Stand in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, at the Brentwood SkyTrain station, and you can see how the region has literally taken shape around public transportation.
The rail station is surrounded by residential skyscrapers, both completed and under construction. By 2020, there should be 11 towers – some up to 60 stories, with 6,000 homes and a massive mall – within a block or two of the station.
Close by it’s an unremarkable suburban panorama: squat apartment buildings and town houses, tree-lined streets, car dealerships, a Costco.
But three miles in the distance lies a cluster of skyscrapers. Scan left, a stretch of empty green, then another clump of high-rises. And a bit farther left, the biggest, highest assemblage of skyscrapers yet.
The towers, all in Burnaby, are built along SkyTrain’s original line, which opened in 1985. The high-rises flag the rail line beneath it – each clump a station – a real-life pop-up map of the transit line.
Metro Vancouver – which comprises Vancouver and 23 surrounding cities and towns – is a region being built, more and more, around its thriving and ever-expanding light-rail system.
As the Seattle region embarks on its own multi-decade light-rail expansion, and as local transportation officials try to dissuade solo car commuting, our neighbor to the north provides one glimpse of what a regional rail system could look like, with housing and land-use plans to match.
South Lake Union, home of Amazon and the epicenter of Seattle’s construction boom, currently has 15 major projects under construction, about evenly split between apartments and office space.
South Lake Unions are sprouting up at SkyTrain stops all over Metro Vancouver.
On the outskirts of Burnaby, 23 residential towers, ranging from 25 to 65 stories, are set to rise at the Loughheed Town Centre station, about 13 miles from downtown.
In Richmond, a suburb 10 miles south of downtown, plans call for 22 residential towers – up to 15 stories each – at the Lansdowne station.
The Marine Drive station, at the southern edge of Vancouver, is surrounded by a sprawl of car dealerships and warehouses. But sitting right on top of the station are two 35-story residential towers, an office tower and ground-floor retail. Within a block of the station are seven more residential towers – four completed, three under construction – some as tall as 30 stories.
“There’s different attitudes about density than in Seattle, that’s for sure,” said Kevin Desmond, CEO of TransLink, the agency in charge of transit and roads in Metro Vancouver. “But if you’re going to manage congestion, which is getting worse and worse in Seattle, you’ve got to get people nearer to transit.”
Desmond would know. Before joining TransLink in 2016, he ran bus service in Seattle as general manager of King County Metro.
“I don’t know that there’s any comparison in North America, where station area after station area has huge towers and in some cases have developments that envelop the stations,” Desmond said. “It all fits in with the land-use plan that this region has to densify around transit.”
Throughout the region, 146 developments are being built close enough to a SkyTrain station or track that they need special permission from the rail agency.
In 2012, there were only two such developments.
“There’s this misnomer that density breeds congestion,” said Guy Akester, the director of real estate for TransLink. “But it’s the urban sprawl, that really low density, single-family neighborhoods that you have to get in your car to do everything, that causes really bad congestion.”
A city built around transit
There are a lot of similarities between the two cities.
Both are surrounded by water and mountains, with populations around 700,000 and metro-region populations closer to 3 million. Both cities are becoming increasingly unaffordable, with sky-high housing prices.
Both have turned major downtown streets into transit malls that restrict private cars, and are getting ready to tear down viaducts that cut through downtown. Both are looking at systemwide road tolling.
And both are planning for an influx of about 1 million new residents over the next three decades, trying to build the infrastructure to house and move booming populations.
But it’s two votes, both 50 years ago, that still define the two cities’ transportation systems.
In 1967, Vancouver’s City Council voted against building a highway through its historic Chinatown and Gastown neighborhoods. It is the only major North American city without a downtown highway.
A year later, 51 percent of Seattle voters chose to build a regional light-rail system. But the measure needed 60 percent, and the defeat set light rail back by 30 years.
Seattle is the 10th most-congested city in North America, according to in-car navigation system data collected by INRIX, with drivers spending 55 hours a year in delays.
Vancouver does much better: It’s the 39th most-congested city, with drivers delayed for 29 hours a year.
“Pre-World War II cities work well because they were built around transit,” said Jarrett Walker, a Portland-based transit consultant. “Vancouver is the only North American city built around transit in the second half of the 20th century.”
With Seattle-area highways essentially maxed out and no credible proposals to build much more, the region is going big on public transit – we’re spending more per capita on new transit projects than anywhere else in the country.
And while development around SkyTrain has skyrocketed in recent years – fueled by a runaway real-estate market – the idea of building communities around public transit is embedded in Vancouver.
In separate interviews, three Vancouver transportation officials from three different organizations all repeated the same phrase, word for word, unprompted:
“The best transportation plan is a good land-use plan.”
“This is an absolute mantra of TransLink,” Akester added.
The mantra boils down to: What’s the point of spending billions on a transit system if people can’t live near it?
Heavy bus use
For anyone who relies on Seattle buses, or even more established but flailing subway systems in other American cities, SkyTrain is, well, different.
Its three lines cover 50 miles of track and have no drivers, the biggest fully automated train system in the world.
Seattle’s light-rail trains come every six minutes during rush hour, and every 10 to 15 minutes otherwise. They can’t touch SkyTrain.
During peak hours, trains come every 100 seconds. During off-peak hours they come every three minutes. Even at the ends of the Canada and Expo lines, when the track branches in two to reach more suburban communities, a train is never more than six minutes away.
“Traffic and parking are so bad downtown,” said Cathy Yin, 32, who takes SkyTrain between the two jewelry stores she works at in Richmond and downtown Vancouver. “I save a lot of time.”
But even with a built-out rail system, buses in Vancouver still carry nearly 65 percent more people than SkyTrain.
The 99 B-Line, which serves the University of British Columbia, is the most-used bus line in North America outside of Mexico City. It has 56,000 daily passengers.
At any given stop on the route, more than 250 B-Line buses arrive every weekday.
“We can’t put any more buses on the street,” Desmond said. “They get bunched up.”
The next SkyTrain line, currently in very early stages of development, will replace the bus route.
Seattle’s busiest bus line, the RapidRide E, carries just under 18,000 daily passengers up and down Aurora Avenue. Buses arrive at each stop about 115 times per day.
Vancouver has 11 separate bus lines that carry more people than the E.
The interplay between buses and rail that’s in Seattle’s transit future – a “spine” of light rail supported by “ribs” of bus routes – is firmly in place in Vancouver.
Each day, 160,000 people pass through the Commercial-Broadway Station, where the 99 B-Line connects with two SkyTrain lines, just southeast of downtown.
In 2016, SkyTrain opened seven new miles of track, extending its Millennium Line to serve three suburban cities. At the same time, TransLink made changes to 22 bus routes. Instead of heading downtown, routes link to the new stations, and the train heads downtown – with no traffic to fight.
When the Canada Line – which serves Richmond and the airport – opened in 2009, 26 bus routes changed.
In Seattle, when the University of Washington and Capitol Hill light-rail stations opened in 2016, King County Metro changed more than 30 bus routes.
“There’s always been this recognition that frequent bus service is core to the system,” said Brian Mills, an independent transportation consultant and former planning director for TransLink.
“Read the headlines in most cities, there’s a lot of focus on the major rapid transit projects, they’re big, they’re capital intensive, they’re really important,” Mills said. “But what’s often missed is discussion of the frequent bus service, the sinew of the system.”
Seattle’s transit system is growing faster and attracting more new riders than any other system in America, but it pales in comparison to Vancouver’s.
On an average weekday, nearly twice as many people board a bus, train, ferry or van pool in Metro Vancouver than in the Seattle urban area, even though we’ve got a larger population.
“Our mental map is organized as much around SkyTrain lines as the freeway or two that we do have,” said Gord Price, the director of the City Program at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, and a former Vancouver city councilor. “The mental map of Seattle, it begins with freeways, I-5, I-405, the bridges.”
Seattle, with its soaring home prices and ever-present battles over zoning and density, is building housing around some of its new light-rail stations, and plans to build more. But nowhere near as much as Vancouver.
The 2015 law that authorized a vote on Sound Transit 3 requires the agency to offer its surplus land – like lots used for staging or construction when building light rail – at little or no cost to groups building affordable housing around transit.
Since light rail opened in 2009, three such projects have been completed, providing a total of 227 affordable homes.
Construction should begin this year on a cluster of seven-story buildings that will eventually provide 506 new apartments – about half of them affordable – as well as new retail space above the Capitol Hill Station.
Slightly smaller projects are in early stages of development near bus and streetcar lines on First Hill and at the future Roosevelt Station.
But nine years after light rail opened, many of its stations through South Seattle remain surrounded only sparsely by housing. And those stations – the seven from Stadium Station, south through Rainier Valley to Rainier Beach Station – all have significantly lower ridership than stations to the north or south.
The Rainier Beach Station is surrounded by a smattering of single-family homes, a convenience store and a shuttered rent-to-own furniture store. Buildings above four stories are currently not allowed, although the city’s upzone proposals, if approved, would permit 12- to 13-story buildings.
Across the street from the station are four lots, mostly vacant, that have been for sale for about a year.
Brian Lettich, the property manager, said they’ve had several calls about the $2.7 million property bundle from people who want to build multifamily housing.
“But they want to wait to see if the city passes its ‘upzones’,” Lettich said.
Go a block to the east or a block to the west from the station and it’s all single-family homes, although the city would like to upzone some of those areas as well.
The Othello Station has more commerce – a cluster of markets, restaurants and retail. Several seven-story apartment buildings are within a block or two of the station. One building with 108 affordable apartments on land given by Sound Transit opened last year and drew applications from almost 2,100 families.
The land immediately surrounding the station limits apartments to eight or nine stories. Potential upzones would allow one additional story.
You only have to walk a block from Othello Station, situated on a multibillion-dollar light-rail line, to find areas where only three-story apartments are permitted. Walk another block and it’s all single-family homes.
The city’s upzone plans are comparatively conservative in these South Seattle neighborhoods because with more low-income residents they’re at a greater risk of gentrification and displacement.
On the Eastside, where light rail is projected to open in 2023 and 2024, Bellevue and Redmond have already been upzoning and planning for more density around future stations for a decade.
In North Seattle, the city is moving more aggressively to encourage housing around light rail.
When light rail opens to Northgate in 2021, the city will, if it gets its way, have upzoned around all three new stations.
Already approved changes around the University District station will allow 24- and 31-story buildings in some places.
Around the new Roosevelt Station, the city proposes raising height limits by 10 feet in many places, to allow nine-story buildings.
But when the $2.9 billion Lynnwood Link opens in 2024, the last station serving Seattle, at Northeast 145th Street, will be sandwiched between I-5, a golf course and single-family houses.
The 145th Street station, which is in Shoreline, across the street from the Seattle city limits, has been upzoned on the Shoreline side of the street to allow seven-story buildings. But no zoning changes have been proposed on the Seattle side.
An additional station at Northeast 130th Street, set to open around 2030, is similarly situated. The surrounding area houses only nine people per acre. By 2040, it is expected to house 10 people per acre.
There are currently no proposals to change zoning around the station.
“What so often happens is people are timid about approving density, ‘OK, we'll only allow three stories,’” Akester, TransLink’s real estate director, said.
“But when you get that critical mass of density happening somewhere, people are walking to the grocery store, they’re walking to shop, they’re walking to the dentist, so it doesn’t drive the sort of bad, nasty congestion that everybody hates.”