Vancouver: SkyTrain All the Way to UBC, An Illustrated Argument

Apr 4th, 2010

Vancouver really likes itself.  If that wasn’t clear from Canada’s “Own the Podium” campaign, it should be clear enough from Mayor Gregor Robertson‘s breathless exclamations that his city is “the greenest and most sustainable in the world!” Much of this self-regard comes from Vancouver’s exceptionally high-density and its 100% reliable SkyTrain network.  Credit is definitely due here, for Vancouver’s density is indeed some of the most livable in the world.  If you walk through the West End (say from Davie to Robson along Broughton St), you would be excused for feeling a bit strange.  You are surrounded by narrow, tall, expensive apartment buildings and yet you feel aesthetically as though you’re on any suburban street.  It’s just blocks from the downtown core, but it’s quiet and very pleasant.

The SkyTrain is truly remarkable as well.  It’s primarily a suburban system connecting downtown with the eastern suburbs and the airport.  It’s 3 lines are completely automated and driverless and run at frequencies of 5 minutes or better.

Yet most neglected in this cocktail of transit and density is the fact that the city itself outside of downtown has no Rapid Transit to speak of.  Cambie St only has the Canada Line because it connects to YVR Airport.  Traveling east-west on transit within the city is a miserable experience (while on foot it’s wonderful).  The crowded thoroughfares of Vancouver’s west side are Broadway and 4th Ave, and neither have rail transit.  What they do have is extremely frequent, extremely crowded bus service that attempts to mimic the capacity of a rail system.

The ever-thoughtful Jarrett over at Human Transit provides a nice introduction to the issue here. The current terminus for the Millenium Line is in between an old railyard and a community college, and it’s an enormous waste of capacity.  Travelling from Brentwood to YVR Airport would require that the rider travel downtown and make two transfers, while the completion of the Millenium Line under Broadway would bypass downtown and allow East-South transfers about 20 minutes faster.  People balking at the enormous cost of tunneling under Broadway advocate simply “completing the grid” by extending the Millenium Line to Cambie (or perhaps Granville) St, or even worse, running surface light-rail down a crowded and narrow Broadway.  Unfortunately, even Jarrett takes the bait:

Dividing the corridor into two overlapping services may seem inefficient, but in this corridor Meggs may have a point. One problem with the SkyTrain subway all the way to UBC is that west of Arbutus St (about 2 km west of the Canada Line) the ambient density drops, and we go through several km of relatively affluent moderate density that will probably never be upzoned to a degree that would support a heavy rail subway. So the UBC market has to justify the entire project from Arbutus west.

Though it is quite true that “the ambient density drops” west of Arbutus (map here), TRANSIT DEMAND ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT.  Take a look at this map I created.  It shows peak bus frequency per hour.  On the map a number of “30″ means that in each direction in peak hours, one bus comes by every 2 minutes.

(1. During peak hours, an incredible 32-50 buses traverse Broadway in each direction (routes, #9, #17, #99, and for very short distances, #8, #16, #50), about one every 70 seconds, and this frequency does not drop off in the western half of Broadway.  Beyond headways of about 4-5 minutes, significant bunching occurs and headways become very irregular.  If your corridor supports bus headways higher than this, you clearly need rail.

(2. It is clear that transit demand is remarkably evenly distributed throughout the entire Broadway corridor, the lower density between Arbutus and UBC notwithstanding.  UBC’s function as a transit anchor is powerful, and extending SkyTrain only to Granville or Arbutus would create a congested and chaotic transfer point as throngs of students and professionals transfer to the now-truncated #99 to complete their journey.

(3.  Look again at the bus frequency map.  This isn’t just about Broadway.  The area around South Main St suffers badly from the inefficiency of the VCC-Clark terminus, with Main St. needing 36 buses per hour and Broadway needing 35-50.  And 70 buses per hour travel the Burrard and Granville bridges over False Creek.  Clearly Vancouver needs (A.  West side to downtown rapid transit, (B.  North-south transit in the Main St area, and (c.  Rail all along Broadway.  Though the southwestern part of the city handles 35-42 peak frequencies also, they are not a candidate for rail.  Marine Drive has this frequency simply because it collects all the south suburban and SE Vancouver services because there are no other roads there, inhibited by the (gorgeous) Pacific Spirit Regional Park.

(4.  In addition, another 14-28 peak-hour buses traverse 4th Avenue, a mere 1/2 kilometer (1/3 mile) north of Broadway.  A rapid transit option under Broadway would surely induce a significant portion of people to walk the 5 blocks south to Broadway.

(5.  Note that the Canada Line (in teal) currently carries as many (or more) daily riders as Broadway, and it accomplishes this along a low-density street (Cambie) and with a mere 12-15 frequencies per hour.  Buses just cannot match this kind of capacity, period.

(6.  Look at another map.  I overlaid a Google Map of Broadway with ZipCar locations in Vancouver.  See a pattern?

For these and other reasons, I fall clearly into the UBC SkyTrain camp.  Light Rail down Broadway would end up being little more than a glorified streetcar, and congestion would be even worse than the bus mess we have now.  The SkyTrain expansion debate will rage for years, and while Coquitlam may yet get its suburban line, Vancouver’s otherwise-wonderful west side will continue to suffer.

  1. Jarrett at
    Apr 4th, 2010 at 15:28
    Quote | #1

    Zach. Good start, but bus frequencies alone don’t tell the story. Bus frequencies are a policy response partly reflecting patterns of demand but also reflecting the need to complete the grid out to the edge of the city. See:

    To see the real patterns you’d need to look at loading patterns on the 99. I’m pretty sure Translink can give you this data. If you look at a line graph showing the total load on the 99 at each stop along the route. I think you’d see that except when UBC has a peak, loading is well below capacity west of Arbutus and much higher from there to Commercial Dr.

    Cheers, Jarrett

  2. mrjauk
    Apr 20th, 2010 at 14:50
    Quote | #2

    I agree generally with your remarks but take issue with one of your remarks. Answer this: what do all of these cities have in common, besides being in North America: Los Angeles, Toronto, San Francisco/Oakland, San Jose, New York, New Orleans, Montreal, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Miami,Ottawa/Hull?

    Their metropolitan areas are all more dense than the GVRD.

    We have very good density downtown, and adequate density in other parts of Vancouver proper, but we have very poor density throughout the rest of the Lower Mainland.

    Here’s the link. You’ll notice that the data are for 2006 and they’ve underestimated Vancouver’s population, but Vancouver would still be outside of the 100 densest cities in the world. We can safely say that Vancouver is one of the densest cities in North America, but that’s damning with faint praise.

    • Zach
      Apr 20th, 2010 at 15:10
      Quote | #3

      Yet that’s part of my point. In my other posts I’ve commented on how depressing much of the GVRD is…especially Langley/South Surrey, Maple Ridge etc… Density in Vancouver needs to continue to be built from the inside-out. I object to extending the Expo Line (or for that matter, completing the Evergreen Line) at the expense of urban investments in Vancouver proper. The Broadway Line is probably the most important transit investment in Canada, and it deserves a full SkyTrain.

      To be fair, however, much of the lower density figure for the GVRD is also due to the fact of agricultural easements in Delta and the rest of the Fraser Valley that drag down the figures. Outside of the Strip, Las Vegas is a sprawling hell, and Los Angeles’ density is a function of medium-density spread homogenously over a huge area. I wouldn’t hold them up as examples of successful cities!

      See this post, paragraph 2, for my agreement with you about the GVRD.

  3. Paul C
    Apr 21st, 2010 at 01:52
    Quote | #4

    You touched on the one aspect that I feel a lot of people don’t think about. The fact is the whole Broadway project. Isn’t just about fixing Broadway. It is about fixing the entire east-west travel through Vancouver. When routes such as the 41,43 and 49 are already at capacity. It shows you how badly we need to get the M-line all the way to UBC.

  4. Avery
    Apr 21st, 2010 at 20:07
    Quote | #7

    I don’t see any mention of costs in this post or the official information provided by Translink (the same organization that threatened to drastically cut services due to lack of funding not too long ago, no?).

    UBC is the west anchor to the Broadway corridor, but can be accessed via 49th, 41st, 33rd or 25th, with most of these major east-west streets anchored on the east by Skytrain (and crossed midway by Canada Line).

    If Translink had unlimited funds, of course a Skytrain is the best option to meed current and future demand. But it doesn’t. So spread that money (for the burrowed tunnel Skytrain) invest in each of the major east-west corridors, with the majority for Broadway for the Skytrain to Arbutus (must complete the grid) + LRT. Then use the remaining funds to increase service along 49th, 41st (with possibly BRT), 33rd and 25th.

    This could meet demand for UBC, decrease transfer congestion at Cambie (with people from Richmond and Surrey having the option to transfer at 49th, 41st, etc) and increase frequency for the more southern neighbourhoods (see map showing bus frequency in the post above).

    Once that’s done, then we can start talking about the Arbutus LRT to add to the north-south grid even more!

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