During the recent panic around transportation funding in Metro Vancouver, the authorities assured us that construction of the long-awaited Evergreen rapid transit line will proceed. Preliminary work — street widenings, electrical ducts — is now underway, and a contractor is to be selected soon for principal construction, scheduled to begin in autumn 2012.
But while the 11-kilometre line appears to have achieved untouchable status in the balance of regional politics, there are persistent voices in the blogosphere who say the project is wrong, wrong, wrong, because it’s based on Skytrain — the obtrusive technology previously used in three other Vancouver-area projects, and hardly anywhere else in the world. In deliberations over the Evergreen Line around 2006, local mayors seemed to be leaning toward light rail transit, until the provincial government declared force majeure and imposed Skytrain. The same dynamic had played out, less dramatically, with the Millenium and Canada lines earlier on.
Most critics of Evergreen favour ground-based urban rail. Some say Skytrain, by comparison, is too expensive — “gold-plated,” in fact — while others see it as simply inhumane.
“The advantages of surface transit are plentiful and have more to do with place making than saving money – though they can do that too… If we have grade separation and widely spaced, expensive stations then we get high rises dotted around them at walking distance. If we have slower on street transit with more frequent cheaper stops, then we can have walk up four storey buildings along arterials with townhouses behind them, and detached houses with laneway housing further away.”
The above is from Stephen Rees, a rather strict former regional planner. What he is saying, I think, is that true light rail or streetcar technologies help to create urban villages, while Skytrain co-exists with urban highways and creates colonies of towers. The last part, at least, is demonstrably true in Metro Vancouver; with rare exceptions, such as at Commercial Drive, Skytrain bypasses the urban villages. However, this observation will not necessarily block future Skytrain construction. Planners and amateur urbanists aside, most people see mass transit as a way to move people rather than shape land use.
Skytrain moves a lot of people over long distances, and the people of Fraseropolis tend to be fairly spread out. The Evergreen Line’s capacity, according to the provincial government’s business case, is more than twice that of ground-level light rail, and the travel time from Coquitlam City Hall to Lougheed Town will be one-third less than that of light rail.
The cost calculation also seems to favour Skytrain; the provincial numbers say the initial construction cost of Skytrain is 12 per cent higher, but the eventual operating cost per passenger is about one-quarter the per-passenger cost for light rail, partly because the trains are operated remotely from a central control room.
Of course, some critics say Coquitlam should not have rapid transit at all, arguing that the city lacks the density to feed a rail service. But the current projection is for 70,000 riders per day by 2021, or 10,000 riders per mile; if Wikipedia and friends are to be trusted, this is not bad in either the regional or the North American context, although it is far below the norm for Toronto or Montreal.
In the ideal world, we would have both: LRT to build urban villages, and grade-separated longer-distance trains to connect over the Port Mann Bridge and out to Maple Ridge. Mayor Dianne Watts of the City of Surrey has declared her preference for a community-friendly light-rail system, and has created an office to make it happen. One challenge, as I see it, is to convince taxpayers region-wide to support a system dedicated to a single community. Another challenge, more relevant where urban villages already exist — say, West Broadway or Main Street in Vancouver — is that in many areas, the political cost of fighting merchant oppostion to build an on-the-ground rail or streetcar system may be too high to take on.