Flexity Cars Running in Vancouver

Stephen Rees blog has an article about the two Bombardier Flexity trams loaned from Brussels for operation in Vancouver during the Winter Olympics.  These cars are similar to those Toronto will see, but with a few important differences.

  • The Brussels cars are 2.3m wide because, as with many European systems, they run on a streetcar network built for smaller cars.  The Toronto “legacy” cars will be 2.54m wide, the same as the CLRVs.  When you look at interior shots from Vancouver, remember that there will be slightly more room on the Toronto cars.
  • The Transit City fleet may be wider still than the legacy cars, but this has not yet been decided.
  • The interior view from Vancouver shows the front entrance right beside the operator’s cab.  This is not the layout currently planned for Toronto because of the different placement of the front truck.  This change, visible in the standard shot of the proposed cars, was required to deal with clearance and derailment issues on our system and its tight curves.

As for the Transit City fleet, I understand that Metrolinx will decide whether Bombardier will, in fact, get the add-on car order in the near future.  This matter needs to be settled so that cars will be available by the time the first Transit City line opens.

The Effect of Rapid Transit on Local Shopping

A few weeks ago, Stephen Rees Blog in Vancouver ran an interesting piece on the effect of the new Canada Line (the one connecting Vancouver Airport and Richmond to downtown) on local shopping neighbourhoods.  Since bus service on the former surface routes has been cut, merchants are concerned that they get less walk-in trade from bus passengers.

The comment thread following the article requires some knowledge of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods and geography, but includes a variety of viewpoints on this phenomenon.  One point comes right at the end of the thread in a comment about the reconstruction of Cambie Street, under which the Canada Line runs:

Cambie Street between 16th and King Ed was completely rebuilt at great tax payer expense. What an opportunity to create a “Great Street” and boost neighborhood identity!

Instead, the streetscape design is the worst possible for enhancing the Cambie Village experience. Six lanes of traffic without separating medians, with curb side parking taking up the outer two.

My favourite symbol of the lack of capacity shown in this area of design practice is the introduction of “park benches” on the sidewalks facing parked cars.

We hear a lot about urban design in Toronto and the improvements possible as an offshoot of the Transit City projects, and the Cambie experience should be a warning of what can happen.

Rees’ article talks about the problems of merchant pressure for parking taking precedence over transit, and this effect can be seen on St. Clair where parking was one of the car-oriented street functions that forced an uncomfortable design onto the street overall.

He makes an important point about transit, namely that it is part of a pedestrian experience:

Every transit trip is an interrupted walk. Transit stops and stations ought to be seen as key to retailing. Far too often in Greater Vancouver bus passengers are banished to remote, sterile areas like Phibbs Exchange, or the Ladner bus loop. Always this is forced by local merchants who have only contempt for what they see as the low income bus passenger, and who regard buses as noisy, smelly nuisances. Of course, transit’s selection of large diesel buses only confirms that view. We do have to learn from our experiences, and acknowledge our mistakes. Far too often, transit advocates are expected to be cheer leaders for a system which, sadly, often lets us down, and seems incapable of learning from its past mistakes. Let’s all learn from this when we design our next system change.

As one who is often expected to cheer for transit plans and hope that we will fix the design problems “later”, I can only say that the time for believing planners when they say “trust me” is long over.

Vancouver: More Service / Great Blog

Calls for added service on transit systems are nothing new.  We have seen lots of them in Toronto as we struggle to implement the Ridership Growth Strategy despite a shortage of operators, vehicles and, I suspect, budget headroom.

Meanwhile in Vancouver, riding is growing apace, and the additional challenge of the coming winter Olympics has yet to be digested.

A very fine blog from Vancouver is run by Stephen Rees.  In a recent post about service quality to outlying sports venues, he included the following:

If transit is to be an attractive, useful alternative to driving then Translink has to get much better at understanding how to make routes easy and convenient to use. The biggest block to transit use in this region is lack of service frequency and the planners at CMBC and Translink are both way out of line on what they feel is a “frequent” service. It does not mean ‘more buses than we had last year’. It means that people do not get passed up at stops – and do not have to wait for interminable periods of time due to chronic unreliability. It is not just how many buses you have, but how you use them and how much priority the bus gets in congested traffic. In my travels recently I have been been frequently struck by how easy it is to use buses elsewhere – and how frustrating it is to be stuck at a bus stop here not having the slightest idea of when – or if – the next bus will arrive.

Sound familiar?

Trams vs Skytrain: A view from Vancouver

Today’s Globe & Mail includes an op ed article Rethinking the Need for Speed reporting on a recent study comparing the cost of transportation modes.  The study and the article conclude that trams (streetcars) are the best choice, and that Skytrain (also known as the “RT” in Toronto) is a distant choice.

Those who know me well know that any chance to give the RT/ICTS/Skytrain advocates a black eye is more than welcome, but in this case I have to put a bit of context on the discussion.

The Skytrain vs LRT debate has consumed Vancouver transit advocates, planners and policitians for decades.  The original Skytrain was a combined product of a premier who didn’t like streetcars and of lobbying by the Ontario government to get its then-new ICTS showcased for Expo in Vancouver.  Certain characteristics of the original Skytrain route including the availability of a tunnel under downtown that could handle stacked Skytrains, but not LRT, an available right-of-way that kept down elevated construction costs, and the operational advantage of close headways of short trains tipped the balance in Skytrain’s favour.

Having said that, I must also observe that the technology was used to its maximum during Expo with a far more sophisticated operating model than anything the TTC has ever implemented on any line.  This was automated transit really shining, but only for a brief moment.  Probably the most important thing about the Vancouver system is that the people running it really wanted to make it work.  From the day it opened, they analysed operations (including automatically produced charts such as those you see in my TTC route studies) looking for ways to handle demands and unusual events better.  The idea of throwing up your hands in resignation, the TTC’s approach to line management, was totally foreign.

Skytrain works not just because of the technology, but because the people running the system care to make it run well.

All the same, the love affair with Skytrain wedded Vancouver to high-cost system expansion, and a route design skewed to handling commuters more than local trips.  Indeed, most of the original Skytrain line does not follow city streets, and it depends on local redevelopment, walk-in trade and bus feeders for passengers.

The LRT vs Skytrain debate heated up recently with a proposed east-west line along Broadway, a major bus and trolleybus corridor.  This is a street with much local development and Skytrain foes look to LRT as a way of achieving better local access and support for the community throiugh which the line will pass.  Elevated construction is out of the question, and a Broadway Skytrain will almost certainly be underground adding considerably to its cost.

This is the political background to the Skytrain vs Trams study, and it’s important to read the study in context.  The study itself does not address specific corridors, but simply looks at the operating and capital costs of each mode, as well as the environmental effects.  When the numbers are combined, trams come out on top (or more accurately on the bottom with the lowest cost and carbon impact).  Skytrain is much higher, primarily due to capital cost.

The basic debate in all of this is one of philosophy:  should new transit lines be built to serve long trips where speed between stations is paramount, or should lines serve shorter trips and local demands with easily accessible stations?  In the ongoing debate here, Transit City comes under fire because the lines won’t be fast enough for long trips.  Should that be their purpose?  What role does GO have as a regional carrier within the 416? 

Some Transit City proposals call out for redesign, especially regarding the Sheppard/Finch transfer and the dubious nature of surface proposals for the south ends of the Don Mills and Jane routes.  Work on new proposals is already underway as a spinoff of the Metrolinx studies, but the old plans still get lots of play including the TTC’s own Transit City campaign all over the system.  The TTC needs to update the proposals to remove the less credible options and to indicate that they are not just drawing lines on maps.

Finally, I hope to see the Metrolinx study of options for the Scarborough RT published soon.  This is an ideal chance to convert the line to LRT, and even the TTC’s own recommendation to upgrade with Mark II cars only, barely, made sense if the line would never be extended.

We now know that the “SRT” will run north into Malvern and possibly north of Steeles Avenue.  The cost comparison between LRT and Skytrain should spell the end of the RT as we know it.

“Evergreen” Won’t Be LRT in Vancouver

To no great surprise, Translink has announced that the Evergreen line will be built using Skytrain technology, not as a conventional LRT line.

I have always wondered how this LRT scheme managed to get a foothold in a city so dedicated to one mode and where LRT proposals had constantly been sidelined. Indeed, building one orphan line off in the burbs hardly made sense.

The business case rests on faster travel times for ALRT which translate into higher future ridership (a claim that has been used consistently for modal comparisons in other corridors) and on lower operating costs at least in part because the line would be an extension of an existing system.

B.C. Announces Major Support for Transit

The government of British Columbia has announced funding for major expansion of transit especially in the Greater Vancouver area. This was covered in yesterday’s Globe & Mail and the full details are available on the government’s site.

There is a glossy brochure (4MB) with maps and other info.

Looking at all this, I am reminded of Move Ontario and similar announcements. They look great on paper, but there are problems in the details. As with so many plans, this one depends on money from various levels of government. The total is $14-billion, but it comes from:

  • $2.9-billion in existing commitments
  • $4.75-billion in new money from the province
  • $3.1-billion from Ottawa
  • $2.75-billion from Translink (the Vancouver equivalent of Metrolinx)
  • $500-million from local governments

The major components of the announcement are:

  • The Canada Line (now under construction) linking the airport and Richmond to downtown.
  • The UBC (University of British Columbia) Line which will serve the heavy crosstown Broadway corridor and run into the UBC campus where there is already a large bus and trolleybus terminal.
  • The Expo Line (the original SkyTrain) will be extended and will receive additional cars to boost capacity.
  • The Evergreen LRT Line will connect Coquitlam Centre to Lougheed Town Centre SkyTrain station
  • A network of rapid bus routes will provide BRT service primarily in outlying areas.
  • 1,500 new “clean buses” of various technologies will green the fleet.

Like the Canada Line, a good chunk of the UBC Line will likely be underground as an elevated down the middle of Broadway would not do wonders for the character of the street with stations posing a particular problem. Unlike existing SkyTrain routes, the UBC Line runs along a main street rather than through back lanes, industrial districts and railway corridors.

The Evergreen line is the odd-man-out in this plan as the only true LRT line. Support and funding for the line has been slow to come, and I would not be surprised to see it fall victim either to funding constraints or to a change of heart in the interest of standardizing rapid transit technology.

The clean bus plan involves hydrogen, hybrid, electric, natural gas and low emmision diesel options. The announcement is rather vague on the actual mix, and one only learns that these technologies are under consideration in the glossy. The hydrogen bus project is a rather sad reminder of the dreams for Ballard fuel cell technology. The company itself has decided to get out of the vehicle market and concentrate on smaller stationary plants such as emergency power supplies, but dreams of large-scale fuel cell applications die hard.

When the 20 hydrogen buses arrive in 2008, BC claims it will have the largest fleet of such vehicles in the world. At a cost of $89-million, that’s an expensive demonstration.

Notable as part of a rapid transit announcement are plans to improve bus services. This is a welcome change from the capital rich, capacity poor, transit announcements so popular in Toronto for decades.

As for fare collection, BC will move completely to Smart Cards which will include on-the-spot fines for scofflaws.

Probably the saddest part of this announcement is a chart showing the hoped-for market share by transit (page 5 in the brochure). By 2020, Vancouver will move up from 12% to 17%, and then to 22% by 2030. Percentages are lower in other parts of the province. I can’t help wondering what that other 78% of the trips will be, and why they won’t be on transit.

All-in-all, there may be good times for transit planners, builders and riders on the west coast. Tactically, an important role for such announcements (like Transit City) is to have something on the table. Someday, someone may want to get elected, and they may want to spread some money around. We hear that times are tight in Ottawa, but strange things happen in elections.

If there are enough plans from enough cities looking for funding, this may scare off the Feds, but alternately it makes the basis for a truly national transit investment program. We can dream.