Opinion: TransLink on the wrong track with Broadway subway

Vancouver 2010 Olympic Line(Special to CityHallWatch, contributed by Adam Fitch May 5, 2015.)

In the ongoing public debate around the current Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite, the question of whether one should vote Yes or No has generally been framed in one of two ways: Is it a good idea to impose a new sales tax for transit and transportation infrastructure expansion? And: Is TransLink doing its job well?
It seems that another question has been lost in the debate, which is at least as important as the others: Is the Mayors Council Transportation and Transit Plan a good plan for the region?

Transit Plan costs driven by Subway plan

The mayors Council Plan has largely been driven by the Broadway Subway plan. Of the $7.5 billion infrastructure spending in the 10 year Mayors plan, $2 billion is earmarked for the Broadway Subway. That is more than a quarter of the total cost. In other words, if the Broadway Subway component was deleted, the cost of the plan would be reduced by almost 30 percent. Put another way, the estimated cost to the average household in annual sales taxes would be reduced from $125 to under $92. Would that make a difference in the outcome of the plebiscite?

So why is the Broadway Subway part of the plan? It has been pushed hard by Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver since they came to power in 2008. During the last civic election, just five months ago, all of the major opposition parties opposed the Broadway Subway plan, but none of them opposed it strongly, or made it the center of their campaigns. Not COPE, not the NPA, not the Green Party. They did not oppose it, because they did not want to alienate potential voters who want better transit and support the subway.

But is a Broadway Subway a good idea? The proposal is for five kilometers of new rail rapid transit in a tunnel under Broadway, for $2 billion. That is $400 million per kilometer, or more than five times the estimated cost of the surface LRT proposed for Surrey. Is that good value for our tax dollars?

Vancouver is not New York

Why is a Broadway Subway deemed to be necessary? Because Vancouver is a world-class city, and because Vancouver wants to be the greenest city in the world by 2020? Is that a good reason for all of the citizens/taxpayers of Metro Vancouver to chip in an extra $33 per household per year, for the next ten years?

And would a Broadway Subway put us into the world-class, greenest city club anyway? Let’s see who we are comparing our city with. In Canada, there are two other cities that have rail rapid transit systems with significant underground portions – Toronto and Montreal. In the US, there are 11 cities with such transit systems.

In terms of metropolitan populations, every single one of these 13 cities is larger than Vancouver. Three cities are in the same ballpark – Montreal, Baltimore and Cleveland – up to twice as large. Two are approximately twice the population – Boston and San Francisco. Five are approximately three times the population – Atlanta, Miami, Philadelphia, Toronto and Washington DC. And three cities are four times as large as Vancouver or larger – New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Most of these cities built the bulk of their transit systems between 40 and 60 years ago, when construction costs were much lower than today, and some built their systems over a century ago. Only one system – Los Angeles – is younger than Vancouver’s.

We should not be trying to emulate Chicago, New York or Toronto. They have metropolitan populations several times as large Vancouver to draw on for taxes. Put another way, if we want to build an underground rapid transit system in Vancouver like they have in those cities, we would have to tax citizens at a rate at least three or four times what their citizens have been taxed. And even if we did so, that would only achieve a system that would be 40 or 50 years out of date the day it is opened.

Most cities are building Light Rapid Transit

So what should Vancouver do? It should compare itself to cities of similar size or smaller: Seattle, Portland, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Pittsburgh. All have SURFACE light rapid transit systems, or are building such systems now. They are cheaper. They are more flexible. They are quicker and less disruptive to build. They are easier to transfer onto and off of. They are more energy efficient. And they are much better for the urban livability. These are the reasons why Surrey has opted for surface LRT.

Rapid Transit is an expensive approach

But why even consider rail rapid transit anyway? It is an extremely expensive approach to mobility. A writer the other day promoted the idea of car-sharing and intelligent ride services like Uber and Lyft. For what it will cost to build the Broadway Subway, many of the potential riders could be provided with vouchers for car shares or smart ride services, and these vouchers would provide almost infinitely more flexible mobility options than fixed rapid transit. I am not suggesting that we initiate a voucher system; I am just making a point about costs and expenditures. Electric cars are here now, and self-driving cars are on the horizon. These innovations will also change the face of cities.

Instead of spending $2 billion for 5 kilometers of underground rail rapid transit, why don’t we install a system of underground piping to deliver fresh milk to every home in Vancouver? Milk is very healthy, and not everyone cannot afford to have it delivered to their homes. Some people do not know where the nearest grocery store is, or how to get there.

How about underground pay telephones that pop up out of the sidewalk when you call for one on your cell phone? These ideas are about as cost-effective as a subway, and make about as much sense in today’s rapidly evolving urban environment.

Here is a cheaper solution that would solve at least some of the congestion issues. Change the times at which students start classes start at UBC. Some students could start earlier. Some could start later. Bus pass-ups would disappear.

Development is the real motivation

So, why are Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver so hung up on a Broadway Subway? They claim that West Broadway is designated for densification and development, and a subway will enable that to happen. If that is so, then the prime beneficiaries of a new subway will be the land-owners and developers with land along Broadway, not the citizens of Metro Vancouver. Therefore, the land-owners and developers should pay for this expensive, anachronistic toy.

I say vote Yes to transit improvement in Metro Vancouver, but No to a subway.

Adam Fitch is a land use planner who lives in Kamloops, BC.


CityHallWatch note: Others reach the opposite final conclusion. Vote NO, say Geoff Olson and Elizabeth Murphy.

11 thoughts on “Opinion: TransLink on the wrong track with Broadway subway

  1. The Tunnel Vision Vancouver party policy is more ludicrous by the day.

    Density does NOT make community.
    There’s much more to city planning than collecting CACs, DCLevys, & increasing property tax per square mile.
    We should learn from Stockholm where there r a lot of low rise, low massing buildings that don’t block out each others sunlite in winter.
    Vancouvers’ liveability & affordability is being undermined by Tunnel Vision.
    Who do u think ultimately pays for the CAC,DCL & building permits? The end user buyer! They talk out of affordability out of 1 side of their mouths, the other side is sucking in the dollars from the developer/builders who turns around & charge the buyer.
    Sorry city with a sorry mayor.

  2. Vancouver is not New York, and yet the Broadway corridor sees more bus passengers than any bus route in New York City. The busiest bus corridor in NYC is 2nd Avenue, which sees 17,065,446 passengers a year (M15/M15 SBS), and is currently getting New York’s newest subway line. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Avenue_Subway

    In Vancouver, Broadway sees 25,518,000 passengers a year (9/99 B-line) – 50% more than 2nd Avenue in NYC. How does that not justify a subway?

  3. Canadianveggie, I would like to know where you get your statistics. Based on TransLink’s 2012 data, there are 31,570 trips across the UBC screenline on the 99 bus and 9 bus together, during a regular weekday. That adds up to approx. 6.6 million trips/year, not 25.5 million.

    And anyway, what does it matter that New York is building a subway on 2nd Avenue. Did you not read my piece? Vancouver is not New York. Have you ever been to New York. Probably more people travel up and down 2nd Avenue in one day than travel along Broadway in Vancouver in a month.

    • 2013 data: http://www.translink.ca/~/media/documents/plans_and_projects/managing_the_transit_network/2013%20bspr/2013_bspr_appendix_c_routes_1_99.ashx
      Route 9 – 8,464,000 boardings in 2013 (4th busiest bus route)
      Route 99 – 17,054,000 boardings in 2013 (the busiest bus route)

      Now, I know math is difficult, but 8,464,000 + 17,054,000 = 25,518,000

      Now, can I ask where you got your statistics from, because a quick google search would have told you your numbers were bogus. It looks like you tried to cherry-pick the numbers from weekday boardings made all the way to UBC, ignoring the millions of trips made to the the hospital/business area between Main and Granville.

      • Great point veggie! The case for the M-line extension to the central Broadway is much stronger than the case for going all the way to UBC. And in my opinion, the case for connecting the M-line to the Canada Line is stronger than from Cambie to Broadway, because of the regional network connectivity benefits.

    • Your cited trips across the UBC screenline make up less than half of the trips on the 99, many of which also serve the second biggest employment centre in the region at Central Broadway. While I see that as a common excuse pushed forward by Broadway subway opponents, I’m not really surprised you’d particularly refer to those numbers again. After all, you completely ignored Central Broadway in your attempt to push Light Rail on 16 Ave/6 Ave.

      What I think you don’t grasp is that at the end of the day it’s really also a question of value. Just as New York is now building a subway on 2nd Ave – at whatever high expense – because it realizes the value of that corridor to the whole region, we’re plannig a Broadway corridor SkyTrain extension because of its value from a cost-benefit standpoint. Broadway has been extremely important to the region for many years, as illustrated by the fact that before the 99 B-Line existed, the #9 was the region’s busiest bus route with 45000 riders daily. (Source on that: this report http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/tcrp/tcrp90v1_cs/Vancouver.pdf). Today, both the B-Line and the local buses on the corridor service 100,000 riders on all days of the week; if you weren’t paying attention, TransLink increased service on WEEKENDS on the 99 B-Line last year, along with several other crosstown routes connecting through to UBC. UBC is no longer just a university – its assets have been useful for things like large conventions, concerts and other events that we would be able to leverage if UBC is linked to the rest of the region by fast, high-quality transit.

      There has been a business case for a SkyTrain extension down the Broadway corridor since 1999. The region agrees on a Broadway subway because the benefits have been repeatedly found to be worth the cost.

  4. I agree with Fitch on one point – “I say vote Yes in the Transit Plebiscite. Metro Vancouver needs the transit improvements.”

    Voting Yes for more transit funding makes sense even if you disagree with some aspects of the plan.

    However, the extension of the Millennium Line to connect with the Canada Line is a good investment in regional transit connectivity. And the cost is reasonable as even the present design is largely above ground. Beyond this point the case for M-line extension westward is not as strong, but neither is the chances of it getting built.

    There is a lot of flexibility in the plan, including the possibility of electric trolley bus rapid transit on 41st to UBC. Vote Yes, and stay involved to create the transit system you want (but realize that it will never be your personal perfect system).

  5. The “Broadway Subway” (to Arbutus) was Phase II of the Millennium Line and in its SkyTrain form dates well back to the late 1990s. It was not initiated by Vision or Gregor Robertson and has been “on the books” for years. .

    The Central Broadway Corridor is Vancouver’s second office district (after downtown’s CBD) and is adjacent to several hospitals and health care research facilities. There are thousands of jobs in the area.

    The “Broadway Subway” is largely for serving workers in that office district and health care workers and researchers in the hospital district.

    An additional benefit is that it will handle the heavier combined worker/student passenger loads of the current B-Line, while UBC students would transfer a bit farther west at Arbutus after those workers have disembarked and where the B-Line won’t be as crowded. A shorter B-Line route also means that buses can cycle faster and carry more people to their destination.

  6. Note that others reach the opposite final conclusion. Vote NO, say Geoff Olson and Elizabeth Murphy.

    Spin city – transit plebiscite: Scratching the surface of the plebiscite (by Elizabeth Murphy, in Common Ground, April 2015)

    Hold your nose and vote No on plebiscite (by Geoff Olson, Vancouver Courier, 13-March-2015)

  7. Great article. Elizabeth Murphy to me looks like the best choice for the next CEO of transit in Metro Vancouver:


    I have a plan. It’s a dream: MTV.

    It’s called Metro Transit Vancouver (MTV). Adiós TransLink and hello MTV.


    Now that the plebiscite to fund TransLink has been soundly defeated and spending on transit to UBC is on hold for years or decades, here is how to: improve transit service to UBC, slash carbon emissions from transit to UBC and cut the cost of transit service to UBC:

    • Transit service to UBC can be sped up by replacing the express articulated 99 B-Line diesel bus service in operation every three minutes with articulated trolleybus service in operation every three minutes. It takes less time to reach trolleybus stops spaced approximately 255 metres apart than the 99 B-Line stops spaced about 1,083 metres apart for the median distance commuted in Vancouver and this more than offsets the minor amount of time saved by the express 99 B-Line service being held up by the many traffic lights on Broadway, in particular.

    • With the rationalization of the dozen transit routes currently going to UBC into two articulated trolleybus routes (one route on W4th Avenue and one route on W10th Avenue) as well as two articulated hybrid-electric or CNG bus routes (one route on W16th Avenue and one route on SW Marine Drive) going to UBC, peak transit capacity by these four routes can match the transit capacity of the subway (12,500 pphpd) at a saving of $5 billion in capital spending (subway) and at a saving of roughly $20 million annually in operational spending. Gulp.

    • Doing this slashes GHG emissions by 5,000,000 kilograms annually on just one route, the 99 B-Line route. Double gulp. There is too much noisy and polluting transit being concentrated on the 99 B-Line route (most other routes are essentially empty). If you think that the continual and screeching noise disruptions by the exceedingly frequent 99 B-Line service are not bothersome, install a chalk board in your office and have someone run his or her nails down it every one to two minutes.

    To UBC, the tram line can use existing wires and poles used by the current trolleybuses to save on the capital cost of the electrical and mechanical infrastructure for the tram line. Both trolleybuses and trams can use the same wires and poles, as well, to make it possible to run a combination of trams and trolleybuses.

    Building the tram line does not preclude the subway or other transit to UBC in the future, and the tram line is self-financing from operational savings (elimination of 10 bus routes to UBC) over the time that it will take to extend the subway. In the meantime, the tram line will avoid 50 million kilograms of CO2 emissions over the next decade (earliest expected time to extend the subway to UBC) if $5 billion drops out of the sky to finance it.

    So, what’s stopping the immediate start on the tram line? Nothing now, let’s get moving on it.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s