Street-level rail is rapid transit’s “stroad”

Fraseropolis recently did an opinion piece on the Surrey Light Rail Transit proposal. And while that may or may not be pretty interesting in its own right depending on what you think, a comment posted by a Brendan Dawe did interest me a lot in its description of the realities surrounding at-grade (on-street) light rail transit.

Brendan Dawe on January 16, 2016 at 10:30 AM said:

What I don’t see is how an shared-grade line intended to be *rapid transit* is pedestrian friendly. Sure, if it’s going streetcars speeds than it may be, but that’d be a considerable sum to ask the rest of the region to chip in for a project that does not improve mobility overall, and as such the choice of rail over rubber would be really an aesthetic position, and as Vancouver is supposed to be paying for the non-technically-necessary costs of tunneling under Broadway, it would make much more sense to ask Surrey to pay for the extra costs of installing rail and electrical systems. If it’s going at something approaching rapid transit speeds than it’s outright pedestrian unfriendly – it’s a fast train going down the middle of a street. If it’s to be operated with the sort of priority over the street that makes practical use of the capabilities of rail transit, than it will require reduction in potential pedestrian connectivity by limiting cross walks and signal preemption. That sort of issue is why many regard shared-grade rail as inappropriate for Broadway and it’s abundance of close-spaced signalized intersections.

If elevated rail is transit’s freeway, shared-grade rail rapid transit is it’s stroad, – slow enough to be limiting, fast enough to be dangerous, and expensive to build and operate all the same.

I don’t think your observations on development form are really based on anything inherent to particular transit modes, but rather a result of what municipal governments have permitted. There’s a huge amount of demand for space in this region, and in it will take the densest form that city planners allow in reasonably well located sites. At Brentwood and Metrotown, it’s towers, while at Royal Oak or Commercial-Broadway it’s low rises and at Nanaimo and 29th Avenue it’s nothing at all. This is because Burnaby encourages dense development at official town centers while Vancouver hasn’t until recently allowed any development in SFH neighborhoods. If Surrey wants lowrise development, than it’s entirely within the competence of the authorities in Surrey to limit low-rises.

** Note: Brendan also posted this disclaimer at the beginning of his comment:
To avoid being drawn into inane technological arguments, I will be referring to ‘shared-grade rail’ and ‘elevated rail’ instead of skytrain or metro and light rail, since grade separation is the real contention.

One thought on “Street-level rail is rapid transit’s “stroad”

  1. My general experience with at grade transit is Swiss trams. They work great, but with some catches when it comes to something like Surrey. The Swiss trams get excellent transit priority over cars….so while they are not supper fast they are competitive with cars in the congested city centers they operate in. In a Surrey context this is important for 2 reasons, if the Surrey LRT is slow without full priority there are enough alternative options for the cars that cars will be more time competitive than the LRT and it will reduce ridership (these time competitive alternative car routes often don’t exist in Switzerland so when a tram gets priority on one route it is competitive with the car)….and for longer distances the Swiss have the S-bahn, generally grade separated (in the city center) frequent heavy rail. The next difference is the Swiss are not afraid to give full priority to trams, it does not matter that car traffic is slowed down…see how long full signal priority on Fraser Highway will last if it turns out some intersections end up having car delays of an extra 5minutes….Anyways to me it comes down to the objectives you are asking of rapid transit….and I don’t think Surrey is setting the correct objectives.

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