Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

TransLink encourages public to carpool, telecommute, cycle

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Vancouver Sun

New advertising not intended to draw more customers to transit

Because there is no room on transit. Oh, and to add to the irony, these ads will appear in transit vehicles.

What this demonstrates is the abject failure of the regional transportation authority – whatever it is called and who ever happens to sit on its board. Because since it was split off from BC Transit it has mainly been in reactive not proactive mode. And it has had a lot to react to.

I am not going to rehearse the discussion about choice of rapid transit mode – that has been done to death. So please, Malcolm, let’s take that as read for once.

The authority was beguiled by the responsibility for major roads, and initially it was argued that this would enable more transit priority on street as a quid pro quo for regional funds from the gas tax. But what MRTTAC (Major Roads and Transportation Technical Advisory Committee) ensured was that each municipal engineering department would at last get some money to build projects they had wanted to do for years but were not allowed to spend property tax revenues on by (rightly) nervous politicians. The use of the gas tax for roads instead of transit was simple device to get the municipal governments to sign on to Translink. Interestingly the City of Vancouver, which was not going to get any downloaded roads from the province was persuaded to join by George Puill – even though it was clear that Vancouver’s road network was generally complete, and subsequently there were arguments about how Vancouver could spend MRN money on things like cycle and pedestrian facilities which were much more important, but unlike anything that the other 20 members of the committee intended to do.

Once the vehicle levy was lost, any pretence at regional strategy was dropped. The new method of allocating funds was “whatever someone else will pay for”. So since the Golden Ears Bridge could be tolled, that jumped to the head of the line. Of course, a great deal had to be spent to get the project underway – and while that may get repaid eventually from the toll revenue stream, it was a heavy burden initially. It also diverted staff away from other tasks.

The great need was always the very mundane, unexciting task of expanding the bus system. And in times of revenue shortage, the transit planners abandoned the old policy of adding red lines to the map, and tried to get as much as possible in terms of service improvements to routes already in high demand. And after UPass was approved for SFU and UBC, they really had little choice. So thems that got, got more. Thems that not, lost. And community shuttles, instead of being a new way of penetrating low density suburban areas became substitutes for full sized buses on lightly loading routes.

So the fact that the Vancouver region as a whole has a transit mode share of little more than Canada as a whole should come as no surprise. But it means that in a time when every other transit system is scooping up new riders fed up with high gas prices, the transit system here cannot. And we should be angry about this, because we are paying a lot for a system which does not meet the needs of most of the region, which is inequitable but also highly inefficient. Since a system needs both trunk routes and feeders carefully co-ordinated.

There is not enough money – we will always have that issue – so it means you have to get very clever about how you spend what you do get. And that starts with a clear sense of purpose. Yes, car pools and cycles are going to help, but the really big issue should have been, how do we get more market share for transit? Not how do we get more ridership – that’s different. We have more people on the system but that is because there are more people and more trip making. The share has been static. Experiments with alternative fuel vehicles may be worthwhile R&D for vehicle builders, but should not have been at the expense of transit expansion. The Albion Ferries needed replacement – but not in terms of a resource greedy mega-project. And there has also been much too much influence on Translink from the Gateway Council, who can hardly be said to have the best of intentions in terms of regional strategy. Running a study on freight might have been funded by the freight companies themselves (it wasn’t) but was very much less important in my view than finding out in much greater detail how people move around the system.

Now all of this might be explained away by the politics of the GVTA and its successor. But none of these problems were new. When I first got here in 1999, there was a desperate shortage of buses, and as a temporary measure, some old clunkers were brought in from the Seattle scrap line – and also a few really well maintained buses from Everett which lasted a lot longer. Overcrowding and unreliable services were a big issue back then. So was the almost complete absence of any bus priority on streets – which is cheap to do but faces furious opposition. Not least from the city engineers.

It is a commonplace expression here that “transit sucks”. And you hear that from transit users, especially those who do not live in Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster. And most municipal politicians have been banging away at that for years and have largely been ignored. Except in cities that have become resigned to being car oriented and are trying to make that work – which of course with oil at more than $120 a barrel is no longer a workable strategy.

The province is not without blame – but that is mostly because it is obsessed with trivia like the Olympics, and the Hydrogen Highway. It was also promoting stealth highway widenings for some years by adding HOV lanes. The only conversion of GP to HOV that I know of here was Barnet/Hastings. And mega projects (for the ribbon cutting photo ops) and P3s. The federal government has been even worse, and really doesn’t know what it is supposed to be doing – partly because it divested itself of its operational arms (ports and airports) but also because it tried to meet the agenda of its sponsors (business) and not national – and international priorities, like treaty obligations. We spend a lot of time here mocking the Americans for their low transit use, but at least they have – or had – a strategy of investment of federal gas taxes in projects which had to stand up to some pretty tough scrutiny and also be consistent with regional planning goals.

If we turn our eyes to the rest of world, we see that most western countries have been trying – and some actually succeeding – to cut car dependency, and increase transit use. Most have invested continuously and carefully in transit systems appropriate to local needs. And at the same time pursued traffic calming and other strategies to discourage through traffic in urban centres. And in some countries, even interfering in the private sector’s freight mode choice and forcing the trucks to be put on trains to reduce their environmental and road safety impacts!

Canada has not performed well in urban transportation, and being “not as bad as the US” is a pretty poor consolation. We are – despite our preferred perception of ourselves – mainly an urban society. And we have not been keeping up with the very obvious and very rapid change. We have wanted to pretend that we could live in the fifties forever. (If I hear another song of praise to Diefenbaker again I shall shut off the radio and hurl it away). The days of car hops and drive ins are over – and have been for some time and are not coming back.

We also find ourselves with a slate of things to finish that will cost a bomb and not make much difference (like the Canada Line). So it becomes even more important that we kill now the really stupid things that we should not – must not – do. And that starts with the big highway expansions. Then we need to revisit the transit projects and get rid of the province’s “transit plan”. A subway under Broadway to UBC is not on. Exclusive bus lanes there would be cheap and effective. And the loss of parking on street is less important if people are driving less because of high gas prices. We need to expand the bus system quickly – and that means calling on available resources. We cannot recruit enough bus operators now, we have had to hang on to Oakridge because of shortage of bus storage space. That seems to me to point to existing bus operators who have a lot of capacity for summer visitors, much of which is little used off season, and could be put into use as a highway based express bus system. Sorry, it won’t be accessible. There will have to be other provisions for that. Bus lanes need to appear overnight on heavily used routes – not HOV or hybrid car lanes either. Because a bus lane is easily enforced – there is no argument about what a bus is. And every bus in the lane can have a camera mounted in the front to ensure that cars, parkers and unloaders get photographed and heavily fined. With the revenue going directly to the transit agency.

Velolib quickly for the town centres. Car co-ops and car sharing for the suburbs. Minibuses – again the private sector can be recruited to provide shared ride “better than a bus, cheaper than a taxi” service. And a rolling program of street and parking reduction, just like Copenhagen has been doing for 40 years. Bike lanes on the Burrard Bridge – of course – and lots of streetcars and dmus on existing tracks. WCE both ways all day and weekends. Something similar on CN, CP and former BCR tracks. No park and ride lots but TOD at every station producing real places and a revenue stream at the same time. Electric low speed cars, rickshaws, jitneys, horse drawn carriages – whatever. Just not single occupant fossil fuelled vehicles. Insurance by distance, tax rebates for transit users, no tax on transit fuel.

Above all no Gateway – and banish Falcon to the outer darkness.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 14, 2008 at 10:08 am

Posted in transit

10 Responses

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  1. I am sorry to bang this drum over and over, but the rot set in with SkyTrain. Instead of LRT going to Lougheed Mall, Whally, and Richmond, we could only afford SkyTrain to New Westminster. Monies spent to make SkyTrain useful, could have been spent enlarging the light rail network. Because it is so expensive to build with light-metro (SkyTrain) building highways is just cheaper; in effect SkyTrain is the father of Gateway!

    Now we have a light-metro culture running the show and even light rail was designed as a light-metro for both the Millennium Line and the Evergreen Line. RAV/Canada line just continues this foolishness and now the transit customer is paying for it in spades.

    Even TransLink has admitted that 80% of SkyTrain’s ridership comes from buses, which translates to forced transfers onto the light-metro, creating even more capacity problems. These forced transfers skews real transit ridership as 1 passenger maybe counted 2 to 4 times on one trip! (This has been confirmed to me by sources in TransLink and the management is happy with this)

    Expanding the bus system will be hugely expensive and will over burden local taxpayers with onerous tax increases.

    Here is the one reason LRT is built, it becomes cheaper to operate on transit routes, when ridership exceeds 2,000 persons per hour per direction. 1 tram/streetcar/light rail vehicle (1 driver) is as efficient as 6 to 8 buses (6 to 8 buses) and for every bus or tram operated, one must hire at least three people to maintain/service them; operate them; and manage them.

    This is the main reason that France has invested large sums in new light rail operations, the bonus is that LRT attract more new ridership than buses. LRT is sound transit economics – if you build it right!

    The region is stuck in a transit morass with hugely expensive SkyTrain light-metro and buses, for many taking the car is just easier. In Europe, public transit systems were 25 years ago, at a precipice and it was modern LRT (reserved rights-of-ways and low-floor cars) that saved the day. Well except for the UK, where the roads lobby makes BC’s roads lobby, look decidedly anemic.

    Compare Vancouver to Portland.

    Vancouver has 2 light-metro lines and 1 nearing completion and 1 in the planning stages.

    Portland has 4 light rail lines; 1 nearing completion (when completed will increase capacity out of Portland to over 30,000 persons per hour); 1 line in the final planning stages; and 1 line in preliminary planning. Also Portland has 1 streetcar line; 1 streetcar line under construction and 1 in planning.

    If Vancouver had opted for LRT, we could have been rivaling Portland for lines built and lines being planned!

    Vancouver’s future is clear; a small light-metro network fed by a large but inefficient bus network, which for many, taking the car will be cheaper (those Smart cars) and much quicker.

    Malcolm J.

    May 14, 2008 at 11:02 am

  2. Yes—-Thats it , we can`t have to many people getting on transit!

    If good transit ideas emptied our highway what would falcon do with his spare time!

    The bc fiberals have one goal FATTEN THEIR CORPORATE FREINDS WALLETS

    grant g

    May 14, 2008 at 11:07 am

  3. Yes yes Malcolm we have heard it all before

    But we are stuck with that legacy and there is absolutely no point in analyzing what might have been. We need new solutions now. If we keep on doing the same things we will not see a different outcome. So what can we do now to make things better? (i.e. get more people switching to transit). Obviously system expansion. Equally obviously stop expanding the road network. Make better use of what we have before we do any more new build – bus lanes and use existing railway tracks, and get more players into the transit (and near transit) business. Because Translink has failed to deliver more market share – which is what it was supposed to do. But has not even tackled seriously.

    Stephen Rees

    May 14, 2008 at 12:11 pm

  4. Unfortunately, we are now in a downward spiral and I see no way out. It looks like Campbell & Co. will be reelected and that means another 4 years of highways and light-metro.

    Vancouver seems very confident that the Millennium Line subway to UBC will be built, that Sam (the unwise) Sullivan wants a new Vancouver city hall built at the proposed junction of the two lines.

    Gateway will proceed, simply because there will be no other government sponsored alternative. As taxes increase for subways and light-metro and a very expensive bus service, Vancouver will more and more be a haven for the very rich and a dumping ground for the very poor. The middle class will have moved to more affordable realms.

    Business as well will take a second look at Vancouver and the city and ponder new and cheaper cities to operate.

    By the time SkyTrain or light-metro reaches Langley, I’ll be pushing up daisies as will the metro region and books will be written how once a good city devolved into a disaster.

    Malcolm J.

    May 14, 2008 at 1:58 pm

  5. I think it’s the Skytrain mentality, rather than Skytrain itself, that is the problem here.

    That is, do whatever you can do to keep the cars running smoothly.

    This translates into the insane reluctance to give buses their own lane, free of SOVs.

    This translates into a huge concrete behemoth towering over No.3 road, negating any sense of human scale.

    Why does this happen? Who at the top thinks this kind of city is good?

    I would really like to know.

    The anti-freeway ethic of 30 years ago means nothing if the roads that remain today are surrendered to cars.


    May 14, 2008 at 6:31 pm

  6. I may be wrong, but I believe that the HOV lanes on Willingdon from Canada way south were converted from GP lanes a number of years ago.


    May 15, 2008 at 9:23 am

  7. You are not wrong but was Willingdon a provincial road at that time? Or was this a Burnaby City project?

    Stephen Rees

    May 15, 2008 at 9:42 am

  8. Ah… ok, I see the distinction you’re making….Willingdon is currently part of the Translink “Major Road Network… as is Hiighway 7A ( Barnet/Hastings) for that matter… though it may indeed have been Provincial back when the “People Mover” project was being built 10(ish) years ago.

    Willingdon was Burnaby’s project I think…

    They were taking great pains to disassociate their plans to widen Willingdon to 6 lanes north of the Mall from the “Gateway” project at the public meeting they had a couple of months ago.


    May 15, 2008 at 5:33 pm

  9. I went to see John Pucher speak about the European cycling scene tonight (May 15) and it was a great talk; John was obviously very passionate about improving our cycling infrastructure and culture here in North America, and it showed in his speech.

    After he was finished a Translink presentation followed. Its use of dull bureaucratic language punctuated by boring statistic after statistic (“stakeholders” ad nauseum) really showed the difference between what people want to see happen (John’s speech) and where Translink is in relation to that – about a million miles away.

    Very telling.


    May 15, 2008 at 9:36 pm

  10. Well my earlier reply seems to have been spamtreapped probably because I inlcuded a URl; anyway Stephen yes you’re ritht, Willlingdon was most most likely a Burnaby project, not a provincial project, but I still believe it is the most perfect example of taking away SOV lanes for HOV, I don’t recalll if the lanes used to be used for parking off-peak, but currently they’re for HOV use 24/7 IIRC. It probably helps that there are no merchants on the street, unlike Hastings in BBy or Granville in Marpole, where the HOV lanes are only in effect in the rush hour.

    David Banks

    May 15, 2008 at 11:54 pm

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