Surrey’s Mayor thinks helicopters for the 1% are more important than transit

From The Globe and MailPeople travelling the 40 kilometres between Surrey and Vancouver tend to drive or take transit. Surrey’s mayor wants to add a third option: helicopter.


…I have often shared the sentiment that Surrey’s transit future is in a bad shape as it is, but an announcement today by the City Mayor just took that sentiment to a whole new level. A network of helicopter take-off and landing pads to service business-men and wealthy commuters who can afford it has just jumped the priority list over a rapid transit system to service the city’s transit-dependent.

Yes, I said that right. The City of Surrey has decided to leave the city’s transit commuters behind to facilitate helicopter commutes for the 1%. If you don’t believe me, you can read her speech transcript for yourself.

Hepner between helicopters and LRT

The media still has yet to catch onto the ridiculousness and mismatched premise of this idea, but soon will come the rewatches and re-reads of the Mayor’s State of the City speech during which this is bound to be uncovered. The announcement was made immediately after a segment of the talk that focused on the city’s transit ambitions (specifically, the City’s plan for an LRT system). The segment was very short and offered no promises on the transit, and then quickly segued into announcing the plan for helicopters and helipads – which did come with a solid promise to start construction by 2017.

Now, let me back up a little bit and tell you exactly what is wrong here.

First, Mayor Hepner stated that she could only “believe” that construction of a proposed Light Rail Transit network would be started by the year 2018. And, that’s after initially promising that it would be finished by 2018 in the last elections.

“[Ms. Hepner] said she hopes to have construction [on the helipads] under way by this time in 2017.”

Secondly, she announced that the City would potentially be spending untold millions of taxpayer dollars on a network of helipads (and the associated land) with construction starting in 2017 or at least a full year before anything on rapid transit begins.

Now, a rapid transit network for far more people might be a significantly bigger public investment with bigger risks, so to an extent it is kind of understandable why this has ended up jumping the gun into first place.

Surrey’s LRT proposal has suffered major delays in producing a business case and a $500 million increase in cost

No less, the City’s Light Rail Transit proposal been thrown in limbo due to major delays in producing a business case, a $500 million increase in cost and ongoing standstills in finding regional fundingno thanks to a serious lack of confidence in the establishment conveyed in the transit referendum “no” vote. Not to mention, the serious drawbacks of an LRT system and the significant opposition to LRT from a group which I lead (opposition that’s so strong that even the Mayor of the City of Langley announced his preference for a SkyTrain extension instead).

Although the LRT proposal has its serious problems, deciding that facilitating helicopters can come first is inexcusable. To be unable to make a serious commitment on a transit network meant to service thousands of city residents, yet be completely able and willing to commit on something that will pretty much exclusively service the “1%” and let them literally fly over everyone else, really suggests to me that the Mayor’s priorities aren’t to ensure the best for the people that the city wouldn’t be without, if we’re to believe what she mentioned earlier in her speech.

What is a city, but its people helicopter-entitled 1%?

And what is Surrey but its helicopter-entitled Mayor. If there’s any tidbit of the proposal that we should all be looking at, it’s Mayor Hepner’s personal stake in desiring the service…

“She emphasized the city is looking beyond links between Vancouver and Surrey to flights to the B.C. capital of Victoria, which she said she would use herself.”

We already know this Mayor and Council to be relentless in billing taxpayers for the cost of trips. With the helicopters being said to cost $12 to $16 a minute I can’t imagine how much taxpayers will be paying to give the Mayor the luxury to fly over traffic to Victoria. And I certainly don’t think, from any feasibility perspective, that it is acceptable.

As a young, transit-dependent person living in this city (and one among potentially thousands of others now and in the future) I think to say that I’m outraged would be a serious understatement.

I must also seriously question the timing and viability of this proposal.

Sky Helicopters, a helicopter company mentioned by the Globe and Mail that is considering partnering with the City in delivering the service mentioned in the Globe and Mail’s article that they had been discussing this with the city for “several years”. This really makes me wonder why steps couldn’t have been taken earlier to implement this infrastructure within the City at a reasonable and low cost.

For example, the City decided to blow over $100 million on a new city hall that’s been put through significant criticism over its over-budget cost. For $100 million I don’t think it would have been too much of a stretch to include a rooftop helipad in the design of the new City Hall and within that cost.

This is the same Mayor who at the beginning of her term insisted that Surrey taxpayers should pay for a waterfront ferris wheel. Photo: City of Surrey

So why now? Well, only a couple of months ago, The Province came out with an article (“High-end Metro Vancouver real estate buyers commuting by helicopter” – March 14, 2016) discussing how real estate buyers, realtors and other business-people in the developer community are commuting by helicopter between Vancouver and expensive Fraser Valley estates.

“Usually we take six (Concord Pacific realtors) at a time, flying two of our smaller helicopters in formation,” Westlund said. “In one trip we covered about seven of their developments. They like getting the lay of the land.”

It should be noteworthy that the company that is mentioned in the article as facilitating these commutes is the same one that’s in talks with Surrey in establishing the heli-service.

I wonder which of the numerous developers, business elites and business associations who donated big bucks to the Surrey First election campaign is Hepner trying to feed from her hand.

Surrey deserves fair debate on LRT issues

Traffic jam sim header

I was caught off-guard by the new viewpoint article in The Now Newspaper, which claims that there is no more reason to pursue the SkyTrain vs LRT debate because voters supposedly “elected” the party supporting it, so therefore, the debate is dead. Here’s the scoop:

Surrey First was elected in an overwhelming sweep of city council in late 2014, after campaigning with promises of building light rail in Surrey

That means they have a mandate – a mandate to build light rail. That means all the debate surrounding what Surrey wants and doesn’t want is pointless.

(From The Now Newspaper: OUR VIEW: Debate over LRT in Surrey is moot – that train has left the station)

The viewpoint is implying that within the framework of a municipal election, Surrey residents were participating in a fair debate surrounding these issues. It’s implying that by electing the Surrey First Party (led by current Mayor Linda Hepner), Surrey voters endorsed Light Rail because Surrey First also happened to endorse it. The problem with this claim is that….

Surrey residents never had a choice.

Surrey residents did not have a choice to oppose LRT because at the time of the election, as all three major parties competing for Council seats were in support for Light Rail technology. Our candidates for Council never tried to foster a debate to begin with. The SkyTrain vs LRT debate was effectively shut out.

Transportation wasn’t the defining issue in the last elections.

Before you go ahead and conclude from the above that this is indeed not significant enough to result in debate, it is also extremely important to note that in the last elections, transit was not considered to be the most important election issue; it was considered to be the second most important issue – however, it was a distant second. The dominating election issue, affirmed in multiple overlapping polls, was crime.

More than half (55 per cent) of respondents to an Insights West poll conducted earlier this month said crime is the most important issue the city is facing heading into the Nov. 15 election. That’s a big leap from transportation, which came in a distant second at 14 per cent. (From CTV News – “Crime is Surrey’s top election issue, new poll reveals”)

The online survey conducted Thursday to Saturday among 510 Surrey residents aged 18 and over found that crime continues to be the most important issue for most residents (54 per cent), with transportation (16 per cent) a distant second. (From the Vancouver Sun – “Surrey Election extremely close: Poll”)

The Now’s viewpoint article would seem to imply that Surrey’s voting decision was based largely on transportation and support for Light Rail, but that was clearly not the case. So I think it’s pretentious to say that we should just follow the elections results – which could have been a result of numerous factors – and stop the rapid transit debate altogether.

A picture of myself participating in the CiTI rally in 2013
A picture of myself participating in the CiTI rally in 2013

Over the years, I have watched the concern on Surrey transit matters fade into relative insignificance. There used to stronger calls for expanded transit, and so many people here who were passionate on transit issues, particularly on how the South-of-Fraser wasn’t getting its “fair share” on transit compared to the North-of-Fraser. There used to be organizations, like the Surrey Citizens’ Transportation Initiative (Surrey CiTI), which hosted rallies on issues of transit that I participated in (can you see me in the video above?). However, the leaders of these organizations didn’t show up during the 2014 elections. In fact, they have disbanded them or otherwise completely disappeared, because these groups no longer even exist (the www.surreyciti.org website has been out of service for over a year).

Surrey citizens are already less motivated to discuss transit issues than before; now, there has been virtually no discussion on major issues with things such as the proposed LRT system. Now is not the time to apply the brakes when it comes to local transit issues that will affect the lives of everyone living in this city.

More than 1100 people are now calling for a fair debate on the proposed Light Rail.

Say what you will about how (in)significant the issue I am now raising was to decision-makers at election time, but that has changed significantly today. Over 1100 supporters have signed the SkyTrain for Surrey petition urging that the proposed Light Rail Transit line be changed to SkyTrain. This momentum is no secret – and I think Global, News1130, Omni and others had good reasons to bring me in to talk about these issues the other day.

The fact is, issues around the proposed Light Rail system have remained unresolved. Those who are supporting our organization are concerned about issues like whether this is the best way to spend lots of money, how much the LRT will cost to operate, whether congestion will be caused, and what safety issues may arise by having trains interface with everyone on-street. And with the Surrey First-dominated City Council being entirely in support of this, there has practically been no debate allowed. The Mayor and Council aren’t just forcing us to go with their vision – they are forcing us to take in all the issues that will come with it, even if they have gone without discussion.

So here’s what I’d like to say about this: we are demanding a fair debate. It seems like the decision to proceed with Light Rail technology was done with very little actual consultation from potential users. It was practically forced onto us by our Mayor, and moved forward through the stifling of a dialogue on the benefits and tradeoffs.

LRT was not the best option for Surrey

If there was anything that resembled a “fair debate” on this issue – it happened 3 years ago, and concluded LRT was not the best option for Surrey.

Does anyone even remember the Surrey Rapid Transit Study anymore? Let alone the people and the media forgetting it and how important it is to consider the study in this context, but the decision makers and planners that are working on the Light Rail Transit project seem to have forgotten about it as well. They’re now clamoring to have a new business case analysis to qualify for P3 funding, even though there was a perfectly good business case analysis in Phase 2 of the Rapid Transit Study – although it did not come out with a positive outlook for the favoured on-street Light Rail Transit system.

Grassroots advocacy has shaped transit planning in the region.

In this LRT versus SkyTrain debate, there is no referendum. And so, if the proponents of SkyTrain really think they’re going to throw Mayor Linda Hepner and her crew off the LRT track, well, fuggedaboutit.

I want to single out this last paragraph because The Now seems to be in need of a history lesson. They don’t seem to recall that a certain other famous young transit spokesperson from Surrey, who ran for Council on rapid transit issues, was one of the first people to put the consideration of street-level Light Rail on the map in the first place.

Back in 2008, then 18-year-old Paul Hillsdon took on the local media by storm, looking to break-up an impasse on transit planning and offered a solution – street-level Light Rail Transit – that was considered by many to be better than a planned 6km extension of SkyTrain at the time (the recent proposal was for a much better 16km extension to Langley). He then took this issue with him and ran for Council, although did not succeed in getting a seat.

Regardless, Paul put Light Rail on the map and took his success in transit advocacy to even further heights. He was successful in establishing himself as a voice on transit issues in this region (through his website Civic Surrey), and later went on to develop (with a colleague) Leap Ahead, the regional transit vision that became a model for the Mayor’s Transit Plan formed in advance of last year’s transit funding referendum.

The grassroots effort that had started with rapid transit advocacy, continued with the establishment of Civic Surrey and through that the inspiration of numerous other startup transit blogs and bloggers, managed to make this major difference in the way transit is being planned in our region today.

So, I think it’s more than a little unfair to rule out the potential that any of my campaign work (or for that matter, any grassroots transit advocacy) has in shaping transit planning in this region. Paul showed us that a consistent voice and a genuine interest in local transit issues is able to make a real difference – without the context of a public referendum.

There has never been a fair debate.

For the record, I’m not entirely sure if Paul Hillsdon was factual on his argument. When I had a look at his LRT vision, which was built from scratch (my vision for SkyTrain + BRT, by comparison, is based on an already-studied option), I noticed that he had an inconsistency in his cost estimates. Paul’s estimates that came from non-on-street, separated right-of-way Light Rail systems, without accounting for street-scaping costs and other construction costs associated with on-street building. In other words, it seemed misleading.

The capital cost estimates are based on a conceivably generic number of $27 million per km, and that is a problem.  One cost estimate for a certain type of LRT cannot be used generally unless the implementation described is the same kind of implementation and not something totally different.

What this cost he is using describes is the cost of a fully electrified light rail service on the Interurban corridor, a pre-existing right of wayThe same cost cannot describe the cost of implementing an at-grade Light Rail service on-street in Surrey, which is not a pre-existing right of way.

Read more: Inconsistencies in Paul Hillsdon’s 2008 “Transit for Tomorrow” LRT proposal on SkyTrain for Surrey)

Yet when Paul touted his LRT plan back in 2008, as faulty as it seemed, it was met with virtually no resistance. Anyone with a technical/research background could have easily spotted the major flaw in his proposal, but it was never brought up and there were never any attempts by local media to smear him and his efforts to advocate on transit issues.

So why shut me, and my campaign? What’s so special about this campaign that the debate it raises does not deserve attention? Is it special because it happens to be taking sides with grade-separated SkyTrain over ground-level rail? Is expanding SkyTrain something the Surrey Now’s writers and editors hold a long-running bias on, like many people in this region, to the extent where they would want to shut down a productive and highly-needed issues debate?

I don’t understand why The Now Newspaper is having us think that the train has left the station, when it was never even there to begin with. Light Rail isn’t even going to be built for at the very least, the next 3 years. Why are they trying so hard to stifle a debate that still hasn’t happened, and needs to happen? Why say no?

It seems that the Now just doesn’t want to either acknowledge or handle this campaign, given how successful it has become, and how much work it will give them as a result. However, it is their duty to do this as local media. The people of this fine city deserve a fair debate on LRT issues.

FOR SLIDER

City of Surrey is neglecting safe crosswalks

2 children injured after family struck at Surrey crosswalk

CTV Vancouver; Published Wednesday, February 3, 2016 7:58AM PST ; Last Updated Wednesday, February 3, 2016 7:33PM PST

Police are reminding both drivers and pedestrians to pay more attention on the road after two young children and their mother were hit by a car as they crossed a street in Surrey.

A four-year-old girl and her six-year-old brother were crossing the road with their mom and dad around 6 p.m. Tuesday at 76th Avenue at 147A Street when three of them were struck.

The little girl suffered critical injuries and is in serious condition, and her brother was also seriously hurt. The mother suffered minor injuries.


I’ve been hearing of pedestrian crossing-related accidents in Surrey for years: Another day, another major crosswalk accident. And this time, it was an entire family – a mother and 2 children – struck while trying to cross the road, at a recently-built crosswalk in the east part of Newton.

I’m a busy person day-to-day – often, these issues show up on my news feed and then go away. The issue was just as said, there’s nothing else to report and it’s practically over. But, there was something about this particular issue that I couldn’t get out of my mind. CTV news did a very good report that showcased the incident crosswalk, and pointed out what issues have been had with it in the community. For most people, it’s an issue of speed. It’s an issue of traffic being unable to stop.

They don’t stop. They go more than 50… it’s all the time… nobody cares.
– Woman in red jacket on CTV report

How many times I come down this crosswalk to see people on the sides waiting to cross — nobody stops. Everyone’s in too much of a hurry.
– Scott Ogden, nearby resident

Watch as three vehicles blow right through, with a man trying to cross. Residents say this is common.
– CTV reporter

But the City’s Transportation Manager, Jaime Boan, can’t seem to have what these local residents are saying. He’s dismissed practically all of it, citing that:

Only two vehicle collisions there in the past five years — neither of them involving pedestrians.
– Jaime Boan, City of Surrey Transportation Manager 

and that the crosswalk “doesn’t fit the criteria for a lit crosswalk”.

Questionable criteria

Firstly, I don’t know how valid it is to cite that this crossing had been statistically safe for the past 5 years when there was also no crosswalk, which would understandably mean there are more crossings today as a crosswalk is now actually built for regular use. And secondly, I have found the criteria the City uses to decide on crosswalks to be questionable and far too conservative.

Picture of the 128 Street crash from 2013. Taken by CBC News

If you’ve been a reader of this blog, you may recall that just over 2 years ago, I took an issue with an accident that happened right by my University (in the post: “Political Incompetence Kills”). The City of Surrey flopped on building a badly-needed crosswalk, and subsequently a teenage girl was struck and killed by a motorcyclist.

Some of the people commenting on the news reports (and some of the news reports themselves) attributed this incident to jaywalking, but I later discovered that wasn’t the case. The fine lines between what is considered a legal crossing and what is considered “jaywalking” are set by each municipalities’ bylaws. In Surrey, you are legally crossing the street if a proper crosswalk is more than 1 block away, meaning Amarpreet Sivia (the victim) crossed the street legally when she was fatally involved in the motorcycle incident.

Since that incident has occurred, the City of Surrey has responded to media concerns by expediting the construction of a traffic signal. That traffic signal had been requested 3 years prior by the nearby school, but initially rejected because – like in this incident – a crosswalk had been deemed unnecessary. In order to prove the opposite, a teenage girl died. This is something we need to prevent in future incidents by investing in safer, properly-designed crosswalks now, not later. We can’t afford to wait.

Behind the Mayor’s boasting that Surrey has the lowest taxes in the region is the fact that Surrey dedicates just $4.95 million a year to pedestrian/cycling infrastructure projects – less than half the dedication put forward by Vancouver, despite that Surrey is bigger than Vancouver in size and will soon eclipse it too in population.
– From my original post in September 2013: “Political Incompetence Kills”

If this had been done previously, it would have saved a girls life. Instead the traffic signal was brought to life by the urgency of her example, sitting no less than a block away from my classes at Kwantlen, used by students daily unbeknownst to the fact that it was expedited due to a girl’s death.

Stooping even lower

This time, however, I think the City stooped even lower than it did back in 2013. Going back to what was said by City Transportation Manager Jaime Boan…

Only two vehicle collisions there in the past five years — neither of them involving pedestrians.
– Jaime Boan, City of Surrey Transportation Manager 

What a clever excuse to let go of a legitimate issue that’s caused serious injury to an entire family. Right now, A four-year-old girl is clinging to life, while her brother, 6, is in serious condition. That alone should be grounds for a serious investigation of the safety of this crosswalk. I actually find it ironic that a City Engineer (and the transportation manager no less), who was asked to comment on this crosswalk, managed to miss this particular shortfall:

Crosswalk 1
From the CTV video showing a person attempting to cross at this specific crosswalk.

Because of the parked vehicle in the foreground, it is impossible to see that a pedestrian wishes to cross. It is also practically impossible to see the crosswalk sign. It’s the most basic rule established between drivers and pedestrians – that eye-contact is made before the crossing is attempted – but there is practically zero line-of-sight. Which also means that there is no room for a vehicle to slow-down to prevent an accident. Add that to the total lack of traffic calming on this street, and it’s no wonder that cars are blowing through this intersection one after the other – it’s practically impossible to tell whether anyone is crossing, much less that there even is a crosswalk – especially at night, when the incident occurred.

After checking with the City’s by-laws, which specify that one must not park within 15 metres of a crosswalk approach, the van in the video may have been parked there illegally. However, if the van belongs to the adjacent residence, then the City should have notified the owner that it would no longer be possible to park the van there and that it should be moved. Even then, the City should also have properly installed “no parking” or “no stopping” signs, which were not in place at the time of this incident and are not visible in the news video.

Regardless of these things, no attempt was made to create an intersection that is safer for crossing, as the intersection was not modified to bring the curb to the edge of the travel lane, which would also reduce crossing distances and make for an overall much safer crossing.

What needs to be done

Some of the people interviewed by the news suggested that this crosswalk needs to have a light – something that the City will probably debate forever with its “traffic statistics”, but it’s clear that regardless of whether or not a light is needed, the crosswalk that was built was poorly engineered. Marking a crosswalk defines a place for people to cross, but if the safety improvement aspect is to be fully realized, that crosswalk must be paired with changes to the roadway or intersection.

What should’ve been built at this crosswalk (and at any other unmarked intersections that may demand crossings) would resemble another crosswalk only two blocks to the west, where the roadway is narrowed so as to slow down vehicles, reduce crossing distances, and ensure eye contact can be made between pedestrians and vehicles:

Significantly better crosswalk

I find it ironic how this significantly better-designed crosswalk exists nearby, and yet the City of Surrey didn’t take it into account when it built the crosswalk ramps at the existing curb edges, did nothing about the parked vehicles, and completely ignored the line-of-sight.

You owe the people of Surrey an apology, Mr. Boan.

Actually, a lot of people in the City of Surrey might owe apologies. The reason I’m picking on Jaime Boan in particular is because of the dismissive explanation he provided in news interviews – which is also indicative of just how unwilling the City of Surrey is to fix its serious issues with (un)safe crosswalks.

Now, I’m not an engineer. My dad is, but I’m not – I’m just a plain old university student. I haven’t finished my degree in engineering… no less, I’m not even studying engineering. So I have practically no expertise on this matter at all. But it alarms me that a professional engineer (and no less, the manager of transportation in this City), supposedly far more trained than me on this issue, couldn’t nail down the simple, visible reasons why this crosswalk is unsafe. And it alarms me even more that he is now implying that it is still okay to use this crosswalk and that the City is planning to do nothing about it.

Perhaps it’s tempting to think that the stats will say everything, and perhaps it is true that this is the first time an accident has ever developed here at this location. But if there’s any Surrey crosswalk stat that needs to be told, it’s the fact that Surrey has the unfortunate distinction of being home to the highest ratio of pedestrian-related motor vehicle fatalities in the entire province. (according to: The Surrey Leader)

When an entire family is in the hospital because of something that is clearly a result of your (department’s) shortcoming, telling people dismissively that the city won’t consider changes at the problem intersection is absolutely unacceptable. Mr. Boan, you owe the people of Surrey an apology.

And in addition, this neighbourhood is owed a crosswalk redesign. Now.

I would encourage the City of Surrey to expedite efforts to redo this crosswalk right away, and perhaps redo the entire street so that vehicles are slowed down. The city should also expedite other needed safe crossings throughout the city.

Why isn’t the City of Surrey more excited for the new 96 B-Line buses?

96 headerThere are 5 of the new 96 B-Line buses in service today, which has me thinking that by now there should be some excitement in the city regarding this brand-new transit infrastructure. The new buses are absolutely wonderful: they’re smooth and quiet; have more space inside for passengers; and feature security cameras, modern LED lighting and air-conditioning. These are the first hybrid diesel-electric buses in Surrey, and it is the first time that Surrey’s bus depot has received brand new buses (instead of old hand-me-downs) in 17 years.

While great investments like these tend to come with big political photo-ops, only TransLink seems to be bothering with any sort of advertisement about the fact that there are new buses in Surrey.

The City of Surrey’s own Twitter feeds are blank, the Facebook page is blank, and not one Councillor or the Mayor has offered a single word about the new buses. No one from the city had anything to say about the buses during the time before their arrival, and this has continued now that many of them are in service. I thought politicians in this city really cared about transit issues, but it seems that riders are expected to enjoy the new buses without even a single word from their representatives.

As a regular 96 B-Line rider, this leaves me more than a little disappointed. The new buses are a huge step forward in improving the quality of transit in Surrey, and deserve the excitement from City representatives that transit riders will have today.

So what do I think?

Well, the main transit item on the City’s agenda is the replacement of the 96 B-Line with Light Rail Transit, something that was politically deadlocked with an election promise. Perhaps the City of Surrey fears that the appeal of these buses will take attention away from future LRT.

If the City of Surrey were to assist in advertising these buses, it might foil their LRT master-plan by exposing some of its major shortfalls. The expected overall travel time savings on King George Blvd and 104 Ave is only 1 minute over the existing 96 B-Line. In addition, the construction process for the LRT system will require the street to be closed from edge-to-edge and create huge disruptions for transit riders on the 96.

A street-level LRT would be limited to the same speed as on-street traffic and will not bring anything that can’t already be provided by a high-quality bus service. At best, this LRT is years away from opening (due to continued conflicts over transit funds) and I think the City should be proud of the service improvements that TransLink has been able to introduce today. The new buses are hybrid-electric, giving riders the same smooth-and-quiet ride experience that a street-level tram brings and bridging the gap between today’s bus service and LRT. They can also get around accidents and road closures that would close down an LRT service.

However, anything that bridges the gap between existing bus service and future LRT is likely something the City of Surrey doesn’t want. It’s no secret that the business case for the proposed LRT system is extremely questionable, and I’ve already caught the city trying to mislead citizens in a CitySpeaks survey on the difference between bus rapid transit (BRT) and LRT.

As well, in terms of neglecting the 96, the City of Surrey has done that in more ways than refusing to give it deserved attention. While other B-Line bus routes have been introduced with high levels of accompanying investments (such as the median bus lanes on Richmond’s No. 3 Road for the previous 98 B-Line), the City of Surrey has spent little to boost the 96 B-Line, if it has even spent anything at all. Some portions of King George Boulevard have had exclusive bus lanes installed to speed up the 96, but these bus lanes were funded by TransLink. The City could have implemented traffic signal pre-emption to keep B-Line buses moving, last year when it renewed the city-wide traffic management system at a cost of $2.7 million dollars. That also didn’t happen.

96 riders are extremely satisfied with the service.

Regardless of all this, the SOFATP 2015 monitoring report indicated that nine in ten (91%) rate their overall satisfaction with the 96 B‐Line as good‐to‐excellent, with an average rating of 9.0. This was measured before the introduction of these new buses. Is the City of Surrey not interested in addressing its many happy B-Line riders? Or perhaps there are fears that within these riders, there are people who will organize against the City’s plan for LRT?

In any case, I guess the City of Surrey is not interested in taking any credit for this wonderful investment. The new buses have brought as much improvement for 96 riders as a future LRT and perhaps even more. Their loss, and our gain.

Next generation 96 B-Line bus "S15003" at Newton Exchange | Photo by me
Next generation 96 B-Line bus “S15003” at Newton Exchange | Photo by me

SkyTrain technology is not outdated and not proprietary

RE: Critics say SkyTrain technology is outdated – Global News

Pictured above: The new Tozai Line in Sendai, Japan uses SkyTrain technology – and is opening in just 7 days.

Nathan Pachal was incorrect in stating that Bombardier “dictates what we’re going to do in our region” in a recent interview with Global BC, and I couldn’t have been more disappointed at what he said. I couldn’t have been more disappointed with the report either, which claimed and brought attention to SkyTrain technology being “outdated” and a “boutique system is made by only one company.

This is misleading and untrue, and I have proven this many times in my research and advocacy efforts throughout the past few years.

SkyTrain technology is proven, efficient, and used around the world in more than just a handful of cities. The idea that SkyTrain is a single-company offering, and that it’s outdated, comes down to a lot of miscommunication, misinformation and the sheer lack of information in discussion circles here. It’s important to get some perspective, so firstly…

What is “SkyTrain technology”?

Used in our Expo and Millennium Lines, SkyTrain technology basically comes down to two unique aspects:

  1. Automatic train control (ATC)
  2. Linear induction motor (LIM) propulsion

See: NEARLY ONE IN FOUR METRO CITIES HAS AT LEAST ONE AUTOMATED LINE

Longest metro systems
The world’s longest automated metro systems are in major global cities including Dubai, Singapore, Paris and Tokyo, among others.

The former (automatic train control) has become the global standard in rapid transit, with more than 1 in 4 cities now having at least one automated metro line as part of their system, according to the Automated Metros Observatory. There are 732km of automated metro lines, and the observatory expects this to triple in the next 10 years.

I can imagine that the latter (LIM propulsion) has become the popular subject of contention – since only 5 systems have been built if you only count the systems installed by Bombardier.

However, if you count all of the other systems offered by other companies, LIM technology is now used in over 20 systems in cities around the world, including many busy, large-scale systems in China and in Japan.

Bombardier isn’t the only manufacturer of LIM cars

See also: List of Linear Induction Motor rapid transit systems

Osaka's Nagahori-Tsurumi-Ryokuchi line was the first of numerous linear motor train lines.
I took this photo when I was visiting Osaka in March of this year. Look, a reaction rail!!!

The biggest thing we misunderstand is that we think Bombardier is the “owner” of LIM technology and is the only manufacturer and provider of LIM cars. This is false.

In the city of Guangzhou, China, the world’s largest linear motor train system has over 100km of track. Already, three train lines in the city are using the technology and are responsible for carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers each day.

These are some of the newest subway lines that have been built in the city. One of them, line 6, opened just 2 years ago and is now the busiest line in the whole city.

The 3 Guangzhou metro lines use cars that were jointly manufactured by ITOCHU and CSR-Sifang. Meanwhile, in some of Japan’s biggest cities, Kawasaki Heavy Industries has manufactured LIM transit cars for systems serving hundreds of thousands of passengers a day in Kobe, Osaka and Tokyo.

sub_i_20150330_h_1
Brand new linear motor trains on Tokyo’s Oedo Subway line were made by a different manufacturer than the one that made the first-generation cars.

Kawasaki isn’t the only Japanese manufacturer of LIM cars. The upcoming system in Sendai is being supplied by Kinki Sharyo, and the Fukuoka system was supplied by Hitachi.

The Oedo subway line in Tokyo, one of the busiest lines in the city, is using several different manufacturers’ offerings: the first generation cars were manufactured by Nippon Sharyo and Hitachi, while new-generation cars delivered just this year were made by Kawasaki Heavy Industries. Tokyo’s example is proving that more than one manufacturer can be the supplier of linear motor trains.

These companies aren’t unaware of each others’ presence and do work with (and compete with) each other. They have even collaborated on certain occasions (as an example, Bombardier supplied bogies for some of Guangzhou’s metro cars – while Mitsubishi supplied the actual linear motors).

These cities chose SkyTrain technology for various reasons, one of the most popular reasons being the reduction in tunnel sizes and – as a result – the reduction in capital costs for building the system. In Japan, SkyTrain technology systems are directly promoted as a way of saving money.

See also: Linear Metro promotion page by Japan Subway Association

New systems are being announced and built very often, speaking to the success of this technology. The systems are responsible for moving many more people than even SkyTrain does – and do so reliably, every single day.

The newest system is opening in just 7 days in Sendai, Japan. I am looking forward to the launch celebrations.

Above: A promotional video for Sendai’s upcoming Tozai Line, showing the use of SkyTrain technology. The Tozai Line opens on December 6.

This technology is still very much being developed

Last month we were greeted by the arrival of the first “Mark III” SkyTrain vehicles. Bombardier’s Innovia Metro 300 product is the newest generation of Bombardier’s offering of SkyTrain technology. It has won orders here in Vancouver, for an expansion in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and – of all places – for a new rapid transit line in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The renaming of what was previously called “ART” (Advanced Rapid Transit) into a “Metro” class product shows that Bombardier is as committed to keeping up with the development of linear motor propulsion technology, as its competitors are in China and Japan.

But what about all the breakdowns?

I’ve been feeling that SkyTrain technology critics would be motivated to speak as such due to the intensity of the recent SkyTrain breakdowns. For this, it’s important to get some perspective – particularly on what’s been causing some of these incidents to occur.

skytrain-control-cc-by-nc-sa
Track displays at SkyTrain control in Burnaby

Many of the recent break-downs on SkyTrain have been made worse by a particular shortfall that was identified in the commissioned SkyTrain performance review.

In the 1990s, BC Transit decided not to add a simple component to the automatic train control system which would have allowed the system to recover more quickly when a train is stalled. Other driverless transit systems have installed this component and thus do not face this particular problem.

From the independent SkyTrain performance review:

The SELTRAC technology of the 1980s has been upgraded with new control and software elements. SkyTrain was upgraded to the 2nd generation of the SELTRAC technology in 1994. However, SkyTrain did not include the auto-restart module that was available. Therefore, in a temporary loss of communication from the VCCs or VOBCs, SkyTrain SELTRAC technology still requires each train to be manually introduced into the control computer system.

Averaging 5-10 minutes per train to enter the necessary data, this equates to approximately 5 hours to fully recover operations, as there are approximately 40-58 trains operating depending upon when a service delay related to a train control communication failure occurs.

TransLink has identified the addition of this system as an immediate priority, but it may not be happening for another 5 years as the installation is a complex undertaking.

If BC Transit installed it 21 years ago, it would have been in place before the Millennium Line was built and we would be saving a lot of time with recent issues.

See: Fast SkyTrain restart 5 years away – Surrey Leader

Other breakdowns simply amounted to – in the case of last week’s incident – misplacement; – in the case of one of the 2014 breakdowns – human error; or – in the case of both the recent birds nest fire and tree hitting train incident – sheer bad luck.

Perhaps some of these breakdowns have resulted from the particulars of how our system was designed. Regardless, any transit system is prone to a breakdown of some sort. There are many different reasons.

breaker
At the same time as the SkyTrain incidents last week, a light rail train struck a pedestrian in Seattle and caused a 3-hour closure of the line in that area. Courtesy KIRO 7

My last blog post (We can learn from Japan on transit delays/incidents) was about a similar transit mishap in Japan last week on the JR Kobe Line, due to a fallen power pole. This is a conventional electric train line with rotary motors.

And, it seems no one knew about this but on the same day (and at the same time) as the SkyTrain breakdown of this week, Seattle’s LINK Light Rail line faced a 3 hour closure and disruption, when a pedestrian was struck by a train on an at-grade section.

What about the Scarborough RT?

You definitely can’t excuse the fact that Toronto wants to shut down the Scarborough RT, one of the first SkyTrain lines built and in-service, and replace it with either an extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT on the same route – or an extension of the Bloor-Danforth Subway line.

However, I reckon that the conversion and replacement has more to do with the desire to provide a through service with these other lines and reduce transfers. From a transportation planning perspective, that’s a very natural thing to want to have. It’s part of why the City of Vancouver has preferred that the “Broadway Subway” be built as an extension of the existing Millennium Line and not in any other way.

However, it’s also importance to have some perspective. The Scarborough RT was the first SkyTrain-technology line ever built, and was converted from what was supposed to be a standard extension of the Toronto streetcar system. The system was built to run only shorter Mark I cars, with newer Mark II cars deemed incompatible without a refurbishment.

Scarborough RT
The Scarborough RT was built well before a “Mark II” train car was even considered as part of the design.

This refurbishment was in fact studied, and was valued at $360 million. Going with a refurbishment was considered one of the most cost-effective ways to improve transit to Scarborough. The existing line and stations would be rebuilt to accommodate newer Mark IIs and Mark IIIs, and so provide a better service.

It would have cost less than rebuilding the line as an LRT system to integrate with the Crosstown line, and far less than building a new subway. It would have also avoided 28 additional months of transit service disruption for riders in Scarborough.

542-transit-chart
See: Our neglect of Scarborough RT is shameful: James – The Star

For whatever reason, be it political or otherwise, this suggestion fell on deaf ears – and that has been the subject of plenty of criticism. Transit planners in Toronto have condemned the neglect of the Scarborough RT’s infrastructure, calling it “shameful” and “inefficient”. It is pointed out that a January 2013 report by the TTC, commenting on the technology matter for a Scarborough rapid transit project, explicitly stated that:

“Notwithstanding criticisms and misinformation over the years, the Scarborough RT has been the single most-reliable service operated by the TTC. The service has been very successful at attracting ridership and has been operating over-capacity for a decade.” (2013 TTC report – page 9)

In addition, the Scarborough RT is run with drivers who operate the doors – breaking the fully-driverless design standard to which it was built to. As Toronto has not seen the full benefits of running ALRT the way it was designed, it’s hard to consider today’s judgement of replacing/shutting down the RT fair or unbiased.

2 years ago, Michael Schabas, a UK-based railway consultant of the Neptis Foundation, published an excellent report hypothesizing that the acceptance of SkyTrain technology in Greater Toronto could have saved billions of dollars and prevented a lot of the choking debate that’s put transit expansion there at a standstill today.

See: Toronto rapid transit review recommends SkyTrain expansion over LRT

Reports and viewpoints like these provide great insight and in my view are worth serious consideration. We all lose when someone is dismissive to consider really great alternatives, and ignores facts when there are facts at hand.


Help me put an end to the misinformation

Share this article on Twitter, Facebook and with anyone you know who’s concerned on transit matters. I believe that regional transit planning has been damaged significantly by misinformation like this, and it’s time to put it to an end for good.

I urge everyone reading this to help me spread the word and help me pressure Global into allowing me to respond to their article.

 

New TransLink CEO salary is lowest in Canada

The next CEO of TransLink will earn an annual salary of almost $320,000, plus a generous benefits and bonus package.

(CBC: TransLink CEO job posting lists massive salary)

The new salary offer for TransLink’s next CEO is out and as expected, members of the public are complaining non-stop about a number that is being described by media as “massive” and “fat” as it is north of $300,000.

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post suggesting TransLink’s executive pay should be looked at in a different way, a post that was so well-received that it engaged the entire region and sent the page-view counts on this blog skyrocketing. When transportation professionals with the Victoria Transport Policy Institute quoted this blog post in a major study of theirs, I knew I had hit something right on the nail.

Now that the new CEO salary figures are out and everyone is once again relentlessly complaining, I decided to run the numbers again to see where TransLink is now against Canada’s major cities. The base salary is now in line with that of Toronto’s TTC and Montreal’s STM, but not when a bonus of up to 30% is considered:

“Greater Ottawa” in this chart counts both OC Transpo and Gatineau-Hull’s STO

But, when you consider all of the transit agencies servicing a metro area, the executive payment in this region is comparatively minuscule:

The “all” in the above chart represents all transit authorities servicing a given area. As an example, in addition to Toronto being serviced by the TTC, Mississauga is managed by Mi-Way; York Region is managed by York Regional Transit; GO Transit operates regional commuter rail and a TransLink-like regional authority called “MetroLinx” is required to tie them all together. Each of these operators has their own executives and CEOs.

Our region has 1 transit operator with 1 CEO; others have many different operators and multiple CEOs. It’s a concept that’s so simple and easy to understand, and it is absolutely crucial that we familiarize ourselves with it.

When TransLink’s context of a single, region-wide transportation authority is considered against what the region-wide setup is in Canada’s other metropolitan areas, Metro Vancouver actually has the lowest per-capita CEO salary of any major city in Canada. Even if our CEO receives a full 30% bonus.

We now pay about 17.5 cents per capita if the CEO earns a 30% bonus; whereas the people of greater Toronto pay between 1 and 12.5 more cents more for their executives (depending on what you would include as greater Toronto’s transit operators), and the people of greater Montreal each pay between 6 and 12.5 cents more.

We will also be paying our new CEO less for every revenue hour of transit service they manage, even if the CEO receives a full 30% bonus:

Top in-charge earnings per revenue hour of transit service 2015 NEW

I compiled the data for all to review here (LINK to this spreadsheet):

Outlook

Nickels for everybody! Yaaayy!
Nickels for everybody! Yaaayy!

The revised, lowered CEO salary will put a maximum of 5 cents back into people’s pockets and would not even pay for buying a single bus. Despite the relatively minimal benefits to Metro Vancouver’s citizens, attracting a new CEO will be a more difficult task with a lower offer, and TransLink should be commended considerably if and when they are able to do so.

The response a TransLink spokesperson offered in Jeff Nagel’s recent report for the Surrey Leader pretty much sums up why TransLink can’t be considered a “transit operator” in the usual vein:

“It needs to be a competitive salary,” Moore said, adding the challenge with comparing TransLink to other transit authorities is there is nothing similar in North America.

“The No side in the plebiscite wanted to compare the CEO of TransLink to one of nine CEOs in Seattle or one of eight CEOs in Toronto,” Moore said, referring to areas where multiple separate agencies do the work of TransLink. “Nobody else has an integrated rail-bus-road infrastructure.”

Pay offer for the next TransLink CEO under fire – Jeff Nagel, Surrey Leader

But, I don’t think most people are ready to understand this – it’s probably easier to think that our transit operator is a transit operator like any other, regardless of the serious differences in the way we are organized. It’s clear that much of the “NO” vote in the recent referendum was motivated by an unfavourable view of executive salaries, which were not being looked at in a proper context.

If anything, this should have an effect on how the provincial government interprets the “NO” vote altogether. At this point, the only way that the misinformation around executive salaries in this region can be offset is for someone to take leadership and recognize the serious flaws in how people have been informed on this matter.

SEE ALSO: Referendum Myths – TransLink and Executive Salary

Author’s note: This post was updated on July 27, 2015 to account for newly released numbers and other issues pointed out with the original post.

Surrey’s LRT “Plan B” doesn’t work

The media has done plenty of reporting on Mayor Linda Hepner’s desire to pursue a Canada Line P3 model to fund proposed Light Rail in Surrey, due the recent NO vote in the transit plebiscite.

Before decisions are taken from examples in this manner, I think it’s important to also take in the context of that example. In some of my most popular posts on this blog I’ve noted how a lack of context has done so much to skewer opinions and affect decisions in our region.

The Canada Line P3 was a successful P3 because its ridership and fare revenue exceeded projections.

The Canada Line’s P3 system works like this: The private partner signs on to build the line and operate for 30 years, and makes a capital investment to reduce the public funding burden. This capital investment in the project is returned as a profit through the performance payments made during operation.

If fare revenue from ridership meets or exceeds the costs, financing proceeds as planned and excess operating revenue is returned to the taxpayer. If the fare revenue does not exceed the costs, that represents significant additional costs to taxpayers to subsidize operations.

Thankfully, the Canada Line is exceeding its ridership projections, as a result of carefully considred design choices made during the decision-making process.

But, this is where the proposed ground-level Light Rail system for Surrey, which I have been a heavy critic of through the SkyTrain for Surrey website, runs into a very major problem.

The Surrey LRT system will not recover its operating costs.

It will run into an operating deficit of millions per year from opening day and it will struggle to recover these costs if it manages to do so at all.

Financial details for Surrey Rapid Transit, reported in the TransLink/MOTI joint study
Financial details for Surrey Rapid Transit, reported in the TransLink/MOTI joint study, on page 369

LRT’s operating deficit subsidy of $22 million ($2010) per year on opening day, growing to $28 million by 2041,  is on top of the $60 million per year for capital financing that Mayor Linda Hepner declared to the Globe and Mail. On top of all of these costs, additional costs would need to be added to the performance payments to the private operator, so that the partner can receive its return on investment.

When all inflation is accounted for, the cost of financing the P3 LRT will be nearly $100 million annually on opening day. The city will obviously need to find a way to come up with this money, and I take it that more than a few really big axes will be making their way to other city services as a result.

Plan Misses the Mark

Perhaps a part of the reason for this shortfall is because the City wants to replicate SkyTrain frequencies by running LRT trains at a 5-minute frequency, increasing to a 3-minute frequency after approximately 20 years. This frequency is not done anywhere else with driver-operated LRT systems in North America. The tendency is to run at 5-10 minute frequencies during peak hours only, reducing to 15 minute frequencies during off-peak hours and weekends.

Chart on SkyTrain vs a selection of LRT system frequencies. Made for a previous write-up on the Vancity Buzz.

The higher frequencies do not necessarily solve the many issues with an LRT system and the challenges such a system in Surrey will face. Of the $27 million in annual costs required to operate Surrey’s full LRT network, only $5 million is expected to be recovered through additional fare revenues. Cut the operating frequencies in half (resulting in significantly worse service), and there would still be a major operating deficit.

This is because many of the riders on the future LRT system will be people who already pay their fares on existing buses. They are the transit-dependent people of the city, not the people who may have the choice to continue to drive if that is what continues to serve them better.

A previous survey of Canada Line riders revealed that trip speed is the most liked aspect of the line. Street-level LRT’s limitation to slower street-level speeds will certainly create challenges in being competitive.

Ridership deficits

Surrey’s LRT will suffer these operating deficits because as a slower and less reliable grade-level system, it will not attract as many passengers as an integrated, grade-separated extension of SkyTrain. In addition, LRT will be unlike our driver-less SkyTrain system in that each train requires a driver, meaning it is more expensive to operate and will be subject to design limitations that will have a major effect on its viability.

Surrey’s LRT will carry only 2970 riders/km on opening day.4 The Canada Line, which carries 122,000 daily boardings2, required 100,000 (5200 passenger boardings per km) to cover its annual operating costs.3

As costly as infrastructure like the Canada Line SkyTrain is, the investment has been proven worthy by the benefits to the tens of thousands of people using the system daily. The investment confidence that has resulted in our SkyTrain system expansions needs to be applied to the whole system.
The driverless, grade-separated Canada Line hit its 2013 ridership projections more than 3 years ahead of schedule in 2010.

SkyTrain is a viable option

If SkyTrain is extended down Fraser Hwy. to Langley, it will carry 5443 riders per km on opening day.This is comparable to SkyTrain’s present system-wide average of 5693 riders per km.5

SkyTrain would offer faster, safer, and more reliable service – which would attract more ridership, generate more fare revenue and as a result cost only $6 million per year to subsidize operations.6 This would then be eliminated entirely with the concurrent optimization of local bus routes.7

Without an operating subsidy, SkyTrain would have a far better business case for a Canada Line-style P3 model. In any case, since the operations and maintenance component can be handled by the existing BCRTC, a newly created operating entity is not required. This will save taxpayers even more money as the P3 contract for SkyTrain would be a simpler Design-Build-Finance (DBF) model.

At the end of the day, I think there’s one particularly more significant number that exemplifies SkyTrain’s viability in Surrey over a ground-level Light Rail system.

SkyTrain would have a positive benefit/cost ratio of 1.45:1. The proposed LRT has a poor benefit/cost ratio of just 0.69:1.

A SkyTrain extension is clearly the only viable option for rail rapid transit in Surrey, and decision-makers in the city and elsewhere need to start taking a look at the hard facts.

Featured image: The SkyBridge, with the New Westminster Waterfront in the background. From the
Among other benefits, a SkyTrain extension will treat South-of-Fraser riders to a direct, transfer-less connection with the existing Expo Line to New Westminster and Vancouver.

Footnotes

According to data from the 2012 TransLink/MOTI joint study
Surrey Rapid Transit Alternatives Analysis (SRTAA) Phase 2 Evaluation
Available at [LINK HERE]

  1. SRTAA PAGE 369; Undiscounted value; measured over 30 years, with costs increasing to 2041 on year 2041
  2. ProTransBC (operator) website – http://www.protransbc.com/service-performance/
  3. TransLink media release – Addressing Canada Line capacity questions
  4. See SRTAA PAGE 301 for ridership estimates (divided by track lengths listed on SRTAA P. 347)
  5. Based on APTA ridership data from Q4 2014
  6. See attached graphic, or SRTAA PAGE 369
  7. Suggested on SRTAA PAGE 536: “For RRT 1A, savings of $170 million”

The “Only rail creates development” myth

I wrote this segment as a part of the recent article I did commenting on the new study for Light Rail in Surrey. The quote from the study that caught my eye and may perhaps catch the eyes of others invested in transit planning, is this prominent suggestion that…

Unlike Rapid Bus or SkyTrain alternatives, the LRT will have a permanent physical presence in their exclusive rights-of-way and yet be at a human scale and have a gentle footprint in keeping with the lower density portions of the lines. (Surrey LRT study)

Notice how the author attempts to justify the Light Rail technology aspect in this way, by suggesting that the “permanent” presence of rail-based transit (i.e. visible rails on the street) has a positive implication on image from riders and developers, that isn’t achieved with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

(SkyTrain is the existing, fully grade-separated, driverless rapid transit system in Metro Vancouver)

Myth 1: Bus Rapid Transit has no “permanence”

This notion that BRT can have no “permanence” and doesn’t attract economic development is has been challenged by transportation professionals.

Investing in enhancing bus service instead of physical rails on the street is not a failure to create “permanence”. After all, rapid transit improvements are justified in the first place because the demand for the transit on that corridor is already quite high without it.

According to a new report released by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, BRT systems in North America are outperforming LRT in terms of how much development is generated per transit investment dollar. While the study found an LRT line in Portland had generated the most development, when this was divided per dollar of transit investment, the LRT line actually generated 31 times less development, than the system that led the per-dollar development measure: a BRT system in Cleveland.

“Per dollar of transit investment, and under similar conditions, Bus Rapid Transit leverages more transit-oriented development (T.O.D.) investment than Light Rail Transit or streetcars.”

(Institute for Transportation & Development Policy)

According to the study, the top predictors in T.O.D. outcomes are not related to the choice of technology; they are:

  1. Strong government support for redevelopment
  2. Real estate market conditions
  3. Usefulness of transit services – speed, frequency, reliability

Clearly, when the outcomes are given similar marketing and promotion, developers don’t actually care if the system uses rails or not.

Here in Canada, York Regional Transit in Ontario, with its “VIVANext” program to implement city-wide BRT, is helping to challenge the popular notion that only rail systems can reinvigorate communities. The video shows vibrant urban communities growing around future BRT stations.

Myth #2: Light Rail creates “permanence”

Light Rail is praised by supporters for creating the idea of “permanence” – which has to do with the presence of physical tracks in the streets. The suggestion is supposed to be something along the lines of, “we invested rails in this corridor so that it will never disappear.”

This is a very dangerous myth – and one of the reasons this is dangerous is because of the untold implication, wherein going straight to a Light Rail system results in other parts of the transit system lose transit service, as a means of coping with the associated costs.

Perhaps the best example of this is the downtown streetcar system in Portland, Oregon. The reveled streetcar had vibrant beginnings in its promise to provide a clean, high-quality service every 10 minutes, promoting and connecting new developments in the downtown core.

Its big-ticket issue, however, lies in the fact that it was not planned around actually improving mobility. The resulting service was not significantly more useful than existing city buses, and was often slower than walking or cycling. It was easily and frequently disrupted by accidents, poorly parked cars, and a host of other issues.

Above video: Portland Streetcar gets stuck due to a poorly parked vehicle, in what would be a minor and avoidable adjustment for a bus.

The costs that the streetcar saddled the city with didn’t help the major funding shortages affecting region-wide transit in the late 2000s, resulting in massive service cuts and cancellations throughout the region. It was so bad that in 2009, the regional operator was forced to abolish its entire 15-minute frequent transit network due to lack of funds.

Throughout its history, the streetcar has also received service cutbacks – which arguably challenge the notion that rail has “permanence”. The streetcar has never once operated at the initially promised frequencies of 10 minutes. The cutbacks were initially to the point where you would have to wait as long for a streetcar in the supposedly-vibrant city centre, as you would for a bus in a lower-density part of Surrey.

The streetcar’s ridership is so low that only 6% of the streetcar’s operating costs comes from farebox recovery. 94% of operating costs must be subsidized, and the subsidy is so heavy that it has City Auditors concerned that the streetcar is taking away from other basic services.

“We remain concerned about how projects like Portland Streetcar displace other transportation services,” referring to street maintenance.
City audit questions management of Portland Streetcar – Apr 2014

What is clear about the Portland streetcar example is that the ‘rails’ in the transit lines haven’t made any meaningful difference. They have added so little value, which ends up coming out negative against the funding issues that affected transit service throughout the region.

When the streetcars are unable to run due to an accident or some issue, the replacement shuttle buses are providing essentially the same service as the streetcars. It has had some people thinking whether Portland could follow examples here in Vancouver and in Seattle, launching a well-branded, electric trolley-bus service could have been more suitable for not just the streetcar routes, but other bus routes throughout the city as well.

A stopped TransLink articulated low-floor electric trolley. Buses like these were paid for by the additional revenue raised through low-risk bonds.
TransLink operates several articulated trolley buses here in Vancouver.

Bridging the gap between BRT and LRT

Recently, consultant Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit blog (which as you’ll notice, I’ve already referenced a few times in this write-up) mentioned that when naturally low-performing local and suburban bus services are excluded from the picture, frequent bus service is nearly as cost-efficient as LRT (in terms of the cost for every rider on the end-service).

Many advocates of LRT would rather have you look at the bus vs LRT operating costs per rider, as they apply to the entire transit system. This creates misleading attitudes surrounding buses, because the numbers include the local and suburban bus services that are naturally poor-performing (and on top of that, will likely never be replaced/justified by an LRT, ever).

This chart says two remarkable things: Firstly, that frequent bus performance is now very close to light rail performance. Secondly, that the spread between Frequent Bus and infrequent bus is usually bigger than the spread between all buses and light rail.
This chart says two remarkable things: Firstly, that frequent bus performance is now very close to light rail performance. Secondly, that the spread between Frequent Bus and infrequent bus is usually bigger than the spread between all buses and light rail.

The numbers above demonstrate that when you give buses the service quality and frequency usually associated with a more expensive LRT investment, they can be nearly as cost-efficient to operate. Likewise, if buses are also given the same amenities that add to comfort, image and sleekness, then they will likely be appreciated as much by the public.

BRT can receive the same “permanence enhancements” as LRT such as branding, way-finding information, landscaping, lighting, and dedicated rights-of-way. Many BRT systems have adopted innovative features that go a long way towards bridging the gap between BRT and LRT.

BRT advocates often cite examples in South America (such as Bogota, Colombia and others) that use BRT so extensively and so innovatively, that it is considered a replacement for heavy rail. I believe there is another worthy example that deserves some serious attention, and it’s within North America:

“Look ma, no hands”! In Eugene, Oregon, the “Emerald Express” BRT system adopted a magnetically-guided automated steering system, allowing the bus to make more precise turns and dock with precision at every BRT station. The revenue service of this guided system was introduced in June 2013 and is now celebrating its 2nd anniversary.

This guided BRT design allows for reduced lane-width requirements. Steering is automated through the electronic guidance, which only requires pavement under the wheel tracks. This provides an opportunity for the inclusion of additional green space between the tracks. The guided bus technique allows for “precision docking” at the stations.

(BRT project brief)

While the buses do need to be specially equipped, they can still run on other roads. This system does not require the extensive infrastructure and costs of previously-developed “guided” BRT systems, and can in fact save costs by allowing a tighter, narrower running right-of-way for rapid buses.

Showcase of Eugene, Oregon's Emerald Express. Taken from automated steering system study linked above.
Showcase of Eugene, Oregon’s Emerald Express right-of-way (from automated steering system study linked above)

It’s time to consider BRT

Where could you go with Bus Rapid Transit? I personally think that a lot of the potential of BRT systems is dismissed not necessarily because of disapproval, but also because the discussion is never really started. You would never be able to travel from King George & 88th and end up in South Surrey or even Coquitlam without transferring, on the currently proposed LRT system. Unfortunately, that’s been pushed out as a key consideration in transit planning here.

The Emerald Express is an excellent example of how current technology can be used to bridge the gap between BRT and LRT. And, on top of the examples showed in Eugene, there are so many other ways to “bridge the gaps”.

At this point, basically every heavily-promoted LRT feature can be replicated with BRT (and likewise, every streetcar feature with buses). Well-designed BRT systems incorporate lements such as: sheltered stations with wait-time displays, off-board payment, seating and other amenities adding comfort and ambiance. Hybrid diesel-electric or electric trolley buses can be used to lower or eliminate carbon emissions – and provide the smoother, non-jerky ride quality of electric vehicles. Plus, double-articulated buses are increasingly being used – giving a little more flexibility in terms of capacity (Light Rail’s current running advantage).

If BRT can gain more traction in this decade, it will pave the way for much better transit in all our cities, because BRT costs a lot less to implement, and has numerous flexibility advantages over Light Rail systems in urban settings. You could build more BRT than an LRT with the same dollar, and extend its reach further by through-running onto other corridors.

In order for this to happen, transit advocates must abandon any and all adherence to the “only rail creates development” myth. The fear-mongering, excuses and nay-saying from pro-LRT activists is becoming a serious setback to the realization of transit potential in our cities.

Concept image of rapid bus service instead of LRT on King George Blvd/104 Ave. Note the continuation of 3 different services to allow direct connections to Cloverdale, Coquitlam and other communities.
My concept of rapid bus service instead of LRT on King George Blvd/104 Ave in Surrey. Note the continuation of 3 different services to allow direct connections to Cloverdale, Coquitlam and other communities. Through-running flexibility is a major BRT advantage that won’t be had by currently-proposed LRT.

Calgary Light Rail system incomparable to Surrey

Responding to: If at-grade light rail does the job for Calgary, it will for Surrey too – South Fraser Blog

I was drawn to South Fraser Blog a couple of weeks ago when the webmaster commented on the concerns raised by a Township of Langley engineer over the proposed Light Rail system in Surrey. It prompted the response on this blog (Langley and Legitimacy on Light Rail Concerns), which noted numerous fallacies in the SFB article, many common and repeated among Lower Mainland LRT advocates.

Today, SFB caught my attention again with a new headline on the website declaring adamantly and proudly that “If at-grade light rail does the job for Calgary, it will for Surrey too“, a result of the webmaster (Nathan Pachal) recently visiting Calgary. Pictures are included of the Calgary LRT system, in an attempt to set an example for Surrey.

However, I immediately found many reasons to the contrary. As a first, it should be noteworthy that most of the observation wasn’t centered on the newest-opened line on the system.

Opened at the end of 2012 and adding 8.2km, the newest LRT line in Calgary is almost entirely grade-separated (including a prominent elevated segment and station), which likely wouldn’t have served the S.F.B.’s purposes to showcase at-grade rail very well at all.

And yet, the West LRT is a shining example of how Calgary has mandated its future build-out of LRT. Like many cities, Calgary has realized that more grade-separation is key to making rail rapid transit reliable, safe and competitive. Which is why the new West LRT resembles a SkyTrain extension.

Calgary’s newest West LRT. Image: Harris Rebar
Calgary’s newest West LRT. Image: Harris Rebar

Differences in context and right-of-way

As I’ve mentioned in past write-ups on the proposed Surrey LRT system, one of the things I feel is among the biggest issues is the choice on how the proposed LRT system is going to be built. All 27km of the LRT right-of-way (R.O.W.) will be at-grade, on-street, and in the middle of the street – interfacing with vehicles and pedestrians, and operating at the speed of surrounding traffic.

Calgary’s LRT system is not designed in this fashion at all. A comparative survey of LRT systems (pg. 5) measured that 93% of the system is placed on a private, segregated R.O.W. where the speed of trains exceeds 35 miles per hour (60 km/h). There will be no parts of the Surrey LRT that will be operating like this, as the maximum speed limit on city streets is 60km/h. It is atrocious to be trying to draw a comparison between two completely different types of LRT.

Unfortunately, LRT advocates have few systems to draw appropriate comparisons with. In the same aforementioned survey, all of the compared systems operate largely in either fully exclusive R.O.W.s, or other semi-separated ones at over 60km/h – making none of them comparable to the proposed system for Surrey.

These critical details are often forgotten by the Lower Mainland’s light rail advocates, because of the broad scope of systems that are called “light rail” but aren’t necessarily at all comparable.

Glimpsing Calgary’s Light Rail performance

Calgary light rail system provides consistent travel times. In Downtown Calgary, signals are timed to allow the smooth flow for light rail riders, cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists.

(Claim on South Fraser Blog)

The South Fraser Blog reasons that the C-Train’s performance is “consistent” and so will meet the standards of Surrey transit riders. Firstly, I think it’s important that claims like these get some sort of back-up so as to give readers a better idea of what’s being compared, but a link to any information is markedly absent.

So I decided to track down some of the data myself. This is what a 2010 study on the C-Train’s reliability has said about the C-Train’s (in)ability to run on-time:

Due to many issues in LRT operations, the target headway is not achieved regularly. Trains are often delayed, and the level of service is not considered satisfactory by many passengers.

(Reliability and Delay in LRT operation in Calgary – R.M.N.T. Sirisoma, S.C. Wirasinghe, D. Morgan)

The worst delays on the system happen as the lines pass through 7th Avenue in the City Centre, which is touted by S.F.B. for its on-street alignment. Despite the claimed reliability of the traffic signal sync system, 25 to 30% of all trains in both directions are delayed by more than 3 minutes.

The study does not account for technical issues like stuck doors or signal breakdowns, or for service disruptions caused by closed tracks and accidents – it is meant to measure the system’s day-to-day performance, something that’s generally not considered newsworthy as it’s what Calgarians are used to.

That means that the major incidents that can and do make the news come on top of this already not-so-stellar performance.

And with C-Train riders having to deal with as much as 57 major delays within a single month, many of them have been left relatively miserable.

Regular train rider Heather Laird says @calgarytransit has become her warning beacon for when to ride and when to drive to her job downtown.

“I keep a close eye on Twitter in the morning — delays have become so common we’re used to it.”

On-street running or on-street shoehorning?

Along 36 St NE, light rail traffic is prioritized at intersections.

(South Fraser Blog)

There’s prominent mention of the Northeast LRT’s 36 St NE section, which technically runs in the middle of a road, making it easier to draw comparisons with the proposed systems here in the South of Fraser. For numerous reasons, I still think this isn’t the case.

This is what the Northeast LRT line actually looks like:

Photo: 'Light Rail Now' group
Photo: ‘Light Rail Now’ group
Calgary LRT on 36 St NE - Photo credit: Ryan Harder, Flickr
Calgary LRT on 36 St NE – Photo credit: Ryan Harder, Flickr

36 St NE is busy, and is basically a highway. In order to “prioritize” LRT, there is a requirement of lights, crossing arms and bells at all crossings, and there are dual left turn lanes at the majority of intersections to accommodate for the lengthier train crossing delays. The result is the LRT on 36 St NE looks nothing like an urban tram system, but similar to other Calgary LRT lines placed in freeway medians – with intersections instead.

This isn’t an “on-street LRT”: this is an LRT, with its right-of-way shoehorned into a middle of the street, sharing none of the characteristics of typical on-street tram systems and completely different from the proposal for Surrey.

Photo: Light Rail Now group
Photo: Light Rail Now group

You do not even cross the street to access station platforms – all stations are accessed by pedestrian overpasses, with stairs or long circular ramps. There is virtually no community integration, and everything requires twice the land footprint of anything that would be permissible in Surrey. The ballasted track LRT R.O.W. is over 4 lanes wide at any point on the corridor.

It’s no coincidence that the S.F.B. article did not include any pictures of 36 St NE. Doing so would paint a picture of LRT that is relatively unattractive.

The confusing context of “LRT”

Light rail supporters mix “LRT” and “tram” statistics interchangeably, thus the arguments made by supporters are quite flawed: the main problem with pro-LRT activists is that the broad scope of LRT systems allows them to take bits and pieces in their argument that do not add up to the whole.

UBC SkyTrain Group – “Debunking Further Myths”, 2009

The fact that Light Rail systems come in many different shapes and sizes was first pointed out by the “UBC SkyTrain” advocacy group 6 years ago, and has been ignored by the transit community at-large ever since.

Light Rail has a confusing context. While the many similar systems that are branded as “Light Rail” do share several characteristics, I think there’s a need to pay attention to the key differences in design of these systems. What might work well for a certain LRT system may not work well at all in the other.

One of the reasons I have remained in opposition of a Surrey LRT is because of the many issues that will stem from choices in design and lack of foresight (I recently wrote on the fallacies of a new city study attempting to justify LRT, [SEE HERE]). The Calgary’s C-Train was built in a context that didn’t have these issues from the very beginning. R.O.W.s were pre-planned years before construction, and were largely located off of city streets.

But the differences are not just in specifics in design. It must also be considered that they extend to what roles the transit system is playing in a city.

The C-Train didn't build higher-density, sustainable, transit-oriented city centres like SkyTrain built Metrotown in Burnaby.
The C-Train didn’t build higher-density, sustainable, transit-oriented city centres like the ones our SkyTrain built. Shown here is Metrotown in Burnaby.

C-Trains run less frequently than our driver-less SkyTrains, especially during off-peak hours and on weekends, limiting their ability to foster transit-oriented communities with people living transit-coherent lifestyles.

As a result, C-Train is most effective at replacing cars for that final commute into the one high-density city area (downtown) – but that doesn’t mean C-Train trips are always beginning by walking, cycling or transit. Nearly every single C-Train station is complemented with a large, land-intensive park and ride – ensuring that parking can be reduced in the space-limited downtown core.

In Metro Vancouver, it's common to take the bus to reach the SkyTrain. In Calgary, the common standard is to park-and-ride.
In Metro Vancouver, it’s common to take the bus to reach the SkyTrain. In Calgary, the common standard is to park-and-ride.

Outside of this pattern, it’s a toss-up. There are few dense nodes on the LRT lines, and little variety in commuting patterns. Coherent transit usage demands good transit development and a robust city-wide transit network, but the bus system has obviously has not grown to be robust enough to prevent the need for so many huge park-and-rides. And without a robust city-wide network, it also becomes difficult to compete against commutes to areas where jobs are concentrated over lower densities (like industrial parks).

As a result, of the $6.14 billion the City of Calgary is earmarking for transportation investments in the next 10 years, 63% of that money will be going to roads – far outpacing investments in transit, walking and cycling. Clearly, the road network has remained to be of far greater economic importance than the C-Train light rail system in the city of Calgary.

If reduction in road expansion is supposed to be one of the major goals of rapid transit, then the C-Train network may as well be a colossal failure.

In conclusion,

All the Light Rail advocates I have heard from seem to have this fundamental value that it is Light Rail’s viability in Metro Vancouver and especially South of the Fraser is proven by the various examples around the world. Because we currently do not have such a system here, Light Rail has become a sensational topic among transit discussion circles.

Many of these advocates think it’s as simple of a matter as “If it works for ________, it will work for Surrey.”

As shown by the Calgary example, that is clearly not the case.

‘Everline’ SkyTrain transit system transforms Yongin City, Korea

^ New Yongin Everline promotional video (in Korean)

The 18km “Everline” rapid transit system in Yongin (near Seoul), South Korea, which utilizes the same “SkyTrain technology” trains used here in Vancouver, has celebrated its two year anniversary this past week – and along with that, city residents and officials have also been celebrating its positive effect in transforming the city of Yongin.

A new report published in English by the Korea Herald reports that the Everline is transforming Yongin City – helping to foster business growth and attract high-tech industries, encourage more people to adopt transit-oriented lifestyles and reduce congestion. The Everline is now meeting the ridership projection that was initially made in 2011.

Yongin, once regarded as a commuter town in Gyeonggi Province, is now developing into a business-centered metropolis equipped with a growth engine as it amasses infrastructure befitting a city of more than 1 million residents.

The development has been underway since Mayor Jung Chan-min took office nine months ago. The city is setting up several industrial complex centers including the Yongin Techno Valley currently under construction, and the once-dormant light rail ‘Everline’ is currently used by over 30,000 passengers daily.

[Yongin growing into business-centered city – The Korea Herald]

The Everline story: dismal beginnings

The Everline opened for service in 2013, after being unable to open in 2011 (the line had been fully constructed and in a ready-to-open state since before even then) and again in 2012, due to refusal from the City over issues with both construction and projected ridership (see INTERVIEW with Joongang Daily – Feb 2011). The delay was seen negatively by the Yongin Rapid Transit Company (YRTC), the line’s operator, which was awarded nearly $500 million in damages through the International Court of Arbitration, after suing Yongin City for delaying the opening of the line.

These issues, among others, gave the Everline a very dismal reputation among city residents – and a reportedly low ridership when the line was opened did not make things any better. One group of vocal residents, who were understandably not too happy about the delays and lawsuit, at one point called for the Everline to be dismantled altogether.

Yongin Everline Train
Although the Everline service operates at an exceptional frequency, trains operate with a single car and that has created even more dissatisfaction among critics. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA Minseong Kim

But, according to The Korea Herald’s report, it turned out that one of the key problems with the Everline during its initial year of operation was a total lack of fare integration with surrounding transit systems. There was also no direct station-to-station connection or fare integration between the Everline’s terminus station in Giheung, and the nearby Giheung Station of the Bundang Line subway connecting to Seoul City Centre.

Both of these issues were fixed by late September last year, causing ridership levels on the Everline to increase by triple by this April, a period of just over 6 months.

Everline, the major light rail line of Yongin, opened two years ago, but it had been long regarded as a public nuisance with fewer than 10,000 users per day. After implementing the Metropolitan Unity Fare system in September last year, the number of passengers drastically increased. After one month, over 20,000 passengers on average used the light rail daily, and the number reached an average of 30,000 passengers last month.

The ridership is now close to meeting the latest daily ridership forecast of 32000, by the Gyeonggi Research Institute in 2011; and at this rate will surpass it some time this year.

This is very significant for Yongin, because one of the things that pressured the City into refusing to open the line in 2011 was the lack of confidence that it would meet this projection – the city’s internal projections of 10,000 daily riders disagreed with the Gyeonggi Research Institute. The Mayor stated the City did not want to open the line, expressing concern about the increased operating subsidy and a loss of revenue due to lower ridership.

When the line finally opened in 2013, Korean transit blog Kojects noted that the city’s projection had turned out to be true (see No Passengers on Yongin Everline – June 2013) – with the line recording just under 10,000 passengers daily. However, the fare integration with surrounding transit had not yet been implemented, despite its anticipation during previous attempts to open in 2012. Now that it has been implemented, the ridership level is now triple the city’s initial projections and nearly matches the projections set by the Gyeonggi Research Institute; it will handily surpass those projections within this year.

The Everline costs about $26 million to operate yearly, which is a relatively low cost made possible by driver-less train operation. As a result, it is now close to half-way to reaching its total “break-even” point when daily ridership hits 75000 (This is according to a Korean newspaper – [see here]). At 75000, fare revenues will 100% cover all operating costs, completely eliminating the operating expense for city taxpayers.

By comparison, here in Vancouver our SkyTrain lines have hit their break-even points and are covering their operating costs through fare revenue. The newest Canada Line, opened 2009 and using Korean-built trains from Rotem in two-car sets, hit its break-even point of 100,000 daily riders in 2011 (against projections of hitting this in 2013). However, our SkyTrain lines have opened on-time and on-budget. The Canada Line opened several months early, and was bolstered further by the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Everline as an asset to Yongin City

Map of the Yongin Everline
Map of the Yongin Everline

On top of the recent fare integration, new efforts – including the promo video at the top of this post – have been made to promote the viability of the line to residents, many of them still bitter from having to wait years to ride and sitting through the handover of a major chunk of the city treasury.

It’s taken some time, but shuttle buses from the four main universities that are connected by the Everline, which previously were connecting to major transit centres, are now connecting to the Everline (According to previously linked report in Korean – [see link]), helping the universities reduce their transport costs. Activity on the line is increasing and there are now buskers performing at many of the line’s busier stations, fostering a lively urban atmosphere.

New developments on the line aim to take advantage of the Everline’s convenience. One multiple high-rise proposal, at the Everline’s junction with the Bundang Subway Line at Giheung Station, is expected to be a massive contribution to the line’s ridership (see report in Korean – [link])

The new Mayor of Yongin, who was elected to office 9 months ago, has supported the Everline and demonstrated its versatility by making the Everline a part of his own commute (the Everline has a station in front of Yongin City Hall), and has organized a citizens committee to make the best of the line now that it has been built. He has also used the Everline’s example to push for further rail investment in Yongin City – which may include further extensions of the Everline itself.

Everline trains consist of a single car, which is the same length as our Mark II cars but as wide as our Canada Line vehicles at 3.2m wide. The trains have been termed by some media and riders as “cute”, but derided by critics as being “more like buses”.

Nevertheless, trains run every 4 minutes during weekday peak periods, and no less frequently than every 6 minutes except during early mornings and late nights on weekdays and weekends. This is a higher quality service than many grade-level, driver-operated Light Rail systems. In addition, all stations are ready to accommodate 2-car trains.

Significance to Vancouver

Although the Everline operates an exceptional frequency, the fact that trains operate a single car has created additional dissatisfaction among critics.
You betcha that Everline train looked just a little too familiar. Look, linear motor rails!

The Everline has often caught the attention of transit observers in Metro Vancouver, noting the identical ‘SkyTrain technology’ from Bombardier being used on the new line.

Critics of SkyTrain expansion in our region were the first to jump on the Everline story, framing its issues as reasons that we should avoid expanding our SkyTrain system. I find it particularly ironic that it is the same kind of interference from municipal politicians – which resulted in the Everline’s shortfall as a Yongin City asset – that has been desired by critics referencing that shortfall as a way of stopping SkyTrain expansion.

But it should be clear that none of the problems with the Everline were the result of ‘SkyTrain technology’, or Bombardier. In his interview with Joongang Daily, the Mayor of the City in 2011 cited two reasons why the City was refusing to open the project: issues with ridership (which we now know to have been lack of integration), and issues with construction resulting in “noise and safety concerns”. These apparent construction issues were related to the elevated guideway structure and so a result of the construction contractor, not Bombardier or anything regarding ‘SkyTrain technology’.

Regardless of everything, the Everline has proved to be a successful transit system – and every day it carries more passengers and transforms life for more and more citizens in Yongin, it is turning around its dismal beginning of being a “failure” or a “white elephant” and becoming a true rapid transit icon in Korea.

I believe the Everline Story has two main lessons for all of us here in Metro Vancouver:

  1. “P3” transit projects must be carefully planned and considered. The Yongin Everline is essentially akin to a “what if the Canada Line P3 failed” scenario, with ridership not meeting projections – except the disaster was also kind of pre-empted as a result of fear of failure from the City’s politicians, the resulting delays in opening, and the lack of fare integration. The Canada Line did not fail because it was built on a well-demonstrated transit corridor (the previous 98 B-Line rapid bus was demand proof) and kept a promise to riders by mandating travel time improvements – the designer was actually required to orient its proposal around a set travel time value, and the Canada Line’s reliability in meeting that travel time was subsequently found to be the line’s #1 most-liked aspect in rider surveys. The City of Surrey should particularly be paying attention because it wants to use a P3 model on its proposed grade-level Light Rail system, which is more vulnerable to ridership not meeting projections than a grade-separated SkyTrain extension.
  2. The value of integrating transit fare systems. Major metro areas in North America like the San Francisco Bay Area are facing serious challenges dealing with multiple transit agencies, including major ridership losses due to the lack of integrated fares. We don’t have this problem in Metro Vancouver because of our system of having a single transit operator throughout history. As a result, TransLink is one of North America’s most efficient transit systems.