Governance & Politics
July 29, 2014

DejaVu All Over Again: A Reality Check on SkyTrain

Here’s a VanCity Buzz piece by Kenneth Chan, dated July 2013.  Yup, a year ago:


REALITY CHECK: Why is SkyTrain breaking down so frequently?

There is no question that SkyTrain breakdowns have been happening far more frequently over the last few weeks and months, particularly with the Expo Line. Yesterday morning’s failure was the second time this month a malfunction led to major delays across the SkyTrain network. …

However, there is only so much that can be done on a system that is clearly wearing down with age and restrained from undergoing the improvements necessary with its severe lack in funding.  …

Prior to the recent strings of power rail service disruption incidents, TransLink already recognized that a major replacement of the Expo Line’s aging power rails was needed. In November 2012, TransLink began a $33-million project to replace 34-kms of power rails on the Expo Line between Nanaimo and Scott Road Stations.

The replacement project is well underway and occurs during off-peak and weekend service hours. It is scheduled for a late-2014 completion given the limited timeframe available for construction to be done. When complete, power rail related service disruptions should disappear along this route. …

For a system of the Expo Line’s size and ridership, its high frequencies (made possible by automation) of every 2-3 minutes during most operating hours are rare. And when there is higher usage, there is more wear and tear. Plainly explained, Vancouverites are spoiled when it comes to frequency, whereas many American and Australian rapid transit rail systems run manually driven trains that come every 10-30 minutes during the day (with longer trains to compensate, of course). This would be unacceptable in Vancouver.

But wait, on that note of trains and the issue of wear and tear, do we not have almost 30-year old trains running on SkyTrain? Why have those not broken down? Well actually, the original SkyTrain vehicles from 1984 and 1986 are nearing their life expectancy. More importantly, TransLink acknowledged this and announced last year that $36.6-million would be spent on refurbishing these 114 original SkyTrain vehicles to allow for another 15 years of reliable service before expensive replacement. The process to refit the original “Mark I” vehicles began earlier this spring.

There’s lots more here – maybe too much.  In a media world of sound bites and blog posts (guilty!), this long-form signal gets lost in the noise.

I’d emphasize a point, though, that has stuck with me every time I listen to the traffic reports on radio during rush hour: System failure on our roads is the normal state of affairs.  There are helicopters in the air to give you live images of the accidents, back-ups and delays.  The political response is typically to call for more money to be spent on more and wider roads.

But a system failure on SkyTrain may well justify the call to give it less resources unless and until it performs flawlessly.

It may not be fair, but it’s the way it is.  The more reliable the technology, the less tolerant we are of its failure.

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Or at least let Todd Litman count the ways – which he does in this issue of the Journal of Public Transportation.

He lists 18, with lots of analysis. And in case you’re wondering, here they are:

  1. Fare increases
  2. Discounted Bulk Transit Passes
  3. Property Taxes
  4. Regional Sales Taxes
  5. Fuel Taxes
  6. Vehicle Levy
  7. Utility Levy
  8. Employee Levy
  9. Road Tolls
  10. Vehicle-Km Tax
  11. Parking Sales Taxes
  12. Parking Levy
  13. Expanded Parking Pricing
  14. Development Cost Charges or Transportation Impact Fees
  15. Land Value Capture
  16. Station Rents
  17. Station Air Rights
  18. Advertising


He concludes, among other observations:

This research discovered no new funding options that are particularly cost-effective and easy-to-implement. Each option has disadvantages and constraints. As a result, this study’s overall conclusion is that a variety of funding options should be used to help finance the local share of public transit improvements to ensure stability (so total revenues are less vulnerable to fluctuations in a single economic sector or legal instrument) and distribute costs broadly.

Public transit improvements often provide widely dispersed benefits that can justify widely dispersed funding sources. Even people who do not currently use public transit benefit from reduced congestion, increased public safety and health, improved mobility option for non-drivers, regional economic development, and improved environmental quality.

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Even those leaders committed to funding transit find it tough when they have to get specific about the recipe.  Kathleen Wynne, the Premier of Ontario, has been a strong advocate for transit funding in the Greater Toronto area, but she’s been retreating recently as the next election draws closer.  From The Globe:

Wynne rejects hike in sales, gas taxes for transit.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is now rejecting the idea of hiking the harmonized sales tax or gas taxes to raise the funds for new transit lines, a sharp turn away from her previous contention the province was ready for an adult “conversation” on the subject. …

While the Grits do not think either idea is bad policy, they believe both are too unpopular and difficult to sell to the electorate.

The trouble was that government-commissioned studies were solidly behind the measures. A report by provincial transit agency Metrolinx last spring recommended both the HST and gas tax hikes; an expert panel led by former non-profit executive Anne Golden supported an increase to the gas tax in December.

One Liberal source said the government did not do a good enough job “managing” the two expert groups to steer them away from politically unpopular recommendations.

Our Premier, by comparison, is not a strong advocate for transit in Metro – but she also doesn’t want to be seen to be rejecting sufficient funding for transit to keep the region moving.  (Roads and bridges – no problem.)  So hence the desire to shift the burden to the Mayors, who are now in the midst of coming up with a 10-year plan and proposals for funding.

It looks likely the same scenario will be in play as in Ontario: the Mayors will come up with their  recommendations, the Province will reject the politically unpalatable options, the opposition will snipe from the sidelines with no hard choices of their own.  And then we’ll have a vote on whatever’s left over.

So what does Anne Golden think?

Ms. Golden said on Thursday that many of her ideas – including a corporate income tax hike and borrowing – are still on the table. With lesser revenue measures, she said, Ms. Wynne still has options to get at least some cash for her plans.

“It won’t be the whole loaf, but even if it’s half a loaf, we’ll get moving and we’ll get started and I think she’s committed to that,” Ms. Golden said.

The danger is B.C. is that all we’ll be left with are the crumbs.

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Further to the post below, here are some background facts used by the City of Vancouver to make the case for rapid transit on Broadway:

  • We have a very successful transit system; it is growing faster than any transit system in North America.
  • There are a million transit boardings a day in our region.
  • Transit ridership in Metro Vancouver vastly outperforms other regions of similar size (e.g., Denver, Pittsburgh, Charlotte, Portland, etc.)
  • Metro Vancouver is more similar in ridership to some of the most populous North American regions (e.g., New York, Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco). But we are the 27th largest region.
  • We’re in the middle of the pack in North America in terms of transit spending. But we get higher ridership.
  • In Vancouver, car trips are not expected to grow, but they are expected to grow in the region, leveling out after 2030.
  • The Expo line may reach capacity by about 2030.
  • Our region is going to grow by 50%/1 million new residents over the next 30 years.
  • Transit along Broadway has no spare capacity.
  • Growth is going to be spread evenly across the region: 52% north of the Fraser; and 48% south of the Fraser. (About 70% of the growth south of the Fraser will be in Surrey.)
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I often say that Vancouver has one of the best transit systems in the world – to the sound of considerable scoffing.  And indeed, I do need to qualify that I’m talking about mid-sized cities.  But even compared to some of the subway-oriented major cities like New York and Toronto, we compare pretty well – as a just-out post by the Sightline Institute illustrates.

Sightline has published the results of “Transit Score” – a follow-up to the wildly successful Walk Score:

The Transit Score methodology rates a location’s transit-friendliness by its proximity to transit stops and the frequency of transit service. Rail, cable cars, and ferries count more than buses towards a location’s Transit Score. To score a whole city, the Transit Scores of individual locations throughout the city are weighted by nearby population, then averaged.

One of the consequences of this methodology is that a city can boost its Transit Score either by boosting transit service, or by boosting the number of people near high-quality transit.

By that weighted criteria, Vancouver does really well:

The 2014 Canadian Transit Scores are out…and Vancouver, BC clocks in as the third most transit-friendly city in the Great White North, narrowly bested by Toronto and Montreal. Pretty good, eh?


But what’s even better: when you combine Canada and the US, Vancouver comes in at number 6! The only US cities with a better Transit Score than Vancouver are New York, San Francisco, and Boston.

Looking more narrowly within the Cascadia bioregion, Vancouver’s Transit Score beats the pants off its nearest two rivals. Portland and Seattle both do pretty well within the US, with Transit Scores of 50 and 57, respectively. But Vancouver shellacks both cities, with a score of 74.

Sightline goes on to explain why Vancouver’s Transit Score outstrips Seattle’s and Portland’s so handily – here.

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“Opera” and “transit” don’t typically do a duet.  One doesn’t associate high culture with low-floor buses, Rigoletto with rapid transit, La Traviata with trains  … oh, I got lots more.

And so does the Vancouver Opera, which is promoting both itself and TravelSmart with this:


Amazing cultural shift when you think about it.  Bravo, VanOpera.

Now let’s see: La Boheme with buses, Handel with HandyDart, Tosca with trolleys ….

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Further to the post below about the presumed Turning Point in Transit History,  Next City looks at Six Things to Know About the Nation’s Much-Heralded Transit Growth.

Here are two.

Transit Still in Long-Term Recovery

This year’s total ridership is the highest since 1956. But in 1956 the U.S. had a population of 169 million, about half of today’s 318 million. So while the absolute numbers are back up to mid-1950s levels, relative ridership is nowhere close to recovering.  …

Even cities that haven’t significantly suburbanized are off from their postwar peaks. In 2012, for example, New York only had as many transit riders as it did in 1950, despite having a slightly higher population.

And this:

Existing Heavy Rail Systems See Biggest Gains

… the main story of heavy rail — elevated and subway systems — is that larger ridership boosts are possible without new construction. Heavy rail ridership across the country grew by 2.79 percent over last year, with very little new construction.

Miami was the runaway winner in relative terms (the second time in less than a week), posting ridership increases of more than 10.6 percent a year. While the system did open its new stop at Miami International Airport in 2012, boardings at this station weren’t much higher at the end of 2013 than in 2012. The vast majority of the ridership jump, then, came from stations that were already in place 10 years ago.

But while the new airport station is responsible for a minuscule bump in ridership, the increased service that came along with it — a new “Orange Line” service pattern was created, reducing headways in the system’s core — likely went a long way to attract new passengers.

Los Angeles saw the next highest relative increase in heavy rail ridership, with 4.78 percent more trips on its Red and Purple Line subways in 2013 than in the year before, despite not having opened any new stations since 2000. New York’s subway also posted ridership gains of 4.18 percent, despite closing a tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan in August for Hurricane Sandy repairs.

Four more here.

Surprising that an airport station in Miami had such little effect.  What is the difference between it and the Canada Line?

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In 72 hours, five Urban Land Institute Governor’s Advisory Panel (GAP) members took a fresh look at the proposed Broadway rail rapid transit line, from Commercial Drive to UBC, unconstrained by local history.  They came up with their best suggestions on how to think about strategies for land use and transit options in the long term.

They looked at:

  •  transit mode
  • land use and development
  • process


Some of their observations:



Existing transit barely works.

Any of the options will satisfy demand over next 30 years

The City makes a plausible case for a subway.

A subway does offer sufficient incremental value to be the choice over the long term:

  •  if bored, not cut and cover
  • construction is done in phases, east to west
  • institutional entities (such as the university, hospitals and other benefitting businesses) have to be active participants – with open chequebooks

No question that for the long-term future of Vancouver that you want underground subway.  Light rail in fact would be the most disruptive alternative for existing neighbourhoods.  Light rail is not a trolley car.



Even with growth of employment shifting to Surrey and Richmond, the City of Vancouver is going to continue to have the lion’s share of employment in the region.  Broadway will have 70 percent of job the base of downtown.

‘Eds and Meds’ (educational and medical institutions and related jobs) are the biggest drivers of growth.   UBC is a city-scale anchor for the line, which otherwise need not proceed past Arbutus.

Zoning changes should not be directly linked to which mode of transit is chosen.  In other words, if a more expensive mode is chosen, those additional costs should not be seen as a justification to upzone everything.  Disconnect transit choice from development above ground.

Neighbourhood differences along the corridor should shape associated development.  Preserve neighbourhood character.  Don’t get caught in belief you that have to upzone everything.

Vancouver is drunk on highrises. You don’t need towers everywhere.  For neighbourhoods, some people think density equals towers, when it needn’t.  You already have an excellent model in the Arbutus Lands.

Meet scale, scope of street conditions and proximate development patterns with careful consideration of views and sun cones.

Concentrate new development in existing C-3A zones. There is existing capacity without zoning changes.  Only 60 percent of available development opportunity is built out in central Broadway core.



It is critical for short and long-term success that public sector work closely with neighbourhoods.

Disconnections and confusion are often the result of miscommunication about the facts.  Stakeholders need to be on same page.

Take more time, do more marketing, include better graphics.  The public, for instance, confuses graphics of walking-distance radii as target zones for rezoning.

Educate, communicate and market the goals and objectives to all stakeholders. Create the constituency to lobby for the money needed to finance the line.

The ULI district council can be a convenor of the stakeholders around the facts.



Broadway rapid transit is as big a megaproject in jobs and opportunities for business as three or more of the proposed LNG plants in the north.



In terms of jobs and economic development, the most important pipeline to be built in the province will be the one containing the Broadway subway.

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An occasional update on items from the Transit City.




From Forbes

Bus rapid transit, in which buses in dedicated lanes perform like rail lines, can not only spur development, but can do so far more efficiently than light rail and streetcars, according to a study due out later this month from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. …

“Per dollar of transit investment, and under similar conditions, BRT can leverage more (development) investment than LRT or streetcars.”

The institute’s report is scheduled to be available Sept. 27 here.




From The Atlantic:

The Mass Transit Railway (MTR) Corporation … is considered the gold standard for transit management worldwide. In 2012, the MTR produced revenue of 36 billion Hong Kong Dollars (about U.S $5 billion)—turning a profit of $2 billion in the process.

How can Hong Kong afford all of this?  The answer is deceptively simple: “Value Capture.”

Like no other system in the world, the MTR understands the monetary value of urban density—in other words, what economists call “agglomeration.”  … The Hong Kong metro essentially functions as part of a vertically integrated business that, through a “rail plus property” model,  controls both the means of transit and the places passengers visit upon departure. …

This model of transit management works partly because Hong Kong is a closed system: There are no suburbs from which people can commute by car, so there are strong incentives for everyone within the territory to use the system. This feature, combined with other regulations, has kept car ownership low: 6 of every 100 vehicles in Hong Kong are for personal use, whereas the number in the U.S. is closer to 70.

More here.




Planning and Design for Sustainable Urban Mobility argues that … urban planning and design should focus on how to bring people and places together, by creating cities that focus on accessibility, rather than simply increasing the length of urban transport infrastructure or increasing the movement of people or goods.

Urban form and the functionality of the city are therefore a major focus of this report, which highlights the importance of integrated land-use and transport planning.

DOWNLOAD: (7,323 Kb)


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An occasional update on items from the Transit City.




From DC Streetsblog:

Here’s a refreshing take on metropolitan economic health from the right side of the aisle: The conservative Free Congress Foundation says it’s time America got serious about investing in transit in its metro areas.

This think tank, founded by conservative Paul Weyrich (also co-founder of the Heritage Foundation), released a report [PDF]  last week extolling the economic benefits of transit investment and healthy  cities. The Free Congress Foundation is also holding congressional hearings on  its findings on the Hill, bringing some much-needed conservative support for  walkable, connected cities to Washington politics.



From the New York Times:
The Austrian capital is switching from buses powered by liquefied petroleum gas to a novel, first-of-its-kind fleet of electric buses that run unplugged, go anywhere, and recharge their batteries using the overhead power lines of older trams. Twelve of the buses, each of which can carry 40 passengers, are in service. …
The red and white buses partly recharge in 10 to 15 minutes between runs by pulling into an existing tram station and hooking up to electric current via a pantograph, an arm on the roof that carries the electricity. While electricity itself is not environmentally friendly unless it comes from renewable sources, city officials figure the buses — which are made by the Rampini company in Perugia, Italy — will reduce its carbon dioxide emissions 300 tons a year.
At night, the batteries recharge fully at the depot. Because the buses have modest range requirements, they use a smaller battery, which makes them lighter and less expensive than those that require larger batteries.




Transit strikes can have impacts far beyond the duration of the strike.  In Vancouver it resulted in a spike in cycling that continued after the settlement.  In San Francisco, the current BART strike has resulted in a massive boom in ride sharing made possible by new technology.  Here’s an example from Avigo:


8,825 % Growth in Ridesharing Activity During BART Strike


That could mean a lot of customers not coming back to BART, and potential growth of ride-sharing in other markets as word gets out and the technology is scaled up.


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