SkyTrain for Surrey, not LRT!

Metrotown from Brentwood town Centre. CC-BY-SA:

From Daryl Dela Cruz, Chief Statistics Analyst at SkyTrain for Surrey

The words you see below were published in a recent article [CLICK HERE] posted to the web by Nathan Pachal of the South Fraser blog (  I was more than appalled to see someone of such initiative-taking nature make such a mistake in assumption.

I could only laugh otherwise I might have cried because it was a public consultation notice from the 1970’s asking people for input on where rapid transit should be built. What is a bit sad is that we are still having the same conversation about the same corridors some 30+ years later.

Some observations about the public consultation notice. First, it’s interesting that the picture of rapid transit is a low-floor light rail vehicle integrated into the community.  This is something that our current SkyTrain system lacks.  Also, it looks like there wasn’t really a plan for the current Millennium Line SkyTrain alignment and that the Evergreen Line alignment was supposed to be a priority corridor…

South Fraser Blog – READ MORE

Although Nathan’s rather blatant mention that caught my attention was responsible for a large part of the reason that I wrote this article, I don’t want to put any blame or shame on him in particular.  I have recognized that this ideal seems to be a rather general ideal that may have been possibly brought forward by the recent wave of thinking that has caused several in Surrey and area to resolve in favour of building at-grade Light Rail Transit (LRT) implementations over SkyTrain-type implementations to serve the city’s future for several reasons, some of which have been unfortunately brought forward as misconceptions and misaligned realities.

Unfortunately it seems that the misguided ideal that SkyTrain lacks community integration is a very common one in in the South of Fraser community; I have seen and heard even our City Councillors and Council Candidates of the last elections having made such extravagant claims.  I have these two things to say about this:

Firstly, those of you who are claiming that SkyTrain apparently cannot integrate with the surrounding community are – simply – completely and utterly wrong.

Perhaps you forget of the several examples of existing and successful community integration developments such as the new Plaza 88 development in New Westminster (which we detailed in a another recent post); other stations on SkyTrain that may not have been directly integrated with surrounding development have been the centre-point for other community-building successes, with places such as Metrotown, Lougheed Town Centre, Richmond City Centre and other various areas having seen booms in the creation of pedestrian-friendly and transit/community-oriented development as SkyTrain service has been brought forward to these areas.

I of course do not want to forget to mention the several future community integration and building opportunities that will be arising such as upcoming development integration at Aberdeen Station along the Canada Line and potential integration on new rapid transit stations as part of the Evergreen Line.

Metrotown from Brentwood town Centre. CC-BY-SA:
Metrotown is an example of a community that was successfully built in tune with Skytrain.  Photo credit: CC-BY-SA:

Secondly: How exactly does light rail offer “better” community integration than SkyTrain?

This is an ideal I would like to challenge for there is really no incentive proof that ground rail lines, which may provide the benefits of lower station access times from the street-level, provides at the end of the day improved opportunities over those provided by the grade-separated stations of SkyTrain.

Again I would like to return to Plaza 88 in New Westminster.  Plaza 88 is a new urban transit community has been directly integrated as an extension of the original New Westminster SkyTrain station, a station that has been standing for more than 25 years stand-alone.  The new development features several residential units in three high-rise towers that rise over the property, and more than 200,000 square metres of retail space.

A rendering of the nearly-complete Plaza 88 SkyTrain-oriented development in New Westminster
A rendering of the nearly-complete Plaza 88 SkyTrain-integrated development in New Westminster

You just can’t do that with an at-grade on-street Light Rail implementation, as has been envisioned for Surrey.  As all light rail stations are probably going to be located in the middle of the street and being a wait-for-walk-signal and 1-3 lanes cross away from any economic development, one could argue that an at-grade, on-street Light Rail implementation would provide community integration potential.

Light Rail’s wide, space-taking ROW splits up streets and/or widens them, impacting pedestrian friendliness by introducing longer street-crossing distances and times.  This can have an impact on future community integration; in fact, there may even be some impacts to the existing community, as property acquisitions and demolitions may be required to widen road rights-of-way both on the LRT’s own corridor and as well on parallel corridors where road capacities may have to be increased to compensate for the losses of road capacity on corridors that may be essential for various different reasons, i.e. goods movement corridors.  The widening of these additional corridors would be sure to have a negative impact on the community by increasing traffic congestion, pollution and noise levels in what would otherwise be stable communities.

Station access times and street-level-to-station-platform times can be increased with SkyTrain implementations but there really hasn’t been any basis provided as to this ideal that faster station access times have a higher power in attracting ridership and thus investment opportunity than other very important factors such as service frequency and reliability – in both factors which SkyTrain-type implementations will consistently excel at over any at-grade LRT solutions.

Misconceptions: SkyTrain "lacks community integration"

4 thoughts on “Misconceptions: SkyTrain "lacks community integration"

  1. Your examples of integration are rather limited, as compared with the length of SkyTrain that is out there. You seem to have a big hate on for Light Rail, as is obvious with your blog. Fair enough. But, LRT is working in many, many places around the world. Because it is AT GRADE, it connects to the community and contributes to retail shopping, street life and walkability. Most of our cities are AT GRADE and not UP in the sky. Until we reach the Jetson age, your arguments against Nathan and LRT lovers seems a bit faulty. Unless you plan to rebuild the entire City of Surrey to be suspended from the sky, I don’t see lots of integration happening very soon. Lastly, SkyTrain technology is used by a handful of cities in the world today. More than 30 years old and mostly in place in Third World countries. I’ve lived and worked in many of them. I’ll take LRT, thank you.

    1. Joe,

      We’d like to challenge your claims that at-grade light rail systems will be able to make such a contribution to retail and street life in Surrey. This doesn’t necessarily have to do with whether cities today are, as you so claim, “at-grade” and not “up in the sky”.

      The planned implementations will take up space in the middle of the street and may create complications that can result in an overall decrease in walkability and a reduction in business opportunity (including on-street retail) through lower ridership and foot traffic potential and the total removal of on-street parking opportunities on the corridor. The recently built St. Clair dedicated LRT row in Toronto, which we will be exploring in an upcoming blog post, is a strong example of this. Aside from creating the result of a road capacity reduction and a thorough removal of parking spaces on the St. Clair corridor that caused customer loss and closures of several businesses, the construction of the dedicated ROW closed off several intersections, including several pedestrian crossings, to further ensure that the streetcar would have a prioritized right of way. This made a significant negative impact on pedestrian friendliness/accessibility on the corridor. The exploration of other sustainable transit options (we do not necessarily refer to anything SkyTrain-type) on St. Clair could have provided the speed/reliability increase of the dedicated ROW without making such sacrifices in walkability and corridor capacity, both transit and traffic-wise.

      Concerning Nathan, we are simply pointing out that Nathan is wrong about his claim that SkyTrain does not provide that community integration opportunity because such such opportunities CAN be provided. We’ve found that a lot of individuals and groups in support of light rail – yourself included, now that you’ve mentioned it – have been so into the prospect of light rail that a lot of necessary fact-finding has been averted and realities hidden; some ridiculous claims have been made. We once caught the Downtown Surrey BIA attempting to “shift” the playing field with a study that was supposed to “level” it (see: this article) by excluding SkyTrain as a viable recommendation option in their study – citing statistics that were malformed and unrepresentative – and making a rather groundless recommendation towards light rail.

      One of the main problems with pro-LRT advocates is that the very broad scope of LRT systems allows them to make use of unrepresentative facts & statistics, and get away with it until those statements are pointed out by others. SkyTrain is a rapid transit system that does not easily compare with most at-grade light rail transit implementations because it has the capacity to move more people at higher speeds. Think of how many LRT operations in the world can compare to SkyTrain in terms of ability to move passengers at high speeds; there are only a handful. For your information, there are still several SkyTrain-type implementations being built around the world today, including in countries that are not classified as “Third World”; Japan in particular is seeing such implementations as the way of the future for servicing urbanized areas with rapid transit.

      We do not deny that a large portion of our existence has to do with the promotion of this message: Light Rail is not a very suitable option for rapid transit in Surrey. We spread this message for several reasons other than the prospect of lower community-building opportunities and the reduction in road capacity on some corridors. We have recognized that there are several advantages that can be brought forward by SkyTrain-type implementations. We have recognized that LRT systems that have been touted as role models for Surrey (i.e. Portland MAX) are not actually very good examples to follow. We have recognized that Surrey Citizens do want improved transit, but it has to be competitive to be worth using. We have found the necessary info to bring forward realistic, representative cost estimations for SkyTrain-type implementations that show that they will cost less over the total lifecycle due to lower operations and maintenance costs brought forward by the advantages of ART technology. We have recognized that Surrey is one of the fastest-growing regions in the Metro Vancouver area, and a solution is needed to cater to the future – not just the present; and for such a special city, at-grade Light Rail will surely not be the most economic nor sustainable option in the long run.

      I shall assure you this: We are a realistic research-based group; we are not lead by any general anti-LRT mentality. If there is an individual or smaller group that we stand against for any reason, we do so because we recognize that he, she or they may be wrong in a way that can result in a significant distortion of the general public view and opinion of a certain thing. I highly suggest that you conduct further, more detailed readings of our several articles on this matter.

      Daryl Dela Cruz
      Founder, Analyst – SkyTrain for Surery Initiative

      1. I could have posted facts and figures, but I have a life. You seem to ignore all of the numerous LRT systems around the world and using an argument that Surrey is special. LRT need not be in the center lane or any dedicated lane, just as in Portland, OR where the train shares driving lanes with motorists when the train is not coming. Japan has many systems and some are “legacy” systems that in time will be replaced with other technology. But how many cities in the Third World have them? You ignore that fact. Also, many of them are busy replacing the old technology. Malaysia is but one example as they switch to LRT. I’m astonished that my one paragraph is so full of “unrepresentative facts and statistics”. You obviously aren’t open to any differing opinions. TransLink loves SkyTrain supporters. It allows us to continue on with our old systems and the large amounts of cash it takes to run them. Job security…and God forbid, challenging old ways.

        1. Joe,

          We’ve said this before: It is simply incredibly short sighted to be citing the lack of (or high) popularity of something on an international level as a reason that something specifically should or should not work here in Metro Vancouver and Surrey. Several special conditions that really must be considered in detail exist with ANY and EVERY rapid transit implementation.

          Portland uses shared-with-roadway LRT ROWs downtown and in other small areas where a dedicated ROW would not make a huge difference or would be unacceptable for other reasons such as the presence of valuable nearby development. TransLink has determined shared ROWs to be mostly unsustainable (and we agree with them) in Surrey for this reason: it can create an unacceptable impact on travel times and reliability. This impact can reduce popularity and ridership potential. Through this, less economic investment potential; continuation of a high automobile modeshare rates (85% of South of Fraser commuters do now and this is becoming a problem as infrastructure in the city is unable to keep up with growth); less reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; and also a lower farebox recovery ratio, which could have a huge impact TransLink’s ability to even run the service as Light Rail systems typically incur very high operations and maintenance costs.

          We have observed that a large portion of the Portland MAX LRT service has to be subsidized by taxpayers. LRT operations typically cost a lot to operate and maintain (i.e. needs drivers) and this probably contributes to the increasing difficulty in Trimet’s ability to finance the entire Portland transit system. Fare increases are now needed so that EXISTING transit service can be maintained (we will also be exploring this in an upcoming blog post); TransLink are also planning to increase fares here soon but this is being done in tandem with an INCREASE in transit service. The entire transit system maintained by TransLink observes one of the highest farebox recovery rates in North America.

          You do realize that by “continuing on with our old system”, capital costs are reduced as resources including maintenance facilities, rolling stock and operation staff can be shared. It takes very little “cash” to operate SkyTrain and thanks to LIM technology, maintenance costs also cost less than what they would be with traditional rotary-motor based rail services. An increase in train service or line length would pose little if any operating cost increase because no extra drivers are required to man the new trains; operating cost per vehicle km actually reduced in 2009 despite the addition of 48 new SkyTrain vehicles that year.

          Concerning technologies, we don’t refer to Light Rail (transit) as a technology. The “light” in Light Rail describes the system capacity. We go by this definition: Light Rail is a form of urban rail transit that generally has offers lower capacities & speeds than heavy rail and metro systems, but higher capacity & higher speed than traditional on-street tram/streetcar systems; light rail implementations typically offer capacities between 2,000 and 20,000 pphpd. In the 1980s SkyTrain was technically a light rail system but the technology choice & flexibility will allow it to provide the capacities of a metro system (more than 44,000 pphpd) in the future; it’s becoming harder and harder to describe it as “Light Rail”. If that city in Japan you describe were to replace its trains with those considered to be “light rail vehicles”, that does not instantly make it a light rail system. Several successful high-capacity metro systems are being mistakenly referred to as Light Rail due to vehicle choice. The busy Metro Rail Transit (MRT) Blue Line in my hometown of Manila, Philippines makes use of light rail vehicles but links several together to create long trains and operates on a grade-separated ROW much like SkyTrain and offers higher speeds; it can carry more than 40,000 an hour, and it would be improper to term such an installation as “light rail”.


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