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.

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.

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.