Street-level rail is rapid transit’s “stroad”

Street-level rail is rapid transit’s “stroad”

Fraseropolis recently did an opinion piece on the Surrey Light Rail Transit proposal. And while that may or may not be pretty interesting in its own right depending on what you think, a comment posted by a Brendan Dawe did interest me a lot in its description of the realities surrounding at-grade (on-street) light rail transit.

Brendan Dawe on January 16, 2016 at 10:30 AM said:

What I don’t see is how an shared-grade line intended to be *rapid transit* is pedestrian friendly. Sure, if it’s going streetcars speeds than it may be, but that’d be a considerable sum to ask the rest of the region to chip in for a project that does not improve mobility overall, and as such the choice of rail over rubber would be really an aesthetic position, and as Vancouver is supposed to be paying for the non-technically-necessary costs of tunneling under Broadway, it would make much more sense to ask Surrey to pay for the extra costs of installing rail and electrical systems. If it’s going at something approaching rapid transit speeds than it’s outright pedestrian unfriendly – it’s a fast train going down the middle of a street. If it’s to be operated with the sort of priority over the street that makes practical use of the capabilities of rail transit, than it will require reduction in potential pedestrian connectivity by limiting cross walks and signal preemption. That sort of issue is why many regard shared-grade rail as inappropriate for Broadway and it’s abundance of close-spaced signalized intersections.

If elevated rail is transit’s freeway, shared-grade rail rapid transit is it’s stroad, – slow enough to be limiting, fast enough to be dangerous, and expensive to build and operate all the same.

I don’t think your observations on development form are really based on anything inherent to particular transit modes, but rather a result of what municipal governments have permitted. There’s a huge amount of demand for space in this region, and in it will take the densest form that city planners allow in reasonably well located sites. At Brentwood and Metrotown, it’s towers, while at Royal Oak or Commercial-Broadway it’s low rises and at Nanaimo and 29th Avenue it’s nothing at all. This is because Burnaby encourages dense development at official town centers while Vancouver hasn’t until recently allowed any development in SFH neighborhoods. If Surrey wants lowrise development, than it’s entirely within the competence of the authorities in Surrey to limit low-rises.

** Note: Brendan also posted this disclaimer at the beginning of his comment:
To avoid being drawn into inane technological arguments, I will be referring to ‘shared-grade rail’ and ‘elevated rail’ instead of skytrain or metro and light rail, since grade separation is the real contention.

The Real Evergreen Line Story

The Real Evergreen Line Story

Summary: Most people are still asking the question of why the province decided to suddenly switch the Evergreen Line to SkyTrain technology in 2008. I think we should be asking questions about why the LRT design process suddenly stopped, with no reason, back in 2007.


The Evergreen Line is now slated to open in 2017, which just happens to be yet another delay in a consecutive series. Nobody likes delays, and these Evergreen Line delays have injected a new wave of doubt among transit observers here in Metro Vancouver, who may remember a time not too long ago when the Evergreen Line was comparable to a hot potato. That is, hardly anyone could come to an agreement about it.

1998 SkyTrain plans for the Millennium Line. Today’s “Evergreen Line” was supposed to be part of the Millennium Line’s second phase.

During the late 2000s, what is now the Evergreen Line had to go through numerous obstacles, ranging from funding shortages to planning issues to a lack of clarity in the political commitment to the line itself. The Evergreen Line was first proposed as the second phase of what became the Millennium Line SkyTrain, cancelled along with a switch in government, and then brought back to life later on as an at-grade Light Rail Transit proposal on the original alignment.

However, perhaps one of the most perplexing twists in the Evergreen Line story was the controversial change from an at-grade Light Rail Transit system, to the currently-being built extension of the existing SkyTrain system. It took people by surprise, changed the focus of the discussion and was so significant that it caught the attention of transit bloggers in other Canadian cities.

The move was controversial because of the creation of a new business case released by the provincial government (hereafter referred to as the “2008 business case”) that overrode a previous business case released by TransLink (the “2006 business case”) for the Evergreen Line LRT. A following, final business case by the province (the “2010 business case”) adopted the results of the 2008 business case without making major changes to it, or addressing its supposed issues.

The 2008 business case explained that its recommendation for SkyTrain (ALRT) on the current corridor was based on 4 key findings:

  1. Ridership – ALRT will produce two and a half times the ridership of Light Rail Transit (LRT) technology; this is consistent with the ridership goals in the Provincial Transit Plan.
  2. Travel Time – ALRT will move people almost twice as fast as LRT (in the NW corridor).
  3. Benefits and Cost – ALRT will achieve greater ridership and improved travel times at a capital cost of $1.4 billion, with overall benefit-cost ratio that favour ALRT over LRT.
  4. System Integration – ALRT will integrate into TransLink’s existing SkyTrain system more efficiently than LRT.

The new business case recommended SkyTrain based on finding advantages in 4 key areas: Ridership; Travel Time; Benefits and Cost; and System Integration.

Light Rail advocates who looked into the study insisted that the new analysis was biased in favour of SkyTrain, saying it rejected what was an already-sound business case. Some of these people alleged that the switch was a result of insider connections, shady agreements, and other under-the-radar proceedings. 2008 was a time when it wasn’t as clear to people that SkyTrain isn’t a proprietary transit technology and it was probably no surprise that critics of the decision showed up in waves.

These critics were joined by others, including City Councils of the time, who expressed concern about some aspects of the newer business case. Two particular major players come into mind:

1. The City of Burnaby released a staff report that injected doubt into the Evergreen Line’s cost estimates, ridership estimates and evaluation. (See [HERE] for report)

“This report recommends that the Province and TransLink undertake to re-evaluate the choice of technology and prepare a business case of LRT technology for the Evergreen Line based on the concerns and questions raised in this report with regard to service speed, ridership estimates, operating and capital costs, inter-operability, community service and other factors.”

2. A Portland-based transportation engineer named Gerald Fox alleged that the analysis had been manipulated to favour SkyTrain. (The original letter was posted [HERE]).

“It is interesting how TransLink has used this cunning method of manipulating analysis to justify SkyTrain in corridor after corridor, and has thus succeeded in keeping its proprietary rail system expanding.”

At the time, no one could present an argument strong enough to combat what seemed to be a legitimate series of concerns on the SkyTrain proposal. The decisions of 2008 and the surrounding controversy continue to be reflected in the words of today’s writers, most recently surfacing with the announcement of the recent Evergreen Line delay and the ongoing SkyTrain versus LRT debate in Surrey.

It is, however, important to remember that when the Auditor General of British Columbia was asked to look into the Evergreen Line technology switch, the finished report in 2013 concluded that while some information was missing, the switch to SkyTrain was the right decision.

The Auditor General summarized the missing information as a shortfall in explaining the following:

  • Options’ risks, costs and benefits;
  • Assumptions underpinning SkyTrain ridership;
  • Wider transit system risks and dependencies; and
  • How agencies would measure performance

In the approximately 3 years since this Audit was released and the 7 years since the decision to switch to SkyTrain, new information has been released that makes it possible to fill in all four of these gaps, as well as the other concerns raised by critics and the City of Burnaby.

In an effort to compile this new information, I performed the research myself, which included extensively looking into all business cases (2006, 2008 and 2010) and other supporting evidence (including all 61 archived pages of the original Evergreen Line LRT discussion thread on Skyscraperpage).

With my conclusion that the Evergreen Line business case was not manipulated to favour SkyTrain, I present my results below.

1. Were SkyTrain and LRT compared properly?

The first and foremost concern by the auditor general was that the SkyTrain and LRT options may not have been compared properly, citing that numerous numbers in the comparison were skewed and contained significantly shortfalls.

The City of Burnaby’s staff report probably best summarized the issues that were raised surrounding the comparison. They are:

Capital cost estimates

As the capital cost estimates for LRT increased from $970 million (2006 business case) to $1.25 billion (2008 business case) with little explanation, the City of Burnaby complained that this increase was unreasonable – especially as it brought the cost difference with SkyTrain down to a mere $150 million (12%). Light Rail advocates and critics, including Gerald Fox, complained that the cost increase was manipulated to favour SkyTrain.

It was noted in the 2006 study that the cost estimate of then was done at a 90% preliminary design stage – not a fully detailed design stage presenting a finalized cost. It thus seems conceivable that costs increased while the final alternative was being analyzed for the 2008 business case.

Recently I performed some research on the capital costs of Canadian rail transit systems. With several rapid transit and light rail systems now proposed across the country, I took the opportunity to compile an inflation-adjusted comparison of the projects’ capital costs – adjusting each project for the amount of grade-separation (tunnelled, or elevated) and using that as a guideline to compare the costs. This extensive research took me several weeks to complete as I had to manually measure most of the proposals to assess the amount of grade-separation.

See: Capital costs of Canadian rail transit systems

Unsurprisingly, I reached the conclusion that – with the steepest trend in perecentage-to-cost – bored tunnel is the most expensive alignment to construct.

The Evergreen Line, no matter whether it were to be SkyTrain or Light Rail Transit, has a 2km bored tunnel as a part of its alignment through the mountainous terrain between Burquitlam and Port Moody. This accounts for about 20% of the entire route.

The Evergreen Line's 2006 estimate is marked by the "$99" at the bottom left. The 2008 estimate is the $112 above it.
(Open to enlarge) – The Evergreen Line’s 2006 estimate is marked by the “$99” at the bottom left. The 2008 estimate is the $112 above it.

My measurements indicated that the 2006 cost-per-km estimates were the lowest of the other projects. The estimate was significantly below other projects with a ~20% bored tunnel percentage, and below the average trend line that related percentage in a tunnel to rapid transit cost per km.

In other words, the 2006 cost estimates are too low and were probably incorrect.

Now that we know how much trouble it took to construct the Evergreen Line’s 2km tunnel, it’s certain that the LRT project’s final cost would have come closer to $1.25 billion. LRT tunnels need to account for pantographs and higher vehicle heights; whereas the linear motors used on our SkyTrain technology lines are more optimal for tunnels as the train is lower and closer to the ground. As a result, an LRT tunnel would have been larger and more complex and would have likely lead to additional potential problems, necessitating a higher contingency budget.

Just imagine what kind of liability chaos there’d be if a sinkhole did open under a home above the tunnel route. It hasn’t happened with our SkyTrain tunnel, but it’d be more likely under a larger tunnel (and a larger, more powerful tunnel boring machine) needed for an LRT tunnel.

Operating costs

Most critics were adamant to point out that the operating costs rose from $12.21 million in 2006, to $15.3 million in 2008 (both measurements were in 2007 dollars). What was overlooked by these critics is that the cost increase can be explained by a difference in service frequency.

The 2006 business case’s estimate was based on a 6 minute initial operating frequency. The 2008 business case’s operating costs were based on a higher 5 minute initial operating frequency to presumably make the LRT service more competitive and boost its business case (the higher frequency would have also added additional trains, explaining part of the capital cost increase). Whereas the 2008 cost estimates are 25% higher while a 5 minute frequency is 20% higher than 6, the newer numbers seem just about right to me.

Travel times

The City of Burnaby’s assessment of travel times suggested that the SkyTrain alternative’s travel time estimates were far too high and the LRT alternative’s estimates were far too low. It provided this graphic to show the disparity:

Evergreen Line graphic
Open to enlarge

Burnaby complained that the Evergreen Line’s LRT speed estimates were lower than two existing LRT systems in Canada (Calgary and Edmonton).

However, most of Calgary and Edmonton’s LRT systems are built off-street, and with gated crossings and absolute priority like railway systems. Most of the Evergreen Line as an LRT would be in the middle of streets and would have to follow the roadway speed limits (typically 50-60km/h). Naturally, this would result in slower average speeds than Calgary and Edmonton, where trains may run at 80km/h on dedicated rights-of-way.

While the SkyTrain alternative had much higher average speeds than the existing Expo & Millennium Lines (average of 43km/h), the addition of Lincoln Station to the proposal has added some length to the travel time to the extent that the Evegreen Line’s end-to-end travel time is now usually described as 15 minutes – an average speed of 43.6km/h.

At the end of the day, these differences aren’t really dictated by the transit technology. The Evergreen Line will have the system’s longest station-less segment, which is largely in part due to the 2km tunnel between Burquitlam and Port Moody stations. The higher average speeds near here would be comparable to other long sections crossing geographical features, such as the 2.3km SkyBridge segment on the Expo Line over the Fraser River.

Maximum speed

Gerald Fox also raised an issue that the stated maximum LRT speed in the 2008 business case (60km/h) was lower than the potential speed limits that could be achieved in the off-street, 2km tunnel – claiming that the 2006 business case accounted for faster running speeds of up to 80km/h inside the tunnel.

However, the end-to-end travel time estimates in the 2008 business case were actually lower than that of the 2006 business case by 0.4 minutes.

The 60km/h expression in the 2008 business case was probably meant to highlight the speed on most of the on-street sections (outside of the tunnel), which accounted for as much as 80% of the route.

In conclusion

Based on the data I’ve collected above it is clear that SkyTrain and LRT were not compared unfairly.

There is little reason to believe that the 2008 business case was wrong in assumptions. There could’ve been better distribution of the info at hand, and some improvements in the planning process (like the addition of Lincoln Station from the beginning). However, no skewering of the numbers and manipulation to favour SkyTrain has taken place.

2. Was ridership over-estimated?

Ridership was an additional concern raised by the City of Burnaby, which complained that the ridership estimates for the SkyTrain option (at 2.1 million passengers annually/km) were too high,  and that the LRT ridership estimates were too low. Burnaby complained that the 2008 business case did not provide a proper explanation of how ridership was estimated.

Open to enlarge
Open to enlarge

The LRT ridership estimates were said to be too low because they were lower than two existing Canadian LRT systems (40% lower than Calgary, and 9% lower than Edmonton). For the same reasons as I explained above, it’s not possible to put the Edmonton and Calgary systems in the same category as an Evergreen Line LRT. The Evergreen Line LRT is largely on-street; the Calgary and Edmonton systems are not, and tend to run on exclusive rights-of-way at speeds of 80km/h.

This leaves the high ridership estimates with the SkyTrain system. The auditor general raised an issue that the SkyTrain ridership assumptions with the Evergreen Line were made with assumptions that a completed transit network would be built by 2021 following the 2008 Provincial Transit Plan. This included SkyTrain extensions in Broadway and Surrey, neither of which will be built by 2021 based on the current situation.

Burnaby complained that at 2.10 million annual passengers per km, the estimates were higher than the existing SkyTrain system (1.60 million annual passengers per km) and thus much higher than would be realistic.

However, it’s important to note that the SkyTrain ridership estimate in Burnaby’s report was taken before the Canada Line to Richmond was introduced in 2009. The Canada Line’s opening broke ridership records with ridership almost immediately shooting up to its current level of 40.2 million passengers per year or over 120,000 per weekday – numbers that were well ahead of schedule even beat entire, city-wide LRT systems in ridership.

When this annual ridership is worked out per-km, the Canada Line is carrying 2.10 million annual passengers per km – the same amount that was projected for the Evergreen Line – and as such is also contributing to an increase in the system-wide value.

As costly as infrastructure like the Canada Line SkyTrain is, the investment has been proven worthy by the benefits to the tens of thousands of people using the system daily. The investment confidence that has resulted in our SkyTrain system expansions needs to be applied to the whole system.
As costly as infrastructure like the Canada Line SkyTrain is, the investment has been proven worthy by the benefits to the tens of thousands of people using the system daily.

A huge part of the reason the Canada Line was so successful was because efforts by the City of Richmond to make the elevated segment on No. 3 Road at-grade (like a light rail system) were defeated, resulting in the construction of a fully grade-separated line. The full grade-separation enabled higher trip speeds, which have been cited in rider surveys as the #1 most-liked aspect of the Canada Line system – outpacing every other favourable aspect mentioned by riders.

The Evergreen Line’s SkyTrain switch decision was largely based on favouring the faster travel-times and transferless journeys of a SkyTrain system. It’s thus conceivable that the Evergreen Line could see the same kind of ridership success that the Canada Line did.

3. Were the risks properly and thoroughly assessed?

The auditor general commented that the 2008 and 2010 business cases did not provide information on the risks that came with connecting Evergreen Line outcomes with the performance of other parts of our regional transit system. In particular, the Evergreen Line’s performance estimates did not account for the potential impacts of:

  1. the level and coverage of bus connector services on ridership;
  2. parking at the more popular Evergreen stations;
  3. changes to the West Coast Express (WCE), which provides peak commuter services for passengers who want to travel between the northeast Metro Vancouver and downtown Vancouver
  4. Evergreen services on those parts of the SkyTrain system that are near or at capacity in the commuting peak periods (for example, around Broadway station).

These concerns present significant risks and it is of my opinion that they should have been addressed.

However, accounting for these risks whenever a large transit priority is laid out in our region is hardly ever common practice. Today’s transit projects have continued the practice of tying performance estimates to grandiose plans for the rest of the regional transit system, like the transit vision crafted by the Regional Mayors’ Council that was defeated in the March 2015 referendum.

When the 2015 referendum was defeated, so too were the additional commitments to connecting bus service that would have been critical to the success of the included rapid transit projects. It’s raised concern among decision-makers such as Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart, for example, who raised a concern with the potential costs of increasing parking as additional bus services connecting to the Evergreen Line were rejected along with the other proposals.

Nevertheless, local governments have forged ahead in planning for these lines, despite the new risks created with the lack of a regional vision component. As I believe that there will be opportunities in the future to return to those other critical transit priorities, continuing planning anyway – rather than letting all transit priorities come to a halt – is the best practice.

4.  How are we going to measure performance?

The last issue concerned the collection of performance data to measure performance after the line’s opening. No framework had been set in the 2008 and 2010 business cases, and the lack of such a framework would have a consequence on future transit planning.

However, the Auditor did acknowledge in his report that a framework could still be completed in time for the line’s opening. Although it remains to be said if the province has followed through on this recommendation, this issue isn’t relatively as much of a concern as the others as it has an immediate, clear solution.


So what’s the real “Evergreen Line Story”?

When the Evergreen Line was changed to a SkyTrain extension project in 2008, the switch came after an extended halt in design work and public consultation.

Like today’s rapid transit projects, the Evergreen Line was determined through a multiple-account evaluation that includes a Phase 1 (draft option comparison), Phase 2 (detailed option comparison) and a Phase 3 (finalized option comparison and detailed design).

The 2006 study was finalized at the phase 2 stage, and it noted that its cost estimates were done at the 90% preliminary design stage.

After that, there was silence in the project design work.

At the time, there were plenty of issues around project funding (which can be backtracked to on the Skyscraperpage archives). I can understand delays with transit funding (still a very big issue with projects today). However, the funding issue shouldn’t have delayed detailed design work on the Evergreen Line LRT project. For awhile we didn’t hear anything from planners, politicians or anyone involved regarding the project’s design until rumours of a major announcement surfaced in January 2008. The final business case that was then released in February had been completed by the province rather than TransLink.

For awhile we didn’t hear anything from planners, politicians or anyone involved regarding the project’s design

So it honestly has me raising questions: what exactly was going on? Why did Evergreen Line design works come to a stop, and why didn’t the next phase of consultations take place? Did planners at TransLink realize they under-estimated the LRT costs, and had nervousy about going public with the news? Did local governments start losing confidence in the at-grade project’s business case?

There’s all these disconnects that don’t seem to make sense, and I would argue that this should have been of far greater concern than the provincial government’s decision to switch the project to SkyTrain. It’s not the province’s fault the planning department of the time had decided to cut us off for just over a year on the project’s progress. It’s almost as if the sudden switch to SkyTrain was a measure to deal with these serious problems.

All I do know is that in October 2007, the B.C. Finance minister came to the public with a statement that the Evergreen Line’s progress had indeed been frozen, but that it wasn’t due to the funding shortfall

Finance minister Carole Taylor: The premier did say last week that the Evergreen will be built. The funding is not holding it up. They haven’t decided on exactly the route and exactly the stops. So, we have made the commitment to financially be there when everybody’s ready to go.

(Above quote from: Evergreen Line not held up by funding, finance minister says – Coquitlam NOW)

This almost certainly indicates that the LRT planning department had run into issues with the design, since the 2006 business case had anticipated the start of construction by September 2007.

Instead, in October 2007 the design hadn’t been finished and the planners in-charge “hadn’t decided on exactly the route and exactly the stops.”

You be the judge, but it sounds a heck of a lot like that the province managed to narrowly get us out of an Evergreen Line LRT fiasco in its decision to build SkyTrain instead.


Jaded by SkyTrain and a lack of LRT

There hasn’t been a single, grade-level Light Rail project approved in this region except for the currently proposed project in Surrey, and that’s probably what has raised the irk of some people who have been enthusiastic about the idea of at-grade rail. It’s probably why there’s a commonly-held belief that only provincial government overrides result in SkyTrain, and that at-grade Light Rail systems don’t have major shortfalls of their own that have resulted in their rejection here in Metro Vancouver so far.

However, the argument that lack of at-grade rail infrastructure in this region really caused us to lose out on transit benefits (i.e. we could have built a bigger transit network!) is entirely debatable. The benefits of SkyTrain should be clear to decision-makers, planners and transit enthusiasts in our region.

Despite the constant use of grade-separation and SkyTrain technology, Metro Vancouver’s SkyTrain network expanded at a faster pace than any other system in Canada. Vancouver’s rapid transit growth has lead Canadian cities – and when the Evergreen Line opens to the public next year, we’ll have the longest rapid transit system in Canada spanning nearly 80km – and the longest driverless transit network in the world. The lower operating costs of driverless trains make it possible to keep expanding our transit network without bankrupting our operating budget on the cost of drivers.

Despite the constant use of grade-separation and SkyTrain technology, Metro Vancouver’s SkyTrain network expanded at a faster pace than any other system in Canada.

SkyTrain also has the highest ridership of any rapid transit system in North America that isn’t classified as “heavy” rail. At nearly 9,000 boarding passengers per kilometre, SkyTrain outperforms every single at-grade rail system in Canada and the U.S.

SkyTrain ridership/km vs. other transit systems

Data is from the American Public Transit Association (Q3 2014) unless stated

City System name (type) Weekday daily boardings Daily boardings/mile
Vancouver SkyTrain (driverless) 377,900 8,870
Calgary C-Train (LRT) 310,700 8,510
Boston MBTA light rail (LRT) 214,500 8,250
Edmonton Light Rail Transit (LRT) 98,144* 7,550
Toronto Streetcar (on-street) 281,900 5,525
San Francisco Muni Metro (LRT) 145,500 4,076
Houston METRORail (LRT) 45,700 3,571
Newark Newark/Hudson Bergen LRT 72,939** 3,143
Minneapolis METRO Light Rail (LRT) 64,500 2,938
Los Angeles Metro Rail (LRT) 203,400 2,892
Seattle Link Light Rail (LRT) 40,300 2,330
Portland MAX, Streetcar (LRT) 113,900 2,330
San Diego Trolley (LRT) 124,100 2,320
Phoenix Valley Metro (LRT) 41,200 2,060

* Q3 numbers were not reported. Data from Edmonton Transit, collected during the same period, used instead.
** Q3 numbers were not reported. NJ Transit’s own FY2014 data is used in place (the same number is reported in APTA’s Q4 ridership report).


On top of everything, SkyTrain has made us one of the most successful metropolitan areas in transit ridership with an annual ridership per capita that is 3rd highest on this continent (beat only by New York City and Greater Toronto)

Region Population Annual Ridership
(thousands)
Annual Ridership
(per capita)
New York City 19,831,858 3,893,854 196
Greater Toronto 5,583,064 1,003,230 180
Metro Vancouver 2,313,328 363,163 157
Calgary 1,120,225 157,325 140
Montreal 3,824,221 433,710 113
Boston 4,640,802 399,594 86
Washington, DC 5,860,342 456,915 78
San Francisco Bay 6,349,948 476,219 75
Chicago 9,522,434 658,203 69
Philadelphia 6,018,800 336,981 56
Los Angeles 13,052,921 620,903 48
Seattle/Puget Sound Region 3,807,148 175,215 46

Data above from South Fraser Blog

With these thoughts laid out, I’d like to see anyone try to claim that decisions resulting in SkyTrain projects over LRT are solely a result of senior-government overrides.

…or that anyone’s manipulating data to favour SkyTrain in rapid transit studies, because that’s simply not true.


Featured: Evergreen Line construction image posted by nname on SkyscraperPage

Next-generation buses coming to 96 B-Line

Next-generation buses coming to 96 B-Line

I am pleased to announce that I’ve received word through forum networks such as Skyscraperpage and CPTDB that new buses coming to Surrey Transit Centre will be 60-foot hybrid articulated buses for the 96 B-Line.

This newest bus order is being assigned to both Surrey and Burnaby Transit Centres to replace old articulated buses due for retirement, and the first buses will be arriving later this month. They will be similar to the 12000-series Xcelsior XDE60s (pictured above) currently being used on routes in Richmond and Vancouver.

The new buses will feature a hybrid diesel-electric transmission to improve energy-efficiency and solve the ride jerky-ness of plain diesel buses, offering smoother and higher quality rides. LED lighting will be used along with a better-optimized seating layout. Finally, these buses will be air-conditioned, giving Surrey riders a more comfortable experience in warmer summer months.

XDE60
One of the upcoming buses, pictured by Wade B on Flickr; licensed CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
coast_mountain_bus_company_8001-a
96 B-Line waiting to depart Guildford Exchange

Surrey’s 96 B-Line, linking Newton Exchange with Guildford Town Centre through Surrey Central, was originally made possible with a transfer of 11 of the region’s oldest articulated buses (S8001-8011) to Surrey Transit Centre in late 2013. These buses were the first “B-Line” buses brought to the region to service the #99 B-Line back in 1998.

Due to their age, the old buses aren’t always available; standard-size buses are often used as a substitute when one of the articulated buses is in for repairs or maintenance.

The upcoming XDE60’s will let the old buses be retired, while giving the city 12 of the fleet’s newest articulated buses (one additional bus!). This will ensure that every bus running on the 96 is articulated.

Surrey Plan Full Cleaned Up FINAL CROP BRT MAP
[OPEN TO ENLARGE] Concept of rapid bus service instead of LRT on King George Blvd/104 Ave.
I look forward to the arrivals of S15001-S15012. As a regular 96 B-Line user I’m excited for the new transit experience that these new buses will bring for Surrey transit riders.

I’m also excited for the potential they have in demonstrating BRT (bus rapid transit) as an option for improving transit the city. As some of you know, I have been a strong proponent of a BRT network and SkyTrain expansion over the currently proposed Light Rail Transit network in Surrey.

A Bus Rapid Transit network would reduce transfers by enabling buses to through-run onto corridors like 72nd Ave or continuously down King George Blvd. to White Rock Centre. Riders on the corridor could then use buses for longer-distance commutes with less transferring. This would also cut down on the amount of transfer line-ups that crowd buses and space at transit centres such as Newton Exchange.

It would be less disruptive to build BRT infrastructure compared to LRT infrastructure, with the potential to build gradually and avoid the service disruptions riders would face with edge-to-edge street construction required for an LRT system. A BRT system would also cost less to operate; City officials have still not demonstrated what the plan is to pay for $22 million in annual deficits for operations of the city’s LRT network.

b822206843z-1_20151116110958_000_g0j1j560t-3_gallery
This is an actual photo of LRT construction work in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, and shows the reality that Surrey commuters will have to face if the City moves ahead with an LRT.

Capital costs of Canadian rail transit systems

Capital costs of Canadian rail transit systems

There’s been a lack of clarity when it comes to the big numbers that define the planning of transit systems in Canada. It’s particularly evident when transit technology becomes a matter of discussion.

Of course, millions of dollars are at stake. So there’s no doubt that when the cost estimate for a major project is higher by so much as a few million dollars, it’s the kind of thing that sends transit advocates scrambling to get attention and some people in the media practically screaming.

So I decided to take all the recent and upcoming Light Rail projects in Canada, research their costs and alignment details, and put them in a table for proper comparison. I put the data in a Google spreadsheet:

All projects were included regardless of technology. Alignment was divided by percentage and split into/measured in 7 categories: on-street, above-grade (i.e. elevated), below-grade (i.e. tunnel, open cut), disused R.O.W. (i.e. railway R.O.W., other empty lands), bored tunnel (the most expensive kind of tunnelling), shared-lane (on-street in mixed traffic like a streetcar), and the total at-grade percentage.

Trends

Since the transit planning complaints here in Vancouver always seem to be directed at grade-separation, I decided to focus on seeing if there was a cost trend regarding the amount of grade separation for the line.

Same data as above, but sorted by amount of grade-separation

What I found is that there is a trend that occurs when the chart data is pinpointed on a graph and assessed by percentage, but it’s very inconsistent and the projects are all over the map:

Percentage below or above-grade
Open to enlarge

Several projects end up below the average and several end up above it. As an example, there’s a difference in the four projects on this chart closest to the 100% mark. The highest mark is for the proposed Scarborough extension of Toronto’s Bloor-Danforth subway line, which will be fully underground. The lowest mark is from the estimate for a SkyTrain Expo Line extension in Surrey, which will be fully grade-separated but built in an elevated guideway as opposed to a tunnel.

Despite the use of grade-separation, many of the highest-cost projects are not fully grade-separated and feature many at-grade segments that can limit potential. Even projects with only about 20% grade-separation can come close to or even breach $200 million per km.

Below-grade segments

In order to account for the differences associated with much more expensive below-grade (tunnelled) segments, I took the data and assessed it by percentage below-grade and found a much steeper and more consistent trend-line:

Percentage below-grade
Open to enlarge

The amount of systems at the 100% mark has decreased from 4 to 3, and the trend-line now hits the middle of these three dots. The middle dot, closest to the line, is the current ongoing extension of Toronto’s Yonge-University Spadina subway line. The lowest dot is the cost estimate for the ‘Broadway Subway’ (the Millennium Line’s proposed extension down Broadway), which is below the trend-line but is built around a medium-capacity system unlike Toronto’s fully-fledged, high-capacity subway.

Still, there are some differences to account for in terms of alignment. At the 45-50% mark there are two projects that deviate both from the trend-line and from each other.

2012210-eglinton-lrt
The vast majority of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT will be placed in a large and expensive underground tunnel

The higher of these two marks, at $279 million per km, is the Eglinton Crosstown LRT being built in Toronto. The Crosstown was planned as an on-street LRT system, but the central portion will be placed in a 10km dual underground bored tunnel, which spans more than half of the final construction.  The lower of these two marks is actually our SkyTrain system’s Canada Line. The Canada Line is a fully grade-separated light metro and a slightly higher total percentage of it is below grade. However, only a much smaller portion of this is expensive bored tunnel – the rest was done as less expensive cut-and-cover. Therefore, it manages to be less expensive despite the full grade-separation.

Bored tunnels

To account for that difference I created one more plot excluding everything but projects with bored tunnel segments. The plot line managed to stay the almost same, and the relationship between high capital costs and tunnels is thus made clear:

Percentage bored
Open to enlarge

Since only 13% of the Canada Line was built in a bored tunnel, it is now to the left of where it was in the last chart and sitting very close to the trend-line (the Eglinton Crosstown is also closer to the trend-line). Meanwhile, our Evergreen Line SkyTrain extension, which encountered challenging soils with its single tunnel bore, is right on the trend-line when set amongst the other systems.

Canada can’t be compared to Europe

The Tyee has probably been one of the most prominent to sound the cost-comparison alarm when they published a 2012 article titled, “Why Is TransLink’s Price for Light Rail Triple What Other Cities Pay?”

This article surmised that our Light Rail cost estimates are triple what they should be, based on cost estimates being about one-third as much in European and American cities. (And it was, of course, brought up as a way of hurling tomatoes at the idea of a Broadway Subway line – which is still a great idea for a number of reasons).

14532657623_ab73087347
Nice try, Tyee – but the Hiawatha Blue Line is largely off-street and incomparable to Broadway!

Interestingly, of all the American cities that could’ve been chosen in the comparison, it was Minneapolis and its Hiawatha Blue Line. This comparison is invalid as over 80% of the line is placed in either disused R.O.W. or tunnel, with only 20% of it being on-street. All of the other examples are from cities in Europe.

Regardless of whether you believe these numbers or not, the reality is that transit projects and their costs are more complicated than being able to be broken down into a simple cost-per-km value that can apply nationwide, across nations, or across transit projects. There are differences in labour laws, work schedule expectations, material costs, acquisition costs, logistics costs, varying land values, differences in local terrain and differences in economy. All of these need to be accounted for and thus it can’t be assumed that a transit project that cost a certain amount in Europe (or any other country, really) could be replicated in Canada for a similar cost.

Here in Vancouver, for example, any big rapid transit projects are likely to cost more than anywhere else in Canada simply because the higher cost of land would likely significantly raise the costs of project elements such as the operations & maintenance centre (OMC).

Despite this, at the end of the day, both the Broadway Subway and the LRT proposals were consistent with the trendlines across Canadian rapid transit systems.

On-street LRTs

To further address the point raised by The Tyee, I compiled one more chart between the predominantly on-street LRT systems:

Percentage on-street LRTs
Open to enlarge

From the wide spectrum in cost of what would otherwise be similar at-grade, on-street LRTs, it may appear that The Tyee would have a point. Even this can be explained, however. The two lowest-cost systems on this chart are Kitchener-Waterloo’s ION rapid transit and the proposed Victoria LRT system. They also happen to have the highest percentages (44% and 31% respectively) on a disused right-of-way (i.e. beside a railway), which is the least expensive place to build any transit because there’s no utility removal, property acquisition or street-scaping work adding to the cost.

highway_401_at_hurontario_street_9192877703
With a right-of-way this wide, the Hurontario LRT is not going to need a lot of property acquisition.

In the middle are the Mississauga and Hamilton systems, which are slightly lower than the big-city systems in Greater Vancouver and Greater Toronto (they are also among the 3 systems with occasional mixed-traffic rights-of-way), which seems just right to me. The Mississauga system (Hurontario LRT), in particular, is being built on a wide roadway that in most places still has significant allocations on either side where the roadway can be expanded if necessary (in other words, there’s almost no property acquisition).

The cost for a Broadway LRT system is certainly on the high-end of the spectrum. This makes sense as a Broadway system would need to offer the highest capacity of all of these systems and would face street-scaping challenges with the need to stay within property lines (though this won’t stop property acquisitions from being necessary at station locations). There’s also the uncertainty around an OMC, which would have likely had to be built underground and/or expensively due to the lack of lands along Broadway and high land costs in Vancouver.

Conclusion

In the end, the amount of bored tunnel has a somewhat linear relation with project costs – but grade-separation altogether does not. This doesn’t mean we should avoid building systems with bored tunnel segments from end-to-end (at the end of the day, whether to go that far or not should come down to detailed evaluations of each corridor and transportation needs), but what I do hope to achieve with this article is to facilitate an improvement in the discussion of rapid transit projects (Especially capital costs, since it seems to be the only thing people want to talk about when thinking of rapid transit projects – I, of course, completely disagree).

It’s time to stop thinking that we can build paradise if we replicate the results of other countries, at the costs those other countries experience – it’s impossible. Let’s build transit systems that are adapted to the way our cities work, so that we are sure to be rewarded with positive outcomes.

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!)

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

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Interurban is just a piece of history

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Interurban is just a piece of history
Interurban car 1225 rests at Marpole Station on the old Steveston Interurban
Interurban car 1225 rests at Marpole Station on the old Steveston Interurban in this old-time picture posted on Vancouver Is Awesome

I sent the blog post I created on the Interurban being “dead” as a newsletter to the Surrey Leader, responding to this column about it by Frank Bucholtz. Looks like it was published today on their website, and is likely going to be on tomorrow’s paper issue.

As I have a feeling that this is going to spark some further controversy regarding my comments and my stance on transit, I’d like to offer some additional comments as to why I have set my foot on this position.

The Fraser Valley interurban right-of-way has long been a target for transit advocates here in the South of Fraser (take note: Rail for the Valley initiative, South Fraser on Trax, other groups and individuals), largely on what seems to be a established bases of:

  1. Having been a previously-used transit service
  2. Being a public-owned right-of-way, therefore:
  3. Being “ready-to-build” for a relatively inexpensive Fraser Valley rail transit service.
A map of the Fraser Valley interurban right of way, and the Trans-Canada Highway.
A map of the Fraser Valley interurban right of way, and the Trans-Canada Highway.

Between these advocates and official transportation planning and funding authorities like TransLink, BC Transit and the Province in general, there has been a lot of argument. Conflicting studies suggesting different capital costs per km have been thrown around here and there and claims of bias have been called by some of these advocates, pitting one study over another and citing differing reasons as to why.

Yet, at the same time, it seems that many of these advocates haven’t answered certain questions important in determining what investments are useful and what are not; in particular, the first question I note in my newsletter: “What is the current demand, and how will it change”. How many people are even travelling between Abbotsford and Chiliwack, and between those two points and Metro Vancouver. It’s reasonable to want a constantly-running alternative to driving, but in a province mired with billions in debt, I would think that the alternative has to be very well justified.

It also doesn’t seem that any of them have bothered to look at other alternatives to providing quality transit to the Fraser Valley from Metro Vancouver. An official proposal by B.C. Transit, albeit it is without funding and without a (detailed) implementation timeline, suggests a 10-minute peak rapid bus service extending from the new Carvolth Exchange in Langley Township to Abbotsford via the Trans-Canada Highway, and a 15-minute peak service to Chiliwack. I like this idea. I think that this is a very responsible and reasonable alternative, because it does provide a quality service, and only costs enough to warrant debate if demand warrants more buses or an upgrade to trains.

What the future of Fraser Valley transit could look like, according to an official proposal.
What the future of Fraser Valley transit could look like, according to an official proposal.

I’m not an anti-history person. On the Interurban cars and service, I believe they are a truly fascinating subject on how our region has grown and how people used to get around. Last week during the Salmon Festival in Steveston, I decided to check out Interurban car #1220 (as the admission was free for the day) and found myself fascinated by the ability to switch the seat backs from forward-facing to rear-facing (driver cabs are on both sides, so the seats can be re-oriented when the train reversed), something not done even on our current SkyTrain system. I must remind myself to soon check out that actual running interurban car – no thanks to the Fraser Valley Heritage Railway Society – in Cloverdale right now, which lets people relive the past transportation experience in addition to just being around it.

While it’s great to see that a part of our history is back to be celebrated for being a part of what has created today, I sent this letter and wrote what I did because I believe it’s important that people know why history is deemed history, and that looking at doing better for the now and for the future isn’t a simple matter of looking at the past and making a suggestion that is vague, somewhat unsupported, and sole among other potentially good alternatives.

Next up on this blog: an examination of why the Interurban has been largely rejected, and an examination of reasonable alternatives that haven’t been suggested by advocates.

Until then, I have put a snippet of the letter below, and you can read the rest of it on the Surrey Leader website:

Interurban just a piece of history – Surrey Leader

Great transit is like the SkyTrain, or maybe it’s like the new 555 rapid bus: It’s reliable, frequent, runs several times daily, and is filled with choice riders – riders who justify transit over driving, largely because the services they choose are of high quality.

In one survey of riders on the new Canada Line SkyTrain, trip speed is the favourite aspect.

The old Fraser Valley interurban, which was recently described in a Frank Bucholtz column (“Surrey had great transit… 100 years ago”) as “great transit”, ran only thrice daily.

When the service started in 1910, not many could actually afford the recently invented car. It’s easy to see why ridership declined after the 1940s as the car became more affordable and routes became straighter. For many, the new options won over a three-times-daily service that cannot be missed.

I agree that it was inexcusably short-sighted that the recently partly restored interurban was ended in 1955 without a reasonable alternative, but the old interurban was not great transit. It was just… transit.

READ MORE ON THE SURREY LEADER – [CLICK HERE]

From San Francisco to Surrey: More lessons on Light Rail and transit planning

From San Francisco to Surrey: More lessons on Light Rail and transit planning

The recent article on the Metro 604 website titled “From San Francisco to Surrey: Lessons on Light Rail prompted me to look into San Francisco’s transit situation a bit deeper, as could probably be expected from me as a person concerned on Surrey transit matters.

In San Francisco, California, this is what the transit system looks like:

The region-wide BART subway system has 8 stations within the city, while the commuter CalTrain service has 2 stops in San Francisco. The City’s Municipal Transportation Agency runs the MUNI bus system and Metro LRT within its borders. The MUNI Metro began operation in the 80′s, a modern light rail service replacing former streetcar routes. (Metro 604)

What Hillsdon (writer) wants us to take away from his write-up on the San Francisco transit system, and – particularly – the MUNI Metro LRT, is that:

The San Francisco experience teaches us that LRT is a very efficient transit solution, even for big cities, if we plan the system smarter and with greater flexibility.

And most of this is based on sight, with a few numbers thrown into the mix here and there.

Now, I’m not trying to point fingers at any of the conclusions or numbers in this article here. No one’s misleading anyone. Indeed, 32% of San Francisco residents commute around by transit to work (2011 CLIMATE ACTION STRATEGY for San Francisco’s Transportation System – page 10) – This is even slightly higher than the latest number I can find in Vancouver that describes transit trips within the city. Indeed, the flexibility of LRT in San Francisco has led it to be able to serve multiple purposes fairly well. I think that there’s a certain depth that might have been left out in his takeaway here, however – and that’s why I’m writing in response to this article. I think there are more lessons we can learn on Light Rail in San Francisco.

My nitpicks with the MUNI Metro? 4 topics below:

1. Active transportation in SF vs. Vancouver

San Francisco has a walk-score of 85, which is higher than Vancouver's 78
San Francisco has a walk-score of 85, which is higher than Vancouver’s 78

Let’s take San Francisco versus Vancouver. San Francisco is like Vancouver in several ways, from the climate to the hilly terrain down to the fact that like Vancouver, down to that is largely on a peninsula. For a somewhat similar city with a walk score of 85 – which by far outranks Vancouver’s 78 on the same system (which is the best in Canada) – it surprises me that San Francisco has a lower walking and cycling mode-share at 14.3% of trips.

When walking/cycling and transit are combined, the mode-share for active/sustainable trips beginning and ending in the City of San Francisco is 48.3%. This isn’t any better than the 2006 Vancouver numbers I usually quote (Vancouver Transportation Plan update, which reported a 52% mode-share for walking/cycling/transit trips, against a 48% auto mode-share for the same trip-type). So, I’m not seeing how San Francisco’s flexible use of modern Light Rail technology makes it any more (or less) remarkable. There’s not a lot about Light Rail that makes San Francisco’s transit outshine similar cities for any particular reason.

2. The Muni Metro stops at stop signs.

There are probably not a lot of other light rail transit systems around the world that have to do this, but it does happen on the MUNI Metro. The above is just one of several examples around the city. In this one, the lack of any controlled traffic priority means that a train has to wait until every pedestrian and cyclist crosses – a cause of scheduling delay throughout the system. In this case, the system is no better than a local bus.

The fact about mixed-traffic streetcars and light rail is that they must obey the rules of the road they share, which presents such a service to a lot of weaknesses and drawbacks. It seems like many of San Francisco’s Muni METRO lines (like the K and the N) travel on minor streets, and so they face stop signs and other local-street obstructions, to the nuisance of many commuters that might otherwise be choice riders. Light Rail’s flexibility is nice, but I don’t see how using its flexibility is necessarily “better planning”. With flexibility comes a cost; I see TransLink’s mandate that Light Rail be kept in a dedicated-right-of-way with traffic signal priority investments at all times as a very good thinking, because it ensures that transit is consistent, more reliable, and more competitive as a transportation and mobility option.

In case anyone forgot, with the amount of automobile use growth rate Surrey has been seeing, that is something Surrey is going to need.

3. Light Rail line needs more…. buses?

NX Judah Express

The San Francisco experience teaches us that LRT is a very efficient transit solution, even for big cities, if we plan the system smarter and with greater flexibility.

But, the existence of this bus route throws that claim somewhat out of whack. As a “very efficient transit solution”, Light Rail shouldn’t need to be complemented with an express bus service on the basis that the express bus service adds to the usability of that corridor – but, that’s exactly what’s happening, in at least one situation in San Francisco.

The MUNI route “NX Judah” is an oddity: it’s a peak-hour express standard-length bus service that supplements the local stop portion of the N Judah Light Rail line, then operates non-stop into downtown on mixed-traffic streets. It’s an interesting oddity for me, because while the local portion makes the same local-style stops as light rail, the express portion is actually trying to compete with its subway portion. The NX (detailed paper at CLICK HERE) was introduced in June 2011 as a six-month pilot experiment with express bus service supplements. According to transit schedules (N Judah / NX Judah Express), it runs every 7-8 minutes, alternating the N Judah Light Rail line on the outer end portion of it from 48th Avenue to 19th Avenue and providing a 3-4 minute corridor frequency west of 19th.

It was a resounding success. The NX was voted permanent in December 2011 in merit of its genuine benefits. Get this – MUNI is thinking of doing it with more of their LRT lines (“The apparent success of Muni’s NX-Judah express bus service could offer hope to riders on other crowded streetcar lines.”). There may be a future in which peak-hour express buses are complementing every LRT line in San Francisco.

Above is a video on the NX Judah, which compares it directly against the N Judah Light Rail Line. According to the racers’ stopwatches, which were set to time from trip-start to trip-finish, the NX doesn’t win the race here. At 29 minutes, in this video it was slightly slower than the N-Judah which manages a 26 minute commute to 19th and Judah. As can probably be expected with a mixed-traffic bus, results may vary.

However, other reports generally put the NX as faster than the N – alongside being less stressful to ride on, because the NX adds important capacity. The fact in itself that LRT-like travel time can come so close on a bus that, while express, runs with at-grade mixed-traffic, is pretty amazing.

Why not more trains?

The interesting thing that makes me wonder is why Light Rail service could not have simply been increased on the N Judah. It definitely could use that; the Judah Street corridor is one of the busiest transit corridors in the city, carrying some 38,000 daily transit boardings – though that is still less than Vancouver’s Broadway. The at-grade corridor seems to certainly be capable of handling 3-4 minute frequencies, because the express buses and light rail combined operate at those intervals when their schedules are put side-to-side.

A MUNI Metro train exits the downtown tunnel
A MUNI Metro train exits a tunnel, another one close behind. Photo: Flickr – CC-BY-NC-ND – Frank Chan

I initially suspected that it may be due to the fact that the inner, interlined segments in the MUNI subway are constrained by the very high train frequency of interlining 6 different lines together.

The Market Street Subway, where the six MUNI Metro light rail lines interline under Market Street into downtown San Francisco, is using the same Thales SELTRAC automatic train control system as the Vancouver SkyTrain in its underground portions. In fact, the MUNI Metro pioneered the application of SELTRAC outside of ART technology and linear-induction motor trains, which has since been applied to several other systems worldwide. This was put into service in 1998, after MUNI found that coupling trains from different lines where they converged in order to maintain headways that could be sustained safely by driver-manned operation was infeasible and unreliable. With automatic train control, the shorter trains from the individual lines can be run at the higher frequencies safely.

However, according to this report [LINK HERE], the Market Street Subway (where the 6 MUNI metro lines interline) is not operating at its capacity. It is currently running at a throughput of some 33-37 trains per hour, whereas the design capacity is 50 trains per hour, and the current throughput is lower than averages seen in 2003-2004 (where throughputs reached 40 trains per hour).

Cost

The NX Judah Express pilot implementation was estimated to have an annual cost of $1.8 million, for six months of service. This translates into an annual cost of some $3.6 million.

Whereas expanding N Judah service could have required the purchase of additional light rail vehicles at significant capital cost (whereas it appears that the NX is using repurposed reserve buses from 1993), implementing the NX Judah avoided (or had reduced) capital costs. With that reason, plus having the opportunity to provide a faster service as well as improve capacity, I can see why the NX service has a great business case. The NX provided the same mobility benefit as an N service increase; while, at the same time, it has not cost a lot.

Service disruptions: A Light Rail weakness
An LRT accident in Houston, Texas
An LRT accident in Houston, Texas

What happens when there’s an accident on an LRT line? Well, you could probably expect the obvious. Emergency vehicles are everywhere, and the scene is probably closed to public. But, most importantly, if you were riding transit that day, you would probably be forced off some stations down and forced to board a crowded shuttle bus, because that’s it for Light Rail service through that area.

It appears that another key reason for the addition of the NX over the increase of N service, is the controversial reliability of the N as a light rail transit line at surface-level. Apparently, the N is, for whatever reason, the most disruption-prone Muni Metro line; a reliability issue, which might be a collision or a derailment, happens on average of every 13 days.

I have no idea whether it’s a result of a more clumsy population along the corridor, but it is true that high risk of service disruptions for whatever reason can be a weakness of any Light Rail line. The NX, on the other hand, can simply reroute to avoid these disruptions, in the case of one ever occurring – making it a very valuable backup indeed.

It could be something as simple as a double-parked car, or a vehicle running an intersection where it thinks it has the right of way … Sometimes accidents happen simply from people being stupid.

What the N and NX remind me of

The whole issue of the N and the NX reminds me of this line I once read on the Human Transit website, written by Jarrett Walker, on what could happen if a streetcar line were built along 41st Avenue in Vancouver:

From Human Transit – Is Speed Obsolete?

Let’s imagine 41st Avenue 20 years from now in a Condonian future.  A frequent streetcar does what the buses used to do, but because it stops every 2-3 blocks, and therefore runs slowly, UBC students who need to go long distances across the city have screamed until the transit agency, TransLink, has put back a limited-stop or “B-Line” bus on the same street. (Over the 20 years, TransLink has continued to upgrade its B-Line bus product.  For example, drivers no longer do fare collection, so you can board and alight at any door, making for much faster service. Bus interiors and features are also identical to what you’d find on streetcars, just as they are in many European cities.)

Suddenly, people who’ve bought apartments on 41st Avenue, and paid extra for them because of the rails in the street, start noticing that fast, crowded buses are passing the streetcars.  They love the streetcars when they’re out for pleasure.  But people have jobs and families.  When they need to get to a meeting on which their career depends, or get home to their sick child, they’ll take the fast bus, and the streetcar’s appearance of offering mobility will be revealed for what it is, an appearance.

When a Light Rail/Streetcar service can become less useful as a transportation service than a mixed-traffic express bus that complements it, that’s not a good sign.

4. There’s better transit where people are driving the least.

Better transit mission district

This is from page 6 of the San Francisco Climate Action Strategy study I quoted earlier when I was looking at San Francisco transportation mode-shares. It’s a map.

It’s a map I haven’t seen for many other cities, and it’s a very good map that I think I would like to see more of. Here it is again, overlayed onto a Google Maps representation of San Francisco:

San Francisco Proof

I’ve always been adept at pointing out the many examples of the simple philosophy that “better transit wins better ridership”, and this is an absolutely great example of just that. The rainbow coloured ribbon on this map represents the Bay Area Rapid Transit system‘s 8 subway stations in San Francisco, which connect to the district that has the thinnest red line from downtown. If you zoom into this map (click the image), the slightly thicker and darker outlines represent the MUNI Metro network. While they also provide some limited connections to this area, I think the real highlight here is the BART.

BART provides a high-capacity, rapid, fully grade-separated service that can outpace other service options. It truly competes with superior modes of transportation in terms of convenience and reliability, and – as a result – it gets the popular vote.

Despite that the Mission District is also arguably one of the better places in San Francisco to live if you drive to work (it’s on the I-280 expressway, whereas of the other four districts measured, only one of them is along a limited-access expressway of any sort), fewer people drive from here to downtown than from any other area in San Francisco.

That’s right. Whereas the MUNI Metro is trying to compete against surface streets and losing, the BART is directly competing against an expressway and winning.

The takeaway

Sometimes when other cities are thought to have great examples for other cities, there are certain examples that are not exactly “what you see is what you get”. A great example is the perceived transit-oriented development success in Portland, OR – which might have been more a result of development subsidies from 1996-onwards, than the actual transit. Many of the biggest Light Rail fans in Surrey, including our City Council, are mesmerized by the presence of so much transit-oriented development near the MAX Light Rail system, only to not know about the subsidized reality of it.

It seems it happens to often: we look to other cities for vague examples thinking they could play into our future here, and in d0ing so some vague assumptions are made, some vague take-aways are gotten. It happened when Surrey City Council visited Portland, Oregon… it appears to have happened with Metro604 blogger Paul Hillsdon’s recent visit to San Francisco… and it could happen with a lot more transit gurus.

It’s not that all of this looking for inspiration from other cities holds no value whatsoever. I just think there is really no way that we can properly conclude planning mandates about our own transit system’s future just by looking at other cities and taking from the things we see. Sights might say one thing, but numbers might say another. And, on some occasions, perhaps that might be the other way around.

To end this, here’s a great timelapse compilation of San Francisco. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful, rich, and diverse city indeed: