In the ongoing public debate around the current Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite, the question of whether one should vote Yes or No has generally been framed in one of two ways: Is it a good idea to impose a new sales tax for transit and transportation infrastructure expansion? And: Is TransLink doing its job well?
It seems that another question has been lost in the debate, which is at least as important as the others: Is the Mayors Council Transportation and Transit Plan a good plan for the region?
Transit Plan costs driven by Subway plan
The mayors Council Plan has largely been driven by the Broadway Subway plan. Of the $7.5 billion infrastructure spending in the 10 year Mayors plan, $2 billion is earmarked for the Broadway Subway. That is more than a quarter of the total cost. In other words, if the Broadway Subway component was deleted, the cost of the plan would be reduced by almost 30 percent. Put another way, the estimated cost to the average household in annual sales taxes would be reduced from $125 to under $92. Would that make a difference in the outcome of the plebiscite?
So why is the Broadway Subway part of the plan? It has been pushed hard by Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver since they came to power in 2008. During the last civic election, just five months ago, all of the major opposition parties opposed the Broadway Subway plan, but none of them opposed it strongly, or made it the center of their campaigns. Not COPE, not the NPA, not the Green Party. They did not oppose it, because they did not want to alienate potential voters who want better transit and support the subway.
But is a Broadway Subway a good idea? The proposal is for five kilometers of new rail rapid transit in a tunnel under Broadway, for $2 billion. That is $400 million per kilometer, or more than five times the estimated cost of the surface LRT proposed for Surrey. Is that good value for our tax dollars?
Vancouver is not New York
Why is a Broadway Subway deemed to be necessary? Because Vancouver is a world-class city, and because Vancouver wants to be the greenest city in the world by 2020? Is that a good reason for all of the citizens/taxpayers of Metro Vancouver to chip in an extra $33 per household per year, for the next ten years?
And would a Broadway Subway put us into the world-class, greenest city club anyway? Let’s see who we are comparing our city with. In Canada, there are two other cities that have rail rapid transit systems with significant underground portions – Toronto and Montreal. In the US, there are 11 cities with such transit systems.
In terms of metropolitan populations, every single one of these 13 cities is larger than Vancouver. Three cities are in the same ballpark – Montreal, Baltimore and Cleveland – up to twice as large. Two are approximately twice the population – Boston and San Francisco. Five are approximately three times the population – Atlanta, Miami, Philadelphia, Toronto and Washington DC. And three cities are four times as large as Vancouver or larger – New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Most of these cities built the bulk of their transit systems between 40 and 60 years ago, when construction costs were much lower than today, and some built their systems over a century ago. Only one system – Los Angeles – is younger than Vancouver’s.
We should not be trying to emulate Chicago, New York or Toronto. They have metropolitan populations several times as large Vancouver to draw on for taxes. Put another way, if we want to build an underground rapid transit system in Vancouver like they have in those cities, we would have to tax citizens at a rate at least three or four times what their citizens have been taxed. And even if we did so, that would only achieve a system that would be 40 or 50 years out of date the day it is opened.
Most cities are building Light Rapid Transit
So what should Vancouver do? It should compare itself to cities of similar size or smaller: Seattle, Portland, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Pittsburgh. All have SURFACE light rapid transit systems, or are building such systems now. They are cheaper. They are more flexible. They are quicker and less disruptive to build. They are easier to transfer onto and off of. They are more energy efficient. And they are much better for the urban livability. These are the reasons why Surrey has opted for surface LRT.
Rapid Transit is an expensive approach
But why even consider rail rapid transit anyway? It is an extremely expensive approach to mobility. A writer the other day promoted the idea of car-sharing and intelligent ride services like Uber and Lyft. For what it will cost to build the Broadway Subway, many of the potential riders could be provided with vouchers for car shares or smart ride services, and these vouchers would provide almost infinitely more flexible mobility options than fixed rapid transit. I am not suggesting that we initiate a voucher system; I am just making a point about costs and expenditures. Electric cars are here now, and self-driving cars are on the horizon. These innovations will also change the face of cities.
Instead of spending $2 billion for 5 kilometers of underground rail rapid transit, why don’t we install a system of underground piping to deliver fresh milk to every home in Vancouver? Milk is very healthy, and not everyone cannot afford to have it delivered to their homes. Some people do not know where the nearest grocery store is, or how to get there.
How about underground pay telephones that pop up out of the sidewalk when you call for one on your cell phone? These ideas are about as cost-effective as a subway, and make about as much sense in today’s rapidly evolving urban environment.
Here is a cheaper solution that would solve at least some of the congestion issues. Change the times at which students start classes start at UBC. Some students could start earlier. Some could start later. Bus pass-ups would disappear.
Development is the real motivation
So, why are Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver so hung up on a Broadway Subway? They claim that West Broadway is designated for densification and development, and a subway will enable that to happen. If that is so, then the prime beneficiaries of a new subway will be the land-owners and developers with land along Broadway, not the citizens of Metro Vancouver. Therefore, the land-owners and developers should pay for this expensive, anachronistic toy.
I say vote Yes to transit improvement in Metro Vancouver, but No to a subway.
Adam Fitch is a land use planner who lives in Kamloops, BC.