TransLink did something to save people $130 million and no one noticed

TransLink did something to save people $130 million and no one noticed

In my last referendum blog article, which – suffice to say – has been a major hit with discussion communities and the media, I discussed how the “No” side in the transit referendum has skewered perspectives on our CEO salary – a naturally negative aspect of TransLink, as it can be with any public transit agency (for example, Montreal residents are also loud whiners about their CEO’s salary).

To make matters worse, there’s a positive aspect we’ve been largely ignoring: there are great things TransLink does for us that we don’t tend to give much credit for, and often give no credit for at all. Perhaps it’s a result of negative willies in the “vote no” side wanting to make sure there’s no possible way to think positively of TransLink, but those reasons are still there. Regular readers will recall that I’ve been pointing them out occasionally with posts in my “No Credit for TransLink” series.

One of them is the bond credit TransLink issued last year that no other transit agency in Canada uses, which last year saved taxpayers in this region $130 million.

Wait, wait, you didn’t hear about this? Well, the thing is, you probably didn’t. When TransLink made mention of this in a media release, the only significant media outlet that covered this unique deal TransLink made was the Vancity Buzz, and even there it did not receive the same attention that other Buzz articles have (judging by the amount of “shares”):

TransLink raises $130-million in latest bond issue

Metro Vancouver’s transportation authority has announced that it has raised $130-million through its sixth bond issue.

TransLink is the only transportation authority in Canada to raise funds directly through safe and low-risk Canadian debt capital markets.

[READ MORE – Vancity Buzz]

For whatever reason, no one else – not a single newspaper reporter or even a columnist, not a TV or a radio station, and pretty much no one in the transit issues discussion community as of yet – has bothered to take note of this very awesome thing that TransLink has been doing for all of us, so that they wouldn’t have to constantly whip out our gas tax funds to pay for projects that keep the regional transportation system in good working order.

As a bond issue, it’s not take-away money that’s been raised and it does eventually have to be repaid over the long run. However, without these low-risk bonds, we wouldn’t be able to proceed with these projects unless taxes are raised significantly in order to pay by traditional means. This is particularly relevant considering how much disagreement there’s been throughout the years regarding the raising of taxes to keep our transportation network in good, working order – it’s why we’re facing a referendum, after all.

Projects that see this money invested include the maintenance of regional roads, bus fleet renewals and the ongoing rehabilitation of major SkyTrain stations. These are great investments that save us money in the long run because they keep the transportation system reliable for its users.

Without this money, commuters in this region would still be dealing with issues such as old buses that are prone to breaking down, pot holes on our roads, and overcrowded SkyTrain stations that are not built for today’s passenger loads. If not needed immediately (and out of our own pockets), we would still have to make these investments and fix these issues eventually – and they would cost more to do so later and by traditional funding means.

A stopped TransLink articulated low-floor electric trolley. Buses like these were paid for by the additional revenue raised through low-risk bonds.
A stopped TransLink articulated low-floor electric trolley. Buses like these were paid for by the additional revenue raised through low-risk bonds.

It’s noteworthy that being able to do this requires the maintenance of a positive and stable credit rating, which TransLink must maintain year after year. That’s an achievement for which I do not recall TransLink has ever gotten any meaningful credit for at all.

“The demand for our bonds reflects TransLink’s solid financial position, and it shows strong investor confidence in the organization,” said TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis in a statement. “This access to capital helps keep Metro Vancouver’s transit and road network moving and contributes to the maintenance of transportation assets so they serve the region for years to come.”

The bonds do give us additional debt, but it should be noted that this is something TransLink has had no problem making them a part of the budget as it did manage to make a surplus last year, despite bond repayments.

And, to think that this was done under the leadership of Ian Jarvis. Perhaps if people knew about his efforts to secure unique funding that collectively made us $130 million richer last year, they would have been a little less sour about his six-figure salary. If we total up all the funding TransLink has collected this way, we’ve been $1 billion richer, in the form of well-maintained roads as well as new and renewed transit assets, since 2010.

As Canada’s only transportation agency to raise funds directly through Canadian debt capital markets, TransLink has raised more than $1 billion since 2010.

[READ MORE – TransLink press release]

I’m willing to think that perhaps the anti-TransLink “vote no” crowd had something to with why word of this had been largely supressed among local media.

No Credit for TransLink: Nitpicking at the wrong details

No Credit for TransLink: Nitpicking at the wrong details

No Credit for TransLink - A blog series on darylvsworld.wordpress.com. Original photo: CC BY-SA Lisa Parker, flickr

In the latest fiery TransLink shake-up last week, Global News decided to investigate the transit operator’s executive car allowances, demanding more detailed information through a freedom-of-information (FOI) request.

According to the FOI, last year seven executives each received a monthly vehicle allowance of $950 to $1,200 to maintain their personal vehicles and get to their meetings.  When you include the executives parking expenses, the total bill equates to more than $94,000.

The new info added plenty of fuel to the TransLink hate-on, as critics began examining the numbers and coming up with all sorts of conclusions. Questions have been raised on the amount of the monthly allowance, and on why executive aren’t making more use of the SkyTrain station next to the corporate headquarters.

It was probably no surprise that the whole reveal was likely lead on by Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation critic Jordan Bateman, who lead the comments on Global’s news article and was allowed to make this blatantly rhetorical statement on TV:

“They want you to take transit, maybe so that you can clear the roads so that they can drive their fancy cars to their headquarters”

Seriously though?

Has anyone spared a thought that if a TransLink executive needed to get to a meeting in Clayton Heights or Langley, the reason they probably wouldn’t be taking the SkyTrain and the #502 bus is because it could displace another passenger down the road on one of the region’s most notorious routes for pass-ups?

A Reality Check

All sorts of taxpayer-supported government agencies and crown corporations are given a car allowance as part of their benefits – and TransLink’s executive allowances are not on the high end. I actually find it impressive that TransLink is being given only just over $1000 in monthly car allowances to roam around North America’s largest service area, whereas other taxpayer-supported authorities are being given far more for their cars.

Councillors in the City of Surrey have been getting twice that to roam largely within their own cities (in 2011, then-Councillor Marvin Hunt rang taxpayers over $2000 in car allowance expenses).

With the burning trails of TransLink hate bright in the eyes of many people, it’s no wonder that Global would run this story. It’s even worded and executed as if to try and convince people that it’s something new – that it’s something they don’t know. No doubt when people hear the words “freedom of information” or “FOI”, it suggests that whoever’s being questioned is trying to hide something – in this case, that it’s more money than what we already know is being paid. However, the remuneration numbers in TransLink’s salary disclosure document did include car allowances:

“Remuneration” includes any form of salary, wages, overtime pay, vacation, banked time payout, car allowance, cleaning allowance and other taxable benefit paid during the year. Certain remuneration does not include any non-taxable benefits or any amounts payable under a severance agreement (2013 TransLink salary disclosure, page 9)

That means that the car allowance number being reported by Global is a part of the reported base salary number – for reference, this number for CEO Ian Jarvis is about $330,000 (page 71). It’s merely a detail in an existing pay number that is being nitpicked at.

I know that executive pay rates in the midst of a transit funding crisis is an issue, but I want to raise this question: should this detail even matter? Especially with a referendum that could be dominated by a short-sighted anti-TransLink vote?

And, where is the news coverage on the details that really should matter? Whereas big television news and media outlets are quick to jump on anything that could be considered taxpayer waste by TransLink, when TransLink does something unique among transit agencies in Canada to save taxpayers millions of dollars they just don’t give TransLink credit where credit is due.

Wake up, Vancouver: TransLink is working to save you money

Just a few days ago, TransLink announced that it had pulled in $130 million through a unique method of revenue-raising: low risk bonds. TransLink is the only transportation authority in Canada to raise funds directly through safe and low-risk Canadian debt capital markets. The program helps fund needed capital investments and maintenance costs, and has saved taxpayers over $1 billion since 2010.

“The demand for our bonds reflects TransLink’s solid financial position, and it shows strong investor confidence in the organization,” said TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis in a statement. “This access to capital helps keep Metro Vancouver’s transit and road network moving and contributes to the maintenance of transportation assets so they serve the region for years to come.”

See also: TransLink raises $130 million in bond issue – Vancity Buzz

So far the only media outlet that is willing to bat an eye is the Vancity Buzz, and I think that really says something about the quality of the media we rely on today here in Metro Vancouver.

New bus stop enables Surrey access to #555 rapid bus

New bus stop enables Surrey access to #555 rapid bus

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I was delighted to learn that the new bus stop at the 156th Street-Highway 1 off-ramp to the 555 Port Mann Express rapid bus would open earlier than expected – in time for the 2014 back-to-school season, and saving commuters to downtown and students at post-secondary institutions like Simon Fraser University and Douglas College minutes upon minutes every day.

The new stop helps Surrey residents in Guildford and Fraser Heights connect to the Millenium Line SkyTrain in Coquitlam, significantly improving links to SFU, Brentwood Town Centre and Downtown Vancouver.

This diagram shows the travel time benefits for Surrey riders now able to access the 555. From my "unofficial business case" (see below)
This diagram shows the travel time benefits for Surrey riders now able to access the 555. From my “unofficial business case” (see below) – CLICK TO ENLARGE

A complicated history

See also: No Stops in Surrey for Port Mann Express Bus – Surrey Leader, Nov 2012

See also: Surrey left out of rapid bus line – CTV News (Video)

For those who didn’t know, the bus stop for the Highway 1 Rapid Bus (#555 Port Mann Express) has been a topic of controversy for some time after a bus stop for the service was not provided in Surrey, due to several issues of mis-communication between TransLink, the Provincial Government, and the City of Surrey. A private developer who was expected to build a transit exchange may also have been involved in the fray.

Original concept images by the provincial ministry of transportation showed buses turning and making a stop at 156th Street, giving a new rapid transit access to Surrey residents in Guildford and Fraser Heights. When the HOV ramp and bridge were opened in late 2012 – along with the introduction of the rapid bus route – this didn’t materialize, secluding Surrey residents from improved transit access in the face of a new toll on the bridge.

Picture of 156th Street underpass and HOV ramps, showing buses that would have been using the interchange.
Picture of 156th Street underpass and HOV ramps, showing buses that would have been using the interchange and stopping for passengers.

Fraser Heights residents would feel the pinch of this when ridership on the bus route #337 grew at the fastest rate of any Surrey bus route – and this was before the introduction of Port Mann Bridge tolls – indicating a high level of demand for the new #555 service that was never provided.

My work ensured that this got built!

We have TransLink (who worked and cooperated with other parties to ensure this would be in service) and the City of Surrey (who ended up providing the bulk of the funding, according to recent Transportation & Infrastructure Committee reports) to officially give thanks to for this stop – but I’m not sure how many people will be talking about the role I and some others had in actually ensuring that this stop was built and in service yesterday!

The surprise retraction of the project and the transit service put a significant amount of pressure on me as I was hoping to benefit from the new stop service, being a Guildford resident and a major transit user facing a transition from high school to university. It prompted me to launch a big advocacy effort myself, which culminated with the creation and presentation of an unofficial “business case” telling city officials why this stop would be so important – not just for me but for several others who could have been benefitting, and were now otherwise losing.

See also: 156th St Rapid Bus Stop Project – Unofficial Business Case

In fact, the expected construction timing and inability to provide the bus stop in due time would become one of many factors behind my decision last year to pack my bags, leave Surrey, and temporarily move to the North of Fraser – making a new home for myself near a Burnaby SkyTrain Station, where I have lived for the past year.

I worked with many individuals – including the vocal and active Daniel Badragan, a local-area student, who wrote quite a few letters to the editor in protest surrounding the missing stop – coming up with ways to advocate for the missing stop.

See also: “Surrey needs transit for Port Mann” – letter, Daniel Badragan, on Surrey Leader
See also: “Make your voice heard on Bus Stop” – letter, Daniel Badragan, on Surrey Leader

It’s probably no surprise that my delight has been intensified by the coincidence of the opening date of the stop with my return to residency in the South of Fraser (I moved back to Surrey yesterday and will be here for a few days before embarking on a major study abroad tenure). The opening of the stop was suddenly added to the TransLink fall service changes page, to a fanfare of probably a few commuters and people except those I heard around me who were talking about it on the bus.

Being labour day, the ridership was markedly low and the buses were running on a Sunday/Holiday schedule, every half hour. But, that didn’t stop me from making use of the new bus stop for the commute to my workplace downtown. See the slideshow above for an early look! 🙂

View my original unofficial “business case” for this rapid bus stop, below!

SkyTrain meltdowns a consequence of devaluing transit investment

SkyTrain meltdowns a consequence of devaluing transit investment

See also: Vancouverites are spoiled by SkyTrain on Vancity Buzz

2-car SkyTrain approaches Brentwood Station on the Millennium Line

Introduction

SkyTrain operates with high standards, transporting passengers with a remarkable 95% on-time performance rate and doing better at providing rapid public transit than other cities our size. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s immune to system-stopping failures that can require the use of shuttle buses and inconvenience thousands of transit passengers.

Our SkyTrain system managed to suffer from two major system meltdowns within seven days, and it’s perplexed everyone. It’s raised questions of accountability and competence within TransLink, and of the versatility of how SkyTrain is operated. It’s raised questions of whether there could be a better plan for emergencies, so as to prevent frustration and inconvenience.

By far, a lot of the comments I’ve seen point fingers at TransLink. Provincial Minister Todd Stone was quick to deny responsibility, and looking through social media reveals an aura of madness from inconvenienced customers. All of this creates a dangerous precedent that a discouragement into putting more money into our transit system is created, as people begin to believe that proactively investing in it isn’t worth it.

However, some of the problems we faced in these past 7 days could have been mitigated by just that – with investments into good maintenance of our transit system.

With the province putting TransLink through audit after audit as part of a mandate to increase the system’s efficiency, it’s become more difficult to justify investments to keep the transit system and its employees running – with everything from a provincially-funded park & ride expansion to the provision of coffee for employees to public art being put through questions and a high-level of scrutiny.

The chaos that we witnessed during SkyTrain’s recent shutdowns can very much be attributed to a devaluation of transit funding, lead by anti-TransLink campaigners.

An explanation

TransLink didn’t purchase a $20 million backup system that would have assisted SkyTrain in the event of computer failures. This would have spared riders from service meltdown incidents like the one on Thursday, July 17th.

To compound the issue, as part of the recommendations of several efficiency audits, TransLink has tightened up the amount of spare buses and staffing on the bus network. This means that when bus bridges are needed to deal with SkyTrain emergencies, there are fewer staff available to drive buses, and few buses available – which was an issue on both Thursday and on Monday, July 21st during the second, human-error-triggered meltdown.

It’s a no-win scenario for TransLink. A seamlessly-integrated backup system would not even require riders to be notified if SkyTrain were to have computer issues – and should the investment have been made known, an inevitable sensation surrounding the choice to invest – driven by anti-TransLink critics – is what we would be hearing about from the media instead. That would be the news item of the day, instead of a SkyTrain failure.

Meanwhile, continuing to provide adequate staff and buses to handle emergencies like the recent ones would go flat out against recommendations in recent audits – which could have triggered a harsh reaction from the provincial government, as they do directly control TransLink’s governance and some funding for transit.

PHOTO: Shuttle buses line up to board passengers at Metrotown
No one likes to ride a bus bridge – but it’s as important to have funding so that drivers and buses can be ready when we do need these.

Comments that put pressure on TransLink and portray them excessively negatively as an organization could result in more “NO” votes in the upcoming referendum next year. It may have become one of the reasons that TransLink has not undertaken investments proactively, spending money to prevent issues before they actually happen. As long as the public has yet to know of the real value of proactive transit investments, it’s difficult to do so without endangering long-term transit funding.

It’s a concern that has been raised by transit advocates and decision-makers, as they work hard to promote the value of transit investment in advance of this referendum. As a “NO” vote has been confirmed to be an option, there is nothing that can stop voters from using their vote to ‘send TransLink a message’ – something that would do commuters on all transportation modes no good whatsoever.

See also: Does TransLink have a bad brand? on South Fraser Blog
See also: TransLink Referendum: Can it win? What do we need to know? on Price Tags
See also: How will anti-TransLink vote influence transit referendum? on Metro 604

Last month, on Thursday and again on Monday, critics were quick to rush to mediums such as Twitter, radio and news to lambast TransLink and remind us of past issues that have been raised. The resulting negative attitude that surrounds our transit system will not just affect how people vote in the upcoming referendum – it may have numerous negative shorter-term impacts such as the reduction of fare revenue, as less people choose transit and more believe that it is not worth doing so. Less fare revenue can mean more service cuts and even worse rider satisfaction throughout the system.

I have a strong feeling that there would be a backup computer system in place today, giving riders a more reliable SkyTrain system, were it not for the persistence of the anti-TransLink critic.

“Ironically, the people campaigning to strip TransLink of funding in the name of efficiency may be responsible for the time it took to get service restored and get people moving over the last few days.”

Nathan Pachal, who operates South Fraser Blog and is running for Council in Langley Township, raised this issue on his blog in his response to the recent incidents.

What do we do about this?

We’re surrounded by comments on how TransLink is “mismanaged”. In order to effectively combat the issues that this creates, it’s important to bring into light whether this level of scrutiny and demand for cost-efficiency is actually necessary.

In a previous blog article, I brought into light how it’s questionable if TransLink was being audited correctly, pointing out a discrepancy between how cost-efficiency has been portrayed and how it’s actually supposed to be measured – noting that between the transit operators in Canada’s three major cities, TransLink is the most efficient – providing the most service at the lowest operating cost.

See also: Was TransLink audited correctly?

It’s also important to bring into light what we should already know about TransLink’s efforts to be a better organization. We should know that TransLink is following up on the recommendations in the audits, and that those efforts are working – TransLink ended financial year 2013 with a $43 million surplus.

One of the most important changes that needs to be made is in public attitudes on transit spending. We can’t be ignorant to the fact that it is necessary to spend some money to keep our system in good repair.

For SkyTrain riders, the worst part of this devaluation of transit funding is that it has a major implication on our SkyTrain system that extends beyond $20 million.

As rail lines age and ridership grows, upgrades are needed to maintain efficiency and reliability long-term, and ensure the maintenance of the benefits provided by the system. TransLink has yet to secure a long-term funding commitment to pay for the over $1 billion in upgrades that will be required to keep the SkyTrain from becoming overcrowded and unreliable as it continues to age. These upgrades will improve station facilities with new entrances and amenities, as well as prepare the system for longer 5-car trains. Some of these upgrades are ongoing, but the majority of them have yet to be started.

See also: Reality Check: Why is SkyTrain breaking down so frequently? on Vancity Buzz

Just as TransLink is looking for long-term funding to upgrade our SkyTrain system, so have other transit operators in Canada with their rapid transit systems. Calgary has made significant investments to extend C-Train platforms across the system for longer trains and refurbish old light-rail vehicles. Montreal is taking delivery of the first new subway vehicles to replace a fleet that is almost 40 years old. Toronto has been working to replace an aging 60-year-old subway signalling system and rebuild its busy downtown transit hub – Union Station – on the Yonge-University-Spadina subway line. Both projects have even required planned closures of the subway there.

Long-term funding to be committed to this upgrade is what will be decided in the provincially-mandated referendum, and it is imperative that voters do approve a funding option to keep our transit system in a good state of repair.

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 expanding and building infrastructure like the Canada Line SkyTrain is, the investments have 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.

TransLink is in trouble

Some of the issues we faced in the recent SkyTrain meltdowns definitely had to do with more than funding, and perhaps they could have been addressed through better plans and higher competence within branches of TransLink.

However, the fact remains: if we want to maintain a high or higher standard of reliability, there’s going to be an inevitable cost to it. On the other hand, if we devalue the taxes and fares that keep people moving, we don’t get a reliable system as the penalty for our ineptitude.

As stakeholders, if we want to enjoy more reliable transit, we need to realize that TransLink is in trouble and change our attitudes on transit and funding. We need to value our transit, value TransLink, and consider the good value of the services it provides to us.

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:

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!)

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.

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.

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

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.