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TransLink concludes SkyTrain clear winner for Vancouver – and Surrey

TransLink concludes SkyTrain clear winner for Vancouver – and Surrey
Paul Hillsdon

TransLink has officially completed their multi-year rapid transit studies, one for Vancouver and one for Surrey. The result? SkyTrain is the preferred option for both cities. Let’s dive in to the numbers.

First is Vancouver. TransLink narrowed down the options to three: street-level LRT, a combination LRT option with SkyTrain to Arbutus, and SkyTrain to UBC.

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Here are the numbers. There is a clear trade off between capital costs, new transit trips and time savings. The LRT is the cheapest, if a billion dollar project can be called cheap, but it attracts the least amount of new riders and produces next to no time savings.

Now compare the combo option with full SkyTrain. For just $300 million more, full SkyTrain along Broadway attracts a 18% more riders – 10,000 to be exact – and cuts 10 minutes off the travel time. SkyTrain here is a no brainer.


Now let’s take a look at Surrey, where the technologies have been more hotly contested. While many, including myself, have been keen on LRT, others argue BRT is sufficient for our city, while some continue to argue SkyTrain. As it turns out, SkyTrain and BRT may win the day.

TransLink narrowed the Surrey study down to four options: BRT on all corridors, LRT on Fraser with BRT on King George, LRT on Fraser and King George to Newton with a southern BRT branch, and SkyTrain on Fraser with BRT on King George.

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The City favours Option 3 the most. They’ve frequently made the argument that SkyTrain is a visual blight and would split neighbourhoods in half, while LRT’s street-level access would fit more appropriately in communities. Overall, I’ve found that argument to be quite weak – it doesn’t look pretty is the best you can come up with?

The other justification they’ve put on the table is that they need LRT to shape growth. Here I will absolutely agree – BRT simply does not stimulate and shape growth the way rail can. That doesn’t mean though that LRT has a monopoly on shaping growth. SkyTrain has been very effective at densifying areas where plans and land uses support doing so. My point has been that it is a question of how much density a community is willing to have. LRT will bring mid-rises, while SkyTrain is almost guaranteed to bring towers.

TransLink’s study was all about facts and it delivers them clearly. Looking at cost, ridership, and time savings, the City’s preferred Option 3 turns out to be pretty much the worst choice available. It loses on time savings due to transfers and sharing the roadway.

As it turns out, Fraser is the only route that would deliver sufficient ridership for rail. King George lacks the corridor population to warrant anything other than BRT out to 2041, even with projected growth patterns. I would suspect this has to do with most of Surrey’s growth happening in new edge neighbourhoods, rather than its King George core.


Let’s take a look at the numbers. Full BRT isn’t all the cheap, coming in at almost a billion dollars. Interestingly, it attracts more riders than both LRT options with similar travel times. Comparing Option 3 to the SkyTrain/BRT Option 4, SkyTrain costs just $40 million more than LRT, but delivers twice the riders – from 12,000 to 24,500 – and cuts travel time by a quarter saving 7 minutes over LRT.

While I have been an advocate of Light Rail in Surrey for years, the numbers are quite clear. For practically the same price, SkyTrain delivers a more robust, attractive, and effective transit service for the South Fraser than an LRT network would. For this reason, I am prepared to endorse and support a SkyTrain/BRT plan for Surrey moving forward.

However, in doing so, we must be prepared to mentally re-imagine the landscape of our City. With a diagonal SkyTrain along Fraser, “urban” Surrey will no longer be the “L” shaped Guildford-Whalley-Newton triad. Instead, we will see a chain of densification and metropolitan cores rise around Whalley-Fleetwood-Clayton. If we can embrace that change, then perhaps a SkyTrain for Surrey may be the right solution after all.


  1. Patrick Meehan

    Good rundown of the options presented!

    It’s curious that Surrey would argue that elevated rail splits a neighbourhood in a way that on grade rail does not.

    Anyone making that argument should take a look at the Expo line around Commercial Drive to Victoria. Seems pretty seemless to me. As well as the Monorail in Seattle’s ability to fit in with the surrounding business district.

    In contrast, go look at the way the LRT in Edmonton interacts with the communities it runs through. MAJOR split in the community, HUGE disruption of vehicle travel, and that’s done with extremely low frequencies by Vancouver standards.

    The interesting question with Surrey Skytrain expansion would be what frequencies continue past King George?

    Should frequency on the skytrain remain consistent throughout (recognizing the split expo/millenium will result in reduced service in Surrey regardless as compared to the rest of the city), or should you have reduced service areas to match demand to save money/trains?

    Questions for a day FAR in advance from now admittedly.

  2. Taylor

    It’s great to finally see translink finish this phase of the study for both projects. For Surrey, I too strongly dislike option 3, but mostly for personal reasons. I live on 64th ave somewhat- near King george. Just to get to surrey central, I would have to take the 364 to King George, and then transfer to the BRT, and then transfer again at Newton to the LRT. This adds an extra transfer.

    Another thing to note is that if you look at options 1,2, & 4, there are arrows on the BRT route from guildford to both Hwy. 1 Eastbound and Westbound. Is it possible that translink is looking at extending the proposed BRT network to either Carvolth (Langley) or Coquitlam?

  3. Hey Paul!

    Jhenifer here from TransLink—I just wanted to clarify a couple of points, to ensure the study findings are accurately interpreted!

    First, the study does *not* conclude that SkyTrain is the clear winner for Vancouver and Surrey. The study actually finds that the three options for Vancouver and the four options for Surrey could all meet the capacity and reliability needs of those areas over the next 30 years. Obviously each of them has benefits and impacts, but all of them can provide high-quality service that meets the differing demands of each city.

    Second, I’d like to emphasize that TransLink’s role is not to advocate for one option over another, but to conduct the technical evaluation and consultation, then put them forward to the region. So again, we’re not saying that SkyTrain is the winner here, but putting forward a suite of choices that the region has to discuss and decide on together in the context of all other transportation priorities for the region.

    Also, all the documents can be found here:

    And they can also be found at the TransLink site:

    Hope this helps!

    • Jesse Hausner

      Sure they do. You can’t predict 5 years in the future let alone to 2041 with any accuracy so numbers are all educated guestimations. The more you guestimate benefits towards SkyTrain the more it tilts the direction of SkyTrain. So yes diplomatically Translink does exactly what you said above, but the truth is your research does steer conclusions a certain direction. 😉

      Ultimately though the Province actually decides (not the region) so if I were hedging bets and I have been for years now, we’ll see SkyTrain down Broadway to UBC, and we’ll see SkyTrain down Fraser Highway to Langley with BRT along KGB/104th with the future option of upgrading to LRT.

      Been saying it for over 2 years now and I’ll stick to that prediction still. 🙂

  4. I think the RRT and BRT option makes the most sense too. Having a slower transit option from Langley isn’t really going to help much with encouraging public transit use.

  5. A great summation of Translink’s recent reports on rapid transit for Vancouver and Surrey.

    First off, I really want to salute you for taking an objective look at the reports and basing your own conclusions off of the objective facts. One of my biggest frustrations in the transit debate here in the Lower Mainland has been how stubbornly people cling to their preferred technology choice rather than genuinely looking at what’s best for residents. It makes discussing the future really difficult when some people are irrationally emotionally attached to a specific type of train.

    Second, when it comes to re-imagining Surrey’s future urbanism, I’d like to throw in my 5 cents: given the “diagonal” nature of a connection from Langley to Surrey Central, I think you will probably continue to see the clustered towers that has become common on the Expo and Millennium Lines, but I think that there are possibilities to encourage a more linear development style, perhaps by looking at elements of the Cambie Street plan for example. Linear plans should definitely be developed for KIng George and 104th and I think Surrey should definitely continue to plan for eventual light rail on these corridors. Encouraging the correct form of development and using the BRT as a forerunner, a secondary Surrey based light rail network may become viable and giving more people the choice to live in compact, healthy, transit oriented communities south of Fraser.

  6. Mark

    I find it interesting that elevated Skytrain is not even being considered for Broadway, but it’s good enough for the people out in Surrey.

    I realise Broadway is more dense, and a whole host of other reasons.

    But the fact that the numbers for the option of elevated Skytrain along Broadway aren’t even being presented is quite telling.

    We have elevated trains in downtown Richmond, alongside dense commercial and residential buildings, (and 3 Road is even narrower than Broadway, and I would argue in places just as dense). And yet the world didn’t end (and yes, I realise you can’t tunnel in Richmond).

    It comes down to the fact that any government that allowed elevated trains along Broadway would never get re-elected in those well-heeled neighborhoods.

    It’s just a shame we aren’t even getting to see the numbers for that option, and that it’s just assumed that because Surrey doesn’t like the look and noise of an elevated train, that they are just whining.

    • I don’t think you can really say that the lack of considering elevated on Broadway is due to ‘well heeled’ ridings. Outside of the fact that a lot of the ridings aren’t exactly ‘well heeled’ is the fact that there is NO PLACE to put elevated guideway. The road, with pedestrian demands for wider sidewalks than those on other major arterials, probably couldn’t FIT an elevated guideway anywhere.

      • Mark

        That still doesn’t explain how we managed to do it on an equally narrow and equally dense (in places) 3 Road in Richmond. Or why it means Surrey is just “whining” if they don’t want an elevated train either.

        At the very least they could show us some numbers. We’re talking about several billion dollars here.

        I find the waving away of an elevated train option pretty suspect. East Van had to swallow that pill, and Richmond, and now Surrey (probably) will too. I don’t buy the argument that “there’s no room” when it’s been done, on narrower streets.

        • I don’t think Richmond’s ROW for the Canada Line has any points at which the space is as narrow as exists for most of Broadway, though I could be wrong.

          I would never say Surrey is ‘whining’ for not wanting elevated trains, I’d say they’re being silly, since I LIKE elevated trains, but that’s a different of point of view.

          Where has it been done on narrower streets?

          • Mark

            Singapore, Bangkok (it’s even called Skytrain), Taipei, Tokyo, Jakarta … all of these cities have sections or portions of elevated train on streets as wide (or narrow, I guess) as Broadway, and I’d imagine much busier.

            It’s definitely possible, and it should make anyone wonder why the numbers aren’t even being presented. It’s not hard to imagine that we could save serious coin having 1/2 or even 1/4 of the line elevated.

            So why is it being dismissed? Votes. Nobody wants to ruffle the feathers of voters in that area, plain and simple. Whether or not it would save 1 or 2 billion.

            The land under the tracks would certainly be utilized and not go to waste. And there’s no reason Broadway has to continue to be six lanes. Four or five would be adequate with proper mass transit.

          • Jesse L Hausner

            Not unheard of around the world. Many cities. Even here in North America. Chicago for example. Look up elevated rail in Chicago, Miami, etc. I think it is more aesthetic and sound related than technical. Technically they could easily build elevated SkyTrain along Broadway.

            It would piss everyone off though with trains buzzing by their windows 8 feet away and that’s why they wouldn’t. Vancouver is a big city that wants to live under the illusion that it has a population of 100 farmers living in the bushes.

            I mean how much complaining happened when we had Indy Vancouver because it was “too loud” for 3 days a year? In the middle of a major city.

    • It’d cost too much to purchase the ROW, plain and simple. There’s limited rail ROW from Olympic Village to Arbutus, but this is closer to the 4th Ave corridor.

      And they say tunnel, but don’t toss out direct burial, ala the Canada Line. Provincial/Regional bottom lines will always trump local businesses and neighborhoods.

      • Mark

        An elevated train would not have substantially higher right of way acquisition costs than a subway. And even assuming that it did, it would *easily* make up for it in cost of construction.

        The city will have to buy up properties for stations whether the solution is subway or not. Broadway is no longer Highway 7 and is not under the purview of the Province. It may be a designated major street by Translink, but seeing as how they will be involved, I don’t see the conflict.

        Broadway is dense and busy, but compared to the cities in Asia that have elevated trains, it’s peanuts. Elevated trains have been done on tougher corridors – and cheaper than a subway! But they won’t show us the real numbers because it comes down to losing votes over the noise and unsightliness.

        And it still doesn’t explain why an elevated option isn’t being considered for even part of the line, like 25% or 40% – it’s politics.

  7. Allan K

    You quoted the wrong numbers it seems… SkyTrain for Broadway has a $3 billion capital cost vs the $1.1 billion for surface LRT. The lifecycle cost is more in line with the numbers you quoted. In any case, the hefty expense for SkyTrain may very well be justified by the commute time savings and ridership, along with secondary factors such as transit reliability, frequency of service, retention of road capacity and redevelopment potential.

    • Given the rates at which governments presently borrow, lifecycle cost is a much more reasonable cost to take into account than initial construction cost. Look at the comparison of total lifecycle cost, and then weigh pro’s and cons.

      If government had borrowing rates more than a few pennies on the dollar, I may agree with you that up front costs matter, but with the rates, you might as well prioritize lifecycle for infrastructure developments.

  8. Rico

    Thanks for the analysis. I am a bit surprised with the poor showing for the Surrey LRT options but I just want to see some improvement happen BRT, RRT, LRT bring something on. Overall I was expecting a weightier report from translink, did I miss the sections on things like operating costs?

  9. TheDude

    Great info! But honestly the time is now. They better start building this soon.

  10. Tim

    In BRT do bikes go on the front of the bus as per usual?

  11. I’m not so sure that SkyTrain is the obvious winner, at least along Broadway. The assessment puts too much emphasis on travel between Commercial/Broadway and UBC. What about people travelling from downtown or from other points along the Millennium or Expo Lines?

    One thing I like about Combo 1 is that it creates a better network of transportation options, with multiple transfer points. It also covers a larger catchment area, including the dense neighbourhood around Southeast False Creek. I’m surprised the model used to assess the options had it attracting less new riders.

  12. MB

    While I appreciate your advocacy for transit, Paul, I cannot agree with your absolutist statements …

    The other justification they’ve put on the table is that they need LRT to shape growth. Here I will absolutely agree – BRT simply does not stimulate and shape growth the way rail can. […] LRT will bring mid-rises, while SkyTrain is almost guaranteed to bring towers.

    … which are based on an emotional rather than rational analysis of urbanism.

    Marrying land use to transit initiatives is very important considering the challenges ahead, but land use planning originates with municipalities and the development proposals they approve. Transit agencies have very little to do with it. Royal Oak, Nanaimo, Renfrew and Rupert SkyTrain stations, among others, do not conform to your density / growth thesis, and that’s because various city governments decided they won’t allow high density residential zoning in these locations for their own reasons. I’ve said before on other blogs, if LRT leads to good urbanism, then Calgary would look like Paris. Believe me, it doesn’t, and that’s by choice because of a fear of public backlash against anything that is not utilitarian.

    This is why I’m coming to realize that it’s best to start with decent urban design planning then adapt the transit choice to suit it, not the other way around. The closest thing we’ve ever come to that if Vancouver’s City Plan and neighbourhood visioning, which now seems all but forgotten. The distinction is really between higher and lower levels of transit capacity. The more capacity potential, the greater the density could be, if so chosen.

    The gap between LRT and buses is closing fast, and Vancouver provides some recent examples of pretty decent mid-rise bus-oriented urbanism on mid-Main Street, Fraser Street, West 10th Ave in Point Grey and a few others. All are undergoing comfortable low and mid-rise density changes and are serviced by those dependable workhorses, the lowly electric trolley, with 10th Ave also being serviced by a B-Line stop at Sasamat.

    Introduce next generation BRT and the gap closes right up for moving people. Dedicated medians, heavy duty (and expensive) engineered road beds with reinforced concrete paving, electrification, GPS, signal priority, universal accessibility, better designed conjoined multiple low floor vehicles, higher quality stop shelters and furniture, public art, smart card access, landscape and streetscape treatments, etc. etc.

    Welcome to the future.

    • I was going to write a “Debunking Myths” article on the point that “LRT attracts mid-rises, SkyTrain attracts high-rises”, actually. That is totally up to the land use planning decisions by the city – although it could be said that SkyTrain has the advantage as it could attract both high-rise and mid-rise development (though the city has control over what type of development ultimately comes up, and that could be mid-rise development).

  13. The other advantage of SkyTrain and other such rail is that it will serve longer distance trips that people otherwise have no other option but drive. The LRT options would more compete with cycling, walking and buses.

    SkyTrain will enable more people to live without a car or at least enable households to get by with fewer cars.

    This will reduce vehicle kms traveled, reducing congestion and the need for costly road and bridge upgrades. Like a 6 lane Pattullo. By reducing need for roads, SkyTrain can actually save taxpayers and drivers a lot of money.

  14. David

    The ridership numbers have always been the point where I’ve questioned these studies because they have the greatest impact on the outcome yet have the least data behind them.

    The 2041 LRT prediction for Broadway, as an example, is barely above the 2011 number for the existing bus service. The idea that eliminating pass-ups, reducing travel time variation, lowering travel time and dramatically improving the on-board experience won’t attract significant new ridership is so ludicrous I can’t believe they published it.

    It’s also incredibly frustrating to see the people who board and disembark along the line consistently ignored in the quest to publish better end-to-end travel times. If that’s what mattered they wouldn’t bother building any stations in between.

    Ultimately the only way to truly change the way people move around is to make alternatives to driving more attractive. That means walkable communities with mixed zoning, traffic calming, direct routes for pedestrians and cyclists, and integrated transit lines and stops close enough together to walk from one to the next. You can achieve that with any sufficiently comfortable and quick technology, but doing it with SkyTrain would be prohibitively expensive.