What’s happening on Broadway?
That’s West Broadway in Vancouver BC, just to be clear.
For background I suggest you look at the Georgia Straight. Here’s the relevant bit – with a link that works too
Monday (January 18), TransLink is hosting a stakeholder meeting from 6 to 9 p.m. on a proposed rapid-transit line to UBC. It will take place at the Plaza 500 Hotel at 500 West 12th Avenue.
The group Businesses and Residents for Sustainable Transit Alternatives claims that the Broadway Corridor has already been selected with no public input.
BARSTA says it’s not against transit, but prefers an affordable, low-impact, cost-effective, and community-accessible system rather than a SkyTrain-style project.
BARSTA favours a $360-million European-style, at-grade train, which would provide more stops along Broadway than a $2-billion subway.
“It is important that our community comes out in force and expresses our concerns in relation to Translink and above all the SKYTRAIN Technology option that Translink is pushing,” BARSTA stated in a widely distributed e-mail. “Our community organization is very concerned on the lack of honest and open discussions between Translink’s key decision makers, local politicians and provincial politicians.”
Related article: Patrick Condon highlights cost of Broadway transit
I did not go to that meeting, and as far as I can I have stood back from the ensuing debate – part of which is running full tilt on the discussion board at the Skyscraper page forum – and spills over into the comments section of this blog on a regular basis, despite my efforts to widen the discussion beyond the choice of skytrain versus trams (AKA streetcars or LRT). And, of course, I think Patrick’s recent book on Sustainable Communities is well worth reading.
I am not sure that there is much value in rehearsing how Skytrain got chosen for the Expo Line, the Millennium Line and how something similar but not the same got chosen for the Canada Line. Those choices were made and we are now stuck with them and their consequences. I think there are lessons to be learned about what that did – and did not do – for our communities and our region. Since one of the best definitions of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. But it was not the only decision, and other things have happened too, which are equally – or possibly – even more important.
The reasons why I did not go to the Translink meeting are significant. The first one is that whatever Translink concludes from its studies does not matter. The transit agency for Greater Vancouver has never made these decisions. They are made by the province because they are the level of government that has the financial ability to execute such an undertaking. BC Transit didn’t and Translink doesn’t. In the case of the Canada Line, the province forced the Translink Board to keep on voting on the issue until it came up with the “right” decision – and then got rid of the Board so it did not have to go through that process again.
Secondly, Translink could not do anything even it wanted to. Currently it has cancelled its Ten Year (growth) Plan and is in “stand still” mode. If the Plan was still in place, then the Evergreen Line would be the first priority. The province is still saying that it (EL) will go ahead, but I am not convinced. It certainly ought to go ahead and there is enough provincial and federal funding (apparently) to build something – just not the government favoured SkyTrain extension. There is still some planning work going ahead, but every rapid transit project that has been built in this region – including the #98 B-Line (formerly known as Richmond Rapid Bus) – was run by a project office separate from the transit agency of the day.
Thirdly, Translink is not listening. You can tell that by the way the process is structured. If community input really was important, then the debate about what and where and when really would be open. BARSTA is convinced it isn’t. And the fact that Gordon Campbell has made it clear that he wants a bored tube all the way to UBC under Broadway – and that he has no intention of stepping down as premier – means that his current Minister of Transportation has already been given her marching orders. Personally, I believe them to be “mark time” right now until the dust has settled a bit from the 2008 financial crash. That would make sense if they really were serious about a P3 for every project. Right now it is next to impossible to get a new P3 up and running using private sector capital – and lot of existing projects are looking dicey or are proceeding using government debt – which is cheaper anyway.
Translink employs planners – and has a new VP of planning imported from Chicago, who is a Good Egg. Indeed, so are they all. But what they are doing is busy work. It may even produce a very well written and illustrated plan. And it will look good. So do they all. I have a few myself. They could be bound into a combined volume of Projects that Might Have Been. Another fascinating academic exercise no doubt, but not much use on Broadway.
I am going to be speaking to BARSTA next month (Please Note: this is an update on the original post). I will get ten minutes to talk about why they don’t need to get too worried just yet. Others – including Patrick Condon – will talk about what ought to be happening. I happen to think that in a ten minute period I will be lucky to get out very much of what needs to be said, simply because all these problems are complex and particular. There is no one size fits all solution – no magic bullet – no simple idea that can be easily stated and absorbed. So, if you wish to read further I am going to use this space to get into that in more detail that I will probably be able to manage next month. After all, Patrick can refer people to his book – which is already published – and I could point people to this blog and expect them to root around and find the relevant bits on their own. But having tried that myself yesterday on bike routes, I do not think that is wise.
Clearly my starting position is going to be as stated in the opening paragraphs. Translink is all smoke and mirrors, pay attention to the Premier. He has his hands full right now, and I do not see that crowding on the 99 B-Line is the most significant problem he has to deal with. The big transport issues are the Gateway and how to pay for it. H1PM and SFPR are both expensive and in their early phases. He is determined that they keep going. The big financial issue – and the current hot potato – is the HST and its expected stimulating economic effect. If he is right and it is fiscally neutral, I do not see much room for Keynesian stimulation. Indeed, shifting once again to regressive taxes on expenditure against reductions in progressive income taxes means that more money leaves the province. Poor people with extra cash tend to spend here: rich people spend – an invest – all over the place and insist that the workings of the free market require them to do so. Health and education are also big problem areas where people are convinced that the government is not spending enough. We seem to have ridden out the recession better than the US but arguably not as well as the rest of Canada despite our reserves of fossil fuels and willingness to increase their exploitation. Campbell also wants to look Green – but doesn’t to most people who understand what that term means. Hydro and salmon are the hot buttons there – not transit or transportation. He is unpopular, but wants to stay on. I wonder how much he is looking at Point Grey – usually a very safe seat indeed – and thinking about how the UBC tube will play out in his own constituency.
Even though there has been a financial crisis – which is still not over – a lot of people are still employed and putting money into pension funds. So all that money needs to be invested in something safe. That used to be real estate. That got badly mucked up by the mortgage backed securities and derivatives scandal, but that effect seems to be largely confined to the US. Not only is the residential sector here newly bouyant, but people are still looking for commercial/industrial developments to invest in. And those investors are now worried about peak oil, and the impact of the latest offshore spill, so developments that feature energy savings and environmental kudos are getting more attention. At one time, you could not get Wall Street to look at anything that was not one of the seven standard types of development (Leinberger) but now mixed use and new urbanism and LEED-ND seem like better bets.
One issue along Broadway is that if the big outside investors are calling the shots still, more nodes are likely to get built, because big institutions like big chunky projects. It is simply more efficient to deal with one large loan application than many. But if there is to be a pattern of more dispersed incremental growth, then there is much more opportunity for local input – both as investors and stakeholders. One real issue is the preference of public institutions for “economies of scale” too. It is not just national retailers who like big stores – so do health care providers and educational administrators. This also drives up the “need” for motorized travel. It is is not just the aging population that increases the need for HandyDART, it is also that more of the health care system is no longer available locally. Both UBC and SFU have opened their doors downtown: but neither seems to be able to fund more student accommodation on campus – which I would argue is one of the main drivers of demand for the need for more transit. That and UPass. To some extent the province is behind that too – since they were the authors of policies around tuition fees and funding for research which forced universities to become more market oriented, and not just in their use of land. And they have also promised UPass to all post secondary students.
Growth in this region is going to continue for some time to come. We are still expecting another million people to come here in the next twenty years. They have to go somewhere, and the present regional plan says pretty much what the LRSP said about that, but now with added words like “sustainability” and “affordability”. We do argue a lot in this region, but mostly it is about details not principles. We like the clean air, clean water and green space. We are not keen on density, but we are beginning to show that there are enough people here who will embrace the notion of not living in a detached house with three bedrooms and a large yard that other kinds of habitation are desirable and marketable.
Those same people are also showing that given the right environment they will walk and cycle more and drive less. This is signifiant since we really do not have any great success in getting a greater market share for transit – something that I have been saying on this blog repeatedly. There are parts of the region, and some journey purposes, where transit is doing better than others, but overall transit share is stagnant. This suggests that we need to revisit how we assess mode choice. And that brings me to the other news story today.
What changed in Vancouver in recent months was the perception held by ordinary people of what streetcars or trams looked like – and felt like to use.
Bombardier Wins Award for the Olympic Line – Vancouver’s 2010 Streetcar
The Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA) recognizes Bombardier’s achievement for 60-day streetcar demonstration project in Vancouver, Canada
Berlin, May 18, 2010 – At the CUTA 2010 Annual Conference held in Ottawa, Canada, Bombardier Transportation received an award for the Olympic Line in the category “Exceptional Performance and Outstanding Achievement” under CUTA’s National Transit Corporate Recognition Award Program.
The National Transit Corporate Recognition Awards are designed to highlight successes and achievements at the organizational level of CUTA’s member transit systems, business or bgovernment agencies. The award recipients were selected by a national committee of transit professionals.
Bombardier Transportation and the City of Vancouver, co-sponsors of the 1.8-kilometre Olympic Line, provided free passenger service between January 21 and March 21, 2010.
The two 100% low-floor BOMBARDIER FLEXITY streetcars, operated by Bombardier, carried over 550,000 passengers, and made over 13,000 one-way trips with zero equipment failures, zero station delays and zero injuries.
Raymond Bachant, President, Bombardier Transportation North America, said: “The success of the Olympic Line attests to the extraordinary response to streetcars by commuters in Metro Vancouver. We are gratified by CUTA’s recognition and appreciate its active role to build support for sustainable public transit.” He added, “As communities face growing congestion, light rail can offer a cost-effective option with a positive impact on the urban environment.”
The Olympic Line demonstration project also won a Sustainability Star from the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, which acknowledged a product or service representing a new solution to local and global sustainability challenges.
I am pleased for them – but understand that trams are not a “new solution” – they have been around for years and we ignored them. They have been repackaged – and instead of being seen just as a transportation mode, they are now seen as part of a way of reclaiming the city from the car. The reason grade separated rapid transit was chosen was that it kept the transit system out of the way of the cars. European cities that put their streetcars underground into “pre-metro” systems found that traffic got worse and city centres did not prosper. So they stopped doing that – and made the streets in city centers car free. Trams got the street space instead – as did walking and cycling. And, most importantly, so did people who were not trying to get through but wanted to stay put. Sitting and people watching turned out to be the most popular thing to do. (Jan Gehl. Janette Sadik Khan) By the way, when Toronto replaced streetcars on Yonge and Bloor Streets with subways, traffic volumes increased – traffic expands to fill the space available.
It is also important to understand that the City does NOT think that it needs trams on Broadway. They wanted to show what a downtown streetcar would look like. That project has never been a regional priority. Equally, the City does not do much for transit. The #99 B-Line was introduced without any hoopla – all it did was introduce an express service on top of the local #9. The buses did not stop so often. Even then the City of Vancouver made sure it stopped much more frequently than the transit planners wanted. There was no transit priority for the new bus service – and still isn’t. A peak hours only nonstop UBC-Broadway/Commercial overlay was also short lived – and now extra capacity runs on several parallel routes to boost direct service to UBC. By transit priority I mean exclusive bus lanes – and the ability to extend green phases at signals for approaching buses. Both of these could be quickly implemented if the City thought they were necessary.
Regional transportation is all about getting people through places on their way to somewhere else. I have done consultations on rapid transit on Broadway, and one thing I know from that process is that locals do not want people from elsewhere rushing through their neighbourhood. And it really doesn’t matter what mode gets chosen to do that. They don’t like cars whizzing though, they don’t like rapid buses, they don’t want SkyTrain outside their bedroom windows or commuter rail along the backyard fence. They also do not want the disruption of tunnelling and do not believe any longer that bored tube is a solution to all those ills either.
Now that may seem like an insoluble conundrum, until you start to take the single occupant cars out of the picture. I expect the merchants along Broadway to defend parking along the curb. But the use of that lane for stationary vehicles is actually not very helpful. For one thing, the act of parking and unparking stops movement in the centre lane too. So street capacity of the two lane plus parking each way road is nothing like the theoretical 2,000 vphpd (vehicles per hour per direction) or the 2,600 pphpd (people per our per direction). That is why traffic engineers now say they can get more capacity out of a narrower road than a wider one (Dan Burden). Actually I have always thought that it was the shop keepers and their employees who used those spaces most – but I concede from my experience at 8:30 this morning that is not the case on West Broadway. The shops were open but the parking spaces were empty – even on the side streets. My experience in London was also that people do stop and pop into a shop even if there was supposed to be No Parking, on the bet that most times they would get away with it before the traffic warden came along. A lot of those fences at the curb were put up to stop parkers more than channel pedestrians.
People who stop – as opposed to people who are trying to get through – are what makes a street like West Broadway work. Streets are more important than simple traffic arteries. It is, as Jan Gehl, says the space between the buildings that matters. We have to make that a space where people want to be. If we reduce the space devoted to parking and moving cars, we have more space to move people – and more space for people who have no desire to move much for a while. What that means is that the car becomes relatively less attractive as a mode of transport. We currently focus on making car use as easy and convenient as possible and then wonder why people don’t want to use transit. It is not enough to “punish car users” (as their proponents love to say). What we do is follow the example of all those many places that have found ways to work without cars. Or with many fewer cars.
There are some common elements. Public parking off street is a common one: private parking which is controlled by the retailer is a disaster. It generates many very short motorized trips, and is the reason why No 3 Road – or most of Richmond’s central area – does not work well. The City of Victoria recognizes this and has parkades. So does Kansas City! Some parking on some streets for special purposes may also be a good idea – but that has to be worked out locally, not prescribed. Taking a lane from cars and giving it to transit exclusively increases the number of people that can be moved. The numbers get too much attention, and the arguments rage over technologies, but the important point is that transit becomes relatively more attractive with respect to the car. (By the way 10,000 pphpd is not hard to do with conventional surface transit.) The car is always available whenever you want it, and goes almost exactly where and when you want it to. Transit can’t do that. But it can do much better than it does here now, and we can quite safely take some of the advantage away from the car user. After all, we don’t need to achieve very much in the way of shift from one mode to the other – and nothing like 100%! We now have around 11% overall, and wanted to get to 17% before now. That still seems to me to be doable. We just have to stop building freeways, and start getting smarter about street use and transit investment. We also have to recognize that many car trips are for short distances and quite trivial reasons – but mostly because of really bad land use decisions – like single purpose zoning. And very low density development.
The transit trip has several elements – at least two walks, some wait time and possibly a transfer or two. Each one of those will have a “penalty” value to in-vehicle time. Just looking at in-vehicle speeds is grossly misleading. We need to assess the whole trip and measure it the way the user perceives it. The good news is that transportation models have been doing that for many years. You just have to have good data to feed them. We have not had that here. We also need to understand that we are not just dealing with a transportation problem but a livability or sustainability problem. So just looking at ridership is misleading. Moreover, on the Broadway corridor, we already have significant transit use, so simply switching people from buses to trams or trains gets you very little – though you do win some car users just from that change alone.UPass and increasing parking charges at UBC also won some car users to transit. Simply relying on transit technology choice to do the heavy lifting is expensive - and counterproductive if all you do is just generate more motorized trips. There has to be a co-ordinated approach. “Balanced transport planning” is not just continuing to spend as much as we do now on roads but adding a bit more for transit. It means a long term commitment to reducing the space in the city devoted to moving and parking cars, at the same time as making all other choices of movement and non-movement more attractive. That does not have to be about speed: it should also be about comfort, safety, convenience and indeed the pleasure of the experience. Just imagine that. Transit as fun. Which was what the Olympic Line achieved and what Disney does every day for all sorts of modes.
But along Broadway we also need to be talking about what sort of place the people who live and work there now want it to be. It will not stay the same no matter what choice is made. Change is the only constant. It is the direction of that change that is important, and change in land use and density has to be part of the discussion. And not just as way of paying for more transit infrastructure. Most of West Broadway is already zoned for four storey buildings. That ought to be a lot more acceptable to the locals than high rises clustered around rapid transit stops at one mile intervals.
The other important consideration is how wide the sidewalks need to be: currently parking serves the function of providing a barrier between pedestrians and moving traffic. But the area in front of the buildings can serve many purposes, mostly to do with allowing people to linger. The biggest change introduced on New York’s Broadway was the number of movable tables and chairs put into what had once been traffic lanes. Originally they were simply “protected” by barrels and paint. More recently it has been concrete planters – and boulders.
The regional transportation answer is going to be lot less than optimum – simply because regional transportation is not the only and far from the most important concern. There has to be a trade off between the need to move people around the region and the need for people to have reasonable places to do everything else. Vancouver rejected freeways through downtown for very good reasons. Unfortunately, there are some types of transit system that share some of the freeways unfortunate impacts – overshadowing, separating and deafening communities. A lot of cities got rid of their elevated trains for those reasons. Similarly not everyone thinks that riding in a hole in the ground is the best way to get around. Maybe if the people who want to drive everywhere were told they had to pay for tunnels they might think harder about their choices? Tunnelling is expensive. And if we stick to existing rights of way and subsurface cut and cover very disruptive. Even bored tube has to have some structures on or near the surface.
But there are, fortunately, plenty of places where the use of surface but separate transit does work very well. And we will not copy them slavishly but be inspired by them to do better – and do things which celebrate the place where we live and the sort of people we want to be.