My Thoughts – Re: Transportation and the July 2014 SkyTrain meltdowns

The July 2014 SkyTrain meltdowns have probably perplexed a lot of people. In the past week, a lot of us bore witness to a level of chaos that I think had yet to be seen on the SkyTrain system in 28 years of operation.

We enjoy our SkyTrain service so much that I think that we have developed a collective expectation that things will always work out the way they’re supposed to.

Here are some of the responses I spotted on Twitter regarding the breakdown:

http://twitter.com/SantiHenderson/status/489950692669267969

http://twitter.com/BaD_KiTTy_MeLz/statuses/489943859783168001

http://twitter.com/CTVVancouver/statuses/489943945120874496

You can clearly see that there’s a lot of frustration; there’s a record of the incovenience. There’s an aura of madness that goes up in the air, as no one wants to be made late.

http://twitter.com/Charlesvancity/statuses/491315698174414848

We’re tempted to question the SkyTrain system. Bus drivers’ union leader Nathan Wood – who, on CKNW, raised an issue that Light Rail systems have outnumbered SkyTrain-type systems in terms of construction around the world, is just a bit concerned that our main rapid transit backbone can have trouble fostering a busy transit network. While his numbers on the amount of SkyTrain systems in existence are slightly off of the actual amount, I can see why people would want to raise those questions after a series of unique, 5-hour closures.

How much service was actually disrupted?

Reliability chart - SkyTrain vs other systems
Reliability chart – SkyTrain vs other systems. CLICK TO ENLARGE

You might have already seen this graphic, actually. I was wanted for a guest post on the Vancity Buzz, and had just finished creating this chart when the second consecutive major SkyTrain issue hit commuters Monday mid-day for what was unfortunately the second time in under 7 days.

SEE ALSO: Vancouverites are spoiled with SkyTrain – Vancity Buzz guest post by Daryl

Usually SkyTrain is operating for 20 hours daily – and while it’s absolutely unfortunate that the recent issues that plagued SkyTrain commuters hit during busier times of day,  a 5.5 hour meltdown constitutes just over 25% of that service – meaning service was fine for the rest of the day. This is a far better record than what was achieved during the Portland transit meltdown of 3 weeks ago, where more than 60% of service fpr the day was not on time.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s a 132 hour work-week for the SkyTrain. 5.5 hours represents approximately 4% of service provided for the week, and well under 1% of service provided for the entire year. We had this twice in one week – meaning 11 hours of service were not operated on time – but that still represents less than 0.2% of all service provided throughout the year.

SEE ALSO: Reality Check – Why is SkyTrain breaking down so frequently? – Vancity Buzz

For the rest of the year, SkyTrain is operating normally – 99.4% of service is provided, with a 94.7% on-time performance rate. SkyTrain lets us down sometimes, but this isn’t actually happening a lot of the time. We enjoy reliable, rapid service that gets us where we need to go.

On most days, we get a reliable service out of the SkyTrain system for the duration of the day.
On most days, we get a reliable service out of the SkyTrain system for the duration of the day.

What should we do about this

There’s no question that issues and system shutdowns like this can be inevitable – so is there something that we can do about it? I think that there absolutely is – and looking at these issues, it seems that there’s a lot we can learn from this. For example – a lot of the time SkyTrain will fail, it impacts all riders because many bus lines connect to SkyTrain stations. A strategy to minimize delays during system shutdowns could involve the redirection or extension of bus routes to key areas to serve riders where they already are.

Normally, the best transit agencies can do when this happens is implement a shuttle bus bridge to repace the rapid transit service. This was the same procedure in Toronto and Portland, as pointed out above. The bus bridges are released as demand allows, but there’s no specific protocol that is followed in the event of a failure – meaning it can take some time before the bus bridges actually start, with passengers delayed until then.

PHOTO: Shuttle buses line up to board passengers at Metrotown
No one llikes to deal with slower shuttle buses replacing SkyTrain service!

But, it’s important to be prepared.

So, here’s an important disclaimer: I was lucky enough to not be there for both of these recent SkyTrain disruptions.

But, before you lambast me with comments of “you don’t know what we face!” or “try being on a train when it happened”, I would like to comment that I have seen my share of SkyTrain delays and disruptions before.

Prominent was the one that hit our system in April 2013, when a power rail issue in New Westminster halted trains on the system for close to an hour and required the deployment of shuttle bus bridges. I was on the problem train, and remember what it felt like as my train was passing the problem area and the electricity was suddenly cut. I remember how staff restarted the train and tried to move it past the area again, only for it to once again come to a grinding halt. I was heading from Surrey to the last showing of the theatre play at Windermere Secondary School, to see the performance and meet some friends in a yearly event that I consider to be something of a tradition. With the level of delays, I was unfortunately not able to make it to Windermere until the play ended.

It’s important to remember that transit isn’t the only form of transportation that isn’t always reliable. Accidents on key arterials or bridges can disrupt the flow of traffic in the region, especially when there are two or more bridges blocked at the same time. As a driver, you might know an alternate route that might be slower but will get you there with less congestion and less time waste. I think the same needs to be true for riders of transit.

Sometimes, there’s just no way to make it on time. Regardless, I still think it’s important to be somewhat prepared for when there are issues – and handle ourselves calmly and responsibly in times of crisis.

Gas prices of late are reaching all-time highs in Metro Vancouver. Source: Vancity Buzz
Gas prices of late are reaching all-time highs in Metro Vancouver. Source: Vancity Buzz

There’s an important message that can be had from the recent issues, one of which is a need for all of us to step back and realize that every possible way to get around has some sort of volatility. Even as we walk, we risk tripping on something that can temporarily impair our most basic ability to get around. The reality is, no matter how we choose to get around, we may run into issues. And, with the amount of money we sink into our demand to get around, it’s understandable why there’s such a high level of frustration when a transportation service you must rely on does not work out – not just on the SkyTrain but everywhere else.

Think about it. It’s true, right? So much of the money we earn goes towards the basic function of getting around. Transportation defines the way all of us live – so much that I think we don’t realize that it costs a lot of money to get around in this society. We take our transportation for granted – and for the younger ones, who may have benefited from the subsidized and discounted U-PASS, it’s especially not easy to realize this. However, this is the reality of the life we live. An average suburban household might spend more than 60% of income on the house and car – dealing with gas prices at all-time highs and ownership costs.

But where do I start?

It all starts with looking at where you live and where you might be going, and looking at your alternatives well in advance. For example: what are the bus routes near your house, and where can they take you. Which routes are your best options (accounting for frequency, speed, etc.) Or, if you live in Surrey and you tend to need to get across the Fraser River a lot, how much money can you set aside in case you need to pay for a cab to get across? If you vaule your money, what are the alternate bus routes to get you around once you do get across? (for example: the 123 from New West Station goes to Brentwood, or the 100 22nd St Station goes to South Vancouver).

As a society, we have to be anticipative of issues and have the knowledge to deal with it in real time – because often, transit authorities have limited resources and can’t always do that.

Appendix

Anyway, to conclude this, I’ve seen the comments to the Vancity Buzz post on Facebook, etc. and some of you asked for the sources for my on-time performance numbers – which I have listed below.

I know it’s questionable given I have omitted certain systems, so to clarify – if there’s a system I omitted, it may be because of the difficulty in actually finding the numbers (the internet, in a limited time frame, can only get you so far!) or due to measurement standards that weren’t too comparable (I was looking at adding some Light Rail systems in New Jersey to the list, but NJ Transit’s stats measure with poor standards that consider runs on-time even if they are 6 minutes early or late, so I chose to omit). Listed below:

The Real Reason Children Have Lost the Freedom to Roam

Response to StreetFilms: Children Have Lost the Freedom to Roam

The video above is certainly right that the car-orientation of our society is among the biggest drivers (no pun intended there) in kids’ changing commute patterns. I’m a bit of an urbanist, and I can say that I’m certainly not a fan of how so many communities in this world are being oriented towards the car, as opposed to kids and people.

However, to an extent I disagree with this video in the claim that children have “lost the freedom to roam” solely because of a car-oriented culture, and car-oriented communities. The comments in the video seem to imply that children have lost their freedom to roam simply because of that, or alternatively because their parents do not allow them to walk or bike.

Kids are not unlike adults: they are free actors in a free society (tips hat to Jarrett Walker), and they have the right to choose what seems best for them (with the assistance of parents). There may be reasons that children are actually choosing to be driven to school in the morning out of lack of choice, not because the society around them is car-oriented. There may also be reasons that parents are choosing schools further away from home for their children.

I happen to know that both are happening in my community. And, it’s not because of any specific development and land-use orientation towards the car.

The effects of school schedules and overcrowded school buildings

At the North Surrey Secondary school here in Surrey, too many students and an overcrowded school building have forced the school to adopt an awkward five-block schedule [CLICK HERE]. NSSS staggers students across the 5 blocks, so that older students study for the first four and younger ones for the last four (or combinations with study blocks). I’ve noted this before in my newsletters several times as one of the problems of lack of education funding in not just this city, but also this province (B.C. has the worst student-to-educator ratio in Canada 16.8:1, vs. a national 13.8:1 average – from the BCTF and Statistics Canada)

North Surrey Secondary's 5 block schedule
North Surrey Secondary’s 5 block schedule

I have one friend who goes to North Surrey Secondary, and lives just under 1 mile away, and is driven to school. In her case in particular, in the morning, she asks (and has arranged) to be driven to her school with her brother. But, in the afternoon, they have no problem making the 20 minute walk back to their home.

As with 11th and 12th grade students, as a result of the awkward 5-block schedule the school has been forced to adopt, her and her brother are expected to be at school and in class by 7:55AM – 45 minutes earlier than is expected at most other high schools in the city. That already means, in spite of being driven, waking up very early in the morning to go through preparation.

Transit options aren’t much better; the 335 bus route runs only every 20 minutes in the morning, meaning a missed bus means being late to class, and a trip that would take longer than simply walking. However, even if the buses ran frequently enough to be reliable, relying on transit would add an additional monthly cost of $104 ($52 per student) – not exactly an encouraging prospect for many parents who have cars for their own purposes, and who might not pay much to drive their kids to school in the morning (and possibly from in the afternoon) – especially if it happens on the way to work.

Some people have the luck of parents who will wake up earlier and cook in the morning to prepare food and other daily necessities. But, other students might be like how you see Umi-chan in the opening scenes of STUDIO GHIBLI’s From Up on Poppy Hill. These students, girls or guys, might have to cook for themselves, in addition to cleaning up and doing other errands in the morning to start the day. These errands can take a long time.

This reality seems to reflect itself in many online polls of students. In this poll on Discovery Girls [LINK] (you need to answer in order to see the results), 57% of respondants take 30 minutes or longer to get ready in the morning. This second poll on Smart Girls [LINK] has similar results: 30% of girls take at least an hour to get ready in the morning. 63% take 30 minutes or longer.

Image of the poll on smart girls. 63% of respondents require 30 minutes or longer to get ready in the morning.
Image of the poll on smart girls. 63% of respondents require 30 minutes or longer to get ready in the morning.
For the people who take over an hour, they may have to wake up as early as 6:20-6:30 in the morning in order to meet the 7:55AM schedule, considering the time of commute.

It’s been studied that adolescents naturally tend to be “night owls” – they prefer to be awake in the later night hours and awaken later in the day. This is because of hormones, and it happens with every teenager. Early wake-up schedules simply do not sit in well with teenagers.

This is why, in my belief, a lot of them will value those extra 20-30 minutes in the morning they can sleep in addition to being in the comfort of a car in the morning on the way to school – sheltered from rain, storm, wind, and other potential sources of discomfort.

The effects of student-educator ratio

Students from across Metro Vancouver protest overcrowded classrooms at a rally on March 2, 2012
Students from across Metro Vancouver protest overcrowded classrooms at a rally on March 2, 2012 [CLICK HERE to learn more about this]
The other issue in my community that I pointed out earlier is student-educator ratio. Here in British Columbia, we have the worst in the country. We are far above the national average. That is a factor that can make parents here very concerned about the education their students receive.

Why? Higher student-educator ratios have impacts on the education students receive. Lower student-educator ratios mean better education.

As I mentioned earlier, people are free actors in a free society. They are free to make the decisions they want in order to get the best. Parents are free to choose to send their children to a different school that may offer a lower student-educator ratio or an otherwise statistically better education, even if it’s further from home and, perhaps, driving to school is required. This, I believe, is one of the big contributors to why many students are being driven to school.

I know several students who have been moved to different high schools by their parents in order to obtain a better education. These actions do have results. One of those people I know, in particular, helped start the Can You Contain It! Campaign with Metro Vancouver. She’s a very active environmentalist and lifestyle change activist, with a very big record of community involvement through selfless acts of service.

A solution?

In my view, the solution to both of the problems is simply to ensure that children have a better education and a good learning environment – we must make sure that there are enough teachers for students so that they can get a better education closer to home, and big enough school buildings so that no schools have to adopt awkward schedules that force students to come very early.

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Encouraging active commutes to school

That still leaves the issue: What can we do about schools in car-oriented communities? I do believe that car-orientation plays some part in why students are driven to school, but I also believe that the solution isn’t difficult.

I believe that encouraging students to cycle (and parents to allow their kids to) is the solution to the problem, as is ensuring there is bike-friendly infrastructure (although in car-oriented communities, lower traffic volume on low-density residential streets can actually permit very safe cycling even without dedicated bike infrastructure like bike lanes). Cycling is something I took on for commuting in my final years of high school, and in my view it often provides a perfect balance between an active commute and a reasonable travel time to school in the morning.

How to encourage cycling? Not difficult. Urban and suburban areas should adopt programs like TransLink’s Travel Smart (a program by our metropolitan transit agency that encourages people to commute sustainably) and introduce them to schools. I know for one that Travel Smart has had much success in encouraging active commuting to schools in my city through incentives.

A group of kids cycling in Japan
A group of kids cycling in Japan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons – C.K. Tse