue its vision of running a streetcar down the line…)

Vancouver’s new mayor, Kennedy Stewart, has been advocating for the Millennium Line extension – currently set to terminate at Arbutus Street – to continue down Broadway and West 10th Avenue all the way to UBC.

millennium line broadway extension potential phase 2

…Which, don’t get me wrong, would be terrific: I’d use it a lot.

However, looking at it from a cost-prophylactic perspective:

1. The corridor is already densely built-up: infrastructure clutter is therefore unlikely to worsen.

2. The properties for future stations, if they haven’t already, can be acquired now, and held onto until needed. (Astonishingly, if this Daily Hive article is to be believed, as late as March of last year the site of the Millennium Line’s planned Broadway & Granville Street station hadn’t yet been sewn up.)

3. The West Side can’t be any further yuppified. The locals have already secured all the compromises they’re likely to dream up: instead of a noisy elevated train like their poor cousins in East Van, they’re getting a tunnel; and not a cut-and-cover tunnel, like the one that enraged Cambie Street merchants during the construction of the Canada Line a decade back, but a fully bored tunnel.

If the Millennium Line can be extended all the way to UBC in a single go, then it absolutely should: it would be far more cost-effective.

If (as seems likely) it can’t, this corridor presents only a moderate inflationary risk. The UBC extension can affordably be postponed.

Meanwhile, down at the southern end of the Arbutus corridor the homely neighbourhood of Marpole, containing one of the few concentrations of affordable apartments still left within the city’s borders, is seeing a surge of new construction. Would it make sense to move the Arbutus streetcar plan forward, while there are still a few students and working class people living along its route who might benefit from it? [1]

The Arbutus corridor is wide enough that property acquisition costs for future streetcar stops should be minimal. But have they figured out yet how to bridge the 2-kilometre distance between the end of the corridor and Marine Drive station on the Canada Line? That could be an expensive gap to fill.

marpole map arbutus streetcar canada line

And if the city is seriously contemplating rapid transit along 41st Avenue, even in the “extremely long term”, they’d better start locking things down now. With the lower-middle-class enclave near Joyce-Collingwood station doomed by encroaching condo towers, and the futuristic “micro city” about to begin construction at Oakridge, 41st Ave. is extremely susceptible to cost disease.

vancouver 41st ave rapid transit

I’d nominate Marine Drive and East Hastings as two other yuppifying streets where rapid transit would make sense, and where the risk of cost disease is acute. I hope to have more to say about the latter corridor in a follow-up post.

[Update, Dec. 25 2019: As promised above, The Hastings SkyTrain alternate reality.]

M.

1. This isn’t an endorsement of the Arbutus streetcar scheme, by the way. To me it seems as misbegotten as the now-abandoned Surrey LRT plan I discussed last month: why spend a bajillion dollars laying rail for “rapid transit” that’s not significantly faster than a bus? You might as well make a bigger up-front investment in a tunnel or elevated tracks and enjoy the benefits of higher speed and driverless operation.

If I’d been benevolent dictator, on the day the Arbutus corridor was acquired I would have turned it into a trench two SkyTrain cars wide, put a roof over it, and left the resultant tunnel until it was needed. Instead, the city elected to fancy up the corridor with walking paths and flowerbeds from one end to the other, guaranteeing an infestation of sign-waving old ladies in sunhats whenever they attempt to alter it.

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.

And now, a word in favour of high-rise living.

Last week I wrote sympathetically about suburbanites attached to their low-density lifestyle who were being forced out of Vancouver by soaring housing costs. And a few months back I told the story of my friend who had to move when her low-rise apartment building was torn down to make room for a high-rise.

There was a long article on high-rise living in this weekend’s Vancouver Sun. Reporter Douglas Todd asked folks living in the shiny new-built towers of Vancouver and Burnaby whether they’re happy in their pricey homes in the sky.

Most are. A few mention that they’ve had trouble getting to know their neighbours. (Todd points out that in some buildings as many as 20% of the suites are empty, being owned by out-of-town investors.) One guy complains that his lobby is overrun with strangers staying in suites the owners have turned into Airbnb rentals.

Unsurprisingly, the people Todd interviews at ground level are less keen on living in the shadow of the towers. One fellow observes:

“I never see people walking here, or kids playing. All I ever see is cars coming out of the underground parking lots, which is kind of weird.”

That is weird. Todd identifies the intersection in Burnaby where this conversation took place. There’s a park and rec centre across the street; the SkyTrain is a few blocks away; grocery stores, a movie theatre, countless restaurants, and the province’s largest shopping mall are all in strolling distance. If these residents of one of the region’s most walkable neighbourhoods still feel the need to drive everywhere, maybe they chose the wrong neighbourhood to live in.

I speak as a resident of an ageing 14-story tower in a busy suburban neighbourhood. To my mind, the only real downside is the non-stop traffic noise. On the upside, I’m fewer than 500 steps from a grocery store that I pop into nearly every day; across the street from a beautiful park; a two-minute walk from four major bus routes. Coffeeshops, library, a good used bookstore – all are within a few blocks.

Before moving to Vancouver I lived in a rented house in Saskatoon. There was a convenience store a few blocks away. For every other amenity, I had to hop in my car. It was a pain in the neck, and I left the house far less frequently than I do now.

True, I got to know one of my neighbours. I didn’t like him much.

Todd mentions a meta-study by UVic psychologist Robert Gifford that claims to find higher rates of depression and mental illness among high-rise dwellers. Gifford admits that

many older studies were skewed because they focused on low-income high-rises in the US and Britain.

In other words, the populations being studied, poor and no doubt rife with petty crime and family dysfunction, may have been susceptible to depression and mental illness to begin with.

It makes me wonder whether more recent studies that claim to perceive malaise among high-rise dwellers are sufficiently adjusting for personality differences that cause people like me to choose such a life in the first place. Take this survey mentioned by local author and urban theorist Charles Montgomery:

[H]e talked about a Vancouver Foundation survey finding that residents of towers were “half as likely to have done a favour for a neighbour” and more likely to report having trouble making friends. “People living in towers consistently reported feeling more lonely and less connected than people living in detached homes.”

Okay, but without conducting a survey I can predict that high-rise dwellers are likelier than detached-home dwellers to be elderly, to live alone, to be recent immigrants – in other words, to face obstacles to human connection quite apart from their living situation.

Does the high-rise lifestyle actually contribute to this loss of connection? Or might it in some ways compensate for it?

Look at me. I’ve always been prone to depression. I grew up in a series of suburban houses where my depressing chores included mowing the lawn in summer, raking leaves in fall, and shovelling the driveway in winter. Being a grumbly cuss, I kept my eyes down while performing these chores, and never got friendly with the neighbours. I’m still a grumbly cuss, and guess what? – I’m single and childless. Which gives me the freedom to live in a high-rise where I can avoid both unpleasant yard maintenance and annoying small-talk with my neighbours.

Am I less happy than my married friends, with their kids and suburban houses? No doubt. But giving me chatty neighbours and a lawn to maintain won’t close the gap. As I see it, apartment living reduces my stress level and keeps me from becoming still more miserable.

My lifestyle isn’t for everyone. I wouldn’t deny any kid the opportunity to grow up in a house with a yard – though being across the street from a good neighbourhood park, with basketball courts, splash pool, and trees to climb, strikes me as a decent tradeoff. The thing is, stacking old folks, childless couples, and singletons like me in high-rises leaves more room for those detached single-family houses with fenced yards for kids to play in. It leaves more room for parks like the one I can see from my balcony, with its chattering squirrels and hundred-year-old chestnut trees. It leaves more room for outposts of untamed nature like Stanley Park, or Burnaby’s Central Park, big enough to conceal raccoons and porcupines and coyotes and even the occasional deer.

Plus, high-rise clusters supply the population density that makes better transit economically viable, so that people like me who still rely on our cars to visit friends in far-flung areas can someday forego car ownership altogether, and get around in buses or trains. And maybe with fewer cars zooming up and down the road, parents will be less leery about letting their kids run over unsupervised to the neighbourhood park to climb trees and chase squirrels.

So by all means, let’s do what we can to make high-rise architecture less oppressive to people living near the ground. And let’s do what we can to foster connections among alienated apartment-dwellers – at least the ones who actually want to become more connected.

But I fear that groundhuggers who enjoy their three bedrooms, vegetable gardens, and gossiping over the backyard fence, will mistakenly assume that those things are psychological necessities, and block the development of high-rises for our own good. The astronomical rents in high-rise neighbourhoods prove that there’s more demand for my lifestyle than the current supply of units can accommodate; and remember, every isolated weirdo who snags a place in a tower makes a bit more room for you well-adjusted groundhuggers to spread out in the ’burbs.

That won’t be enough on its own to make room for every groundhugger family that wishes to stay in Vancouver – not even close. But it’s a start.

M.

Apartment hunting in Vancouver.

I drove my friend X. to the open house. The usual routine: a mob of displaced renters waiting by the entrance for the building manager to appear; a two-minute tour of a bare apartment; a dozen people jostling for room in the lobby to squat and fill in the application form.

Returning to the car, X. grumbled at the absurdity of the building manager’s salesmanlike spiel, as if the mob could afford to be choosy. “Just tell me who I have to blow to get the place,” she said.

I drove her back to the tiny suburban bachelor suite that had been her home since 2014. It was clean enough and pretty quiet. The floor was noticeably tilted; I poured myself a glass of water and the fridge door swung open and banged on the wall, deepening the dent there.

The main thing her building had going for it was its location, a block from the SkyTrain. Alas, this had made it a prime candidate for redevelopment. She’d been given a year to find a new home.

When she moved in, rent was around $700. With provincial law restricting annual rent increases to 2% above inflation, it had risen to a bit over $800 – a bargain. Bachelor suites in her neighbourhood were now starting at $1250, in buildings likely to be torn down in a few years.

X. has good references, good credit, works steadily. She took time off between contracts so she could concentrate on the apartment hunt. She soon realized that was a mistake. With a dozen, two dozen applicants to choose from, why would a landlord take a flier on someone technically unemployed? Just skip to the next person in the pile.

Eventually she snagged an even tinier place in Marpole, a fifteen minute walk from the Canada Line. The building is a bit crummier, the commute a bit longer, but it’s only $1050 a month – a 29% rent jump. Not bad, considering.

***

I mentioned my friend Y. in an essay a couple months back. He’s in in his early forties, tidy and quiet, but with a spotty employment record, bad credit, and a history of drug use.

I’ve known Y. since we were in sixth grade, but we’d fallen out of touch until he moved here last year. I put him up in my apartment for six weeks and loaned him some money while he looked for a job and a place of his own.

He wound up in a rented one-bedroom in a house in Vancouver’s east side. It’s on the ground floor, with a private entrance leading to the backyard. Around here these are advertised as “garden suites”.

Y.’s garden suite has no stove, no fire alarm, and is separated from an adjacent suite by the flimsiest of partitions. The sound insulation is so poor that he can hear when his neighbour cracks his knuckles.

When Y. informed his landlord, who lives with his family upstairs, that his neighbour had invited a guest to crash on his sofa, doubling the noise problem, the landlord replied that he was aware of the extra occupant, and had upped the neighbour’s rent by a hundred bucks in response.

For this pleasant living arrangement Y. pays $1000 a month. He’d like to move; but if sober, responsible X. had so much trouble finding a place to live, what chance is there for Y., with his history of unpaid bills and far-from-glowing references?

***

Why doesn’t Y. just go back where he came from – in his case, the Canadian prairies?

If you’ve ever spent a winter in Saskatchewan, you’ll understand why he doesn’t want to go back. But even disregarding the west coast weather, balmy only by Canadian standards, Vancouver is still a pretty attractive place to live. Low crime, good infrastructure, clean air, lovely parks, mountain and ocean views – but I don’t need to enumerate its charms. Vancouver is, objectively speaking, attractive: it attracts people. Another million or so by 2041, if Metro Vancouver’s projections are to be believed.

That’s why I’m skeptical of all promises by politicians to somehow solve the problem of high rents and near-100% occupancy rates. If housing were cheaper and easier to find, that would only make Vancouver a more attractive place to live – which would attract even more people, putting more pressure on the housing supply.

If it weren’t for stressed-out renters losing hope and moving back to Moose Jaw, there would be no reasonably-priced apartments here at all. I’m not gloating over their departure. I may be forced to follow their example one day.

High demand imposes a sorting process: those who can imagine better uses for their money, like raising children or saving for retirement, will gradually drift away, leaving a helot class of rootless perma-adolescents to scrape a living pouring the cappuccinos and mowing the lawns of the rich and beautiful.

The various levels of government keep vowing to ease the helots’ lot by getting more affordable homes built. While socialist and free-market factions squabble over whether governments should build the homes directly, or tweak regulations to make building quicker and cheaper for private developers, the future sneaks up on us: dumpy apartment blocks like X.’s are flattened and glass towers arise; poorer people are displaced and wealthier people ushered in.

There are plenty of neighbourhoods near transit where it seems new homes could profitably be added without displacing anyone: ground floors that could be turned into garden suites, garages that could be turned into laneway houses, one-story retail and industrial buildings that could be rebuilt with a couple floors of rental on top – if regulations didn’t make it too pricey and time-consuming to bother.

But the more red tape you cut away to facilitate new housing, the more slumlords you’ll get renting out rickety suites to suckers like my friend Y., streaming in starry-eyed from the rest of Canada and the world.

Maybe, then, governments should take the lead in building affordable rental units. But they’re naturally focussed on helping the most desperate first. I’m pretty sure that the modular, supposedly temporary homes for the homeless currently going up around Vancouver will, in the short term, be trashed by their drug-using, unstable residents, and in the longer term be colonized by better-adjusted folks with an aptitude for navigating bureaucracy who will defy all attempts to relocate them when the modulars are due for removal.

Maybe I’m wrong; I welcome the experiment in any case. But many hard-working renters must have had the same thought Y. had, when he saw pictures of the inside of one of those modulars: hang on a second, that welfare crashpad is way nicer than the dump I’m paying a thousand bucks a month for.

If municipalities started throwing those modulars on empty lots along major transit routes, and renting them out to all comers at a shade below market rates, it would go a long way toward easing the crisis. I have no idea why no-one has proposed this. Maybe it would just be too pricey. (The units are about $110,000 apiece to build – excluding the cost of land.)

But if the public sector can’t manage to slap up no-frills, reasonably-priced rental units on a break-even basis, there’s not much cause to hope that private developers can ever build affordable rentals and turn a profit.

***

While the media focusses obsessively on how to increase housing supply, ways to reduce demand are rarely considered.

The easiest way to reduce demand is to make Vancouver a crummier place to live.

Anti-gentrification activists understand this intuitively. All that’s keeping hordes of yuppies from moving into Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and sprucing up the place is the many unbathed, mentally disturbed, petty-crime-prone people who make their homes there currently. The neighbourhood must be kept unpleasant enough that the number of yuppies stays low, so the down-and-outers can afford to remain.

The obvious problem with making Vancouver crummy enough to repel new residents is that the rest of us will have to live in the mess we’ve created. The strategy might not work, anyway: rich people, unlike you and me, have the means to insulate themselves from ugliness and disorder. They might decide high walls and private guards are a worthwhile tradeoff for sunset views of English Bay.

If we’re not prepared to trash our city to preserve it, we might consider erecting legal barriers to make it more difficult for non-Vancouverites to buy property or move here.

Taxes on foreign buyers, which the previous provincial government imposed and the new government has expanded, strike me as the very least we could do to constrain demand.

But as progressive conventional wisdom is cohering around the idea that everyone in the world should have the right to live anywhere for any reason, even these modest barriers have been decried as discriminatory, and are under legal challenge.

Alternatively, the federal government could simply lower immigration targets. Unlike the previous immigration peak in the 1910s, when Canada was still largely empty and agricultural, nearly all of today’s new arrivals wind up settling in a handful of crowded cities, where they compete with the native-born for housing.

foreign born canada 1871-2011

Source: Statistics Canada, 150 years of immigration in Canada.

canada immigrants rural vs. urban 1921

Click image for data.

canada immigrants cities 2016

Click image for data.

Yet I’ve seen no signs that burned-out big-city renters have begun to turn against mass immigration. At all education and income levels, unhesitating xenophilia remains an essential marker of right-thinkingness; anyone who suggests that immigration ought to be curtailed in order to protect the attractive features of Canadian urban life – modest houses with spacious yards in quiet, tree-lined neighbourhoods – is quickly shouted down as a nativist bigot.

Partly this is self-serving propaganda. Realtors, developers, and homeowners all benefit from having the largest possible pool of eager bidders driving up the price of local properties.

But it’s at least equally a product of liberal guilt. Many Vancouverites who (like me) moved here from elsewhere would feel hypocritical denying anyone else a boon that we enjoy, for no reason other than that we showed up first.

On this principle the ten-millionth arrival will be as welcome as the two-millionth; and I hope that ten-millionth resident will enjoy his three-hour commute from somewhere in the vicinity of Chilliwack.

M.

PS. A big part of the reason my friend Y. moved here is the easy availability of cheap, high-quality weed. Maybe Canada’s impending marijuana legalization will make Vancouver a bit less attractive to a certain kind of young slacker, and take some of the pressure off.


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.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker