It's been less than a year since our region's newest SkyTrain extension (the 11 km "Evergreen Line" or "Millennium Line Evergreen Extension") opened to passengers on a frigid December morning. The new line provides new rapid transit connections to the Tri-Cities (Port Moody, Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam) and points beyond. Since then, the ridership on the new extension has steadily increased.
By January of this year, Evergreen was recording approximately 30,000 trips per day, triple the ridership numbers over the now-discontinued 97 B-Line bus that Evergreen replaced. According to TransLink's latest numbers for September, Evergreen is now seeing 34,000 passenger boardings per day.
This means the Evergreen Line is now seeing 3,120 boardings per km, or just over 5,000 daily boardings per mile. When compared against other Light Rail Transit (LRT) systems in Canada and the U.S., the Evergreen Line is recording significantly higher passenger numbers.
Only three LRT systems - in Calgary, Edmonton and Boston - carry higher passenger volumes per mile.
However, these three LRT systems are also among the oldest operating LRTs in North America, with all three having operated for at least 35 years. They are also quite extensive, crisscrossing their cities and directly servicing downtown areas. It would probably be difficult to expect Evergreen on its own to topple any extensive Light Rail system, especially at less than 1 year old, but this hasn't stopped Evergreen from pulling ahead of several systems anyway. Indeed, a long list of light rail systems throughout Canada and the U.S. has fallen behind the Evergreen Line in terms of passengers carried per mile/km.
For example, San Francisco's MUNI Metro, an extensive LRT system integrated with an even more extensive regional network, loses to Evergreen with just 4,602 boardings per mile. So does Portland's MAX system, which has been looked at in our region as a model for the Light Rail proposals in Surrey.
This is a reward for better design choices
The design and technology choice of the Evergreen Line has been a frequent contention, ever since decision-makers transformed the Evergreen Line from a street-level Light Rail project into a SkyTrain project in 2008. One of the factors that contributed to this decision was that SkyTrain would offer shorter travel times and seamless connections to existing lines, therefore attracting higher ridership than an LRT. Indeed, Evergreen has become all of these things - riding the Evergreen Extension between its terminus at Lafarge Lake-Douglas and existing SkyTrain at Lougheed Station takes just 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, Portland's MAX Orange Line extension, which opened in fall of 2015, is similar in length to our Evergreen Line and connects to an existing, extensive rail system in much the same manner.
However, in order to travel the same distance, the MAX Orange Line requires 25 minutes.
The Orange Line presented an incredible opportunity for the Greater Portland region, as it serves town centres south of Portland that are not connected to downtown Portland by freeways. Transit could have had a clear advantage. Despite this, the Orange Line fell far short of its ridership expectations. Indeed, one year after its opening, the Oregonian newspaper reported that "MAX Orange Line riders aren't showing up as predicted".
Forecasts used to help justify federal funding for the project called for 17,000 average weekday trips in 2016. The Orange Line has so far averaged less than 11,000.
While Evergreen has not yet matched or broken any ridership expectations (the benchmark 70,000 weekday trips is set for year 2021), its incredible ridership results demonstrate that the choice of SkyTrain for the Evergreen Line was clearly the right choice.
If there is anything that best demonstrates of the worthiness of investing in our SkyTrain system (as opposed to turning to alternate solutions or technologies, such as Light Rail), this is it.