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 LRT cost increases to $2.6 billion

Surrey LRT header generic

If you've hard about the Surrey Light Rail Transit project (and how I am leading the opposition campaign), you've probably heard most people refer to the project as having a projected cost of about $2.1 billion.

Well, that changes today. The capital cost of Surrey's Light Rail Transit (LRT) proposal has increased to $2.6 billion, according to a new corporate report released by the city.

Download the City's report

From City report 2016-R050
From city report 2016-R050

Pending whether the City claims there was a typo in the report, you're reading the above correctly. The cost has increased to $2.6 billion, which is slightly above the rate of inflation compared to the previous 2012 estimate of $2.18 billion, reported in 2010 dollars.

Rapid transit to White Rock is officially out

I became the centre of something of a publicity flip last week when CKNW news radio attempted to turn around an issue I pointed out over the lack of a rapid transit link to South Surrey/White Rock on the City's LRT promotion map, something the City responded to by saying that the map was only meant to show the LRT network, and that I edited the map and was messing up the context (I wasn't).

Now it's become clear that proper bus rapid transit to White Rock has been dropped from the city's project radar, because it's not included on the list at all.

This also means that the actual cost increase for the LRT project is closer to $700 million. The 2012 "LRT1" estimate in the Surrey Rapid Transit Study included the BRT link from Newton to White Rock. This estimate only includes the LRT project portion of the original plan.

What this means for LRT in Surrey

While the cost of the LRT project has increased, the major issues with the project have probably remained the same: it's still an on-street LRT system, and so it's still going to come with major trade-offs such as potential safety issues, a compromise in speed and reliability, fewer travel time and economic benefits, and higher long-term operating costs.

The most interesting thing about this cost increase is the effect it's going to have on the project's business case.

Staff anticipate that the Surrey LRT Project will be successfully screened-in for Round Seven. This will require the submission of a completed P3 Business Case in March 2016. The scope of work for completing the Business Case includes additional engineering design, geotechnical work, preparation for environmental assessment, and public consultation.

City report dated June 2015

Supposedly, according to the City, the business case isn't finalized, and the City and TransLink have been rushing to put together a new one in time for a March 2016 (as in, yes, this month) deadline to qualify for P3 Canada project funding.

However, any new, final business case that attempts to portray the LRT proposal in a positive light will come into serious conflict with the results that were found in Phase 2 of the Surrey Rapid Transit Study – which found the overall business case for the Light Rail proposal to be negative, with a 0.69:1 benefit-cost ratio (compared to a more positive 1.45:1 benefit-cost ratio for SkyTrain). And, that result was based on the original (lower) LRT cost estimate.

With all of this in mind, I'm starting to believe that there isn't going to be an LRT business case ready for this month. I haven't heard any new technical details on this project (until word of today's cost increase reached me), with everything happening behind closed doors (if it's even happening at all). The standstill reminds me of the one faced by the Evergreen Line as a Light Rail project, before the Province stepped in with a final business case and changed the Evergreen Line to its present form as a SkyTrain extension. (See also: The Real Evergreen Line Story).

After a desperate and questionable LRT poll, a broken LRT promise by the City Mayor, silence over brand new transit buses and still no update from TransLink on Phase 3 consultation, it's becoming more and more apparent that the City of Surrey's LRT project is seriously doomed to fail.

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

Who’s telling the truth on Surrey’s Light Rail?

salt lake LRT

Global News had me on air this morning to comment on the SkyTrain for Surrey movement, which has been gaining some pretty serious momentum recently with over 1000 supporters on our site’s petition calling for a SkyTrain and Bus Rapid Transit system instead of LRT. While this should have certainly raised some eyebrows, not everyone has been on the “supporting” camp.

Earlier today, CKNW’s assistant news director, Charmaine de Silva, had me give the station a call to comment on an issue raised through my organization that the City of Surrey was not considering rapid transit to South Surrey as part of their Light Rail Transit vision. The resulting article, no less, has attempted to frame me as misleading, because of a difference in context and a sound bite during the telephone interview. Here’s the scoop:

Where it went wrong

For his part, the blog’s creator, transit activist Daryl Dela Cruz says it’s not his job to double check the facts he publishes on his website.

“And the end of the day, we’re here as a voice for citizens to raise…”

“So, you don’t think it’s irresponsible of you to put out information that’s just not true without double checking your facts?”

“Well, we’re an advocacy group.”

The City of Surrey says the current plan for rapid transit in the area continues to include LRT and a B-Line, and has not changed since it was approved by the Mayor’s council in 2014.

As you can see, CKNW is trying to make it look like I don’t double check my facts and, in light of that, am misleading people.

There is one thing here that I’m willing to own up to: In this particular case, I did not previously ask the City whether the omission of the rapid transit link to South Surrey was intentional or attached to some sort of context.

However, finding that answer is not my job and it is not the job of my advocacy group either. When I offered the previous response “we are an advocacy group”, I meant that in the context that we are as bound to be misled by the info that is supplied to us as is anyone else who is following us on these issues. Like all advocacy groups, there is a certain degree to which we work off of the information that is supplied to us as-is and as-published. We don’t make up these things from scratch.

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It should have been up to the City to clarify in the first place whether rapid transit to South Surrey was still being supported. Previous maps showcased on the city website clearly showed a rapid transit link extending to South Surrey, in the form of a Bus Rapid Transit line. The previous maps also showed the proposed Light Rail Transit “L Line” extending as far south as King George Blvd & Hwy 10, and as far north/east as 104th Ave & 156th St – stops that have been removed in the new LRT map.

Regardless of what the context of the City’s current map is, the main issues that SkyTrain for Surrey raised were that communities are being missed, and that the selection of LRT technology was being put in front of the people and the service. That concern still stands today, and brings forth with it a lot of questions Such as….

  • Why exactly is the city only promoting the Light Rail part of its ultimate rapid transit vision for the city, which supposedly includes BRT to White Rock?
  • Doesn’t that show technology-first thinking rather than people-first thinking?
  • Wasn’t LRT supposed to be about “serving more communities”?
  • Or, is the City suddenly ready to admit that this supposed philosophy is a fallacy?

All of these are legitimate questions that deserve better answers from City of Surrey representatives than “they cropped our map”. (I’d like to note, by the way, that the post on our website included a link to the city’s full LRT map, below the image that CKNW called into question)

I think that this fact also makes CKNW’s takeaway that I am “misleading” people more than just a little unfair. I would even call it misleading in itself.

Failing to show up gets you low marks

The thing that strikes me even more is how one-side this debate has become, with little discussion happening on the issues my organization raises – many of which are, arguably, far more significant. In these regards, CKNW has been failing to show up.

When I called the City of Surrey’s recent Ipsos Reid poll claiming high LRT support in the city into question – something that should easily be far bigger than this – CKNW conveniently reported on the Ipsos Reid poll, but didn’t take any interest in the issue I was raising. Did Charmaine de Silva do any of her homework checking on those?

CKNW also failed to show up when I pointed out a number of other issues, which should honestly receive more attention from everyone observing, listed below:

Promise to start LRT construction last year was broken

In case anyone doesn’t seem to recall it, present Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner – a big champion of the City’s LRT vision – wanted to have construction of the system started last year.

That is a year later than the start date promised by Surrey First candidate Linda Hepner, who said she plans to break ground for the first phase of the line in 2015 and use revenues from development along the route to pay for it. (From The Vancouver Sun – “Need for light rail transit unites Surrey candidates”)

Now, instead of having started the construction last year, she now wants to see the LRT system’s first phase construction process started in 2018. Voters in Surrey elected Hepner on an LRT promise, which was to – no less – have the first phase of LRT up and running by the year 2018. So she is also breaking that promise.

Despite the significance of this major discrepancy, hardly anyone has bothered taking a look at whether the Mayor is serious about her plans.  If the City Mayor can’t make a realistic promise on when LRT would be up and running, who’s to say that any of the technical claims the City has made on its LRT vision are valid?

Progress on the Surrey Rapid Transit Study has frozen

There was supposed to be a 3rd phase of the TransLink and provincial ministry-sponsored Surrey Rapid Transit Study – one that was meant to move and finalize and refine the design of the many examined options (four of which were presented by TransLink at the end of phase 2), and consult with the community on the refinement of the designs. It is mentioned on the TransLink website. TransLink committed the funding for its portion of this phase back at the September open public meeting, so at this point we’re just awaiting on cooperation from others participating – including the City of Surrey. In any case, it still hasn’t happened.

There’s still no business case for the LRT

Staff anticipate that the Surrey LRT Project will be successfully screened-in for Round Seven. This will require the submission of a completed P3 Business Case in March 2016. The scope of work for completing the Business Case includes additional engineering design, geotechnical work, preparation for environmental assessment, and public consultation.

City report dated June 2015

City reports have emphasized the need to advance the development of a final business case for the LRT system – which currently remains incomplete – by March 2016, in order to qualify for a P3 funding application deadline set by Transport Canada.

Well, there are only 4 days left until March. Where’s that business case?

The previous Surrey Rapid Transit Study business case was negative

Also, any new, final business case that attempts to portray the LRT proposal in a positive light will come into serious conflict with the results that were found in Phase 2 of the Surrey Rapid Transit Study – which found the overall business case for the Light Rail proposal to be negative, with a 0.69:1 benefit-cost ratio.

The benefits in the rapid transit study were based on a monetized net present value conversion of the travel time savings, economic benefits and reliability benefits (expressed as “other travel benefits” in the study), auto operating cost and collision cost savings, and air emissions savings (or negative savings, in the case of an increase). I can’t imagine there would be any reason to think of this analysis as in-comprehensive.

Surrey launches a questionable LRT poll

As I previously mentioned, Surrey In my earlier post, “Deconstructing Surrey’s LRT survey”, I called into question numerous things about the City of the Ipsos Reid survey sponsored by the City of Surrey, which that trumpets that 80% of City residents support the proposed Light Rail Transit system (although using a rather tiny sample size of 600, about 0.1% of the city’s actual population). The issues included that:

  • Relatively Few transit riders were asked in respondent pool (85/600, <0.1% of transit users),
  • Many respondents didn’t live near the proposed LRT lines,
  • The age of the respondents was out of touch with the city’s composition (there were more respondents in a single group – age 55+ and said they would never use an LRT – than there were transit users of any age group),
  • Respondents weren’t asked to consider LRT against other alternatives,
  • A phone survey may not have been the best way to collect the info,
  • The City has withheld other surveys on the LRT matter as they have never been released.

The hypocrisy is stifling

So who’s telling the truth on Surrey’s proposed Light Rail Transit anyway? Because to me, it doesn’t seem like anything that LRT’s supporters have been saying contains any semblance of the truth. More alarmingly, these are big discrepancies and yet the media hasn’t been willing to take appropriate notice.

Mike Folka offered an excellent Tweet earlier that caught my attention and got me thinking whether there is something else going on behind the scenes…

Perhaps his might be a great opportunity to offer a throwback when I became one of the biggest names opposing Jordan Bateman’s No TransLink Tax campaign with the post Referendum Myths: TransLink and Executive Pay, which is still the biggest post on this blog to date, a post that gained so much popularity that it caught the attention of a columnist on the Vancouver Sun, and even TransLink eventually incorporated the data-set as part of their The Facts Matter campaign.

I think this fact will offer more than just a little context on whether CKNW is playing this game fairly or whether they aren’t. The hypocrisy is stifling.

Deconstructing Surrey’s LRT survey

EXCLUSIVE - Surrey, BC - February 16, 2016

Some of you might be already familiar with the comments I made through SkyTrain for Surrey on the new LRT survey that was released by the City, claiming 80% of residents are in support of the LRT project. If you aren't, my chief complaint is that only 600 residents were asked, which means that about 0.1% of residents are being asked to represent a City of over 500,000.

This statement has been met with a mixed response: some people agreed that such a small number shouldn't represent the city by any means; others disagreed, telling me that I was going up against a professional organization and that the sample size and margin of error was acceptable.

With that said, I was prompted to look into finding even more answers. After turning to my connections in the community, Ipsos Reid's entire, detailed LRT survey results paper managed to find its way to my e-mail inbox. You can download the results and verify my findings yourself below:

LRT survey screenshot

Download the results

When I opened the PDF document for the first time, the first thing that caught my eyes within the tables and tables of info was the composition of the respondents (this data I am very glad to have collected), followed by the composition of the actual questions. Here are the things that stood out the most to me:

The survey asked only 85 actual transit riders.

A next-generation 96 B-Line bus
A next-generation 96 B-Line bus

Yes, not 85% - 85 out of 600. Out of thousands upon thousands of Surrey transit riders, the surveyors are asking for representation from just 85. All other respondents drive for their commute.

This isn't only low to begin with, but it's also lower than the "weighted" base (i.e. if the amount of transit riders asked is to be in-line with the actual percentage of transit users in the city, then the poll should have asked 111 transit riders). For a poll that's supposed to decide on future transit matters, you'd think that more actual transit riders would be consulted on this - which is sorely disappointing.

Let's put that into another perspective. Surrey's 4 SkyTrain stations service 39,169 passenger boardings per weekday. There are many more transit boardings on buses in Surrey, but if we start with the amount of SkyTrain riders, then approximately just 0.2% of Surrey's transit riders are being asked to decide for all of them on future rapid transit.

I get that there aren't relatively a lot of people in Surrey who ride transit compared to the amount driving, but neglecting transit rider input for a transit project is absolutely ridiculous. If you agree that it's ridiculous, then prepare yourself because this is only where I begin...

Many respondents didn't live near the proposed LRT lines.

LRT survey table 1

The three LRT lines are supposed to travel on 104 Ave, Fraser Highway and King George Blvd. - serving City Centre, Fleetwood, Guildford and Newton. But when compared against the weighted average, the amount of respondents that were from Cloverdale and South Surrey - areas that aren't necessarily near the proposed LRT lines, requiring connections by bus - was significant in contrast to the amount of respondents that actually live near them and would more likely use them. Both of these areas exceeded their "weighted" base.

Concerningly, very few of the respondents (just 89, compared to a weighted base of 147) live in Whalley or City Centre, which is where one would expect most of Surrey's transit ridership to come from - since riders here would have access to all 3 proposed lines, SkyTrain and other buses.

The survey weighs these answers in attempt to gather a fairer perspective from these neighbourhoods; regardless, with these numbers on where the respondents are actually from, I definitely don't feel that accurate information has been collected. The survey neglects people whose lives would actually be affected by the construction and operation of the new LRT lines.

The age of the respondents is out of touch with the city's composition.

LRT survey table 2

I don't mean to pick on seniors for any reason, but there were 270 people aged 55+ who responded to this survey - against a significantly lower weighted base of 186. On top of that, forty-five per cent of this group said they would never use an LRT system. Yes, you heard that right - there were more non-transit users aged 55+, than transit users of any age group, polled in this new Surrey LRT survey. Is that misleading or what?

The thing I'm even more concerned about, however, is that very few of the respondents (120) were aged 18-34. That means that the least responses were collected from the age demographic that is statistically the most likely to use transit.

That these respondents were weighted serves as no excuse. This is completely out of touch with the city's composition, and I would expect the input to be more considerate in its distribution considering that over 25% of the city's population - by that I mean children and youth aged 0-19, many of who will be moving into the 18-34 age bracket by the time of the LRT system's launch - was not included in the survey.

Respondents weren't asked to consider LRT against other alternatives.

For me one the most alarming aspects of this survey is that the question of whether a respondent supports LRT or doesn't was narrowed down to a simplified yes-or-no question, without any chance to weigh LRT against other alternatives (like SkyTrain and Bus Rapid Transit) - and without any consideration of the LRT project's own practicalities.

In some cases (like on 104th Avenue, which is served by both the 96 B-Line and a nonstop frequent #337 bus), the future LRT is not as fast as existing buses. If the questions were modified to reveal the future LRT travel times then the conversation would probably have changed immediately. Instead, we're supposed to rely on answers to vague questions that don't create the opportunity to consider issues with the LRT proposal.

If a survey is going to conclude a support for LRT technology, it must absolutely consider the alternatives and present them to respondents. I've been saying for a long time that the City of Surrey has refused to open a dialogue on LRT benefits/tradeoffs, as well as LRT alternatives, and that it is something that badly needs to be done. Instead, we're supposed to decide the future based on uneducated opinions supplied by a handful of completely misled people.

Was a phone survey even the right idea?

Phone lulz

My professional day job happens to be in the same field as the people who conducted this survey: canvassing people over the phone. As the client manager for a service-oriented company, having phone conversations with people is something I do all the time. And, while I approach this from a business/sales environment rather than that of a polling company seeking opinions, there is one thing I will say in confidence: this kind of survey should not have been done over the phone.

The thing about phone calls is that they're unexpected - people don't want to stay on the phone; they just want to get off it and go back to their day. The telephone is a great place to repeat a written statement, have a quick chat with a friend or land a sale/appointment for your service; but it's a terrible place to expect a well-thought-out, educated answer from a stranger who's expected to provide one with very little thinking, on-the-spot.

As a demonstration of this, when respondents were asked some of the more detailed questions, like: "What would be your main question or concern about building this LRT network?" or "What do you think would be the main benefit of building this LRT network?", most of the answers grouped into specific ones like: "Cost/funding" or "Traffic flow/congestion problems/concerns", but relatively few of the answers were unique answers in the other categories. There are places for phone surveys, but this clearly wasn't one. I hate to say it, but we really shouldn't expect people to spend time and effort thinking about transit issues over the phone.

How many people rejected the survey phone call? Well, the survey numbers I was sent don't even reveal that number. We will never know whether the 600 respondents were 600 out of 1,000, or if they were actually 600 out of 10,000.

What about the other surveys?

By the way, this isn't the City of Surrey's first LRT survey.

Back in the fall of last year, Surrey had an LRT survey done on their internal, online CitySpeaks platform. I took this survey, and in the process made notation on SkyTrain for Surrey of an error in the comparison between rapid buses and the proposed LRT system.

However, the results of this survey were never released. There is mention of the survey on the CitySpeaks page on the City website, but Surrey has never released the survey results or used them anywhere.

It is plausible that the respondents, given room to think (as this was an online survey with no time-limits or on-the-spot pressures), did not respond favourably to the idea of an LRT system. And, it is plausible that this was withheld by the city in favour of paying a pollster to perform another survey with the intention of achieving a favourable result.

In conclusion: The public is being fooled.

Vehicle train collision small header

What in the blazes is going on here?

I can't even think of where I should start but the numbers that I've been given have made it expressly clear that this is a terrible survey. It definitely does not confirm that 80% of Surrey residents support an LRT system, or come to any other conclusion on matters of Surrey transit.

Not only is it unable to effectively conclude that an LRT system would be popular with transit riders (because it doesn't ask them), but it makes no effort to consider the younger residents who will grow up and be stuck with such a system, by neglecting to include them as part of the conversation and favouring responses from non-transit users aged 55+ instead. It is also using the worst possible format to collect this sort of information (over the phone), and that weakness is visible in many places in the survey results.

The end result is nothing short of unacceptable, and that's before you even take into account the fact that the 600 respondents makes up approximately just 0.1% of the actual population of this city - a percentage that will get smaller as the city grows ever larger.

Before we come to a conclusion on surveys like the new Ipsos Reid survey, I would like to see more and different surveys - and I would like to see them done fairly, with a consideration of those who actually ride transit, and with the ability to consider LRT against different alternatives including SkyTrain and Bus Rapid Transit.

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

New bus stop enables Surrey access to #555 rapid bus

I was delighted to learn that the new bus stop at the 156th Street-Highway 1 off-ramp to the 555 Port Mann Express rapid bus would open earlier than expected – in time for the 2014 back-to-school season, and saving commuters to downtown and students at post-secondary institutions like Simon Fraser University and Douglas College minutes upon minutes every day.

The new stop helps Surrey residents in Guildford and Fraser Heights connect to the Millenium Line SkyTrain in Coquitlam, significantly improving links to SFU, Brentwood Town Centre and Downtown Vancouver.

This diagram shows the travel time benefits for Surrey riders now able to access the 555. From my "unofficial business case" (see below)
This diagram shows the travel time benefits for Surrey riders now able to access the 555. From my “unofficial business case” (see below) – CLICK TO ENLARGE

A complicated history

See also: No Stops in Surrey for Port Mann Express Bus – Surrey Leader, Nov 2012

See also: Surrey left out of rapid bus line – CTV News (Video)

For those who didn’t know, the bus stop for the Highway 1 Rapid Bus (#555 Port Mann Express) has been a topic of controversy for some time after a bus stop for the service was not provided in Surrey, due to several issues of mis-communication between TransLink, the Provincial Government, and the City of Surrey. A private developer who was expected to build a transit exchange may also have been involved in the fray.

Original concept images by the provincial ministry of transportation showed buses turning and making a stop at 156th Street, giving a new rapid transit access to Surrey residents in Guildford and Fraser Heights. When the HOV ramp and bridge were opened in late 2012 – along with the introduction of the rapid bus route – this didn’t materialize, secluding Surrey residents from improved transit access in the face of a new toll on the bridge.

Picture of 156th Street underpass and HOV ramps, showing buses that would have been using the interchange.
Picture of 156th Street underpass and HOV ramps, showing buses that would have been using the interchange and stopping for passengers.

Fraser Heights residents would feel the pinch of this when ridership on the bus route #337 grew at the fastest rate of any Surrey bus route – and this was before the introduction of Port Mann Bridge tolls – indicating a high level of demand for the new #555 service that was never provided.

My work ensured that this got built!

We have TransLink (who worked and cooperated with other parties to ensure this would be in service) and the City of Surrey (who ended up providing the bulk of the funding, according to recent Transportation & Infrastructure Committee reports) to officially give thanks to for this stop – but I’m not sure how many people will be talking about the role I and some others had in actually ensuring that this stop was built and in service yesterday!

The surprise retraction of the project and the transit service put a significant amount of pressure on me as I was hoping to benefit from the new stop service, being a Guildford resident and a major transit user facing a transition from high school to university. It prompted me to launch a big advocacy effort myself, which culminated with the creation and presentation of an unofficial “business case” telling city officials why this stop would be so important – not just for me but for several others who could have been benefitting, and were now otherwise losing.

See also: 156th St Rapid Bus Stop Project – Unofficial Business Case

In fact, the expected construction timing and inability to provide the bus stop in due time would become one of many factors behind my decision last year to pack my bags, leave Surrey, and temporarily move to the North of Fraser – making a new home for myself near a Burnaby SkyTrain Station, where I have lived for the past year.

I worked with many individuals – including the vocal and active Daniel Badragan, a local-area student, who wrote quite a few letters to the editor in protest surrounding the missing stop – coming up with ways to advocate for the missing stop.

See also: “Surrey needs transit for Port Mann” – letter, Daniel Badragan, on Surrey Leader
See also: “Make your voice heard on Bus Stop” – letter, Daniel Badragan, on Surrey Leader

It’s probably no surprise that my delight has been intensified by the coincidence of the opening date of the stop with my return to residency in the South of Fraser (I moved back to Surrey yesterday and will be here for a few days before embarking on a major study abroad tenure). The opening of the stop was suddenly added to the TransLink fall service changes page, to a fanfare of probably a few commuters and people except those I heard around me who were talking about it on the bus.

Being labour day, the ridership was markedly low and the buses were running on a Sunday/Holiday schedule, every half hour. But, that didn’t stop me from making use of the new bus stop for the commute to my workplace downtown. See the slideshow above for an early look! 🙂

View my original unofficial “business case” for this rapid bus stop, below!

From San Francisco to Surrey: More lessons on Light Rail and transit planning

The recent article on the Metro 604 website titled “From San Francisco to Surrey: Lessons on Light Rail prompted me to look into San Francisco’s transit situation a bit deeper, as could probably be expected from me as a person concerned on Surrey transit matters.

In San Francisco, California, this is what the transit system looks like:

The region-wide BART subway system has 8 stations within the city, while the commuter CalTrain service has 2 stops in San Francisco. The City’s Municipal Transportation Agency runs the MUNI bus system and Metro LRT within its borders. The MUNI Metro began operation in the 80′s, a modern light rail service replacing former streetcar routes. (Metro 604)

What Hillsdon (writer) wants us to take away from his write-up on the San Francisco transit system, and – particularly – the MUNI Metro LRT, is that:

The San Francisco experience teaches us that LRT is a very efficient transit solution, even for big cities, if we plan the system smarter and with greater flexibility.

And most of this is based on sight, with a few numbers thrown into the mix here and there.

Now, I’m not trying to point fingers at any of the conclusions or numbers in this article here. No one’s misleading anyone. Indeed, 32% of San Francisco residents commute around by transit to work (2011 CLIMATE ACTION STRATEGY for San Francisco’s Transportation System – page 10) – This is even slightly higher than the latest number I can find in Vancouver that describes transit trips within the city. Indeed, the flexibility of LRT in San Francisco has led it to be able to serve multiple purposes fairly well. I think that there’s a certain depth that might have been left out in his takeaway here, however – and that’s why I’m writing in response to this article. I think there are more lessons we can learn on Light Rail in San Francisco.

My nitpicks with the MUNI Metro? 4 topics below:

1. Active transportation in SF vs. Vancouver

San Francisco has a walk-score of 85, which is higher than Vancouver's 78
San Francisco has a walk-score of 85, which is higher than Vancouver’s 78

Let’s take San Francisco versus Vancouver. San Francisco is like Vancouver in several ways, from the climate to the hilly terrain down to the fact that like Vancouver, down to that is largely on a peninsula. For a somewhat similar city with a walk score of 85 – which by far outranks Vancouver’s 78 on the same system (which is the best in Canada) – it surprises me that San Francisco has a lower walking and cycling mode-share at 14.3% of trips.

When walking/cycling and transit are combined, the mode-share for active/sustainable trips beginning and ending in the City of San Francisco is 48.3%. This isn’t any better than the 2006 Vancouver numbers I usually quote (Vancouver Transportation Plan update, which reported a 52% mode-share for walking/cycling/transit trips, against a 48% auto mode-share for the same trip-type). So, I’m not seeing how San Francisco’s flexible use of modern Light Rail technology makes it any more (or less) remarkable. There’s not a lot about Light Rail that makes San Francisco’s transit outshine similar cities for any particular reason.

2. The Muni Metro stops at stop signs.

There are probably not a lot of other light rail transit systems around the world that have to do this, but it does happen on the MUNI Metro. The above is just one of several examples around the city. In this one, the lack of any controlled traffic priority means that a train has to wait until every pedestrian and cyclist crosses – a cause of scheduling delay throughout the system. In this case, the system is no better than a local bus.

The fact about mixed-traffic streetcars and light rail is that they must obey the rules of the road they share, which presents such a service to a lot of weaknesses and drawbacks. It seems like many of San Francisco’s Muni METRO lines (like the K and the N) travel on minor streets, and so they face stop signs and other local-street obstructions, to the nuisance of many commuters that might otherwise be choice riders. Light Rail’s flexibility is nice, but I don’t see how using its flexibility is necessarily “better planning”. With flexibility comes a cost; I see TransLink’s mandate that Light Rail be kept in a dedicated-right-of-way with traffic signal priority investments at all times as a very good thinking, because it ensures that transit is consistent, more reliable, and more competitive as a transportation and mobility option.

In case anyone forgot, with the amount of automobile use growth rate Surrey has been seeing, that is something Surrey is going to need.

3. Light Rail line needs more…. buses?

NX Judah Express

The San Francisco experience teaches us that LRT is a very efficient transit solution, even for big cities, if we plan the system smarter and with greater flexibility.

But, the existence of this bus route throws that claim somewhat out of whack. As a “very efficient transit solution”, Light Rail shouldn’t need to be complemented with an express bus service on the basis that the express bus service adds to the usability of that corridor – but, that’s exactly what’s happening, in at least one situation in San Francisco.

The MUNI route “NX Judah” is an oddity: it’s a peak-hour express standard-length bus service that supplements the local stop portion of the N Judah Light Rail line, then operates non-stop into downtown on mixed-traffic streets. It’s an interesting oddity for me, because while the local portion makes the same local-style stops as light rail, the express portion is actually trying to compete with its subway portion. The NX (detailed paper at CLICK HERE) was introduced in June 2011 as a six-month pilot experiment with express bus service supplements. According to transit schedules (N Judah / NX Judah Express), it runs every 7-8 minutes, alternating the N Judah Light Rail line on the outer end portion of it from 48th Avenue to 19th Avenue and providing a 3-4 minute corridor frequency west of 19th.

It was a resounding success. The NX was voted permanent in December 2011 in merit of its genuine benefits. Get this – MUNI is thinking of doing it with more of their LRT lines (“The apparent success of Muni’s NX-Judah express bus service could offer hope to riders on other crowded streetcar lines.”). There may be a future in which peak-hour express buses are complementing every LRT line in San Francisco.

Above is a video on the NX Judah, which compares it directly against the N Judah Light Rail Line. According to the racers’ stopwatches, which were set to time from trip-start to trip-finish, the NX doesn’t win the race here. At 29 minutes, in this video it was slightly slower than the N-Judah which manages a 26 minute commute to 19th and Judah. As can probably be expected with a mixed-traffic bus, results may vary.

However, other reports generally put the NX as faster than the N – alongside being less stressful to ride on, because the NX adds important capacity. The fact in itself that LRT-like travel time can come so close on a bus that, while express, runs with at-grade mixed-traffic, is pretty amazing.

Why not more trains?

The interesting thing that makes me wonder is why Light Rail service could not have simply been increased on the N Judah. It definitely could use that; the Judah Street corridor is one of the busiest transit corridors in the city, carrying some 38,000 daily transit boardings – though that is still less than Vancouver’s Broadway. The at-grade corridor seems to certainly be capable of handling 3-4 minute frequencies, because the express buses and light rail combined operate at those intervals when their schedules are put side-to-side.

A MUNI Metro train exits the downtown tunnel
A MUNI Metro train exits a tunnel, another one close behind. Photo: Flickr – CC-BY-NC-ND – Frank Chan

I initially suspected that it may be due to the fact that the inner, interlined segments in the MUNI subway are constrained by the very high train frequency of interlining 6 different lines together.

The Market Street Subway, where the six MUNI Metro light rail lines interline under Market Street into downtown San Francisco, is using the same Thales SELTRAC automatic train control system as the Vancouver SkyTrain in its underground portions. In fact, the MUNI Metro pioneered the application of SELTRAC outside of ART technology and linear-induction motor trains, which has since been applied to several other systems worldwide. This was put into service in 1998, after MUNI found that coupling trains from different lines where they converged in order to maintain headways that could be sustained safely by driver-manned operation was infeasible and unreliable. With automatic train control, the shorter trains from the individual lines can be run at the higher frequencies safely.

However, according to this report [LINK HERE], the Market Street Subway (where the 6 MUNI metro lines interline) is not operating at its capacity. It is currently running at a throughput of some 33-37 trains per hour, whereas the design capacity is 50 trains per hour, and the current throughput is lower than averages seen in 2003-2004 (where throughputs reached 40 trains per hour).

Cost

The NX Judah Express pilot implementation was estimated to have an annual cost of $1.8 million, for six months of service. This translates into an annual cost of some $3.6 million.

Whereas expanding N Judah service could have required the purchase of additional light rail vehicles at significant capital cost (whereas it appears that the NX is using repurposed reserve buses from 1993), implementing the NX Judah avoided (or had reduced) capital costs. With that reason, plus having the opportunity to provide a faster service as well as improve capacity, I can see why the NX service has a great business case. The NX provided the same mobility benefit as an N service increase; while, at the same time, it has not cost a lot.

Service disruptions: A Light Rail weakness
An LRT accident in Houston, Texas
An LRT accident in Houston, Texas

What happens when there’s an accident on an LRT line? Well, you could probably expect the obvious. Emergency vehicles are everywhere, and the scene is probably closed to public. But, most importantly, if you were riding transit that day, you would probably be forced off some stations down and forced to board a crowded shuttle bus, because that’s it for Light Rail service through that area.

It appears that another key reason for the addition of the NX over the increase of N service, is the controversial reliability of the N as a light rail transit line at surface-level. Apparently, the N is, for whatever reason, the most disruption-prone Muni Metro line; a reliability issue, which might be a collision or a derailment, happens on average of every 13 days.

I have no idea whether it’s a result of a more clumsy population along the corridor, but it is true that high risk of service disruptions for whatever reason can be a weakness of any Light Rail line. The NX, on the other hand, can simply reroute to avoid these disruptions, in the case of one ever occurring – making it a very valuable backup indeed.

It could be something as simple as a double-parked car, or a vehicle running an intersection where it thinks it has the right of way … Sometimes accidents happen simply from people being stupid.

What the N and NX remind me of

The whole issue of the N and the NX reminds me of this line I once read on the Human Transit website, written by Jarrett Walker, on what could happen if a streetcar line were built along 41st Avenue in Vancouver:

From Human Transit – Is Speed Obsolete?

Let’s imagine 41st Avenue 20 years from now in a Condonian future.  A frequent streetcar does what the buses used to do, but because it stops every 2-3 blocks, and therefore runs slowly, UBC students who need to go long distances across the city have screamed until the transit agency, TransLink, has put back a limited-stop or “B-Line” bus on the same street. (Over the 20 years, TransLink has continued to upgrade its B-Line bus product.  For example, drivers no longer do fare collection, so you can board and alight at any door, making for much faster service. Bus interiors and features are also identical to what you’d find on streetcars, just as they are in many European cities.)

Suddenly, people who’ve bought apartments on 41st Avenue, and paid extra for them because of the rails in the street, start noticing that fast, crowded buses are passing the streetcars.  They love the streetcars when they’re out for pleasure.  But people have jobs and families.  When they need to get to a meeting on which their career depends, or get home to their sick child, they’ll take the fast bus, and the streetcar’s appearance of offering mobility will be revealed for what it is, an appearance.

When a Light Rail/Streetcar service can become less useful as a transportation service than a mixed-traffic express bus that complements it, that’s not a good sign.

4. There’s better transit where people are driving the least.

Better transit mission district

This is from page 6 of the San Francisco Climate Action Strategy study I quoted earlier when I was looking at San Francisco transportation mode-shares. It’s a map.

It’s a map I haven’t seen for many other cities, and it’s a very good map that I think I would like to see more of. Here it is again, overlayed onto a Google Maps representation of San Francisco:

San Francisco Proof

I’ve always been adept at pointing out the many examples of the simple philosophy that “better transit wins better ridership”, and this is an absolutely great example of just that. The rainbow coloured ribbon on this map represents the Bay Area Rapid Transit system‘s 8 subway stations in San Francisco, which connect to the district that has the thinnest red line from downtown. If you zoom into this map (click the image), the slightly thicker and darker outlines represent the MUNI Metro network. While they also provide some limited connections to this area, I think the real highlight here is the BART.

BART provides a high-capacity, rapid, fully grade-separated service that can outpace other service options. It truly competes with superior modes of transportation in terms of convenience and reliability, and – as a result – it gets the popular vote.

Despite that the Mission District is also arguably one of the better places in San Francisco to live if you drive to work (it’s on the I-280 expressway, whereas of the other four districts measured, only one of them is along a limited-access expressway of any sort), fewer people drive from here to downtown than from any other area in San Francisco.

That’s right. Whereas the MUNI Metro is trying to compete against surface streets and losing, the BART is directly competing against an expressway and winning.

The takeaway

Sometimes when other cities are thought to have great examples for other cities, there are certain examples that are not exactly “what you see is what you get”. A great example is the perceived transit-oriented development success in Portland, OR – which might have been more a result of development subsidies from 1996-onwards, than the actual transit. Many of the biggest Light Rail fans in Surrey, including our City Council, are mesmerized by the presence of so much transit-oriented development near the MAX Light Rail system, only to not know about the subsidized reality of it.

It seems it happens to often: we look to other cities for vague examples thinking they could play into our future here, and in d0ing so some vague assumptions are made, some vague take-aways are gotten. It happened when Surrey City Council visited Portland, Oregon… it appears to have happened with Metro604 blogger Paul Hillsdon’s recent visit to San Francisco… and it could happen with a lot more transit gurus.

It’s not that all of this looking for inspiration from other cities holds no value whatsoever. I just think there is really no way that we can properly conclude planning mandates about our own transit system’s future just by looking at other cities and taking from the things we see. Sights might say one thing, but numbers might say another. And, on some occasions, perhaps that might be the other way around.

To end this, here’s a great timelapse compilation of San Francisco. Nevertheless, it’s a beautiful, rich, and diverse city indeed:

PHOTO: TransLink testing Surrey B-Line bus

I caught this photo at Surrey Central Station on the way to work today. The front was labelled “NIS – TRAINING BUS”.

(Click the photo to enlarge)

TransLink/Coast Mountain Bus Company D60LF at Surrey Central Station. This bus will serve on the future 96 B-Line.
TransLink/Coast Mountain Bus Company D60LF articulated bus at Surrey Central Station. This bus will serve on the future 96 B-Line.

The 96 B-Line will begin service in fall 2013.