Stephen Rees's blog

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

Buses and trains and levies

with 16 comments

I spent yesterday afternoon in Surrey. Actually it gave me a bit of a flashback as the first night I started work at what was then known as BC Transit they put me in the same hotel that Harry Bains and the CAW used for their transit forum. And really the problems we were talking about were no that much different to twelve years earlier – the scale is a bit bigger that’s all.

Transit mode share in Surrey is 4% – compared to the regional average of something less than 12% (it gets rounded up by Translink boosterism). And of course everyone blames Surrey for that – not that they have much say over transit provision then or now. It is, of course, the fastest growing city in the region. Peter Holt had all the stats on a Powerpoint, which saved the rest of us having to remember figures. The facts are stark – and quite simply Surrey has been neglected. The villain of the piece was identified by all as the Province of BC – whoever was in power at the time. Because transit spending priority has always been to build SkyTrain and most of it has gone to serve Vancouver and Burnaby. Not that when local mayors had any say they espoused these values. Usually the objective studies that were conducted favoured light rail as cheaper, better value for money and greater geographic coverage. CAW – the bus drivers’ union – is now conducting a campaign for more buses. And bus rapid transit transit – although they say they have nothing against trains.

It was pionted out to me by a regular reader that Pete McMartin had a good column recently on the levy- and it covers the recent history of Translink. Why it is no longer democratically controlled and why it is in such a financial pickle. The burden of the Canada Line is acting the way that the debt burden of SkyTrain has acted since it opened. That cost eats up the available revenue so there is not enough left over for bus expansion. And for everywhere else in the region except Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster buses provide the transit service. In Surrey – and soon in Richmond too – there is a short length of track with inadaequate service that has to be fed by buses to be useful, but does not match the trip pattern. Becuase we no longer mostly commute to downtown Vancouver.

Trip patterns changed becuase development patterns changed. Vancouver lost its industry and most of its “centre of regional employment” function as land was redeveloped for highrise condos. The employmnet did not go to the region’s  town centres because develkopers were allowed to build cheaper office and industrial parks out by the freeway ramps.This shift in employment pattern was not anticipated by the LRSP. Now more people live in downtown Vancouver and work elsewhere than the other way around. And they work in places mostly poorly served by transit. Microsoft (of course) run their own bus service.

In the South of the Fraser the main commuting trip pattern is east-west – but the bus service runs north-south. Because it always has done. Well not always – becuase in 1970 there was no transit servcie in Surrey (I did not know that).  While North of the Fraser developed earlier around streetcars and trolleys most of the development South of the Fraser occurred after the closure of the interrurban. Of course its resusictation would help the historic communities along its route – becuase they grew up around the stations. But the real issue is how do we get transit oriented development everywhere else where there is no transit? Becuase that is the only kind of development that is going to work in a world where oil is scarce and alternative fuels simply fail to make any inroads into the automotive fleet.

And it is not that we were unaware of any of this before. As I said, twelve years ago there was a shortage of buses in the region – so much so that BC Transit bought some second hand from Seattle (they were clapped out and useless) and Everett (small but beautifully looked after). The system was just as cash strapped and just a much a toy of the provincial politicians as it is now. I do not know of anywhere else where that level of government insists that is is the only level that can make important decisions. The vast majority of major cites in the world are responsible for their own transit.

I must also mention Councillor Marvin Hunt who has been in power in Surrey and at Translink for years but somehow manages to avoid any blame for the on going mess. He also believes the spin – that Translink is highly regarded by other cities around the world and that they send people here to study it. He may also boast about the winning of the APTA “system of the year award”  – but he did not do that yesterday. He also has a way with figures which I can only describe as imaginative. Every pronouncement he made was followed by hastily scribbled notes being passed backwards and forwards between panel members. He did vote for trolleybuses but he still believes in natural gas – becuase that does require faith, not reason.

The province now has a “$14 billion” transit plan – but of course that includes the $3bn spent on the Canada Line. And of the rest the province is only willing to pay 1/3 and neother the region nor the feds have committed to thier shares. The region becuase it has no revenue – remember that? That is why they need the levy! And not because of much needed capital expansion but they cannot afford to run the syetm they have now with existuing revenue resources. Which is exactly the situation that Kevin Falcon has created.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 15, 2009 at 8:43 am

Posted in politics, transit

Tagged with ,

16 Responses

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  1. You’ve mentioned a number of alternative fuels over the years, and usually you are pretty sceptical. Could you possibly do a summary on things like Natural Gas, Hydrogen and Electricity as car fuels, as they are currently being touted as the new wonder fuels that’ll save Mercedes, and I’m getting lost int he figures…

    Andy in Germany

    March 15, 2009 at 11:22 am

  2. What were you in Surrey for where Peter Holt and others were speaking?


    March 15, 2009 at 1:56 pm

  3. I wish I had the answers.. but it is true that in many cities around the world–at least in the G8 countries- cities are in charge of their transit system. No point talking about huge megalopolis but a good example to me, as a comparison with Metro Vancouver, is small towns with a population around 1 million with far-flung suburbs. Like Bordeaux.. The current transit company is the local branch of Veolia transportation, a fairly big company that manages transit systems around the world, including in the USA and Canada. Their own internet site for Bordeaux makes it clear that Veolia ONLY worry about running the system. Where lines go, including especially new lines, what type of transit to build, even the fares etc. is decided upon by the the CUB (the greater Bordeaux council). I am not familiar with the intricacies of political life in the UK, Germany etc. but perhaps the secret in France is that many mayors are also members of the French national assembly or, at the very least, are highly influential in political parties that are the same nationally, regionally and locally. In addition many French politicians, high ranking civil servants and CEO of big businesses are graduates of a few select schools and are all buddies, regardless of their political stripes. These are guys and gals that can talk anytime to a minister and even to the President. By contrast Falcon, Gordon Campbell, Carol James etc. are babes in the woods, small fishes in a tiny pond, whatever, who don’t know the right guys in Ottawa and, when it comes to transit, don’t have any experience whatsoever. It is so obvious, looking at Vancouver transit map and comparing it to other towns–obviously it helps to know where these towns have their special districts etc. that the SkyTrain routes were planned by a blindfolded man who had never used rapid transit in other towns.

    Red frog

    March 15, 2009 at 4:38 pm

  4. Andy

    I started work on alternate transportation fuels policy for the BC government back in 1994. At that time BC gave tax breaks to propane and natural gas because they were thought to be “cleaner” than gasoline. But in the lower mainland of BC there are AirCare stations that test cars regularly – and the test results from cars and light trucks converted to these fuels were considerably worse than gasoline. This was because most were not OEM conversions. Essentially all the modern electronic fuel injection systems were ripped out and replaced with carburetors.

    I drafted a new regulation that required conversions to be at least as clean as the originally certified emissions standard for that model and year and the conversion business essentially collapsed. The finance ministry decided (without reference to my work) to end the tax concession for propane but it continued with CNG. However very few CNG stations existed and those that did started to close the CNG pumps in favour of the more profitable convenience stores. So people who had bough single fuel CNG cars were stuck.

    With BC Transit experience with CNG buses was also salutory. They cost more, but the gas supplier was willing to offset that through a long term gas purchase contract. Sadly the buses were grossly unreliable and parts hard to source – and the fleet spent a lot of time idle. In the end the whole lot were parked as an economy measure. More recent examples have been a bit better – and long term testing continues. But CNG is still a fossil fuel and does not reduce GHG emissions by much, though the particulate emissions are lower. However new diesel emissions standards have brought cleaner diesel engines to market. Biodiesel from waste cooking oil looked promising at one time – but there is not enough waste oil around. Biodiesel made from food crops is of course a politically contentious issue.

    The US has long promoted corn based ethanol – both as a blend and a fuel in its own right. It turns that without huge subsidies it is not economic, and the corn price started to rise as it became more popular creating food shortages in Latin America. It does not reduce GHG emissions as so much fuel and fertiliser is used in its production.

    Hydrogen remains very expensive to separate – and hard to store. There are hardly any hydrogen vehicles other than a few experimental and pre-production fuel cell vehicles so market penetration is negligible. It does not seem likely that this will change any time soon. Hydrogen is not a fuel but simply a way to store energy – and not a very efficient one at that.

    Batteries are much better than they were but range remains an issue. One Israeli entrepeneur thinks that battery change stations that switch a battery pack in the same time it takes to fill a gas tank will conquer that problem – and he wants to use a “cell phone” type contract structure to make that viable.

    Right now most interest seems to be focussed on the plug in hybrid – so you can charge the car overnight when parked and use electricity for commuting but have an ICE available for longer trips.

    For transit, electric trains and trams are the obvious choice for the future – but there is much that needs to be done on lower density areas that still need bus and minibus service. The high initial cost of trolleybuses and their overhead is a big hurdle, and again hybrids seem to offer the best compromise for now.


    I was taking part in a Transit Forum organised by the CAW and Harry Bains MLA. I thought I had made that point in the first paragraph but obviously not clearly enough

    Stephen Rees

    March 15, 2009 at 5:00 pm

  5. Thanks Stephen. I’ve been trying to get all this ionformation: now I can be a bit more informed when I look more closely at the local situation and ask questions.

    Andy in Germany

    March 16, 2009 at 3:40 am

  6. Quote:

    “He also believes the spin – that TransLink is highly regarded by other cities around the world and that they send people here to study it.”

    This myth that TransLink is highly regarded probably comes about in BC Transit days, when they were in partnership with Bombardier Inc. (or was it Lavalin?)to build SkyTrain abroad. Transit folks came and looked, very few bought into it.

    What credibility TransLink had in the world, if anyone cared, was shattered with the RAV P-3 competition.

    As a member of the LRTA, some chaps from the UK, who worked for (they never did tell me), I believe Siemens, contacted me to provide an on-line clipping service and give local ‘colour’ to the personalities and events as it happened. This three year correspondence certainly changed my views on transit, but that is another story.

    Their comments about TransLink and Vancouver would raise many eyebrows here and certainly they trashed TransLink’s reputation abroad. Basically they told me TransLink was a ‘transit’ laughingstock. The one quote about the RAV and local transit planning in general which sticks with me, “Understand the X-Files were filmed in your neck of the woods, maybe that explains it.”, I believe, says it all.

    There is no one correct way to alleviate gridlock, congestion and pollution in the region, but there are many wrong ways and Gordo and his bird seem to pick every bad way possible!

    Malcolm J.

    March 16, 2009 at 5:55 am

  7. Stephen, I think you’re a bit out of whack in hanging TransLink’s current financial situation on Kevin Falcon. In 2005, TransLink’s Board and the GVRD Board approved a three year plan and ten year outlook that made it pretty clear that while there would be significant expansion – more on buses than anything else – more money would be needed at some point around 2012 to sustain the system. Don’t know if you remember Robin Stringer’s famous ‘scissor chart’ that showed when expenses would overtake revenues.

    If it’s helpful, I’ll try and dig up the links to the reports that were done at that time and which are still posted on our web site. But the main nugget here is that the current financial gap is not news to anyone who has been paying attention for the last three or four years.

    Ken Hardie

    March 16, 2009 at 9:12 pm

  8. Quote:

    “But the main nugget here is that the current financial gap is not news to anyone who has been paying attention for the last three or four years.”

    I think Hardie will fall down in a dead faint, but I agree with this one statement.

    When the good old subsidy game is played with RAV (forced by Kevin Falcon) and the Evergreen Line (supported by Kevin Falcon), TransLink’s deficit will increase far more than projected, as ridership figures are grossly over estimated. But it’s just not the metros that driving up the deficit.

    South Delta has three hourly bus services, that may, on a good day, carry less than 20 people in total. Was it Kevin’s Falcon’s attempt (through the TransLink Board) to buy Delta Council’s approval of RAV by providing 3 bus services that very few people use? How many other bus routes are operating in such a manor?

    Those three bus services are the epitome of TransLink’s ineptitude and would not be tolerated elsewhere.

    Malcolm J.

    March 16, 2009 at 9:39 pm

  9. Welcome to the discussion Ken. It’s good to see someone at TransLink is paying attention to this blog.

    You must admit that if TransLink wasn’t stuck with the huge SkyTrain debt and didn’t have to maintain portions of the provincial highway system that there’d be a lot more money for transit.

    Since Victoria isn’t going to accept the blame and the financial burden of what is rightfully theirs, I suggest the vehicle levy be based on the value of your vehicle like it is in many US jurisdictions. I’ve seen fees in the range of $25-40 per $10,000 of vehicle value. I think that would be more equitable and easier for the general public to swallow than a flat fee.

    I don’t think a usage based vehicle levy is appropriate because a usage based tax already exists on gasoline.

    Malcolm, as a resident of South Delta what would you suggest be done there?

    It’s obvious that simply providing service isn’t attracting new customers, but I don’t see a solution that will make a positive effect on mode share.

    Reducing service would save money, but probably kill what little demand exists there.
    Replacing all the big buses with community shuttles might save money too, but would introduce another transfer point, something well known as a ridership killer.


    March 17, 2009 at 4:48 pm

  10. The problem in South Delta is that it’s cheaper to drive, than take transit. The service (the services are 3 community bus routes) are sop and guess what, Wally is running here.

    There was no demand for the services and it puzzles me why they were put in.

    Malcolm J.

    March 17, 2009 at 5:41 pm

  11. Transit is traditionally regarded as performing two major roles:
    1. Serve existing demand
    2. Shape development, travel patterns and mode choice by providing service where density does not justify it.

    We’ve had decades of BC politicians demonstrating that they have no interest in number 2 unless it gets them votes and rewards important campaign contributors.

    Out of the blue, Malcolm, a man who can normally be counted on for sane transportation ideas, blows number 2 completely out of the picture by stating that service to his community shouldn’t exist because of insufficient demand.

    Insufficient demand is one of bogus “justifications” that our current Provincial politicians use to block all attempts to get rail transit in the Fraser Valley. I never thought I’d see the day when our region’s number one LRT supporter shot holes in his own platform.


    March 17, 2009 at 10:06 pm

  12. Actually, the province is carrying almost all of the SkyTrain debt. TransLink’s share of Canada Line is, give or take, $385 million, which works out to less than $40 million in debt servicing a year on an overall budget that’s now $1 billion.

    The religious-like (or Orange vs. Green) debate over bus vs. rapid transit, or which kind of rapid transit we have is a mug’s game. We have what we have because decisons were made and supported by a whole bunch of people. Malcolm, you saw first hand the hard core community-based opposition to LRT in the Tri-Cities. You put up a stout argument that simply didn’t sway the people, so there’ll be no blaming TransLink for that one.

    I think if you guys get to know Tom Prendergast, you’ll very much appreciate his outlook on how to make good technology choices for future rapid transit.

    If you turn our experience of the last four years or so on its head, the indisputable fact is that TransLink has put a massive lift in service out there without moving the needle in terms of mode share. And there are still major crowding issues and a huge hue and cry for more. Could there be a more fertile environment for transit expansion?

    Rather than bashing away at each other, there has never been a better time to draw a line on the calendar — history is just that — and to get a good fix on the principles and values that provide the foundation for our next collective decisions that have to be good ones.

    Gads…it’s midnight…and the scotch is gone. Have a good one chaps.

    Ken Hardie

    March 17, 2009 at 11:00 pm

  13. Thanks for participating Ken and clarifying what TransLink’s debt obligations are. I understand that past decisions are just that and we’re forced to live with them. What I think appears to be missing is learning from those decisions in order to make better ones in the past.

    There is really only one reason why people in the Tri-Cities rejected the LRT: they’re still angry that Burnaby and Richmond stole “their” Millennium Line and that they were being sold a “second class” system in its place.

    Not only was the Evergreen LRT business case badly flawed, the entire design was too because it didn’t leverage the flexibility inherent with LRT.

    In place of a system with convenient on-street stops along St. John’s and an end point at the front door of David Lam College we got such abominations as the $100 million tunnel linking the WCE to the Coquitlam Centre parking lot. I read somewhere that Evergreen wasn’t allowed to displace even a single lane of traffic. If that’s true then the entire exercise was doomed to fail before the design phase even began.

    I look forward to seeing some progressive ideas from Mr. Prendergast. This region should not, and can not afford to, build SkyTrain all the way from UBC to Abbotsford. The rest of the world is using different technology and an entirely different approach to rights of way. It’s about time the powers that be opened their eyes to decades of success in hundreds of other cities.


    March 18, 2009 at 1:03 pm

  14. David, you’ve hit upon a critical point. If we as a region are not prepared to allow LRT to replace traffic lanes or absorb on-street parking capacity, then the option will be a streetcar, massive costs to replace the lanes by widening the road (great fun down Broadway, don’t you think?) or going with a grade-separated system and the costs that follow.

    Malcolm…are there other options?

    Ken Hardie

    March 18, 2009 at 8:56 pm

  15. Ken, welcome to the blog. I attended several open houses for the Evergreen LRT (with a photo album of LRT sytems I used in several towns) and was surprised to find that quite a few of the TransLink staff in attendance had obviously never seen and used a LRT and thus weren’t able to properly sell the LRT to the doubting masses. But, as you said, this is history. I guess I will have to wait for the opening of the Seattle LRT to get my next LRT fix. Is TransLink planning to take interested parties-like me–to Seattle for a look and see?

    Red frog

    March 18, 2009 at 10:39 pm

  16. Of all the streets in western Canada, Broadway most perfectly represents transit oriented development. It has demand for service spread along its entire length. We know that most passengers either get on or off somewhere between Commercial and UBC. If that wasn’t true the non-stop 99S would have been a huge success, but that route was dropped because the buses were more efficiently used on the regular 99.

    Broadway simply needs more capacity than buses can provide. That immediately suggests a modern, low floor, all door loading streetcar. The curb lane is already reserved for buses and the overhead power supply is in place so all that’s needed is some rails and larger bus shelters. The whole thing could be done in two years with minimal disruption to the street and very little money.

    Streetcars offer a smoother ride and carry far more passengers per driver than a B-Line bus so even if it’s no faster, the experience for all passengers would be greatly improved and operating costs would drop.

    I’d go a step further and extend beyond Broadway transit village. The Commercial Drive area is filled with car-free people who would welcome a streetcar with exuberance.

    This street would not require the same frequency as Broadway so additional routes feeding Broadway would be needed.

    I suggest three lines branching out from Broadway/Commercial.

    The first route would be a U shape running east from UBC to Broadway/Commercial, north on Commercial to Hastings and then west along Hastings to the downtown core. This would provide an alternate route to downtown with better comfort than the existing #20 to ease congestion on the busiest portion of the Expo line.

    The second set of trams would turn south on Commercial and replace the articulated trolley as far as Victoria and 54th. A regular bus could continue to serve all the local stops from Hastings to Harrison Drive and the articulated trolleys would move to Fraser, a street where pass-ups are a huge problem.

    The third route would run east along Broadway/Lougheed to Willingdon where it would turn north and run all the way to the Confederation Park area. When TransLink moves to distance based fares this route will make a lot of sense. Currently east Broadway and north Burnaby are cut off from each other by a zone boundary and the need to transfer twice.

    All three tram lines could be built for less than the amount currently allocated to the UBC SkyTrain and would cost less to operate than the buses they replace. That would free up funds for better bus service and light rail in the Fraser Valley.


    March 19, 2009 at 10:27 am

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