Eric Doherty: Spend on transit, not roads

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      Recently there has been a flurry of news stories about rapid-transit projects in Metro Vancouver, many with misleading headlines like “SkyTrain to Langley top rapid transit option for Surrey: TransLink”. Mayor Dianne Watts wants light-rail rapid transit in Surrey, and Vision Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs has been badmouthing anything in Vancouver but a $3-billion subway along Broadway to UBC. But TransLink’s just-released studies reveal a wide variety of good rapid-transit options, all with both positive features and limitations.

      No “preferred alternative” has yet been selected.

      The big question is how any of this will be paid for. The provincial government under Christy Clark has prioritized roadway expansion over transit, and the result has been cuts to transit service across the region. The cuts are deepest at the edges of the transit system, in Surrey and Delta, but they extend even to bus routes in Vancouver and off-peak SkyTrain service.

      An obvious solution, for at least part of the cost, is reallocating the money from urban road-expansion projects. The controversial Massey Tunnel project is expected to cost billions and is designed to facilitate industrial and residential development on land taken out of the Agricultural Land Reserve. Besides dooming Delta’s agricultural land, this project would direct development onto a floodplain increasingly vulnerable to flooding due to sea-level rise. At the same time, it would increase the carbon emissions driving global warming. Three billion dollars is enough to build light rail along Broadway to UBC and bus rapid transit in Surrey, with about a billion left over for bike paths, bus lanes, transit signal priority, and the like throughout the region.

      Many U.S. groups, including the Sierra Club, have adopted the slogan “Fix it first” to campaign for an end to wasteful spending on new and wider roads. Get OnBoard B.C. is a coalition of groups supporting increased funding for transit in Metro Vancouver that has taken up a similar idea and advocates reallocating funds from road expansion to transit, among other transit funding options.

      The Climate Justice Project report Transportation Transformation, which I coauthored, suggests that between $1 billion and $1.5 billion per year could be reallocated from roadway expansion to transit, cycling, passenger rail, and other low-carbon-emission transportation across B.C. 

      This is in addition to the vehicle levies, carbon tax, gas taxes, tolls, and other revenue sources TransLink could access with provincial-government approval. Seen in this light, maybe we can even afford bathrooms at SkyTrain stations and bus loops, and improve HandyDART service for people with disabilities and the elderly, in addition to new rapid-transit lines and more buses.

      Even capital-intensive SkyTrain lines are within reach for the busiest corridors, if the political will is found to set aside road-building projects and put transit first. But most of Metro Vancouver is far away from the busiest transit routes, so less expensive forms of rapid transit need to be considered for these areas. One of the most interesting options being examined by TransLink is bus rapid transit (BRT). A $900-million BRT option is on TransLink’s shortlist for Surrey and Langley; it is forecast to attract around the same number of riders as a light-rail system costing more than twice as much.

      TransLink’s early studies cast doubt on the ability of BRT to meet long-term ridership demand while maintaining speed and reliability. However, the transportation authority’s analysis of BRT is based on diesel buses with a capacity of only 100 people, whereas double articulated buses that hold up to 200 in both diesel hybrid and electric trolley versions are now available. Electric trolley buses accelerate more quickly than diesel buses and attract more riders since they are quieter and pollute less. TransLink’s studies and real-world experience show that BRT can be effective even on very busy routes. The next stage of TransLink studies should provide more information on what can be done with BRT using modern high-capacity trolley buses.

      Under pressure from concerned citizens, TransLink has already set the stage for creating a world-class transit system. In May 2011, the authority announced the cancellation of the North Fraser Perimeter Road project through New Westminster. More recently, TransLink has pulled back its proposal to build a six-lane replacement for the Pattullo Bridge at a cost of around $1 billion and is instead considering upgrading the existing bridge for around $200 million. These two moves alone free up more than enough money for a $900-million bus rapid-transit network in Surrey.

      To make major progress on transit, we need a provincial government that puts funding transit ahead of road expansion. This will only happen if candidates hear that this is what people want during the upcoming election campaign. 

      Eric Doherty is a Vancouver-based transportation planning consultant. He represents the Council of Canadians’ Vancouver chapter in the Get OnBoard B.C. coalition. 



      John Onland

      Mar 21, 2013 at 2:17pm

      No thanks. We can no longer benefit on goodwill systems that aid in clogging traffic and slowing commutes. Using psudoscience to further a religion will bring about darker times for all. We are using road and highway plans from the 60s and 70s, we need to modernize and expand. These luddites are bottlenecking our economy and it needs to end before its too late. First step tear up the bike lanes, ban buses from using the lions gate bridge, and decertifcy the transit unions. Time to clean up the festering crud.


      Mar 21, 2013 at 2:46pm

      Hate to nitpick but there is a car ad at the top of the page right now. Irony?


      Mar 21, 2013 at 3:25pm

      It appears John Onland is living in some strange retro-bubble. The idea that expanding roads is "modernizing" is an idea from the 50s and 60s. Modern progressive cities have long abandoned that idea (with the exception of Houston).

      Vancouver lags behind other economically successful cities like Zurich (we have 12% transit modal share compared to their 65%). It is time we caught up with these other cities.

      I encourage Mr. Orland to travel a little or a least do some reading about best practices for urban transportation.

      The evidence is clear that if we want to reduce ghg emissions, ground level pollution and improve human health we need to reduce car travel and improve alternatives. That is the evidence. Believing that we can return to some 1950s fantasy world is a religion.

      J-L Brussac

      Mar 21, 2013 at 9:19pm

      Translink has a very short memory. They built a Bus Rapid Transit system in Richmond years ago, the 98 B line.

      It was overcrowded most of the time, just like the current 99 B line.
      These articulated buses have a passengers load of around 120, versus 172 for a single unit LRT in Portland, and 200 in Seattle.

      Both towns actually run 2 units with a single driver in the front unit, so there is 1 driver for 344 passengers (Portland) or 400 (Seattle).
      According to Kinkisharyo, that made the Seattle LRT, it is possible to run 4 units with 1 driver...

      To carry the same number of passengers one would need 3 buses, meaning 3 drivers.

      I used Bus Rapid Transit in Bordeaux in the mid-90s.. they used bi-articulated buses, buses with 2 trailers carrying about 212 passengers. The ride was atrocious as each trailer had only one axle...

      They now have tramways in Bordeaux (since the end of 2003). They are Alstom 402, 44 metres long (about 145 ft), 300 passengers.
      The experience of many towns is that big modern LRT are more attractive to buses..

      I have use a BRT in Eugene Oregon in June 2012.
      It runs on totally separate lanes outside downtown. Their buses are very good looking, have doors on both sides, ramps for wheelchairs on all the doors (but not by the driver) that simply slide out, and bikes are stored inside. Stops are announced in 2 languages..

      Eugene-Springfield and their suburbs have a population of 352 000.

      J-L Brussac

      Mar 22, 2013 at 10:29am

      "The experience of many towns is that big modern LRT are more attractive to buses.."

      Oops! I meant to say ..The experience of many towns is that big modern LRT are more attractive to passengers than buses..


      Mar 22, 2013 at 4:29pm

      Exactly!!! I've been saying for as long as they've been pouring scads of money into the new super highway into Vancouver and the new bridge that all of that money should/could have gone to an actual bona fide public transportation system for the region. Every time I think of the new Port Mann or the Trans Canada it sickens me that we spent all that money to accommodate vehicles, yet again.


      Mar 23, 2013 at 3:12pm

      and I can't even afford to use the Port Mann


      Mar 24, 2013 at 1:58pm

      Rapid buses would be a great way to begin to expand service South of the Fraser! Less expensive and less disruptive, not to mention easier and quicker to implement, buses offer a flexibility that is absent in from other modes. For a trip from Langley to Surrey, skytrain only bested the other modes by about eight minutes. Begin by introducing rapid buses and their dedicated lanes on the main corridors. As those corridors develop, upgrade the lanes to light rail, and shift the buses to new corridors. Other modes could include streetcars for example, running between centres; possessing a bit more charm than a skytrain track cutting through the area! Just my thoughts, but this is the first time in a long time that I actually have any hope of fixing this system. If we improve the transit system to connect cities and areas of cities more efficiently than we do now, we might find that the existing road network is sufficient for our needs.

      p lg

      Mar 27, 2013 at 9:40pm

      Surreyite: Finally some sanity! And Eric, you are on the right track or shall I say busway.

      One doesn't need all the fancy streetscaping that inflated the cost of the 98 B-Line, just run the goddamn things on the road surfaces now in Surrey, just give priority lanes during peak periods.

      There is an incredible pent-up ridership in Surrey if only they would provide the service now.

      This bickering over LRT or SkyTrain or subways is boring.

      Boys with their train sets, hmmmm. Enough!

      Cost effective, more service now!