Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Rapid Transit - A Capital Idea

BC Transit is moving forward with plans for LRT (Light Rail Transit) to service the Capital Region.  We've endorsed it at the local level (I sit on the Regional Transit Commission) and the provincial Crown Corporation that governs Transit across the province has now also endorsed the plan.  We took the plan to the provincial Minister of Transportation, who is also supportive of longer term solutions rather than the short term fixes favoured by some.

Dissecting the issue, analyzing the plan and countering some of the misinformation promoted by critics should help us move the right decision forward.  We need to chase federal funding for the project to match what the province is planning for from their provincial transit plan fund - $14 billion province wide - so we can reduce the burden on local property taxpayers, a fair comment from the critics who are concerned about costs.

The alternatives to LRT - BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), HOV ( High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes or "business as usual" simply don't add up, whatever fantasies some critics want to dream up.  I'll turn first, though, to some of the limits of buses to attract the kind of ridership we will need to meet our targets for transit mode share or by any measure, our obligations under provincial legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Richard Layman is a U.S. transportation and urban revitalization consultant and advocate who has put together a nice, brief outline of challenges posed by bus oriented options in North America.  I'll add some of my own notes, but Richard's comments are a good counterpoint to some of the fascination particularly with Latin American BRT systems that have proven successful in helping to solve some of their transportation problems, most notably in Curitiba, Brazil.  We can learn much from their experience and buses do offer a lot of value as part of a more comprehensive and integrated system of mass public transit, but it won't be enough to meet the challenges we face here.

One scribe in particular noted the need to respond to customer preferences for mobility choices and his best solution is still the car, and the better that options replicate that service, the more likely it will attract those choice customers.  Buses won't do that.

Layman's list (and my notes):

1. Much less per capita ownership of cars, far greater transit dependence.

My reading of this says that in Latin America or other Third World countries, people don't have the choice, like they do here, to drive, so they already have to use the bus or whatever public transit is available.  It's a no brainer that if you provide a better bus system, it will fill up. 

Not necessarily so in North America.  You have to provide a level of service that makes transit as comfortable and attractive, at least for some trip purposes, to the car.  In most of North America, that solution has been the streetcar, the commuter train or the subway - they are more spacious than our buses, no matter how they are dressed up, and they are more comfortable.  "Choice" riders are not getting onto the bus, but they do often, in many cities, take rapid transit. (Cities with true rapid transit have twice the ridership of places like Victoria, even with a good working bus system).  Certainly our projections for ridership in the CRD suggest that the "mode share" (the percentage of people who will be riding LRT or getting on the bus), will be much better with LRT.

2. Lower wage structures so operating costs for buses are much lower than in North America.

This may not be well spelled out in the Transit cost analysis, but it is worth noting.  LRT vehicles carry about twice as many passengers as do even the most spacious buses, and they will need someome to operate them, (not to mention cleaning, repairs, maintenance etc.).  All of these are good, family supporting jobs and though I'm not one to go looking for ways to cut jobs, I am mindful of the cost efficiencies of a system that may grow those jobs more slowly.  Operators are on thing, but the lifecycle costs of buses vs LRT should also be cause for concern.  Buses are very labour intensive and not nearly as durable.  It may be one factor in the Transit analysis that finds the per passenger operating cost of LRT offers us the best return on our investments.

3. Willingness of patrons to stand much closer together, so that buses in Latin America carry 2 times the number of passengers/load compared to the U.S. (crush loads).

Try getting North Americans out of their SUVs to get up close and personal for longer trips - 30 minutes or more, jammed into even a bigger bus.  It's not in our DNA and although it may work in places (Tokyo, Mexico City etc.), it's unlikely to attract people here out of their cars.  Even during rush hours, Skytrain in Vancouver, for example, feels spacious enough (and I've often not been the only one also bringing a bike on board).  It is a much more attractive option for those that more often still have other choices.

4. Inability in the U.S. (maybe a challenge in Canada too) to create the kinds of separated busways and all the other conditions that define true BRT compared to what we might call "rapider transit".

Sure, our BRT option did look at an exclusive, separated right of way (remember how well that was received?).  It is essential to providing the time advantage necessary to out-compete the car.  It worked so well in Richmond (BC) that everyone ran in the opposite direction and the system was quickly replaced with the Canada Line (and the surplus buses are now your connection to the ferries).  Ottawa has had a more durable system, but they too are looking to convert to rail based systems.  The busways there are awful, sterile canyons that cut up neighbourhoods far more emphatically than streetcar systems like Portland's for example.  Those are good examples too of the shortcomings of BRT - buses can go anywhere, and when the system fails to meet expectations, development may well take them elsewhere, making them a much less effective community planning tool than more fixed systems like rail (even our current urban settlement patterns in many Victoria area neighbourhoods are the result of long gone streetcar systems).

5.  General unwillingness of choice riders to ride buses, regardless of the quality of service.

We are still very much attached to our cars, perhaps less so in Canada than in the U.S. where transit ridership is lower, but still a very sticky attachment.  We will need to do a lot to encourage people to make the switch from the private automobile to transit.  While we are experiencing some shifts in personal transportation choices (bicycling is growing dramatically as a percentage of traffic but the raw numbers are still small compared to European cities, by comparison), but for all the investments in the current model of transit, we are making very few gains in ridership and our transportation problems aren't getting perceptibly better. 

Some critics still insist that a few tweaks to the current system can solve all of our transportation challenges with penny wise investments that are too good to be true.  That they are, and I'll try and explore some of those issues in future blogs.  You can also follow more of the discussion on the LRT4DRD facebook page.