Capital costs of Canadian rail transit systems

Above: The Canada Line at Marine Dr. Station. Featured photo by Larry Chen.

There’s been a lack of clarity when it comes to the big numbers that define the planning of transit systems in Canada. It’s particularly evident when transit technology becomes a matter of discussion.

Of course, millions of dollars are at stake. So there’s no doubt that when the cost estimate for a major project is higher by so much as a few million dollars, it’s the kind of thing that sends transit advocates scrambling to get attention and some people in the media practically screaming.

So I decided to take all the recent and upcoming Light Rail projects in Canada, research their costs and alignment details, and put them in a table for proper comparison. I put the data in a Google spreadsheet:

All projects were included regardless of technology. Alignment was divided by percentage and split into/measured in 7 categories: on-street, above-grade (i.e. elevated), below-grade (i.e. tunnel, open cut), disused R.O.W. (i.e. railway R.O.W., other empty lands), bored tunnel (the most expensive kind of tunnelling), shared-lane (on-street in mixed traffic like a streetcar), and the total at-grade percentage.

Trends

Since the transit planning complaints here in Vancouver always seem to be directed at grade-separation, I decided to focus on seeing if there was a cost trend regarding the amount of grade separation for the line.

Same data as above, but sorted by amount of grade-separation

What I found is that there is a trend that occurs when the chart data is pinpointed on a graph and assessed by percentage, but it’s very inconsistent and the projects are all over the map:

Percentage below or above-grade

Open to enlarge

Several projects end up below the average and several end up above it. As an example, there’s a difference in the four projects on this chart closest to the 100% mark. The highest mark is for the proposed Scarborough extension of Toronto’s Bloor-Danforth subway line, which will be fully underground. The lowest mark is from the estimate for a SkyTrain Expo Line extension in Surrey, which will be fully grade-separated but built in an elevated guideway as opposed to a tunnel.

Despite the use of grade-separation, many of the highest-cost projects are not fully grade-separated and feature many at-grade segments that can limit potential. Even projects with only about 20% grade-separation can come close to or even breach $200 million per km.

Below-grade segments

In order to account for the differences associated with much more expensive below-grade (tunnelled) segments, I took the data and assessed it by percentage below-grade and found a much steeper and more consistent trend-line:

Percentage below-grade

Open to enlarge

The amount of systems at the 100% mark has decreased from 4 to 3, and the trend-line now hits the middle of these three dots. The middle dot, closest to the line, is the current ongoing extension of Toronto’s Yonge-University Spadina subway line. The lowest dot is the cost estimate for the ‘Broadway Subway’ (the Millennium Line’s proposed extension down Broadway), which is below the trend-line but is built around a medium-capacity system unlike Toronto’s fully-fledged, high-capacity subway.

Still, there are some differences to account for in terms of alignment. At the 45-50% mark there are two projects that deviate both from the trend-line and from each other.

2012210-eglinton-lrt

The vast majority of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT will be placed in a large and expensive underground tunnel

The higher of these two marks, at $279 million per km, is the Eglinton Crosstown LRT being built in Toronto. The Crosstown was planned as an on-street LRT system, but the central portion will be placed in a 10km dual underground bored tunnel, which spans more than half of the final construction.  The lower of these two marks is actually our SkyTrain system’s Canada Line. The Canada Line is a fully grade-separated light metro and a slightly higher total percentage of it is below grade. However, only a much smaller portion of this is expensive bored tunnel – the rest was done as less expensive cut-and-cover. Therefore, it manages to be less expensive despite the full grade-separation.

Bored tunnels

To account for that difference I created one more plot excluding everything but projects with bored tunnel segments. The plot line managed to stay the almost same, and the relationship between high capital costs and tunnels is thus made clear:

Percentage bored

Open to enlarge

Since only 13% of the Canada Line was built in a bored tunnel, it is now to the left of where it was in the last chart and sitting very close to the trend-line (the Eglinton Crosstown is also closer to the trend-line). Meanwhile, our Evergreen Line SkyTrain extension, which encountered challenging soils with its single tunnel bore, is right on the trend-line when set amongst the other systems.

Canada can’t be compared to Europe

The Tyee has probably been one of the most prominent to sound the cost-comparison alarm when they published a 2012 article titled, “Why Is TransLink’s Price for Light Rail Triple What Other Cities Pay?”

This article surmised that our Light Rail cost estimates are triple what they should be, based on cost estimates being about one-third as much in European and American cities. (And it was, of course, brought up as a way of hurling tomatoes at the idea of a Broadway Subway line – which is still a great idea for a number of reasons).

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Nice try, Tyee – but the Hiawatha Blue Line is largely off-street and incomparable to Broadway!

Interestingly, of all the American cities that could’ve been chosen in the comparison, it was Minneapolis and its Hiawatha Blue Line. This comparison is invalid as over 80% of the line is placed in either disused R.O.W. or tunnel, with only 20% of it being on-street. All of the other examples are from cities in Europe.

Regardless of whether you believe these numbers or not, the reality is that transit projects and their costs are more complicated than being able to be broken down into a simple cost-per-km value that can apply nationwide, across nations, or across transit projects. There are differences in labour laws, work schedule expectations, material costs, acquisition costs, logistics costs, varying land values, differences in local terrain and differences in economy. All of these need to be accounted for and thus it can’t be assumed that a transit project that cost a certain amount in Europe (or any other country, really) could be replicated in Canada for a similar cost.

Here in Vancouver, for example, any big rapid transit projects are likely to cost more than anywhere else in Canada simply because the higher cost of land would likely significantly raise the costs of project elements such as the operations & maintenance centre (OMC).

Despite this, at the end of the day, both the Broadway Subway and the LRT proposals were consistent with the trendlines across Canadian rapid transit systems.

On-street LRTs

To further address the point raised by The Tyee, I compiled one more chart between the predominantly on-street LRT systems:

Percentage on-street LRTs

Open to enlarge

From the wide spectrum in cost of what would otherwise be similar at-grade, on-street LRTs, it may appear that The Tyee would have a point. Even this can be explained, however. The two lowest-cost systems on this chart are Kitchener-Waterloo’s ION rapid transit and the proposed Victoria LRT system. They also happen to have the highest percentages (44% and 31% respectively) on a disused right-of-way (i.e. beside a railway), which is the least expensive place to build any transit because there’s no utility removal, property acquisition or street-scaping work adding to the cost.

highway_401_at_hurontario_street_9192877703

With a right-of-way this wide, the Hurontario LRT is not going to need a lot of property acquisition.

In the middle are the Mississauga and Hamilton systems, which are slightly lower than the big-city systems in Greater Vancouver and Greater Toronto (they are also among the 3 systems with occasional mixed-traffic rights-of-way), which seems just right to me. The Mississauga system (Hurontario LRT), in particular, is being built on a wide roadway that in most places still has significant allocations on either side where the roadway can be expanded if necessary (in other words, there’s almost no property acquisition).

The cost for a Broadway LRT system is certainly on the high-end of the spectrum. This makes sense as a Broadway system would need to offer the highest capacity of all of these systems and would face street-scaping challenges with the need to stay within property lines (though this won’t stop property acquisitions from being necessary at station locations). There’s also the uncertainty around an OMC, which would have likely had to be built underground and/or expensively due to the lack of lands along Broadway and high land costs in Vancouver.

Conclusion

In the end, the amount of bored tunnel has a somewhat linear relation with project costs – but grade-separation altogether does not. This doesn’t mean we should avoid building systems with bored tunnel segments from end-to-end (at the end of the day, whether to go that far or not should come down to detailed evaluations of each corridor and transportation needs), but what I do hope to achieve with this article is to facilitate an improvement in the discussion of rapid transit projects (Especially capital costs, since it seems to be the only thing people want to talk about when thinking of rapid transit projects – I, of course, completely disagree).

It’s time to stop thinking that we can build paradise if we replicate the results of other countries, at the costs those other countries experience – it’s impossible. Let’s build transit systems that are adapted to the way our cities work, so that we are sure to be rewarded with positive outcomes.

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Where YES vote % was lower, more people drive (Referendum Results)

So in the wake of the NO VOTE in the Metro Vancouver Transit & Transportation Plebiscite,

Here’s an interesting collaboration I did with Kyle of 257vancouver over a Twitter conversation. After he posted a few charts with preliminary data, I asked him plot the below chart showing how the referendum YES vote correlated with the commute mode-shares for public transit and driving:

Both sets of data compare %Yes Vote. SOURCE: Twitter @257van

Notice on how the top set of grey dots, there are more dots up where the driving mode share percentage is higher, closer to the left where the yes vote percentage was lower. The opposite is generally true for those who rely on public transit.

To me this is a rather unsurprising but a very important trend to pay attention to. With at least a part of the “NO” vote outcome coming not necessarily as a result of choice of funding method or a distrust of TransLink, but as a result of any opposition to the details of the Mayors’ Council’s transit plan, I think this really says something about how we need to be looking to plan big-ticket transit expansion here in Metro Vancouver. That is, at least, if we want it to get more support for it from the public.

(HINT: a faster SkyTrain, over the proposed ground-level LRT in Surrey that barely improves transit travel times, would certainly help).

An overcrowded platform at VCC-Clark SkyTrain station. SkyTrain service cuts during all off-peak hours were among some of the "efficiency" recommendations in the recent TransLink audits.

In the meantime… welcome to the world of even more crowded buses, even more SkyTrain breakdowns, and basically even more commute-related stress whoever you are and however you go.

The “Only rail creates development” myth

I wrote this segment as a part of the recent article I did commenting on the new study for Light Rail in Surrey. The quote from the study that caught my eye and may perhaps catch the eyes of others invested in transit planning, is this prominent suggestion that…

Unlike Rapid Bus or SkyTrain alternatives, the LRT will have a permanent physical presence in their exclusive rights-of-way and yet be at a human scale and have a gentle footprint in keeping with the lower density portions of the lines. (Surrey LRT study)

Notice how the author attempts to justify the Light Rail technology aspect in this way, by suggesting that the “permanent” presence of rail-based transit (i.e. visible rails on the street) has a positive implication on image from riders and developers, that isn’t achieved with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

(SkyTrain is the existing, fully grade-separated, driverless rapid transit system in Metro Vancouver)

Myth 1: Bus Rapid Transit has no “permanence”

This notion that BRT can have no “permanence” and doesn’t attract economic development is has been challenged by transportation professionals.

Investing in enhancing bus service instead of physical rails on the street is not a failure to create “permanence”. After all, rapid transit improvements are justified in the first place because the demand for the transit on that corridor is already quite high without it.

According to a new report released by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, BRT systems in North America are outperforming LRT in terms of how much development is generated per transit investment dollar. While the study found an LRT line in Portland had generated the most development, when this was divided per dollar of transit investment, the LRT line actually generated 31 times less development, than the system that led the per-dollar development measure: a BRT system in Cleveland.

“Per dollar of transit investment, and under similar conditions, Bus Rapid Transit leverages more transit-oriented development (T.O.D.) investment than Light Rail Transit or streetcars.”

(Institute for Transportation & Development Policy)

According to the study, the top predictors in T.O.D. outcomes are not related to the choice of technology; they are:

  1. Strong government support for redevelopment
  2. Real estate market conditions
  3. Usefulness of transit services – speed, frequency, reliability

Clearly, when the outcomes are given similar marketing and promotion, developers don’t actually care if the system uses rails or not.

Here in Canada, York Regional Transit in Ontario, with its “VIVANext” program to implement city-wide BRT, is helping to challenge the popular notion that only rail systems can reinvigorate communities. The video shows vibrant urban communities growing around future BRT stations.

Myth #2: Light Rail creates “permanence”

Light Rail is praised by supporters for creating the idea of “permanence” – which has to do with the presence of physical tracks in the streets. The suggestion is supposed to be something along the lines of, “we invested rails in this corridor so that it will never disappear.”

This is a very dangerous myth – and one of the reasons this is dangerous is because of the untold implication, wherein going straight to a Light Rail system results in other parts of the transit system lose transit service, as a means of coping with the associated costs.

Perhaps the best example of this is the downtown streetcar system in Portland, Oregon. The reveled streetcar had vibrant beginnings in its promise to provide a clean, high-quality service every 10 minutes, promoting and connecting new developments in the downtown core.

Its big-ticket issue, however, lies in the fact that it was not planned around actually improving mobility. The resulting service was not significantly more useful than existing city buses, and was often slower than walking or cycling. It was easily and frequently disrupted by accidents, poorly parked cars, and a host of other issues.

Above video: Portland Streetcar gets stuck due to a poorly parked vehicle, in what would be a minor and avoidable adjustment for a bus.

The costs that the streetcar saddled the city with didn’t help the major funding shortages affecting region-wide transit in the late 2000s, resulting in massive service cuts and cancellations throughout the region. It was so bad that in 2009, the regional operator was forced to abolish its entire 15-minute frequent transit network due to lack of funds.

Throughout its history, the streetcar has also received service cutbacks – which arguably challenge the notion that rail has “permanence”. The streetcar has never once operated at the initially promised frequencies of 10 minutes. The cutbacks were initially to the point where you would have to wait as long for a streetcar in the supposedly-vibrant city centre, as you would for a bus in a lower-density part of Surrey.

The streetcar’s ridership is so low that only 6% of the streetcar’s operating costs comes from farebox recovery. 94% of operating costs must be subsidized, and the subsidy is so heavy that it has City Auditors concerned that the streetcar is taking away from other basic services.

“We remain concerned about how projects like Portland Streetcar displace other transportation services,” referring to street maintenance.
City audit questions management of Portland Streetcar – Apr 2014

What is clear about the Portland streetcar example is that the ‘rails’ in the transit lines haven’t made any meaningful difference. They have added so little value, which ends up coming out negative against the funding issues that affected transit service throughout the region.

When the streetcars are unable to run due to an accident or some issue, the replacement shuttle buses are providing essentially the same service as the streetcars. It has had some people thinking whether Portland could follow examples here in Vancouver and in Seattle, launching a well-branded, electric trolley-bus service could have been more suitable for not just the streetcar routes, but other bus routes throughout the city as well.

A stopped TransLink articulated low-floor electric trolley. Buses like these were paid for by the additional revenue raised through low-risk bonds.

TransLink operates several articulated trolley buses here in Vancouver.

Bridging the gap between BRT and LRT

Recently, consultant Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit blog (which as you’ll notice, I’ve already referenced a few times in this write-up) mentioned that when naturally low-performing local and suburban bus services are excluded from the picture, frequent bus service is nearly as cost-efficient as LRT (in terms of the cost for every rider on the end-service).

Many advocates of LRT would rather have you look at the bus vs LRT operating costs per rider, as they apply to the entire transit system. This creates misleading attitudes surrounding buses, because the numbers include the local and suburban bus services that are naturally poor-performing (and on top of that, will likely never be replaced/justified by an LRT, ever).

This chart says two remarkable things: Firstly, that frequent bus performance is now very close to light rail performance. Secondly, that the spread between Frequent Bus and infrequent bus is usually bigger than the spread between all buses and light rail.

This chart says two remarkable things: Firstly, that frequent bus performance is now very close to light rail performance. Secondly, that the spread between Frequent Bus and infrequent bus is usually bigger than the spread between all buses and light rail.

The numbers above demonstrate that when you give buses the service quality and frequency usually associated with a more expensive LRT investment, they can be nearly as cost-efficient to operate. Likewise, if buses are also given the same amenities that add to comfort, image and sleekness, then they will likely be appreciated as much by the public.

BRT can receive the same “permanence enhancements” as LRT such as branding, way-finding information, landscaping, lighting, and dedicated rights-of-way. Many BRT systems have adopted innovative features that go a long way towards bridging the gap between BRT and LRT.

BRT advocates often cite examples in South America (such as Bogota, Colombia and others) that use BRT so extensively and so innovatively, that it is considered a replacement for heavy rail. I believe there is another worthy example that deserves some serious attention, and it’s within North America:

“Look ma, no hands”! In Eugene, Oregon, the “Emerald Express” BRT system adopted a magnetically-guided automated steering system, allowing the bus to make more precise turns and dock with precision at every BRT station. The revenue service of this guided system was introduced in June 2013 and is now celebrating its 2nd anniversary.

This guided BRT design allows for reduced lane-width requirements. Steering is automated through the electronic guidance, which only requires pavement under the wheel tracks. This provides an opportunity for the inclusion of additional green space between the tracks. The guided bus technique allows for “precision docking” at the stations.

(BRT project brief)

While the buses do need to be specially equipped, they can still run on other roads. This system does not require the extensive infrastructure and costs of previously-developed “guided” BRT systems, and can in fact save costs by allowing a tighter, narrower running right-of-way for rapid buses.

Showcase of Eugene, Oregon's Emerald Express. Taken from automated steering system study linked above.

Showcase of Eugene, Oregon’s Emerald Express right-of-way (from automated steering system study linked above)

It’s time to consider BRT

Where could you go with Bus Rapid Transit? I personally think that a lot of the potential of BRT systems is dismissed not necessarily because of disapproval, but also because the discussion is never really started. You would never be able to travel from King George & 88th and end up in South Surrey or even Coquitlam without transferring, on the currently proposed LRT system. Unfortunately, that’s been pushed out as a key consideration in transit planning here.

The Emerald Express is an excellent example of how current technology can be used to bridge the gap between BRT and LRT. And, on top of the examples showed in Eugene, there are so many other ways to “bridge the gaps”.

At this point, basically every heavily-promoted LRT feature can be replicated with BRT (and likewise, every streetcar feature with buses). Well-designed BRT systems incorporate lements such as: sheltered stations with wait-time displays, off-board payment, seating and other amenities adding comfort and ambiance. Hybrid diesel-electric or electric trolley buses can be used to lower or eliminate carbon emissions – and provide the smoother, non-jerky ride quality of electric vehicles. Plus, double-articulated buses are increasingly being used – giving a little more flexibility in terms of capacity (Light Rail’s current running advantage).

If BRT can gain more traction in this decade, it will pave the way for much better transit in all our cities, because BRT costs a lot less to implement, and has numerous flexibility advantages over Light Rail systems in urban settings. You could build more BRT than an LRT with the same dollar, and extend its reach further by through-running onto other corridors.

In order for this to happen, transit advocates must abandon any and all adherence to the “only rail creates development” myth. The fear-mongering, excuses and nay-saying from pro-LRT activists is becoming a serious setback to the realization of transit potential in our cities.

Concept image of rapid bus service instead of LRT on King George Blvd/104 Ave. Note the continuation of 3 different services to allow direct connections to Cloverdale, Coquitlam and other communities.

My concept of rapid bus service instead of LRT on King George Blvd/104 Ave in Surrey. Note the continuation of 3 different services to allow direct connections to Cloverdale, Coquitlam and other communities. Through-running flexibility is a major BRT advantage that won’t be had by currently-proposed LRT.

The elevated Calgary West LRT

Calgary Light Rail system incomparable to Surrey

Responding to: If at-grade light rail does the job for Calgary, it will for Surrey too – South Fraser Blog

I was drawn to South Fraser Blog a couple of weeks ago when the webmaster commented on the concerns raised by a Township of Langley engineer over the proposed Light Rail system in Surrey. It prompted the response on this blog (Langley and Legitimacy on Light Rail Concerns), which noted numerous fallacies in the SFB article, many common and repeated among Lower Mainland LRT advocates.

Today, SFB caught my attention again with a new headline on the website declaring adamantly and proudly that “If at-grade light rail does the job for Calgary, it will for Surrey too“, a result of the webmaster (Nathan Pachal) recently visiting Calgary. Pictures are included of the Calgary LRT system, in an attempt to set an example for Surrey.

However, I immediately found many reasons to the contrary. As a first, it should be noteworthy that most of the observation wasn’t centered on the newest-opened line on the system.

Opened at the end of 2012 and adding 8.2km, the newest LRT line in Calgary is almost entirely grade-separated (including a prominent elevated segment and station), which likely wouldn’t have served the S.F.B.’s purposes to showcase at-grade rail very well at all.

And yet, the West LRT is a shining example of how Calgary has mandated its future build-out of LRT. Like many cities, Calgary has realized that more grade-separation is key to making rail rapid transit reliable, safe and competitive. Which is why the new West LRT resembles a SkyTrain extension.

Calgary’s newest West LRT. Image: Harris Rebar

Calgary’s newest West LRT. Image: Harris Rebar

Differences in context and right-of-way

As I’ve mentioned in past write-ups on the proposed Surrey LRT system, one of the things I feel is among the biggest issues is the choice on how the proposed LRT system is going to be built. All 27km of the LRT right-of-way (R.O.W.) will be at-grade, on-street, and in the middle of the street – interfacing with vehicles and pedestrians, and operating at the speed of surrounding traffic.

Calgary’s LRT system is not designed in this fashion at all. A comparative survey of LRT systems (pg. 5) measured that 93% of the system is placed on a private, segregated R.O.W. where the speed of trains exceeds 35 miles per hour (60 km/h). There will be no parts of the Surrey LRT that will be operating like this, as the maximum speed limit on city streets is 60km/h. It is atrocious to be trying to draw a comparison between two completely different types of LRT.

Unfortunately, LRT advocates have few systems to draw appropriate comparisons with. In the same aforementioned survey, all of the compared systems operate largely in either fully exclusive R.O.W.s, or other semi-separated ones at over 60km/h – making none of them comparable to the proposed system for Surrey.

These critical details are often forgotten by the Lower Mainland’s light rail advocates, because of the broad scope of systems that are called “light rail” but aren’t necessarily at all comparable.

Glimpsing Calgary’s Light Rail performance

Calgary light rail system provides consistent travel times. In Downtown Calgary, signals are timed to allow the smooth flow for light rail riders, cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists.

(Claim on South Fraser Blog)

The South Fraser Blog reasons that the C-Train’s performance is “consistent” and so will meet the standards of Surrey transit riders. Firstly, I think it’s important that claims like these get some sort of back-up so as to give readers a better idea of what’s being compared, but a link to any information is markedly absent.

So I decided to track down some of the data myself. This is what a 2010 study on the C-Train’s reliability has said about the C-Train’s (in)ability to run on-time:

Due to many issues in LRT operations, the target headway is not achieved regularly. Trains are often delayed, and the level of service is not considered satisfactory by many passengers.

(Reliability and Delay in LRT operation in Calgary – R.M.N.T. Sirisoma, S.C. Wirasinghe, D. Morgan)

The worst delays on the system happen as the lines pass through 7th Avenue in the City Centre, which is touted by S.F.B. for its on-street alignment. Despite the claimed reliability of the traffic signal sync system, 25 to 30% of all trains in both directions are delayed by more than 3 minutes.

The study does not account for technical issues like stuck doors or signal breakdowns, or for service disruptions caused by closed tracks and accidents – it is meant to measure the system’s day-to-day performance, something that’s generally not considered newsworthy as it’s what Calgarians are used to.

That means that the major incidents that can and do make the news come on top of this already not-so-stellar performance.

And with C-Train riders having to deal with as much as 57 major delays within a single month, many of them have been left relatively miserable.

Regular train rider Heather Laird says @calgarytransit has become her warning beacon for when to ride and when to drive to her job downtown.

“I keep a close eye on Twitter in the morning — delays have become so common we’re used to it.”

On-street running or on-street shoehorning?

Along 36 St NE, light rail traffic is prioritized at intersections.

(South Fraser Blog)

There’s prominent mention of the Northeast LRT’s 36 St NE section, which technically runs in the middle of a road, making it easier to draw comparisons with the proposed systems here in the South of Fraser. For numerous reasons, I still think this isn’t the case.

This is what the Northeast LRT line actually looks like:

Photo: 'Light Rail Now' group

Photo: ‘Light Rail Now’ group

Calgary LRT on 36 St NE - Photo credit: Ryan Harder, Flickr

Calgary LRT on 36 St NE – Photo credit: Ryan Harder, Flickr

36 St NE is busy, and is basically a highway. In order to “prioritize” LRT, there is a requirement of lights, crossing arms and bells at all crossings, and there are dual left turn lanes at the majority of intersections to accommodate for the lengthier train crossing delays. The result is the LRT on 36 St NE looks nothing like an urban tram system, but similar to other Calgary LRT lines placed in freeway medians – with intersections instead.

This isn’t an “on-street LRT”: this is an LRT, with its right-of-way shoehorned into a middle of the street, sharing none of the characteristics of typical on-street tram systems and completely different from the proposal for Surrey.

Photo: Light Rail Now group

Photo: Light Rail Now group

You do not even cross the street to access station platforms – all stations are accessed by pedestrian overpasses, with stairs or long circular ramps. There is virtually no community integration, and everything requires twice the land footprint of anything that would be permissible in Surrey. The ballasted track LRT R.O.W. is over 4 lanes wide at any point on the corridor.

It’s no coincidence that the S.F.B. article did not include any pictures of 36 St NE. Doing so would paint a picture of LRT that is relatively unattractive.

The confusing context of “LRT”

Light rail supporters mix “LRT” and “tram” statistics interchangeably, thus the arguments made by supporters are quite flawed: the main problem with pro-LRT activists is that the broad scope of LRT systems allows them to take bits and pieces in their argument that do not add up to the whole.

UBC SkyTrain Group – “Debunking Further Myths”, 2009

The fact that Light Rail systems come in many different shapes and sizes was first pointed out by the “UBC SkyTrain” advocacy group 6 years ago, and has been ignored by the transit community at-large ever since.

Light Rail has a confusing context. While the many similar systems that are branded as “Light Rail” do share several characteristics, I think there’s a need to pay attention to the key differences in design of these systems. What might work well for a certain LRT system may not work well at all in the other.

One of the reasons I have remained in opposition of a Surrey LRT is because of the many issues that will stem from choices in design and lack of foresight (I recently wrote on the fallacies of a new city study attempting to justify LRT, [SEE HERE]). The Calgary’s C-Train was built in a context that didn’t have these issues from the very beginning. R.O.W.s were pre-planned years before construction, and were largely located off of city streets.

But the differences are not just in specifics in design. It must also be considered that they extend to what roles the transit system is playing in a city.

The C-Train didn't build higher-density, sustainable, transit-oriented city centres like SkyTrain built Metrotown in Burnaby.

The C-Train didn’t build higher-density, sustainable, transit-oriented city centres like the ones our SkyTrain built. Shown here is Metrotown in Burnaby.

C-Trains run less frequently than our driver-less SkyTrains, especially during off-peak hours and on weekends, limiting their ability to foster transit-oriented communities with people living transit-coherent lifestyles.

As a result, C-Train is most effective at replacing cars for that final commute into the one high-density city area (downtown) – but that doesn’t mean C-Train trips are always beginning by walking, cycling or transit. Nearly every single C-Train station is complemented with a large, land-intensive park and ride – ensuring that parking can be reduced in the space-limited downtown core.

In Metro Vancouver, it's common to take the bus to reach the SkyTrain. In Calgary, the common standard is to park-and-ride.

In Metro Vancouver, it’s common to take the bus to reach the SkyTrain. In Calgary, the common standard is to park-and-ride.

Outside of this pattern, it’s a toss-up. There are few dense nodes on the LRT lines, and little variety in commuting patterns. Coherent transit usage demands good transit development and a robust city-wide transit network, but the bus system has obviously has not grown to be robust enough to prevent the need for so many huge park-and-rides. And without a robust city-wide network, it also becomes difficult to compete against commutes to areas where jobs are concentrated over lower densities (like industrial parks).

As a result, of the $6.14 billion the City of Calgary is earmarking for transportation investments in the next 10 years, 63% of that money will be going to roads – far outpacing investments in transit, walking and cycling. Clearly, the road network has remained to be of far greater economic importance than the C-Train light rail system in the city of Calgary.

If reduction in road expansion is supposed to be one of the major goals of rapid transit, then the C-Train network may as well be a colossal failure.

In conclusion,

All the Light Rail advocates I have heard from seem to have this fundamental value that it is Light Rail’s viability in Metro Vancouver and especially South of the Fraser is proven by the various examples around the world. Because we currently do not have such a system here, Light Rail has become a sensational topic among transit discussion circles.

Many of these advocates think it’s as simple of a matter as “If it works for ________, it will work for Surrey.”

As shown by the Calgary example, that is clearly not the case.