Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Future Commutes From Here

It's not hard for me to think about Surrey; I can see it from my bedroom window. What I didn't appreciate until recently was its situation. I know this may come as a shock to some of you, but it appears that some people are attracted to the suburban lifestyle - a far cry from Ontario, where the entire population happily lives in towering, arcology-like apartment blocks with rooms seven feet square. What I didn't realize were the numbers - it's been five years since the last census, when Surrey's population was just shy of 400,000, and development hasn't slowed down. It's well on course to passing Vancouver as British Columbia's most populous city in the near future.

So I'm going to be living next to the Mississauga of the West. So long as its sprawl stays on its side of the Fraser, that's fair enough for me; I can't really do anything else. Inertia is powerful when it comes to cities, and geographically massive cities like Surrey or Mississauga wouldn't easily be able to reinvent and densify themselves, aside from pockets here and there.

What concerns me when thinking about the future, though, is that all the plans I can find regarding the future expansion of public transit in Metro Vancouver seem to be focused purely on the Burrard Peninsula, with no thought for the cities south of the Fraser. Of the two major transit pushes on the horizon, the Evergreen Line will only bring service to the Tri-Cities if TransLink can somehow scrounge up the money from somewhere to build it, and the Broadway Line would take the rails, or streetcar tracks, or bus rapid transit, to UBC - again, pending some source of funding. But as the years go on without necessary expansion in the rapid transit infrastructure, the SkyTrain especially is going to show the strain.

I'll admit to a bit of a bias: one of the reasons I moved to New Westminster was so I could reliably get a seat on the SkyTrain. Boarding at Columbia I can never tell if the westbound train I'm on is Expo or Millennium, but they're always fairly well packed even at that point. Eastbound Expo trains are frequently nearly full at Columbia even at 9:30 or 10 PM on weekdays, so it's obvious there's no shortage of Surreyans (Surreyites? Surreygonians? Surreyfolk?) taking the train out to Vancouver and back.

The SkyBridge between New Westminster and Surrey represents a major transit bottleneck in Metro Vancouver; it carries the only rapid transit link between Surrey and Vancouver. How much more population growth in Surrey will be necessary before trains are full by the time they leave Scott Road - and how many people would be willing to deal with jam-packed trains, day after day? While I don't shed tears over the absence of a municipal expressway system in Vancouver, that lack does mean that rapid transit and bus transit would need to pick up a larger share of traffic than in Toronto or Montreal, which both have major expressways adjacent to the downtown core.

There are options, some more radical than others. If not a bus rapid transit system or an incredibly expensive and possibly unjustifiable eastward extension of the Canada Line across Lulu Island to Surrey or - to export one of Toronto transit guru Steve Munro's ideas - swan boats on the Fraser River, are there any methods that could keep transit working into the future?

Perhaps, I think - commuter rail.

A West Coast Express train in downtown Vancouver - June 2010

The West Coast Express is Metro Vancouver's commuter rail system, operating since 1995 and currently consisting of one line through the northern Burrard Peninsula, from Waterfront Station through the Tri-Cities and ultimately to Mission in the Fraser Valley Regional District. It doesn't operate nearly as many trains or routes as GO Transit back in Toronto, the network I'm more familiar with, but that can be excused by its relative newness and the smaller size of the population it serves. But neither of those things will endure forever - and I can't help but wonder if a new West Coast Express line, connecting Waterfront Station to Surrey, could relieve some transit pressure in the years ahead.

So I did some looking and followed the rail lines. Much like the SkyTrain, there's only one heavy rail link between New Westminster and Surrey - the route over the Westminster Bridge, oldest of the three trans-Fraser bridges at downtown New Westminster, and currently used mostly by freight trains. From there, the lines branch to the east and west; while the western line passes through industrial areas in western New West, ultimately to terminate in Vancouver at West 1st and Fir, right near Granville Island, after some meandering the east line links up with track already used by the West Coast Express, near Port Coquitlam Station.

Running a railway is a game of timetables and of negotiation. The most important infrastructure, the rails, are already there, and some of those rails go as far afield as Abbotsford. The more peripheral nature of the existing rail lines wouldn't matter as much - commuter rail stations by their very nature have larger catchment areas than rapid transit stations, and while it would be idea for a commuter rail station to be in a walkable neighborhood, GO Transit is proof that this isn't a necessity.

The most difficult thing would, ultimately, come back to this: money. Would it be worth TransLink's while to extend commuter rail service south of the Fraser? The SkyTrain, as an ICTS system, can only carry so many people.

Now, in 2010, probably not - otherwise more people would be talking about it. Ten years ago, though, the Canada Line was just a dream. Who can tell what the transit situation will be like here in 2020? It may be worth thinking about.


  1. Great post. This is exactly what Rail For TheValley and South Fraser OnTrax are lobbying for: at-grade light rail links through Surrey, Langley, Cloverdale & Abbotsford. 60 years ago there was a streetcar system that went from Abbotsford to downtown Van via New West. It was spiked when the highway system was improved. BC Hydro apparently still owns right of way to those rail tracks (currently leased to CP Rail (or may e CN ... Anyway, one of those guys). It would be far cheaper than SkyTrain and would move more people.

  2. thanks for the information, is to important to keep informed about this, transportation system must be one of the most important themes in our society, we have to remember the importance for this nation of this system, for disgrace not everybody have their own transport.

  3. Nice picture, indeed it must have being a great ride.