Stephen Rees's blog

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

Metro Vancouver Sustainability Breakfast

with 17 comments

BCIT Wednesday October 7, 2009 07:30

I don’t usually type the time I write these posts, but I thought  should take the credit for getting up at what my sister calls “stupid o’clock”. And actually I could have got a few more zzzs as the trip into town by a combination of car and transit was much faster than I anticipated. I was twenty minutes early. The Canada Line was not crowded and was fast – and the parking at Bridgeport is only $2.

While the meeting was supposed to be about rail they started with a 15 minute budget presentation and much to my surprise the map they used to show the Metro boundary included Abbotsford! This is because there is one regional park there, not that the boundary has been redrawn.

There is now a $565.8m budget for 2010 – mostly for water and waste management. The breakdown is approximately $200m for water, $180m for liquid waste and $100m solid waste. That leaves only about $50m for all other regional government functions – and that will be less than this year – so all that guff about Metro being a bloated bureaucracy can be safely ignored.

Exploring Rail Transportation

Michael Shiffer – VP Planning Translink

Michael Shiffer is the new VP of Planning at Translink and he entitiled his presentation Transit Resurgence and Reinvention which was essentially a history of transit in North America. He was formerly in Chicago, which showed in his presentation. He has only been in post for the last six months, and this was the first time I had heard him speak, and he seems to be much better qualified than previous planning VPs. He is also a much better presenter.

He noted how transit is tied to the urban fabric and sustainability – how density of development  and high capacity mass transit are interdependent. I was also pleased that he noted in reference to one of his Chicago illustrations the “awkward fit of transit” in a freeway median. Indeed, I can think of few worse places for a station than in the middle of a freeway intersection.

He talked about gathering data, which in Chicago includes the fare collection system, in order to understand the patterns. One slide had a long list of the types of data collected in Chicago: it is probably significant that he was silent about the grave deficit in data collection at Translink.

He did the usual thing about the “multi centric lower mainland” (it’s a familiar slide) and then listed the current rail priorities: the Evergreen Line, the UBC/Broadway line and a SkyTrain extension into Surrey. He talked about the evaluation process for projects and indicted that the next step will be an Expo Line upgrade, but of course that is conditional upon the needed $130m supplement to Translink’s funding.

Steve Hall of Bombardier talked about current trends.

Bombardier is now the world’s largest rail equipment and service supplier, with 96% of its revenue earned outside of Canada. This is because the company that started by making Skidoos and Seadoos expanded by acquiring other companies – in rail and aircraft manufacturing.

The challenges that face us face the whole world: climate change, urbanisation, congestion, and the need to find other sources of energy. He pointed out that 75% of the greenhouse gas from transportation comes from road, and only 1% from rail.
Current trends include volatility in oil prices, and an increase in demand for transport. He identified four major trends in rail transportation

1     full automation for metro –

  • a way to increase capacity
  • a way to reduce operating cost

He described Skytrain as “ahead of its time” and “an example for the world” (Alright Malcolm, control your blood pressure, and reflect on who pays his wages – we know what you think)

2     High Speed Trains  which now operate at 380kph are competitive with air up to a 3 to 4 hour flight time. In his view the Vancouver – Portland corridor is a leading candidate for US funding. China is investing $155bn in its high speed rail network with Bombardier the selected supplier.

3    Rebirth in streetcars and light rail

There have been 30 new streecar systems in Europe in past 10 years. Bombardoer will supply 204 low floor streetcars for the Toronto (TTC) existing network with a follow on potential of 340 cars for line expansions

4    Investment in Research and Development with a focus on

  • comfort and convenience
  • lower operating cost and energy consumption,
  • lower maintenance cost
  • reduced environmental impact

“The climate is right for change. The climate is right for trains”

Dale Bracewell – City of Vancouver, Olympic transportation

Dale’s theme was the 2010 streetcar – The Olympic Line

During the period of the Olympics it is expected that there will be an increase of 30% in demand for transportation in Vancouver and, at the same time a 20% reduction in road capacity. This is a significant change for Vancouver, but the city has been planning for a downtown streetcar for ten years. The vision of a downtown streetcar has, of course, been realized in Portland. That city has a regional light rail rapid transit system (Max) but the streetcar has a different, local function.

Streetcars have a longer life span than buses, with a  lower operating cost and the City expects that the downtown streetcar could recover 100% of its operating cost from fares. [The region’s transit system as a whole covers just over 50% from fares now].

Streetcars promote neighborhood development in a way that buses cannot. That is because of the considerable fixed investment in track. Unlike a bus service, a streetcar is not easily redirected elsewhere.

Streetcars improve public space and have a range of capacities and speeds but fill a niche we do not have. Bus is at the lower end of speed and capacity. Skytrain is towards the upper range of LRT systems  so streetcars fill the gap between them, at the lower end of  LRT.

The Streetcar Renaissance was a publication he cited that I have linked to as a pdf

In Vancouver, streetcar is the  preferred mode for tomorrow, and it is expected that the complete proposed system in downtown would have between 25k to 35k daily boardings by 2021. It is also “shovel ready” on the Granville Island – Science World section.

Vancouver has borrowed two Brussels flexity cars (with leather seats!) which will leave Brussels next week and arrive here on December 5. There will be an 18hour per day free service between the Athletes’ Village and Granville Island. Using both streetcars on a single track with a central passing loop, they can maintain a 7 minute headway and carry 1,500 people per day.

Bombardier Flexity Outlook Cityrunner tram in Brussels

Bombardier Flexity Outlook Cityrunner tram in Brussels


Q – pricing road transport to push people onto rail?

Shiffer: it’s not just tolling and cordons, road pricing by the kilometre travelled is now possible with new technologies but it is only one part of Transportation Demand Management (TDM). We  need a TDM strategy. It is up to the leaders of the region to understand the impact on equity and the need for fairness.

Q – How do you make the rich people happy without treating the poor insensitively?

Invest in transit – it serves equity, environmental justice, increases availability of service, improves accessibility to jobs, and helps address affordability.

Bracewell also mentioned that streetcars would increase service on Sundays – since the big investment is in track and cars, the incremental cost of more service is low.

Q   Allan Hebert – wanted to know how the system would be faciltating transfers and use the smart card. He also identified “anger directed at the streetcar – money spent on new tracks for a temporary service”

Bracewell – the infrastructure is not just for 60 days. It will allow Downtown Heritage Electric Railway to keep going [the old track was life expired] and the spending of $8m now is just the first step in a $100m project.  He also noted that the City cannot do it alone and needs senior governments to contribute. [Portland had no federal funding for the first stage of its streetcar]

Shiffer – smart cards and faregates allow us to study the flexibility of fare products. He mentioned the use of Oyster cards in London and Chicago which ensure users get the best price whether they make one trip or many.

Q   Bob Bose – Langley – we have to be concenred about the “first mile and last mile”. You talk about GRT but what about PRT?

Shiffer  – indicated that car sharing, bike sharing and so on are important to get people to high quality transit defined here as 15 minute headway for 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. In a region as heterogenous as ours – one he finds “exciting and challenging” – this will always be an issue that needs a broad variety of solutions “contextual sensitivity” i.e. feeder bus services and community shuttles.

Hall – pointed to the Bombardier Chair at UBC Larry Frank’s research on public health data – increase in walking – Surrey. [In other words, we do not need PRT, since walking is good for us.] He described PRT as a “horizontal elevator”. The big issue for automated systems is the cost of a separated right of way – which means if you are going to that expense, a larger capacity, longer and faster system is easier to justify than just local access.

He also explained that the ship used to convey the trams from Europe to North America is ro/ro and the port of Tacoma has the nearest berth that can accommodate a ship of this type.

Dale Laird appealed for drivers for the Olympic Line: they need volunteers. [If you contact the writer of this blog at lastname.firstname at gmail dot com I can pass along details – sorry for the obscurity but that is to defeat the spambots.]

Q Peter Fassbender Langley City

I would like to see this presentation made in the valley. The question is about driving or following densification: there is currently a transit deficit in the valley as we only serve existing demand

Shiffer – we have to both shape AND serve – how transit ties into land use – here the debate is not “do we have transit” but “what kind of transit will work well”. This is a welcome relief from the position of most US cities. We have to strike a balance since we still have pass ups on our existing system.

Q – cost of transit – cost per mode and extent of support by government

This was not really answered as no-one had the data avaialable.  Bracewell spoke instead of the capacity of a SkyTrain track compared to a lane of freeway  – 1,000 pphpd car, 3,500 B-Line, 10,000 Skytrain. Shiffer waffled abouut the need for a “balanced transportation network” that would “facilitate goods movement – transit takes cars off the road to improve freight movement – and our “innovative model” [whatever that means].

Q sfu student – viability of extending rail for the valley – interurban – connect town centres

Shiffer:  in addition to the Surrey extension there are some opportunities on existing rights of way including the interurban.[But it is not a current priority] “We are working stakeholders and having conversations but it depends on resources. There may well be room for demo lines which is how Portland started. We can’t afford to ignore it but need to work with partners.”

Two of these presentations are on the Metro website . Dale Bracewell’s is not there yet.


Car Co-op –  there are now 233 vehicles in 8 municipalities – with cars at most Canada Line stations. The will be a “Transport Camp” unconference at BCIT on  October 30  more details here [thanks to Julia for the link]

There is also a Smart Growth conference at the Convention Centre this month with special rates for students and non-profits.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 7, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Posted in Transportation

17 Responses

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  1. Interesting post. I do hope that once November is here, a firm plan has been set for translink’s funding priorities, and I hope it is the fullest $450 million plan.

    And watch out – with that intro you are getting close to being branded as part of the super-evil skytrain-cabal….;-)


    October 7, 2009 at 6:02 pm

  2. Here’s the link to information about the “TransportCamp” unconference that is mentioned at the end of your post.


    October 7, 2009 at 6:31 pm

  3. thanks for the minutes. it is interesting

    …The picture show how much Brussels care about disabled people…


    October 7, 2009 at 8:35 pm

  4. Great post and good news too. I much prefer the Citadis trams from Alstom (the ones with 5 or 7 sections and a front custom-made designed for each town) to the Bombardier Flexcity but will gladly use any modern tram we can get.
    I have no connections with Alstom, except as a very occasional user during European holidays.

    Red frog

    October 7, 2009 at 10:56 pm

  5. A little history……

    One of the great selling features for light-metro (VAL, SkyTrain) in the 1970’s was that it was mobility impaired friendly, which trams with steps, were not.

    Along came the low-floor light rail vehicle (LRV or tram), which was originally designed to speed up dwell times, but later found it to be mobility impaired friendly as well.

    In very short order, the low-floor tram stole one of the great selling features of light-metro, with trams able to provide the same quality of service as light-metro, at a greatly reduced cost.

    The low-floor tram also compelled bus manufacturers to design low-floor buses to compete with trams.


    October 8, 2009 at 7:03 am

  6. […] developer [The Georgia Straight] ‘Budget Cut Blues’ Played for Politicians [The Tyee] Metro Vancouver Sustainability Breakfast [Stephen Rees's blog] Bikennale 2: Coal Harbour [Price Tags] Nissan electric car to hit B.C. […]

    re:place Magazine

    October 8, 2009 at 7:12 am

  7. Why are we still using 18th Century technology? Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems have made heavy and light rail obsolete. Let’s start using the the latest in transportation technology –


    October 8, 2009 at 8:41 am

  8. Hi Stephen

    Thanks for posting this.

    The Olympic Line looks exciting but it doesn’t exactly help people stuck in traffic in current underserved areas.

    Just wondering, since the topic is sustainability, were any of the Gateway projects mentioned by anyone or has they sort of become like a great big Gorilla standing in the corner nobody wants to talk about and everyone is pretending doesn’t exist?

    Chris S.

    October 8, 2009 at 9:20 am

  9. Chris

    The Olympic Line has never been part of the region’s transit strategy. It is simply a proposal of the city. Translink has never included funding for downtown streetcars in any of its plans.

    The meeting was about rail – not transport in general – so no-one mentioned Gateway.

    Stephen Rees

    October 8, 2009 at 9:36 am

  10. Stephen

    That makes sense re: the Olympic Line.

    However, correct me if I’m on the wrong track here (no pun intended), but wouldn’t any future rail services now have to compete with increased highway capacity? Further, as you’ve noted on this blog previously, the increased highway capacity will change developement patterns thus any new rail services would need to be designed to attract residents from, presumably, low-desnsity neighborhoods. Surely all that money being poured into highways affects the models and equations for rail service design.

    I guess what I’m wondering is, was the discussion limited to rail technology in general or rail in the context of Metro Vancouver over next 10-20 years?

    Chris S.

    October 8, 2009 at 10:11 am

  11. I can’t help but reply.

    Quote: “Why are we still using 18th Century technology?” What, electric trams in the 18th centruy…?

    PRT has been around for decades, yet I don’t see any running, maybe, except for airports. Atmospheric railways were “latest in transportation technology” in the 1840’s, but not today.

    The PRT lobby has been around for decades, but no city PRT systems have been built.


    October 8, 2009 at 10:14 am

  12. Chris

    I have reported the discussion as faithfully as I can. I have left out one or two comments that seemed irrelevant – but this issue was simply not tackled on this occasion. It seems to me that the freeway expansion is now seen as a fait accomplit and the interest in “rail for the valley” has been shunted off to perpetual studies and meetings and no action.

    Outside of the meeting I heard that some hope survives of a small scale demonstration in Surrey using a heritage car, but that is the extent of it. Of course its not just the Gateway. Abbotsford has been awarded significant funds for an enlarged Clearbrook freeway interchange and expansion of the road to the airport together with a second runway. So we can see how “the elites” are actually treating issues like climate change and sprawl.

    Stephen Rees

    October 8, 2009 at 11:16 am

  13. Malcolm

    In addition to the ULTra at LHR recently completed, “a quasi-PRT network, the Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit of West Virginia University in the United States, has been operational since 1975.”

    source wikipedia

    Stephen Rees

    October 8, 2009 at 11:18 am

  14. Ok. Thanks Stephen. Not trying to attack you or anything. Far from it. Call me cynical, and I’ve only been living in Vancouver for a bit over 6 months, but there seems to be a lot of talk and meetings and plans and conferences about sustainable growth but the lions share of money still goes towards roads. There certainly seems to be no shortage of money (or at least there wasn’t until quite recently), so this preferene towards road investment must be a result of the political process.

    “It seems to me that the freeway expansion is now seen as a fait accomplit” … that’s what I was getting at in my first comment. Just was curious about your perceptions on how the decision-makers and ‘elite’ see the Gateway projects at this stage of the game. That is indeed sad nonetheless it does seem a bit futile to me to talk about rail in Vancouver without considering how it will work alongside massive investments bridges, freeways and the like. Anyway, enough from me.

    Thanks again.

    Chris S.

    October 8, 2009 at 11:51 am

  15. For more on Personal Rapid Transit (videos, links, studies):

    PRT Strategies

    October 8, 2009 at 2:10 pm

  16. The reason why we’re in the situation we’re in is because the Provincial Government doesn’t care about the sustainability of anything except the supply of money going into their pockets.

    Unfortunately the other party with a shot at forming a government here sometime in the next decade has shown itself to be no better when it comes to making sensible choices for the future. While it was fast ferries and sundecks that brought down Mr. Clark I think his decision to build SkyTrain on Lougheed was his most costly mistake. Had the original LRT plan gone ahead it’s likely that both UBC and Coquitlam would have lines by now and TransLink wouldn’t be asking for more money.


    October 8, 2009 at 2:55 pm

  17. Was the work done on the Science World to Granville Island track strictly required? The heritage streetcar has been running on that track for years with no major capital expenses.

    While I’m in favour of the demonstration line, this trackwork smells of corruption to me. More likely than not this demonstration is all we’ll get of Streetcars in Vancouver, and this newly revitalized piece of track will sit unused for decades.

    Really, this streetcar route only makes sense if it is extended up the West Boulevard corridor, but there seems little chance of that. Otherwise it simply takes ridership off the 84 and other local routes, penalizing people who chose to live near transit.


    December 20, 2009 at 11:52 pm

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