The Skytrain-and-Towers Urbanism

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. What most people have forgotten, or chosen to ignore, is that the towers date to the same fair.

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 feeds the super block, the tower condominium, and the 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.

The first point to notice is that the pedestrians appears to be the only thing that is totally out of place in this environment. Odd that the place of human habitation should be remade to be inhospitable to humans. The second point to consider is that the back-bone of sustainable or ‘good’ urbanism is the walking trip. Therefore, any urbanism that makes it improbable for people to get out and walk must be suspect as ‘sustainable’ or livable urbanism. Alienating urban environments are just incubators for crime and loneliness. It won’t do to argue that most people walk to these transit stations, which is doubtful. No one lives within a 5 minute walk of a Skytrain station. In the towers, using the elevator usually takes longer than 5 minutes. And once you are in the elevator, you might as well ride to the garage and drive away in the comfort and luxury of your own private vehicle.

‘Good’ urbanism is looking for walking trips to work, for social mixing, and for services all available within 400 meters of a front door that opens directly into a livable street, a courtyard or a lane. It is searching for mix and balance in transportation choices. And it prefers mass transportation that is on the ground, easily accessible,

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.