Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘Chilliwack

Great debate over future commutes

with 30 comments

The Sun trots out all the usual suspects to talk about the current push to get Translink extended beyond Metro Vancouver (“Pemberton to Chilliwack”). It actually is a pretty daft idea right now, given that Translink cannot balance its books and is threatening to hike fares and cut service if it cannot get a new funding source.  So of course the surrounding communities are quite right to be concerned about why this is being pushed right now. It looks like a tax grab – for Squamish and the Valley to pay for transit in Vancouver.

The context has to be that Surrey is still very badly served – and has a transit mode share of 4%.

TransLink spokesman Ken Hardie acknowledges Langley and Surrey are lacking in efficient transit services, mainly because the cities came into the game late and transit patterns were based on trips to and from Vancouver

Which like all sounds bites is only partly true. The use of the word “efficient” is odd too – efficient for whom? The transit system – such as it is – came after the development. The land use pattern was typical North American suburbia – single land uses, widely separated,  with lots of space for cars to move and park. In fact the whole thing was designed with cars in mind – not people. The underlying assumption of the transportation engineers and land use planners was that everyone who mattered would drive everywhere. This pattern and preconception is being repeated, despite the fact that we know it is not sustainable – even in the short term. And the plans of the province to widen the major freeway within Metro simply reinforce that. The so called transit plan is to do a lot less, a lot later. By which time everyone will be stuck in a pattern that is hard to change.

Transit must precede development. Retrofitting car oriented suburbs is difficult, expensive and often less effective. Of course it is true that much of Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster grew up around the streetcar in a dense walkable pattern. But equally much of the outer areas grew up around the interurban and railway stations. It just that there has been a lot more development in recent years, when we were enjoying cheap energy and built as though there was no tomorrow. We need more transit oriented development (TOD)- the only kind that is going to be viable soon – and we cannot get that without the transit service. My bet would be that if passenger service is reintroduced on the old BCER tracks there will be a lot of interest in doing TOD around the stations – and recreating the walkable urban centres we used to enjoy before the spread of the “plaza” and the “power centre”.

George Peary the Mayor of Abbotsford spouts nonsense –

“Light rail transit might be a solution, but it’s very expensive and won’t happen overnight, he said, while reviving the old Interurban rail line isn’t viable because it runs along old milk routes, not through residential neighbourhoods.”

The old Interurban runs north south through Abbotsford. That’s nothing to do with milk but everything to do with geography – and the fact that the line was built before Sumas Lake was drained. Light rail is not “very expensive” if you have existing tracks and you want to use what you have and plan accordingly. But Abbotsford’s plan is now to build transit along South Fraser Way and try to get redevelopment onto the parking lots to turn the “corridor” into a real urban street. This is far sighted – and much less “expensive” than watching the whole lot become a wasteland, when the cost of fuel leaps again and people simply cannot afford to drive so much. What could “happen overnight” is the conversion of the curb lanes to exclusive bus lanes. A number of cities have done this as a way to make the bus more attractive – and add additional features over time to spread the cost and help build the ridership towards one that will support rail. How successful that is depends very much on the developers’ confidence that the bus service will indeed persist and improve. It is not an easy sell, especially when transit systems across North America – facing exactly the same challenge that Translink does – are cutting service and raising fares to balance their books in the face of rising demand. Investing in tram tracks looks like a real commitment to a new system in a way that diamond lanes don’t.

Getting some passenger service onto the interurban need not be very expensive. It would not be ideal in Abbotsford perhaps – though it seems to me that the rail corridor through town is in need of a stimulus – but in other parts of the Valley it would serve most of the post secondary educational institutions rather well. The reason it could be relatively inexpensive is that the right of way – and the right to run passenger trains – still belongs to the Province. And the Washington Group who own the tracks and run an occasional short freight train – are not averse to a deal.  As usual, the best is the enemy of the good.

Possibly the least likely scenario is the one espoused by Kevin Falcon who talks about SkyTrain reaching Langley by 2030. Not only is that just not good enough to deal with present challenges but it is also nowhere near likely to get outlying communities to sign on to his  expansionary plans for Translink.

Chilliwack has probably had the right idea all along. Stay clear of suburban sprawl and concentrate on being as self contained as possible. Most people who live there work there too. There is not much inter-city commuting to or from Chilliwack. It is still almost completely car dependent, and its transit system is quite appalling. But that is the choice the voters there made.

By “improving” the Sea to Sky, that choice has been lost to Squamish. The developers who pushed for this in the name of the Olympics will take a bit longer to get there huge returns – but it will still happen, becuase there are plenty of people who can still be suckered into long driving commutes. Becuase that is what has been happening for the last 60 years and people still do not seem to have understood that is the problem.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 3, 2009 at 10:35 am

Rail for the Valley meeting in Chilliwack

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The crowd giving a cheer for the cameras

The crowd giving a cheer for the cameras

It is very heartening to see a room full of people – and more standing at the back. And when you can fill a hall at election time, the politicians try to get a few minutes face time in front of the crowd too. Peter Holt gave a very thorough PowerPoint presentation with all the facts, and then Malcolm Johnson provided the cost comparisons – and some more pictures. Which left to do the wind up. And the line I took was that the people of Chilliwack should not be fobbed off with yet more studies. This topic has been studied many times – and mostly by people wanting to find excuses not to do it. So what needs to be done now is to canc el the latest study and use the money instead to mount a demonstration project. Some local candidates waffled arounbd a bit but I am pleased to report that the federal NDP and Green candidates both came out in favour of rail. I was heartened that most people in the room applauded when I pointed out the futility of widening the freeway. All except one very irate truck driver who manged to shoot himself in the foot by being very rude. Not surprising then that he had been an unsuccesful candidate in earlier elections.

Hopefully we will see some coverage in the Chilliwack Progress – and there was somone there with a big video camera, so possibly something on local cable too.

Written by Stephen Rees

September 13, 2008 at 5:49 pm

The Mayor Of Chilliwack on Rail for the Valley

with 10 comments

I was going to do something else today, but Google’s alert drew my attention to a long piece in the Chilliwack Times. When you are Mayor, you not only get centre stage at events you attend, you get lots of media space to explain your position on those you don’t attend.

Now it is unusual for a Mayor to have such a coherent and well argued case, but it does have a few holes. I will let you read it as it stands – and I suggest you do that first – and then I intend to point them out.

the most recent census data (2001)

The most recent census was in 2006. I know because I worked on it. And data from that is becoming available. I suspect that things may have changed a bit int he intervening period, but in terms of journeys to work (the only ones that the census looks at) we can only choose from what is available to choose. Since Chilliwack has inadequate transit it is no surprise that most people drive. The Mayor goes on to make some suppositions: he may or may not be right, but I really wonder why he could not get real data.

The “Rail to the Valley” folks admit in their documents that an upgrade of the old Interurban Line would cost in excess of $1 billion.

Note that this is not a direct quote and no source is cited. It may be that you could spend a $1bn on upgrades, but I do not accept that is necessarily the  cost. And the Mayor does not look at any of the options in detail. One of the great advantages of using existing tracks is that you can proceed in a gradual way, and you can also avoid large capital costs. Indeed, most of the proposals I have seen have been of this kind. You could get a diesel railcar on lease, and a few temporary platforms, sell tickets on board, and run in between the freight trains. Not ideal by any means, but very cheap indeed. A whole order of magnitude or two below the Mayor’s carefully chosen figure.

It does not calculate the cost of buying the freight off of the right of way which is currently near capacity from Abbotsford to the west. It also does not include the cost of the disruption to the hundreds of businesses, who have located on, and use, the rail line to move freight.

It does not include these costs because they are not necessary. Freight on rail is not that time sensitive – and does not have to move at periods of peak passenger demand. No existing freight customers need to be inconvenienced at all. And I somehow doubt that the SRY has “hundreds” of customers – though I bet they wish they did. My casual acquaintance with less than train load freight in this area is that it has been declining steadily – but I will concede I may be misled. But the whole right of way and freight argument is a red herring – and a scare tactic and unworthy of a Mayor.

 As noble as the idea is to provide rail transit from Chilliwack to Vancouver using the old Interurban line, it is clear that this meets the least of our needs. In addition, while cheaper than “SkyTrain,” we would still be spending hundreds of millions to inadequately serve a very few people.

“Noble” is just being sarky! No one suggests it would solve every need, and of course you need to be looking at buses where there are no tracks – which is most places.

 We have a very limited service in our community and little access to additional provincial transit funding.

But the Mayor is disingenuous when he asserts that it is lack of provincial funding that is hobbling local transit service.  BC Transit views its services as a partnership. And many local municipalities, while they do not like raising property tax to pay for their share, have done so and now have better service than Chilliwack does as a result. As long as there is an inadequate network, ridership will be low. You need to get to the point where transit is a viable alternative for enough people. The Mayor must explain why this has not been his priority up to now. It seems to me he has preferred to keep his property taxes down. Which is fine if that is what his electors want – that’s democracy for you – but don’t blame the province for your lack of enthusiasm for transit spending.

He then goes on to trot out the usual guff about lack of demand and population. Which is typically short sighted. And the FVRD is as  much a creature of the Mayors as the MVRD – so citing one of its reports at length as though it were an independent source is casuistry. In future, the valley is going to have to reduce its reliance on cars. Sooner or later, trains will have to be part of the mix. If people have more choice, they can make more intelligent decisions – not just about travel today but location of home, school and work for future travel. The real agenda for this Mayor is that he likes the isolation of Chilliwack from the rest of the Valley. That is why he talks so much about the lack of travel from his community to Vancouver. But that is not the market for Rail for the Valley. And I think he knows that, but he also knows the  audience he is playing too – and he has played to them successfully for a long time.

I wasn’t at the meeting either. But I suspect that the reason people booed is because he did not come to defend his views and subject them to argument. Why should he when the Aspers will give him so much space?

Written by Stephen Rees

February 27, 2008 at 9:51 am