Vancouver’s SkyTrain: model for the monorail?

Seattle Times

By Mike Lindblom

VANCOUVER, B.C. — Commuters absolutely love this city’s railroad in the air.

They take an impressive 147,000 trips each weekday on the SkyTrain Expo Line, which opened for the 1986 World’s Fair and was later extended into the suburbs. A second route, the Millennium Line, was completed six weeks ago and attracts 40,000 daily boardings.

As popular as the system is, there is another group who may admire it even more — monorail activists who cite SkyTrain as a role model for Seattle.

“The good news is that elevated transportation generally works,” says Dick Falkenbury, the cab driver who founded the populist monorail movement in Seattle.

Like a monorail, the SkyTrain combines mountain views with the pleasure of looking down on gridlocked drivers. High-rises have grown up around the stations, boosting the clientele and reducing regional sprawl. TransLink, the local public transportation agency, says the original line now covers its own operating costs, a rarity in North America.

Yet the project had to be imposed on reluctant communities by the provincial and federal governments, and there is no consensus that the roughly $2 billion (U.S.) spent to build two lines was worth the sacrifice.

Critics call SkyTrain a boondoggle because it diverts riders from buses, and many believe surface light rail would have been cheaper than elevated tracks.

Vancouver had several advantages over Seattle in designing mass-transit projects, including a free downtown tunnel and abundant suburban rail corridors. Metro-area housing density is double that of greater Seattle, so bus stations are close to people. And no freeways reach downtown.

Despite SkyTrain, traffic congestion in metro Vancouver has worsened because of rapid population growth and increased suburb-to-suburb driving.

However, those who do use elevated rail say they save 20 to 30 minutes compared to sitting in a bus or car, and some have moved into housing around the stations.

Could a Seattle monorail move the masses like a SkyTrain? Only if the city braces for big changes.

For a closer look, let’s hop aboard SkyTrain.

Making connections

Granville Station, downtown

“Got a twonie?” asks City Councilor Gordon Price as he grabs a hat from his closet.

A $2 Canadian coin is good for a 90-minute trip on any form of transit in Vancouver. Add a “loonie,” the $1 coin with a loon on its face, and you reach the inner suburbs, while a trip across the Fraser River to outer Surrey requires $4, or $2.54 U.S.

There are links to commuter rail and passenger ferries at the waterfront and bus hubs throughout the route — operated by a single agency.

Seattle’s monorail route promises similar links, but four transit bureaucracies would have to cooperate or merge to avoid surcharges. The Elevated Transportation Co., which wrote the monorail plan, assumed bus riders would pay an additional $1 to hop the monorail, but that could repel users.

We walk from Price’s ninth-story condo to Granville Street, a grimy but efficient trolley corridor. We get off at a SkyTrain station, inside an old freight tunnel that SkyTrain received for free.

Coin-operated dispensers sell tickets on the honor system, without gates. Fare evasion is estimated at 6 percent, but TransLink says the high cost of electronic gating exceeds the money to be gained. Transit police perform random ticket inspections and issue $29 fines to violators. Monorail planners included gates in their cost studies but are also considering the Vancouver model.

Size matters

Broadway station

This crowded hub links SkyTrain with buses serving the west side and the University of British Columbia. There are 14,000 passengers a day for the original line and thousands arriving on a walkway from the new line.

To handle those crowds, plus a 262-foot train, requires a station the size of a city block, and it dominates the funky old neighborhood.

At 140 to 160 feet long, monorail stations would be smaller but would still be a tight squeeze in downtown Seattle. Platforms would be 22 to 27 feet wide, plus a couple feet on each side for the concrete monorail guideways; that’s wide enough to hover halfway over the streets. Columns would be leaner and farther apart than those of the existing Seattle Center Monorail.

Monorail opponent Jud Marquardt, a partner in LMN Architects, believes monorail beams would eclipse the building fronts on Second Avenue and its few open spaces, such as the Garden of Remembrance at Benaroya Hall. A monorail would also block views of the Space Needle from Second.

A partial solution involves running monorail tracks into new buildings, something Samis Land Co. has proposed for a new tower at Second and Pike. Steel columns could conceivably be used instead of bulkier concrete along Second.

Unlike the monorail, which would pass within spitting distance of apartment balconies, the Vancouver line runs over highway and freight-rail corridors, and its tunnel avoided conflicts over downtown aesthetics.

“We would never even consider elevated tracks downtown,” Price says.

How it works

Grandview Cut

Our driverless train zooms out of the city on banked tracks. Passengers can read without motion sickness, and braking is barely perceptible.

Trains can travel 55 miles an hour, while the monorail would peak at 50 mph.

At busier stops, riders often skip a train rather than squeeze into a crowded one because the next train arrives in four minutes or less. Rush-hour trains run two minutes apart or less, and the computer-controlled system is capable of a mere 72-second separation.

The makers of SkyTrain, Canada-based Bombardier, are likely bidders to build the proposed Seattle monorail, competing against Hitachi of Japan. The technology gives ETC officials confidence in their proposed four- to six-minute headways for the monorail and their ability to run successive trains for festivals and sports events.

Two recent evacuations on Seattle’s historic tourist Monorail have raised fears about being stuck 30 feet above the ground between stations. SkyTrain stalls 40 to 50 times per year, about once every 4,000 trips. When that happens, attendants and maintenance workers board the disabled train and drive it manually to the next station, where computers are reset.

In a monorail stall, the usual evacuation method is to pull another train alongside the disabled one and transfer the passengers. The Seattle Fire Department may also require escape catwalks along the 14-mile length.

Close to home — many homes

Metrotown station

The busiest station on the line isn’t downtown but in suburban Burnaby, with 16,000 average weekday boardings.

This vast hub illustrates how population density is wedded to ridership.

Metrotown resembles a less-elegant version of downtown Bellevue on a hill, with a huge retail mall, offices, parks, a basement-like bus station and 20-story high-rises. Shoppers and reverse commuters make SkyTrain a true two-way service, while in Seattle the trains might roll nearly empty to residential West Seattle and Crown Hill in the morning.

The ETC says its projection of 69,000 weekday riders by 2020 — half the Expo Line count — is based on existing regional and city growth plans. Those plans are very ambitious, foreseeing 43,000 new housing units in “urban villages” near the Green Line by 2014.

SkyTrain relies on similar growth of 44,000 housing units in Burnaby to support the new Millennium Line, where underused new stations are currently ringed by self-serve warehouses, car dealerships and mall parking lots.

Seattle City Council member Judy Nicastro, who chairs the land-use committee, likes the idea of transit-related housing growth, but she urges voters to think about what that would look like.

“I certainly see, if monorail passes, we will be discussing and making code changes to add a lot of height to neighborhoods that the monorail’s going to go in,” she said. “There are ways to do it where you still have open space and you don’t feel like you’re in a tunnel.”

Near downtown, the buildings might be up to 15 stories tall, she said, while a six- to eight-story height seems sensible for Ballard, mixed with four-story rooftops for variety.

“We have a duty, once you put in a $1 billion, $2 billion system, to make sure the ridership is there.”

Is it safe?

Granville to Metrotown at midnight

A man holds the station door open for tips, and another grizzled fellow begs departing passengers for their tickets and then resells them for a loonie or two.

The scene is gloomy but safe on a Monday night. Single women ride the train home from work. Police patrol some high-risk stations but are outnumbered by mop-slinging janitors.

Fear of crime has hindered ridership, SkyTrain’s own reports say.

Last year there were 100 robberies and 321 assaults reported on SkyTrain property, just over one crime per day. Of those incidents, 21 robberies involved weapons, and 49 assaults caused injuries.

Some citizens, and a security consultant’s study, have proposed that employees or police be on all trains to deter crime, assist in emergencies or to drive stalled trains. TransLink hasn’t gone that far, but it is providing better station lighting, silent alarms on trains and more employees on the platforms. Bicycle patrols have cut down on rampant car theft at park-and-ride lots.

The monorail plan — based on talks with SkyTrain operators — calls for three armed transit police roaming the line at all times, and six for special events. And there would be an average one customer-service attendant per one or two stations.

Crossing water


Monorail opponents portray a half-mile Ship Canal monorail bridge as a budget-buster, but the SkyTrain bridge across the Fraser River was built in 1990 for an affordable $21 million.

The ETC’s cost plans allotted $45 million at the Ballard crossing, and an independent review lays 50-50 odds that another $10 million will be required to meet salmon-protection requirements.

Reaching the region

Scott Road

SkyBridge stretched the elevated line into the vast suburb of Surrey, equivalent to reaching Lynnwood by monorail. There are 3,000 parking spaces at Scott Road, making the line regional in a way the Green Line route is not.

“They’re different from us in that respect,” said ETC researcher Joel Horn. “We are not a regional system. We’re a citywide system.”

The ETC couldn’t afford garages or thousands of slots on its proposed $25 million parking budget. Monorail planners think they can stretch the money by leasing underused parking lots in Ballard and closer to downtown, while Nicastro recommends apartments above parking garages, as Redmond and Renton have at bus centers.

Henry Aronson of Citizens Against the Monorail has raised the question, “What regional traffic problem does the monorail solve?”

Proponents reply that it adds capacity through the hourglass-shaped downtown where there is no room for new roads. But the route effectively dead-ends on either side.

Though the monorail plan calls for four future voter-approved lines within Seattle, there seems to be greater enthusiasm among pro-monorail people to reach beyond the city. In informal chats, they mention dream destinations such as Aurora Village, Bothell, Boeing Field or Ballard-University-Redmond over an expanded Highway 520 bridge.

Such ambitions would take a new campaign, an additional public vote and more taxes.

Words of advice

Vancouver Councilman Price encourages Seattleites to build rapid transit “pronto,” before daily Everett-to-Olympia freeway backups make Interstate 5 unusable. At the same time, gives this advice about public expectations.

“The main thing about rail transit, and I would include monorail in this description, it’s mainly about land use. … We built SkyTrain and there isn’t any less congestion. You can’t overcome the brutal increase in (population) numbers and the limited amount of road space. What it gives you is an alternative form of transportation.”


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