Charles is clearly dead set on becoming my personal troll on matters of transit planning versus transit ideologizing -- an arch example of Seattle's boundless ability to misinterpret example in its mindless pursuit of symbolist badge-fashioning rather than useful outcomes.
Vancouver -- a city and region less populous than Seattle -- has managed to construct itself a transit system that attracts and handles over 1 million trips per day. On virtually every metric (city proper and region-wide, commute-share and non-commute usage, non-punitive low-car-lifestyle enablement), Vancouver ranks better than almost any other North American city.
Growing pains may abound in that city (especially in housing), but transportation planning is one of its great successes. And as Charles' own linked article makes clear, most of Vancouver's daily imperfections boil down to money issues on the operational side (including vehicle purchases) rather than to any grand errors of conception or system scope.
There are a few potential narratives that a thinking columnist might glean from Vancouver's current situation:
- One could explore the unsexy geometric details
behind Vancouver's successes-thus-far. The conspicuously urban-scaled trains symbiotically routed through genuinely (rather than imaginarily
) densifying places within relatively close orbit of the regional core. The careful integration of trains and bus grid that enables truly painless anywhere-to-anywhere trips in the city, and logical commuter connections from further afield. One might even point out that Skytrain's 43 miles of trackage, carrying 400,000 daily rides, amounts to significantly less mileage than Sound Transit is already
building in ST2
, which no one expects to prove nearly so useful.
- Or one could focus on those aforementioned growing pains, and point to Vancouver's most notable cautionary example of political meddling that has overrode clear needs
. Politics being the only reason that Vancouver's east-west Broadway corridor subway remains unfunded (e.g. "SORRY BUS FULL"), while Coquitlam gets a Skytrain branch of questionable urgency or utility. (First Hill or Central District residents should be able to identify with this, as they scratch their heads over the baffling focus on building trains to Seattle's by-far least
dense quadrant, not to mention trains through 30 miles worth of sprawl, boonies, and malt-liquor drinkers in every direction).
- One could even discuss the risks of excessive deference to "private partners" in transit planning, since as the only "capacity problems" on the Canada Line are the direct result of having purchased insufficient train cars, which the private contractor who built and now runs the line has zero incentive to ameliorate. You would think that Charles' political leanings would lead him to pursue this line of questioning, especially since Sound Transit expansion is so inextricable from the design-build work of Parsons Brinckerhoff, the perpetual-conflict-of-interest megacorporation whose every design recommendation (unsurprisingly) involves palatial megastations spread over long distances, with skyrocketing costs that invariably prove less
convenient for pedestrian access and bus transfers alike.
- One could even note that, in the broadest sense, Vancouver reminds us that even rich cities have finite funds
to allocate to myriad needs, and that even successful transit systems have imperfections.
But no. What narrative does Charles contort himself to wring from Vancouver's example? "More miles of tracks! Infinite miles of tracks! More than the 55 miles under construction for ST2! More than the 110 miles and $54 billion supposed for ST3! Tracks to anywhere and everywhere! Cost is no object!!"
Such a quantity-over-quality obsession should confuse the hell out of anyone who has studied the example of Dallas, a massive metropolis whose 90 miles of sprawling light rail
carried barely 2/3 as many passengers in 2015 as the 12-mile Canada Line. And it would certainly conflict with the experience of 104-mile BART, on which the overwhelming majority of trips take place on a mere ~20% of its trackage. In fact, BART's total
usage numbers sit within the margin of error of Skytrain's, despite reaching its tentacles across a metropolitan area thrice as populous and with significantly worse traffic, and despite those extra 61 miles worth of tracks that Charles insists must be the key to success.
If ever there were an example of why quality should be privileged over quantity -- and "quality" here means usefulness of access
, not "grade separation in highway medians and giant infrastructure for the fuck of it" -- Vancouver is that example. There will be tradeoffs and drawbacks. There always are. But at the least the tradeoff won't be "spending $54 billion and still not being able to go anywhere".