Posts Tagged 'toronto subway'

Covering Vancouver.

If I still lived in Saskatchewan, around this time of year I’d be waking up irritable and apprehensive, expecting each morning to discover, when I peeped through the blinds, a blanket of white concealing my car.

In my hometown the snow usually arrives around Halloween and stays on the ground well past Easter. On shady lawns you’ll find patches of sooty snow lingering into May.

Some of my ex-Saskatchewan friends – there are a lot of us out here – tell me they miss winter. A rime-crusted scarf pulled up to just under your eyeballs. A line of ankle-deep footprints guiding you along an unshovelled sidewalk. Fog billowing around you as you stumble through the front door. Numb fingers fumbling with frozen bootlaces. Reddened cheeks defrosting over a mug of hot tea.

Me, I’d be fine if I never saw snow again.

Granted, it snows in Vancouver, too. Sometimes the stuff even sticks around for a month or so. I don’t care for it, but it’s nothing like Saskatchewan. I never wake up apprehensive even on the gloomiest winter mornings.

The perception in the outside world is that winter in the Pacific Northwest means non-stop rain. But that’s not really so. Sure, there will be whole weeks where the sun never peeks through the clouds. But it rarely rains all day long. In the soggy depths of January the clouds will occasionally part, the mercury will climb into the low teens, and for a couple hours it feels like early autumn again. With a light jacket and maybe a toque you can sit comfortably on a bench and read the paper.

You can, at least, if you don’t mind a damp behind. The benches are usually wet from the rain.


Since moving out here I’ve noticed a few peculiarities about Vancouver, odd things that seem to go uncommented on by the natives. Like the blinking green lights that identify pedestrian-controlled traffic signals – very distracting to drivers who aren’t used to them. Like the absence of sidewalks in so many swanky neighbourhoods – a frugality that might be justified in an auto-centric place like Saskatoon, and yet in Saskatoon you’ll find every snowy, wind-swept street lined on both sides with sidewalks, as all streets should be.

Another thing that perplexes me about Vancouver is the rarity of sheltered outdoor spaces. I’m talking about canopies, verandas, gazebos, pavilions, and covered patios.

In Saskatchewan such amenities are equally rare – but there they aren’t very useful. During the half of the year it’s warm enough to sit outside, it’s also dry. When the wintry winds sweep down from the Beaufort Sea, a gazebo won’t do much to keep them out.

But here on the balmy coast – well, for instance, here’s Westminster Pier Park, where in summertime I’ll often sit and watch the trains passing back and forth on the SkyBridge. There are dozens of benches arrayed along the riverfront, and on sunny days most of them are occupied.

westminster pier park new westminster bc

Image source: Pinterest / BuyRIC.

Notice the wooden pavilion in the foreground, which covers a concession stand and the entrance to the public washrooms. Here’s a better view:

westminster pier park pavilion new westminster bc

Image source: Pinterest / PWL Partnership.

As you can see, there’s a plexiglass roof suspended from part of the pavilion, which is otherwise open to the sky. The roof shelters an area of a few square metres directly in front of the concession stand on the lower level. It also covers – just barely – one of the two benches on the upper level.

On rainy days this bench is the only spot in the park – and one of a handful of public spaces in all of New Westminster – where you can sit outside while remaining mostly dry.

Of course, on rainy days you’ll usually find this bench already occupied.


One of the more encouraging as well as infuriating results of the current pandemic – infuriating because it makes you wonder why we weren’t doing this all along – was the way local city governments expedited the approval of outdoor patios this summer, to allow restaurants to seat customers in the antiseptic open air.

It was great. With the sacrifice of a few parking spots and the placing of a few cheap tables and chairs, businesses were able to partially compensate for the government-ordered slashing of their seating capacity.

But now, just as the long-predicted Second Wave of infections rolls in, those patios have ceased to be of much use. I’d be perfectly happy to button my coat, pull my toque down over my ears, and sit at an outdoor table to sip my Americano – but I’m not going to sit there and get soaked.

I scan the interior for an unoccupied table, but they’re all occupied by hipsters hunched over their laptops who appear to be dug in till closing time. So I skip the coffee and head home.

We’ll see in springtime how many of my favourite coffee shops are still in business. [1]


Although I blog now and then about transit issues, I’m really only well acquainted with two big-city transit systems, Vancouver’s and Toronto’s.

I may be biased in comparing them, but my feeling is that Vancouver’s system provides at least equal value for money – which, given the challenges imposed by its geography, is something of a triumph. Vancouver is much less populous than Toronto, much more fragmented by geographic barriers, and much “lumpier” – that is, its population density varies widely, so that many bus routes traverse wide stretches of near-rusticity between one teeming town centre and another.

Vancouver has one great cost-saving advantage, however – its mild weather. Climate has consequently shaped the design of the two systems. In Toronto, for example, when you emerge from the subway you’ll usually find yourself in a big hall enclosed against the elements where you can wait until your bus arrives. In summer it swelters and sometimes stinks, but at least in winter it’s slightly above freezing.

In Vancouver, when you disembark at a suburban SkyTrain station, you’ll descend to an uncovered bus loop, where in summer you can stroll about in the breeze and perhaps take in a view of distant mountains. In winter the mountains are likely to be hidden by the mist. You’ll join a queue of passengers huddled miserably beneath their umbrellas. If you’re lucky there may be a simple plexiglass shelter, wide enough to protect the first dozen or so people in line – fewer, under social-distancing rules. Everyone else gets wet.

You’d think these stations would have been planned with the comfort of bus passengers in mind. It wouldn’t have been hard to design them with eaved roofs or cantilevered floors to overhang the adjacent waiting areas. Even now, at some stations, by repositioning the bus bays, the queues could be sheltered under the SkyTrain guiderails.

Listen, Vancouver, you’re blessed. You don’t need four walls out here. You only need a roof. The least you can do is supply that.


Although I have few regrets about moving here, there are things I don’t like about Vancouver. The cost of housing is absurd. The daffy left-wing political culture gets on my nerves. And of course, not unrelated to the first two points, there are the vagrants staggering about in their hundreds, drunk or strung out or insane, sleeping on sidewalks, pissing in doorfronts, strewing litter, mumbling, shouting, and making life uncomfortable for the rest of us.

It’s hard to tell whom to blame for their predicament. In some cases it’s the vagrants themselves, for making what they knew full well to be terrible choices. In some cases it’s the rest of us, for failing to take action to prevent them from making choices they don’t have the capacity to make.

The daffy left-wing politics, which make it impossible to clamp down on tent cities, open drug use, and petty crime, are no doubt partly to blame for the proliferation of vagrancy. The absurd rents are another huge factor. But the main reason so many people live on the streets here is that they can. You’d have to be very crazy or desperate to attempt to live in a tent in Winnipeg or Prince George in January. In Vancouver it’s a viable option for the merely half-crazed and semi-desperate. Many of the tent city inhabitants claim reasonably enough that they prefer camping to being cooped up in shelters with all their rules, smells, and overcrowding.

I’m pretty sure I know the reason that Vancouver is so stingy with the provision of canopies, verandas, gazebos, pavilions, and covered patios. Every one constitutes an invitation to homeless people. Right now there’s little reason for anyone not waiting for a bus or flogging religious tracts to hang around outside a SkyTrain station. As soon as you put a roof over the bus loop, it becomes a magnet for scary-looking, foul-smelling vagrants whom the transit police will be obliged to spend half their time shooing away, leaving them less time to deal with graver crimes.

That’s my theory, anyway. Given the taboo against speaking ill of the homeless, I doubt any public official would admit that this is the real reason there are so few covered outdoor spaces out here.

Maybe I’m wrong, though, and it’s just that no-one beside me really cares that much about it. Enjoy being wet, Vancouver.


1. I’m pleased to learn that the City of Vancouver will be permitting restaurants and bars to “winterize” their pop-up patios “by adding a cover supported by posts”.

I’ve written about the Toronto transit system before, notably last month when I discussed the ever more outlandish cost of building subways, and a couple years back when I recalled a moment of cross-cultural confusion on an overcrowded Toronto bus.

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.


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.

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.]


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.

Sooner or later: Cost disease and Canadian transit.

Back in 2015, in the wake of Metro Vancouver’s failed referendum campaign for a 0.5% sales tax to fund an ambitious list of regional transit upgrades, I argued that the big-ticket items on the list should be scaled back or postponed while we focussed our limited dollars on improving bus service. Subways and LRTs are great, I said, but a couple big rail projects will eat up all the money we could instead use to make the whole network faster, less crowded, and more enticing to commuters.

I still think my argument makes sense. I occasionally take the bus during rush hour, and I seethe at being stuck behind lines of idling cars when I can see how a simple bypass lane, costing a paltry few million bucks, would save thousands of straphangers five or ten minutes out of their commute each way, every day. Many roads wouldn’t even have to be widened – simply sacrificing a few on-street parking spots would do the trick. There must be dozens of such chokepoints around the region, and they could all be unchoked for a fraction of the cost of putting a subway down Broadway. Though I’d like us to build the subway too.

But a post last month on Slate Star Codex – Scott Alexander’s estimable blog, to which I lately find myself linking with unseemly frequency (see here and here) – makes me wonder if my sensible, fiscally-prudent argument was in fact completely wrong.

Alexander discusses something called Baumol’s cost disease, a phenomenon in economics where increasing efficiency in one industry counterintuitively leads to increasing costs in an entirely unrelated industry.

Suppose new manufacturing methods save an auto plant part of the cost of building a car. Profits rise, allowing the company to boost its workers’ wages by a couple bucks an hour. Meanwhile the meat processing facility across town hasn’t seen any improvement in productivity, but if they don’t offer an equivalent wage hike they’ll lose their best workers to the auto plant. They pass the higher costs along to their customers, and suddenly the price of meat goes up because the cost of manufacturing cars has gone down.

That’s Baumol’s version of cost disease, anyway. Alexander wonders whether it’s a sufficient explanation for the perpetually increasing costs in four different sectors of the U.S. economy – education, health care, housing, and public transportation infrastructure. Even after adjusting for inflation, costs in these four sectors have gone up in my lifetime by factors of two, five, even ten, without commensurate improvements in outcomes. Life expectancy is flat. University grads are as semiliterate as ever. Apartments aren’t appreciably nicer. And subway tunnels are pretty much the same as the ones our forefathers dug for a fraction of the cost.

Alexander is American, and in his brief section addressing ever-pricier subway construction he restricts himself to American data. In fact one of the questions he asks is why the U.S. seems to be more susceptible to cost disease than other countries. So my first question was – does this disease afflict Canadian public transportation infrastructure as well?

Let’s look at the costs – adjusted for inflation – for a half-century’s worth of rapid transit projects in the two big cities I know reasonably well, Vancouver and Toronto:

toronto subway costs

vancouver skytrain costs

(Click on images for data and sources.)

Some caveats and observations:

  • With so few data points to work with, the trendlines are susceptible to being skewed by one or two pricey outliers, like Toronto’s bonkers Line 1 extension to Vaughan.
  • Reported final costs are questionable, since governments tend to find ways to obscure overruns. Vancouver’s 2016 Evergreen extension, for instance, is known to have blown past its budget, but we’ve been assured that the unanticipated costs will be eaten by the contractor. The true cost, therefore, is higher than the figure shown.
  • The graphs are to the same scale, but the cities’ rapid transit systems shouldn’t be compared directly since they use totally different technologies. Vancouver’s light, high-frequency, mostly-elevated SkyTrain permits smaller stations and (for the 20% or so of the system that’s underground) narrower, cheaper-to-build tunnels than Toronto’s heavy-rail subway. (I’ve left Toronto’s SkyTrain-like Scarborough RT and under-construction Eglinton light-rail project out of the analysis for this reason.)
  • Even within each city, these aren’t apples-to-apples. In the Toronto graph there are visible discontinuities between the early cut-and-cover subways in the city core, with stops every 500-600 metres and relatively low per-station costs; the 1970s extensions into suburbia, often at surface level and with fewer, more widely-spaced stops; and more recent bored tunnels where the costs shoot into the stratosphere.

In any case, both graphs show a discernible upward tick since the 1990s or so, suggesting that cost disease may indeed have spread to Canada. But if so, what are the causes?

The libertarianish Megan McArdle waves away Alexander’s data on the rising cost of subways as merely “union featherbedding combined with increasingly dysfunctional procurement and regulatory processes”. Maybe those are worsening the problem – I don’t know enough to comment – but off the top of my head I can think of four other possible contributing factors:

1. The cost of land acquisition goes up at a rate faster than inflation (because they keep making people but they aren’t making more land).

2. The ground beneath and alongside city streets is ever more crowded with pipes, cables, parking structures, and so on, which must either be relocated or awkwardly worked around.

3. An increased emphasis on worker and bystander safety slows and complicates construction. (Some of this probably falls under the definition of “union featherbedding” as mentioned by McArdle.)

4. Projects now include the expenses of mitigating environmental damage, preserving historic neighbourhoods, averting noise pollution, accommodating the handicapped – all that touchy-feely stuff previous generations didn’t give a rip about.

Doubtless there are other causes I haven’t thought of, but I’ll stop at those four because they pair off neatly into two groups I’d like to examine a little more closely. When you think about it, all four are side effects of growing wealth:

  • Causes 1 and 2 – the rising cost of land and the build-up of clutter along possible transit routes – accelerate as a city becomes more populous and its taxpayers demand more and better services.
  • Causes 3 and 4 – worker safety and the mitigation of environmental and social externalities – might be thought of as perks, which previous generations were willing to forego in their pursuit of progress but which we in our prosperity don’t mind splashing out on.

I think the “perk factor” actually explains much of the cost disease in the sectors Alexander identifies. As we’ve grown wealthier we’re willing to spend more on things that are orthogonal to the actual missions of health care, education, housing, and public transportation – things like prioritizing the physical and mental well-being of our workforces, or ensuring that their gender and ethnic compositions are representative of the wider population. These perks require added layers of administration that do nothing to improve the outcomes we’re attempting to measure. Those layers aren’t failing – they’re doing what they’re meant to do – but those things aren’t captured in graphs like the ones in this post.

As a taxpayer I suspect we could afford to do without much of this extra padding. But I don’t want construction workers risking their necks, or rivers recklessly diverted, or noisy trains rattling people’s cupboards, just to save a few bucks. I know next to nothing about health care or university administration or housing construction, but I suppose the people who are familiar with those matters have equally strong objections to cutting what may strike me as frivolous perks.

In any case, sticking to transit infrastructure, there’s no reason to suppose we’re likely to care less about safety, or the environment, or architectural heritage in the future. In fact those concerns will almost certainly grow, making construction ever less affordable.

To return to causes 1 and 2 – land costs and infrastructure clutter – it should be possible to mitigate cost disease through better planning – say, through more farsighted property acquisition, and coordinating with other agencies to ensure that future transit corridors aren’t obstructed. But I assume we’re already trying to do those things, and my suggestion of “Okay, well, just do them better” is not too helpful.

Sooner, or later?

One way to avert cost disease might be by preemptive surgery – building rapid transit today, at today’s comparatively reasonable prices, in anticipation of tomorrow’s needs. Metro Vancouver’s overall outline is pretty well established by geographic barriers like mountains and rivers, and more recently by the imposition of an urban containment boundary meant to preserve nearby farmland.

metro vancouver urban containment boundary

Source: Metro Vancouver. (Click for original.)

Therefore we can assume that the Vancouver of the future will be much the same shape as the Vancouver of today, only a lot denser. We should be able to predict with fair accuracy where future demand for transit will lie, and build in anticipation of that demand.

However, of the four causes of cost disease mentioned above, preemptive surgery really only targets the first one – rising land costs. It sidesteps the cost of infrastructure clutter only by transferring that cost to future generations who will have to spend more to build around the clutter we create today. And while it might seem thrifty to thwart the next generation’s opportunity to waste money on what we consider silly perks – by using construction methods that they’ll see as barbarously unsafe, maybe, or by bulldozing some architectural monstrosity before it’s declared a heritage monument – who are we to say what the future’s priorities should be?

I’m grateful for much of the infrastructure earlier generations of headstrong builders bequeathed me, but I wish they’d been more cautious about what they smashed in the process – like the whole blocks of Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood destroyed in the sixties to make room for the Georgia viaducts, which planners are now preparing to remove. Building preemptively means we risk building unnecessarily, as the future evolves new habits of getting around that we can’t anticipate.

Still, being made aware of cost disease has tipped me in favour of building rapid transit now, while it’s still barely affordable, rather than putting it off as demand grows and grows. Spending sooner rather than later may actually be the sensible, fiscally-prudent thing to do.


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

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

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