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A good transit system is a critical building block to any livable city. Urban centres like Seattle and Columbus have recognized the importance of public transit and its relationship to livability, and have taken strides towards improving their transit systems and making their cities more accessible than ever. On the Canadian side, Vancouver has long been recognized as a leader when it comes to transit, largely due to its efficient SkyTrain system, the longest fully-automated rapid transit system in the world. Also one of the world’s oldest rapid transit systems, SkyTrain is a rail system operated by TransLink, the Metro Vancouver transit agency responsible for 21 separate municipalities.

How did the SkyTrain get its start, and how did it grow into one of the best transit systems in existence? What makes the SkyTrain such an effective way to get around, and how can other transportation agencies apply SkyTrain principles to their own transit systems?

Taking Flight: Getting the SkyTrain Off the Ground

Like many great undertakings, the SkyTrain didn’t become the vital network it is today overnight. Its progression was actually the work of over three decades.

Did You Know:

  • Constructed as a showpiece for the Expo 86 World Fair, held in Vancouver in 1986, the SkyTrain arrived on schedule and within its $854 million budget. Over the next 20 years, the SkyTrain grew to encompass the 20-km Millenium Line, more than 30 stations and over 150 cars.
  • As part of the 2010 Winter Olympics, the new Canada Line was opened to connect Vancouver with the city of Richmond and the Vancouver International Airport, areas which were previously only served by bus transit. This extension comprised 19 km of both above-ground and buried track.

Today, the SkyTrain system sits at approximately 80 km of separated guideway. With another Millenium Line extension on the horizon to complement the recent Evergreen Extension, the SkyTrain system continues to grow.

Laying Track to Success

The SkyTrain system has been an incredible success. A local-record-breaking 407 million boardings in 2017 (a 5.7% increase over 2016) shows that riding the SkyTrain is a popular choice for many Metro Vancouver residents. How does the SkyTrain maintain this impressive level of service?

Separated Route

A key feature that makes SkyTrain the best choice for commuters is that the guideways are entirely separated from traffic. Whether above ground, at grade, or underground, at no point does the system have to contend with regular road traffic. This means that the system is able to avoid congestion, move quickly and maintain a regular schedule. Trains arrive every 2–7 minutes during peak hours.

Transit-Oriented Development

Transit-oriented development (TOD) is a type of community planning that focuses growth along major transportation routes and transit stations. By encouraging residential development around transit stations, more residents have direct access to fast and frequent transit, reducing reliance on vehicles and boosting ridership. Offices and other services are also encouraged around—and sometime even integrated into—transit stations, making transit a convenient choice for commuters.

Vancouver’s SkyTrain is a best-in-class example of sound development principles that many of today’s transit agencies can—and should—emulate. Separated transit that is fast and frequent is one way for transit providers to gain new customers and offer exemplary service. It doesn’t need to be expensive for your agency to test out new transit strategies: even the conversion of an existing traffic lane into a dedicated, bus-only lane can greatly increase ridership. Transit providers should also be encouraging cities to direct development towards existing transit service, rather than sprawling outwards. Transit-oriented development can have a large, positive impact on ridership, especially if the housing that is planned is affordable.

Whether focusing on the creation of brand-new infrastructure to service new neighbourhoods or reinvesting in existing service, Vancouver’s SkyTrain system is an excellent example of transit planning done right. Other transit agencies should pay close attention as it continues to break new ground.

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Image Credits: Shutterstock / meunierd