My Thoughts – Re: Transportation and the July 2014 SkyTrain meltdowns

My Thoughts – Re: Transportation and the July 2014 SkyTrain meltdowns

The July 2014 SkyTrain meltdowns have probably perplexed a lot of people. In the past week, a lot of us bore witness to a level of chaos that I think had yet to be seen on the SkyTrain system in 28 years of operation.

We enjoy our SkyTrain service so much that I think that we have developed a collective expectation that things will always work out the way they’re supposed to.

Here are some of the responses I spotted on Twitter regarding the breakdown:

http://twitter.com/SantiHenderson/status/489950692669267969

http://twitter.com/BaD_KiTTy_MeLz/statuses/489943859783168001

http://twitter.com/CTVVancouver/statuses/489943945120874496

You can clearly see that there’s a lot of frustration; there’s a record of the incovenience. There’s an aura of madness that goes up in the air, as no one wants to be made late.

http://twitter.com/Charlesvancity/statuses/491315698174414848

We’re tempted to question the SkyTrain system. Bus drivers’ union leader Nathan Wood – who, on CKNW, raised an issue that Light Rail systems have outnumbered SkyTrain-type systems in terms of construction around the world, is just a bit concerned that our main rapid transit backbone can have trouble fostering a busy transit network. While his numbers on the amount of SkyTrain systems in existence are slightly off of the actual amount, I can see why people would want to raise those questions after a series of unique, 5-hour closures.

How much service was actually disrupted?

Reliability chart - SkyTrain vs other systems
Reliability chart – SkyTrain vs other systems. CLICK TO ENLARGE

You might have already seen this graphic, actually. I was wanted for a guest post on the Vancity Buzz, and had just finished creating this chart when the second consecutive major SkyTrain issue hit commuters Monday mid-day for what was unfortunately the second time in under 7 days.

SEE ALSO: Vancouverites are spoiled with SkyTrain – Vancity Buzz guest post by Daryl

Usually SkyTrain is operating for 20 hours daily – and while it’s absolutely unfortunate that the recent issues that plagued SkyTrain commuters hit during busier times of day,  a 5.5 hour meltdown constitutes just over 25% of that service – meaning service was fine for the rest of the day. This is a far better record than what was achieved during the Portland transit meltdown of 3 weeks ago, where more than 60% of service fpr the day was not on time.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s a 132 hour work-week for the SkyTrain. 5.5 hours represents approximately 4% of service provided for the week, and well under 1% of service provided for the entire year. We had this twice in one week – meaning 11 hours of service were not operated on time – but that still represents less than 0.2% of all service provided throughout the year.

SEE ALSO: Reality Check – Why is SkyTrain breaking down so frequently? – Vancity Buzz

For the rest of the year, SkyTrain is operating normally – 99.4% of service is provided, with a 94.7% on-time performance rate. SkyTrain lets us down sometimes, but this isn’t actually happening a lot of the time. We enjoy reliable, rapid service that gets us where we need to go.

On most days, we get a reliable service out of the SkyTrain system for the duration of the day.
On most days, we get a reliable service out of the SkyTrain system for the duration of the day.

What should we do about this

There’s no question that issues and system shutdowns like this can be inevitable – so is there something that we can do about it? I think that there absolutely is – and looking at these issues, it seems that there’s a lot we can learn from this. For example – a lot of the time SkyTrain will fail, it impacts all riders because many bus lines connect to SkyTrain stations. A strategy to minimize delays during system shutdowns could involve the redirection or extension of bus routes to key areas to serve riders where they already are.

Normally, the best transit agencies can do when this happens is implement a shuttle bus bridge to repace the rapid transit service. This was the same procedure in Toronto and Portland, as pointed out above. The bus bridges are released as demand allows, but there’s no specific protocol that is followed in the event of a failure – meaning it can take some time before the bus bridges actually start, with passengers delayed until then.

PHOTO: Shuttle buses line up to board passengers at Metrotown
No one llikes to deal with slower shuttle buses replacing SkyTrain service!

But, it’s important to be prepared.

So, here’s an important disclaimer: I was lucky enough to not be there for both of these recent SkyTrain disruptions.

But, before you lambast me with comments of “you don’t know what we face!” or “try being on a train when it happened”, I would like to comment that I have seen my share of SkyTrain delays and disruptions before.

Prominent was the one that hit our system in April 2013, when a power rail issue in New Westminster halted trains on the system for close to an hour and required the deployment of shuttle bus bridges. I was on the problem train, and remember what it felt like as my train was passing the problem area and the electricity was suddenly cut. I remember how staff restarted the train and tried to move it past the area again, only for it to once again come to a grinding halt. I was heading from Surrey to the last showing of the theatre play at Windermere Secondary School, to see the performance and meet some friends in a yearly event that I consider to be something of a tradition. With the level of delays, I was unfortunately not able to make it to Windermere until the play ended.

It’s important to remember that transit isn’t the only form of transportation that isn’t always reliable. Accidents on key arterials or bridges can disrupt the flow of traffic in the region, especially when there are two or more bridges blocked at the same time. As a driver, you might know an alternate route that might be slower but will get you there with less congestion and less time waste. I think the same needs to be true for riders of transit.

Sometimes, there’s just no way to make it on time. Regardless, I still think it’s important to be somewhat prepared for when there are issues – and handle ourselves calmly and responsibly in times of crisis.

Gas prices of late are reaching all-time highs in Metro Vancouver. Source: Vancity Buzz
Gas prices of late are reaching all-time highs in Metro Vancouver. Source: Vancity Buzz

There’s an important message that can be had from the recent issues, one of which is a need for all of us to step back and realize that every possible way to get around has some sort of volatility. Even as we walk, we risk tripping on something that can temporarily impair our most basic ability to get around. The reality is, no matter how we choose to get around, we may run into issues. And, with the amount of money we sink into our demand to get around, it’s understandable why there’s such a high level of frustration when a transportation service you must rely on does not work out – not just on the SkyTrain but everywhere else.

Think about it. It’s true, right? So much of the money we earn goes towards the basic function of getting around. Transportation defines the way all of us live – so much that I think we don’t realize that it costs a lot of money to get around in this society. We take our transportation for granted – and for the younger ones, who may have benefited from the subsidized and discounted U-PASS, it’s especially not easy to realize this. However, this is the reality of the life we live. An average suburban household might spend more than 60% of income on the house and car – dealing with gas prices at all-time highs and ownership costs.

But where do I start?

It all starts with looking at where you live and where you might be going, and looking at your alternatives well in advance. For example: what are the bus routes near your house, and where can they take you. Which routes are your best options (accounting for frequency, speed, etc.) Or, if you live in Surrey and you tend to need to get across the Fraser River a lot, how much money can you set aside in case you need to pay for a cab to get across? If you vaule your money, what are the alternate bus routes to get you around once you do get across? (for example: the 123 from New West Station goes to Brentwood, or the 100 22nd St Station goes to South Vancouver).

As a society, we have to be anticipative of issues and have the knowledge to deal with it in real time – because often, transit authorities have limited resources and can’t always do that.

Appendix

Anyway, to conclude this, I’ve seen the comments to the Vancity Buzz post on Facebook, etc. and some of you asked for the sources for my on-time performance numbers – which I have listed below.

I know it’s questionable given I have omitted certain systems, so to clarify – if there’s a system I omitted, it may be because of the difficulty in actually finding the numbers (the internet, in a limited time frame, can only get you so far!) or due to measurement standards that weren’t too comparable (I was looking at adding some Light Rail systems in New Jersey to the list, but NJ Transit’s stats measure with poor standards that consider runs on-time even if they are 6 minutes early or late, so I chose to omit). Listed below:

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.

Vibrant Communities, Productive Citizens: a Surrey Rapid Transit Vision

Vibrant Communities, Productive Citizens: a Surrey Rapid Transit Vision

Surrey Rapid Transit Vision - Minimap

Background

(scroll down to read the vision!)

If you’ve read about me in any way, you’ll likely know about my issue with the Surrey at-grade rail (Light Rail Transit) proposal. It was the turnkey issue that became responsible for dragging me into a world of politics. As a stakeholder,  it motivated me to educate myself as best as I could about issues in the community, and is the reason why I pay attention.

My problem with Light Rail? As much as everyone seems to like the option – especially over a SkyTrain expansion – and as much as it DOES work well in many locations around the world, the reality of Light Rail in Surrey is that it won’t help us achieve ambitious goals (rather restricting us from getting to them ever); won’t move our people the most efficiently; and won’t give us the most benefits for the cost.

These aren’t wild claims; these are facts and stats that have been made clear in numerous studies, including TransLink’s Surrey Rapid Transit Study. So far, people across the city of Surrey – from stakeholders to big advocacy organizations like the Surrey Board of Trade – have disregarded these facts and stats. It really dismays me to see that over $5 million that was put into the Surrey Rapid Transit Study – which was made specifically to compare the rapid transit options from a technical perspective – is largely going to waste.

One of the most alarming things about the proposal for me is that one of the proposed corridors (104 Ave to Guildford Town Centre) will actually see transit worsen with Light Rail, especially during its construction. It’s been a concern not just as a long-time resident of the Guildford area (and a rider on 104th Ave transit routes), but as a generally astute Surrey issues follower for the sake of citizens in all areas, and our region.

With over 5 years of advocacy of Light Rail Transit from numerous city organizations and politicians, stakeholders like me now face a situation where city organizations that control our future unanimously support Light Rail and unanimously disregard its serious downsides. Light Rail for Surrey was recently approved in the Mayors’ Council’s regional transit vision, which is why I believe the time for action is more urgent ever. It’s a perfect time, actually, with the next municipal elections only months away and the attractive lure of political discussion in this city being just around the corner. I think there’s a real potential to turn this around, and I think it has to be done more than ever.

So today I present you with a new Surrey Rapid Transit Vision: a vision that promises more practicality at a lower cost, and with more than twice the transit improvement benefits for our citizens. And, I plead that you don’t ignore this.

It’s the convergence of my best research, put together in a way that residents, current politicians and candidates for the upcoming Surrey municipal elections will be able to understand. In the following months you will be seeing me circulating this presentation to associations in the city and working hard to make this issue clear in advance of the next municipal elections. You’ll see me contacting potential Mayor and Council candidates,  current politicians, the media and stakeholders about this issue. You’ll see me working at this because I believe this is a big issue and people NEED to hear about it, right now.

Without further ado:

Vibrant Communities, Productive Citizens: A Surrey Rapid Transit Vision

(Recommended: Tap the icon on the bottom right to view in full screen!)

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.

TransLink maps: 2004 vs. 2014

TransLink maps: 2004 vs. 2014

Now that I guess we’re all in a sort of transit thinking mindset with yesterday’s Mayors’ Council plan reveal, here’s a bit of transit history!

I found this old transit map dating from about 10 years ago while on a recent internet browsing rampage. Here are some highlights about our previous transit network:

Translink system Map - circa ~2004
Translink system Map – circa ~2004. [CLICK] for full size
  • Unbuilt/nonexistent: Canada Line SkyTrain, VCC-Clark Station, 96 B-Line
  • Other nonexistent routes: 84 VCC-Clark/UBC,555 Port Mann Express, 301 Newton/Richmond, 791 Maple Ridge/Braid Stn, 620 Tsawassen/Vancouver, 430 Metrotown/Richmond, 531 White Rock/Langley, 364 Scottsdale/Langley, C12 Lions Bay
  • The routes were coloured in red!
  • Different route numbers! The #10 was part of the #8, and the #14 was the #10
  • No #9 service whatsoever past Alma
  • #135 continues to Stanley Park Loop
  • Today’s C21 and C23 were previously the #1
  • Today’s C5 and C7 were previously the #114 and #115
  • Today’s C71 and C73 were previously the #317 and #328
  • Richmond had several peak hour express routes (491, 496, etc) that complemented local routes and ran to Vancouver
  • The #41 used to do an evening detour onto Thunderbird Blvd at UBC
  • The #640 was the Tsawassen Ferry route!
  • The #319 portion between Scottsdale and Newton was served by separate #322
  • The #340 was one huge, confusing mess of a route running on today’s 340 and 341 bus routes
  • South Surrey just introduced community shuttles

For comparison: today’s map at [CLICK HERE]

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.

The consequences of this BC educational conflict are real

The consequences of this BC educational conflict are real

Above video: the Johnston Heights senior choir performs for students

At Johnston Heights Secondary in Surrey, where I completed my grade 12 education early last year, the ongoing disputes between teachers and the government have caused the cancellation of at least one major school event, one of which I was looking forward to attending: the year-end music (band and choir) concert.

The J.H. Music Program is one of the best in the city, having participated in numerous major provincial events such as MusicFest in Ottawa, 2010 (earning the silver award for both band and choir), several consecutive Kiwanis Music Festivals, and the Envision Jazz Festival in Surrey. As an alumni of this program and a member of both the senior wind ensemble and jazz band, I cannot stress enough how important the year-end concert is in the spirit of learning and school culture.

The year-end concert is a celebration of music and school culture, and it represents the culmination of a year’s worth of practicing, learning, dedication and team-building. It attracts other students, parents, and alumni who were in the music program to witness the music-making talents of a new generation of students who participate in the Grade 8, 9 and 10-12 senior bands; the grade 8, 9-10 junior and 11-12 senior choir; the chamber choir; the string ensembe; and the intermediate and senior jazz bands. The latter four are courses that are held outside of the school time and are the culmination of willful attendance, participation and commitment from both the teachers and the students who are involved.

With the school inaccessible outside of normal school hours (which is also preventing students from using the bandroom facilities for practice), this event has been put off indefinitely for the year 2014. It may be the first year in several consecutive years that the school music program did not hold a year-end concert, and I am sad to see that my peers aren’t going to be able to celebrate their hard work and dedication to music.

This is just one of the many inconveniences students have to face because of the ongoing conflict between teachers and the government. Not just now, but in the past several years of deteriorating school conditions.

North Surrey Secondary's 5 block schedule

At the North Surrey Secondary school here in Surrey, too many students and an overcrowded school building have forced the school to adopt an awkward five-block schedule [CLICK HERE]. NSSS staggers students across the 5 blocks, so that older students study for the first four and younger ones for the last four (or combinations with study blocks).

I have often – in letters to the editor, and in other posts on this blog – discussed the realities being faced by students not just in the current conflict but on a year-by-year basis. Not far from Johnston Heights Secondary and at North Surrey Secondary, 5-block schedules are needing to be adopted to deal with increased overcrowding, lack of facilities, and growth in the community.

In the same manner as North Surrey, many schools have been forced to make serious, critical cuts to deal with cut funding levels and increased teacher stress. I’m not sure if North Surrey still requires a 5-block schedule this year, but I was hearing about it from numerous close friends when I was in high school – and I was also hearing about the troubles this schedule gave them – troubles in scheduling conflicts and stress.

See also: The Real Reason Children Have Lost the Freedom to Roam

One of the dangerous criticisms I’m hearing in the current debate is how kids are being used as “bargaining chips”, resulting in the implication that the teachers fighting their battle over class sizes and competition and pay levels are careless.

However, critics also forget that many teachers have kids too – and these kids are as much participants in the pubic education program as the ones who are being taught. Many of the teachers I personally knew were parents of one or more kids, and a few of them gave birth to new kin while I was in my high school years. In the short term, these kids will theoretically suffer as much from their parents’ course of actions as the rest of the students participating in this school system, and I think it shows that what the teachers are fighting for is more than just their own living conditions and demands. I think it is evident that it is also about good learning conditions for their kids and ours.

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.

Montreal may use SkyTrain technology for Champlain Bridge "LRT"

Montreal may use SkyTrain technology for Champlain Bridge "LRT"

After Côté tribute, council debates Champlain Bridge transit

BY RENÉ BRUEMMER, GAZETTE CIVIC AFFAIRS REPORTER MAY 26, 2014

MONTREAL — The start of Monday’s monthly city council meeting was dedicated to a man who never served as an elected official but whose life left an enduring mark on a city he loved.

After his homage, a large part of the meeting was dedicated to the question of putting a light-rail transit system on the new Champlain Bridge, a topic close to the heart of Marcel Côté. [READ MORE – The Gazette]

In the City of Montreal, City Council is at odds as to what type of transit should complement the replacement of the dangerous Champlain Bridge, which has come under increased scrutiny after the federal government announced its funding.

SEE ALSO: Federal budget promises fix for Montreal’s aging Champlain Bridge, new Windsor-Detroit border crossing – National Post

Montreal’s transit authority is pleading the City Council to vote in favour of a Light Rail Transit (LRT) system on a replacement for the crumbling Champlain Bridge, whereas some stakeholders prefer a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. The LRT line, initially meant to provide an alternative transit option for the corridor with no Champlain Bridge replacement, has been in the planning stages since before the need to replace the bridge was identified.

I was reading about this and came across a concept image for the proposed highway median LRT system, on the official website for the proposed line. The yellow-coloured train looks suspiciously like a Mark II SkyTrain vehicle in a 5-car configuration:

CONCEPT IMAGE - Champlain Bridge LRT, taken straight off of the AGENCE MÉTROPOLITAINE DE TRANSPORT website
CONCEPT IMAGE – Champlain Bridge LRT, taken straight off of the AGENCE MÉTROPOLITAINE DE TRANSPORT website

I did some further digging and found that this image is repeated in the preliminary design studies for the light rail transit system, which is comprehensively suggesting that the desired specifications of the new “LRT” line are fully compatible with linear induction motor propulsion (“SkyTrain technology”) and will be using similar rapid transit vehicles.

SEE ALSO: Highway 10/Downtown Montreal Corridor LRT study

This is made evident by a number of items on the project’s list of desired performance criteria on page 32:

• an attractive service operating at a high commercial speed (over 50 km/h) and a high maximum speed (100 km/h);
• a high frequency (intervals less than every 3 minutes at rush hour);
• a high level of safety thanks to guide rails, an exclusive track, automated operating systems and anti-collision devices;

and on page 55:

3.4.1 Operating mode
Automatic train operation has been retained because, among other things, it allows for reduced service intervals and running
times, increased flexibility for adjustments of timetables and intervals, as well as improved safety, better controlled accelerations,
and greater passenger capacity in each train set.

and on page 56:

3.4.7 Car performance requirements
…The design load of the cars (seated passengers + four standees/m2) is 131 passengers per car. Each train will be made of 5
cars and will therefore have a capacity of 655 passengers.

Notice how this is exactly the passenger capacity of a Mark 2 vehicle.

With 80-90m platforms, frequencies less than 3 minutes, 5-car trains, and high-floor cars on a fully grade-separated right-of-way with 6% slopes… almost everything matches. You name it, SkyTrain has it, and Montreal’s Champlain Bridge “LRT” is also going to have it.

Studies have identified that the proposed rapid transit line, which will be fully grade separated, has a positive benefit:cost ratio of 1.11:1. It is 15km long, and advertises a travel time of just 18 minutes from the outbound terminus to Montreal City Centre.

Montreal Champlain LRT recommended alignment
Montreal Champlain LRT recommended alignment – taken from study

Why this matters

You may recall that I recently started a new blogseries called The Problem with SkyTrain critics, which comes at a time when several SkyTrain or other rapid transit expansions are being debated here in Metro Vanouver. One of the problems I have identified with SkyTrain critics (and will be discussing shortly in more articles on the matter) are the numerous dubious claims of SkyTrain’s “obsolescence” – SkyTrain critics claim that the technology, which was developed in the 1980s, no longer has a place in rail rapid transit planning.

SkyTrain criticsdeny SkyTrain’s potential as a high-quality rapid transit system that generates billions of dollars in transportation, developmental and economic benefits. They clutter our blog-feeds, newsletter sections and comments with endlessly varied suggestions to perpetuate the belief that SkyTrain simply isn’t the best option for investment.

SEE ALSO: The Problem with SkyTrain Critics – Denying the Benefits Part I

But, this is the second example I have uncovered as of late that shows that the technology we use in SkyTrain is becoming a serious rail rapid transit option for cities worldwide. In another recent blog article, I brought to light that Kuala Lumpur [SEE HERE] has approved an additional 36km of SkyTrain expansion in addition to the ongoing 17km extension of the Kelana Jaya Line. Other extensions are taking place in Sendai, Japan and in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Guangzhou Metro recently opened a new metro line using SkyTrain technology, which already carries over 700,000 passengers daily.

The success of SkyTrain (in particular, the Canada Line) has also inspired the Montreal airports authority to advocate for a light metro-type shuttle to the airport.

SEE ALSO: Montréal-Trudeau Airport Light Rail Shuttle Study
The JFK AirTrain was one of the rapid transit systems mentioned in the Champlain LRT study as a reference, alongside the Millennium Line and Canada Line in Vancouver.
The JFK AirTrain (which uses SkyTrain technology) was one of the rapid transit systems mentioned in the Champlain LRT study as a reference, alongside the Millennium Line and Canada Line in Vancouver.

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.

Kuala Lumpur: New 36km SkyTrain line to complement extension

Kuala Lumpur: New 36km SkyTrain line to complement extension

UPDATE – 11th April 2015: SkyTrain technology has been CONFIRMED for the proposed Klang Valley Line.

Today I bring you news from Malaysia! A news release from a few days ago reveals details of a new 36km SkyTrain line to complement an already under-construction 17km extension of the Kelana Jaya line are beginning to surface. The new extension would run from a proposed new transit hub, intersect the Kelana Jaya Line, and then travel through Shah Alam to a terminus at Klang – a city of close to 850,000 people situated 32km west of Kuala Lumpur.

The original regional transportation plan finalized in 2011 [CLICK HERE] proposed that this line would be constructed after 2030; however, a re-examination of the business case in June 2013 has resulted in the project being pushed up to the pre-2020 timeframe. An even newer study focusing specifically on the line details itself has suggested that there are immediate benefits to reap – and with that, the line is now a top priority investment. Construction is likely to begin on the new SkyTrain extension at the beginning of next year, where it will parallel the ongoing extension of the Kelana Jaya Line.

See Also: Greater KL/Klang Valley Urban Rail Development Plan – June 2013 [PDF]

The new plan helps show that the technology we use in SkyTrain is becoming a serious rail rapid transit option for cities worldwide, with expansions of SkyTrain-type lines now well under way in multiple cities – including here in Vancouver, there in Kuala Lumpur, in Sendai, Japan and in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Additional details

The “Shah Alam LRT” will be the second SkyTrain-type line in Kuala Lumpur (or the third if the Kelana Jaya Line extension is considered a separate line). The new line will connect directly to the Kelana Jaya Line and may offer a continuous service onto the line. With its completion, Kuala Lumpur’s RapidRail system will eclipse the SkyTrain system in the amount of in-service linear motor trackage, spanning a distance of 82km before 2020 – whereas SkyTrain (lines using linear induction motor tech) will span just 63km after the completion of the Evergreen Line. This will make Kuala Lumpur’s system the second longest linear motor rapid transit system in the world, after the 100km Guangzhou Metro system.

See also: List of Linear Induction Motor rapid transit systems

The new “Shah Alam LRT” line will complement an already in-service commuter rail transit line, similar to how the Evergreen Line will complement the non-stop West Coast Express service in the tri-cities. The rapid transit stock for the new line can be expected to be built by either Bombardier or CSR-Zhuzhou. Bombardier has been a major supplier for the rapid transit cars on the Kelana Jaya Line (ART 200/Mark II trains), while CSR-Zhuzhou has supplied standard rotary-motor rapid transit cars for the Ampang Line (but is also a major supplier of linear motor cars for the Guangzhou Metro system).

About Kuala Lumpur’s “Rapid Rail” system

Kuala Lumpur's integrated rail system. The Kelana Jaya line is in magenta.
Kuala Lumpur’s integrated rail system. The Kelana Jaya line is in magenta.

In case you weren’t initially aware, Kuala Lumpur’s “Rapid Rail” network is like a clone of our SkyTrain system overseas: the system is composed of several grade-separated, automated (driverless) rapid transit lines, many of which use the same linear induction motor propulsion technology and Bombardier Mark II vehicles used on SkyTrain here in Vancouver. The Ampang Line, the first rapid transit line using standard rotary motor technology, was opened in 1996 as the first rapid transit rail line in Kuala Lumpur. This was followed by the 1998 opening of the Kelana Jaya Line, the fully automated linear-motor type line that looks and works exactly like our SkyTrain system. The 29km Kelana Jaya Line is built with both overhead sections and bored tunnel sections through the city core. It is the busiest and most popular rapid transit line in metropolitan Kuala Lumpur with 160,000 riders daily [1], and was for a long time the only rapid transit service in the Klang Valley metropolis that broke even (revenues paid for operations costs) until the Ampang Line, which had historically fallen a few thousand riders short from breaking even [1][2], was equipped with the Thales SelTrac system to itself become fully automated (driverless) [3]. Both lines are currently receiving extensions that are due to open at around the same year the Evergreen Line is opened here in Vanouver. The extensions are shown in the above map (note the unnamed stations near the bottom). Kuala Lumpur’s Rapid Rail system has been immensely successful since its opening, being major money generators for the regional rapid transit system and the biggest drivers of ridership and high-density development. SkyTrain technology has helped the fares on RapidKL’s rapid transit lines remain completely unchanged for 10 years [4], and continue to remain the same (so far) through power tariff increases for the operating company, mainly because of increasing ridership [5]. The rapid transit lines are considered the “key revenue-generator contributor” for Prasarana, the regional transportation authority if the Klang Valley [6]

Sources/footnotes
  1. Passenger numbers from Urban Rail Development Study, page 19 [LINK]
  2. The Ampang Line breaks even at 170,000 riders daily, according to Malaysian Business (article “Red Flags” from 16 June, 2000 issue – not available online) – most recent recorded ridership was 141,000 daily
  3. The Kelana Jaya Line has been automated from start of service; the Ampang Line was refitted with the Thales SelTrac system in 2012 [SEE HERE]
  4. LRT, Monorail fares to go up next year – Astro Awani report [LINK]
  5. Prasarana Power Cost Up 17% since Jan 1 – The Edge Malaysia [LINK]
  6. Description page on Rapid Rail Sdn Bhd [LINK]
Featured image: Kelana Jaya Line train approaches station. CC-BY Flickr - @withcuriosity
Featured image: Kelana Jaya Line train approaches station. CC-BY Flickr – @withcuriosity

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.

SkyTrain critics deny benefits of driverless rail

SkyTrain critics deny benefits of driverless rail

Transit gurus in the region constantly criticize SkyTrain and it doesn’t make sense.


I think I’ve pretty much seen it all: unfound claims on SkyTrain’s financial burden, claims that entire tram networks could be built at the same cost as a SkyTrain extension (ignoring the impracticalities of trying to conduct such a massive replacement of buses without ever improving transit speed), and other alternate light-rail transit (LRT) proposals that just don’t make any practical sense.

SkyTrain is constantly being challenged, and this contention has had a phenomenal effect in getting people involved with transit planning matters. Some of the biggest names we know in Metro Vancouver transit issues discussions – the ones you might hear about in newspapers; examples include: Paul Hillsdon, Nathan Pachal, Jordan Bateman, John Buker – are or at one point have been motivated by a criticism of SkyTrain rapid transit.

If there were no one to respond to these criticisms and unearth the problems with such a viewpoint – as I am doing so now – the quality of transit planning in Metro Vanouver would deteriorate to the point where perhaps no disagreement would be had on transit projects; and consequently, little progress would be made in changing communities and peoples’ lives for the better.

Denying the Benefits

SkyTrain critics deny SkyTrain’s potential as a high-quality rapid transit system. They don’t even want to see it acknowledged that SkyTrain generates billions of dollars in transportation, developmental and economic benefits. They clutter our blog-feeds, newsletter sections and comments with endlessly varied suggestions to perpetuate the belief that SkyTrain simply isn’t the best option for investment.

They’re often proponents of Light Rail Transit (LRT), an alternative option that could allow rail transit to be built in a somewhat more flexible manner (including at-grade and on-street), who are quick to bring forward the positives of community-building, lower capital cost and less obtrusive (at-grade) infrastructure as upsides when compared to SkyTrain.

Can LRT be an appropriate solution in the transit planning sense? Absolutely. That should be quite obvious: there’s a reason why light rail investments are so popular around the world, with hundreds of proposals to reference at any time. However, the versatility of LRT should not be resulting in the dismissal of SkyTrain as another great – and often better – solution to addressing transportation problems, especially here in Metro Vancouver.

And yet, the critics are relentless in their criticisms. . Worse – they’re ridiculing and, apparently, finding reasons to shame our system and the way we’ve built it. These are the worst kind – the kind that try to deny altogether that building SkyTrain has provided Metro Vancouver with any benefits – and the ones who should arguably be disallowed from participating in public policy debacles, because they seem to have no understanding of what has been happening here in Vancouver for the past 30 years.

Metrotown has been phenomenally influenced by the introduction of SkyTrain. In the past 9 months I have spent living in Burnaby, I have witnessed the growth of at least 6 new high-rises.
Metrotown has been phenomenally influenced positively by the introduction of SkyTrain. During the year I spent living in the Burnaby area, I witnessed the growth of at least 6 new high-rises. You can see many of them in this photo.

Sample contentions by SkyTrain critics that are incorrect

1. SkyTrain hasn’t gotten people out of their cars.

TransLink’s trip diary data is a difficulty: there is little bearing that can be had about the accuracy of the measurements (this is a sample size) and the types of commutes that were recorded (i.e. are they commutes to work, shopping, and at what time of day/day), but nevertheless, it is a valid source. It’s used by TransLink and Metro Vancouver in regional planning matters,  and is and often utilized by SkyTrain critics. As SkyTrain critics have been quick to point out, the 2011 value is only 3% higher than the valule recorded in 1994 – the year SkyTrain was expanded across the Fraser River and into Surrey. It’s tempting, when you look at this, to think that SkyTrain has failed us in serving its original purpose.

The problem with these numbers is that they really don’t tell the whole story.

The trip diary draws data from 22,000 households in the region, and is meant to take a “snapshot” of a day in Metro Vancouver transportation. It is a partial survey – it’s not the same as the much more accurate ‘journey-to-work mode-share’ numbers collected by Stats Canada from every household, which show that transit mode share in Metro Vancouver is a bit higher than that collected in the Trip Diary and – together with walking and cycling – has grown significantly since 1996.

Closer studies have suggested that the biggest impact in transit modal shift is coming from SkyTrain and SkyTrain expansion. The City of Vancouver has also collected more specific numbers [Vancouver Transportation Plan Update – CLICK HERE] that not only show a big increase in transit ridership from outside of the city (i.e. connected by SkyTrain) – but also that the amount of motor vehicle trips actually declined for the past decade, despite population growth.

An even closer 2009 study [Niko Juevic SFU study – LINK HERE] that more closely looked at households within both 400m and 1500m radii of Expo and Millennium SkyTrain stations showed even more significant changes – outpacing transit modal shift across the region. The opening of the Millennium Line SkyTrain had a phenomenal effect on the surrounding area: within a 1500m radius of each station, transit mode-share had nearly doubled 4 years after the line opened – growing at more than 4x the regional average rate.

I compiled a summary of these numbers in the graphic below:

Modal shift in Vancouver - data compiled from Statistics Canada, Metro Vancouver and 2009 study by Niko Juevic

2. 80% of SkyTrain riders are recycled bus riders

South Surrey Park and Ride's Expansion Lot. CC-BY; Photo credit: Tay.Freder on Flickr
351 buses at Bridgeport Station wait to depart for South Surrey Park & Ride. Photo credit: Flickr – Stephen Rees

While I’ve never really been able to track a definitive source for this statistic (I have seriously only ever heard it from one SkyTrain critic group), I see it repeated in discussion circles and used as justification that SkyTrain is weak at attracting ridership. SkyTrain critics have repeated this number to contend that the majority of riders on the SkyTrain were already taking transit before the line was built, claiming that this is “double the industry standard” – and were extremely vocal in certain situations where SkyTrain expansion replaced one or mutliple bus routes, especially in the case of the Canada Line (which replaced express segments for multiple south-of-Fraser bus routes heading into Vancouver).

Firsty, I have never understood why such a vague 80% number is being portrayed as a weakness. In the City of Calgary, a single centralized high-density core and the most expensive downtown parking in North America combine with free park-and-ride facilities along Light Rail Transit lines to give the Calgary C-Train the majority of its nearly 300,000 daily boardings. The Calgary C-Train is a versatile system and many of its riders have chosen to use transit, but not for their entire commute – the first segment of their trips is more often being done by car than by bus, walk or bike.

If the majority of SkyTrain riders are taking other transit to get there first, then that is at least as much a strength as much as it is a weakness (and, very likely, very much more a strength) – because this kind of transit commute coherency is simply not being replicated by other rail transit systems.

The versatile Calgary C-Train services nearly 300,000 boardings every day - but outside of the city core, Park'n'Rides such as this one contribute the majority of C-Train ridership. Image source: Calgary Transit website
The versatile Calgary C-Train services nearly 300,000 boardings every day – but outside of the city core, Park’n’Rides such as this one contribute the majority of C-Train ridership. Image source: Calgary Transit website

Secondly, this claim – at least in the case of the Canada Line – certainly doesn’t hold up to collected ridership numbers.

Passenger measurements by Canada Line operator ProTransBC collected by the Richmond Review were showing that Canada Line ridership in its first few weeks averaged 77,000 – meaning over 55% of today’s ridership numbers were already on board the Canada Line before September 7th, 2009 – when the 98 B-Line and 490-series express routes were terminated, and the many South-of-Fraser express buses (351, 601, etc) were terminated at Bridgeport rather than continuing to downtown Vancouver.

These bus routes make up only a small percent of the Canada Line’s total ridership – the vast majority were choosing to ride the Canada Line before any of these buses were transferred to terminate at Bridgeport or eliminated. A rider survey conducted in 2011 indicated that 40% of those surveyed were new to the system – that being, they previously drove and did not take transit at all for that commute – and that riders’ biggest vaues for the system were speed, frequency and reliabillity.

With the cancellation of the 98 B-Line and associated peak-hour express routes, it’s true that a number of the Canada Line’s passengers were riders of the previous bus-only system; however, this is something that needs to be expected from all rapid transit projects regardless of technology and alignment. Each and every SkyTrain line, C-Train Line, Portland MAX line, etc. replaced a previous bus service and took in riders from that bus service.

Claims like this also downpay the benefits being provided to any previous bus riders, whose faster commutes are fostering increased productivity, lower stress levels and better comfort. For most of the first month of operation, the 98 B-Line continued its operations alongside the new Canada Line until its termination on September 7th. Riders had the option of continuing to ride the 98 or take the new SkyTrain – and as evidenced by ridership numbers that averaged more than double what the 98 B-Line carried before the new SkyTrain opened, the majority of 98 riders were opting for the faster ride.

The proof is in the ridership

A Canada Line train pulls into Marine Dr Station - photo by Larry Chen, license obtained
A Canada Line train pulls into Marine Dr Station – photo by Larry Chen, license obtained

See also: Surrey’s Next Mayor should Push for SkyTrain – Surrey Leader letter

The Canada Line, which was introduced just 4 years ago, is already a Vancouver icon; a part of this city’s fabric of life. It’s hard to believe that less than 5 years ago, the link between downtown Vancouver and Richmond was a miserable bus trip that took as long as the SkyTrain’s Expo Line took to travel nearly twice the distance to Surrey. As a daily rider of the Canada Line to reach Kwantlen University in Richmond (and again later in the day to go from there to work downtown), the Canada Line’s benefits are evident to me in person. I don’t have to worry about potential traffic issues heading into Vancouver that can make buses (or even light rail trains) late – and neither do the 121,999 others who ride with me each and every day.

Riders, stakeholders and decision makers have been clamouring to build something similar and soon under Broadway between UBC and Commercial-Broadway Station. Support has been near unanimous, because previous experience with SkyTrain has shown us that we can be confident about the expanding the system.

Local mayors who were concerned that the expense of SkyTrain would make TransLink’s assets like electric trolleys “crash” were proved wrong when the Canada Line exceeded ridership expectations well ahead of time.

In walks of transit planning and provision, I have always thought that SkyTrain isn’t getting enough credit for what it does. SkyTrain has been part of why Metro Vancouver has lead North American cities in transit ridership. We rank third in transit trips per person per year, behind only New York and Toronto.  We’re ahead of Montreal, Boston, and Washington, D.C. – cities with full-size metro systems – and far ahead of cities with only LRT systems. This has grown from 4th in 2006.

We are achieving great things because we approved the construction and expansion of the SkyTrain system. Which is why making sure SkyTrain critics who mess up the facts do not get a grip on transit-planning decision makers is my top priority for this year.

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.

NEWSLETTER: Next Surrey Mayor should support SkyTrain

NEWSLETTER: Next Surrey Mayor should support SkyTrain
Concept image of at-grade LRT on 104 Ave
Concept image of at-grade LRT on 104 Ave. Notice the reduction in through traffic lanes.
“The LRT or BRT plan to Guildford is very inconsiderate… Never mind the permanent effects – during construction, Guildford residents will be giving up quality transit altogether. Commute times to Surrey Central will double or worsen as 96 B-Line buses must share that one lane of traffic or detour.” All this for several (four plus) years to save one minute using the LRT.

If anything, these words probably highlight one of my original reasons to oppose the Surrey Light Rail transit plan, then as a resident of the Guildford area of Surrey. This later materialized into a strong research effort and the establishment of an advocacy website (skytrainforsurrey.org), one of my biggest efforts since I started discussing transportation and politics issues throughout this region.

My support for SkyTrain-type rapid transit in most any situation, something I understand a lot of you criticize me for, is probably no secret. Yesterday, in a gesture of support for planned SkyTrain on Broadway, I launched an article criticizing one planner’s poorly laid “alternative”. It was a big hit, achieving an April-May viewcount record for my blog and becoming a popular discussion topic on other blogs and boards such as on reddit.

See also: SkyTrain critic’s alternative to Broadway subway is half-baked

Now that I’m returning to this long-time advocacy priority of SkyTrain for Surrey, I hope to engage the same type of discussion. This is beginning to materialize: the Now just published a newsletter I sent encouraging the next running Mayor for Surrey to show some support for SkyTrain as a rapid transit alternative for Surrey. You can read the new letter in today’s Surrey Now issue or here online.

LETTER: I want Surrey’s next mayor to support SkyTrain – Surrey Now

One reader is adamant that expanding SkyTrain would serve Surrey much better than Light Rail Transit.

The Editor,

Surrey’s departing Mayor Dianne Watts told reporters at city hall one of the things she regrets is that she couldn’t secure Light Rail Transit (LRT) for this city, which will probably do all of us very good.

It was three years ago when she announced her LRT ambitions on the basis that SkyTrain is too expensive and disruptive. But SkyTrain has spurred billions in real estate, building entire communities like Metrotown, Brentwood and downtown Richmond. It’s building our city centre right now and is what’s responsible for making it a more vibrant area.

Because of SkyTrain, Metro Vancouver’s transit system isleading in ridership attraction in North America– ranking third in transit trips per person per year, behind only New York and Toronto. We’re ahead of Montreal, Boston, and Washington D.C. – cities with full-size metro systems – and far ahead of cities with only LRT systems.

LRT has its own downsides. It’s slower, vulnerable to accidents, and we don’t get many transportation benefits. A study suggested the monetary value of LRT’s benefits will not recover costs.

There are other implications. The LRT or BRT plan to Guildford is very inconsiderate, removing two traffic lanes on 104th Avenue. Never mind the permanent effects – during construction, Guildford residents will be giving up quality transit altogether. Commute times to Surrey Central will double or worsen as 96 B-Line buses must share that one lane of traffic or detour. Graduating students and Guildford’s many low-income residents won’t find the options they need to manage busy lives, access jobs and get to classes.

All this for several (four plus) years to save one minute using the LRT.

SkyTrain can cost more money to build but will give us actually veritable benefits. Imagine this: vibrant communities and productive citizens. Less traffic and safer roads. Newton to Guildford in 13 minutes.

Our high-quality, grade-separated rapid transit system gives us these benefits and more, and I want to see the next Surrey mayor pushing for SkyTrain.

Daryl Dela Cruz, Surrey

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.

SkyTrain critic's "alternative" to Broadway subway is half-baked

SkyTrain critic's "alternative" to Broadway subway is half-baked

Introduction

Critics of SkyTrain as a technology and rapid transit option are everywhere. Largely motivated by a fear of all megaprojects with high capital costs, SkyTrain critics are vocal, active, and will stop at nothing to act on this fear. They deny the productivity and developmental benefits that the system has given our region, and they refuse the potential that SkyTrain has to continue to be useful to our region if extended further.

With a $3 billion capital cost, it’s no surprise that numerous SkyTrain critics, fearing the investment cost, have scrambled to promote or find alternatives. “Just another SkyTrain critic” was my first response when I first read about an “alternate proposal” for a Light Rail Transit (LRT) line on 16th over a Broadway subway crafted together by Adam Fitch – a planning technician for the Thompson Nicola Regional District – just over 1 year ago when it was featured suddenly in the Vancouver Sun.

But, the response seemed to be triggered by an absolutely valid series of concerns over the impact on businesses on Central and West Broadway if an at-grade LRT were to be built on Broadway itself – including the loss of parking, impacts to parallel cycling routes, and expropriation at a few properties (particularly at Broadway and Kingsway/Main) where it would indeed be necessary. I suspected that Fitch crafted the idea to counter the imminent disappearance of LRT consideration from public policy in Vancouver.

Graphic showing Adam Fitch's LRT proposal - as reuploaded onto the Georgia Straight
Graphic showing Adam Fitch’s LRT proposal

Forget about a Broadway subway, think LRT along West 16th – Vancouver Sun

…The most appropriate solution, with due consideration for costs, regional transit priorities (i.e. Surrey, etc.) and time frame (10 years from now to build the subway at a minimum) is to build a mainly street-level light rail along the CPR corridor, the Arbutus corridor, and West 16th Avenue to UBC. Compare this route with a Broadway subway on cost, construction time and capacity, and it prevails. [READ MORE]

Over the years, this idea continued to circulate in the local discussion scene. It has been featured on a number of regional transit issues outlets, including: Price Tags, Stephen Rees, Rail for the Valley (obviously) and – most notably, but not surprisingly given the paper’s perpetual pro-LRT bias – the Georgia Straight newspaper, in a feature with an intimidating headline that immediately implies that the alternative is “better” – or at least, as reviewed by editor Stephen Hui.

Critics of the planned Broadway SkyTrain wasted no time backing this idea, calling it the next big thing, triumphing it as a “realistic priority” and denouncing the SkyTrain extension proposal as “another megaproject” in the comments for this article.

I find it unfortunate that these people were given this opportunity to further this cause, because it honestly surprises me that the idea – despite the objections from many others aside from myself – has not already died. The fact of the matter that some editors at the Georgia Straight (among others) haven’t seen is that the 16th Ave LRT and B-Line combo idea is a poor, discredited and badly planned idea from someone who doesn’t have a clue how this city works.

A 16th Ave LRT just doesn’t work

I contend that advocating for this idea is a collosal waste of time and money for three simple reasons:

  1. No benefits to Central Broadway riders

  2. Few, if any, benefits to UBC students

  3. Doubling of annual operating debt

Let’s put it into context:

Map outlining LRT proposal by Adam Fitch, planned Broadway SkyTrain and major Broadway business and activity areas.
Map outlining LRT proposal by Adam Fitch, along with planned Broadway SkyTrain and major Broadway business and activity areas. Dashed portions in tunnels.

Take a look at this stylized map showing both the routings for the planned Broadway SkyTrain extension and Adam Fitch’s LRT proposal. Notice how the planned Broadway SkyTrain services all of the busy business and activity districts on Broadway, but the LRT misses them – making the only possible benefactors the rider from either existing SkyTrain Lines, Broadway & Arbutus, and residents along the 16th Avenue corridor.

What this show is that there are clearly no benefits to Central Broadway riders – which actually make up a significant majority of the current 99 B-Line’s ridership, as opposed to UBC – and the West Broadway business district is missed as well. That’s millions of dollars in economic potential that could be unlocked, but that isn’t happening under Fitch’s plan. In what would quite possibly be the least equitable planning move in Metro Vancouver transportation planning history, billions of dollars would be spent to benefit only a small portion of the tens of thousands who are actually facing the problems that riders are facing on the Broadway corridor daily.

RRT ridership boardings and alightings on Broadway - from TransLink report, referenced on Voony's blog
RRT ridership boardings and alightings on Broadway – from TransLink report, referenced on Voony’s blog

As many, the Adam’s proposal apparently assumes that the main demand is on UBC. It is worth to mention that the numbers ran by Translink suggests that the highest demand is on the central Broadway portion (Voony’s Blog)

It was one of the shortfalls I mentioned in my original letter to the sun responding to the concept. The City of Vancouver’s report on Broadway rapid transit finds that the Central Broadway area generates at least as many trips as UBC, if not more.

It is extremely important to bring any rapid transit to where the anchors and trip generators actually are – both at the ends and along the route itself. That’s why the Canada Line uses the Cambie Street corridor, as opposed to either Granville or Arbutus Streets – because it provides strategic connections to busy anchors like Central Broadway, City Hall, various major hospitals, Queen Elizabeth Park, and Oakridge Mall along the way.

Map outlining LRT proposal by Adam Fitch and major Broadway business and activity areas.
Here’s the same map again, but with the LRT proposal on its own. See the discrepancy?

The indirectness of the proposal also has some other consequences: the proposal is 2.3km longer than any route going down Broadway, an additional distance that not only adds to the proposal’s capital costs – it brings up the travel times as well.

the Adam Fitch LRT proposal is 2.3km longer than any route on Broadway, including the current B-Line
the Adam Fitch LRT proposal is 2.3km longer than any route on Broadway, including the current B-Line

On top of the longer line distance, while parts of the line will be capable of 80-90km/h operation like SkyTrain – supported by crossing gates and some tunnelling – there are several portions of the line that will need to be limited to 50-60km/h speed limits – further dampening the supposed speed benefit:

Speed restrictions on some parts of the proposal corridor, limiting trams to the speed of the parallel road, are necessary in order to maintain community safety, structure and integrity.
Speed restrictions on some parts of the proposal corridor are necessary in order to maintain and preserve community safety, structure and integrity.

As a result of the longer distance combined with the speed restrictions, the proposal fails to offer a significant benefit to the one possible travel crowd that could seriously benefit: the UBC traveller; which brings me to my second contention: the Fitch proposal offers few, if any, benefits to UBC students.

With the longer route and deferred connections, it’s reasonable to think that many riders – especially in non-congested off-peak hours, when the 99 B-Line trip takes as little as 30-minutes end-to-end – will opt to continue using the 99 B-Line on Broadway.

This especially applies for UBC students who live on campus, where the 99 is an important connection to businesses in Point Grey/Sasamat, West Broadway and Central Broadway. Fitch’s proposed LRT links fewer business centres, with the first major business cluster from UBC being reached when the line hits Dunbar – a full 6km away, twice as far as Sasamat. Meaning, for items and needs like groceries, doctor’s appointments and other outings, UBC students likely won’t be utilizing the billions of dollars spent on Fitch’s LRT – they’ll be continuing to use the 99 B-Line.

Which brings me to the third reason why Fitch’s LRT proposal is an extremely bad idea: with the required retention of the 99 B-Line, the Fitch LRT proposal doubles the annual operating debt of providing Broadway-UBC corridor transit. By not replacing the 99 B-Line, the operating cost of providing UBC-Broadway corridor transit can only increase.

Versus the current (“business-as-usual”) setup that includes the 99 B-Line, the planned Broadway SkyTrain is expected to save $7 million incrementally in annual operating costs (see: design guide). With estimates already pitting the operating cost of a separate LRT on Broadway itself at over $10 million annually by 2041 (in 2011 dollars), the operating debt with the Fitch LRT simply doubles over the existing setup.

The bigger picture

I could go so far as to say that the Fitch LRT proposal hurts the entire region, because it is really that short-sighted in terms of practical thinking.

As aforementioned, the planned driverless SkyTrain extension is expected to save $7 million in annual operating costs – savings that could be redirected to improving transit around the region. With over 54,000 new transit trips daily attracted around the region – more than double other studied options, including any theoretical LRT on Broadway itself – the planned Broadway SkyTrain generates new fare revenue. That would have also been a serious contributor to expanded transit around the region.

The elimination of the 99 B-Line also means bus services improve throughout the region – because the 99 B-Line consumes more than half of TransLink’s articulated diesel bus fleet. These buses could be redirected to other busy routes in the region to address growing transit demands.

With the Fitch LRT proposal, none of these improvements are able to materialize.

The introduction of the Canada Line and the displacement of several articulated 98 B-Line buses allowed capacity to be improved in services around the region, and in new travel markets such as Surrey. Seen here isa 96 B-Line bus departing Newton; the bus rapid transit route was introduced in Surrey just last year. Photo credit: The Buzzer
The introduction of the Canada Line and the displacement of several articulated 98 B-Line buses allowed capacity to be improved in services around the region, and in new travel markets such as Surrey. Seen here is a 96 B-Line bus departing Newton for Guildford; the express B-Line route was introduced in Surrey just last year. Photo credit: The Buzzer

Such bus service redirection can also take from the numerous other high-frequency bus routes that connect to UBC from different parts of the city, usually during peak hour periods. These are the:

  • 43 Joyce Station – via 41st Ave and Oakridge
  • 44 Downtown – via 4th Ave
  • 84 VCC-Clark Station (ALL-DAY) via 4th Ave, Olympic Village and Great Northern Way
  • 480 Bridgeport Station (ALL-DAY Weekdays) – via Kerrisdale and Marpole

The planned Broadway SkyTrain is the only option that offers the significant travel time benefits (cutting travel time between Commercial-Broadway and UBC in half, to 19 minutes!) that could enable the truncation of some of these routes to save even more money annually. For example: the 44 duplicates the 84, and is likely to be eliminated in favour of the faster connections downtown riders will get by utilizing the Broadway Subway with connecting routes and the Canada Line. The 480 could also be eliminated, perhaps following my suggestion. However, with the incremental operating cost savings, bus service on even these routes could theoretically be increased without costing more than the transit on the Broadway-UBC corridor today.

By denying these benefits and choosing an alternative simply because it offers the prospect of less initial capital cost, the region loses out on better transit both on Broadway itself and elsewhere.

Conclusion

Responding to the Straight over the mention of Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson being on record for supporting the planned Broadway SkyTrain extension, Fitch rather arrogantly proclaimed in the opening of the recent article on his proposal:

“He’s wrong on probably four or five fronts.”

But, as an upvoted commenter pointed out, he didn’t list a single one. Which I think highlights another problem with critics who fear studied and decided megaprojects and act quickly to try and debase them: they don’t do a good job at it. In this case that doesn’t help, because I think that the City of Vancouver has done an excellent job at laying down the benefits and the business case of a Broadway SkyTrain extension – probably much to the dismay of many critics who have already quit.

As for Adam Fitch’s 16th Ave LRT proposal, it’s evident that not only does it have no case – it really has no argument either.

*****

Author’s note: Thanks for reading this far! I encourage you to subscribe to my blog by clicking the “follow” button on the left sidebar! As I previously mentioned, I will be detailing why there is really no alternative to the Broadway subway – how its business case is proven, and why any alternatives just do not work – in a follow-up article.

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.

Optimizing Transit: Ideas for Burnaby

Metrotown's growing skyline, as seen from Royal Oak SkyTrain Station
Metrotown’s growing skyline, as seen from Royal Oak SkyTrain Station

Introduction

As a Burnaby resident and transit user for the past 8 months, I must admit that I, perhaps among others, have been bothered by the lack of structure in Burnaby’s bus transit network.

It’s evident if you ever have a look at a map of Vancouver’s transit system and Burnaby’s transit system. Notice how Vanouver manages to conform to a standard grid – but once Boundary Road is crossed, the grid gives way to a series of indirectly routed buses that twist and turn along Burnaby’s many local streets. There’s some coherency in the form of the busiest and most popular routes crossing the city (the 25, 106, 123, 129, 130, 135 express) but most of the routes swerve around the city in a non-gridlike fashion, and are unable to manage frequent transit network (FTN) service levels.

Transit map, highlighting Burnaby's transit network
Transit map, highlighting Burnaby’s transit network

For example, through travellers from Kingsway to Edmonds St and 6th Ave on the 106 face a lengthy detour as the bus detours to reach Edmonds SkyTrain Station. And, you betcha, that lack of a through connection on the C5 from Royal Oak Station to Kingsway (where there are businesses, including a major grocery store) and points north is an annoyance. The winding state of many routes also makes commutes much longer – as such that if I want to travel home from – say – the bowling centre near Holdom Station, I’ll usually take the SkyTrain the long way around. This is often faster than timing the 129 and then actually taking it, but still much slower than if I could drive. Network gaps and limitations like this are a serious impediment to transit ridership growth in Burnaby.

According to TransLink, capacity utilization of Burnaby and New Westminster’s buses dropped 2.6% in 2012 – and it was the only area of Metro Vancouver where this value dropped. Cost per boarded passenger decreased – but did so at a lower rate compared to other areas of Metro Vancouver, exceeded by only the North Shore area where it rose 1.2%.

Burnaby and New West's fare in the most recent TransLink bus performance review. Values from left to right: revenue boardings per hour, capacity utiization, cost per boarding. [CLICK IMAGE] for full performance stats of all regional areas
Burnaby and New West’s fare in the most recent TransLink bus performance review. Values from left to right: revenue boardings per hour, capacity utiization, cost per boarding. [CLICK IMAGE] for full performance stats of all regional areas
Many of these bus routes were initiated with the introduction of Expo Line service in 1986, and received minimal redesigns with the introduction of the Millennium Line in 2002, probably not helped by the major transit strike that occurred just 1 year prior. There have been a few changes since that I feel have been particularly good, such as the current C5/C7 service in South Burnaby (which apparently replaced a number of bus routes that ran less frequently and not in both directions), but there are still a lot of gaps in the service. I would like to see a regular service down Imperial Avenue east of Kingsway, but instead riders are currently being forced to walk long distances to access their bus.

The Ideas

While I was browsing through the numerous transit-oriented articles on Voony’s Blog, I found the graphic that inspired me to write this article attached to a comment on a write-up focusing on the proposed route 49 change:

[CLICK IMAGE] for full size
[CLICK IMAGE] for full size
The concept points out a simplified Burnaby bus network where routes are straight, simplified and apparentlly more frequent. The commenter (mike0123) had this to say about his image:

The local transit network in the southeast corner of Vancouver, in all of Burnaby, and in all of New Westminster is poorly integrated with rapid transit and with other local transit. The loopy patterns are similar throughout, and they are inherently indirect and infrequent and slow. Nearly all routes currently run every 30 minutes off peak.

Bus routes should run primarily on arterials perpendicular to rapid transit and connect at the stations. They should cross the city so that connections are possible at Hastings, the Millennium Line, the Expo Line, and at Marine. There should be fewer routes that are more direct and have higher frequency.

The image [above] shows a network in which most of the routes run better than 15 minutes off peak and all of the routes run at most every 20 minutes off peak. This is possible just be redistributing service without any increase in cost.

The last line captured me before I clicked on the full-size image because I see this as a value riders do consider important and may consider in their favour when discussing changing Burnaby’s transit network.

Mike makes a great point. TransLink has pointed out in their transit system performance analyses in 2013 that the highest performing routes on the system had these four common characteristics:

  • Direct, simple and consistent routing
  • Serve areas of strong demand
  • Busy destinations at both ends (strong anchors) and along the route
  • Services are designed to maximize ridership

This isn’t the only concept I’ve seen. Blogger Kyle Zheng (257van) also put together an impressive concept for Burnaby’s bus network in late 2012.

Kyle (van257)'s Burnaby bus network proposal. [CLICK IMAGE] for full size. The original network is on the top right, and there are three proposals
Kyle (van257)’s Burnaby bus network proposal. [CLICK IMAGE] for full size. The original network is on the top right, and there are three proposals

In my proposal, I have determined that there are overlapping services, and many places with extremely lacking services. By removing bus routes, higher frequencies may be achieved. This though, will decrease the coverage level (eg: I have removed the 116). From my analysis, the higher frequencies and less routes in my proposal will save money, or at least cost less than the current system.

There’s a useful point-out of which routes have what frequencies (8 or better, 15 or better, or above 15) during a mid-day time point just before the PM peak, which shows us that many of the current routes/corridors simply do not manage 15 minute off-peak frequencies. The whole plan is based on a “bus skeleton” basis of focusing on frequency and simplification. The proposals manage to give the entire network a 15 minute off-peak frequencies.

The proposal also comes with a fully costed business case analysis, which analyzes the cost of providing the current and proposed bus networks (it seems that Mike’s proposal has also been included in this analysis). All in all, it checks out: many Burnaby residents receive a 15-minute off-peak bus service in return for routing changes, and it’s possible within existing budget limitations: it doesn’t cost TransLink any (or much) more money to do this.

The Practical Limitations

TransLink's highest-performing routes. The routes highlighted in red service the City of Burnaby.
TransLink’s highest-performing routes. The routes highlighted in red service the City of Burnaby.

Unfortunately, all proposals have their flaws – and these ones are no exception. Both of the concepts are impressive in that they try to get all services to improve in frequency, but such improvements can often come at a cost to mobility.

In Mike’s proposal, many areas lose their direct connections with important travel markets and anchors. For example: services cease to exist where the 110 currently runs north of Metrotown Station, cutting off service to a major local travel anchor (Burnaby Central Secondary School – a very large school that hosts special programs not found in other schools) in addition to Central Burnaby residents in general. It would also limit connections to Burnaby’s City Hall and Art Gallery from the rest of the city and region.

Burnaby Central Secondary School is newly built and one of the region's largest. Under Mike's plan, students throughout Burnaby would lose useful direct connections to this school.
Burnaby Central Secondary School is newly built and one of the region’s largest. Under Mike’s plan, students throughout Burnaby would lose useful direct connections to this school.

The proposal also eschews major, popular portions of route 106, including Kingsway west of Imperial Street and in front of Metrotown Mall; direct connections between Edmonds Station and both Kingsway and 6th Street are also cut off. I think these changes to the 106 will become a huge problem, because the 106 is one of the 10 most cost-effective routes on TransLink’s entire bus network. As well, entire corridors in New Westminster that currently see frequent, 15-minute service – including both 8th Street and 8th Avenue – are cut from service, alienating several local businesses and residents from the service that drives their sales and productivity.

Entire areas are seeing a significant cut in bus service options. South Burnaby, for example, loses a lot of the service coverage provided by the C5, C6, C7 and 116 in favour of just one service that seems to replicate what existed before the C5 and C7 were created. Riders have less choice, and it is not as easy to travel to places like Metrotown.

All in all, the more frequent service comes at a cost: new walking distances to buses in some instances exceeds 10 minutes – something that could become particularly problematic for disabled transit users, as well as senior citizens.

*****

In Kyle’s proposal, much of the existing bus network coverage is actually retained, but there area number of obvious flaws: the first that stood out to me being the removal of the C5 – a popular transit link from my station of residence (Royal Oak). Not only does the plan limit an otherwise quick connection with SkyTrain for South Burnaby residents, but the whole plan prevents South Burnaby area commuters from making any connection to Marine Drive (route 100) and South Vancouver altogether, unless they travel to 22nd Street Station.

In many of the proposals, connections with major anchors are compromised. Proposals 2 and 3 cut 8th Street service, as with Mike’s proposal, limiting connections to Douglas College, New Westminster Secondary and many local businesses. In some instances, major anchors are just barely missed; proposal 1 has a great bus route going down Royal Oak that could offer a connection to Metrotown or Royal Oak, but this is eschewed in favour of a turn on Oakland to reach Edmonds Station, which has become a centre for several routes.

Glenlyon business park is a major commute destination for 116 riders - and it's still growing
Glenlyon business park is a major commute destination for 116 riders – and it’s still growing

The 116 is also removed – which, while explicitly mentioned in his article on the matter – is done without the provision of any replacement, alienating commuters into the South Burnaby industrial areas altogether. The reason for the removal was just something I didn’t understand, especially seeing as the 116 is doing better than many of Burnaby’s less frequent bus routes, ranking 94 of 212 Metro Vancouver bus routes in terms of cost per boarded passenger.

There are also a number of less optimal route choices. In all three proposals, the Forest Grove and Government Street areas are relegated to using a one-way 136 bus service. This will provide a one-way service every 15 minutes or better, but as I (and hopefully you also) know from TransLink’s guidelines on good route design, one-way services usually aren’t very cost-effective, nor are they in any way optimal for mobility at the end of the day.

So what should we do, anyway?

I agree – there’s a lot of room for improvement in Burnaby’s bus transit network. Mike’s proposal shows us that by pursuing a more Vancouver-styled network based on intersecting routes in straight lines, better frequencies throughout can be achieved. Kyle’s proposal also shows us that by simplifying the skeleton, we can make vast improvements to service frequencies.

I do, however, think there’s another important question we need to ask before trying to proceed with anything, that being: Is Burnaby ready for a modified network?

Some of these ideas can be carried forward. Kingsway/12th Street residents (especially those between Edmonds and 14th) coud benefit from a straight route that offers more direct connections to major anchors such as the growing Edmonds Village and Community Centre, Tommy Douglas Library, and Nikkei Japanese Cultural Centre. Straight north-south connections, so long as connections to places like Burnaby Central Secondary aren’t affected, could help residents better and faster connect with SkyTrain service and regional centres. #28 riders could probably live with the longer walk to the bus stop in favour of a straighter and more direct service on Boundary, and a route down Royal Oak Street north of the station would be absolutely great for riders. Optimizations for increased frequency always help.

However, the current network is actually doing fairly well.

Burnaby and New West's fare in the most recent TransLink bus performance review. Values from left to right: revenue boardings per hour, capacity utiization, cost per boarding
Once again: Burnaby and New West’s fare in the most recent TransLink bus performance review. Values from left to right: revenue boardings per hour, capacity utilization, cost per boarding

As I mentioned earlier, cost per boarded passenger decreased – but did so at a lower rate compared to other areas of Metro Vancouver, exceeded by only the North Shore area where it rose 1.2%. Nevertheless, at $1.33/boarded passenger, this is still the second lowest cost of any area in Metro Vancouver, defeated only by Vancouver itself.

That means that the current bus network is nevertheless working: the amount of passengers attracted to each bus justifies the costs better than in many other areas of Metro Vancouver.

The power of community consultation

A HandyDart bus is stopped outside a residential complex in South Burnaby. Photo by myself
A HandyDart bus is stopped outside a residential complex in South Burnaby. Photo by myself

The community consultations for the recent route 49 changes were popular, that would have resulted in the end of a longtime service detour to Champlain Heights that has existed since before the Expo line was built, and before the route even serviced Metrotown in Burnaby.

More than 150 stakeholders showed up to the Metrotown consultation centre in protest of the change that would have seen 49 Ave service remain on 49th rather than detour in Southeast Vancouver to service the Champlain Heights area, seen by many planners, riders and myself as a barrier to ridership and reliability on the route. The pre-Expo Line detour costs riders 5 to 10 minutes, mostly affecting riders from Metrotown heading to points on 49th, Langara College and the Canada Line SkyTrain and Richmond.

These stakeholders cited heavy ridership in Champlain Heights as well as the service needs of many seniors in the area as reasons to keep the current 49 arrangement – and I believe they had legitimate concerns. A good friend of mine who I work with in organizing the Northwest Fan Fest event lives on 49th west of Champlain Heights, and was among the more active opposition of the 49th change.

While the end of the detour would have also allowed the route to become more efficient resulting in an increased frequency for the riders who face daily pass-ups on the 49 (the 49 has the highest pass-up rate of any bus route in Metro Vancouver), the City of Vancouver ended up voting unanimously against the change, with the introduction of a motion by Councillor Geoff Meggs – meaning crosstown 49th travellers are, so far, out of luck.

I think this shows two problems with trying to make the transit network better:

  1. Improving the network overall often requires more funding (which we currently are figuring out how to provide) in order to make sure certain groups don’t lose out from the changes
  2. It’s important that there is an active discussion with the community before any bus route changes are made.

Many of the proposals sought forward by individuals like Mike and Kyle or by TransLink itself in any finalized concepts could be shot down in favour of established and subjective needs. At the end of the day, while there’s a lot of room for improvements, I think we’re going to have to be careful to ensure that in the end, both connections are improved and everyone is happy with the new service.

Impressive growth in Metrotown has created its most impressive skyline ever. More is coming in the Brentwood area and throughout Burnaby.
Impressive growth in Metrotown has created its most impressive skyline ever. More is coming in the Brentwood area and throughout Burnaby.

22, KPU Geography, J-POP enthusiast. Founding director of SkyTrain for Surrey.