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

Archive for November 7th, 2013

Conflicted Space? Robson Square, Viva Vancouver and the #5 Robson Bus

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There was a lunchtime “conversation” at SFU downtown today.  As the meeting’s page is listed as an “upcoming event” and will thus move shortly, I am taking the liberty of copying its content here

Pop rocks on Robson

For two years, the block of Robson St. in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery has been closed to traffic during the summer, becoming the popular Viva Vancouver pedestrian space. A consequence is that the #5 Robson bus is rerouted by three blocks. Few realize that this seemingly minor change is said to affect much of the downtown transit network. Some people want to close Robson Square year round. Must we choose between efficient public transit and enjoyable public space, or Is there a way to accommodate both?

Starting the conversation are Lon LaClaire, Manager of Strategic Transportation Planning for the City of Vancouver, Brian Mills, TransLink’s Director of Service and Infrastructure Planning and Simon Jay of the Vancouver Public Space Network.

Corduroy Road (formerly Robson St)

Lon LaClaire talked about the Transport 2040 plan and its targets, which will require a reallocation of road space from cars to walking, cycling and transit. Transit trips have  to double (or is that the share of the market has to double?) to reach goal. In the process of revising the City’s plan the importance of the public realm emerged from the discussion about improving the economy. It was noticeable, I thought, in his illustrations that the population of the West End has not changed nearly as much as the growth in Yaletown, Gastown and SE False Creek. He stressed that the current review of downtown transit was not just about the #5 but better service to these newly grown areas. Bus routes 5/6 are pretty much the same as the original streetcar routes.

Brain Mills stressed that Translink’s mandate went beyond transit – though as he spoke he put up a slide showing a graphic of a diesel bus on the #5 route. He said that transit was an extension of walking and went through the process of the Downtown Service Review. It will not be until early next year that they will be ready to evaluate alternative networks and he stated that they will be consulting the public at that time. [I do not think anybody was listening when he said that.]

He listed what they had heard so far from their consultations to date

  • bus service to the Roundhouse area
  • a Robson route that serves the whole street end to end: incorporating east from Granville to the stadiums
  • Service linking Yaletown and Gastown
  • Transit priority measures to improve reliability
  • Minimise detours
  • Improve service for major events (concerts and games at the stadiums)

The #5 route is in the top ten for boardings and productivity: 3.3 m a year, or 3,200 boardings per day per direction

Clarification from Adam Hyslop at Translink

The 3,200 value Brian Mills mentioned actually refers to the number of riders travelling through the 800 Block Robson on the #5 on a daily basis in each direction. The total boardings on the #5 are closer to 10,000/day on weekdays, as indicated in this pdf file  2012_BSPR_Route_5 from the 2013 Bus Service Performance Review.

Simon Jay read his presentation. He cited Gil Penalosa – and the importance of designing for those aged 8 and 80 if everyone was to be served properly – and the Where’s The Square competition. He stated that a survey showed that 60% of respondents supported ‘closing’ the 800 block of Robson to traffic, and he showed pictures of Picnurbia, Pop Rocks and Corduroy Road

Rerouting the #5 had caused confusion and introduced delays and difficulties for users. He saw that the future of the route was an opportunity not a threat. It was possible in many places for transit and pedestrians to share the same space while closing the street to other vehicles.

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 2.55.45 PM

The room was almost full by this time and most of the speakers identified themselves as seniors and residents of the West End. They were nearly all apoplectic about the rerouting of the #5

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 2.58.10 PM

The majority of speakers wanted to voice their displeasure about the reroute which had imposed delay and inconvenience. they stressed that only people with limited mobility, who have difficulty coping with the gradients of the streets involved and the necessity of being close to their destination when they got off the bus could appreciate how bad the situation had been. They pointed out that the VSPN illustrations of what a shared space would look like had no seniors illustrated in them.

E40LFR 2129 Robson at Granville 2007_0827

I regret that I was sitting behind Voony when he raised three points which I could not hear. He has added them in the comments section with some additional commentary. I have copied and pasted them here.

1) cities are built around the transportation network and not the opposite way –
the Robson-Denman-Davie transit has been here since 1890~, when the west-end was pretty much still a forest, and has been resilient to all changes: people organized their life around it.

In fact it IS the motor of the change, and still is, see for example the latest West End Community Plan organized around the “West End” loop: Robson-Denman-Davie recognized as the “lifeline” of the West End.

There has been much more change around the downtown buses in their first 100 years, than in the last 20.

That was to relativize the need to overhaul the whole network

(2) You can’t single out a destination (e.g. the Art Gallery). In downtown, people come from anywhere and go to everywhere…so it is important to have a simple, legible network (route along corridor), a point the latest Downtown Service Review recognizes
I have mentioned that those principles were already stated in the 1975 downtown bus review, ( see here for a summary and the full copy. I should have mentioned Jarret Walker’s ‘Geometry of Transit’, but forgot it)

(3) That leads to the shared space concept to accomodate all that:
Granville doesn’t work well as a shared space, and we have to undertand why:
One explanation is there is 1000s buses on Granville/day creating a wall of buses

[I could not resist a bit of editing]

It was pointed out that it ought to be possible to reconfigure the public realm around Robson Square and to make increased use of both the plaza on Georgia Street as well as the lower level “down where the skating rink is”.

Skating at Robson Square

One older lady stated: “The number of times I need to visit Victoria’s Secret is very limited” . She has taken pictures of the 800 block during its closure and seldom has seen more than 30 people at a time there.

“Do you really need to close this block?”

“Couldn’t you just put the bean bags somewhere else?”

“You do not need one big Public Square but several smaller spaces.”

There was one senior, male, from the West End who pointed out to his peers that the concerns should also address matters pertinent to their children and grandchildren.

@vpsn slide of 800 block of Robson with buses and pedestrians. Would TransLink go for this? #sfups
Brent Granby

I put my hand up, of course. I felt I should stress that the meeting was not part of Translink’s route consultation, nor were any decisions imminent. I also pointed out that the detour of the #5 was actually determined by the trolley overhead. Someone else noted the absence of a just one switch which could have made a huge difference. I noted that Translink has electric hybrid buses as well as trolleybuses, but no-one seemed to have considered putting poles on them. It is not impossible to have a duo mode bus which could switch between wires and its own power without the operator leaving the driving seat. I also said that other cities have transit running through pedestrian areas. Given that the service frequency of the #5 is 7 minutes at best, it should not be difficult to come up with a design that allows for buses in a public realm.

It is also the case that everywhere else seems to manage to have pedestrian only streets as well as bus only lanes. Only Vancouver seems incapable of organizing these. Gil Penalosa’s talks show how 8 year olds were able to design public spaces where cars,  pedestrians, buses and cycles all had their own space. Can’t we?

UPDATE 3 April 2014

You can now see the results of the Translink’s work on redesign of the bus routes in Downtown and comment on them.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 7, 2013 at 3:40 pm

In Chicago, a sophisticated new rail fare system that doesn’t work

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I was just going to tweet this story, but sometimes that limited number of characters just will not do.

The story can be found on Marketplace – not the CBC tv programme of the same name. This one is on National Public Radio.

The parallels to Translink’s Compass fare card are eerily similar. For start the contractor is the same one – Cubic. Marketplace also compares the system to Obamacare – where the web page to sign up for the new health care system was rushed into use long before it was ready for prime time. That seems to be the case in Chicago too.  And, as here, the union is worried about how its members get the brunt of the passengers – sorry customers – complaints.

Last week, the transit union head demanded that the CTA hold off on the transition, until the kinks got worked out. He said his members were already getting cussed out by enough angry riders.

Are there lessons to be learned here or is the process here too far advanced? What does seem to be different is the management of the issue. The CTA is apologizing – and it is not paying Cubic until the system is actually working properly. And the old system is staying in place until it does. Translink has acknowledged that the beta testing showed up some issues – and others – like the pay cash as well as buy a ticket “solution” for the lack of swipe reader on the gates problem – are simply ignored. The user is simply told to get with the program.

I think our real problem was that gates on SkyTrain/Canada Line/SeaBus were never actually necessary – but Translink staff have been eager to get away from 3 zones to pay by distance and added smart cards to what was already a seriously flawed concept. There are ways to introduce new fare media and systems that are both graceful and flexible. Chicago learned the hard way why those qualities should not be ignored. Will Translink learn the same lesson the same way?

One very odd feature about the story – the headline identifies Ventra as a “new rail fare system” but the story is illustrated by a picture of a bus.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 7, 2013 at 8:43 am