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Book Review: Trains Buses and People

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An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit by Christof Spieler

Published by Island Press October 2018  ISBN 978-1-61091-903-6 Paperback Full color 290 Photos 185 illustrations 248 pages Price US $40.00

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This review will be mainly of interest to my US readers. While there are some references made in the book to how other places do things, this book is concerned with how transit is provided in the US and how to do it better. In the same way that “Walkable City Rules” spells out how to improve car oriented cities – which is most of them – this book identifies what needs to be done to make transit more useful. Given this morning’s events here – where the Mayors’ Council voted to suspend work on the Surrey LRT and start on the process to switch priorities to SkyTrain to Langley – his thoughts on modes are very relevant.

“…mode is not the most important aspect of transit. What riders care about most is where transit goes, how fast it is and how reliable it is. It is better to think of modes as tools … one mode or another may be a better fit in terms of capacity, cost or capability”

It is also significant, I think, that he lives and works in Houston, Texas and takes light rail for most of his journeys. It is frequent – every 6 minutes – and has its own right of way with signal priority at intersections. So he gets pretty much the same sort of on board experience as someone who rides SkyTrain here – but without the need to use an escalator or elevator. He probably has a much better chance of getting a seat. For me that is another essential but then I am very nearly as old as Prince Charles.

” most importantly … it goes to the right places” so it can be used for a wide variety of trip purposes not just the journey to work. Far too many US railroads with passenger service take Commuter Rail far too literally – and West Coast Express is one of the prime examples of how useless it is for anything other than the weekday commute to downtown.

Fortunately not only is there a really good book, with lots of information, there is also a web site.   And that will do much more for you than reading any review.

This is a reference document which you will want to keep handy. It is also something that is worth just idly skimming – for places you know or those you might want to visit. And yes there is a list of best and worst – you can learn from both. Toronto does get a couple of mentions. Vancouver none at all. Neither does Montreal rate a mention. I hope that one day Mr Spieler comes here. I would be happy to show him around.

I would also say that I would disagree with him about speed. The actual pace of the mode over the ground is much less important than how long the overall journey takes, and how convenient it is. If there is a lot of stair climbing and hanging around in grim surroundings, the fact that you get onto a fast train eventually is less than adequate compensation. The Canada Line is downright slow – but it is still better than the #15 bus for almost any trip. And if you want to avoid the traffic congestion that often impacts the bridges to the airport, more reliable than driving, on most trips. In my most recent travels the impact of a two hour wait for a METRA train from Naperville to Union was far more significant than the fact that it never seemed to get much faster than 30 mph, and stopped even more frequently than the CTA Blue Line to O’Hare airport. And the walk from the end of the train to the taxi was a significant issue too.

METRA 194

And when we got home we felt that is was worth splashing out on a cab rather than struggle with our bags on and off a train and a bus – and then a drag through the streets. Had we not been so encumbered then the transit ride would probably been a comparable time but considerably cheaper. You note that fare doesn’t even get mentioned in “what riders care about”.

I would recommend this volume for everyone who likes maps and data, and is interested in US transit. I would also like to see something that does like for like comparison with cities around the world. We used to like to compare Metro Vancouver to Zurich – and Phoenix – just because they were comparable but very different indeed.  I know that I am going to find myself thumbing through it quite a lot. It is a lovely production.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 15, 2018 at 4:30 pm

Posted in transit, Urban Planning

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ProVancouver party proposes flat fare and other transit discounts across Lower Mainland

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Faregates at King Edward

The title is that of an article in the Georgia Straight

The ProVancouver Party is one of several new entities that have popped up due to the upcoming city election all of which claim to be non-partisan (just like the flailing NPA) and different from the status quo.

The main difference is simply in the level of understanding of how local government in Vancouver works (or is supposed to) between those who have some experience and those with none at all. Many of the new candidates seriously think that their naivete is a qualification rather than a liability.

I am not going to bother with analysing any of these half baked proposals. I am simply going to point out that getting elected to Vancouver City council does not enable anyone to introduce any of these ideas. As the Straight points out these are regional measures, which means that they have to appeal to most of the other municipalities outside of the City of Vancouver. The only commonality among these municipalities is their utter contempt for Vancouver and all it stands for. For one thing they are all convinced that Vancouver benefits far more from transit than they do. Even when Burnaby has far more SkyTrain service than any other municipality. And if your identifier is ProVancouver, you are already setting yourself up for an argument. West Vancouver still thinks it would be better off if it left Translink altogether – though even they have to concede that it is really difficult to find any acceptable piece of land within West Vancouver that could be used as a bus storage and maintenance facility.  Places like Anmore and Belcarra even think that people from other municipalities should not be allowed park or even drive on their roads.   Especially in summer.

The key word that ProVancouver has latched onto is “affordable”.  Which you might think would translate into some kind of means tested subsidy for transit fares. But as usual in all such woolly thinking, the term itself is not defined – but has something to do with “families” even though most people now live in rather different households than the traditional Mum, Dad and 2.4 kids. What we do know from our experience with the referendum is people in general believe a lot of nonsense about Translink and think they pay quite enough in taxes to provide much better service than they currently get. And that second belief is equally strongly held everywhere – even in the best served parts of the region. If you are not going to collect enough at the farebox, then it has to come from somewhere else, and any proposal is always going to be met with the angry riposte “How are you going to pay for that?” (without waiting for the answer before stamping off).

One of the great weaknesses of the upcoming ballot is that it is going to be filled with a lot of names: most of them will be unfamiliar. And whoever gets elected is going to have spend a lot of time and effort getting up to speed on procedures, rules and regulations. To some extent that does mean the potential for more influence from the professionals who have mostly been doing this stuff as a full time career for many years. But sadly they will be fully occupied trying to persuade the newly elected councillors that they have to both listen and read attentively. There is no evidence at all that ProVancouver has the slightest intention of doing that before insisting that they are now in charge: heaven help us all if that is the case.

 

Written by Stephen Rees

August 15, 2018 at 4:25 pm

Consultations on the BLine for 41st and the Greenway

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Thanks to Rick Jelfs of Transport Action BC for the heads up on two sets of consultations going on at present. This illustration comes from the City of Vancouver’s PDF of the Arbutus Greenway in its expected final form with a streetcar!

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  • TransLink is asking for public input on four new B-Line routes – 41st Ave (UBC – Joyce Stn);  Fraser Hwy (Surrey Central – Langley); Lougheed Hwy (Coquitlam Central – Maple Ridge); Marine Drive (Dundarave – Phibbs Exchange). The 41st Ave. proposal includes the return of local trolley coach service along 41st Ave. More information at https://www.translink.ca/bline.
  • Vancouver has a “proposed design concept” for the Arbutus Greenway at http://vancouver.ca/streets-transportation/arbutus-greenway.aspx

I must admit I was a bit sceptical of the 41st Avenue B-Line until I saw what was actually proposed – which involves a considerable change to the current #41 – which would be cut back to Crown and would use trolleybuses – which is something that I have been pushing whenever anyone would listen for many years.

2149 Training on 41st at Cambie

Trolleybuses aren’t used on the 41 right now, but the wires on 41st are used for training and relocating trolleys. Probably much less now that Oakridge OMC has been sold.

V9486 Hybrid

The current generation of hybrid Novabus, has a final electric drive – but no poles even though 600v is within easy reach.

Xcelsior bendy on 41st at Arbutus

The articulated buses used on the 43 and 49 that will be on the B Line

BYD Battery Bus

The short lived experiment with loaned battery buses from China (BYD). Another trial of different battery buses was recently announced. They will be able to charge along the route (100 Marine Drive) but again not using trolleypoles.  All those pictures were taken by me along West 41st Avenue.

I am of course also pleased to see a cross North Shore B Line running through both West and North Vancouver. I was involved with the first groundbreaking bus service to cut through the iron curtain that used to separate transit on that side of the water. There is even talk of combining City and District in North Van which at that time was unthinkable! But I digress. Even if you can’t manage the open houses you can still do the surveys.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 20, 2018 at 10:45 am

Patullo Bridge Replacement

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Improving safety and creating jobs

Province of BC picture on flickr

Premier Horgan announced today that the province is going to take over the replacement of the Pattullo Bridge.

I must admit that I was somewhat surprised, but on reflection I think Horgan’s announcement of the removal of tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges left him nowhere else to go. The only way that Translink could have built the bridge is through the previous government’s preferred method of user pay through a P3 agreement.

The Pattullo Bridge replacement project will be delivered solely by the Province. The project includes a new Pattullo Bridge that will be located upstream of the existing one, network connections in Surrey and New Westminster, and the removal of the existing bridge. The new Pattullo Bridge will be owned, operated and maintained by the Government of British Columbia.

That seems to me to be the clearest possible repudiation. I wonder if it also presages other possible changes in future. There was very little logic in the choices of the infrastructure downloaded from the province – other than avoiding anticipated future expenditures. The Knight Street Bridge carries a provincial highway (Highway 91) but needed urgent attention to improve its seismic stability.  The Westham Island Bridge is a purely local affair within Delta and doesn’t even rate a mention as part of the Major Road Network. The Annacis Island bridge does connect Delta and New Westminster, but is also not on the MRN, carries the Southern Railway of BC, and remained a provincial responsibility. And then there’s the Lion’s Gate bridge which also remained provincial. There were no provincial highways within the City of Vancouver to be downloaded, but a rationale for payments from the MRN was one of the ways that George Puil persuaded his colleagues on council to sign up for Translink.

Of course it is a reasonable way to proceed with the aged and decrepit bridge, but I do wonder what it says about the only regional, multimodal transportation authority. I always felt that the MRN was a way to redirect funds from transit to road building. That was also the case with the Golden Ears, which was never really needed, as Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows were outside of the Growth Concentration Area. Though arguably the decision to introduce West Coast Express through those communities was a stimulus to suburban sprawl. The use of Translink funds to the now defunct bridge tolling company was indeed detrimental to transit: it diverted funds to shareholders that ought to have been spent on transit operations and maintenance.

I have also seen more than once the argument that “balanced” transportation is not what it is needed in urban areas. We need to address decades of underfunding and neglect that motordom has inflicted on transit, walking and cycling infrastructure.

Let it be noted that separated and protected walking and cycling paths are promised for both sides of the new bridge which will only have four general purpose traffic lanes. Good.

This announcement does make things easier for the Mayors’ Council to arrive at an agreement on future transit expansion in the region, since they no longer have to carry their share of the $1.377-billion bridge. But there still exists a significant gap between what the province and federal governments have committed for transit expansion and what has to be funded from local sources. And that won’t be coming from bridge tolls.

POSTSCRIPT

The Executive Director of TransLink Mayors’ Council Mike Buda tweeted the following Point of Clarification: the transfer of Pattullo Bridge ownership to the province will not affect the $70M regional funding gap since the 10-Year Vision assumed toll revenue to pay for it.

AND NOW (February 18)
Rob Shaw in the Vancouver Sun sheds some light on what’s next

Postmedia reporter Jennifer Saltman reported last week the Horgan administration and mayors are close to a deal on phase 2 of the 10-year transit plan, which would include the Broadway subway line and rapid transit to Surrey. Horgan has already increased the province’s share from 33 per cent to 40 per cent. The federal government is in for 40 per cent. That left TransLink with a $60 million to $70 million annual shortfall to fund.

Here, too, the Horgan government is riding to the rescue. It is negotiating to give TransLink approval of one or more new funding sources — including possibly the carbon tax, gas tax or a vehicle levy — to cover up to $40 million of that shortfall. There’s also an idea floating around that the province could take over the Golden Ears Bridge, freeing up TransLink from its $40 million a year in bridge debt repayment that it could then funnel towards its share of phase 2.

The rest of TransLink’s funding gap could be paid with relatively small increases to property taxes or transit fares. A good deal if the mayors can get it, especially during a municipal election year. All this, the Pattullo, and potentially more, courtesy of the Horgan government.

I am also going to add this thread of tweets from Bowinn Ma – who you should follow on Twitter too!

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I have to say that this is the best Parliamentary Secretary for TransLink I have ever come across!

Artist rendering of bike and pedestrian lanes on the new Pattullo Bridge

A picture recently added by the Ministry to their flickr photostream

Artist rendering of bike and pedestrian lanes on the new Pattullo Bridge

A NEW Pattullo Bridge, located upstream from the existing bridge has been announced. The bridge will be four-lanes wide with walking and cycling lanes, separated from traffic, on both sides. Construction is scheduled to start summer 2019 and open to traffic in 2023.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 16, 2018 at 11:11 am

What Vancouver Streets will look like

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A powerpoint presentation by Dale Bracewell (Manager of Transportation Planning, City of Vancouver) via Twitter

Three sample slides

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Download the complete presentation

Written by Stephen Rees

February 1, 2018 at 2:38 pm

Guest Post from Rick Jelfs, Transport Action BC

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Global News BC had a 15 minute, year-end interview with TransLink chairman Kevin Desmond on 19 Dec 2017 at https://globalnews.ca/bc/. Issues discussed are possible later SkyTrain service on Friday and Saturday nights, safety, new Canada Line stations, Canada Line capacity expansions, double decker bus pilot, Compass Card changes and mobility pricing.

  1. Late night service is obviously doable but TransLink needs to maintain the system in a State of Good Repair. Extended operating times would remove 500 hours annually from the existing, overnight maintenance window. Desmond said that a wider, community discussion is needed to determine what is needed in terms of later service. He emphasized that extended hours will require trade-offs. And he did not mention the Canada Line, which would presumably require contract negotiations with the concessionaire to extend service hours.
  2. The system is safe, in spite of the much-publicized, Canada Line incident involving a Muslim woman. Additional police officers will be hired to compensate for the Evergreen Line expansion.
  3. Capstan Station construction will be 100% paid for by the private sector. A 57th/Cambie station may be considered under a similar funding model but would be much more expensive as it is underground.
  4. Canada Line capacity will be augmented by 24 new cars on order. Any Canada Line station lengthening is 10-15 years out. He stated, diplomatically, that the Canada Line was under built.
  5. He is very keen on double decker buses and hopes to order 30 DD buses early in 2018.
  6. TransLink is investigating allowing mobile devices and credit cards for fare payment.
  7. Stated there are equity issues with Mobility Pricing

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The Eno Center  for Transportation in Washington DC has published a report touting the benefits of contracting out as a way to improve transit service. “A Bid for Better Transit: Improving  Transit Service with Contracted Operations” looks at a number of examples of contracted operations in three European cities (London, Stockholm, Oslo) and three North American ones (New Orleans, Vancouver, Los Angeles). The discussion is not a “privatisation will solve all our problems” that, once implemented, can be left to run its course, but is more complex and requires agency commitment, negotiation and monitoring.

The authors state 3 key issues must be part of any contracting out considerations – the public interest cannot be contracted out and only government can do so; contracts must clearly align agency goals with a contractor’s profit motive; and agencies and contractors must work together to innovate and improve system operations.

The paper provides an overview of TransLink’s contracting out activities (or lack thereof) emphasizing that changes in provincial political priorities led to the current situation whereby BCRTC and CMBC are wholly-owned subsidiaries rather than contracted service providers. It does point our that the potential threat of contracting out may be enough to prevent excessive cost increases. That being said, TransLink does contract out some niche services.

However, the Canada Line P3 contract is looked at critically be the authors . They argue that the political motivations to get the line opened for the 2010 Olympics led to a P3 contract that overemphasised construction speed at the expense of long-term operational flexibility. TransLink is left with a 35 year contract under which it must negotiate service changes with the concessionaire.

https://www.enotrans.org/etl-material/bid-better-transit-improving-service-contracted-operations/

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Transit ridership is up a reported 41% on certain routes in the South Okanagan. Good news but the numbers would be starting from a fairly low level. Unfortunately, there is no source for the numbers published and there is one oddity; a 30% decline in operating costs per passenger is described as “minor” so I suspect a typo.

https://www.castanet.net/news/Penticton/213507/Public-transit-usage-up

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Written by Stephen Rees

December 21, 2017 at 2:27 pm

Infographic courtesy of Prof Chris Oliver

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Worth following him on Twitter

AFTERWORD

I was reading a news item about a murder investigation which uses the iPhone native app “Health” – meaning you get it and it runs by itself. I did not know that. It seems in the case mentioned that the app shows that the suspect was “climbing flights of stairs” on the day when the victim was dumped in a river. So the cops can link the phone to the area, and time and activity.

So I looked at my iPhone and it turns out that it has been tracking my physical activity. Yesterday (February 6th) I walked 3.3km and took 4,643 steps. Not bad, eh?

Written by Stephen Rees

December 20, 2017 at 3:54 pm

Posted in cycling, health, transit, walking