The Regional Transit System

The ‘Usual Suspects’ have lined up to deliver Subway-and-Towers along what they call the ‘Broadway Corridor.’ Yet, what is really needed is a Regional Transit System capable of delivering a rapid supply response putting houses-on-lots in sufficient numbers to End the HOUSING CRISIS.


There is an affordable, sustainable—and immediately available—option for a Regional Transit System linking the North Shore, Vancouver, Surrey, Chilliwack and places in between that must be considered as a first priority in the Metro Vancouver-Fraser Valley regions (shown as a Blue Line in the map above).


First demonstrated a decade ago, in Vancouver, as the Olympic Line, the new  ModernTram technology combines conventional, electric streetcar performance with regional, railway commuter service. Light, low platform vehicles make boarding a breeze. The seats are better than trolley and bus, and there is free wi-fi and recharging for personal devices. Adding a café car with lavatories extends necessary convenience for trips lasting over one hour long. Yet, the vehicles are lighter than railway stock, making the construction of roadbeds and rails lighter and cheaper to build. Not insignificantly, the ModernTram can deliver many times more passenger capacity for a fraction of the cost of building the Skytrain. And there is more good news. A Regional Transit System can plan the decisive role in a rapid supply response designed to End the Housing Crisis.


LEFT: BARCELONA MODERN TRAM. RIGHT: VANCOUVER OLYMPIC LINE.         (Bombardier demonstration, 2010).


On the technology side, the ModernTram advantage is its hybrid nature. ModernTram can operate as a subway in a tunnel under Burrard Inlet and Burrard Street. It can operate as a streetcar on the Arbutus right-of-way and along No. 5 Street in Richmond. And it can operate as a regional railway on the BCE right-of-way all the way from Scott Road to Chilliwack.

Shown in the route map at the top of the post with a BLUE LINE, ModernTram will link communities and green fields South of Fraser with the Arbutus Corridor, Downtown, the North Shore, airports YVR and YXX, and the Canada, Expo and Millennium Lines.

ModernTram advantage is that it can deliver a Regional Transit System with a neighborhood-friendly technology at an affordable price.

However, there is an important flip side to this store. The Regional Transit System can be the backbone for returning affordable houses across Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley.


The key regional destinations & links include:

        • Millennium, Expo & Canada lines
        • Waterfront Station
        • Arbutus Corridor
        • Richmond
        • Queensborough
        • New Westminster
        • Delta & Surrey
        • The Langleys
        • Abbotsford & Sumas
        • Chilliwack & Rosedale
        • Airports YVR & YXX

+ An airport shuttle serves Abbotsford International Airport (dotted blue line).

+ The cost per/km for tunnelling under the Burrard Inlet and tunnelling under Broadway are comparable. The distance from Waterfront Station, Vancovuer, to the Lonsdale Quay, North Vancouver, is just 3.5 km (dashed blue line). Taking the service below grade along Burrard Street extends the tunnel to 5 km in total length. Extending the Broadway tunnel from Arbutus to UBC requires a 7 km long bore, representing a level of effort and cost better directed elsewhere. Studies are now underway for both the Broadway and Burrard Inlet tunnels.

+ Installing a rail deck under the Pattullo Bridge replacement for taking the BLUE LINE across the Fraser River.

(-) A 16 km section of the BLUE LINE will be built free of cost by freight service operators (Pratt-Livingstone Corridor, between 184th St., Surrey and 232nd Ave., Langley—blue and white dotted line on the map).



Regional Transit System



2. Skytrain Unsuitable for Regional Transit Service

For reasons that are not altogether transparent, most transit engineers and many politicians in our region continue to insist that Skytrain is the technology of choice for all our transit needs.

In their discussions, most fail to acknowledge that the Canada Line was completed in time for the 2010 Olympics running a conventional electric train technology with drivers on board.

In their rush to judgement they fail to accurately represent the three cardinal disadvantages of the Skytrain System: Cost, Capacity and Restricted Operation.


$600 million/km —UBC Subway
$200 m/km—Skytrain on the Fraser Highway
$50 m/km—ModernTram/Olympic Line
$6 m/km—Vancouver-Chilliwack (initial hourly service)


2.1 COST

As the table above shows, ModernTram will deliver Regional Transit System at 1/4 the cost of Skytrain. In other words, ModernTram can serve 4x more communities than Skytrain for the same buck.

Installing an hourly service from Vancouver to Chilliwack was recently estimated costing $800 million by Leewood Projects (UK).

Cost advantages include the fact that the right-of-way is still owned by government. And that the 16-kilometre Livingston Corridor leased to Canadian National will be upgraded for passenger service, free of cost to the taxpayer, as part of the terms of lease.


A further complication introduced by the Skytrain driverless technology is that the Transport Canada certificate restricts operations to carrying 15,000 passengers per hour in one direction (pphpd).

A ModernTram train of the same length can carry 45,000 passengers per hour in one direction. Of course, whereas Skytrain train length is restricted by the elevated platform length, no such restrictions apply to surface transit.

ModernTram can operate trains of any length, adjusting to match demand.

Thus—for the same buck—we could carry 4-times more passengers and travel 4-times further. That amounts to 16-times more service for the same price.

The longer distances in the route make building Skytrain to Chilliwack prohibitive, costing 4-times more to build.





Skytrain is an outmoded 1970s transit technology that began building in our city and region in the 1980s. We have shown already how the driverless technology has restricted passenger carrying capacity.

A second feature of the driverless technology is that the tracks must be separated from public access because the trains operate blind. There is no optical sensory detection system on board. Skytrain cannot tell the difference between a lump of snow, a rock, a person or an automobile.

When it snows, Skytrain must have a driver on board. Since there are not enough conductors on payroll, service downgrades on snowy days.

All combined, restricted operations, prohibitive costs of construction, and capacity restrictions make Skytrain unsuitable for delivering a Regional Transit System.





We have detailed three major drawbacks using Skytrain to deliver a Regional Transit System: the 40-year old, driverless technology’s cost of construction, reduced passenger capacity, and restricted operations.

However, this trio of shortcomings pale in comparison to the greatest damage Skytrain has rained on our communities. In order to pay for the exorbitant costs of construction city governments and regional plans turned to permitting the building of towers.

Economists have shown how what Vancovuer planners dub a ‘best use, highest value’ paradigm for land development, will ‘lift land values,’ triggering a Housing Affordability Crisis.

The inflation of house prices is all in the now stratospheric land valuations. Since 2010 house prices have risen by 200%, while inflation and incomes hovered at 1 and 2% levels.


Screen Shot 2020-03-27 at 3.22.01 PM



Municipal councils in Vancouver, Surrey, Burnaby, New Westminster, North Vancouver, Port Moody and Coquitlam have turned to the Skytrain-and-Towers formula to generate new municipal revenue streams. But they have done so at too great a cost.

A Housing Crisis has been triggered in Greater Vancouver over the three decades by building Skytrain-Towers-and-Subways.

House prices today are 2.6 to 3.75-times higher than what is affordable to median household incomes. Most families in the region have been locked out of the real estate market. The Canadian Dream of owning a cottage on a garden lot has been priced beyond the reach of most Canadians in this region.

And there is no end in sight to the lifting of land values if we continue down the same track. Simply put, according to the laws of economics, building Towers-Skytrain-and-Subways is putting out the fire of and over-heated real estate market with gasoline.






Business-as-usual will not get us out of this mess. We have to change the approach. A transformational change is required at the government policy level. A change that will embrace building ModernTram and Human Scale urbanism to finally End to the Housing Crisis.

The transformational difference separating Modern Tram from Skytrain as diagramed in the Transit Pyramid. 

In the Transit Pyramid Modern Tram rides at the top of a continuous upgrade path for transit. All transit technologies in the Pyramid operate in the same road space, or road lane. We can serve between 1,500 people (trolley) and 33,000 people (ModernTram, 4-car train set) in one hour, travelling in one direction, on the same road space. Off-peak, transit lanes can be shared with local traffic.

However, the leading motivation for building the Regional Transit System is not transportation per se.

We need to prioritize building a Regional Transit System for the benefits that will accrue all along the transit route. Only the reach of regional transit will deliver sustainable, human-scale urbanism in sufficient numbers, and rapidly enough, to break the bottleneck in house supply, and finally End the Housing Crisis.

The Transit Pyramid also presents the fundamental difference between highway lanes and transit lines. Understanding this difference is also key to Ending the Housing Crisis.

• One Freeway Lane   1,200 pphpd

• One HOV Lane.          2,400 pphpd

• ModernTram.          33,000 pphpd (4-car train set)

Building the Regional Transit System will deliver the equivalent capacity of 28 highway lanes in one direction. Or the equivalent to a 56-lane freeway.




Wrapped in this enigma is a phenomenon called ‘Induced Demand.’ Cars are an amorphous quantity: traffic patterns change shape to fill whatever road network we build. Thus, traffic congestion is sure to present on any highway at regular, predictable peak points. Just as predictably, there will be long parts to the day when the highway is nearly empty.

The best way to counter traffic congestion, therefore, is not to build additional lanes. Rather, when cities reach a regional footprint, we must build rail capacity to move people between regional centres. This service is the Regional Transit System.

While this will not end peak hour road congestion, it will guarantee those choosing to ride transit fast, affordable and efficient transportation to and from their place of employment.

Looking in the opposite direction, it will also produce the other beneficial results region wide. Chief among these is accessing sufficient quantity of green field to guarantee affordable house supply.

Only a Regional Transit Systems can access green field in sufficient quantities to deliver the rapid supply response necessary to End the Housing Crisis.

4 thoughts on “The Regional Transit System”

  1. Appreciate your insight. UBC and the Jericho have become huge land developers. Is this a factor in them wanting the subway extension so desparately.

    1. It is, as far as I can see. The ONLY factor for the subway is to get the tower revenues. City Hall calls it ‘Best and Highest Use’ for the land. We call it ‘The Commodification of Land’ driving prices through the stratosphere.

      And it flies in the face of the growth numbers published by Stats Canada. So there is a kind of “one-two punch” that we have to understand.

      One—we are growing in Vancouver at 1% per year. That is more or less the growth rate going back to Expo ’86. And Stats Canada projects that’s the growth we can expect for the next 20 years. We can do the math on that. 20 years at 1% gives us about 139,010 new residents in Vancouver.

      Councillor Colleen Hardwick has completed some work with UBC students showing that we have 50 neighborhoods in Vancovuer. That spells 2,780 new residents per neighborhood over 20 years. The number we use in urbanism to calculate build out is 2.2 persons per residential unit. So—if the new population was evenly distributed over the city, rather than being pushed into condo towers at UBC and Jericho—we would need to build 1,264 new units per neighbourhood over 20 years.

      That’s only 63 units per neighbourhood per year.

      We can do that with infill using human-scale urbanism (looking just like the Tramtowns) and not more than 3.5 storeys high.

      Which is interesting because it means an entire different sector of the economy gets re-energized. Not the Condo Kings, but the mom-and-pop builders and their suppliers. It also means the forestry sector gets a boost. Colleen likes to point out how in the 1980s MacMillan Blodel was the biggest employer in town.

      Maybe we should revisit those days when middle class families could afford a house to call home…

      Two—without the Skytrain subway the developers will not commit to the high rise condos. The off-shore market (read: China) wants the so-called Hong Kong model—towers-and-subways. Or they will look somewhere else. That’s why the Olympic Village didn’t sell, for example.

      That’s fine because economists tell us that combining private mega-projects (towers) with public mega-projects (subways) lifts the price of land—like here in Vancouver, and in Hong Kong.

      Switch technologies and you change the development picture. The Condo Kings go away and the opportunities open up for the regional vernacular built from renewable BC timber.

      Great question!

  2. Subways and towers is not exactly the hong kong model, but you”re close. The hong kong model is that the state builds subways, and the applies a special property tax on development lands to pay for the subway. Call it development oriented transit – d o t.

    1. That’s right Adam. I was at a conference—probably in the days before Translink—where I talked to an official from Hong Kong transit. He told me “We build the lines, then the towers go up.”

      How the process actually works may be less important since reports are that 5 families control real estate in HK.

      Same venue, a local transit official responded to my question by saying that they were seeing no correlation between having towers at the station and ridership numbers going up at that stop.

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