Tunnel Vision

How refreshing to see a story about transit that doesn’t juxtapose subways and Rob Ford in the same sentence. Oh, sorry. Vision Vancouver has created a petition to build support for the Broadway Subway, in keeping with their consistent support for improving public transit in Metro Vancouver, ahead of the upcoming municipal election.

A tunnelled Skytrain option (RRT) is the best option for improving transit on the extremely busy Broadway corridor, so it is promising to see Vision steadfastly focused on this option. Among the benefits:

  • Greatest number of additional weekday transit trips (54,000); 320,000 daily trips
  • Shortest travel time (19 min to UBC; 50% shorter than current B-Line)
  • Grade separated – faster than LRT and does not interfere with traffic
  • 100% spare capacity at 2041 ridership levels vs. 25% spare capacity with LRT

The 99 B-Line is maxed out at 55,000 riders per day and as has been oft-repeated, is the busiest bus route in North America – it is not possible to increase the frequency of buses any further. The status quo is not an option. When you consider all of the businesses and workplaces along the corridor, including Vancouver General Hospital, the improved accessibility to these locations has enormous economic, environmental, and social benefits.

Securing funding for this $3 billion project will be a challenge, but the benefits are well worth it. Here’s hoping that all parties (including the Provincial and Federal governments and citizens) get on board.




The next consternation is…

As I browsed my news feed on the bus this morning, I noticed a trend emerging: there were service disruptions on Skytrain’s Expo line, this time east of Main Street station. Not again, I thought.

Whisking through the downtown tunnel from Granville, through the fog to Main, I opted to bus up to Broadway and onto the B-line enroute to the Millennium Line (headed to East Vancouver). It seemed the crush of people on the Main Street platform would not be going anywhere for some time, so movement was preferable. Total time added to my commute: 40 minutes. Far more than a typical day, but far less than what many people endured.

I planned my detour ahead of arriving at Main Street station. While there were transit staff present to assist with routing, I count myself fortunate that I was able to plan an alternate route. I could take either a 3, 8, or 19 bus to Broadway and connect to the 99-B line, the most frequent bus in the system. One of the incredible things about the Translink network (and other good public transit systems) became clear to me: the superb connectivity of the system allows for contingent travel in unforeseen circumstances just such as this.

Because several bus routes connect to each station, there are always alternate routes for travel, even if they’re not as fast as the Skytrain. Far from being trapped on a bus behind a collision or stall on a bridge (as I encountered on several occasions on the old 98 B-Line travelling into Richmond), or worse in a car on a gridlocked freeway, I had options for movement. It felt liberating.

Returning to the incident: the cause of the disruption turned out to be an incorrectly replaced power rail – an unfortunate but entirely possible result of the necessary upgrades the ageing Skytrain system is currently undergoing. It’s not the first such track-related incident since the project began, and it may not be the last.

However, what seems to be lost amidst the fray of frazzled commuters is that power rail replacement is a temporary project which is necessary to extend the life of what is otherwise an excellent, reliable system (on-time percentage is over 95%). The few disruptive incidents over the past few months have been well-publicized, and are perhaps to be expected in a project of this magnitude. However, they should not be taken as indicative of an overall lack of reliability for Skytrain.

Credit where it is due to Translink for supplying shuttle buses and single-tracked trains to relieve the congestion where possible, and for relaying information about the disruption and alternate options.

And let’s remember how fortunate we are to have such a well-connected system – particularly for disruptions such as today’s.

(Great) Leap Ahead: a 7 year plan for transit improvements in Metro Vancouver

With great enthusiasm, I read Gordon Price’s synopsis of a new proposed plan for transit in Metro Vancouver, and more crucially, the funding methodology required to achieve it. Paul Hillsdon and Nathan Pachal recommend a 0.5% sales tax devoted to funding the region’s share of the $21.5 billion required to implement the transit improvements over the next seven years. (Almost) everyone pays; everyone benefits.


There are clear benefits to an improved public transit network, with frequent routes throughout the region. The authors cite reduced congestion and productivity losses, improved housing and transportation affordability, and social, health, and environmental benefits as examples.

Funding options

Hillsdon and Pachal have clearly demonstrated why a sales tax is the most prudent solution. It is linked to the movement of goods and services through reducing congestion, and has been a demonstrably successful solution for funding transit in other regions, such as Seattle, Denver, and LA. It is acceptable given that the GST has been reduced by two percentage points in recent years.

The sales tax is also the most equitable, as it is applicable to everyone over the age of 15 who purchases goods and services in Metro Vancouver (about 84% of the population, according to the document). Stephen Rees rightly asks “why an ever more regressive tax system is supposed to be a good idea”. However, the negative impact of the tax on the poorest residents could be ameliorated with a tax rebate, similar to the current GST/HST rebate. It could be made even more palatable by removing less effective taxes, such as the gas tax (see below).

Other funding sources are unworkable at present. The gas tax is showing diminishing returns because of increased fuel efficiency and reduced driving. Regional mayors are rightly unwilling to increase the property tax burden on homeowners. Transit fares cannot be increased – many lower-income riders would not be able to afford the increases, and some riders would abandon transit; this is the opposite of what the plan is trying to achieve. A vehicle levy was previously rejected by residents in 2001, and is unlikely to be popular now.

Road pricing as a funding solution?

The report’s authors reject road pricing at present, arguing that it only applies to drivers, rather than all residents – despite drivers constituting a majority transportation share. However, in a comment on one of his recent posts, Hillsdon notes:

Once the tax is introduced and the transit system is “completed”, I think passing road pricing is realistic. But people need alternatives available first and the funding for those alternatives need to be stable and sustainable, not based on the mode we are trying to discourage.

I agree. While I am in favour of road pricing for encouraging a shift to more sustainable, less costly modes (transit, cycling, walking), and away from driving, the scheme would be more acceptable when the alternatives are essentially already built. It would be unfair to punish drivers with an additional cost when they do not have viable alternatives to driving in many regions of Metro Vancouver – specifically South of Fraser. We can reexamine road pricing/congestion pricing as a longer term funding solution, once the core frequent transit network, as envisioned in the plan, is built.

The time is now to Leap Ahead

Deftly dismissing the specious arguments about improving fiscal prudence within Translink (already achieved), and paying for transit through eliminating fare evasion (a comparatively miniscule amount, outstripped even by the cost of the new Skytrain faregates), Hillsdon and Pachal argue that the funding solution, and subsequent projects, must be implemented soon.

The provincial government, architects of a problematic structure within Translink (it is responsible for the conflicting needs of both roads and transit, with limited funding) and a disingenuous upcoming referendum on transit, are not taking the lead on implementing solutions. A modest sales tax to fund the transit improvements Metro Vancouver desperately needs is as affordable and straightforward a solution as we’ve seen yet.

Peak car: where are we moving to?

Like a sleek convertible cresting a windy mountain pass and carrying its momentum down the other side, so goes the overall trend in driving. Over the last decade, at least in North America, people are driving less. Building throughout the 1990s to a peak in the mid-2000s, VMT (vehicle miles traveled) has maxed out and is decreasing, at different rates depending on demographics and locations. Some people are driving shorter distances, some are substituting car trips for other modes, and some are not driving at all.

What is the driving force behind this peak, and subsequent reduction in driving? Moreover, is it a good thing?

There are several reasons, depending on where you live and how old you are. In vibrant, fast-growing cities such as Vancouver, local policy favours building infrastructure and developments for pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit ahead of motor vehicles. Incredibly, despite some antagonism towards cyclists and other “alternative” modes, Vancouver is a success story.  Although Vancouver’s population has grown considerably over the past two decades, it is the only city in Canada where the average car commuting time has not increased over the same time period. Vancouverites (motorists included) are able to move around as efficiently, and often moreso, than in the early 90s.

What about age? Younger demographics (16-24) today are less likely to hold a driver’s license than in previous generations. Cost is a consideration: vehicles are more expensive to maintain and operate now, and younger peoples’ incomes are stagnant or decreasing, compared to previous generations. While some young people may choose to live in transit-oriented areas (which are often also amenable to cycling and walking) for environmental reasons, there are also social benefits, as these areas have an abundance of cafes, bars, restaurants, parks and other areas for socializing.

This reduction in driving is beneficial in many ways. Alternative modes of transportation (transit, cycling, walking) consume less energy and are more environmentally sustainable (both from reduced fuel use and more dense development). They also increase opportunities for exercise and social interaction. After all, it’s much easier to chat with your neighbours when you’re on the bus or walking around, than when you’re whipping past in a car.

And there’s an even broader implication: although people are driving less overall, they are still able to go about their daily lives – work, chores and leisure – much as they did before cars became widespread in the post-WWII era.

Shouldn’t the goal be to allow people to move around freely, whether they choose to use a car or not? After all, prioritizing transit is “not about making it hard to drive, but about giving people options other than driving their car.” Shouldn’t people feel empowered to use the mode that best suits their needs, rather than feeling compelled to drive? Shouldn’t we be aiming to move people, rather than cars?

Automated vehicles, transit, and physical space

Let’s put the brakes on this one before it gets driven out of control: driverless cars are not the panacea for traffic woes as imagined by some technologists and futurists.

I agree with public transit consultant Jarrett Walker’s assertion that a “completely imagined future” of driverless vehicles is neither realistic nor desirable, given that there will be problems in the intermediary stages, such as how driverless vehicles and human-driven vehicles will appropriately interact with each other, and who will hold legal liability in the event of collisions. However, I am surprised that Walker did not argue the “geometry” angle for why mass adoption of driverless vehicles (particularly Personal Rapid Transit) is untenable – this is one of his significant themes.

In the series on which Walker’s post is based, author Richard Gilbert argues that

Travelling in an AT [autonomous taxicab] will be incomparably better than travelling by bus or even streetcar. As a consequence, ATs will replace much transit as we know it.

No, they won’t. There is the simple issue of the amount of space personal vehicles occupy on the road compared to transit vehicles, whether driven by a human or a computer. Technology, though wonderful, cannot overcome such a physical limitation.

A typical single-occupancy vehicle occupies far more space than a bus, streetcar or train. Even accounting for carpooling (which is not common in North America), public transit vehicles make far more effective use of limited road space than automobiles, reducing congestion and gridlock. While driverless, automated cars are no doubt more spatially efficient than human-driven vehicles and (four times as much, according to Gilbert) and require less space for parking, they still fall well short of the number of people that can be moved in a given physical space using public transit. The alternative, in car-dominated cities, is gridlock, visible and well-documented.

In his defence, Gilbert concedes that heavy rail transit, such as subways and commuter rail, will still be necessary. Transit will actually be necessary on most bus and train lines also, per the geometry issue above. However, driverless cars may be competitive in rural and suburban areas, which are only effectively traveled by car.

More jarring though, are Gilbert’s arguments about comfort and convenience. While “door to door” convenience may be necessary in the suburbs, medium and high-density areas can be very effectively served by public transit, easily reachable by nearly all pedestrians living nearby. There seems to be an underlying connotation of traditional public transit being for everyone else, given that our underlying individualism demands personal space, shielded from the sensory intrusions of strangers. What a sad comment on our post-modern society then.

I’ve used numerous public transit systems – Toronto’s (where Gilbert is based) is reasonably clean, comfortable, and efficient, though the best transit systems in other cities eclipse it. The same cannot always be said about taxis, which driverless cars are primed to compete with.

To serve you better…

I recently took a short survey from Translink, which asked for public input on proposed service optimizations to the network (full details here).

While the phrasing “service optimization” sounds a bit bureaucratic, it is a laudable and important aim: Translink has finite resources with which to serve riders in Metro Vancouver, so it makes sense to use those as effectively as possible. Striking a balance between ridership goals on the one end of the spectrum and coverage goals at the other, the plan does an admirable job of improving service, albeit not by as much as many would like.

The Design Considerations section is an impressive primer on how to most effectively structure transit routes to avoid duplication and overcrowding, while allowing connections to numerous points in the network, and at appropriate frequencies. These are the fundamentals that are often lost when discussing why certain routes should be scaled back, and busy ones enhanced, all in the name of optimization.

As a regular reader of Jarrett Walker’s blog Human Transit, and having read his book, this section is an excellent summary of his major points on what makes for effective transit networks.

There are some great new enhancements. The new 555 Port Mann Express line, running across the new Port Mann Bridge, provides a much-needed connection to the existing Skytrain network. It should provide a fast alternative to the rush hour crawl on Highway 1, in a region historically with few transit options. Although it isn’t a rail-based option, by running in a dedicated lane, it completes the roughly 35km stretch from Langley to Braid Skytrain station in just over 20 minutes – impressive.

As for the proposed changes, closer to my neighbourhood, there are improvements to a couple of the community buses. The C21 and C23 routes are proposed to be split, improving frequencies on the more frequented C23 route along Davie Street, and extending the coverage for both routes. The C21 is poised to run to Second Beach in Stanley Park, which should help with lugging around a BBQ and camping chairs for those impromptu summer picnics – currently the route terminates at Denman and Davie, some distance from the park. And the C23 may be extended along Terminal Avenue, providing local service. (While the Expo Skytrain line has run along the industrial stretch for years, new development along the road will give people reasons to stop by, rather than simply speeding past above the empty lots.)

With these proposed enhancements, the introduction of the new Compass card for fares and a pending provincial election which could be the catalyst for major upheaval in structure and governance at Translink, 2013 will definitely be a year of changes for transit riders in Metro Vancouver – stay tuned.

Alternatives to “alternative” transit

Word choice matters. I have often heard the media or regular people refer to public transit as alternative transportation; I have rarely or never seen it referred to as such among planners or transit proponents.

The word “alternative” can mean a choice between multiple options, but it can often imply that a particular option, or alternative, is inferior to the other choices. Given a choice between two similar luxury cars, either could be seen as a reasonable
alternative. But if you introduce a twenty year old, rusty (though driveable) beater car into the mix, it’s clearly the least desirable of all of the alternatives.

How does this relate to public transit? In many car-dominated cities around the world, automobiles are seen as the default choice for transportation. Public transit, where it exists, is often less desirable than private vehicles: it may not serve the destinations
people want to travel to, when they want to travel, or the journey may take much longer than it does by car. Based on the values important to most people (convenience and travel time), the private automobile is indeed a better alternative than public transit. Proponents for public transit obviously would not want to reinforce an image of public transit as inferior and less useful, and the word “alternative” could infer such sentiments.

The much maligned public transit system is often relegated to a last-ditch alternative, to be used when driving is not an option. To quote the introduction to Taras Grescoe’s book Straphanger (an excellent read, by the way), “public transportation…is often seen as a squalid last resort for those with one too many drunk driving charges, too poor to afford insurance, or too decrepit to get behind the wheel of a car.” It’s a pretty negative image.

However, “alternative” can also connote something underground or non-mainstream. Music is a great example. Many alternative bands or groups produce artistically excellent music, done for the sake of art and expression, and untainted by corporate influence or a desire to simply produce music with a broad appeal which will generate massive profits. But while an underground, non-mainstream cool factor raises the appeal of alternative music groups, it doesn’t help to spread awareness or popularity for such music. Similarly, a cool, non-mainstream image doesn’t help to sell tickets for transit. Even the cool novelty factor by itself doesn’t help ridership if the service isn’t genuinely useful. The monorail in downtown Sydney, Australia, is a great example.

As such, public transit shouldn’t be referred to as an alternative except in a situation where it’s roughly equal in usefulness compared to the private automobile – in a reasonably dense city or inner suburb with mixed uses and amenities. In places where
people can safely and efficiently move about by walking, cycling or using public transit, as fast as (or in some cases faster) than by driving. Places where driving is still an option, but it may not be the best option.

Perhaps in an ideal world, public transit and driving (along with walking and cycling) will all be usable options, and referred to as such. Certain transportation modes may be faster than others in specific cases, but each can be advantageous for certain types of journeys. Importantly, people will have the option to use the transportation mode they prefer, without feeling that certain alternatives are simply less useful. That’s an option I’d be in favour of.