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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

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Tube Chat?

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CityLab recently posted an article “Why Londoners Bristled at the Invitation to Chat on the Tube

I know that I have written about this idea on here somewhere before, but it really seemed to me that Tanvi Misra missed a few very significant issues.

For a start the idea was dreamed up by an American “originally from a small town in Colorado”. If he had tried this idea in New York he would have got an even more irritated response. Life in big cities anywhere is going to be different from small towns.

When I commuted in Toronto, both on the TTC and GO, it really wasn’t that much different to commuting in London. Possibly slightly more polite, but no-one expected to chat. Victoria was quite different. The people on the bus I used – same bus, same times every day – soon regarded me as a “bus buddy” (I term I had never heard before). But then Victoria has one very big employer – the BC government – and most of these people were using the then new innovation of the annual government employee bus pass (paid for by payroll deductions). So right off the bat there was something in common. We were by no means as anonymous as most London commuters are.

That is not to say that there are not little social groups of regular commuters in big cities. I knew of several card “schools” on the Southern Region (as it was then known), for instance.

But the biggest mistake I think Jonathan Dunne made was using London Transport’s typography and house style in his badges and literature – including the famous roundel symbol.


Intentional or not, this made it look like something promoted by Transport for London.

Actually kudos to the kvetchers who made their ripostes look equally official.

I think a lot of people would resent this intrusion much more if they believed it was something to do with officialdom.  The clanger – “Keep Calm and Carry On” – has been equally widely misunderstood.

When I was a London commuter, I actually looked forward to the trip every day. It was a very useful interlude, back in the days before cell phones. You were literally out of reach. I used to read the Guardian every morning on the way to work – and a library book every evening on the way home. I chose routes and modes that were reasonably likely to provide me with a seat most days, or at least adequate space when standing.

I know that I wasn’t wearing a button that said “please respect my right to privacy” because that was widely understood, and didn’t need to be explained. Except to American tourists. We lived on one of the lines that terminated near Windsor Castle.

Subsequently I have discovered that I quite like talking to strangers. Though I really cannot bring myself to emulate Brandon Stanton.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 6, 2016 at 4:59 pm

Posted in transit

Double-decker buses could roll into Metro Vancouver

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This was the headline in the Surrey Leader last week.

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond says double deckers are run by BC Transit in Victoria as well as his former employer Sound Transit on intercity routes between Everett and Seattle, where they’re popular with passengers.

Desmond said he believes they could have potential to add capacity in certain parts of Metro Vancouver, although they couldn’t run on routes with low obstructions.

“They would not fit through the Massey Tunnel, for example,” Desmond said.

Well the buses currently used in Victoria wouldn’t, but that is only because they are 4.4m “highbridge” buses.

BCT 9510

But that is the tallest buses get, and there are many places where these buses are too high. And the manufacturers do produce much lower double deck buses. Some of the more recent purchases for GO Transit in Toronto, for example.

DI410 - GO 8311 - Toronto, York University - 29 Sep 2016

Paul Bateson photo on flickr, used by permission

This is an Alexander Dennis Enviro500 Super Lo version at 3.91 metres high. The Massey Tunnel has a posted height limit of 4.1m: similarly there is a restriction on Highway 1 west of Abbotsford of 4.3m. So again for service on the express 555 from Langley to Braid Station, double deckers would provide much more seated accommodation. I would warn, however, that the seating currently in use on both Translink Express services and BC Transit double deckers is too close for comfort on longer distance services. Packing as many people as possible onto a bus may be good short term economics, but for passenger retention and more diversion from private cars, I think people of over 1.7m need to have adequate knee room when seated. Just because many airlines go for tight seat pitch is not a good example for other modes!

And while we are on the subject of higher capacity buses I can think of some routes where a few of these would not go amiss

Hess Lightram 3 - TPG (Transports Publics Genevois) n°783

Geneva Public Transport Hess Lightram 3 on the airport route

Written by Stephen Rees

October 1, 2016 at 11:25 am

Posted in transit, Transportation

Tagged with ,

Granville Island 2040

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Granville Island

Photo by Alyson Hurt on Flickr 

I went this morning to a workshop called “Getting to and Moving Through Granville Island”. It is part of Granville Island 2040, “a planning initiative that will set out a comprehensive direction and dynamic vision for the island’s future” organised by CMHC and Granville Island. The session, facilitated by Bunt & Associates, collaboratively reviewed current infrastructure, mobility services and travel patterns as well as seeking ideas and opinions on critical transportation elements for the Island’s future. It was a group of about 20 “stakeholders” which included local residents’ associations, City of Vancouver staff, Translink, both of the ferry companies, the local business association, BEST, Modacity and Ocean concrete.

There had been a meeting the previous day dealing with land use, and there will be many more opportunities for people who are interested to get involved. You can even Instagram your idea with the hashtag #GI2040 – which I have already done. But there’s a lot more to this idea that I want to write about.

First of all I think it is very unfortunate that the process separates out transportation and land use, since I am convinced that these must be considered together: they are two sides of the same coin. Secondly the process centres around the vision for what people want to see by in 2040, and then there will be thought about how to achieve that. I think it is immediately apparent that CMHC has its own process for deciding how to replace Emily Carr University when it relocates to False Creek Flats. This long term vision has to assume that it sorted out, and that CMHC has achieved its own objective of seeing increased levels of activity on the Island.

The workshop started with a presentation by Bunt & Associates of some recent transportation data they have collected last month, compared to data collected on the same days in August 2005. I did not take notes, thinking that there might be a handout or perhaps material on the website. So I am forced to summarise the findings without any of the figures in front of me. There has been an increase in the number of people going to the Island, but a drop in the number of cars. The increases come from increased use of the ferries, pedestrians and cycling. They conducted cordon counts between noon and 6pm midweek and a Saturday and a very limited interview survey, to help identify where people came from, how many were in the group and how much they spent. Car occupancy has increased. The Island is now also on the itinerary of the Hop-on/Hop-off service which wasn’t the case ten years ago.

There were some very obvious weaknesses in the data. For instance, transit passengers were only counted at the cordon when they got off the #50 bus. It is my observation that many people walking into Granville Island have come from the bus stops at the southern end of Granville Bridge. While some of that “multi-mode” travel is apparent from the interview survey, it is not like a trip diary. There were also no counts in the evenings, when the use of Granville Island shifts considerably to the theatres and destination restaurants like Bridges and Sandbar.

There were the usual workshop activities of putting sticky notes on maps and talking in breakout groups, and some of the common ground was apparent early on. Reuse of the abandoned Historic Railway to connect to the mostly empty parking lots and Olympic Village station, for instance. By 2040 that may even extend to the tram envisioned for the Arbutus Corridor, and even if that can’t be achieved by then, the Greenway linkage to the Seawall was a favourite too. Currently while pedestrians and bikes have a few options, vehicles have only one, and I am relieved to report that no-one thought there should be more. In fact the traffic count shows that the current four lane access is excessive, and could be replaced by two lanes with the space better utilised by dedicated bike lanes, wider sidewalks and possibly a tram line.

The idea I want to examine in a bit more detail was popular with the transportation people, but might have some resistance from the “Islanders” i.e. the people who work there everyday. But I will get to that later.

Google Earth image

The need for a pedestrian bridge

There is a 50 meter channel between the east end of the island and the separated pedestrian and bike paths of the seawall. There is very little boat traffic into the pocket of False Creek: the main exception being people in kayaks and dragon boats using the docks south of the Community Centre.

My first thought was that the almost useless Canoe Bridge at the other end of False Creek could be relocated.

Canoe Bridge

But it is both too short (only 40 meters) and has that really ugly support in the middle. I also dislike the fact that the entrances onto the bridge are narrower than the middle, which seems to me to be utterly pointless. I also wonder about the flat underside, and whether an arched bridge might be better both operationally – for boats given rising sea levels – and aesthetically. My inspiration is from one of the newest bridges in Venice, Ponte Della Costituzione also known as Calatrava Bridge after its designer.

Ponte Della Costituzione

This is much too big for our location – 80 meter span and up to 17.7 meters wide in places. But you must admit it is very beautiful: in fact it well illustrates my dictum about a lot of architecture – it looks pretty but it doesn’t work very well. It has a lot of steps, some of them very steep, which makes it a barrier to people on bicycles (intentionally) and people with disabilities.

Actually bicycles aren’t permitted anywhere in Venice, but although this bridge might present a challenge, evidently not enough of a challenge, hence the presence of the local plod.

Ponte Della Costituzione

No, I don’t know how often they have to be there, but they did have quite a few folks to talk too while I was there.

The lack of accessibility meant that as an afterthought a suspended gondola was added

Ponte Della Costituzione

and, unsurprisingly, was out of order at the time of our visit. Wikipedia notes “The official budget for the project was €6.7 million, but actual costs have escalated significantly.”

However, I am pretty sure that someone can come up with a better design of a bridge for the 50m gap, and a way of ensuring that it is not a cycle freeway, but a gentle stroll for pedestrians. The reason is not that I am anti-cyclist, merely tired of the constant aggravation of the “shared space” on the seawall, which the City is now dealing with. It is also essential to the mandate of Granville Island 2040 that none of the Island becomes a through route to anywhere. One of the reasons that mixed use and shared space has worked so well here is that the Island is the destination. It is an exercise then in placemaking, not making through movement faster or more convenient. Indeed unlike so many places in Vancouver which now advertise “this site may have an antiloitering device in place” we must come up with lots of ideas to implement loitering devices – things to encourage people to linger. Or as Brent Toderian likes to call them “sticky places”.

There is one such place now at what would become the landing place of the new bridge. Ron Basford Park is one of the few quiet places on the Island, where people who work there seek peace: somewhere to have a picnic lunch or breastfeed their babies. It is the end of the Island and there is a footpath around its perimeter. I think it is quite possible to design the end of the proposed pedestrian bridge to ensure that this peace is preserved. If the bridge is used as way to get people on bicycles on and off the Island more quickly, there will be considerable conflicts at both ends. But Ron Basford park is also home to amphitheatres: there are concerts and all kinds of activities at other times.  So the Granville Island management is going to have to display some pretty nifty consultation expertise here.

Granville Island is a unique place. It seems to defy all reason and logic, but it undeniably is very successful as a destination, and whatever happens will need to preserve as much of the place’s eccentricity as possible. Or even enhance it.

As Dale Bracewell remarked at the end of the session, Granville Island actually needs several transportation plans for different times of day, days of the week and times of the year. In the summer, the Island attracts at least half of its users from the rest of Canada and other countries – people who probably only visit the Island once. In the winter, the Island – and its market in particular – is the place that most people in the vicinity rely on for groceries. As the residents’ association rep pointed out, they are the people who keep the market going in the winter. There will be further traffic counts later on in the year, to measure the different pattern that emerges when tourists are a less significant part of the mix. And, of course, there will need to be some reflection of what happens once the University leaves: there are around a thousand students now, plus staff and support workers.

There were some hints about how the land use will change. The buildings underneath the bridge, currently used as parkades, are likely to be repurposed. The area at the west end of the Island, currently where there is free parking for the Public Market, will likely see reuse that better utilises its location. But all of this depends on getting more viable choices for transit. So the other really important idea is the installation of elevators up to the bridge deck with new bus stops. Sadly, the City is still wedded to the notion of a centre median greenway – which is utterly daft. The reason people walk over the bridge is the view. No-one is going to want to walk a long way across the Island and the creek with no view other than four lanes of fast moving cars!

Written by Stephen Rees

September 9, 2016 at 6:23 pm

“England brings in round-the-clock trains…”

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“…DVBIA says it’s time Metro Vancouver follows”

The headline comes from News1130 and, as usual, needs clarification.

But first, some background. On Saturday evening someone from News1130 and contacted me and wanted me to comment on their story. I suggested that they would do better to find someone from Translink. It appears from the on line version that they didn’t manage to get that.

To be clear, Transport for London is going to run underground trains on two lines overnight Friday and Saturday nights.

August 2016 Night Tube Underground leaflet map

Photo by BowRoadUK on flickr


There will be some other lines added later. This has not been easy to achieve as the unions were critical of the impact on their members. So only in London, and only a few lines: not the Overground and by no means round the clock everywhere.

[Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association’s] Gauthier says they’ve been told there are a number of things standing in the way of 24-hour service [on SkyTrain].

“You know, track maintenance, and there’s a whole list of things that come up as reasons. But I’m not suggesting those aren’t legitimate reasons, but hey, if London can do it, why can’t we! And certainly let’s start with a Friday and Saturday night.”

I do not know what else might be in that whole list of things. But I do know that the maintenance problems on SkyTrain are not trivial. So will anyone else who has tried to use SkyTrain, as breakdowns seem to have been more of a problem recently, and there has been an admission that maintenance needed to be improved.

Mr Gauthier might also recall that Translink was unable to secure a new source of funding for the rather long list of improvements that are deemed necessary to both catch up to recent increases in demand and better meet future needs, rather than rely solely on the province’s preferred method of expanding freeways. There is a shortage of resources, and even a “state of good repair” is a tall order when revenue from gas taxes is falling, due to people making better choices than driving everywhere and better fuel efficiency in vehicles.

If Translink does come up with more money, I think that there are many other more deserving areas than “Millennials … having to live further and further away from the downtown core.” The fact that they continue to seek entertainment in downtown Vancouver is important to some of Mr Gauthier’s membership but is perhaps less important than some other regional issues. Possibly the decisions to increase the number of seats at licensed premises on Granville Street needed to have considered transportation impacts, and come up with some way of meeting that “need” before expansion was permitted. There are night buses, and due to the lack of traffic at night, they provide much faster and more reliable service than they can during the day. I did not see any those making more money off the later openings offering any of it to transportation providers.

If Translink did extend SkyTrain service overnight it would not come free. There would need to be considerably increased security and policing – and that cost is actually higher than on systems that have to pay for additional train operators. Sadly the people who have spent a lot of time in bars tend to make more demands on  police than the rest of us.

If there is money available for some service expansion then I think it must go first to the most needy and worthwhile cause: HandyDART has long been underfunded and its service is nowhere near adequate. Its objective ought to be to provide a service that provides an equivalent level of mobility to people with disabilities as the rest of the population enjoys. Anything less than that is discrimination against an identifiable minority. And compared to the needs of people with restricted mobility all day and every day, the needs of the young and fit late at night on weekends pale into insignificance.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 22, 2016 at 12:30 pm

Posted in transit

Tagged with , ,

Southwest Area Transport Plan

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Translink bus in Steveston

Translink bus in Steveston

I had a call today from Graeme Wood who writes for the Richmond News. He wanted to talk about Translink’s Southwest Area Transport Plan. He wanted me to predict what sort of changes people in Richmond might want to see in the transport system in the future. I’m afraid I wasn’t very helpful as it does not seem to me to be very important. First of all because the way to plan for a future system is to do some really good data collection on how they travel right now, and why, and then come up with some realistic proposals on how that could change based on what we know about things like population growth, land use plans and technology changes. Just asking people what they might like is a bit pointless. Secondly holding open houses and inviting people to fill in a web based survey form means you only get the opinions of a self selected (i.e. unrepresentative) group.

But it’s worse than that here now – and here is where I went off on a rant which I somehow doubt will appear in his newspaper, but you never know. They might be desperate to fill the space.

Here’s what the Translink web page has to say

In June 2014 the Mayors’ Council developed the Transportation and Transit Plan which identified investment priorities across the Metro Vancouver region. These priorities identified the need for types of services, but not the specific routes or specific areas that would benefit. An Area Transport Plan will establish a blueprint for the unique transit and transportation needs of the Southwest sub-region. Once funding is available, we will have a solid foundation for implementing the priorities that meet the needs of the community now and in the future.

I have added the emphasis: if you think funding is going to be available, and you live in Delta or Richmond, then you might like to wander along to one of their open houses or fill in the survey. Don’t let me stop you, or the thought that it is very unlikely indeed that much is going to change any time soon. Unless the stupid bridge actually gets built, in which case, forget it and buy a car. And if that is not a practical choice for you then you might have to take Jean Chretien’s advice and consider moving.

There is no funding for more and better transit or very much for walking and cycling – which anyway gets decided by the municipality not Translink. And, given the present ineptitude of our provincial government, that is not going to change any time soon. I think the two immediate, pressing needs for transit would be to restore the annual pass for people with disabilities and – having taken handyDART back in house – make a considerable investment in making door to door trips for people who cannot drive or use conventional transit a daily possibility rather than a very rare treat. The way that a society treats its most vulnerable citizens tells you a lot about what sort of society we are and want to be. The way this segment of our population has been treated in this province is a disgrace. And that has been true for at least the last twenty years to my certain knowledge and actually much longer than that. I think that if there are to be more funds available that ought to be the first priority simply as a matter of social justice. Even Hillary Clinton has recognized that transportation is a civil rights issue.

Whatever detail Translink puts on top of its 2014 Plan matters naught, if it cannot get any more funds to match the needs for an increase in its operations and maintenance budget – let alone the very desirable and lengthy list of transit improvements listed in that plan. The Mayors identified very real problems in the present funding model, not the least of which is the decline in revenues from the gas tax and the pressures of population growth. Of course we are in a stare down over the potential for increases in property tax: don’t expect that to end either.

Already Kirk LaPointe has decided that the Broadway Subway is not going to happen.

Our viability and livability depend on better public transit – not in a decade, but today, because we have waited a decade. Trouble is, the line has taken only one teensy step forward and some significant steps back since it was identified as one of several core projects in the Mayors’ Council report on transportation in 2014.

Yup, he got that right. Oddly he also seems to think that streetcars might be the solution as though they could be implemented faster than the subway. Actually any transit solution is going to be very expensive, very unpopular with at least one loud and influential segment of the population  and will take far too long to implement to satisfy the existing users of the 99 B Line. It is about as likely as the Massey Bridge – or the Port Mann – will see LRT running across it in my lifetime: or along the Arbutus Corridor come to that. While the province always likes to say that their new bridges could carry more transit in the future, that is simply the old “jam tomorrow, never jam today” promise.  There has never been a real intention to implement those plans.

People in Richmond or Delta who go to these open houses and outline the sorts of improvements they would like to see in the bus routes of their area are simply demonstrating the triumph of hope over experience. Good luck with that, folks. Let me know how that works out for you.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 13, 2016 at 4:06 pm

The Cambie Street Saga’s Final Chapter

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There is a story today in the Vancouver Observer which brings to an end the sorry tale of the many small businesses that failed due to the cut and cover construction of the Canada Line under Cambie Street.  Some of these merchants will be able to recover a little of the money they lost as compensation is limited to “injury to their leases”. Not nearly enough, and far too late, but mostly due to the intransigence of the constructors. And, of course, the province of BC though they were not named in the suit but they are in my blog post. I did try to document what was happening and some of the outcome. But you might find the Siskinds Law Firm a bit more authoritative on the Canadian law.

To claim compensation, former merchants and landlords affected by the Canada Line construction are urged to contact the Cambie Village Business Association before May 1, 2016, as the deadline for filing with the Court is May 31, 2016.

And, as most people know, winning a legal case is not the same thing as getting justice. My impression is that there are other places who deal with such cases in a more generous fashion, but perhaps that is going to require more historic research, as the world has steadily become less concerned about the people in general as opposed to the very few People Who Matter.

I thought I wrote more about this – as I also thought it would be easy to find better examples. But then maybe I am using the wrong search terms or the wrong search engine.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 4, 2016 at 3:21 pm

Starting April 4, They’re Closing All Fare Gates

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So I have a Compass card, and used up my last FareSaver, so I cannot say I am directly impacted. And, since I can afford to not only buy a Compass card but also keep it loaded against possible future needs I will now enjoy a more convenient system. But that doesn’t mean that the decisions that have been taken up to this point are not acknowledgements of failure. When a transit system adopts new fare technologies there do have to be some adjustments – but mostly that ought to be adjustments of the technology to meet the system’s needs and not the other way around. When the transit agency invites bidders to tender for their system’s requirements one of the things that both sides have to look at is how well the proffered technology meets the specification. In the case of the Compass card, Cubic have not been able to meet that test, yet it is Translink that is taking both the criticism and adapting to suit the shortcomings of what it has bought.

They have already abandoned one of the pillars of the fare system: three zones during daytime on weekdays. Yes, in some distant future they may be able to switch to fare by distance, but not with the existing equipment on buses. Now three zones have often been challenged, as arbitrary and based on a region centered around Vancouver (Zone 1) where fares rise based on distance to that centre which is not exactly what this region is now like. A short ride across the harbour costs more than the ride from Langley to Ladner. And since the bus route network has been designed and adapted over the years to feed passengers into the SkyTrain there are not that many opportunities to get a cheaper ride by staying on the bus: though I do wonder if the #19 has seen an increase in use recently. But the reason that the bus is a one zone fare no matter how many zone boundaries it crosses is simply because the tap out reader on the bus doesn’t respond quickly enough. A very basic system requirement, and an equipment failure. In other word’s Cubic’s fault, not Translink’s.

But that one ticket ride – which is so admired in places where multiple transit agencies serve the functional economic region – will no longer be available to the casual – cash paying – user. Who could be a visitor, or someone who either doesn’t need or cannot afford to use transit frequently. If you use the bus to get to SeaBus or the SkyTrain and pay on board you will have to pay again – as there will no longer be a usable transfer between bus and “rapid transit”. And will impact people travelling within one zone quite significantly: their fare has been doubled, just because Translink decided NOT to install a magnetic swipe reader on some gates. Or buy machines that could issue Compass tickets on board buses. I am sure that Translink has talking points about how that is not financially worthwhile, but then the whole Compass system is a financial disaster. It is supposed to improve revenue collection and deter fare evasion, but will never be able to pay for itself that way and the province has had to accept some responsibility for that.

For the “choice” rider – those who decide to stop driving for every trip and try transit – this is going to look like a deterrent. If Translink was able to stick to the idea of increasing transit mode share, that might be an issue. But the reality now is that Translink cannot cope with current demand – let alone increases even if they only come from a growth in population and transit share stays static – or even falls!

When the current generation of electronic fare boxes was bought for buses, adaptation to future needs was one of Cubic’s selling points. The decision to only go to magnetic swipe cards and not  smart cards reflected what was then available – but with the knowledge that the technology would change and the electronic farebox was specified to be adaptable to meet that possibility. In other systems, magnetic stripe cards are still in use alongside newer card readers. I have seen that for myself in a number of cities in North America and Europe, including ones using Cubic equipment and many more than three fare zones. Indeed the choice of Cubic as supplier for the new Compass system was influenced by compatibility of the new and old systems.

The issue over the accessibility of the system to people with disabilities ought to have been settled much earlier, and is a profound failure of a transit system which at one time was trying very hard indeed to improve accessibility. There seems to have been a significant unwillingness to listen to what was being said – or a willingness to ignore a small number of users over the need to install and get working a fare system bedevilled by delays and other failures. That is a failure of Translink, not Cubic.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 18, 2016 at 2:27 pm