On Thursday July 17th, the SkyTrain system was shut down during the evening peak travel period due to a failed computer component. This left many passengers stranded both at SkyTrain stations and in SkyTrain cars for many hours. Then on Monday July 21th the skytrain system was brought to halt due to a tripped electric breaker protecting the SkyTrain’s operations centre. The power outage also halted the public announcement system

Having two skytrain melt down in a row is statistically improbable. Improbable but not impossible…drawing some hasty conclusions on the general state of the system based on exceptional event shouldn’t be done at this stage:

Some observers have been quick to link the skytrain glitches to lack of funding. We notice that the latest meltdown is linked to the extension of the Skytrain (Evergreen line work)…

Identifying the root cause of the trouble is a good step. Translink, which seems to have learnt how to manage crisis in Pyonyang, thinks it has then took the adequate measure: suspend the electrician whose is alledgely responsible for the tripping of the breaker.

We will note that if a breaker exists in the first place, it is to allow it to trip, and the consequence of a tripping should be known as well. so a first question

  • Does the risk of accidental tripping of a critical breaker due to electrical work was properly assessed? and its corollary: Does the electrical work was appropriately scheduled to minimize risks on skytrain operation?

The handling of a crisis communication

A tripping breaker or something else shutting down a whole transit system is a rare occurence, but not something unprecedented:

During the great 2003 North east blackout, whole transit systems, in cities such as Toronto or New York, grind to a complete halt…

In such occurence, The question is: What is the response of the Transit authority and is it adequate?


  • Does Translink expect people to roast in trains for hours without any information?
some train has been evacuated by he staff, some other have seen their door pried by passengers...

some trains have been evacuated by the Translink staff, some others have seen their doors opened by passengers…

If a train evacation plan was in place, something one could have excepted to be decided in the minutes following the skytrain halt (a tripping breaker is a priori something quick and easy to troubleshoot, and the consequence on the time to “reboot” the system should be well know).

  • Why Translink didn’t inform its customers about it?

Thought the passenger announcement system was down, medium like twitter was available (but used only to mention an unspecified “technical issue”). That brings us another aspect of the issue.

Is the Skytrain system rightly designed?

  • In crisis situation, more than ever, communication is key: the passenger information system should be insulated of other control systems (be able to run on onboard battery…)

Wrong per design, is also the fact that a Skytrain “glitch”, seems always to bring the whole Skytrain system on its knees. The system seems to be too much centralized. The corollary of it:

The more the system expand, hence add complexity (be by mile of trackage or by number of trains in operation), the more the chance to have catastrophic glitches.

The occurence of it can be reduced by increasing the reliability of the system as is (that can be typically achieved by providing redundancy on key part [3]…but eventually that will not prevent embarassing issues where the whole skytrain system break down, due to a too centralized management of it.

Better overall resilience could be achieved by a more decentralized system: having the different lines operated as much as independently as possible is a step in that direction [4]. That could not necessarily means less over-all break down, but a break down could be of much minor consequence on the system (typically confined to one line). In that regard:

  • With the advent of the Evergreen line (VCC-Douglas college), the Millenium line should be shortened to be (Watefront-Lougheed) which should reduce catastrophic break-down effect
  • the poor design of the Lougheed station which can be already criticized for the lack of same platform transfer between future Evergreen line train (VCC-Douglas) and Millenium train (Waterfront-Lougheed), can also be blamed, for preventing to operate one line in total disconnection of the other in normal operation (excluding OMC access)
  • We have to celebrate as an an eventually uninentended advantage, the fact that the Canada line is operated totally independently from the rest of the skytrain network

Skytrain reliability?

The Skytrain reliability is touted at 95%: that measures the % of train running no later than 2mn of its schedule.

A measure providing little meaning for the customer:

    train can run late, but as long as speed and frequency is maintained, the level of service for the customer is maintained.

The measure of the skytrain reliability doesn’t provide us with a good idea of how “late” or “slow” the 5% of trains not “on time” are.

The problem is that when a Skytrain is “running late”, it can very quikly means hour delay for the customer. In that light, 5% trains “running late” could be then considered as way too much (a bit like if a driver was facing incident like flat tire or engine break down once a month, but should feel content because the rest of the month, or 95% of the time, the drive is unevenfull…).

For matter of comparison, the reliability of french driverless subways is usually north of 99% [1]

To the risk to be at odd with Translink, a review to all of the above question is necessary: the findings could eventually help to reduce the occurence of skytrain systemic issues and more certainly will provide some guidance to help to improve the handling of such occurence in the future

PS:one could be also interested in the opinion of Daryl dela Cruz, Natahn Pachal or Gordon Price

[1] see Twenty Years of Experiences with driverless metros in France, J.M. Erbina and C. Soulas. As an example, the Paris automated line 14 reliability (percentage of passengers who waited less than 3mn during peak hour or less than 6mn during off-peak hours) is at 99.8% on the Paris automated line 14

[3] Per definition a “back-up” system is not working when the main system is…and back up system issue are typically discovered when we need it if not thoroughly and recuurently tested what involve significantly ongoing maintenance cost.

[4] As an example in Paris, each automated subway lines (taht is line 1 and 14 has its own central command center. That is also true of the Lille VAL system, which has 2 lines opened in 1983 and 1989

Grounded on principle previously exposed, we present here some more concrete ideas of what could look an ideal transit network in downtown. In a top down approach, we naturally ensure that the regional and city transit lines are optimized: that is the main purpose of this post

The regional transit network:

The regional bus network: the extension of the North sore bus route to the Main street Station

The regional bus network: the extension of the North sore bus route to the Main street Station

The Hasting buses (named HSB) such as bus 135 are considered as regional bus, as well as all buses heading to the North Shore (named NSB for the one using the Lions gate Bridge).

A major change is with the North shore buses.
All routes coming are extended to Main terminal:

  • The actual connection with the Granville station is preserved, but patrons will eventually find that Stadium or Main will provide better transfer: that will reduce crowding pressure at the Georgia#Granville stop
  • Georgia street, sometime called a traffic sewage, is where some want hide Transit and its users: it is not without creating challenges.

    Corwding at Georgia#Granville bus stop is reduced by the extension of the north shore buses to Main station

  • It resolves North shore bus layover issues in the downtown core: there is ample space at The Main/Terminal
  • It provides a direct connection with the Main street bus routes (3,8, and 19)
  • it provides a direct connection with the train and intercity buses station.

A potential extension to the future Broadway line station, at Great Northern Way# Fraser, could be doable too

City Bus routes:

the city bus network

the city bus network

A major change on the main street corridor:

Bus #3 and #8 are short-turned at the north end of Main. It is a result of an observation: most of the patron of those routes, transfer onto the Expo line at main terminal, leaving bus #3 and #8 wandering empty in the downtown core. It is also a follow up of a previous Translink recommendation [1].

  • The saving in term of operating cost is tremendous, and it helps to address bus congestion (mainly at bus stop) on the hasting corridor

Bus 19 can preserve a direct connection between the downtown and the Main Corridor.

The route 22 toward the Knight street corridor
In the context of the 2013 Bus service optimization consultation, we came up with a “counter proposal” to improve the bus 22 and C23 route (then proposed to be extended to Terminal Avenue) which has been discussed in comment section of the buzzer blog:

proposed extension of route C23 (in blue) and rerouting of bus 22 (in red) to serve the Terminal avenue area, and provide a good connection with the Expo line

The bus is permantly routed thru terminal avenue (instead of Prior and Gore).

  • it improves the connection to the expo line (for people using its East branch)
    • to avoid a left turn at Main street(preventing to have a bus stop in direct connection with the Expo line), the route 22 is routed thru Columbia and Quebec street.
  • The actual 22 use Pender street, but Hasting could be a superiori choice (direct connection with hasting bus corridor, and closer to Waterfront):
    • Toward it a section of Columbia (North of Pnder) could need to be reverted as a two-way street.

The Bus 17

It is used to provide a North south service East of Granville from Waterfront (bus termini on Cordova). Due to the street layout, Cambie street is the only reasonnable choice:

  • Beatty closer to the Staidum station end up at pender, is often closed to traffic with special event at Canada place.
  • Hamilton and all western choice, are to too far away of the Statdium station, and roverlapping too much with the Granville corridor.

The route 50 case.

This aim of this route is to provide some transit service to Granville island and on the South False Creek slope. That said, the routing of this route make it of little value for too many people:

We redesign this route as a peripheral one, linking Broadway#Granville, Granville Island, Olympic station, Main street station and Main#Hasting:

bus 50 as a peripheral route connecting Main#Hasting to Bradway#Granville via Main station, Olympic station and Granville Island

bus 50 as a peripheral route connecting Main#Hasting to Bradway#Granville via Main station, Olympic station and Granville Island

Among other benefits: Such alignment allows to improve the transit offer in the South East Flase Creek area, and remove one diesel bus route of the Granville Mall.

The inconvenience of this design is the eventual lost of a direct connection between Downtown and Granville island: The implementation of an elevator between granville island and the Granville bridge span could be a good solution, which could be part of the Granville Bridge greenway proposal

The route 15 is then prolonged to downtown, following the alignement of route 17, able to provide a more consistent bus service on the peninsula section of Cambie

The Hasting bus corridor

We include the bus serving Powell in this corridor (essentially route #4). Even with the removal of bus #3 and #8, there is lot of bus service redundancy (#7,#14,#16,#20): The rationalization of it should be the object of a study focusing on this corridor rather than a down town study.

The Burrard bus corridor

At this time, it consists only of bus 22 and 44. If the Broadway subway is designed to terminate at Arbutus, it is expected that this corridor will see much more bus traffic, and a revamped route 44 -using Broadway to connect with the subway line- could see a level of service similar to the actual bus 99.

[1] Vancouver/UBC Area Transit Plan , Translink, July 2005.

At a time when “both TransLink and the City of Vancouver are aiming to establish a common vision for bus service in downtown Vancouver“, it is still interesting to have a look at what has been done in past in that respect

In 1975, the Bureau of Transit Services, then depending from the Minister of municipal affairs prepared a transit service plan to complement the City land plan [1]:

1975 Vancouver Downtown transit Plan

1975 proposal for the Vancouver Downtown transit Plan, extract from [1]

This plan is important in many aspects, and mainly the adopted methodology

It lays down the general picture in which a downtown plan can take shape

Thought not in service in 1975, the West Coast Express concept were already discussed, and the terminals and vessels, for the seabus, were under construction. The skytrain was still a quite distant concept [2], but the LRT discussed in the plan is clearly considered as a pre-metro, aimed to be underground in the Core Business district.

But More importantly,

It lays down 7 principles guiding the plan
Those principle are subdivized into 3 common service characteristics:

  • Direct Routing
  • (1) Don’t divert routes to serve specific needs: Diversion means a less attractive service for most of the travellers
    (2) Use secondary services connecting to main ones, to serve “out of the way” area (rather than divert main routes)

  • Minimize unecessary transfers
  • (3) Use the downtown grid for “random schedule” transfers

  • Minimal walking distance to final destinations
  • StraightThru
    (4) Go Straight thru the “center of gravity” of an area, and not its periphery, which increases the total walking distance by half.
    (5) Transit and pedestrians: the concept of pedestrianization and transit must not be treated independently.
    The study cites Jane Jacobs [3] to support the idea of bringing together the transit network with the pedestrian area [6]
    (6) Prefer two way operations over one way, since it offers the maximum coverage
    (7) Prefer nearside bus stop over farside, sinec it allows the passengers to alight before have to wait at a traffic light.

Many, if not all, of this principles are what Jarret Walker calls the geometry of Transit, and that is the reason why they are still as valid in 2013 as they were in 1975:

  • Principle (7): Thought some cities like Montreal and Toronto, have bus stopa on the nearside, most of the cities adopt a farside model, since it usually allows a better general traffic output, and modern LRT/trams use also farside bus stops, since it allows a more efficient signal preemption
  • Principle (1), (4) and (6): They are very strong transit geometry principles which have justified the conversion of Manners Mall in Wellington New Zealand, from a pedestrian only street to a transit mall.
  • Principle (4) and (5) are why transit needs to be considered as part of the urban fabric

Some comments on the DT plan
The geometry of transit largely comfort the relevance of the historic streetcar grid:

Robson bus 5 ( Ex-Saskatoon Brill trolley 2363), at Robson square, in May 1980. Note the “Shoppers Free” Bus sign – Photo, courtesy from Angus McIntyre

  • The choice of the streets is guided by principle (4)
    • At the time of drafting the plan the Robson bus was using the couplet of one way streets Smythe/Robson: a two way service along Robson is clearly the privilegied choice.
  • The streetcar service along Hornby, was expected to use the Arbutus line outside the DT core: the routing thru Hornby plan is consistent with the 1972 Erickson plan developped for the court house complex.
    • The advent of the Canada line kind of fullfill this vision.
  • The Robson square is envisioned to be a pedestrian oriented area, serviced by transit in full accordance with principle (4), and the Arthur Erickson’s vision for Robson square:
      The only traffic through the square will be inner city buses, linking the West and and False Creek. Since buses function as people movers, they are seen as a compliment or enhancement to the pedestrian activity of the civic square [...]

The underlying philosophy leading to the plan, articulating pedestrian areas around transit, and not the reverse, illustrates the dramatic shift of the current Vancouver council approach, which dismiss the transit geometry, as illustrates the Robson bus circling the square
to serve a “specific need”.

At the end a transit service is envisioned on Nelson to complement the planned development of the westend, as well as a pheripheral line, to serve the “social and recreational” place on the pheriphery of downtown:

Remarkably, they are echoing recurring wishes for Transit in downtown, but the plan warms that “…there really is not much to be gained in professing support for programmes to get more people to use public transit without commitment to actions to give transit priority use of streets in Downtown Vancouver and in other urban centres in the metropolitan area.”

Alas, the current Vancouver council policies could not be farther apart of this commitment to transit.

One can also consult [5] for a different coverage of [1]

[1] Draft memorandum on transit service planning to complement downtown peninsula plans of the City of Vancouver, Bureau of Transit Services, BC Minister of Municipal affairs, Sept 19, 1975. (13.6MB file)

[2] the underlying concept had been drafted by Harry Rankin by 1970, see The Case for Rapid Transit…in 1970

[3] The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, Random House, New York, 1961

[4] 51-61-71 Project, block 71 Schematics, Arthur Erickson Architects, 1974

[5] Vancouver’s 1975 downtown transit plan, John Calimenete, April 7, 2010

[6] This view is echoed by Jan Gehl, among others, providing rational for Transit on Sydney’s George Street.

Not long time ago, Jarret Walker has written a post explaining the value of the isochrone maps, he presents as freedom maps: The freedom measure here is not that much about mobility than access: “how many new choices – jobs, shopping, schools, houses of worship or philosophy, sports facilities, and so on, are brought within a given travel time of how many people”-by a proposed project.

When it is time to build a new bridge across a river, this concept is usually clearly understood. When it is time to build a new transit line, it is far less the case, and eventually in Metro Vancouver it quickly boils down to who gonna get its fair share of rail tracks… that eventually dues to the fact that transit investments are not understood as transportation ones. Here below is an example of what additional freedom can be brought by a Broadway Skytrain (all isochrones are rough approximate and generated with mapnificent).

Approximation of how much more destination (in purple) can be reached in 15mn from Cambie#Broadway

What is also very important to understand is that a transit project is not necessarily reduced to serve the people living in its immediate vicinity:

30mn Isochrone from Richmond Brighouse, New Westminster, Lougheed and metrotown: in purple, approximation with the Broadway line

The isochrone maps above are with a commute time of 30mn on way (average commute time). As presented above, they carry little more value than improved mobility, in the term of how much more square km of area become more accessible: a good metric for urban sprawl, but not necessarily for economic value of the project and development sustainability

To measure how much the accessibility is improved for how many, integration of different density maps are needed:

metro population density map and vancouver job density map

All that and more give how much new opportunities are provided for how many people.
Translink certainly use the above datas to predict the ridership of any transit project, but the presentation of it under a “map of freedom”, can eventually allow a better visual grasp of the potential, influence, and sensitivity to land planning of the investment.

To be sure, you have to agree with the premise, that giving opportunities access to people is a good thing:

Compact development and constrained development

In some circles idealizing a certain past, people could tend to confound these 2 notions: A urban form constraining the opportunity options, be to learn, work… is per nature demanding to its residents to do some sacrifices. Conversely, an employer having access to a smaller labor pool will have less chance to find an adequate match. That provides in fine an economy not capitalizing on its talents, hence unable to perform as well as it should….and the purpose of any transport investment in history has been to improve the economy efficiency of the regions it connects.

A compact development can be achieved by constraint-i.e. lack of communication link- or by well designed communication links, where people want live at some specific nodes, because it is where they get the maximum freedom, in term of opportunity to work, learn, shop…It is eventually what the isochrones above represent: Some regional town centers become more attractive because a Broadway line gives them

  • Better connection connection between each other, that is noticeably the case of Richmond and Lougheed (and beyond Tricities),
  • Access to the central Broadway area, which is the second concentration of job in Metro Vancouver after Downtown.

The regional benefits of the Broadway line are undeniable, and probably are much greater than the local benefits, but can the served area accommodate further population/job growth?

Development potential

in those matter “land use” planning is key, and it is a common misconception that growth needs to be accommodated by further sprawl. The connected areas still have lot of reserve for infilling and densification, which can be leveraged on both potential future rapid transit stations and arterials serviced by local bus routes [1]- Not only in Vancouver, but also in the regional nodes benefiting of the Broadway line, as seen before

Broadway at Fraser;in bad need of revitalization; offers tremendous opportunities for densification among other

The question is hence more how to enable this potential, which need to be quantified, this to allow the best return on investment.

[1] In that respect, See also What Would It Take? Carbon Neutral Cities, Jeremy Falud, February 15, 2012 (and “key quotes” at pricetag ) and “Creating Places for People — The Melbourne Experiences“, Rob Adams, at SFU October 4, 2011

The Viaducts Competition

December 5, 2011

This post refers to the Vancouver viaduct competition occurred in November 2011

Death to the viaducts is the jury sentence. The winner of both the jury and People choice, stealing the spotlights, is the entry 71:

The best we can do according to the jury and Public which have given a plebiscite to entry 71

The Jury, adverses to any viaduct views, choose some other entries which if not eliminating the viaduct like 71, or building a crypt to its remnants (nice attention from entry 113), was either burrying them-and all the local street network-under a huge tumulus segregating the historic precinct of False Creek (entry 111), or hidding it away in an canvas like composition, seen from an improbable point from the sky (entry 72), or not showing at all what could be done with them or their land (entry 138) – N.B. the goal of the competition was to “visualize the viaducts or the land they occupied” … The only rewarded entry showing a viaduct is the entry 72:

The Jury has been thrilled by how the space below the viaduct has been made more engaging by entry 72. Beside the Banksy's Graffiti, notice also how this entry seeks to negate the viaducts structure by a kind of Magritte style treatment of it

An unsuccesful entry

Entry 109 , focusing more at removing the barrier effect, than the viaduct themselves- the real physical barrier being obviously the Skytrain guideway-reflects my previously stated position on the viaducts.

a bird view of the site as proposed by entry 109

Entry 109 put the traffic (“blood” of the city) front and center, and emphasis on the following values:

  • Reconnect Chinatown to the rest of the urban Fabric
  • Currently Chinatown is cut from the rest of the city, West by the Andy Livingstone park, and South by the bridges (as well as Thornton park and the Skytrain viaduct…it is simply too much of urban discontinuity to invite people to Chinatown), the entry suggests building lined streets along Keefer and more importantly Main. That motivates the removal of the Main overpass.

  • Open Gastown and Chinatown to the False Creek shore
  • The entry introduces a canal in the Carral street axis to that purpose (then people can go straight toward the shore, passing below the skytrain guideway, along the Canal). other North/South streets are extended up to pacific Boulevard.

  • And more generally, keep the seawall open to the city by locating the development on the edge of the site
  • rather than along the shore

  • …and respect the View cone policy
  • In the case of the viaducts area, the view cone policy mainly protects perspectives from South East False Creek which also can help to prevent a disastrous “toilet bowl” effect on the False creek basin

  • Develop Georgia street as a “ceremonial” street ending on the false creek basin in the Science world axis.
  • That certainly motivates the removal of the Georgia viaduct, if you want Georgia street to be an urban boulevard with traffic going down to Pacific Street what is advisable to preserve its urban feel

  • Provide a pleasant urban street feeling basically everywhere
  • That motivates a realignment of the Expo boulevard, to enable it to be lined by building on its south side rather than to be defined by the Skytrain guideway, avoiding the problem seen on Lougheed Boulevard in Burnaby or Number 3 road in Richmond.

  • Don’t compromise East West connection

There is no clear motivation to remove the Dunsmuir viaduct. From an urban viewpoint it basically adds nothing, since you are still left with the Skytrain guideway barrier, and eventually have even a negative outcome, since you end up to have at best a very clumsy landing of Dunsmuir somwehere either on Expo or Pacific boulevard, (which also end-up to relocate the viaduct structure more than removing it)…or worst, a dead end Dunsmuir street accompanied by a lost of a gentle grade access to downtown. At the end you have to consider the positive side of a viaduct asset: it can be seen as a balcony on the “urban theatre” as described in the entry 109…and a treatment of this asset under this light is suggested in this entry.

Unfortunately, the values expressed by entry 109 were not shared by the jury which had another motivation in mind.

A provocative idea I should have eventually submitted: "it is not the viaducts we should bury !" The picture speaks enough of an efficient use of landscape freeing prime real estate at Mountain View.

Some Translink statistic

November 28, 2011

Some preliminary statistics essentially compiled of Translink Annual performance reviews (BC Transit service plans before 1998) and APTA for ridership and US data.

Ridership evolution since 1986 (unlinked trip)

Ridership per mode since 1986 (unlinked trip)

Translink ridership 1986-2010 (unlinked trip)

  • Due to the Olympic Games in 2010, it is probably prematured to draw conlusions, but if the trend maintains in 2011, and preliminary result of APTA shows that, it clearly demonstrates that canada Line has boosted the ridership by a significant number…
  • Of interest is also the slow erosion of the ridership on the trolleybus system, the avent of the Canada Line, not only didn’t have stopped it, but seems to have amplified it:

Things happen like if rider having to take a trolley all the way to DwonTwon, could now prefer to take a bus (especially north of 41st) to the Canada Line: That trend seems corroborated by the recent surge in ridership on route like 49, and seems to say a lot on how the transit rider behave in front of choice -direct but slow route- vs -fast with transfer-

Ridership per capita since 1986 (unlinked trip)

Unlinked Transit trip per Capita 1986-2010

In agrowing region, it is important to see if ridership effectively growth on a capita basis, it is…
The figure above also indicates – in relative to ridership number normalized in 2000 – the gas consumption per capita.

  • It appears clearly enough that the gas tax, which has increased from 10c, in 2000, to 17c/l recently, is not a sustainable funding option to Translink… neither property tax, is!

Below, are some statistics, published now, to provide numbers to substantiate a discussion following a recent post on the priceTag blog.

Operating cost per trip

Operating cost per mode

To benchmark the operating cost/trip per mode, we have choose the US average per mode data, mostly because they are readily available, and also because the size of the LRT sampling is big enough to be meaningful. because the perating cost is mainly dependent of the wage, the $US currency has been kept. There is 2 remarkable things to note in the graph above:

  • The operating cost per trip of LRT or bus is very close. When you consider that in a typical system the LRT will operate the trunk route, while the bus will be asked to operate “social” service, which provide endemic ridership, it is hard to single out a mode as better than another one when taken on average on the basis of operating cost. that has been true for the last 25 years
  • The Translink bus operating/trip growth less than the US one, but what is the most striking is that in 1987, the operating cost/trip of the skytrain was $1.35. In 2010, it was $1.12. Nowadays, the average operating cost/trip of a US LRT is $US3.03…

Total Skytrain trip cost

Skytrain Operating plus Debt service cost (1986-2010)

With heavy investment, the operating cost is only part of the story. Usually the debt service is pretty great, an the Sacramento example previously presented illustrates it as well for “cheap” LRT.
The Skytrain debt service has been computed assuming a 30 years amortization at fixed rate, the rate was the 10 years+ Canada bond rate, at the date of the delivery of the purchase (opening new line, delivery of vehicles… It looks a pretty reasonable assumption since the number align pretty well with the one reported by BC Transit before 1998-Translink doesn’t carry the debt of the Skytrain). So far $2.7 billions of initial capital investment in the Skytrain network (Expo and Millennium lines have been accounted.

Obviously the opening of the Millennium line in the aftermath of a strike, has impacted severely the debt/trip.
The overall ridership on the network has absorbed it, and the Skytrain debt level was estimated at $2.87 per trip in 2010.

For Matter of comparison the total cost per trip of the Canada line was $3.99/trip, so like the Skytrain, in 2010…

non edited spreadsheet with original number available here (google docs spreadsheet ).

A Viaduct too far

April 12, 2011

It was a forum on the viaduct removal on April 7th at SFU downtown. You will find on pricetag a list of links on it including one to the good report of the night by Stephen Rees. We gonna mostly refer to it to review some arguments mostly developped by Larry Beasley, but also Bing thom

The viaducts impede real estate development

Growth will have to be accommodated here to relieve pressure on Chinatown and the downtown eastside

there is several flaws with this argumentation; also used, as an answer to Ned Jacobs, to explain the lack of affordable housing in Vancouver:

  • Do you believe that Coal harbour and Yaletown development has relieved pressure on the westend?

But mostly, the argument rely on the theory of “ghost acreage”: that is, you are always looking for new land to accommodate your current need, because you claim you can’t do it within the given land you already have.

  • not only that is not sustainable in the long term, but the argument could be used as well to support the abolishment of urban containment boundary and obviously the ALR !

But really, do you believe that the viaducts impede real estate development?

Thought the viaducts create some undeniable constraints for developers, which could not like them too much- since it forces them to be a bit more creative than usual- it doesn’t prevent application like the one city for Vancouver has for 800 Griffiths Way

rendering of a development application for 800 Griffith Way. Not only the viaduct doesn't prevent development, but could allow Vancouverites to experiment different urban experience, pretty much like the dramatic arrival to Toronto thru the Gardiner expressway...as suggested by the right rendering,

the 800 Griffith way Application let suggest that the removal of viaducts could not help too much to increase the buildable area, since buildings need some access to light anyway.

Let’s replace them by a “world class” boulevard
…and have an international competition to do that….

Well, the first problem is that the removal of the viaducts transform our existing boulevards, Dunsmuir and more importantly the ceremonial Georgia street in cul de sac…

  • What is the deal with that?

That sound pretty much as robbing Peter to pay Paul

  • why we should believe we gonna have on false creek what we have failed to see materialized in other part of the city?
  • what Larry Beasley think of? Pacific boulevard in yaletown version 2.0 ?

The second problem is that, there is no lack of actual opportunities for brainstorming on “boulevard” experience toward the improvement of numerous toroughfare in town, among them, Broadway, Main, and certainly more importantly Hasting in dare needs of a treatment…

  • Why we don’t use them to showcase the field of possibilities?

The traffic issue

The modelling of traffic in case of the viaducts closure is not so encouraging…Panelists as well as some contributors from the audience have casted doubt on the traffic model…and eventually some wrong interpretation has been drawn from the Cheongyecheon freeway removal in that instance. To put some perspective on it, below a verbatim of what Dr. Kee Yeon Hwang had to say to the Translink Buzzer blog:

we had three tunnels linking the southern part of Seoul to downtown, and one was due to be shut down for some mending. Someone asked me to make a simulation to see what would happened, and I ran my model and saw some very strange things. Once we closed the tunnel, we saw some areas of the downtown traffic improved. And then construction started, and we found the simulation almost came true in reality. I saw that many links encourages more routes. Once we got rid of some roads, that might reduce people’s willingness to travel downtown by car. Cheonggyecheon stream came to the same result…[]…We came up with a very nice result that if it was demolished, traffic congestion would not be so severe

  • In Seoul, removing of the Cheonggycheon freeway has been made possible by positive outcome of traffic model, which has proved to be accurate enough.
  • In New York City, pedestrianization of Times square has been almost justified by positive outcome of traffic model, which has proved to be accurate enough.

If clearly, some lessons of the Cheonggycheon freeway removal are not well learnt in the region, there is apriori no reason to believe that traffic engineers in Vancouver; able to use the experience of the Olyimpic game, as well as the unexpected closure of Pattullo bridge are less equipped and competent than their colleagues from New York or Seoul. If the traffic model announces an unfortunate outcome consecutive to the closure of the viaducts in Vancouver:

  • Ditching the traffic model seems to be a pretty shallow answer

It is not much surprising in fact. As illustrated in my previous post , there is lot of unused road access capacity in Vancouver; hence there is apriori little reason to believe that the removal of the viaduct will translate in public transit shift if there is no change in the offer of it and much more to believe this traffic will be redirected on other boulevard like Hasting.

In addition, when you consider that the redirection of traffic to hasting and Pender will impede the effectiveness of the transit on those avenues, there is even less reason to switch to transit

  • Couldn’t be a better option to reduce traffic on, eventually by integrating a tram on it, rather than fueling more traffic on it
  • Couldn’t be a better option to beautify Hasting? Does the removal of the viaducts will not compromise it?

Hasting street badly needs an urban renewal treatment. Should it be a motor vehicle thoroughfare, or designed toward softer transportation mode: does the removal of the viaducts will allow the later choice? credit photo left CBC

The viaducts cut off Gastown, the DTES, and Chinatown from the False Creek waterfront.

  • If so what about the Skytrain one?

The problem with this argumentation is that those communities have never been connected to False creek. Georgia viaduct has existed-albeit, under a different form- since 1915, and was rather connecting communities anyway cut off water by rail yard…and before by marshes. We can certainly argue otherwise

  • why the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaduct and not the Skytrain one?
  • Removing the viaduct will severe potential connection from strathcona and Mount Pleasant to “upper” downtown (Georgia and Robson area)

We are not in the case of a viaduct cutting off a community of its “raison d’etre” or roots like often seen, as in the case of the Cheonggyecheon freeway in Seoul, or in least extend in Seattle with the Alaskan way or former Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco…We don’t have a double stacked freeway to deal with too!

… but really, does there is no way to accommodate connection of neighborood with the waterfront?

the celebrated 'promenade des anglais' in Nice, pronged by the quai des Etats Unis, is separated of the historic city by a double 'wall' of now decommissioned elevated promenade. This 'cut-off' doesn't prevent Nice to be a 'world class' beach resort renamed for its waterfront promenade. Indeed that has allowed the historic neighborrod to preserve and develop its distinct identity. credit photo left wikipedia, right (1)

The Hogan Alley memories

The construction of the viaducts, or rather the overpass on Main street has induced the destruction of the Hogan alley, and this fact has been brought back apropos by noone else than Ned Jacobs himself, whose has suggested an Hogan Alley Planing Initiative (HAPI). We understand it could be strongly community driven with great emphasis on affordable housing. Hard to disagree with that! That said, the reading of some other blogs invite me to remind some context here:

Thought that the urban legend could let the general public believe that the viaducts has bleed a whole neighborhood, Hogan alley was in fact referring to a block delimited by Union and Prior, Gore and Main… the only block destroyed.

Hogan Alley is in fact the alley in the middle of the block delimited by Prior, Union, Gore and Main. credit Photo, City of Vancouver

  • It is hard to fathom why the current community would like lost its now green space to revive some vision based on an idealized past and distorted view of the history of the neighborhood

The locus of this community was the Fountain Chapel church which was founded by Nora Hendrix, whose happen to be the grand ma of famous guitarist Jimi Hendrix. The church still stand there. Ironically, at the time to write this post, the church is on the market, asking price is $1.450 millions , but no worry…the lot is zoned RT-3, that you can convert it in luxury lofts with soaring ceiling.

The last remnant, and may be most significant one pertinent to the Hogan alley community, is on the 'chopping block' who cares?. credit photo wikipedia

  • People are all up in arm on the supposed scare of the viaduct on Hogan alley…but the last and may be most significant remnant of a disappeared community is on the chopping block and no-one cares?

In Conclusion

As I have already expressed on the Gordon Price’s blog, in the evening, I have heard ‘removal’ of structure and other ‘negative’ words …but what positive outcome?

  • what we, as people can gain from the removal of the viaducts?

I didn’t heard a single argument justifying the removal of the viaducts since all the goals advanced can be accomodated with the viaducts. In fact the viaduct removal option seems driven only by an ideological “war on car”, justified by argument not able to hold much water. That is a problem and a question need to be answered

  • what you can’t achieve with the viaducts in place?

As long as you don’t answer in a compelling manner to this question, the removal of the viaduct will be seen as a direct and gratuitous attack to the ‘motordom’ with great chance to be lost, with as unfortunate consequence the probably stalling of more reasonable efforts at curbing the occupation of public space by the automobiles.

Eric Doherty was spot-on when noticing that while we are devising on the fate of a rather inoffensive viaducts, the whole region is besieged by road builders. Energy could be more usefully used at preventing damage than to focus on the destruction of an iconic structure

That said, Peter Judd like Larry Beasley and other panel members are right: we need a vision for the future of the viaducts land…But we need the vision first, be this vision integrate the viaducts or removing them partially or totally…

if so, it will be then time to discuss of the viaducts fate…that is the right order of the thing, not the other way around as like currently engaged

To show an example, and to capitalize on Bing Thom exhortation to citizen to get involved, here after is my modest vision

A Vision: The Skywalk over the marshes
…and among the pile dwellings

In 1898, most of the False creek flat was still inter tidal water, especially at the actual location of the viaducts. It was still a False creek spur going under Georgia viaduct until 1964, illustrated by the left picture taken circa 1939 (Collection of the city of Vancouver)

Like the Cheonggye stream was there at the origin of Seoul, the viaducts land was originally an inter tidal marsh which was still partially existing at the time of the construction first Georgia viaduct. and here are some assessment:

  • inter tidal marshes are key ecological systems, and disappearing very fast, we need to do something to counter this trend
  • The sea wall offers a very nice promenade, but it is a “wall” between water and land, preventing inter tidal life where it has naturally existed

Great extend of false creek was inter tidal marshes, and it is time to lead by example, this by restoring those keys ecological system, and the viaducts land provides the opportunity to do it.

The viaducts, part of the Vancouver history since 1915 get a renewed “raison d’etre” in addition to address the escarpment at Beatty street.

Like noted by Jan Gehl [3], human eyes vision is more developed downward than upward, and it can be a reason why people like to gain elevation to appreciate vista. The viaducts provide it and multiply vantage point on False creek.

  • beautify them and increase pedestrian space on it (remove one lane of traffic on Georgia)
  • add some mezzanines, for benches; why not some restaurant with patio accessible from the viaduct providing great view on the creek
  • Play on the vertical space by adding some connection with the ground appropriate to the human scale

The vision justified by the original landscape, combine a pedestrian friendly viaduct offering a promenade providing elevated vantage point on False Creek. The viaducts are themselves built over a restored inter tidal marsh. credit photo (2)

The marshes should be accessible to people by a system of trail bike path one of them running under the viaduct for those days we wish to be protected from weather element.

Access to Downtown thru a bridge or viaduct is part fo the vision, since it allows to reinforce the peninsula nature of Down Town. For sure it prevent the sprawling of it, but it is eventually the very reason we have an attractive and dense down town, and are able to develop secondary neighborood like Kitsilano, Mount Pleasant, Strathcona with their own identity worth to be preserved by keeping or restoring natural barriers.

The vision doesn’t prevent development, but capitalize on the “root” of the area, the existing structure, to provide a different experience to Vancouver while still true to what should be the very nature of Vancouver which is to live in symbiosis and respect of its surrounding environment.

building anchored on pilotis soar above the marshes...and the viaducts too. legend photo left (4), right (5)

The picture could not be complete without the restoration of the canal to Chinatown, ideally up to keefer street, providing a link from this community to the Waterfront, inviting to calm and relaxation.


[2] Arlene Gee

[3] Cities for People, Jan Gehl, 2010

[4] Toronto’s Ontario College of Art and Design, Will Alsop Architect

[5] Roland castro rendering. From Vivre le Fleuve, Atelier Castro Denissof Casi / Nexity, Dec 2010, Paris


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