Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘SkyTrain

The Surrey Decision

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The Mayor’s Council has decided to support the choice of the electors in Surrey who want SkyTrain over LRT. I am not going to get into why that might be, since they are mostly new Mayors (good) and I have no doubt that the strongest instinct for human beings in group situations is don’t be the awkward, difficult critic. Try and find some consensus, or if you prefer, don’t block their favourite project this time as next time they will block yours.

The difference between SkyTrain and LRT is not the technology. The whole point about the Plan was that it was a real effort to try to match transit technology to the desired land use. There was actually a diagram I saw, not so long ago, that showed how buildout of Surrey LRT would see service on all of the major arterials. This would have facilitated building four to six storey apartments over commercial at street level all along the main roads while a mixture of “missing middle” would fill the bits in between. The Light Rail trains would have priority signals at intersections and exclusive right of way – so not streetcars. This produces journey times door-to-door comparable to grade separated – but without the escalators. Stations on LRT are cheap, and can be relatively close to each other. While the train is loading/unloading, the traffic crosses in front of it.

SkyTrain’s main selling point for electors (boomers: older white males) is that they don’t get in the way of the cars. Because the trains are small, and automated, you can build elevated structures (much cheaper than tunnels) along the highway alignments – see Millennium Line, Evergreen Line. Stations are more widely spaced than LRT. That is because to get people up to the platform you have to offer a faster ride for longer distances. Basically SkyTrain endorses sprawl: it makes longer distance commutes tolerable because the train is faster.  The Canada Line, by the way, is not SkyTrain and it isn’t fast. It’s just not as slow as the jammed up traffic on the surface.

SkyTrain does not have a driver. That means instead of running long trains with long gaps between them (like Edmonton) you can run short trains at shorter intervals, like the Millennium Line, as the cost is the same, but the service level much more attractive. Stations are expensive as they have to have elevators and some escalators. Ideally lots of entrances and exits to make transfers convenient (something the Canada Line deliberately ignored to keep the initial capital cost down) as the punters don’t like to have to cross two six laners just to catch their connecting bus which stops far side of the traffic signals and won’t wait for you.


The development pattern produced by SkyTrain is now most clearly visible at Brentwood. The Lougheed Highway and Willingdon are both wide stroads with fast traffic. The station is surrounded on three sides by high rises. This does not look like a Walkable City. Yes, it is indeed Transit Oriented Development. But it is not at human scale. I used to think that the views made possible by living high up, would compensate for the inconvenience of waiting for the elevator (no one walks up to the 40th floor). But if all you can see out of your windows are the serried windows of the high rise across the street …

That is what the region has now endorsed for Surrey. The population and the overall density won’t be much different, but the point density at transit stations will be very different. But that allows the bits in between to stay something like they are now for longer. So not only do you not have to wait for a streetcar to finish loading, but you can also stay in your present accommodation.  No wonder it appeals to the sort of people who will vote for Doug McCallum.


Hours after I first posted this opinion piece some new analysis came to my attention from the Georgia Straight 

Written by Stuart Parker it is worth your time

…why Surrey could choose an LRT without sufficient public buy-in for the project and then have that project defeated by a candidate claiming that he could fund a $3-billion asset using $1.6 billion of other people’s money that they had set aside for a different project.

Who is Stuart Parker? “Stuart Parker teaches international studies and history at Simon Fraser University. He ran for Surrey council in 2018 as a member of Proudly Surrey.”

Note also there is a comment by Frank Bucholtz under the article which endorses it.

Towers at Marine Drive Station

High rise towers at Marine Drive Canada Line station


Written by Stephen Rees

November 16, 2018 at 8:25 am

“England brings in round-the-clock trains…”

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“…DVBIA says it’s time Metro Vancouver follows”

The headline comes from News1130 and, as usual, needs clarification.

But first, some background. On Saturday evening someone from News1130 and contacted me and wanted me to comment on their story. I suggested that they would do better to find someone from Translink. It appears from the on line version that they didn’t manage to get that.

To be clear, Transport for London is going to run underground trains on two lines overnight Friday and Saturday nights.

August 2016 Night Tube Underground leaflet map

Photo by BowRoadUK on flickr


There will be some other lines added later. This has not been easy to achieve as the unions were critical of the impact on their members. So only in London, and only a few lines: not the Overground and by no means round the clock everywhere.

[Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association’s] Gauthier says they’ve been told there are a number of things standing in the way of 24-hour service [on SkyTrain].

“You know, track maintenance, and there’s a whole list of things that come up as reasons. But I’m not suggesting those aren’t legitimate reasons, but hey, if London can do it, why can’t we! And certainly let’s start with a Friday and Saturday night.”

I do not know what else might be in that whole list of things. But I do know that the maintenance problems on SkyTrain are not trivial. So will anyone else who has tried to use SkyTrain, as breakdowns seem to have been more of a problem recently, and there has been an admission that maintenance needed to be improved.

Mr Gauthier might also recall that Translink was unable to secure a new source of funding for the rather long list of improvements that are deemed necessary to both catch up to recent increases in demand and better meet future needs, rather than rely solely on the province’s preferred method of expanding freeways. There is a shortage of resources, and even a “state of good repair” is a tall order when revenue from gas taxes is falling, due to people making better choices than driving everywhere and better fuel efficiency in vehicles.

If Translink does come up with more money, I think that there are many other more deserving areas than “Millennials … having to live further and further away from the downtown core.” The fact that they continue to seek entertainment in downtown Vancouver is important to some of Mr Gauthier’s membership but is perhaps less important than some other regional issues. Possibly the decisions to increase the number of seats at licensed premises on Granville Street needed to have considered transportation impacts, and come up with some way of meeting that “need” before expansion was permitted. There are night buses, and due to the lack of traffic at night, they provide much faster and more reliable service than they can during the day. I did not see any those making more money off the later openings offering any of it to transportation providers.

If Translink did extend SkyTrain service overnight it would not come free. There would need to be considerably increased security and policing – and that cost is actually higher than on systems that have to pay for additional train operators. Sadly the people who have spent a lot of time in bars tend to make more demands on  police than the rest of us.

If there is money available for some service expansion then I think it must go first to the most needy and worthwhile cause: HandyDART has long been underfunded and its service is nowhere near adequate. Its objective ought to be to provide a service that provides an equivalent level of mobility to people with disabilities as the rest of the population enjoys. Anything less than that is discrimination against an identifiable minority. And compared to the needs of people with restricted mobility all day and every day, the needs of the young and fit late at night on weekends pale into insignificance.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 22, 2016 at 12:30 pm

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Politics hijacks transit planning yet again

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Having looked at Glasgow for a comparison on Compass, here’s another very instructive comparison, a bit closer to home. This op-ed piece appears in the Toronto Sun and is by R. Michael Warren who is a “former corporate director, Ontario deputy minister, Toronto Transit Commission chief general manager and Canada Post CEO”. He was present when the decision was made to buy “the province’s untested “Intermediate Capacity Transit System” (ICTS)” which we know as SkyTrain.

Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 10.43.13 AM

The parallels between us and them are obvious. The tussle between city and suburbs, the choice of technology – it’s all exactly the same

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has been on the wrong side of this issue longer than anyone. “Stopping the war on cars” to him means putting rapid transit below ground or making it grade-separated. Out of the way of cars.

It seems to me that an endorsement by Rob Ford should be enough to deter anyone. But Vision Vancouver wants a subway under Broadway. And for very similar reasons. What is even more striking is the way that the link has been made in local planning for Grandview – where towers were suddenly added to the plan, much to the surprise and dismay of those who had been consulted. And one suggestion has been this is necessary to show that Vancouver is committed to increasing density (in the form of high rise towers) at subway stations. The quid pro quo being that if the City wants rapid transit then there has to be supporting denser land use. No repeat of what happened along the Expo Line – with no development happening at all at Broadway, Namaimo or 29th Avenue stations. By the way exactly the same effect was seen along the second subway in Toronto. The Bloor-Danforth line cannot be seen as clusters of towers around stations the way the Yonge line can be.

It is also worth re-iterating that the idea that a subway can be inserted underneath an existing street without interfering with it is foolish. Sure cut and cover subways and surface light rail create disturbance all along the street, but subway stations are significant objects at major intersections and have to have connections to the surface. And despite the nonsense that was peddled by the Canada Line constructors, entrances are needed at all street corners, not just one of them. If only to handle transfers to other transit effectively.

But also if you build very expensive subways, and you want fast services, there are going to be fewer stations – and most development is going to have to occur within a short walk of the station entrance. Do not think you can do that without upsetting the neighbours. Or you can have enough new development without increasing building heights significantly.

To make the headline a bit clearer, politics is always going to decide how public money is spent on major infrastructure projects. There is no way this can decided simply by technical considerations. These are not engineering  decisions. They are planning decisions. They are about place making. We have already plenty of experience of what happens to places when decision making is based on engineering standards. It is absolutely right that both politicians and communities get involved. The important thing is that the final outcome is not decided on short term political advantage.

The Scarborough RT was supposed to have been extended north and then east from Scarborough Town Centre to serve a new area of affordable housing known as Malvern. But the route, protected from development, ran though a neighbourhood that got built before the line did. When the TTC got ready to start building the local politicians listened to the protests of the neighbours who did not want trains running past the end of their backyards. Malvern, by the way, is now one of the greatest concentrations of visible minorities in Toronto – and one of the poorer and most troublesome areas for crime and social problems. Which cannot be blamed on SkyTrain!

What the headline means is that politicians tend to make decisions based on what is best for their party, or will be most popular with current voters. Politicians who act with an eye to the long term future are much rarer. But the decision to build the Canada Line underground beneath Cambie was based on those kinds  of calculation. Or rather, the decision to refuse to consider light rail – either along the existing CP right of way in the Arbutus corridor or along the “heritage boulevard” of Cambie Street – was all about placating the existing voters, not about accommodating the people who were going to move to the Vancouver region.  Or looking at something like “the best benefit-for-cost solution”.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 28, 2013 at 10:48 am

Why a 24 hour SkyTrain service is not a Good Idea

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I was at a social function recently, where I was introduced as a transit expert. The person I was introduced to was adamant that SkyTrain ought to operate twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. He claimed that is what happened on other transit systems (though he could not name any). He was supported by a musician who pointed out that bars stay open later than the transit system, and getting those people home without them needing to drive was an important safety concern.

I did try to explain why nighttime was important for maintenance – and the need for a safe working environment – but I could tell they were not convinced. SkyTrain is, of course, driverless though I suppose half speed trains under manual control might be better than nothing (not that I went into that detail then.)

About the only system I am aware of that operates round the clock is the New York subway.

Railway Age reports that they are finding that closing overnight for maintenance has some very important benefits

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority says its new FASTRACKmaintenance strategy has produced “unprecedented productivity gains.” Under that strategy, while lines are closed overnight for track maintenance, a first for a 108-year-old subway system that has taken pride in running its trains 24/7. The initial deployment of FASTRACK forces was completed on the Lexington Avenue Line over the weekend.

“It was clear from the first night that in terms of productivity and efficiency, FASTRACK is a major improvement in the way we perform subway maintenance and a perfect example of what can be accomplished when labor and management work as a team to improve the system,” said NYC Transit President Thomas F. Prendergast. “I consider this effort a success and it could not have come about without the hard work and dedication of the hundreds of Transit workers who worked on the tracks, tunnels, and in the stations.”

For four consecutive weeknights, three work trains supported nearly 70 workcrews in the stations along the line segment as well as the tunnels and into the Joralemon Tube that connects Brooklyn to Manhattan.

“Jobs that would usually take weeks or months to complete were accomplished in days because, for the first time, maintenance workers were allowed to perform their tasks without the interruption of passenger trains rolling through a massive work area that stretched from Grand Central-42nd Street to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn,” said MTA. “During the four-night period, more than 300 vital tasks were completed—from rail replacement to roadbed cleaning to the scraping and painting of ceilings over tracks and platforms.Much of this work had not been performed in several years and some of it could only be done in the absence of trains over an extended period of time.”

While Skytrain is closed for four and a half hours overnight service is still available by NightBus although service is not frequent or especially widespread. It is however much more reliable than bus service during the day as there is no traffic to compete with for road space. It takes about an hour to get from downtown Vancouver to Richmond Brighouse so it is not especially fast either.  And is not much help if you need to get further south.

Maybe like the less dense suburbs this is a time of day when shared ride might shine?

Written by Stephen Rees

January 18, 2012 at 10:22 am

No turnstiles for SkyTrains until 2012

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Fare Gate at Wilshire/Normandie

Fare Gate at Wilshire/Normandie, Los Angeles

The CBC is reporting that not only will the Canada Line be turnstileless when it opens – so will SkyTrain for at least another three years. That is when a new smart card system might start to be implemented.

“We could see turnstiles starting to appear in the system by 2012,” Hardie told CBC News on Thursday.

“We hope to actually have some work done a little bit later that will lead to some contracts for not only turnstiles, but also the smart card system that complements the turnstile system.”

The turnstiles, regular readers will recall, were an obsession of the previous Minister of Transport Kevin Falcon. (He now overseeing the breaking of the election promise not to cut healthcare spending.) In his eyes turnstiles would eliminate crime on the transit system. It turns out of course that the two issues are not related. And even though Translink is strapped for cash, the turnstiles do not seem capable of doing much for cash flow either. They do not appear among the many revenue generating ideas that Translink has floated – but they will of course be a significant capital cost to introduce and a major addition to operating and  maintenance costs if they are indeed installed.

I suspect that if Translink does not get all of the new $450 m it is seeking, then this idea may well get quietly forgotten about. After all, since it will not actually increase net revenue  and does nothing to boost ridership, then plenty of other ideas will take precedence – especially if there is no political pressure to make it happen. And that pressure to be effective these days will have to come from Victoria, and they are going to have a great deal more important things to worry about in three years time, when a lot of chickens will be coming home to roost.

That does not mean necessarily that smart cards bite the dust either – but gates are not actually necessary with new technology. Indeed, for safety reasons, some systems with gates leave them open by default, and only close them if no valid media is present near them when somebody tries to get through. You can also use smart cards, proximity readers and mobile checkers in a gate free system and get very high levels of compliance – especially if the users have an incentive to use the readers, as they would with a fare by distance system. But that would require a complete reworking of the current system – which itself may or may not be worthwhile but is well beyond the scope of this post.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 14, 2009 at 9:56 am

Skytrain has run its course; LRT is the way to go.

A debate is to be held at the Vancouver Public Library’s  McKay room (Bottom level of VPL downtown at 350 West Georgia St, Vancouver) on Wednesday, January 21, 2009  at 7pm

Arguing the Affirmative:
Patrick Condon, Senior Researcher, UBC Design Centre for Sustainability

Arguing the Negative:
Mike Harcourt, Former Premier of British Columbia

As a former premier of British Columbia, mayor of Vancouver and city councilor, Mike Harcourt helped British Columbia earn its reputation as one of the most livable places in the world. His focus on conservation and sustainable development – and his resolve to contribute to the transformation of cities and communities around the world – has played a significant role in promoting quality of life for those in Canada and abroad.

After stepping down from politics, Harcourt served as a member of the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy, where he served on the Executive Committee and Chaired the Urban Sustainability Program. He was a B.C. Treaty Commissioner, and he was chair of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee for Cities and Communities and he co-chaired the National Advisory Committee on the UN-HABITAT World Urban Forum. Harcourt also chaired the Directors Selection Committee on behalf of Mayors in collaboration with Translink and B.C. Ministry of Transportation. He is Honorary Chair of the International Centre for Sustainable Cities, and Co-Chair of the International Panel of Advisors.

Professor Patrick Condon has over 25 years experience in sustainable urban design; first as a professional city planner and then as a teacher. He started his academic career in 1985 at the University of Minnesota, moving to the University of British Columbia in 1992, acting first as the Director of the Landscape Architecture program and later as the James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Livable Environments.

As Chair he pioneered multi party sustainable community design workshops now generally known as charrettes, starting in 1995 with the seminal Sustainable Urban Landscapes Surrey Design Charrette.

Since that time he has worked to advance sustainable urban design in dozens of major charrettes, and scores of publications. He has lectured widely in both Canada and abroad, and is the author of several books, most recently “Design Charrettes for Sustainable
Communities”, Island Press.

He has been instrumental in establishing the highly successful Smart Growth on the Ground charrettes with Smart Growth BC and is currently focused on the Sustainability by Design project, a vision for a sustainable region of 4 million.

He is now a senior researcher with the UBC Design Centre for Sustainability, an urban design think tank that evolved from the original efforts of the Chair and now employees over a dozen researchers.

If you read the comments on this blog you will know why this gets posted here. It is apparently one of a series called “Langara Dialogues” and it is suggested that you get there early to ensure seating.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 15, 2009 at 7:08 pm

Posted in transit

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City Bus Drivers Say That Fare Beaters Have the Upper Hand in Confrontations

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New York Times

It is with some reluctance that I open up, once again, the can of worms that is fare evasion and transit safety. I would not have done so had not the CBC once sandbagged me on air with an unexpected clip of a New York cop talking about fare evaders as criminals.

Before you comment on this post you are required to click on the the link at the top and read the whole story in the New York times. There are also related links (the NYT understands how to use a web site now: it will take the Aspers years to catch up). It is desperately sad and my deepest sympathy is extended to the family, friends and coworkers of Edwin Thomas, who died trying to do his job.

Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, acknowledged that while the department’s Transit Bureau has more than 2,000 officers dedicated to the subway system, there are none dedicated to buses except during operations like fare-evasion crackdowns. One such crackdown, which began on Oct. 22, has resulted in 86 arrests and 349 summonses, he said.

That is because there are city police on the streets who can be summoned and get to the scene more quickly.

The point I want to make is that the NY subway system still needs to be subject to “fare evasion crackdowns” even though there are turnstiles at every station. A significant police force is required because the existence of those barriers has not made the NY subway “safe”. There was a lot all over the media yesterday about SkyTrain safety and the gap between public perceptions and reality. And a clip on CBC news of the SkyTrain CEO Doug Kelsey repeating the mantra “perception IS reality”.  Most of media decided that the proposed use of dogs made the story newsworthy. (If you want the full meal deal go to the Buzzer blog – and be sure to read the comments)

All kinds of people evade fares for all sorts of reasons. They are not all hardened criminals, and their reasons for evasion range from indigence to an attitude that fare collection is a “game” they can win at. The right wing here likes to cite New York as an example for us to follow. The examples of zero tolerance and the “broken window” strategy are cited approvingly. Yet there are on average 89 assaults on New York bus drivers a year. Edwin Thomas did not seem to get much benefit from these policies. I am far from convinced that they would change much here.

I also remain skeptical that introducing dogs will do much good either. There are plenty of people here who are extremely uncomfortable around dogs, both for cultural reasons and, even more sadly, bitter experience. There are far too many regimes that use police dogs to intimidate the populace in general. Not that I think Translink wants to do that – but (as Kelsey seems to be aware) some people may perceive it that way.

But as always my theme is that barriers on SkyTrain will not do what their proponents claim. They will be an immense waste of money and a continuing drain on the system. Money that could be spent on better transit service, which gets more people on the system. Which is what makes people feel safe. But is also what we need to make this region more livable.


Written by Stephen Rees

December 3, 2008 at 11:48 am

The Voice of SkyTrain

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Because I read I now know that there is now a Buzzer blog. And the first story I clicked on was about the lady who does the pre-recorded announcements on SkyTrain. Actually she is the new voice as the system was updated when the Millennium Line opened. I did once have a CD of the previous voice – she sang old standards, quite well as I recall. It would seem that the CD got mislaid in the recent upheavals and of course I cannot now recall her name.

Anyway there is this neat podcast with Laureen Regan of Calgary who not only does our system but BART as well. I like the sound of her voice – indeed one of the things I miss these days are the similar warm tones of the female announcers on the former CBC Radio 2. Judy Nasrullah (the only one who plays classical music now) is OK but will never replace Shelagh Rogers in my affections.

There is something special about the Canadian accent. Unlike the London accent. The tube train drivers call the voice of the Underground (“Mind The Gap”) “Sonia”. Why? Because after a while she “gets on yer nerves”

Written by Stephen Rees

October 22, 2008 at 4:28 pm

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The SkyTrain Security “Unconference”

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The following is taken from a message sent out by Karen Fung to people who attended the Vancouver Transit Camp. It casts an interesting light on how Translink is beginning to get to grips with openness and social media – or rather some of their staff are. It is probably too much to expect that the corporate culture will change as long as the present governance arrangements continue.

For those of you who may have wondered, “So what did TransLink ever
think of Vancouver Transit Camp?” I have a bit of an answer for you.

About 3 weeks ago, TransLink approached me to help them put together a
blog and an unconference to try and change up the way they engage with
the community of transit users. The topic? Security on SkyTrain. (Yes,
*that* firecracker!)

So far, the public engagement team at TransLink have been open and
awesome to learning what makes unconferences what they are – that would
be you, the members of the community, of course! Doug Kelsey, the CEO of
SkyTrain, has expressed his support and excitement for hearing more from
community members, both on the blog and at the event (taking place on
October 4th), and I’m stoked to see this coming from the top.

At the same time, I’ve also been doing a little schooling with the team
at TransLink, talking to them about being little less blog shy and more
comfortable with organizing in the open. I’ll also be co-facilitating
with Susan, someone with loads of experience in public engagement (both
with and outside of TransLink) and who’s been wonderfully open in
learning about social media.

I would like to invite Vancouver Transit Campers to take a look at the
blog I’ve set up for the unconference – it’s located at:

Tell all your transit-oriented loved ones too! 🙂 It’s in beta, so your
feedback would be great too.

I’m all about making this a platform where absolutely anyone can tell
their story about how they feel about security on SkyTrain, why, and the
experiences that have shaped that thinking. If you’d like to contribute
250-500 words, a photo essay, an interpretive dance, what have you –
send an e-mail my way and we’ll make it so!

As for the unconference itself, we’re starting to pull the details
together in the next week or two. Stay tuned on the blog for that!

I can always use some help too! Drop me a line if you’re interested (and
if I haven’t already tapped you for something 😉


Karen Quinn Fung
e: karen(at)

Written by Stephen Rees

September 6, 2008 at 9:21 am

Posted in transit

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The Monday Collection

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Quite a haul of transit stories today.

First up The Province has an op ed from Ian Bruce, a climate-change specialist with the David Suzuki Foundation. He has picked up on the idea that using the existing capacity on the SkyTrain bridge between Columbia and Scott Road could provide more people carrying ability than “20 lanes worth of traffic across the Fraser River”


SkyBridge, Patullo Bridge, New Westminster Rail Bridge 2004_0517

Over in Ontario, that province is looking a cutting back on its Environmental Assessment process to allow for faster implementation of its transit expansion projects. The Toronto Star has an approving column from Christopher Hume.

He says that transit is by definition good for the environment but

the subtext to the whole EA process had little to do with the environment and everything to do with politics. It can be manipulated to reach any conclusion, or prove any point. Mostly, though, it was a very effective way to delay, to stall indefinitely, to put off to the next decade what might cause political discomfort now.

Which is quite a contrast to the EA process we have here now. I would be a bit wary of going in our direction if I were them. But I do have to declare that I once worked on EAs in Ontario – one for the TTC. The “Rapid Transit Expansion Program” did not build much, but Howard Moscoe, a Toronto councillor, observed it was very effective as the consultants’ financial relief program.

TTC 4054 on Spadina 2006_0111

The “Business Newspaper for Suburban Chicago” has a supportive piece on Transit Oriented Development, and it is nice to see this in a business as opposed to a planning publication. Hopefully this will get picked up out in the Valley by some of our business oriented media. It is also nice to see some good news out of Chicago, as the press in recent months has mostly been about the imminent financial collapse of the CTA.

And transit ridership is continuing to grow in New York City.

“The continued investment in new subway cars and buses is not going unnoticed by our customers who are responding by increased usage of our system,” said MTA NYC Transit President Howard Roberts, Jr.

Well that is of course nice to know. Buying more buses and trains gets you more riders. I wonder why that doesn’t occur to our politicians.

Oh, and just to blow my own trumpet a bit, I am on News 1130 right now.



Written by Stephen Rees

February 11, 2008 at 3:00 pm