TOP: UBC TODAY | UBC + SUBWAY (LNV Webbimage, 2019)
Fifty-two years ago Council Meetings in Vancouver were loud and raucous affairs as people poured into Council Chamber to protest building a Freeway tearing into the heart of the city. Fifty-two years later a new fight is brewing. The city that once opposed a freeway must rise up to reject the UBC subway. The people must demand that politicians—up and down the Fraser Valley—fold transportation infrastructure spending into a plan to end the Housing Crisis.
1960s PROPOSAL FOR THE DOWNTOWN WATERFRONT FREEWAY
PREAMBLE | The Freeway Fight
In 1967 the Vancouver Freeway Fight was as much about stopping the highway coming into downtown, as it was about saving Chinatown, Strathcona and Gastown from the wrecking ball and the bulldozer. It was a time when a tide of global civic unrest had swelled to oppose corruption in government. Throughout the 50s and 60s values of community and values of place had been set aside ‘in the name of progress.’ Politics had been reduced to an inside game between high-stakes players and politicians.
Fast-forward fifty-two years. Vancouver’s local and regional governments—run by one and the same politicians—are set to repeat history. Voting in early February as civic government in Vancouver, and two weeks later as regional governors in Burnaby, Vancouver Mayor and a majority of Council gave their respective staffs direction to ‘study’ the UBC subway.
UBC SUBWAY AND THE HOUSING CRISIS
The $8 Billion Skytrain subway—contradictions already evident in the name—far exceeds the transportation needs of the community, the university and the region. It concentrates an astronomical amount of public treasure on a short 13-km stub-subway connecting a university to a city college campus.
In stark contrast, the only subway currently in operation in Vancouver connects the International Airport with the largest city in western Canada.
As was the case in 1967 something other than ‘good’ transportation planning is moving this project along the corridors of power greasing its way hidden from public scrutiny.
Of course, without the proposed towers at Jericho Aboriginal Lands, towers on the UBC golf course, and towers on the UBC Endowment Lands, the UBC subway would NOT be in the cards. Like so much of what has been built in the Lower Mainland over the past three decades, this is just more tower-and-skytrain urbanism targeting off-shore wealth generated by the huge trade deficits with communist China, and triggering a 12x inflation in the price of houses.
PACIFIC SCANDAL 2.0
With Quebec’s SNC-Lavalin Group Inc—the prime contractor for Skytrain technology—embroiled in a corruption scandal in Ottawa the UBC subway affair is taking on the color of another fiasco from local lore: the 1873 Pacific Scandal. Cash contributions made by the Canada Pacific Railway Company to the sitting government of one John A. MacDonald during the 1872 Federal Elections caused MacDonald to resign as prime minister in 1873. Then, his party was ousted from power the very next year. History may be repeating itself.
FAILED REGIONAL STRATEGIES
As was the case in 1967, a housing issue looms behind the UBC subway proposal. Only this time the Housing Crisis is region-wide. This is perplexing since the Regional Growth Strategies (RGS) conceived two and three decades ago were all about ‘sustainability’.
What the RGS has delivered looks very different from what was advertised on its inception. Today, we see regional and local governments (run by the same elected officials) enacting regional plans riddled with fallacies, paradoxes and promises the plans cannot possibly deliver, including:
- Sustainable urbanism
- Ending S-P-R-A-W-L
- Cleaning the atmosphere by building towers
- Ending traffic congestion with Skytrain.
‘Sustainability’ of course entails ‘affordable housing’. Thus, the simple fact that the region is in a ‘Housing Crisis’ is proof enough of:
The reality that Canadians do not want to raise their families in ‘600 square foot concrete boxes high above the clouds’ has not sunk in.
Thus, we predict governments will continue to fall at every level, at every election, until the legislators finally see the light. Needed is an alternative to the tower-and-skytrain urbanism. An alternative rooted in the West Coast vernacular, nestled in pristine nature, built at human-scale and affordable to all Canadians.
Instead, a widening gulf has been created by the Housing Crisis that threatens the very existence of the Canadian middle class, tearing a huge rift in our social fabric and putting our political democracy at risk. As we continue building in the wrong paradigm—the UBC Subway-and-Towers—we draw nearer to the brink where we may no longer control of our own destiny.
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Our fate today hangs in the balance of decisions being made at Vancouver’s Council Chamber right now. Politicians will decide whether to build more skytrain-and-towers—the UBC subway—or, pivot to embrace the alternative we detail below.
OBSOLETE SKYTRAIN TECHNOLOGY (BOTTOM) AND PROPOSED SUBWAY ROUTE (TOP)
1 | OBSOLETE TECHNOLOGY
On a blizzardy February morning—with Skytrain officials on the radio announcing that the ‘driverless trains’ can only operate in snow with drivers on board, and that Translink lacks enough staff to drive all trains, therefore system delays will be inevitable—it is easier to see that the 1980s skytrain technology is obsolete.
The greatest disadvantage of Skytrain is its reliance on 1980s ‘driverless technology’. Skytrain runs fast and skytrain runs blind. There are no video cameras on board, no sonar or radar, or software processing any such data. Skytrain is not smart enough to tell the difference between a person, a big rock, a chunk of ice or a brick wall. Skytrain pulls into the station blind where it is slowed to a stop before being sent on its way again after 90 seconds or so. Nice trick, but much too expensive.
SKYTRAIN BLIGHTS THE PLACES IT CROSSES
Besides the blind, driverless operation, Skytrain hides a dirty secret: it blights the places it crosses. Today, with the planning for the UBC skytrain subway underway, we finally have concrete proof. Plans for the first skytrain route to run through the most prestigious (and expensive) neighborhood in the region—the West Side—puts only one option on the table: operate Skytrain as a subway. Hide it away in a tunnel where no one can see it.
The contradiction of a ‘skytrain’ running ‘in a hole in the ground’ speaks volumes. Operating anywhere else—at grade or up in viaducts—Skytrain is a blight on the neighborhoods it crosses. Of course, the West Side neighbors will have none of it.
THE MODERN TRAM ADVANTAGE
2 | ADVANTAGE MODERN TRAM
Shown in the route map above, Modern Tram to UBC can operate along 4th Avenue—instead of Broadway—travelling in a straight line along the South False Creek rail corridor from VCC to the university.
The map shows a connection to the Arbutus Tram. Modern Tram on Arbutus is currently being planned at city hall. (For the connection to a future Burrard Inlet crossing see below: ‘4.TWELVE TIMES MORE SERVICE’).
The original purpose of building a transit line on Broadway was to service both UBC and the VGH hospital district (red dot on the map). However, plans for a New Hospital District at Thornton Park near Science World are raising questions. What is left of the old Hospital District can be served without a Broadway Line using:
- The Canada Line City Hall station (800 m; 10 minute walking distance).
- A new stop on the So. False Creek Streetcar at Charleston Park, (300 m; 4 minute walking distance).
The New Hospital District planned for Thornton Park can be accessed from:
- A Thornton Park stop on the So. False Creek Streetcar (600 m; 8 minute walking distance. Option: loop tram north to the new hospital, and add a stop at Science World before returning to the 1st Avenue alignment).
- Expo Line Main Street Station (300 m; 4 minute walking distance. Option: build a people mover underground directly linking the station with the hospital.)
While these adjustments reveal the flexibility of the Modern Tram, the real advantages present when we compare Tram numbers against all other Translink technologies.
3 | THE STORY BEHIND THE NUMBERS
The “Transit Choices” table (above) highlights the differences between Modern Tram (top row) and every other Translink service in operation today. None can match Modern Tram’s passenger capacity. Only bus lines achieve cheaper construction costs. However, note that trolley buses only deliver ⅔ the capacity of electric cars (both have 0 emissions).
The speed advantage of skytrain—achieved at huge costs and ungainly blight—disappears on transit trips of average duration (20 minutes). Skytrain ‘Platform Access Times’ (PAT) add five minutes at the start of every skytrain trip, and five more minutes at the end. Average trip times on skytrain properly reported would be 30 minutes, or 10 minutes longer. In 30 minutes Modern Tram can cover the same distance as skytrain does in 20 minutes… at a fraction of the cost. Because loading and alighting takes place curb side, ‘Platform Access Times’ (PAT) do not exist on Modern Tram. The service operates right where people use it.
As the table shows, the difference in estimated costs of construction between the UBC subway and Modern Tram is staggering. Estimated to cost $50 million per kilometre to build, Modern Tram is 12-times cheaper than the UBC subway.
Below we will examine in detail what might result from switching to the Modern Tram alternative, spending the same amount of transportation dollars, yet achieving 12-times more transit route and 30-times more service.
Here is the Modern Tram Advantage in a snapshot:
- 12x cheaper to build;
- 2.4x more capacity operating at Skytrain headways;
- 4.7x more capacity operating ‘one tram per minute’;
- Serves 11x more municipalities;
- Serves 2 regions;
- Capitalizes significant ‘externalities’ not available to Skytrain;
- Shapes a new Regional Strategy to End the Housing Crisis.
Yes, 2.4-times more passengers ride Modern Tram than Skytrain, at equivalent trip times, and at a 12x discount to taxpayers—that’s the Modern Tram Advantage.
Whether in a tunnel or riding in viaducts overhead, Skytrain costs many times more to build than Modern Tram (in the chart above ‘wider bars’ cost more to build; longer bars carry more passengers). While Skytrain ‘blights the places it crosses,’ Modern Tram can be used to trigger neighborhood revitalization, street beautification and a new regional strategy to End the Housing Crisis.
Operating on the street Modern Tram does NOT require relocation of underground services. There are no tunnels to bore or overhead viaducts to construct. Modern Tram rides best between parallel rows of trees planted in medians. The tree medians function as ‘islands of safety’ in the center of busy (and dangerous) streets, arterials and highways. They also provide ideal places for tram stops. Adding more tram cars increases tram passenger capacity without requiring station reconstruction (Canada Line) or power drop enhancements (Skytrain). Because trams stop on the curb tram stations cost the same as bus shelters. Subway stations are monstrously expensive to build. The major components must be lowered into a hole in the ground then covered over (cut-and-cover construction). Alternatively, Skytrain stations are suspended high above ground entailing huge structural costs. Extending platforms to accept longer trains is so prohibitive that the Canada Line subway operates only two-car train sets carrying 12x FEWER passengers than conventional subways. Lengthening trains on Skytrain to add capacity would require multi-million dollar upgrades to the power packs at the stations used for propelling the Skytrain linear induction motors (LIM) technology down the line.
It is difficult to put this in simpler language: By switching to Modern Tram we build 12x more track for the same dollar, or buck. That extra track still carries 2.35x more passengers than skytrain. For the same buck! Oh… And the resulting urbanism is better. Yes, and cheaper. Properly planned tram urbanism can return housing on par with median household incomes.
ONE BLUE LINE (160 km)
The map above stops at Abbotsford. The 160 km route extends another 32 km to Chilliwack (20 miles, shown in the inset map). The implications for delivering housing at PAR with median household incomes—spelling the End of the Housing Crisis—start in Richmond, then travel east on both sides of the Fraser River.
LINKS 11 MUNICIPALITIES AND TWO REGIONS
The other Tram Advantage is that the Modern Tram service can deliver a lot more than a spur line to UBC. Mind you, UBC would still get Tram service. But so would 12 other municipalities and two regions.
4 | TWELVE TIMES MORE SERVICE
Modern Tram can serve UBC and then deliver 12x more trackage for the same cost as a Skytrain subway. The key lines that can be constructed for the same price as the UBC subway are listed below (with transfers points shown in brackets):
• UBC – VCC (Arbutus Line, Canada Line, Expo-Millennium)
• North Vancouver – Lonsdale Quay – Burrard Street (Arbutus Line, Canada Line, Expo-Millennium, West Coast Express)
• Arbutus Line (So. False Creek Streetcar, Canada Line)
• Marpole – Westminster Highway – Queensboro (Arbutus Line, Expo-Millennium, BCER South of Fraser)
• BCER South of Fraser: Scott Road – Chilliwack (Expo-Millennium)
The Modern Tram Advantage shows regional results achievable with Modern Tram for the same cost as the UBC subway.
- Modern Tram links together 12 municipalities and two regional districts, while the UBC subway covers just 13 km for the same price tag.
- Both options connect UBC to the Expo-Millennium line at VCC.
- Just as Expo-Millennium Line cars run on the UBC subway…
- Modern Tram can be fitted with a pick-up on the third rail and run on the Expo-Millennium Line.
SOLID BLUE LINES: SURFACE RAIL CORRIDORS ALREADY OWNED BY GOVERNMENT. DOTTED BLUE LINES: KEY CONSIDERATIONS FOR MODERN TRAM.
5 | EXTERNALITIES
The Modern Tram advantage is magnified by a number of externalities found along the route from UBC to VCC and North Vancouver to Chilliwack. While these advantages are captured by the Modern Tram, most are not available to Skytrain.
1. ARBUTUS CORRIDOR
The City of Vancouver is now sole owner of the Arbutus right-of-way (ROW). Plans are underway to run Modern Tram on this alignment.
2. FIRST AVENUE ALIGNMENT
During the 2010 Winter Olympics the Olympic Tram operated between the foot of Cambie Bridge and Granville Island. The rail right-of-way between 4th Avenue, Burrard Street Bridge, Cambie Street and VCC is intact and fully owned by government. Thus, as was demonstrated with the Olympic Tram, the South False Creek Streetcar only requires tracks laid down and cars purchased to begin operation. Everything else is already in place.
3. BURRARD STREET BRIDGE UPGRADE (MAY OPERATE AS SKYTRAIN)
When seismic upgrades were completed on the Burrard Street Bridge provisions were put in place to handle a Tram on a new lower deck. Thus, crossing on a lower deck, Tram from the Arbutus Corridor can reach the downtown blocks of Burrard Street riding in the center of the street all the way to Waterfront Station.
4. BURRARD STREET TUNNEL TO LONSDALE QUAY (MAY OPERATE AS SKYTRAIN)
A tunnel bored under the Burrard Inlet, approximating the length of the Evergreen Line connection between Port Moody and Burquitlam, would extend Modern Tram to the City of North Vancouver and North Vancouver District. Should the grades prove too steep, the North Vancouver connection can be made as a second deck on either the Lions Gate or the Second Narrows bridges.
Perhaps the best news of all is that the provincially owned SRY owns the tracks from SE Burnaby, Queensborough and New Westminster all the way to Chilliwack. That remarkable fact turns Modern Tram into a regional service hard-wiring together the Metro Vancouver and Fraser Valley Regional Districts.
More astonishingly still, as Prof. Patrick Condon recently revealed, CP Rail leases part of the line today with some important stipulations included in the lease agreement:
It turns out that the line was never sold, only leased, to CP Rail. The conditions of the lease call for the return of the line to the province if ever passenger rail service were to restart… the lease also stipulates that if the frequency of rail service is such that the rail must be double tracked, CP must pay the costs!
These externalities represent another Modern Tram Advantage. Modern Tram can provide regional service connecting North Vancouver with Chilliwack in a manner Skytrain will never achieve. On long hauls Tram trains add a café car with food service and restrooms.
MODERN TRAM ADVANTAGE: CHARTER TOWNS ON TRAM STOPS ON THE PERIPHERY
However, that is not all the good news. We must keep in mind that we don’t build transportation infrastructure for its own sake. The reason to build highways, freeways and trams is to access land to keep the cost of housing in Canada AT PAR with median household incomes.
Thus, as we detail next, the reason to build Tram and not Skytrain is to create hundreds of new townsites, on both sides of the Mighty Fraser River, and on the shores of the Great Salish Sea, to house the next one, two and three million Canadians that will call this place home. By virtue of keeping the price of housing affordable, and building new towns instead of sprawl, we can fire up the local economy re-energizing mining, adding value to forestry products and returning salmon to pre-colonial populations.
DETAIL: 53 NEW TOWNS IN RICHMOND – LANGLEY – ABBOTSFORD – CHILLIWACK
6 | MAPPING THE END OF THE HOUSING CRISIS
• The question presents whether a massive investment in transportation infrastructure by all levels of government should serve just one community, or whether more benefits will accrue if 12 municipalities and two regional districts share in the project?
Given that the Modern Tram alternative also serves UBC, the answer is obvious: spread the benefits of transit as widely as possible.
• Does UBC require subway levels of service?
No. And the Modern Tram can provide 5x more service that the skytrain subway (75,000 pphpd vs 15,000 pphpd).
The UBC ‘deal’ is all about the towers, not the transit.
• Who are our governments serving in the first place? The over-heated real estate markets or the people?
Here is the crux of the matter: building more towers-and-skytrain will increase upward pressure on land valuations, deepening the Housing Crisis.
Building Modern Tram will deliver housing in the vast quantities needed, correcting the housing market and driving mining, forestry and fisheries.
• How can Transportation Spending End the Housing Crisis?
Modern Tram reaches places where trams stops will mark the sites of new ‘Charter Towns’ . As shown above, 53 new Charter Towns South of Fraser can house over a quarter of a million people. The same numbers should be achievable on the north side.
Each new charter town can house 5,000 people in houses, row houses, duplexes and apartments in the manner detailed in the figure above.
Along the south side of the Mighty Fraser River alone new charter towns can provide housing supply equivalent to half the population of Surrey, or over a third (42%) of the population of Vancouver.
This amount of supply will dampen house prices in the Greater Vancovuer and Fraser Valley regional districts. It will also reinvigorate stagnant sectors in the construction industry, manufacturing, and service supply.
• Is a New Regional Strategy Needed to End the Housing Crisis?
Yes. The Regional Growth Strategy and the Livable Region Strategic Plan were all about building skytrain linking new town centres. This planning policy was based solely on miscalculations about pollution, green house gases, climate change and global warming.
Today, the chickens have come home to roost.
Modern Tram, electric cars and new towns can generate sufficient wealth and provide housing in quantity for generations to come.
Run by their own elected councils, charter towns can put eyes on site and boots on the ground providing the husbandry needed to safeguard the environment. How this massive influx of product can cool overheated real estate markets is detailed in the next section (see below). The synergy created between building transit at a 12x-discount combines with the possibility of growing new charter towns on tram stops to offer an alternative vision to the towers-and-skytrian found in the RGS/LRSP. In other words, tram and charter towns offer a strategy to get this region—and others—out of the Housing Crisis.
• What is JOB #1 for our elected leaders?
Returning house prices in our city—and throughout the region—back on par with median household incomes. Back to where they were in 1986 when the towers-and-skytrain binge got started.
• Should governments in Canada be required to keep house prices at par with median household incomes?
We are a nation rich in land resources with a very low population. This makes it inconceivable that we cannot access urban footprint in sufficient quantity to guarantee Canadians affordable places to call home. Furthermore, with renewable resources, we now posses the know-how to build in concert with our stunning natural environment.
• Can human-scale urbanism deliver where the towers failed?
Human-scale urbanism approaches the GHG-zero urban footprint as a limit. It also gets the economics and the social supports of city building right. Towers are energy hogs that dwarf neighborhood streets and concentrate wealth in the hands of a privileged few individuals.
LAND VALUES HAVE INCREASED BY 12-TIMES OVER THE PAST 33 YEARS
7 | THE ECONOMICS BEHIND A NEW REGIONAL STRATEGY
The Subway Fight is really a debate over how to bring an end to the Housing Crisis engulfing our region for over three decades.
The Laws of Economics give us two ways to deal with the problem of land valuations out of control: dampen demand or increase supply.
THE MOST RELIABLE WAY OF DRIVING LAND VALUES DOWN IS BY DRAMATICALLY INCREASING THE SUPPLY OF URBAN FOOTPRINT
THE RIGHT CHOICE
Our prescription to return balance to the Housing Market is to significantly increase land supply in a manner in keeping with social and cultural values.
Charter Towns located along the Transit Network on both sides of the Mighty Fraser River, and dotting the coastline of the Great Salish Sea will provide housing and generate wealth for generations of Canadians to come.
The only effective way to deal with the runaway inflation of land values is to make more land available—to increase supply, remaining at the ready to keep increasing land supply as necessary, until markets correct.
THE WRONG WAY TO DEAL WITH THE HOUSING CRISIS
At present all three levels of government are acting to ‘dampen demand down’ hoping government policy will curb human behaviour. Outside the Criminal Code, that is a recipe for failure making our governments subservient to cancerous market conditions.
For example, the ’empty residence tax’ requires Canadian citizens to make a declaration before local government on a yearly basis under very strict conditions. Failure to do so gets a penalty of 1% of the (inflated) value of the home added to that year’s property tax bill. There is no system or recourse for reversing the charge once the deadline has passed and the declaration has not been properly filed. Counting on hundreds and thousands to be ‘caught in the empty residence tax trap’ every year, this tax is a naked money grab and abuse of power by our local government.
It is not an effective way to deal with runaway land valuations caused by ‘bad’ planning.
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The UBC subway will build more of the WRONG kind of housing supply, deepening the Housing Crisis and pushing our city and region closer to the brink.