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”):
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.
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.
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”
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 gettingtwice 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.”
The new 555 stop in Surrey is a hit! In case you’re not aware of my involvement with the stop, I encourage you to read my article on the stop’s introduction now at [CLICK HERE]. Reporter Kevin Diakiw from the Surrey Leader also did an excellent report on the stop and my involvement, which also highlights an important endorsement from city Councillor Tom Gill on my advocacy work throughout the past year:
Coun. Tom Gill, who chairs the city’s transportation committee, said the bus stop materialized thanks to the relentless campaign by 18-year-old Daryl Dela Cruz, who on his website, describes himself as a technology fan, a transit user, a researcher and a community issues advocate.
Gill describes him as a “outspoken, very smart, intelligent young man” who inundated Gill and the committee with well-argued facts supporting the need for the bus access.
“He has been non-stop for a year (pushing for the stop),” Gill said…
As for what’s the story now, the #555 bus from Braid Station to Carvolth Exchange in Langley, stopping at 156 Street in Surrey, has received a service increase. Buses now operate every 7-8 minutes in the AM peak period, responding to increased demand as a result of a popular 156 St stop. They previously operated every 9-10 minutes. The service change was confirmed through a schedule change in the 555 schedule posted by TransLink on its website.
The materialization of this service increase may have had to do with a citizen effort I was informed about, called #555passup, to inform TransLink of the growing service needs and pass-ups on the 555 route that would result in Carvolth passengers being told to wait for the next bus by TransLink security, to make room for riders boarding at 156th Street.
It would seem that much of the efforts were spearheaded by a local rider named Donald Nguyen.
#555passup now online. Up to a dozen passengers passed up Sep 11 7:30am #stop61959 on the 555 Port Mann Express
All in all, with only a couple of weeks having passed since the stop’s opening, it looks like my efforts have definitely not gone to waste – and neither have these riders’, to improve the new service provided for them. It thrills me to see that I have given hope in citizens and may have started new trends in citizen-lead transit improvement advocacy. As the improvements materialize, Surrey residents are realizing significant benefits of a new bus stop that really should have been built in the first place – and with demand increasing, funding will soon need to increase further so this service can keep up with the high demand.
Having seen citizens come up with innovative ways to advocate for smaller-scale improvements gives me hope as well – hope in a larger-scale effort we’re going to need to have in order to push the big improvements in transit funding the entire region needs.
The question now is, how can we expect the authorities in charge of funding – specifically, the provincial government, who have also explicitly tied the introdduction of any new sources to a referendum – to be responsive, if at all, to our concerns.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I caught wind of Transitmix while scrolling through my new reads on Pulse Reader. Jarrett Walker’s blog (Human Transit) has this to say about the tool, which was created by a group of Code for America developers:
Transitmix is simple way to think about transit in terms of bus requirements and real costs. Basically, the user draws a route on a map and plugs in span and frequency. The app then calculates a vehicle requirement and cost in both hours and dollars, factoring in an adjustable layover ratio, average speed and dollar cost per service hour.
Transitmix theoretically works for any city on the map, as any city-related data such as operating cost per service hour is inputted by the user. This tool could theoretically also be used to layout and plan rapid transit lines (including rail) with the insertion of the appropriate “average speed” and “operating cost” values, albeit with the present limitation that lines snap to roads and cannot use other rights of way.
It’s made by the same people who created Streetmix, an urban road visualization tool that I previously featured on this blog.
I tried it out here in Vancouver to conceptualize one new transit route I had in mind, based on a City of Vancouver (and more recently, Mayors’ Council-approved) proposal to introduce a B-Line type service from Commercial-Broadway station down Victoria Ave. (Pictured above – separate article coming soon)
On the Transitmix Experience
One of the reasons Transitmix is currenty able to work with so many cities around the world without issue is because it currently relies solely on user-inputted data.
That means, making effective use of the tool means knowing the average cost of service in your area (operating cost per revenue service hour) because this is not provided for you by the tool. I tracked this down for Metro Vancouver by checking TransLink’s bus performance reviews and other documents.
Unfortunately, that single value for operating cost is valid for all routes on the map and cannot be changed per route – meaning it is currently not possible to accurately compare the costs of standard bus services vs. less-costly community shuttle bus services (or mixes of both). It is, however, possible to create a completely separate map with the appropriate value inputted for those routes.
TransitMix is also currently not able to tell which roads are arterial roads, freeways, or local neighbourhood streets. That means that any speed calculations – which have an effect on operating cost and service levels – will have to be done manually, outside of the tool. At present, they will also have to be converted to mph.
These are the only limitations I’ve found. Among the strengths, previously made maps can be easily shared or remixed – and kept for future re-access – via the numbered URL.
Transitmix will become an important tool to empower individuals who have an interest in transit. It takes out a lot of the effort in visualizing and presenting a proposal, and makes instant what would otherwise be a plethora of calculations.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!)
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.
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:
2. 80% of SkyTrain riders are recycled bus riders
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.
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 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.
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.
In spite of wide, dubious claims of “taxpayer waste” and awards that were given based on such claims, TransLink managed a surplus last year of almost $50 million, helping restore a reserve fund that has been largely dipped into in the past few years in order to maintain service levels. Revenues increased by 1.6% while expenses were reduced by 1.7%. This happened despite some major introductions in 2013 such as the 96 B-Line rapid bus in Surrey.
Here’s one extremely interesting line in the new report:
Operating cost per service hour in 2013 at $143.55 is 6.3 per cent lower than budget.
There was one more interesting line for me, in 24 Hour newspaper’s report on the matter:
In terms of service cuts, Expo and Millennium SkyTrains did have weekend mid-day frequencies reduced by one minute, but that won’t continue, she added.
In 2013, weekend SkyTrain service frequencies shifted from 6 minutes on individual lines and 3 on combined portions (Columbia-Waterfront, Bridgeport-Waterfront) to 7/3.5 minutes. This is something I campaigned against in 2012 (resulting in a presentation to the Regional Mayor’s Council) contending that savings could be offset by decreased revenue as ridership drops with rider discomfort.
And, indeed, riders weren’t enjoying the reduced service. There was little impact to be had on Sunday…. but on Saturday, it was easy to find yourself passed up if a smaller 4-car Mark I train pulled into the station. Strollers and cyclists faced limitations in boarding trains, and it really did “feel like rush hour all day”. I ended up sending numerous complaint forms myself over Saturday SkyTrain overcrowding, probably among many as complaints per 1 million riders went up this year. Thankfully, due to other efficiencies that have been found in the system, this is going to be over soon. Hooray!
The amount of boarded passengers across the regional transit system dropped 2.2% this year. I could contend that reducing SkyTrain weekend frequencies might have had to do with this, but it’s important to remember that there were two fewer business days than 2012 (2012 was a leap year, and Family Day was introduced in 2013). Farebox revenues nevertheless increased, and at 7.3% this appears to be in line with the average fare increase rate (cash fares rose in January for the first time in 5 years); much of this increase was in shifts to prepaid fares (less cash fare payments! yay!), indicating that riders are choosing to commit to more regular transit use.
By Michael Mui, 24 Hours Vancouver
Thursday, April 3, 2014 10:00:46 PDT AM
Cost-cutting measures such as optimization of bus routes and new software upgrades for SkyTrain have helped put TransLink in the black, according to its annual report.
TransLink chief financial officer Cathy McLay told 24 hours on Wednesday the transit provider had a surplus of $47.9 million at the end of 2013, an amount that’s been added to its “safety net” totaling $342.7 million.