Debunking the SkyTrain myth part 5. Thirty years of SkyTrain planning – the years that the Locusts hath eaten!



In the late 1970’s, after much study and with regional consensus, Greater Vancouver’s Regional Authority, the GVRD, was on the verge of approving three light rail lines; Vancouver to Whalley (via New Westminster); New Westminster to Lougheed Mall and Vancouver to Richmond. Costing $350 million to $460 million. It wasn’t to be. The then Social Credit provincial government forced the construction of the newly renamed Advanced Light Rail Transit (ALRT) System onto the GVRD and built a $850 million light-metro just to new Westminster.

A history lesson:

In the late 1970’s, the UTDC or Urban Transit Development Corporation, a Ontario crown corporation designed a new elevated light-metro called ICTS or Intermediate Capacity Transit System, for a public transit niche between the maximum ridership Toronto’s streetcars could carry and the ridership needed to justify a subway. The cost of ICTS was roughly half of a that of a subway to build, though, according to the Toronto Transit Commission, “up to ten times more to install than light rail.”. Only two such systems were sold, Detroit (known locally as the mugger mover) and the Toronto, soon to be torn down, Scarborough Line.

Unfortunately for ICTS, it came after the Renaissance of modern LRT, which filled this niche and according to the TTC’s own studies, ICTS, despite the much higher costs, had about the same potential capacity of light rail!

To try to reinvent their proprietary light metro system and compete with light rail, the UTDC renamed ICTS’s to ALRT or Advanced Light Rail Transit in the late 1970’s. Then in a crass political deal with the then BC Social Credit Party, they agreed to purchase ALRT in exchange to obtain the then famous, Ontario Premier William Davis’s ‘Blue Machine’, which pioneered computer tracking of voters during elections, to desperately try to win the next BC provincial election.

The die was cast and the GVRD got SkyTrain “whether you like it or not.” Instead of originally planned LRT from Vancouver to Lougheed Mall, Whalley and Richmond, the region got SkyTrain only to New Westminster and as a bonus, the famed UTDC/BC Transit ‘SkyTrain speak’, which would even put George Orwell to shame.

The rest of the world came and saw SkyTrain at Expo 86, but the rest of the world built with LRT instead. No one else built with ALRT. The UTDC was sold to Lavalin which went bankrupt trying to sell the, again renamed ALM or Automated Light Metro, to Bangkok. Bombardier Inc. bought the shattered remains of Lavalin and ALM, redesigned the light-metro and renamed it ART or Advanced Light Metro.

In the mid 1990’s in other crass political deal, this time with Bombardier Inc., to get a (now abandoned) SkyTrain fabrication plant in Burnaby, the Glen Clark NDP government forced ART to be built on the Millennium Line. To date Bombardier as only sold four ART systems, the Port Authority in New York, connecting the JFK airport to the subway system, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, and Korea. It should be noted that ART was not allowed to compete against LRT for all installations, strange as LRT has outsold ART by well over 70 to 1!

With SkyTrain came the ALRT/ART technocrats and bureaucrats who so perverted transit planning in the region, that we only plan for light-metro. After Vancouver had a well publicized temper tantrum, not wanting elevated SkyTrain, they got a much more expensive subway instead for the RAV/Canada Line. What Vancouver wants, Vancouver gets. As subway construction is about twice as much as elevated construction, RAVCo. and Intransit BC cut construction costs by building the somewhat cheaper cut-and-cover method, with the cost savings coming from not paying compensation to affected businesses.

The SkyTrain or light-metro trap

Regional planners have fallen into the SkyTrain trap, where all transit planning in the region is based on light-metro including the predicted ‘flip-flop’ on the Evergreen Line, where proposed LRT was planned as light-metro and then dutifully replaced with SkyTrain. The SkyTrain trap is when one builds a light-metro and then hires none but shills, who only plan for SkyTrain, which is a light-metro. Building much cheaper LRT would only show how inept previous transit planning has been and career bureaucrats and politicians, ever mindful of their reputations until the pension cheques roll in, will do everything in their power to prevent honest transit planning in the region.

SkyTrain trap:

Build small but very expensive proprietary light-metro line >> densify metro route by rezoning industrial & commercial lands to residential along the metro line to increase ridership >> increasing land values >> exodus of families and businesses, searching for cheaper homes and industrial land >> new highways and bridges to cater to increasing suburban population >> increased traffic congestion as it too expensive to build with light metro in lightly populated areas >> build another light-metro line, though not catering to suburban populations >> increased densification along the route to increase ridership >> further increasing land values >> a greater and further exodus of families and businesses to the suburbs, searching for cheaper homes and industrial land  >> more new highways and bridges to cater to increasing suburban population >> increased traffic congestion >> more light-metro is planned, but not enough to cater to suburban populations >> increased densification >> and so on.

Most cities understand the SkyTrain trap is, with the first light-metro line built and subsequently future transit construction is with light rail; but no, not in Vancouver, where planners and politicians continue to plan for pie in the sky light metro lines.

SkyTrain, wins the battle but looses the war: Highways forever!

 Much is made by the SkyTrain lobby of SkyTrain supposedly high ridership, yet TransLink doesn’t divulge how they come up with their ridership figures. SkyTrain has no turnstiles and with the various ticket pricing structures used, authorities can’t give exact counts, yet they do. It is well understood that SkyTrain’s ridership is calculated by a strange alchemy, only known to TransLink, so confusing that TransLink’s bureaucrats give contradicting statements. In July 2005, TransLink’s bureaucrats, reported to the TransLink board that in the first quarter of 2005; SeaBus ridership fell 1.4 per cent to 575,000 and paying passengers on SkyTrain dropped by 0.1 per cent to nine million.” This is interesting, 9 million in three months translates to about 36 million a year or put another way, approximately 100,000 riders a day! Less than one half the ridership claimed by TransLink today of over 230,000 passengers a day. By comparison Calgary’s C-Train is carrying (counted boardings) ridership of over 250,000 customers a day.
SkyTrain’s high ridership can be partly explained by TransLink’s planners forcing bus passengers to Transfer onto the Light-metro. The Main St. bus service now terminates at Main St./Science World Station, compelling customers, who want to continue to downtown Vancouver to transfer onto SkyTrain. Pre 2005, the Main St. buses terminated in downtown Vancouver.
The real question is: Has SkyTrain created the all important modal shift from car to light-metro? It hasn’t as only about 12% to 13% of the regional population use public transit and ridership increases come from increasing population, not modal shift. At first glance SkyTrain’s ridership looks very good, but under scrutiny what has really happened, TransLink, in haste to increase ridership figures, has cascaded  bus passengers (as high as 80%) onto SkyTrain. Until there are turnstiles at stations to count ridership, TransLink can claim any figure they want, without fear of any contradiction.
SkyTrain may have won the ridership war, but it has lost the transit war, as the light-metro is much too expensive to be built into the suburbs, it has created the myth that “there is not the density for rail transit.” Thus politicians have the excuse to build more highways and bridges with impunity as rapid transit is just to expensive.  That LRT can be built quite cheaply, economically servicing rural areas is lost on planners and politicians.
The die has been cast, the massive Gateway project has come to fruition because of SkyTrain. With light rail’s cost being one half to one quarter the cost of light metro, one can build as many as four LRT lines compared to one light metro line. Transit authorities could build up to four modern LRT lines, with each line having a maximum practical capacity of over 20,000 persons per hour per direction, for the same cost of one SkyTrain line, with a maximum practical capacity of just over 26,000. This means we could operate up to four LRT lines with a maximum total capacity of over 80,000 pphpd., a fact that has not been lost on transit planners elsewhere.
If the GVRD had built with LRT, as originally planned, the region could have easily have four times the size of a light rail network, than we presently have. A ‘rail’ network that could provide the all important modal shift from car to ‘rail’.
The Fraser Valley will never have the density for SkyTrain and truth is, Vancouver doesn’t have the density for the light-metro either, yet we plan and build more. Light Rail is not planned for, except for extremely expensive hybrid LRT/ metro lines, as if real light rail were to be built, it would expose the three decades of SkyTrain only planning as the ‘years the locusts hath ate’

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4 Responses to “Debunking the SkyTrain myth part 5. Thirty years of SkyTrain planning – the years that the Locusts hath eaten!”

  1. Xerx Says:

    just a correction on the no 3 main st bus, it still goes downtown, i don’t think there is a bus that terminates at main

    Zweisystem replies: for all intent and purposes for people wishing to go to downtown Vancouver, one must transfer to SkyTrain at Main Street/Science World. This wasn’t always the case, as the #3 serviced the downtown, where as today it services the downtown East side, not a pleasant place to be in.

  2. Justin Bernard Says:

    For the record, the RT is not going to be torn down. The Scarborough RT has received funding from the province to be extended to Malvern, a community in Northeast Toronto. The TTC decided in 2006, that the line would be upgraded to handle ICTS cars by 2015. However, the Scarborough RT is much maligned here. The system frequently breaks down, and is frequently overcrowded. The final design for the upgraded line makes it clear that the TTC is still supporting ICTS. However support for ICTS seems to be dwindling amongst transit professionals in Toronto, and there are calls to -rereview the technology choices

    Zweisystem replies: According to the various Toronto transit blogs it now seems that the Scarborough RT will be converted to light rail. The one major problem for the RT is snow as it always stalls in the snow, just like Vancouver.

  3. mezzanine Says:

    Even Portland’s LRT is planned for transfers to and from buses, and is cited as a successful aspect.

    I see successful rail systems not as stand alone routes, but intergrated with existing buses.

    Zweisystem replies: When 80% of SkyTrain’s ridership must first take a bus to the metro indicates that many bus passengers are forced onto the metro. One is not against bus/rail integration, but when the object is to cram as many bus riders onto the metro as possible, to fulfill some bureaucratic need, is counter productive. The RAV line will be a good example where bus customers who previously enjoyed a ‘seamless’ (no transfer journey) from South Delta & Surrey to Vancouver, will now be forced to transfer to RAV, making the commute longer and inconvenient. This certainly will not attract ridership. Again I repeat: In the 21st century, public transit is seen as a product and if the public do not like the product, they will not buy it. I already know 10 people, current transit users, who have purchased cars to commute to Vancouver, when the forced transfers come into play and I think this is the tip of the iceberg.

  4. David Says:

    As Zweisystem said, the problem in Metro Vancouver is not the convenient connections between buses and SkyTrain, it’s the fact that the suburban network is organized to feed passengers onto SkyTrain, even those who would be better served by buses alone, provided they were routed appropriately. Zweisystem himself once proposed a DMU service on existing rail lines and was told that TransLink had spent over a billion dollars expanding SkyTrain and that they were determined to get as many passengers onto that line as possible.

    Only in the actual City of Vancouver, where there is a dense and frequent bus network, do most buses operate independently of SkyTrain and only connect because it makes sense to do so.

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