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.
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.
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.
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.
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
SkyTrain is a viable option
If SkyTrain is extended down Fraser Hwy. to Langley, it will carry 5443 riders per km on opening day.4 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.
According to data from the 2012 TransLink/MOTI joint study Surrey Rapid Transit Alternatives Analysis (SRTAA) Phase 2 Evaluation Available at [LINK HERE]
SRTAA PAGE 369; Undiscounted value; measured over 30 years, with costs increasing to 2041 on year 2041
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)
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.”
According to the study, the top predictors in T.O.D. outcomes are not related to the choice of technology; they are:
Strong government support for redevelopment
Real estate market conditions
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 streetcarhad 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 3.3km “Metro Line” LRT has already been a victim of multiple delays. It was initially planned to open last year (2014), but has passed opening deadline after deadline, including the latest deadline which mentioned the line would open in May (it is now June). Despite having more on-street segments than previous LRT extensions, it has cost more per km than the fully grade-separated SkyTrain Evergreen Line.
And now, in order to “open the new line faster”, trains on the new LRT line will be running at just every 15 minutes, less than half the initially promised frequency on opening day. In addition to that, the line will not run its full length during off-peak hours, requiring a lengthy transfer for all transit passengers looking to get from one end of the line to the other.
Opening the Metro Line will also require a frequency reduction on existing LRT, on the north portion of the existing Capital Line LRT. From an existing peak service of 5 minutes, the Capital Line to the north will now run at an “alternating frequency of 5 or 10 minutes”, seriously inconveniencing existing riders.
Apart from the reduction in service, the arrangement has received significant criticism for potentially confusing passengers as they face changing service patterns – and in some cases, totally removed service.
So we’re going to have a 10-minute frequency after hockey games at Rogers Place and they’re only going to be three cars in length. That’s insane. How are you going to fit all those people on there?
Josh Stock – Edmonton transit user
To make matters worse… once the Metro Line finally runs on its regular schedule, the trains will be running every 10 minutes – half of the initially promised 5 minute frequency.
This flies against comments made by Dorian Wandzura, Edmonton’s general manager of transportation services. In January, he said that trains on the Metro Line would be running every 5 minutes – and that trains on the combined section with the Capital Line would then be running every two-and-a-half minutes apart.
Each train running down the Capital Line is five minutes apart. When you integrate the Metro Line it will be running two-and-a-half minutes apart.
Dorian Wandzura – general manager of transportation services
The reason this isn’t happening apparently has partly to do with safety issues running LRT trains every 2.5 minutes, on the combined section from Churchill to Century Park. But it also has to do with patronage – ridership levels obviously do not demand LRT trains every 2.5 minutes, permitting the lower frequency.
Now, the City is saying that…
Should council in the future decide that people, residents want more service then we could by all means order more trains.
John Wollenzin – Division supervisor of LRT Operations
To conclude, it would appear that the city-owned Edmonton Transit System has abandoned its initial service promise – as if there was never an intent to run trains at the promised frequency of 5 minutes, deceiving everyone who has been looking forward to using the new line.
There were also 20 brand new train-cars ordered for the new Metro LRT that will go largely unused because of the reduction in train frequency…
A major warning sign for Surrey
Surrey’s proposed at-grade LRT system will face a similar segment requiring interlining of LRT trains, between King George Station and Surrey Central Station. This is required so that trains from Fraser Highway can have a through service to Surrey Central, where City Hall, City Centre Library and the SFU and upcoming KPU campuses are located.
Trains on each of the two LRT lines are promised to run every 5 minutes, according to the City website. That means they will be running every 2.5 minutes on the combined, on-street section to Surrey Central.
If the City of Surrey were to face the same issues as Edmonton, it could mean some unprecedented and unacceptable service changes to riders. As an example, trains from the Fraser Highway line might be required to terminate at King George – necessitating that all riders transfer to other LRT or SkyTrain service in order to reach SFU or City Hall.
Neither the City or TransLink have specified how Fraser Highway line trains will be turned around at Surrey Central Station, without impacting the service of other through trains (such cases generally require larger stations with multiple platforms).
The new Metro Line LRT will have its frequency reduced from the get-go from 5 minutes to 10 minutes. I can only imagine what kind of disdain that would cause among transit riders in Surrey, if a similar reduction were to be made for LRT on opening day (which would make the new LRT less frequent than the 96 B-Line was at introduction!).
It’s also noteworthy that Edmonton’s Metro Line will be opening more than 1 year behind schedule when it finally does open. Despite its relative shortness (3.3km), it has been under construction since 2010.
It took 3 years to build out the Metro Line by July 2013, after which trains began testing for approximately 1 year.
By comparison, our city Mayor Linda Hepner expects (having actually promised it during her election campaign) that the first phase 10km Surrey LRT will be complete in 2018. This would require construction and testing to begin and end within 3 years, which has never been done in North American history; and if the Edmonton timeline says anything, it says that Mayor Hepner and the Surrey First party are going to be in trouble during the next elections.
Clearly, the City of Surrey is on track to face a comparable disaster with its upcoming LRT system. Taxpayers, voters and city stakeholders have already been cheated multiple times by the misleading from LRT supporters.
It would be wise and best for Mayor Linda Hepner to abandon her LRT promise now with an apology note to City residents, than face accountability for her failed promise closer to the next municipal elections.
The City of Surrey has released a new report by Shirocca Consulting titled “Economic Benefits of Surrey LRT”, available on the city website. Unfortunately, as I also detailed in a previous release on the SkyTrain for Surrey website, it fails to address what actually matters to commuters and transit riders.
What’s wrong with it? One of the first big issues I found with this study when I looked into it was that it basically concludes the obvious. It neither provides important information that decision-makers actually want, nor that which actually has meaningful relevance to the project stakeholders (city residents). To put it shortly and bluntly, it was a waste of taxpayer resources and has poor value in promoting Surrey’s LRT project.
There are 3 main issues I have identified in this study. You can read in detail about them below.
Issue 1: Over-emphasis on construction process
Firstly, the study promotes the very obvious conclusion that if you start a major construction project, you create construction jobs. Building absolutely anything would achieve the same results.
In this stage of planning where the final design and business case is not complete, what needs to be looked at is not the results of the construction process – but the results of the outcome, which measures how efficient a project is as a use of our money and resources.
One of the reasons I reckon the Shirocca study does not touch on this at all is because the original Surrey Rapid Transit Study, commissioned by TransLink and endorsed by Surrey, came to the conclusion that Light Rail fails. The benefits of LRT failed to outweigh the costs in a multiple account analysis. It is an inefficient use of our money.
One of the reasons the benefits of LRT failed to outweigh the costs in the previous study was because this study looked at a certain aspect of construction that the Shirocca report refused to touch on: the economic impact of construction, negatively.
Construction will close lanes, disrupt traffic and snarl our major corridors for years, costing the economy thousands upon thousands of man-hours sitting in idling cars and stuck transit buses. On King George Blvd and 104th Ave, the exchange for years of construction pain is only 1 minute in transit time-savings over the 96 B-Line.
Decision makers aren’t un-educated in this matter: they know that major transportation projects will create substantial jobs in the construction industry. This is why I have firm doubts that those at the provincial and federal level will take the estimates on construction jobs in this study seriously – especially as it doesn’t measure against potential alternatives, like a combination SkyTrain and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).
Issue 2: “Only rail creates development” myth
Myth 1: Bus Rapid Transit has no “permanence”
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)
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).
According to a new report released by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, BRT systems in North America were outperforming LRT in terms of how much development was 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.
That’s because BRT can receive the same “permanence enhancements” as LRT such as branding, way-finding information, landscaping, lighting, and dedicated rights-of-way. BRT can be equipped with sheltered stations with wait-time displays, off-board payment, seating and other amenities adding comfort and ambiance, just like LRT.
As an example, this video from York Regional Transit in Ontario, detailing its “VIVANext” program to implement city-wide BRT, challenges that notion. The video shows vibrant urban communities growing around future BRT stations.
Rails do not create “permanence”, and may actually harm the maintenance of it. LRT service can be seriously affected by things such as popularity and financial factors, particularly as LRT systems are costlier than BRT.
As an example, Portland, Oregon’s streetcar system had vibrant beginnings,promising high-quality service every 10 minutes, and connecting new developments in the downtown core. Because the service not significantly more useful than existing city buses, and was often found to be slower than walking or cycling, the ridership on the streetcar did not materialize to the point of demanding the higher-frequency service.
So service was cut back severely – 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. This has had a major effect on the system’s ridership, viability, public image, and support from economic investors.
The Portland Streetcar’s ridership suffers to the point where it has a low farebox recovery ratio of just 6%. It is so heavily subsidized that City Auditors have reported that the cost of operating & maintaining the streetcar has taken away from other basic services.
“I think frequency is an overrated thing. Let’s say there’s a 20-minute [wait]. You can look on your phone, wait inside and have a beer.” — Portland Streetcar Citizens Committee member Peter Finley Fry, justifying the 18-minute frequency of the Portland Streetcar’s new Eastside loop,quoted last August in Willamette Week.
While I do recognize it may not be as fair to draw development outcome comparisons between “rapid” bus or rail systems and a non-rapid streetcar, what was clear about the Portland streetcar situation is that the ‘rails’ in the transit lines haven’t made any meaningful difference.
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 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.
Issue 3: Ignoring the transportation aspect
Adopting an urban-style neighbourhood design, it will result in direct links to key destinations, with more stops than SkyTrain, which operates more on a railway format.
Investing in LRT rather than SkyTrain also makes both economic and land use sense in Surrey as it can provide more kilometers of line per dollar spent, which is what Surrey needs given its geographic size, variation, spread of its component communities and rapidity of its expected growth.
(Surrey LRT study)
The suggestions that followed the aforementioned sentence underscore the study’s ignorance of the transportation aspect. Simply put, the study refuses to consider or attempt to measure what actually matters to transit riders.
It’s a very risky assumption to think that an LRT would attract a superior ridership because it would offer more stops and local access than a SkyTrain extension, at the expense of journey times for riders.
The original Surrey Rapid Transit Study, commissioned by TransLink and endorsed by Surrey, found a better transit outcome out of a combination SkyTrain extension with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). This study reasoned that the benefits of this option would be higher, finding over 2x the travel time savings for existing transit users and 3x for new transit users, on opening day.
This is going to make a huge difference to potential riders. Here in Metro Vancouver, studies, surveys and the results of our transit projects have repeatedly demonstrated that travel time is one of the biggest factors in our commute mode choice.
The most in-your-face one is that SkyTrain has a ridership per kilometre that is unmatched by any single Light Rail system in Canada or the US (numbers from APTA, CUTA – compiled [HERE] and [HERE]). Speed is the #1 reason our ridership is achieving these record levels. It is the most versatile feature of our regional rapid transit system.
When the Canada Line on our SkyTrain network opened to the public just over 5 years ago, its trains witnessed ridership levels that surpassed projections already high for North American rapid transit systems. When Canada Line riders were then surveyed, trip time was found to be the most-liked aspect. In essence, the Canada Line’s speed and reliability as a fully grade-separated transit system was responsible for its excellent ridership results.
That fact in itself really underscores the success of our SkyTrain system. The effects are clearly seen across the region, with many riders coming to SkyTrain on buses and taking journeys that mix the two modes (bus, SkyTrain) or more (i.e. SeaBus). This kind of transit coherency, where people are using transit from the beginning of their trip to the very end, is unique to our region. In other medium-sized cities, the success of their rapid transit systems has generally relied on park-and-rides – fostering trips that might finish with transit, but start with the car.
A SkyTrain extension to Langley would have nearly 75% more boardings per km than the proposed Surrey LRT network. The Surrey Rapid Transit Study predicted that investing in SkyTrain and BRT would generate 2x as many new daily transit trips in the region as an LRT.
Surrey is indeed a big city, and because of that its commuter base extends far beyond where the LRT lines can go. In the end, the system we choose to build could make the difference between whether someone who doesn’t live very close to the line would be willing to start taking the bus (using the line to complete his/her commute), or not do that at all.
Among other issues
By far the biggest failure in the new Surrey LRT report is its failure to address the numerous issues raised by LRT opponents, including myself.
The Township of Langley recently raised questions regarding the proposed LRT, with an engineer questioning its merit to Langley. He noted that the City of Surrey’s desire to add more stops for a more localized service come at the expense of ensuring the corridor is competitive as a regional backbone.
The new Surrey LRT study simply suggests that having more/local stops will foster higher ridership, without any suggestions on how much it would be (against how much could be lost as a result of the travel time trade-off), completely ignoring the concerns raised by the Township.
But an even bigger issue, ignored by not just this study but by every pro-LRT party to date, is safety.
Collisions between trains and vehicles or pedestrians are an inevitable reality with LRT systems. They also president further cause for concern in terms of the impact on service reliability. Accidents – including those that don’t involve trains – can block tracks and disrupt LRT lines for hours.
There is a financial and economic implication that will come with every accident. Where tracks are blocked, commuters are delayed and we lose hundreds of man-hours in productivity. Where trains are damaged, it costs a lot of money to repair them. Where lives are lost… they’re irreplaceable.
There is also a cost to the entities providing insurance, which could be passed on to the public in the form of higher insurance rates.
This is further amplified by the fact that Light Rail is one of the most dangerous and deadly forms of transportation. In a 505-page National Transportation Statistics report published by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Light Rail systems were found to have the second highest fatality rate of any transportation mode, second only to motorcycles. Nearly every other mode of transportation, including bus rapid transit and motor vehicle travel, was found to be safer than Light Rail.
Most LRT systems in North America have segregated, private rights-of-way – but of the few LRT systems that have been built so as to be entirely at street level and on the street, those were found to be the most dangerous systems in North America. The Houston Metrorail is a prime example, having suffered from a track record of frequent accidents, since its opening and continuing up to today.
The Surrey LRT system will be built this way, running at-grade through some of the most dangerous intersections in the region and introducing a massive implication to transit riders, drivers and pedestrians in terms of safety.
By far, the only comments from LRT advocates in the city have been the denial of the safety issues presented with introducing trains to an on-street environment.
We deserve better than wasted money on studies for something that isn’t going to work. With consistent failures by LRT supporters to address safety, risks and the transportation case, on-street Light Rail is clearly inappropriate for Surrey, Langley and the South of Fraser.
I was quickly alerted to a new post on the South Fraser Blog, maintained by longtime transit guru Nathan Pachal, which attempts to poke holes in comments on the Surrey Light Rail proposal that were made by transportation engineer Paul Cordiero from the Township of Langley, as reported on the Langley Times newspaper.
The post reasons that the concerns raised by the Langley engineer are “fear mongering” against Light Rail in the South of Fraser. I believe this is a key problem, particularly with pro-Light Rail advocates: over the years I’ve observed the transit discussions in the South of Fraser, it has seemed like anyone who isn’t willing to be aboard with whatever touted ‘common-sense solution’ is immediately accused of fear-mongering.
The first thing Pachal contends against is the concern raised by Cordiero that a proposed Light Rail cannot match predicted travel times, and in doing so does not serve Langley residents well.
This is not “fear mongering”, and there are likely two main reasons for this:
Firstly, the TransLink-commissioned study does not grant Light Rail exclusive rights-of-way from end-to-end. Trams will share lanes with general traffic through a 2 km segment in Green Timbers Urban Forest – resembling streetcars more than full Light Rail. This would obviously have an effect on travel times, subjecting them to congestion conditions that will be increasing with the growth of Surrey City Centre.
This decision was made by the consultant in order to accommodate concerns about tree-cutting for a widened roadway through Green Timbers (where currently, Fraser Highway has 1 lane in each direction). The Green Timbers Advisory Committee had previously advised that the maximum width it will support for roads through Green Timbers is 27m (The Now Newspaper). This would support a SkyTrain viaduct fitting nicely in the roadway median, but not exclusive light rail tracks at grade-level. So this compromise was made for at-grade rail.
Secondly, the City of Surrey has been pushing to add additional stations to the proposed LRT. At least 3 stations are being added to the Fraser Highway route over the original plan, according to a recent interview on 24 Hours newspaper.
From my talks with City staff members, the push is apparently meant to take advantage of the lower costs of at-grade stations, and is being considered a way of “improving access”. Whether you agree or disagree with the merits, the extra stops will understandably have a negative effect on travel times to and from Langley.
With these reasons in mind, it would be impossible for the Light Rail as being discussed to maintain the initially promised travel time and would instead require 35 to 40 minutes. This is much more than the commonly accepted 29 minutes, and is also vastly higher than the 22 minute travel time being advertised on the City of Surrey’s website (not that the City of Surrey, nor Council, seem to have any intention of being honest with us anyway).
Advocates for better transit shouldn’t be dismissing the value of faster service, even if it comes with a higher capital cost. Here in Metro Vancouver, studies, surveys and the results of our transit projects have repeatedly demonstrated that travel time is one of the biggest factors in our commute mode choice.
Consider the Canada Line, which was opened to the public just over 5 years ago. The Canada Line opened to ridership levels that surpassed projections already high for North American rapid transit systems – allowing it to “break-even” (no subsidies, fare revenues cover all operating costs) more than 3 years ahead of schedule.
In an actual survey of Canada Line riders, trip time was found unanimouisly to be the most-liked aspect among surveyed riders – whether frequent or occasional. In essence, the Canada Line’s speed and reliability as a grade-separated system was a number one factor in attracting its record ridership.
Aspects of the Canada Line that people say they like the most continue to be trip speed (42%) followed by cleanliness of the system (15%) and the spaciousness of the train cars (12%). (TransLink survey)
Nearly 6000 people per hour per direction commute daily on the Canada Line – this is an equivalent to 10 lanes of freeway traffic, taken off of city roads. It means communities along the line are safer, more vibrant, and more green. It means more people are leading active, healthy lifestyles.
We’ve repeated these kinds of results by introducing rapid service throughout the region. In the Township of Langley, the #555 Port Mann Bridge rapid bus service from Carvolth Exchange to the Millennium Line in Coquitlam, with a stop for access in Surrey, makes the trip within the span of 20 minutes – resulting in popular buses that are overcrowded, and a need to increase the service frequency.
With an at-grade Light Rail system, Langley City and area riders would be able to get as far as… Fleetwood… within 20 minutes. Less than halfway to the Fraser River. And that’s if there aren’t any service disruptions caused by accidents on Fraser Highway.
A SkyTrain extension from Surrey Central to Langley, which would allow commuters to travel as far as Waterfront Station from Langley Centre within the span of 60 minutes (22 minutes to Surrey Central, then 37 onward), granting access to essentially every major centre in the region within an hour and a half. Proposed Light Rail would require an extra transfer, and would limit options for commute times for Langley City residents who want to keep their transit commute within an hour to… New Westminster, or Surrey.
So, the Light Rail proposal risks having less quality access to our region – and, with many of the region’s new offices (and associated jobs) predicted to be in Vancouver due to over-supply (Langley Times), many new Langley residents could be left out of a non-stressful commute to their job unless they drive fully or partway as is habitual today.
No wonder the Township’s lead transportation engineer is not amused.
Pachal then proceeds to make the common contention that an extension of SkyTrain down Fraser Highway to Langley City offers a poor value, because of its higher capital cost. This doesn’t really surprise me, because just about every pro-Light Rail advocate I have known here in this region has referenced the cost of SkyTrain as a big excuse.
“The Mayors’ Plan that people in Metro Vancouver are currently voting on would see light rail on King George Boulevard, 104th Avenue, and Fraser Highway. If SkyTrain was built instead, it could only be on King George Boulevard or Fraser Highway, not both.” (South Fraser Blog)
However, Light Rail advocates have often dismissed another idea that would give everyone involved a high-quality transit service for a lower cost: Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).
The same Surrey rapid transit study being referenced by this article found that a BRT service on King George Boulevard and 104th Avenue would match Light Rail travel time savings (or exceed them), provide enough capacity to meet demand, and can be implemented in conjunction with a SkyTrain extension to Langley for the same cost as proposed Light Rail.
In fact, it is already partially in-place: the 96 B-Line rapid bus service between Guildford and Newton via Surrey Centre uses some transit priority lanes on King George Blvd (particularly at 96th, 88th and 76th Avenues) and offers a nominal travel time of 26 minutes, which is within 1 minute of future Light Rail.
Such a rapid bus service would also come with a critical advantage over Light Rail Transit: buses can be through-run onto other transit corridors, letting riders access more places faster.
As an example, one could start at a rapid bus-way station on King George Blvd., and from there have the choice of travelling as far as Cloverdale (via 64th Ave), Scottsdale (via 72nd Ave) or South Surrey going southbound; and Coquitlam (via the Port Mann Bridge), Maple Ridge (via the Golden Ears Bridge) or Carvolth Exchange (via Highway 1) going northbound; without having to transfer to a different service.
Rapid bus services are also not affected by accidents to the extent that would affect at-grade, on-street rail. Buses can easily detour around a blocked bus-way (which would otherwise close a Light Rail line), or be guided around the accident scene by traffic safety personnel, with minimal disruption to riders.
Speaking of accidents,
I’m very concerned about Pachal’s dismissal of the idea that we should be concerned about accidents on an on-street Light Rail, which has been based on a vague notion that other light rail systems on the continent have “excellent safety records”.
Pachal followed up to someone’s comment on this matter, by referencing a 2009 study on U.S. light rail systems that claims Light Rail Transit to be the safest. I think it’s a little sneaky to make such a conclusion out of a study that is now over 5 years old, and doesn’t compare Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems on exclusive rights-of-way.
(More ironically, what that study did find is that the majority of accidents on rail systems are collisions on Light Rail lines. Page 27, Nathan! Page 27!)
Accidents and collisions are as much as legitimate concern as any other.
Let’s imagine a scenario: no overpass was built to bring Light Rail on Fraser Highway over Highway 15. Eventually, a vehicle-train collision happens at the busy intersection of Fraser Hwy. and Highway 15, at a busy time of day.
Actually, let’s not even involve a train. It’s a multiple-vehicle accident, but there were no trains. Regardless, these accidents affect Light Rail service too, because the aftermath is blocking the Light Rail tracks – and that means shuttle buses need to ferry passengers between the two nearest stations. This is what the experience might look like for the unfortunate transit rider:
It takes 15 minutes before you’re able to get on a shuttle bus. Once on, you suffer through numerous traffic jams as both Fraser Highway and Highway 15 traffic must detour via narrow, surrounding roads to get around the closed intersection. The closure and disruption lasts for hours, perhaps even for the rest of the day – it will last however long is required for the police to complete their scene investigation.
What I just described is a regular occurence in Light Rail backbone cities. It has a major effect on transit ridership – there isn’t a single Light Rail system of any length in Canada or the United States that can match the ridership numbers on our SkyTrain (our Canada Line alone outperforms the entire 84km Portland MAX LRT system in ridership!) both in terms of the entire system, and on a per-km basis. (Source: APTA data compilations; easy comparisons available on Wikipedia – )
In these cities, it’s not difficult to spot the occasional mention of accidents and the associated service disruptions on the local news:
Ironically, Pachal himself noted this difference in reliability just a few days ago, when he compared our SkyTrain system to Seattle’s Sound Transit LRT:
and Portland’s MAX LRT system:
So I am taken aback as to why he would be dismissing it today.
A fully-grade separated SkyTrain line would avoid these issues altogether – all the money we would lose on damages, insurance, light-rail vehicle repairs, property damage and other related costs would remain unspent, unharmed, untouched.
But let’s say that instead, we allowed decision-makers to proceed with at-grade rail. Now, thousands of Fraser Highway transit riders are unhappy – and they might have already switched to other means. They have realized that the transit meltdown they just faced – which fared worse than even the worst transit meltdowns when SkyTrain has had to shut-down its service – is something that can happen on a regular basis. They might even remember that in the past they didn’t have to get off the bus (now tram), stand in the rain while waiting for a shuttle, or necessarily even sit through too much traffic if the bus can take a wider detour.
Light Rail riders could be at the mercy of one of several hundreds of accidents at different points along the line each year, according to observations from ICBC. The proposed Light Rail will be running through some of the region’s most dangerous intersections: King George and 88th Ave, or 72nd Ave. 104th Ave and 152nd St. This could have a major effect on the usefulness of our South-of-Fraser system – because all of it is expected to be running in the median, on-street, entirely at-grade and through busy intersections.
On the other hand, the six Light Rail systems with “excellent safety records” that are mentioned by Pachal in his article tend to actually avoid on-street alignments, in favour of fully exclusive alignments that do not have regular conflicts with cars and pedestrians.
Lately more and more of them have featured segments with extensive grade-separation, as if trying desperately to be more like our SkyTrain system.
A legitimate criticism or an old feud?
The feeling I get from reading Pachal’s write-up is that he hasn’t properly read through the report by the Langley Times, let alone the full text of Cordeiro’s letter (which is not publicly available as I have not read it either). While I can’t be totally sure, today’s write-up appears to have been motivated moreso by a past conflict with Cordiero than any serious concern about public transit in the future South of Fraser.
Pachal was among the pro-Light Rail community members who were brought into the transit discussion circle by the sensation surrounding the B.C.E.R. interurban right-of-way, and its potential to be repurposed for public transit. The South Fraser Blog’s predecessor, the non-profit “South Fraser on Trax” association, was lead by Pachal among others as a dedicated advocacy for transit on the Interurban (you can see plenty of this history on Wayback machine).
Cordiero, on the other hand, happened to not be in support of this solution. And, in the opening lines of this article, Pachal references Cordeiro’s previous concerns (along with his criticisms of Cordeiro’s concerns) on Light Rail, especially one built on the Interurban corridor.
As the Surrey Rapid Transit Study made a final dismissal of the Interurban corridor (and offered reasonable claims regarding its lack of viability), the “South Fraser on Trax” name has faded out from the regional view – and the other supposed big advocacy organization for expanded Valley transit, appropriately titled… “Rail for the Valley”, has been reduced from an active, multi-person organization to a blog with one main, angry contributor who doesn’t seem to be too concerned with our regional outlook so much as his personal obsession with Light Rail. In fact, that organization (if it still exists) has yet to make a single comment about the new “Fraser Valley Express” rapid bus service from Langley to Chiliwack, which I would have considered to be a major step forward in fulfilling their wishes.
More and more I have noticed from these blogs and groups (or the remnants of these groups) that a genuine concern and care about transit, and good insight into transit-related issues, has been missing. It’s as if the one-sided push for Light Rail has turned into a last-resort motivation – and at the moment it’s not doing anyone any good.
I have appreciated the South Fraser blog for lending a generally consistent voice that is in favour of better transit in Metro Vancouver, and so I am disappointed to see that inconsistency here today. I also think this signals the need to open up some serious discussions regarding what exactly (i.e. whose dollars, and influence?) is fueling this dying – yet undying – one-sided motivation for Light Rail.
The two points I made in the last sentence of this letter are the only two points I make in favour of my position on where the South of Fraser region should stand on transit and TransLink. The reason for just two is because I think that’s all I really need to say about this, really.
There are some things I just can’t grasp when it comes to south-of-Fraser views on transit issues, from the notion from our leaders that SkyTrain expansion will split communities (SkyTrain has built communities), to the idea that the south-of-Fraser region should split from TransLink.
Frank is fed up by the seemingly “discriminatory” attitude towards transit expansion south of the Fraser.
Yet, in the past several years, the south-of-Fraser area has received the highest proportion of service hours during expansions. There would have been more, were it not for the limits being set by funding issues for everyone in the region.
He is also fed up with three-zone fares ($5.50) to reach Vancouver from Surrey or Langley. But it must be realized that the distance between Surrey and Vancouver is at least 17 kilometers; many trips exceed 30 kms, and TransLink often has to pay for one or two buses and a SkyTrain trip from your flat-rate fare.
Trying to travel the same distance in Metro Toronto between cities would cost between $6.25 and $7.75 each way, every day. It costs just $5.50 here, during peak commuting hours only – and just $2.75 on evenings and weekends.
True, there are some inexcusable nitpicks like the lack of a Surrey stop on the Highway 1 RapidBus.
However, it’s hard to say whose fault that is. Neither the province nor nearby developers were able to build a place for TransLink to safely stop without incurring delays and/or extra costs.
I’m all for better transit south of the Fraser, but a separate south-of-Fraser transit authority is not the answer.
It doesn’t make sense. Attempting to split off would complicate decisions on funding methods, and it would affect transit service during the process.