The North Shore is at an exciting and terrifying crossroads. Our residents have enjoyed a high quality of life, regional workers have come to work in an inspiring location, and the metropolitan region has used our many natural amenities as a backyard playground. But what was once so close has become farther and farther away — not because of growing distances, but because of ever-increasing travel times caused by congestion. Old infrastructure has not kept pace with ever-growing transportation demand, caused by growth in population, employment and freight-movement, and the number of inter-regional and discretionary trips such as visits to Whistler and our local mountains. After decades of inaction, solutions to date have been hardly inspiring and promises have been broken.
Performance-based investment is a framework in which projects are selected based on their value for money. The assessment of factors like current corridor congestion and mode split must be combined with the future growth of corridor jobs, housing and traffic in order to determine the severity of future conditions, and the location and service requirements for a rapid transit link. Solutions should reflect the outcome of this objective process and not be pre-judged by a political desire for a certain route or type of technology, as has occurred on Broadway.
A $7 billion subway is being proposed along a 13-km low-growth corridor that could see substantial service improvements from a $1.5 billion light rail transit (LRT) line, while meeting demand over the long term. This is not the way to plan rapid transit with huge regional needs and a limited overall budget.
In the case of the North Shore, an 11-km, $1.1-billion light rail line from Dundarave to Maplewood could feed into a future Burrard Inlet crossing, likely either as a replacement of the existing freight rail bridge at the Second Narrows or at the location of the proposed 1960s-era freeway tunnel off Brockton Point between the Harbourside area and Coal Harbour. Either crossing could be cost-shared by way of multiple budgets (i.e. goods movement) and multiple agencies, or even private partners.
The new Second Narrows crossing could include light rail, freight rail and trucks (thus taking pressure off the Ironworkers Bridge due to the removal of slow-moving trucks), while the Brockton crossing option could include a passenger train to Whistler (potentially removing thousands of buses and cars from both bridges). The impact of either crossing would be enormous for North Shore residents, workers and visitors.
Unlike Broadway, where most users are already riding transit, the potential for removing vehicles is enormous if a North Shore LRT line efficiently linked with the regional rapid transit network. A direct journey with no transfers and driver-operated traffic signals would allow a trip between Ambleside and Maplewood in 19 minutes and Lonsdale to Brentwood SkyTrain in 17 minutes.
Having seen the decades-long delays in the delivery of the Evergreen Line and Canada Line, I believe that the North Shore must unify behind an achievable concept that can deliver the best value for money in the region. SkyTrain is too expensive as substantial tunneling would be required west of St. George’s, potentially doubling or tripling overall costs vs LRT (note that Broadway’s subway is priced at $500 million/km). A bus-based system, however, will simply not be transformational enough to galvanize car owners to shift modes in a big way.
It is my belief that LRT hits the sweet spot on price, flexibility, performance and deliverability, allowing for a combination of surface and elevated sections and offering high capacity and significant travel time improvements at a reasonable cost of $100 million/km.
To prove the point to a skeptical regional audience, my research team at SFU decided to examine the most important factor in delivering transit riders – walk-up ridership within 400 meters of the corridor. Our findings were stunning. The North Shore-Burnaby corridor outperformed both the Surrey and Broadway (west of Arbutus) projects, based on current jobs and population along the corridor and overall densities. There are currently 80,000 residents and 60,000 jobs within a five-minute walk of the Ambleside-Brentwood corridor.
Every segment of the North Shore achieved a density within or above the threshold of success for light rail based on leading academic research (14-30 jobs and people per acre). When long-term population and employment growth was added to the mix, 160,000 population and 100,000 jobs within a five-minute walk of the North Shore-Burnaby corridor, far outstripping the low growth of Point Grey/UBC. There is also hardly a traffic congestion problem west of Arbutus.
The North Shore requires an east-west light rail line to weave our dense neighbourhoods together, along with a north-south connection to the regional network and growth hubs south of the inlet. Either one on its own would not generate a transformational change to the North Shore as a whole. I am encouraged that our leaders will be studying rapid transit for the North Shore, and encourage the community to become part of the process in order to ensure that a cost-effective rail investment is made within the coming decade, rather than an aspirational one that will take 30 years to achieve. I am excited about the future of the North Shore if we can get this project done in the next few years, as most North Shore and regional trips could be reasonably achieved by a means other than the car. I do not wish to contemplate ongoing inaction, as we will succumb to total gridlock and a severe worsening of our quality of life.
Stephan H. Nieweler is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography, Simon Fraser University