Streetcars – op ed
Streetcars if necessary – but not necessarily streetcars.
Now that I have had time to think about the conference – what we heard and what I spent so much time laboriously transcribing – I am going to give you the benefit of my opinions. I do not expect any agreement. We all have our own opinions and expectations. But there is quite a lot that came out of that meeting that I think needs a response, and we also need to think much more constructively about how we advance the cause of sustainable communities in this region. Because the one thing where Patrick Condon and I are in complete accord – and Chris de Marco for that matter – is that we have to be concerned about the place we are trying to make, and the choice of transit equipment is only part of the puzzle.
I am going to start with Dale Bracewell’s assertion that the City does not want to see streetcars in Kerrisdale. My gut reaction to that was that he was wrong – but it has taken me some time to process that into a coherent critique. There is indeed good transit service there already (by Translink’s standards) – trolleybuses on Arbutus and diesel buses (running under energized but unused trolley wire) on 41st Avenue. If there is a need for increased transit supply, it ought to be straightforward to upgrade those services. If Translink was adequately funded then obviously the first thing to do is increase service frequency. We can argue in other places about which area gets service increase first, but clearly the routes where there are pass-ups now get first attention. That includes increasing frequency on parallel routes. I have been passed up on 41st by the early morning #43 to UBC and I doubt that is an isolated experience. The way to go on 41st is to put on trolleybuses – which do not get to UBC but short turn to boost local service – and thus free up existing capacity to UBC.
My second recommendation flows from that. On all routes where there is crowding and a need for longer distance travel, there should be a B line type, limited stop service overlaying the local bus. Obviously that cannot be a trolleybus: they can’t overtake (something that operators apparently need to be reminded about by painting the poles yellow, a recent innovation here). For people trying to get around the region, in the absence of good long haul services, B Line works quite well. Artics if needed, and hybrid would be a good choice. And to avoid the need for people to have schedules, put on a clock face service where it cannot be so frequent that you never have to wait long for a bus. While the real time info display is good, much better is a service that comes at 11, 31 and 51 minutes past the hour in a reliable fashion. All day and every day. With strengthening at peaks when necessary. You can paint that on the bus stop cheaply – you do not need an electronic display.
My third recommendation is then that bus services in Vancouver need more priority in mixed traffic. This cannot be created by adding lanes – there is no room. But there is a very good argument that says we should be reducing capacity for car traffic. Lon LaClair was highly self congratulatory on the recent stats, but I think he and his colleagues have not done nearly enough. If you are willing to take out parking lanes for bikes, why not for buses? Why are you willing to put in a streetcar downtown but not make the most of the transit capacity we now have, by making bus services more reliable? I am not in favour of putting a lot money into any kind of transit if all that happens is it spends most of its time stuck in traffic, with bunching and pass-ups. I would suggest that Translink – once it has money to increase transit supply – refuse to do so until the city – every city not just Vancouver – gives buses a distinct advantage over the single occupant car. There are lots of ways to do this, but the one I like most is the Copenhagen commitment – a small increment of moving and parking capacity is taken from SOVs every year - for the long term. Vancouver actually needs to live up that stated priority sequence (walk, bike, bus first) – and the other municipalities have to buy into that too. And they do not get another nickel spent on transit in their area until they start delivering bus lanes, bus signal priority and cutting on-street parking on bus routes. And reducing their own minimum parking requirements for development: they should be adopting maximum parking requirements and be doing deals with developers for bike lockers and showers in workplaces, car co-op parking spots and memberships in condos, cut through walk access to arterials in the dendritic pattern suburbs and so on. And the other thing that goes with that is much better street furniture in general and especially at bus stops – shelters, benches etc – in return for which Translink delivers better passenger information. Not just a little bit of Main Street as a demo project but the whole system – again allocating resources first to places which show they are serious abut playing their part.
And note too that I include walk and bike in all this – they are the essential feeders to transit but also the canary in the coal mine that shows if the city is working properly. I ignore people who complain that the bike lanes are empty when its raining. What I do notice is that the city came to life for two weeks last February – and that we are rapidly letting that progress slip through our fingers. Putting back the parking on Granville Island – something I heard at the meeting which made my heart sink – being just one example. But in the longer term we need to have a place where human powered transportation is the norm not the exception. And for a sustainable, vital city we need spaces between the buildings where people want to linger, where they are encouraged to loiter. And to achieve that we have to recognize that through movement needs to be accommodated in other ways. When San Francisco took down its elevated freeways, traffic movement actually improved. The same thing happened in New York when bits of Broadway were closed. These are important lessons.
So to return to Kerrisdale, does a streetcar on the old CP (and prior to that BCER Interurban) tracks actually make much improvement over the #16 trolleybus? No, not really. But that does not mean we abandon the idea of re-opening that line for passenger service. “Corridors” or rights of way through a city are difficult to provide once they have developed and matured. So you cannot let any of them go unused – and you should never, ever build over them. You have to take a good hard look at your future needs – and if you cannot do something grand at first, at least keep it going at some level. I am a bit reluctant to advocate rails to trails since rails are hardly ever put back – but the current state of the line is a disgrace.
The “No Trespassing” signs are – thankfully – cheerfully ignored. And you do see lots of people walking and cycling. Sometimes not easily. But in this case, the route was ignored for rapid transit in favour of a tunnel under Cambie. Pointless now to revisit that decision but we can note that the obsession with P3s at any price meant that the Canada Line is going to be exceedingly expensive to expand. It might be cheaper – it will certainly have a better rate of return – that after the third cars have been inserted and the 2 minute headway on the combined part of the route reached then Arbutus will have to be looked at. So keep it available for the future, but in all seriousness look at buying some modern trams and hooking that into the Olympic Line. NOW. You can do that now quite cheaply – you do not have to wait until armageddon hits. Yes the creme de la creme will whine, but that does not mean they get to make the decisions for the rest of us. And the service on those tracks is NOT a streetcar. It is more like bringing back the interurban. Because if it stops infrequently (like the B Lines) and gets signal pre-emption at crossings (something trains always get but buses seldom if ever do) than travel times are attractive. And you can put on services to Richmond and New Westminster on existing tracks. Which can be augmented incrementally. You do not have to go to build out from day 1 – you design the system to allow for graceful expansion. What they call “scalability” in software.
Which brings me nicely to thing we didn’t talk about nearly enough on Wednesday but ought to have done. The next million people who are going to come to this region are going to be living mostly south of the Fraser. While I appreciate Chris de Marco’s pitch for putting them on the Burrard Peninsula the only way we can do that is to increase density. That isn’t going to be easy, and I appreciate Patrick’s notion that “mid rise” density along arterials (for which zoning is already in place) is going to be an easier sell than high rises at stations – and is actually a “better” solution. I would like to think that Chris is right and that the new regional strategy will be followed (especially where industrial land is concerned). But experience has not been good – and what we still really need is a regional land use (and transportation) planning authority with teeth. And we have a sub-region SoF which is freeway dependant now and that is being strengthened. Once again, we cannot afford to let existing rights of way go under utilized. The former interurban line is needed now – and so are the mainline railways.We only use a small part of the CP mainline and not much of the CN and BNSF for passenger trains. No, these tracks are far from ideal in many respects, and the CP deal with West Coast Express is not a model to follow. But we still need to do something far sighted with these assets.
The Premier is quite wrong to say that we will extend SkyTrain to Langley. That is the wrong technology – and it costs a fortune. We have made that mistake more than once too often. Translink cannot afford to build it and keep a bus system going. And without a bus system at the sort of densities we see in much of Langley and Surrey, SkyTrain will not work. BUT there are places in those cities now which have comparable densities to Vancouver and which might even become walkable, with a bit of imagination and good community consultation. A few design charrettes no doubt. But those people are going to have to be persuaded that the transit that is going to be provided will be a whole order of magnitude improvement over what is there today and comparable to what is now in Vancouver, New Westminster and Burnaby. BRT is going to be part of the mix – just because you can do that quicker than any rails – but once again has to have priority over SOVs. Passenger trains on existing freight railways – something GO Transit has been doing for years on busier lines – also have to happen. I do not think that anywhere outside of North America accepts the concept of “commuter rail” (one way peak hours only service). Even here train bus is run to provide something off peak even if not counter peak (though why not when the bus has to dead head anyway beats me.) GO Transit runs a lot of buses too. And, as Chris noted with respect to Melbourne, just having good railways does not control sprawl – in fact, the suburban train services created it and facilitate it.
So to turn to land use again, what worries me more than anything is the ease with which our urban containment boundary is being nibbled away. The ALR is disappearing before our eyes. The green zone is going to be the next target. The purpose of the Sea to Sky widening had nothing whatever to do with the Olympics but everything to do with blasting a hole in the Squamish Lillooet regional growth strategy. It will not be enough to finally get around to providing a viable alternative to car use. We also have to get down to some real land use control. Part of that is providing municipalities with a new source of revenue. Much of the pressure that developers can exert comes from the desperate need for money to provide municipal facilities and services. Just as the private sector is now dictating what we get in terms of health care: the donors put in the MRI machines, but the Health Authority cuts staffing to run them. As long as City Hall is on the pockets of the developers, the broader public interest is not going to be well served. The profit of a few overrules the needs of the many. Which is also why I do not think it should matter if there are private sector developers who want to fund streetcars. I really do not care how much they are willing to spend. I want to be able to look at projects and proposals with Mike Shiffer’s MAE framework. Which I will bet Mr Campbell had never even heard of let alone used for his decision making on rapid transit.
The truth in this region is that projects are picked on political criteria – and any analysis done is to shine up a decision that has already been reached. Any public consultation is window dressing. I think that MUST change. Without a credible process, no-one is going to believe that we are serious about sustainability or any other fine policy objective. I also do not think that what has worked in some US cities is a good model for Vancouver and its hinterland. We simply do not have the same frameworks and support systems as they do. It should be a source of shame in Canada that US cities can now do better than we do in providing affordable and socially necessary housing. (Not that they do that very well either, but it’s still more than we do, which is now nearly nothing.)
When you look at what I am talking about here, it becomes clear that the choice of transit technology is not actually all that difficult. Its really a technical issue of horses for courses. There are some real hurdles but they are political and administrative, and they are rooted in the need to change from business as usual. If we continue to think that we need more businesslike decision making, then we should not be surprised when only profit matters. Business is not allowed to think much beyond its bottom line as it has a duty of care, not to the community, but to its shareholders. We also have some pretty shabby politics here. Low turn out at the polls. Short term thinking. Spin not truth. Sound bites not careful, objective analysis.
And the last point is the possibly the hardest in terms of the conference, but actually quite straightforward if you think regionally. Vancouver is doing pretty well. Compared to the rest of the region its need for improved transit does not, in my reckoning, put it at the head of the queue. It is already mostly built out. The downtown streetcar never seemed to make a lot of sense to me – and it still doesn’t. Of course it would be nice – but the development of Coal Harbour and False Creek is mostly complete. And this year we seemed to manage without the DHR (the nearest thing we have to the proposal – even though as I keep on repeating it isn’t a streetcar). The stats are pointing in the right direction. Vancouver could do better – and if I had to fight the entrenched motordom of this city, I would draw a deep breath before proposing bus lanes and signal priority too. But most of the rest of the region and the outlying exurbia beyond it is going to hell in handbasket. We are repeating all the mistakes made in the 1950s, but with slightly better mpg stats. And one or two streetcars here or there makes no difference to that at all. I don’t think Vancouver does get any rail rapid transit along Broadway for a while. It can do a lot for itself with good traffic management (for instance, regulating traffic by using value of time instead of vehicle flow) and must get on with that until we can free up some good funding for transit for the region in general. The Evergreen Line, the SFU cable car and passenger services on as many of the existing railways that we can all come to the top of my priority list. And lots more transit everywhere. I actually do not care what sort of wheels it has under it. It has to be frequent, comfortable and easy to use for everybody: and it goes first when the lights change. The car drivers can sit and watch as the bus/tram/train whizzes by.
Now, when we have got transit figured out, we are going to have to deal with much tougher questions. Decent housing for all at affordable prices. Protection of our natural resources. Good urban design standards. Better health through prevention. Representative and responsible government. Real democracy. Some future for the human race on this planet. Some future, come to that, for life as we know it – all species seem to be at risk from our nasty habits, not just us.
But that is all beyond the scope of this particular op ed.