Reconsidering Vancouver’s Subway

Region needs to reconsider Broadway subway to UBC

By Elizabeth Murphy, Vancouver Sun, February 03, 2019

Proposed SkyTrain line from Arbutus to UBC is a waste of money and would cause unwanted and unnecessary real-estate development, says planning advocate Elizabeth Murphy. Francis Georgian / PNG


The Broadway subway line to UBC, with the appropriate acronym the “BS-Line,” has been accepted by Vancouver council, based on a consultant’s report some question as being more of a political document than a technical report. Within a week of release and with no public consultation, only two councillors voted against it, Colleen Hardwick and Jean Swanson.

The recent Vancouver civic election showed the public’s desire for a change in direction. An upcoming citywide planning process is intended to deliver that change, including to reconsider the Transportation 2040 plan. But now that the subway to UBC has been accepted by council — and the policies of the ousted Vision Vancouver government remain in place — that will predetermine the land use across the city and make the citywide planning process nothing more than implementation of a predetermined outcome of tower luxury condos like at Oakridge and along the Cambie corridor.

Last-minute council amendments for collaborative consultation after the fact is meaningless when funding partners such as the University of B.C., Jericho Lands and other developers are expected to contribute based on density bonuses to pay for the subway rather than public amenities. It’s not what most people had in mind.

Using what author Naomi Klein has described as disaster capitalism, Mayor Kennedy Stewart backed by Vision-appointed city staff, framed the need to pre-empt the planning process by insisting that there is only a small window of opportunity to get federal funding in an election year.

However, the federal government is nowhere near ready to approve where the infrastructure money will go across Canada. Vancouver is already getting a large amount of federal funding currently allocated for transit while they are lining up against other cities that have none. More funding is not likely to be a priority to a government wanting to spread it around in an election year.

Now the region is being pressured into approving the technology of subway/SkyTrain to UBC. Many regional mayors have raised concerns about equity, given that Vancouver already has a lot of transit infrastructure and about $3 billion of new transit funding recently allocated, while many municipalities have little to none.

Although adding rapid transit to UBC is important, there are many reasons why the subway is a terrible idea and other options should be considered.

Patrick Condon, founding chairman of the UBC Urban Design Program, has confirmed his opposition to subway/SkyTrain. He says it isn’t green (lighter infrastructure is more green and can be delivered faster), it is the costliest option (depriving the rest of the city and region), and it widens the wealth divide with the related luxury condos and out-of-scale development based on economics.

The growth and ridership numbers are designed for a predetermined outcome that favours SkyTrain. In fact, the current bus system to UBC has been underserved for over a decade in efforts to justify a subway. This could be rectified immediately on multiple routes with little cost if there was the will to do so.

The city’s underlying assumptions on population and unit growth need to be reconsidered since targets are much high than justified by population projections. Staff recently confirmed the numbers at council in response to questions from Hardwick. Head planner Gil Kelley previously confirmed that existing zoned capacity already is significantly beyond what is required to meet projected growth.

So the question is, do we really need to provide for so much more of the market supply? The city even confirms that we have been building too much of the wrong type of supply.

However, council meeting rules have been changed, seemingly on the fly, including muzzling the public by calling it out of order if concerns are raised over assumptions and recommendations of staff and consultants.

To put broader growth issues in context, it is important to understand how Vancouver and UBC have developed over time.

Vancouver is inherently a transit oriented streetcar city that was designed before the common use of the automobile. Its arterial grid of short blocks has everywhere within a 10-minute walk of transit on an arterial. The streetcars were updated to trolley buses.

UBC was designed as a small campus at the end of a peninsula in the forest, also served by streetcar. It was never intended to be a city centre. However, rather than building student and staff housing onsite, UBC has been developing its forested lands for market luxury condos to subsidize operations. It is increasingly becoming a development corporation rather than an educational institution.

Metro Vancouver tried to rein in that unsustainable growth, but developers influenced the province to take direct control so the growth could continue unopposed. Now, UBC has taxation without municipal representation and no regional oversight.

Instead, UBC expects the regional transportation system to heavily subsidize a $7-billion subway to serve their condo growth and the students who are not housed onsite that commute from across the region. This is the most unsustainable and undemocratic model in B.C.

Transit is no longer about transporting people and is mainly about delivering market condo development.

For a fraction of the money proposed for this subway to UBC, that would take 10 to 15 years to implement, the city and region could be much better served quicker. Within a couple of years, the Broadway corridor could be served by surface rail all the way to UBC. Also, immediately, upgraded peak-hour electric bus service, including express to UBC, should be added to multiple routes.

There is immediate urgency for the climate and affordability crisis to act now in the broader interests of the city and region that the subway proposal does not achieve.

It is important to note that the claimed environmental advantage of public transit is the ability to increase transportation mode-share toward modes having lower GhG emissions. But the consultant’s report concludes that “given the large number of trips occurring regionally, it is expected that the alternatives would show little improvement to the regional mode share,” and also that LRT would provide the greatest benefit to improving the transit mode share for Vancouver. The mode-share shifts are shown to be little different for the three rapid-transit alternatives, and that SkyTrain provides only a 0.2-per-cent improvement for the region over the existing B-Line bus and only a 0.3-per-cent improvement in Vancouver.

We need to look at the bigger picture and ensure that public funds are spent wisely. The Broadway subway would undermine planning for a sustainable future at too high a price.

Elizabeth Murphy is a private sector project manager and was formerly a property development officer for the City of Vancouver’s housing and properties department and for B.C. Housing.

Vancouver Sun Print Edition – Monday February 4, 2019 – page A7

What $7 billion buys in modern surface tram at 50 million per km. With the same $7 billion you could supply trams on all of the cities’ historic streetcar routes (solid red lines) and complete the system (dashed lines). For illustrative purposes only. Illustration by Kathryn Mandell. (UBC Prof. Patrick Condon)

Copyright Elizabeth Murphy 2019 all rights reserved. 

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1 Response to Reconsidering Vancouver’s Subway

  1. Carol Sutton says:

    This situation is both sad and maddening. Despite having complained to various Councillors, I don’t feel anyone is listening. Is there no way to stop, reconsider and do the right thing?!

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