Opinion: Don’t waste time and money on BRT or LRT, begin planning for North Shore-Metrotown SkyTrain

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Reece Martin, who is a prominent public transit planning consultant behind the popular RMTransit channel on YouTube.

Metro Vancouver has Canada’s best public transit system.

TransLink doesn’t have the most stations (that would be Toronto’s subway) or the most riders (the Montreal Metro, in this case), but a decade after leaving my hometown of Vancouver for University in Toronto and spending lots of time in Montreal, I am convinced it’s the case.

Even after my travels overseas to places like London, Berlin, Tokyo and Sydney, I still think Vancouver’s public transit system stacks up very well.

The SkyTrain system is a rather young one as far as rapid transit systems go, but it is actually fairly large, and where it really shines is the service it provides riders: It is fast, it is superbly frequent, and (despite what you might think) it is actually very reliable.

Seattle, a city many Metro Vancouver residents visit from time to time, has been building out its own rail system over the last several decades, and while things started out in a very Portland-esque tram- or light rail-style direction, they are increasingly designing the new Link light rail transit (LRT) lines with designs that harken to its Canadian neighbour to the north, which manages to move several times more people on its rail system every day.

In fact, there’s even a lot of discourse in Seattle about how emulating Vancouver more (Seattle’s Link system has drivers and only runs up to every eight to 10 minutes) would make it much better.

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Artistic rendering of Seattle Link LRT’s Lynnwood Extension. (Sound Transit)

I think the success of SkyTrain can be traced to a few things.

No doubt the fact that it’s embedded in an urban area with a solid network of local buses and the best transit-oriented development in North America can help, but I think it really is the fundamentals that make the system popular.

When you show up at a SkyTrain station, a train is going to be there to take you where you want to go shortly — even more shortly than the typical wait times in numerous larger North American cities. And once you are on it, the Expo, Millennium, and Canada lines are fast.

It’s no wonder that on a continent that has frequently constructed street-level LRT systems that are only marginally faster than the buses they replace at great cost, one of the few systems that invested in technology that allowed trains to be unimpeded by cars or urban speed limits has seen massive ridership growth. So massive, in fact, that Vancouver’s plucky elevated train system now moves more people every day than the massive and famous 140+ station Chicago El system. A large part of it can be summarized by a comment I overheard while riding the system the last time I was home: “Oh, I always take SkyTrain; it’s way faster than driving.”

And even the little details on SkyTrain are well done.

The in-station retail is better than anywhere else in Canada. The system was the first to let you tap your credit or debit card to pay. The wayfinding system and the “T” logo are attractive and logical. Announcements are made with a real human voice. The stations are beautiful and feel like the natural answer to what happens when you cross BC and the train station.

Bold choices

How did Metro Vancouver get to a place where it has better-used transit than cities that started a century earlier and have several times its population? The answer: Bold choices.

The initial construction of the Expo Line was bold: Automated rail systems have basically become the default for new networks and lines (Automated Metro lines exist in Sao Paulo, Santiago, London, Paris, Seoul, Shanghai, Sydney, Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, and more), but when they get built there is still often consternation — is this technology really safe?

While some in Vancouver have suggested SkyTrain is somehow “outdated,” the biggest transit projects under construction in Toronto (Ontario Line) and Montreal (REM) in 2024 both rely on fully driverless metro technology; to think Vancouver was open to it in the 1980s is kind of mind-blowing.

And then there was the Millennium Line and Canada Line, both of which were unusual in their own ways.

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SkyTrain Brentwood Town Centre Station on the Millennium Line. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

The Millennium Line, when first constructed and even to this day, is not all that heavily used (albeit still more than almost every LRT line on the continent), but when the Broadway extension to Arbutus opens, and as transit-oriented development in Burnaby and Coquitlam continues, it will likely come to rival the Expo Line in ridership.

Meanwhile, the Canada Line almost didn’t happen, as politicians suggested it would never meet its ridership targets — targets it has consistently and substantially exceeded.

While the Canada Line’s overcrowding and small trains are well known, what’s less appreciated is that Vancouver still took the risk, built the line for a price lower than some LRT systems currently being constructed in Canada, and has seen a huge and sustained ridership uptick because of it.

Suffice it to say that Metro Vancouver has repeatedly made bold transit investments with SkyTrain, and eventually, basically every single one has paid off.

Ultimately, those who have advocated for SkyTrain should feel vindicated — cities building new subway lines in the past few decades have built a lot of automated metros, from Copenhagen to Sydney. And I think, in large part, Metro Vancouver’s huge success in transit traces back to the rail system at its core.

Consternation for the North Shore solution

Obviously, the idea of some form of rapid transit to the North Shore has been on people’s minds in a serious way for years, and a series of studies on potential routes and technologies have been making their way along. When I saw Daily Hive Urbanized’s recent article on the latest such study, I thought it was worth heading off the inevitable “light rail or SkyTrain” debate once again.

The route considered in this study is that of the “Purple” line from previous studies, which would run from Park Royal in West Vancouver, through North Vancouver, across the Burrard Inlet near the current location of the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge in the Second Narrows, and then south and east to Hastings Park/PNE, Brentwood Town Centre, the BCIT Burnaby campus, and Metrotown. Another route, the so-called “Gold” line, would likely happen sometime in the future, providing another service running west rather than north of the PNE along Hastings Street into downtown Vancouver.

If you’re curious why the route does not follow that of the SeaBus or go via Stanley Park, the former would require a much longer and deeper, more complex crossing (and leave you with a difficult grade change and curve once you get to the North Shore), while an option via Stanley Park puts a lot of transit in undevelopable parkland, and makes for worse connections to the North Shore from the rest of the region aside from the western reaches of Vancouver — and downtown has the SeaBus anyways.

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September 2020 map of North Shore SkyTrain route options. (Government of BC)

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October 2021 Burrard Inlet Rapid Transit concepts of two North Shore SkyTrain lines via the Second Narrows: Gold Line from Park Royal to downtown Vancouver via Hastings, and Purple Line from Park Royal to Brentwood Town Centre Station and Metrotown Station via Willingdon Avenue. (North Shore Connects)

I actually think when you look at the Purple route alone, it makes a lot of sense because you pick up a connection to the PNE (which will be home in coming decades to a seriously overhauled Playland and entertainment venues), as well as BCIT (a major transit destination with no rail today), as well as second connections to Brentwood and Metrotown — Burnaby’s two most substantial town centres and hubs of density.

Suffice to say, this route would seriously increase the regional importance of these suburban hubs, encouraging further polycentric development, and it might also help take some of the strain off of the Expo Line’s Metrotown Station, which is already one of the busiest stations in the system. On the North Shore, the route allows for a lot of major nodes to be connected, and that would allow for places like Phibbs Exchange to become hubs for buses to the rest of the North Shore.

The current plans suggest that Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) will be built as an “interim” solution while some rail options will be developed as the long-term build-out option, but I am concerned we are already heading in the wrong direction.

If TransLink wants to extend the existing R2 RapidBus into Burnaby with some limited bus lanes and queue jumps, I think that would make sense. I would say much the same for a highway express bus service similar to those on Highway 99 and Highway 1, which provide frequent and very fast service and are well-used.

However, the idea that TransLink would spend hundreds of millions of dollars on an “interim” solution, when rail is basically an accepted inevitability, seems wasteful.

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TransLink R2 Marine Drive RapidBus on the North Shore. (City of North Vancouver)

The 99 B-Line has been one of the biggest transit success stories in Canada: the bus’s ridership grew and grew to the point where we are making a direct upgrade to SkyTrain to Arbutus and eventually UBC, and while we surely should have implemented more bus lanes and improvements to the service, I am not sure that creating a “BRT” corridor there would have been a better approach than getting on with building SkyTrain (something we’ve been seriously discussing since I was in elementary school).

I feel much the same for the North Shore.

If we accept that rail will happen in the next decade or two, we probably shouldn’t spend a bunch of money on bus infrastructure that will be wasted when rail service starts. We’d be better off using those funds as a “down payment,” acquiring future land and space for an eventual rail line.

Part of the problem here is that BRT is kind of inherently unsustainable: a big reason cities build rail rapid transit lines is because running buses is expensive, especially when you need to move tens of thousands of people. A rail rapid transit line lets a single driver move the equivalent of 10 or more buses worth of passengers, or no driver in the case of SkyTrain, and rail vehicles and infrastructure are also very cost-effective given their capacity. This is very good for transit agency finances.

So, accepting that BRT is probably not a long-term solution and sinking tons of money into something that would not be fundamentally better than buses with some bus lanes and special priority measures, how do the rail options stack up?

I’d suggest it’s a knockout for SkyTrain.

The report, albeit a preliminary analysis, suggests ridership would be higher with SkyTrain when compared to LRT, travel times would be slashed, and way more jobs would be accessible via transit — why would a transit leader like Vancouver choose the inferior option here, especially when money to build new transit has been coming in at record levels?

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2023 study: SkyTrain concept for the Burrard Inlet Rapid Transit Line. (McElhanney/District of North Vancouver)

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Side-by-side twin cable-stayed bridges concept to replace the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge, including space for SkyTrain/LRT. (McElhanney/District of North Vancouver)

I’ve argued in the past that Vancouver is not building enough because it is simply pursuing the two long-planned system extensions of the Millennium Line’s extension to Arbutus and the Expo Line’s extension to Langley Centre (and not even taking SkyTrain to UBC yet), while Toronto is building three larger TTC subway extensions, several new LRT lines, an electric regional rail system for GO Train, a new super high-capacity downtown subway (Ontario Line), while Montreal is building an entire network nearly as large as SkyTrain is today on top of its existing metro system.

Another issue is how best to use the capacity of a future Burrard Inlet crossing. The study suggests a future combined road and rail crossing should be built to replace the existing Ironworkers Memorial Bridge, and given the complexity this will likely be very expensive.

Given the huge upfront cost of a new multi-modal bridgw, why would we not spend the extra money to reap as much transit benefit as possible from it in terms of speed and frequency, given that the rails and electrification for SkyTrain or LRT are going to be more or less the same?

With the LRT option, speeds will, in all likelihood, barely improve upon those seen with buses, so why build it at all?

Istanbul’s Metrobus BRT crosses the Bosphorus Strait on a bridge with dedicated lanes and moves over a million riders per day; if all that matters is maximizing capacity and minimizing upfront cost, LRT is not necessary.

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Montreal’s REM. (Reece Martin)

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Montreal’s REM. (Reece Martin)

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Montreal’s REM. (Reece Martin)

When major transit arteries are built crossing substantial waterways, metro rail is usually the preferred option the world over, as in San Francisco with BART, Hong Kong with the MTR, Montreal with the new REM over the Champlain Bridge, and even in Istanbul where the Metrobus BRT is now being supplemented by the Marmaray express metro line. When the cost of the tracks and the bridge (or tunnel) is more or less the same, it would be silly not to put the highest possible capacity trains on them.

This all lines up with how Metro Vancouver transit has played out for years: Build RapidBus, which we are getting better and better at over time, and then, when ridership justifies it, start upgrading to SkyTrain right away.

LRT is a master-of-none middle ground that is slower and less frequent than SkyTrain (and more expensive to operate), creating a worse transit experience and costing more than buses to build. This will only become more and more the case as the bar for bus service in Metro Vancouver gets raised, as groups like Movement push for more priority and service.

This all aligns with the things people have been saying about LRT in Metro Vancouver for years, such as in Surrey, where the planned Newton-Guildford light rail line — which was meant to be only one minute faster than existing bus service despite costing huge amounts of money to build — was replaced with the Surrey-Langley SkyTrain project, which will cost more, but deliver far better transit service and the capacity needed to support the growth of the South of Fraser region for the long term.

The arguments for the North Shore are similar, except high-capacity rail makes even more sense here because of the geographic challenge of crossing the Burrard Inlet. By using SkyTrain (and ideally high-capacity SkyTrain), the new Ironworkers Memorial Bridge crossing would have a substantially higher capacity than with light rail or road alone, and that would seriously boost the room for growth on the North Shore, in a time where housing is in short supply everywhere.

Avoiding the mistakes of the past

Note that I mention high-capacity — while I think re-litigating the past with the Canada Line is mostly beyond the point, the studies suggesting that SkyTrain would be overkill for the corridor between the North Shore and Metrotown because it wouldn’t be at crush capacity in peak hours on the busiest segments is truly crazy.

Metro Vancouver needs to plan for 2050, but transit capacity should be considered over many decades, not two and a half. Rapid transit lines, as we see in London, Paris, and New York, will happily keep running after over a century with appropriate maintenance, and so when determining the capacity projects will need, we should consider substantially longer time horizons.

These ridership numbers are so similar to what was projected to the Canada Line that this concern should be obvious, and I’d argue we should very intentionally be aiming for higher capacity than that line.

For one, if we had a do-over, I think most in the region would agree that the Canada Line ought to at least have the same peak capacity as the other two SkyTrain lines — 25,000 people per direction per hour (pphpd) as opposed to the Canada Line’s 15,000 pphpd. However, in this case, the line serving the North Shore will also use a very expensive bridge that probably won’t be replaced again for another century.

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SkyTrain Canada Line’s North Arm Bridge over the Fraser River (left) and SkyTrain Expo Line’s elevated guideway in downtown Vancouver (right). (Eric Buermeyer/Shutterstock)

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SkyTrain Richmond-Brighouse on the Canada Line (Shawn.ccf/Shutterstock)

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Conceptual cross-section artistic rendering of SkyTrain Broadway-City Hall Station’s interchange between the Millennium Line and existing Canada Line. (Government of BC)

If we really expect transit to keep growing in the region, service to continue improving, and density to keep emerging, then we need to dream bigger because this North Shore-Metrotown SkyTrain line could easily move far more than the stated 120,000 boardings per day in 30 or 40 years, much less in 70 or 80. That’s doubly true as when the bridge inevitably becomes a traffic choke point again sometime in the future, even if lanes are added, transit will be the relief valve.

At the same time, this route will be rather unique because it will help form a SkyTrain network loop around downtown Vancouver, travelling initially south from the PNE to Brentwood and Metrotown, but eventually also west to Oakridge and perhaps further west to UBC or north to downtown. While Metro Vancouver is large enough that more radial SkyTrain routes — that is, from the suburbs to downtown — are likely to be built (in fact the “Gold” route is one such line on Hastings), we are likely to only build one orbital line for the foreseeable future, and making sure it has enough capacity is critical. If it does, it can play a big piece in TransLink’s plans to reduce congestion on core segments of the Expo Line and Canada Line in the coming decades by allowing people travelling across the region from the east to the south to avoid the core.

A future North Shore-Metrotown SkyTrain line should have 80-metre-long platforms at the stations in Vancouver and Burnaby, supporting trains similar in size to those on Montreal’s REM or two back-to-back Canada Line trains (The Expo and Millennium lines have 80-metre-long platforms, while the Canada Line has 40- or 50-metre-long platforms, with 40-metre platforms designed to be expandable to 50 metres).

Trains and stations on the North Shore could be 60 metres long, but the additional length south of the Burrard Inlet would allow longer trains to run along the future Gold route down Hastings Street and further south and west as well. In any case, the alignment and stations of any future SkyTrain line should probably be better prepared for expansion, with room for at least an additional car or two in the station boxes and in the alignment geometry.

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Montreal’s REM. (Reece Martin)

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Artistic rendering of the trains and platform screen doors of Toronto’s new Ontario Line. (Metrolinx)

Ultimately, Metro Vancouver is being given another choice to either be bold or create a “good enough” transit solution that might fly in another North American city but shouldn’t in the region we aspire to have.

Given the enormous success of SkyTrain over the decades that has carried Metro Vancouver into the enviable position of being among the best transit systems on the continent, building more of it seems like a good idea, especially when the conditions are so well suited like with crossing the Burrard Inlet.

Of course, we can’t predict the future, but as the Canada Line shows, modelling and planning data are only so good.

Many things are unpredictable, but even the studies note that building SkyTrain and more people will get on board because it’s faster and more frequent; it’s simply better transit.

And that’s the reality of transit: people need to get around, and they will get around on the train and bus when that is a good option for them; demand is not an issue.

It will cost more, but what is the cost of the alternative, and will we care about the extra cost in 30 or 50 years?

Unless we plan to change the course we’ve been on since we built the Expo Line, the Millennium Line, the Canada Line, then all of the B-Line and RapidBus routes, and started on the path to the most dramatic housing buildout on the continent, then SkyTrain is the answer. We should be worried about building too little SkyTrain, not too much.

Here is a summary comparing the key performance statistics of the BRT, LRT, and SkyTrain options for the North Shore-Metrotown rapid transit project:

  • Bus Rapid Transit (BRT):
    • Average daily ridership: 41,000 boardings per day
    • End-to-end travel time: 58 minutes
    • Average operating speed: 20 km/hr
    • Maximum capacity: 1,300 passengers per hour per direction
    • New job access from North Shore: 20,000
  • Light Rail Transit (LRT):
    • Average daily ridership: 100,000 boardings per day
    • End-to-end travel time: 47 minutes
    • Average operating speed: 25 km/hr
    • Maximum capacity: 4,500 passengers per hour per direction
    • New job access from North Shore: 98,000
  • SkyTrain:
    • Average daily ridership: 120,000 boardings per day
    • End-to-end travel time: 23 minutes
    • Average operating speed: 50 km/hr
    • Maximum capacity: 12,000 passengers per hour per direction
    • New job access from North Shore: 180,000