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

Archive for August 17th, 2009

The Canada Line Opens

with 20 comments

I said that I would not get on the Canada Line to-day, simply because I dislike crowds. I also do not much enjoy waiting in line – and if I had tried to ride the Canada Line today, that is what would have happened. In somewhat the same vein as the opening of the Golden Ears Bridge, more people turned up than could be accommodated, and at 7pm they started turning people away. So in that sense to-day has been a success.

My last post on this blog got way more attention than I thought possible. It was, after all, me responding to a third party’s comment on Charlie Smith’s piece in the Straight. Not even repeating what Smith had said – but of course using his headline. And somehow I became the spokesperson for the “nay sayers”. Both the CBC and the Courier wanted to talk to me  – not, so far as I can tell, Charlie. The Courier seemed a bit disappointed that I do not live in Vancouver or use transit to commute to Vancouver every day. The CBC mucked me about all morning – changing the planned location at the last minute, getting me out to the airport and even having me ride the escalator with their reporter as though we had ridden the train there – of course we hadn’t: we all drove. But only one sentence I spoke actually made it to air. I am not even sure it made a great deal of sense and if you had been eating supper or coughed at the wrong time you would have missed it anyway.

And now there is a thing going on Twitter which at 140 characters per tweet is almost irresolvable.

It comes down to figures – and in this case a claim that Kelly Sinoski put in a Vancouver Sun article back on August 4. Which is something I am fairly certain comes from the premier’s office since I know he has used the “lanes of freeway”equivalence as I have also commented on that before. Here is the quote

The $2-billion Canada Line is touted as equivalent to a 10-lane highway and is expected eventually to take 200,000 one-way automobile trips off the roads.

Somehow this got confused with the other important figure of 100,000 riders per day on the Canada Line at which time it “breaks even”  Ken Hardie says “Target is 100,000 per day by 2013 for sure, maybe by 2010” and “At 100k riders per day, we’re covering operating costs and private contributions. New data says we’ll hit that mark in 2010.” (So far i have no citation for that “new data”.)

Note the difference. The Sinoski figure is undated and talks about avoided car trips. Ken talks about riders (note for transit geeks, not “boardings”) and gives a range of years in the near future.

One of the people who did ride today asked the question – if the Canada Line today is having to make people line up to board, how do they expect to achieve their ridership target? (except he didn’t say that clearly enough and used the Sinoski figure.) The Buzzer (on Twitter) reported “65,000 in 6 hours” which apparently is counted by automatic passenger counters. So if you do the usual rule of thumb math – or perhaps I had better admit the sort of rough and ready calculation I use especially when asked questions in public and have to come up with a fast answer – a day’s ridership is around ten times the peak hourly ridership. So since the Canada Line today showed it could carry around 10,800 people per hour it clearly has the capacity to shift 100,000 per day as presently configured.

It clearly cannot handle 200,000 people per day – but then we get into the “eventually” time frame and what might happen in the future. That as about the only thing that survived from my CBC interview – my doubts about the expandability of the Canada Line. But I will not go into that again now.

Because what has to be said – and if necessary repeated until someone admits they were trying to mislead us – is that the Canada Line does not take 200,000 cars a day off the road. Now or indeed in any foreseeable timeframe. Because most of the Canada Line passengers (I dislike the term “riders”) were transit users before the line opened and have simply been required to change from buses to trains for part or all of their journeys. If there were no Canada Line, the people who would have used it would be using the bus, not driving cars.

The critical issue for me in the transit debate here – and I keep returning to this figure – is to what extent will the Canada Line improve the region’s transit mode share? All the other figures to me are smoke and mirrors. The $2bn we have spent ought to have significant impact on mode choice. But SkyTrain did not have that effect – especially not the Millennium Line. Not only were most of SkyTrain users already transit passengers, but the expense of supporting SkyTrain reduced the region’s ability to provide anything like decent bus service – especially in the areas that had no other transit choice. Yes there was some gain – but not nearly enough. And other places which built cheaper systems – both rapid bus (BRT) or light rail (LRT) – did as well or better in terms of mode share. Partly because those systems tend to get in the way of the cars.

As we know, traffic expands and contracts to fill the space available. Grade separation of transit is used to avoid transferring road capacity to transit. System wide capacity is in fact increased, and therefore more traffic is generated. In Toronto, when the Yonge Street subway replaced streetcars running in mixed traffic, traffic actually increased – as the streetcars were no longer hindering the automobiles.  In several cities in Europe, when trams were put into tunnels through the city centre (a technique known as “pre Metro”) car traffic increased – so they stopped doing that. In many places the tram now operates on streets closed to other traffic. I have seen this in Nottingham and Grenoble at first hand – and no doubt Malcolm and M. Frog will provide more examples.

It is to Vancouver’s credit that the resurfaced Cambie Street is now mostly two lanes with a cycle lane and parking where it used to be three, at least at peak periods peak direction. But equally, Granville Street (three lanes nearly all the time in reality) will see far fewer buses from September 7 onwards, and cars will quickly take up that space. If we are serious about sustainability – or eco-density – or whatever other term is applied – we have to get more people carrying capacity out of our road network. This goes back to that illustration about the number of people a bus can carry compared to the same space filled with single occupant vehicles. And of course the fuel efficiency and carbon footprint – especially with electric transit – is far superior. As is the quality of life for those who live, work and try to operate businesses on busy arterial streets. For they have multiple uses: they are not just “traffic corridors”.

The opportunity to have light rail on Broadway was lost, when Glen Clark surprised everyone with his choice of SkyTrain for the Millennium Line. For the same price the needed “T” surface  line (Arbutus at Broadway – Lougheed – Coquitlam and New Westminster) we got two bits of it, grade separated (VCC – Lougheed – New Westminster) and no reduction in vehicle capacity anywhere. So transit mode share pre-Millennium of 11% stayed about where it was after it opened.

Pretty much the same thing has been designed into the Canada Line – so I do not expect a different outcome. Indeed to do otherwise is a pretty good definition of madness. I continue to judge transit investment by the yardstick of mode share – but that is simply an easy way to measure something much more complex and harder to define but very recognisable when you see it. We used to call it “livability” back when we had a Livable Region Strategic Plan. Which everyone – every municipality and the province – all signed onto. And then tried to forget about. My problem was that once I understood what the LRSP was about – and when I got to Vancouver first I was not at sure what it was supposed to achieve – I became convinced it was a good plan. That was cemented for me when we tried to create a 100 year plan for the region called citiesPLUS – and won an international competition – and it was basically the LRSP projected forward.

Yet now we have the Golden Ears Bridge, the Gateway Program – SFPR and widened Highway #1, port expansion, and all the rest – and do not, repeat NOT, tell me that was what the LRSP envisaged.Because whatever you might say about its graphics, the principles – the simple 14 words – are inconvertible. And we ain’t doin’ that. Are we.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 17, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Posted in Transportation