Public Transit
September 24, 2020

Vancouver Transit from the Inside Out (with DownieLive)

Heads up, transit nerds (or anyone curious about the literal insides of our transit system): local Vancouver blogger Mike (born and raised!) DownieLivespent the day in Vancouver with Translink, checking out their bus simulator, an electric trolley bus, SeaBus, the West Coast Express and the SkyTrain.”

Love his enthusiasm when he’s driving a trolley. ( And totally not surprised to see trolley advocate and driver Derek Cheung in the background.)

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We have a culture that makes excuses about the fact we don’t require a public basic service for a basic human need. Instead of providing public washrooms it has defaulted to businesses, restaurants and department stores to provide public washroom facilities.

It was Stanley Woodvine, The Georgia Straight  writer who wrote on his twitter account how dire the Covid pandemic was on the homeless throughout the city. Without libraries and community centres open to use washroom facilities, and with park washrooms closed, there are no options. Mr. Woodvine recalled what happened in San Diego between 2016 and 2018 when a Hepatitis A outbreak occurred. The outbreak was directly linked to the lack of public washroom and hand washing facilities, and sadly San Diego had been told by two grand juries investigating municipal government to install more washrooms downtown. The reason San Diego did not do it? Financial.

But with 444 cases of hepatitis and  the unwanted international attention,  the city installed new washrooms and initiated more street cleaning, bringing downtown San Diego’s public washroom total to 21. No matter what the cost, ensuring every citizen has access to a washroom is basic human dignity, and a tenet of public health.

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There were streetcars being operated in Vancouver from 1890 to 1947 when routes were converted to trolley operations. There are still trolley buses operating in the city.

But take a look back at the postwar advertising on the number 5 street car. There’s an ad for “Taking a Boat to Bowen Island” with Union Steamships for one dollar for a return ticket. Maxwell House coffee is being advertised as being “Good to the Last Drop”.

There’s also a stellar Vancouver Sun poster with an art moderne sailboat design stating “Refresh Yourself, Read The Sun”. The background foilage, the open window at the back of the streetcar and the street car employee in shirt sleeves suggest this photo was taken in a Vancouver summer.

While Union Steamships have not survived, there is still ferry service to Bowen Island, and Maxwell House Coffee and the Vancouver Sun are still going strong. As for the defunct street car service, there is an excellent article from Spacing.ca detailing its history including the date of the last streetcar rolloff on April 24, 1955.

Images Vancouver Archives

 

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Here’s a brilliant idea~why not mount cameras on city buses and enforce the bus lane? That’s something that New York city has been doing with ABLE (automated Bus Lane Enforcement) and since last October have issued 40,000 warnings and violations.

Using Automatic Bus Lane Enforcement cameras on four major routes capture drivers that are caught by two different  buses on the supposedly reserved bus lane. While you can imagine transgressing vehicle drivers are none too happy about the enforcement, it has sped up bus route times by 34 percent on some routes.

As Dave Colon with NYC StreetsBlog observes “Under state law, drivers are given warnings for the first 60 days a bus uses an automated enforcement camera. After that 60 days, there’s a graduated fine structure, starting at $50 for a first violation and increasing by $50 every subsequent violation in a 12-month period, for a maximum of $250 per ticket.”

And here’s the interesting part~once vehicle drivers are nailed for being in dedicated bus lanes they don’t do it again. As Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg dryly states People don’t get a lot of repeat violations. They learn the cameras are there and that it makes sense to stay out of the bus lanes.”

New York Transit bus acting  president Craig Cipriano cautions that it’s not the point of transit to write tickets, but to move buses and keep vehicles out of the dedicated bus lanes. You can view the YouTube video below where Mr. Cipriano in his  trademark New York City accent outlines how the bus cameras work .

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PT: It’s been awhile since we’ve seen Daily Scot (né Bathgate) on this blog – even though on some weeks he does text a daily observation.  Here are some:

 

DS: A great idea from TransLink, for those with bikes who would like to rack them on a bus but are too intimidated to do it for the first time:

 

DS: Port Moody must use the suburban planner’s manual: shared asphalt walk/biking path when there is a wide road begging for a separated lane.

 

DS: Turks and Caicos meets Coquitlam.  Fun colours on the North Road border as it takes on a population closer to the West End.

 

DS:Corten steel is back.  Victoria does it!  LeFevre & Co. are the developers – do great work and restored a lot of heritage buildings over the years.

 

DS: Every helmet is missing on these Mobibikes.  Is that because of Covid?

 

 

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PT: One of Translink’s most valuable assets is its CEO, Kevin Desmond.  He was the needed leader after the appalling debacle of the BC Liberal’s imposed referendum, he led the agency to the best performance in North America, and he has an even bigger challenge in restoring confidence and ridership in the Covid era, current- and post-.  (It’s on the way; ridership is already up about 40 percent.)

Here’s his latest call to action (with my added emphasis in bold) in Linked-in here:

 

Kevin Desmond: COVID-19 has dimmed the vibrancy of urban centres across the globe and spurred some to question whether we are witnessing “the end of cities.”

The pandemic has disrupted our lives in so many ways that it’s hard to predict what tomorrow will bring, let alone which changes will become permanent. However, I firmly believe that cities will rise again – with a recovery driven by transit.

After all, cities have been at the heart of every prosperous society. We are, as Harvard economist Edward Glaeser puts it, “an urban species,” living off the fruits of collaboration that cities – and public transportation – provide.

But the pandemic is testing the key tenets of what makes cities and transit work, namely bringing people together. Public transport is facing a crisis unlike any other since the late-1940s. What then took place over two decades – an 80 per cent erosion in transit ridership, brought on by the rise of the personal car and suburbia – was realized in just two weeks earlier this year, as COVID-19 emerged. In response, public health measures have kept people safe, but have stunted transit.

As a society, we can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes and allow transit to whither.  Effective public transport is synonymous with equitable and sustainable urban development. Metro Vancouver was a leader on this front before the pandemic, with record-setting ridership that led North America. Notably, the sharpest increase in transit ridership was in communities outside the City of Vancouver.

Unfortunately, in the short-term, I believe the return of traffic congestion is inevitable. We have already witnessed a dramatic decline in transit ridership and a sharp rebound in traffic congestion. Early data show that driving in Metro Vancouver is already up by around four per cent compared to one year ago. I think we can all agree the future we don’t want is one with more congestion.

That’s why it’s critical that we rebuild public confidence in the safety of transit, through initiatives such as TransLink’s Safe Operating Action Plan and our recently launched Open Call for Innovation, focused on improving the cleanliness and safety of the system. Now is the time for our industry, worldwide and here in the Lower Mainland, to seek out and embrace innovations.

Looking beyond the immediate future, we need to contemplate whether the rapid societal changes initiated by this crisis, such as social distancing and tele-commuting, will persist. If so, that will have significant implications on transit ridership – a crucial consideration for TransLink, which depends heavily on fares for operating revenue.

 

We also need to ask: how might our urban landscapes change? Already we’ve seen cities reimagining their streetscapes to create more space for pedestrians, cyclists, and restaurants. Many of these changes could positively improve the livability and vibrancy of our cities I believe we need to consider how transit can complement these measures and contribute to this new urban experience.

Time will tell which changes will hold, but TransLink welcomes conversations on how our region can increase efficiency while balancing diverse priorities throughout the transportation system. Improving the livability of Metro Vancouver is central to our mission and drives our organization every day.

As we help the region Build Back Better, I believe the region’s values – which we learned about through our largest-ever engagement in Transport 2050 – will endure and help inform the decisions we need to make together. Transport 2050 will also help us navigate the next 30 years, with its inevitable population and economic growth, and face the trio of challenges presented by affordability,

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It was Allan Jacobs the former Director of Planning for San Francisco  who reviewed commercial streets around the world and wrote a book called “Great Streets” outlining his analysis on what made these streets extraordinary.  Allan reviewed street dimensions, the landscaping, the number of intersections, the facade articulation and many other factors. He beautifully illustrated this classic with his own scale drawings. And if you’ve ever worked with Allan Jacobs, some of the ways he measures the “kindliness” of a commercial street are just a bit unorthodox~Allan steps into traffic on a retail street and then measures how far he has to venture out from the curb before traffic stops.  He had to venture pretty far into the middle of Vancouver’s Commercial Drive before traffic stopped.

That would not be a test you would want to do on any stretch of Broadway in Vancouver which is less of a shopping street, but functions pretty well as a vehicular corridor, providing efficiency for vehicular traffic, even conveniently having parking lanes stripped at rush hour to enable even more capacity.

Frances Bula in the Globe and Mail bluntly calls Broadway, Vancouver’s main road to and from UBC and to the Broadway commercial areas “simply ugly”. 

Ms. Bula mentions that wonderful leafy area on Broadway near Trimble “that feels like the high street of a pleasant village – trees, a stretch of small local shops with canopies, a few sidewalk tables, interesting paving blocks at the intersections and drivers who suddenly slow to a meander.”

While Broadway east of Granville Street is characterized by rather monotonous building facades and minimal street treatment, that may be changing in the future as work and a city public process begins to reimagine the street now that the SkyTrain extension from Clark Drive to Arbutus will be built. Happily this work appears to still be scheduled despite the Covid Pandemic.  This also makes sense as the 99 B-Line along Broadway is classified as the busiest bus route in Canada and the United States, with a 2018 daily  ridership of nearly 56,000 passengers.

Last year the City embarked upon a Broadway Plan process for the section of street between Clark Drive and Vine Street with the intent to repurpose the street with new housing, amenities and jobs as part of the new Broadway subway.

With a new subway, there will be no reason for a wide street to accommodate bus lanes, and Broadway could morph into a well planted and landscaped streetscape of wide sidewalks, benches, leafy enclaves and public spaces. If there’s one thing a bio-medical emergency has taught us is the importance of  amply wide sidewalks, long benches, and places to sit or stand on streets that are comfortable and convenient.

Redesigning the streetscape for people living, working and shopping on Broadway can make up  for the shortage of parks  in the area and redefine the street as a place to hang out in, instead of driving through to get to somewhere else.

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One of the so-sad consequences of the pandemic is the loss of momentum immediately experienced by TransLink.  And not just with the reverse of the quite stunning increase in passengers. (Said CEO Kevin Desmand in September of 2019: ““If this trend continues … then over the four-year period from 2016 to 2019, we would have seen a 20% growth in overall ridership. It is pretty astonishing.”)

By March, an 80 percent drop.

But it’s not just in ridership where the momentum has been lost.  TransLink was in the process of delivering on its 10-year Plan, with significant increases in rolling stock, frequency, new routes and upgrades in its facilities. (Like this PT report on Joyce-Collingwood Station.)  Much is still going ahead, like the rolling out of the Rapidbus routes. But, on the North Shore, the R2 line literally started just as we all went into lock-down.  I took it shortly after it started – one of only two passengers for a good part of the trip (right).

Progress continues.  And one of the places where changes will be the most welcome is one of the most dismal transit exchanges in the system.  Dark, dank and polluted from diesel, it sits under the ICBC headquarters adjacent to Seabus at Lonsdale Quay.  Convenient but unpleasant.

Well, that’s changing – as these pictures from CNV Councillor Tony Valente reveal:

 

As Daily Scot would point out – a lot of grey.  But alleviated by LED lighting overhead:

Tony tells us that there’s more to come.  All it will need is a lot more passengers.

 

 

 

 

 

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We’re well-trained: Keep six feet of separation – or two meters, the length of a bicycle, two extended arms, three steps back.   The length may not be that specific, but the point is: keep your distance.

But unfortunately, mass transit doesn’t work well with that instruction. Buses and trains never contemplated such a parameter.  Like restaurants at half capacity, some things just aren’t viable. Without occasional crowding, mass transit doesn’t have the mass.

Daily Hive

Unfortunately, fear and failure of transit will likely lead to another form of crowding – traffic congestion.   How soon and how much is still not clear – too many variables. It’s even possible that car use may not come back to previous levels.

But if it becomes clear that we have no choice – get back on transit in serious numbers or the region can’t function – then the challenge isn’t so much a technical one; it’s to  overcome this message:

 

Yet another ask of Dr Henry: under what conditions can we ignore that sign?

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