Improving Metro Vancouverai??i??s public transit system

It seems you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, especially ex GVRD types.

Mr. Spaeth has, like many other GVRD/Metro Vancouver types, have deluded themselves that transit has taken cars of the road in Vancouver.Ai?? The reason for declining car use is the changing nature of the city, but this has not translated to modal shift from car to transit. For many, downtown Vancouver is a no-go area.

Though Spaeth understands that the proprietary SkyTrain mini-metro is very expensive for what it does, he fails to understand that the Canada Line is more of the same, except that spiraling construction costs, truncated construction resulting in a $2.5 billion mini-metro system, that has less capacity than a modern streetcar line at one tenth the cost! Subways do not guarantee faster service, nor greater capacities, rather it is the quality of R-o-W; the number of stations per route km. and the station platform length, which can accommodate trains, trams, etc. The Canada Line’s 40 to 50 metre station platforms can only accommodate two car trains, which happens to be about the length of a modern tram, the Canada Line can’t operate four car trains, but a modern streetcar could operate in couples sets.

Yet Spaeth seems to be naive about modern light rail and calls it by its American name Light Rapid Transit, which is a misnomer meant to hide the fact that streetcars and LRT are one and the same, with the quality of R-o-W determining the difference between LRT and a streetcar or tram.

Zwei offers his opinion in the following article.

Opinion: How to improve Metro Vancouverai??i??s public transit system

By Douglas Spaeth, Vancouver Sun December 26, 2013

It takes less than a busload per minute to replace a whole lane of rush-hour traffic. Our transit is rated the best in North America, and ridership has grown significantly in the last decade, particularly into downtown Vancouver while downtown traffic has decreased. With improved transit more people will ride, but only if there is actually usable service in suburban areas and adequate capacity on the most heavily traveled city routes.

(Zweisystem replies: The fact is transit mode share in Metro Vancouver has not changed much since 1994, with auto use remaining at 57% and transit use a mere 14%, an increase of 3% in 20 years!)

However, before spending more money on transit, TransLinkai??i??s must cut waste, and deliver service cost-effectively.

Three major aspects of transit expenditures should be scrutinized: First, discretionary spending on rapid transit; Second, the operating costs of the bus system; And third, ways to attract more revenue producing riders to fill empty seats on some routes and during the ai???off-peakai??? times.

Rapid transit

The biggest costs looming on the horizon are billions for the Evergreen Line, Broadway Line and potential rapid transit south of the Fraser. SkyTrain, light rapid transit, streetcars and other descriptions are misleading. What is important is how many people a rapid transit line can carry, how fast and how conveniently. The bottom-line is how to get the most lines for the buck.

How much subway we really need? Tunnels are enormously expensive. It is highly unlikely that Metro will go ahead with needed extensions if every NIMBY gets a subway. TransLink in public consultation needs to develop common-sense criteria for when subways are justified. For example, does subway, surface or overhead best support the character of the area served? Is a subway the only way to achieve desired speed and capacity?

(Zweisystem replies: As noted above, subways do not guarantee faster travel times, nor greater capacity than surface transit. The Canada Lines 40-50 metre station platforms mean that only short trains can be used. A simple streetcar line, costing a tenth to build, has a higher capacity than the Canada Line. Subways tend to offer slower point to point travel times due to longer station spacings, transfers, and entrance and exit from subway stations.)

Despite popular perception, surface rapid transit can fit into the community in ways that are functional and attractive. (The old B.C. Electric interurban traveled from Commercial Drive to New Westminster only two to three minutes slower than SkyTrain today, mostly because the tracks had few street crossings.)

(Zweisystem replies: Spaeth fails to take into account that there were 26 stations/stops between Broadway and New Westminster on the old Central Park Interurban Line, versus only 9 stations on the SkyTrain Expo Line. That the Edwardian era Interurban only took a few minutes longer for the same journey, while servicing 17 more stations is a remarkable feat and had little to do with road crossings!)

The Canada Line started a transition away from expensive, 25-year old SkyTrain technology that has not been widely adopted elsewhere. It uses widely available off-the-shelf equipment, rather than the customized technology that locks Metro into a single supplier. Particularly in Surrey and other suburban areas we need to learn from other cities and build inexpensive lines with conventional technology, at-grade tracks, overhead power, traffic priority and other features characteristic of the 20 to 30 systems built or upgraded recently in North America.

(Zweisystem replies: The Canada Line is nothing more than ALRT/ART SkyTrain in drag. Spaeth doesn’t acknowledge that it is light-metro and the light-metro philosophy of operation that has made mini-metro very expensive. It costs almost the same to build and operate a heavy-rail metro, than a light-metro, and of course modern LRT has made light metro like Skytrain and the Canada Line obsolete. Spaeth is out of his depth here.)

Bus operations

Although less obvious, much of TransLinkai??i??s costs go to day-to-day bus operations and there are clearly savings to be had by tightening up this part of its business.

The big potential savings can be achieved by moving buses more smoothly and quickly in traffic with even more bus-only lanes, as well as procedures and equipment to get people on and off the bus faster, investment in off-street ai???mini-lotsai??? to get parked cars off of busy bus routes, enforcement of ai???yield for busesai??? in traffic, and advanced traffic signal technology that always gives buses a green light at intersection. Some of these measures to tighten up bus schedules are being implemented by TransLink acting alone, but the real challenge is for municipalities, Metro and the B.C. Ministry of Transportation to join to make bus priority on Metroai??i??s roads a top job.

(Zweisystem replies: if one wants to increase capacity at no cost, operate the bus system to a European standard with bust stops every 350m to 400m apart. This would effectively remove about 40% of the bus stops in the region, reducing journey times and increasing bus efficiencies.)


TransLink can increase ridership on bus routes and at times of day when there are empty seats by learning from transportation providers that are more consumer oriented.

Take the airlines industry for example. Frequent Flyer programs offer privileged membership and demographically targeted benefits as an encouragement to travel on their under-capacity routes. St. Johnai??i??s Metrobus picked up on this idea and claims it is the first transit authority anywhere in the world to partner with AirMiles and reward its passengers with consumer loyalty points for every bus ride. We should be actively attracting riders to fill empty bus seats, particularly police and fire workers who contribute to the safety on the bus.

The broader challenge is for TransLink to move forward from the era of billboard and paint-the-bus advertising to take aggressive advantage of multimedia and social network technology. Online pass purchase, more real-time bus arrival/departure information, better technology for trip planning, targeted advertising via SMS text messaging from shops near a riders stop ai??i?? these are just a few of the ideas that other North American transit authorities are pursuing.

Both public transit and roads are heavily influenced by what kind of urban development occurs in Metro Vancouver. The last article addresses how we can encourage the right kind of development for more affordable transportation.

(Zweisystem replies: To improve transit, TransLink must make the public transit user friendly, which today, with forced transfers and shoddy service it is definitely not. In the 21st century, public transit is seen as a product and if the product is good, people will use it, if not, they will take the car instead.)

Doug Spaeth is the former Transportation and Regional Town Centres Program Manager for the GVRD Livable Region Plan, and subsequently owned an information technology company supplying information systems to public transit authorities in North America and overseas.

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