Density intensity: Rail in British Columbia comes with lots of people

I took a trip to Vancouver to check out SkyTrain, its stations, and what things look like around the stations. What I found was that no matter where SkyTrain goes, even into areas that seem almost rural, stations are surrounded by dense development. I’m not going to go into all the demographic and economic details. I’m not even saying that “we should be like Vancouver!” But it’s impossible not to notice that SkyTrain comes with lots of density, and it doesn’t look like the density happened first. The point of this post is anecdotal provocation, nothing more.

Vancouver has no freeway running through it, and no road diet either

One of the most obvious things about any visit to Vancouver is the end of the freeway. Interstate 5 turns back into what Highway 99 used to be, a cow path wending it’s way along with stop lights, crosswalks, and curb cuts. Oddly, there is no road diet here. Something that this route could use. Frankly, I’ve always wondered why there aren’t more rear end accidents and other accidents as cars try to avoid cars making a left turn.

I wasn’t in Vancouver long, and I had forgotten about the riots. A walk down Granville reveals how the locals responded to the boarded up windows.

Granville at night

Boarded up retail

Almost every square inch of the boards have messages on them, written by regular folks addressing some aspect of the riots, the rioters, or the clean up. I didn’t see anything particular profound content wise, but I thought the gesture was an important glimpse into the Vancouver character. I don’t think New Yorkers would do this. I think people in Seattle would.

Next day I would get to SkyTrain. I never use SkyTrain in Vancouver because I never go to the outer urban areas that are connected by SkyTrain. Why would I want to go to Coquitlam again? It’s where my dad and I stayed during our visit to Expo in 1986. It was more affordable, I guess, than staying in Vancouver. Gas must have been cheap that year. But where should I go. I decided to take the Expo Line for old times sake.

I had no special plan on where I would go, except that, as an Anglophile, I really appreciate the fact that the Queen is on the money and that the end of the line is the King George Station. But what about Columbia. After all we have our own Columbia station in the Rainier Valley. I chose to get on the outbound train during rush hour on a Friday.

SkyTrain at rush hour: oh, the humanity!

There were a lot of Canadians crammed on that train, and even a party of Americans who kept saying how cool it was that one could get in and out of Vancouver without having to drive. “Wouldn’t that be cool,” one of them said. “If we had this kind of thing I wouldn’t drive to work!” A small sample size, but a group of free-market-God-fearing-green-money-Americans praising the idea of taking the train is data I am willing to use.

But where the hell did the Columbia station go to. You’d think, given the design proposed by Sound Transit for the Roosevelt Station that the Columbia Station would be something along the lines of Grand Central in New York, especially given all those riders.

Don't blink . . .

. . . you might miss it.


I’d say the Columbia Station really isn’t there at all. It’s an after thought in terms of the way it integrates into the street level retail. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say it’s too hard to find, but I think it gives comfort to those of us who think that the Roosevelt station ought to be a bit smaller, more integrated, and have a retail component.

Columbia Station is in the City of New Westminster, yet another warming name for a resident of the Anglosphere. The old Westminster is in London and is often associated with Parliamentary forms of government (Westminster System), which make our own system, at least to me, seem ridiculous, inefficient, and incapable of either change or tradition. But I digress.

From Wikipedia:

In 1859, New Westminster was recommended as the first official capital of the new Colony of British Columbia by Richard Moody, the Lieutenant-Governor, because of its location farther from the American border than the site of the colony’s proclamation, Fort Langley. New Westminster, at a defensible location on the north bank of the Fraser River, possessed, according to Moody, “great facilities for communication by water, as well as by future great trunk railways into the interior”.[2]

Railways and water are a big part of the city’s waterfront. The city is a tenth the size of Seattle but is more dense, with more than 9,000 people per square mile compared to Seattle’s 7,361. It’s not hard to see why.

New Westminster waterfront with trains and density

It’s hard to argue that New Westminster is a “big city.” I don’t have any population numbers on Roosevelt, but I would suspect that it’s in the same neighborhood as New Westminster. I could be wrong about that. I walked up the hill from the waterfront and you can get a pretty good view of what’s on top of the New Westminster station.

And how about retail there? Well, here’s what’s in the works for New Westminster station. You’ll have to pardon the dust.

TOM: Transit Oriented Movies.

Now, as I suggested, there might be some devastating quantitative critique out there about comparing what’s going on with SkyTrain and Sound Transit. Fine. I guess I can’t get away from what I saw. It’s hard to escape the idea that while 120 feet is off the table for almost everyone in Roosevelt, when compared to what’s happening in BC the conversation is, well, out of scale. Here’s the smallest residential “tower” I could find. I think this is about 120 feet.

Yes, it’s a different country. And yes, New Westminster is a city not a neighborhood. But let’s get real about where we want to be. I’m not proposing that we turn Roosevelt into New Westminster. But when compared to what’s happening there, the proposals on the table for a bit more height in Roosevelt to accommodate more people should take on a different tone. It really isn’t that big of a leap up. The word ‘modest’ comes to mind. And given what’s at stake in the region, my visit to BC just reenforces the data and intuition: light rail can mean more people, going more places, more efficiently, and more affordably. But we need the people.

Beacon Hill Station: I counted, there's more weeds than people living there.

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3 Responses to Density intensity: Rail in British Columbia comes with lots of people

  1. Pingback: Capitol Hill Design Review: New project needs support | Seattle's Land Use Code

  2. Pingback: More bad news for tunnel debt: Seattle and King County on Moody’s watch list | Seattle's Land Use Code

  3. Pingback: Where is the TOD? : Great City

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