The Skytrain Urbanism Paradigm

In the Greater Vancouver region we have been buildng Skytrain since the 1986 Class B Expo was hosted in the city that year. There are two lines: Expo and Millennium, the latter going into operations around the year 2000. Expo handles some 230,000 trips per day; Millennium only 60,000, or about one quarter the trips for the same system.

There are many disadvantages to an ‘elevated’ system. The primary one is that it blights the urban places it crosses. There is no getting around this, build the highway-in-the-sky, and you will do it at the expense of the ground plane. Elevated rail works fine across farm fields (SNCF approaching Grenoble, France); in railway yards, and along the centre of freeways (L.A.; Toronto). But not in the city, and not across neighbourhoods.

The Metro Vancouver Skytrain has an added problem: its lethality. The linear-induction electric motor technology makes deadly any contact with the rail. Thus, in places where the Skytrain has to be on the ground, barbed wire fences must be erected on either side to block access to the track.

There is a third issue to consider that is perhaps the most revealing from the urbanist perspective. Skytrain seems to be the logical extension of the highway, super block, tower condominium, and regional shopping centre paradigm that has produced our most alienated and alienating urbanism to date. The photos that bracket this post top (looking west) and bottom (looking east) were taken on Lougheed Highway near Willingdon, in Burnaby, B.C.

Besides the point that the pedestrians appear to be the only thing totally out of place in this environment, the other thing to consider is that the back-bone of sustainable or ‘good’ urbanism is the walking trip. Therefore, any build out that makes it improbable for people to get out and walk must be suspect as ‘sustainable’ urbanism. It won’t do to argue that most people walk to these transit stations, which is doubtful. ‘Good’ urbanism is looking for walking trips to work, social mixing, and services.

Grade separation, as we have learned in architecture, is a place-killer. It should not surprise us, therefore, to find grade separation acting in an analogous manner for transportation—as the blighter of place.