I want you to process that for a moment. In just a few days on December 2nd, 2016, Metro Vancouver will have achieved a victory in the rapid transit game among cities in Canada.
That is, we’ll have the longest rail rapid transit system in Canada right here in the Lower Mainland, which also expanded at the fastest rate among Canadian Cities. All the while, at its utilization rates per km, SkyTrain is beating every Light Rail Transit system in Canada and the U.S. in ridership.
Yesterday night I posted an update (see: Yes, the Evergreen Line was cost-efficient) to my 2015 study of Canadian rapid transit projects that looked into the costs of our projects relative to their level of grade-separation. In it I detailed on how some rapid transit projects, despite exhibiting a higher amount of grade-separation, are below the trend line for capital costs relative to amount of grade-separation. That means we are delivering higher-quality transit for the same cost as one might have paid in another Canadian city for a grade-level LRT system.
What doesn’t seem to be well understood in this region is that we are doing well in delivering rapid transit projects with high cost-efficiency and cost-effectiveness, and that there are good reasons for this, related to design choices we make in our projects – including our choice to have full grade-separation.
Some of the reasons that extensions of Vancouver’s SkyTrain system have been delivered more cost-efficiently than other rail transit projects in Canada include the following:
Smaller tunnels: the Linear Induction Motor (LIM) technology used on our Expo & Millennium Lines enables lower vehicle heights, which in-turn enables us to use smaller tunnels. Smaller tunnels require smaller tunnel boring machines and are less costly to build. Lower vehicle heights also helped us commission the downtown Dunsmuir Tunnel on the Expo Line for its current transit use. The then-abandoned tunnel accommodated freight trains on a single deck; the tunnel was retrofitted into two decks to accommodate our low-height LIM Expo Line trains. Utilizing the Dunsmuir Tunnel likely saved hundreds of millions of dollars in downtown tunneling costs for rapid transit and ensured that rapid transit had stations to connect to the Burrard and Granville downtown corridors.
Lighter guideways: LIM technology also enables our rail vehicles to be lighter than comparable vehicles with standard rotary motor technology, resulting in lighter guideways that require less material and can be built to support lower weights.
Smaller stations: The driver-less, automated signalling system used by SkyTrain enables our system to provide a high capacity by combining a higher frequency with shorter trains, whereas traditionally signalled systems may require longer trains to maintain cost-efficiency, with each train manned by a driver. This enables our system to have smaller and less costly stations. (The downfall with this is that sometimes stations are configured to be so small that they appear to constrain capacity, although it is debatable whether or not this is actually true – see: Canada Line)
Smaller OMC requirements: Operations & maintenance (OMC) facilities can require lots of land, which is expensive in Metro Vancouver, for storage and maintenance of trains. Our SkyTrain extensions have generally had much smaller OMC requirements for three main reasons:
• The driver-less control system reduces the equipment and space required in the yard
• Driver-less signalling allows trains to be parked at track stubs & sidings when out of service; on a traditional system all trains would return to OMC so that drivers can embark/disembark
• Extending our current systems & technologies reduces/removes the need for additional OMC facilities to accommodate other systems & technologies.
Excellent outcomes: The combination of all of the above factors plus design choices like full grade-sepraration, driverless operation to reduce operating costs, high frequencies, integration with the overall transit network and strong anchors/destinations on the lines results in a ridership and fare revenue outcome that not only makes Vancouver a leader among North American cities, but helps keep the entire transit network stable and sustainable to allow the system to expand further and be even better.
Altogether, these reasons combine to form what I would like to term the SkyTrain formula.
It’s understandable to see that with Vancouver forging a different path than the rest of the country in terms of design choice (other metropolitan areas, except maybe for Montreal, only ever talk about subways and LRTs and nothing else), there’s bound to be lots of criticism, doubt and worry.
However, the numbers do say that at the end of the day, the SkyTrain formula is a winning formula: it has resulted in some of the fastest and most cost-efficient rapid transit expansion in Canada. I think that’s something we need to be proud of – but more than that, it’s also something worthy of attention for all Canadian cities that are looking to build more transit.
Approximately a year ago on this blog I compiled a study of Canadian rapid transit projects, ranking their costs by their amounts of grade-separation (as well as the amounts of their grade-separation sub-types, such as above or below-grade). My goal was to offer decision-makers and planners the first proper data-set from which it could be assessed whether the level of grade-separation in Canadian transit projects is worthwhile, and cost-efficient relative to other projects in the country.
Today I have to release an update for this data-set, because some budgetary news concerning the Millennium Line’s Evergreen Extension has been released. According to the new info, the Evergreen Extension is now set to open at a cost of between $70 and $85 million under budget, although the opening was delayed multiple times – first due to uncertainty of funding, and – more recently – due to engineering challenges for the 2km bored tunnel.
Initially, I chose to focus on grade-separation because of how much it is a contentious topic here in Metro Vancouver (I, for one, am caught in the fray leading a campaign that is devoted to seeing rail rapid transit expansion in that part of the region be fully grade-separated).
Full grade-separation of transit brings reliability, faster speeds and lower risk of accidents like the pedestrian-train collision just yesterday in Calgary that closed down both directions of the C-Train LRT system for nearly 4 hours. Critics of grade-separation have countered that it grade-separation is not necessary for reliable service and makes transit projects too expensive. However, as it turns out, many of the rapid transit projects we’ve built in Canada without any grade-separation – or with very little of it – exhibited construction costs per km that were higher than fully grade-separated projects, such as our extensions of SkyTrain.
With the updated costs for today’s Evergreen Extension SkyTrain project, I wanted to see how its final costs would fare against other Canadian transit projects, and other major transit projects & proposals in our own metro area. I updated the scatter-plots I created for my study and came up with the following outcomes for the Evergreen Extension:
In terms of overall grade-separation, the Evergreen Extension is far below the trend-line for other projects in Canada, exhibiting a relatively low per-km cost of $122-$123 million despite over 75% of it being built above or below-grade (the remaining approximately 25% is built at-grade, but the line is still fully grade-separated with no crossings). Also, when above-grade separation is not considered and only below-grade separation is considered instead, the Evergreen Extension is at the trend-line for Canadian rapid transit projects, in terms of capital cost relative to percentage that is below-grade.
In short, even though a lot of people in the region don’t seem to believe it, the Evergreen Extension was delivered with a very high cost-efficiency.
I see this as a very important outcome, as the Evergreen Extension has been the subject of controversy not only for its numerous delays, but also for the context in which it was built. A 2008 decision by the provincial government switched the project from a then-planned street-level LRT to an extension of SkyTrain, based on a projection that there would be lower operating costs and higher ridership & convenience.
Critics of the decision say that the LRT proposal expected construction to start in 2007 and finish by 2011; however, that was likely never possible, as some of my own digging (see post: The Real Evergreen Line Story) revealed that the design of the LRT project had still not been completed by that time in 2007 – and with much of the process shrouded in secrecy, we may never know of the potential issues planners faced trying to make an Evergreen Line LRT work.
Now, what I found particularly interesting is that my numbers aren’t only showing that the Evergreen Extension was cost-efficient, but other Metro Vancouver transit projects & proposals are below the trend-line average for rapid transit projects in the country in cost relative to grade-separation.
The Canada Line actually did even better than the Evergreen Extension, built nearly 50% below-grade for a bargain price of $116 million per km – prices found in projects with far less of their construction below-grade. The Broadway Extension, based on the last-available estimates from 2012 (adjusted for inflation, of course), is well below the national trend-line and has room to rise in cost-per-km while still remaining below the national trend-line relative to amount of grade-separation.
Today it’s not only the Evergreen Extension, but other much-needed transit projects in Metro Vancouver are facing scrutiny from observers over their capital costs, and the growing negativity is certainly not helping out these transit projects. It would seem that some of this is not deserved.
By the way, the Evergreen Extension is officially opening this Friday and I can’t wait! There will be celebrations and you can look forward to seeing me there as well as my SkyTrain for Surrey campaign team.
CTV Vancouver; Published Wednesday, February 3, 2016 7:58AM PST ; Last Updated Wednesday, February 3, 2016 7:33PM PST
Police are reminding both drivers and pedestrians to pay more attention on the road after two young children and their mother were hit by a car as they crossed a street in Surrey.
A four-year-old girl and her six-year-old brother were crossing the road with their mom and dad around 6 p.m. Tuesday at 76th Avenue at 147A Street when three of them were struck.
The little girl suffered critical injuries and is in serious condition, and her brother was also seriously hurt. The mother suffered minor injuries.
I’ve been hearing of pedestrian crossing-related accidents in Surrey for years: Another day, another major crosswalk accident. And this time, it was an entire family – a mother and 2 children – struck while trying to cross the road, at a recently-built crosswalk in the east part of Newton.
I’m a busy person day-to-day – often, these issues show up on my news feed and then go away. The issue was just as said, there’s nothing else to report and it’s practically over. But, there was something about this particular issue that I couldn’t get out of my mind. CTV news did a very good report that showcased the incident crosswalk, and pointed out what issues have been had with it in the community. For most people, it’s an issue of speed. It’s an issue of traffic being unable to stop.
They don’t stop. They go more than 50… it’s all the time… nobody cares. – Woman in red jacket on CTV report
How many times I come down this crosswalk to see people on the sides waiting to cross — nobody stops. Everyone’s in too much of a hurry. – Scott Ogden, nearby resident
Watch as three vehicles blow right through, with a man trying to cross. Residents say this is common. – CTV reporter
But the City’s Transportation Manager, Jaime Boan, can’t seem to have what these local residents are saying. He’s dismissed practically all of it, citing that:
Only two vehicle collisions there in the past five years — neither of them involving pedestrians. – Jaime Boan, City of Surrey Transportation Manager
and that the crosswalk “doesn’t fit the criteria for a lit crosswalk”.
Firstly, I don’t know how valid it is to cite that this crossing had been statistically safe for the past 5 years when there was also no crosswalk, which would understandably mean there are more crossings today as a crosswalk is now actually built for regular use. And secondly, I have found the criteria the City uses to decide on crosswalks to be questionable and far too conservative.
If you’ve been a reader of this blog, you may recall that just over 2 years ago, I took an issue with an accident that happened right by my University (in the post: “Political Incompetence Kills”). The City of Surrey flopped on building a badly-needed crosswalk, and subsequently a teenage girl was struck and killed by a motorcyclist.
Some of the people commenting on the news reports (and some of the news reports themselves) attributed this incident to jaywalking, but I later discovered that wasn’t the case. The fine lines between what is considered a legal crossing and what is considered “jaywalking” are set by each municipalities’ bylaws. In Surrey, you are legally crossing the street if a proper crosswalk is more than 1 block away, meaning Amarpreet Sivia (the victim) crossed the street legally when she was fatally involved in the motorcycle incident.
Since that incident has occurred, the City of Surrey has responded to media concerns by expediting the construction of a traffic signal. That traffic signal had been requested 3 years prior by the nearby school, but initially rejected because – like in this incident – a crosswalk had been deemed unnecessary. In order to prove the opposite, a teenage girl died. This is something we need to prevent in future incidents by investing in safer, properly-designed crosswalks now, not later. We can’t afford to wait.
Behind the Mayor’s boasting that Surrey has the lowest taxes in the region is the fact that Surrey dedicates just $4.95 million a year to pedestrian/cycling infrastructure projects – less than half the dedication put forward by Vancouver, despite that Surrey is bigger than Vancouver in size and will soon eclipse it too in population. – From my original post in September 2013: “Political Incompetence Kills”
If this had been done previously, it would have saved a girls life. Instead the traffic signal was brought to life by the urgency of her example, sitting no less than a block away from my classes at Kwantlen, used by students daily unbeknownst to the fact that it was expedited due to a girl’s death.
Stooping even lower
This time, however, I think the City stooped even lower than it did back in 2013. Going back to what was said by City Transportation Manager Jaime Boan…
Only two vehicle collisions there in the past five years — neither of them involving pedestrians. – Jaime Boan, City of Surrey Transportation Manager
What a clever excuse to let go of a legitimate issue that’s caused serious injury to an entire family. Right now, A four-year-old girl is clinging to life, while her brother, 6, is in serious condition. That alone should be grounds for a serious investigation of the safety of this crosswalk. I actually find it ironic that a City Engineer (and the transportation manager no less), who was asked to comment on this crosswalk, managed to miss this particular shortfall:
Because of the parked vehicle in the foreground, it is impossible to see that a pedestrian wishes to cross. It is also practically impossible to see the crosswalk sign. It’s the most basic rule established between drivers and pedestrians – that eye-contact is made before the crossing is attempted – but there is practically zero line-of-sight. Which also means that there is no room for a vehicle to slow-down to prevent an accident. Add that to the total lack of traffic calming on this street, and it’s no wonder that cars are blowing through this intersection one after the other – it’s practically impossible to tell whether anyone is crossing, much less that there even is a crosswalk – especially at night, when the incident occurred.
After checking with the City’s by-laws, which specify that one must not park within 15 metres of a crosswalk approach, the van in the video may have been parked there illegally. However, if the van belongs to the adjacent residence, then the City should have notified the owner that it would no longer be possible to park the van there and that it should be moved. Even then, the City should also have properly installed “no parking” or “no stopping” signs, which were not in place at the time of this incident and are not visible in the news video.
Regardless of these things, no attempt was made to create an intersection that is safer for crossing, as the intersection was not modified to bring the curb to the edge of the travel lane, which would also reduce crossing distances and make for an overall much safer crossing.
What needs to be done
Some of the people interviewed by the news suggested that this crosswalk needs to have a light – something that the City will probably debate forever with its “traffic statistics”, but it’s clear that regardless of whether or not a light is needed, the crosswalk that was built was poorly engineered. Marking a crosswalk defines a place for people to cross, but if the safety improvement aspect is to be fully realized, that crosswalk must be paired with changes to the roadway or intersection.
What should’ve been built at this crosswalk (and at any other unmarked intersections that may demand crossings) would resemble another crosswalk only two blocks to the west, where the roadway is narrowed so as to slow down vehicles, reduce crossing distances, and ensure eye contact can be made between pedestrians and vehicles:
I find it ironic how this significantly better-designed crosswalk exists nearby, and yet the City of Surrey didn’t take it into account when it built the crosswalk ramps at the existing curb edges, did nothing about the parked vehicles, and completely ignored the line-of-sight.
You owe the people of Surrey an apology, Mr. Boan.
Actually, a lot of people in the City of Surrey might owe apologies. The reason I’m picking on Jaime Boan in particular is because of the dismissive explanation he provided in news interviews – which is also indicative of just how unwilling the City of Surrey is to fix its serious issues with (un)safe crosswalks.
Now, I’m not an engineer. My dad is, but I’m not – I’m just a plain old university student. I haven’t finished my degree in engineering… no less, I’m not even studying engineering. So I have practically no expertise on this matter at all. But it alarms me that a professional engineer (and no less, the manager of transportation in this City), supposedly far more trained than me on this issue, couldn’t nail down the simple, visible reasons why this crosswalk is unsafe. And it alarms me even more that he is now implying that it is still okay to use this crosswalk and that the City is planning to do nothing about it.
Perhaps it’s tempting to think that the stats will say everything, and perhaps it is true that this is the first time an accident has ever developed here at this location. But if there’s any Surrey crosswalk stat that needs to be told, it’s the fact that Surrey has the unfortunate distinction of being home to the highest ratio of pedestrian-related motor vehicle fatalities in the entire province. (according to: The Surrey Leader)
When an entire family is in the hospital because of something that is clearly a result of your (department’s) shortcoming, telling people dismissively that the city won’t consider changes at the problem intersection is absolutely unacceptable. Mr. Boan, you owe the people of Surrey an apology.
And in addition, this neighbourhood is owed a crosswalk redesign. Now.
I would encourage the City of Surrey to expedite efforts to redo this crosswalk right away, and perhaps redo the entire street so that vehicles are slowed down. The city should also expedite other needed safe crossings throughout the city.
Summary: Most people are still asking the question of why the province decided to suddenly switch the Evergreen Line to SkyTrain technology in 2008. I think we should be asking questions about why the LRT design process suddenly stopped, with no reason, back in 2007.
It’s coming to our region, but it’s opening in 2017, which just happens to be yet another delay in a consecutive series. These Evergreen Line delays have injected a new wave of doubt among transit observers here in Metro Vancouver, who may remember a time not too long ago when the Evergreen Line was comparable to a hot potato – hardly anyone could come to an agreement about it.
During the late 2000s the Evergreen Line went through numerous hurdles that we worry about in transit issues today; ranging from funding shortages to planning issues to a lack of clarity in the political commitment to the line itself.
But, to some people, I can imagine the most perplexing thing about the Evergreen Line story was the controversial change from an at-grade Light Rail Transit system, to the currently-being built extension of the existing SkyTrain system. It took people by surprise, changed the focus of the discussion and was so significant that it caught the attention of transit bloggers in other Canadian cities.
The move was controversial because of the creation of a new business casereleased by the provincial government (hereafter referred to as the “2008 business case”) that overrode a previous business casereleased by TransLink (the “2006 business case”) for the Evergreen Line as an LRT. A following, final business case by the province(the “2010 business case”) adopted the results of the 2008 business case without making major changes to or addressing its supposed issues.
The new business case explained that its recommendation for SkyTrain (ALRT) on the current corridor was based on 4 key findings:
Ridership – ALRT will produce two and a half times the ridership of Light Rail Transit (LRT) technology; this is consistent with the ridership goals in the Provincial Transit Plan.
Travel Time – ALRT will move people almost twice as fast as LRT (in the NW corridor).
Benefits and Cost – ALRT will achieve greater ridership and improved travel times at a capital cost of $1.4 billion, with overall benefit-cost ratio that favour ALRT over LRT.
System Integration – ALRT will integrate into TransLink’s existing SkyTrain system more efficiently than LRT.
Light Rail advocates who looked into the study insisted that the new analysis, in its rejection of what was supposed to be a sound business case, was biased in favour of SkyTrain – some of which alleged that the switch was a result of insider connections, shady agreements, and other under-the-radar proceedings. 2008 was a time when it wasn’t as clear to people that SkyTrain isn’t a proprietary transit technology and it was probably no surprise that critics of the decision came in waves.
They were joined by others, including City Councils of the time, who expressed concern about some aspects of the newer business case. Two particular major players come into mind:
1. The City of Burnaby released a staff report that injected doubt into the Evergreen Line’s cost estimates, ridership estimates and evaluation. (See [HERE] for report)
“This report recommends that the Province and TransLink undertake to re-evaluate the choice of technology and prepare a business case of LRT technology for the Evergreen Line based on the concerns and questions raised in this report with regard to service speed, ridership estimates, operating and capital costs, inter-operability, community service and other factors.”
2. A Portland-based transportation engineer named Gerald Fox alleged that the analysis had been manipulated to favour SkyTrain. (The original letter was posted [HERE]).
“It is interesting how TransLink has used this cunning method of manipulating analysis to justify SkyTrain in corridor after corridor, and has thus succeeded in keeping its proprietary rail system expanding.”
However, when the Auditor General of British Columbia was asked to look into the Evergreen Line technology switch, the Auditor General’s finished report in 2013 concluded that while some information was missing, the switch to SkyTrain was the right decision.
The Auditor General summarized the missing information as a shortfall in explaining the following:
Options’ risks, costs and benefits;
Assumptions underpinning SkyTrain ridership;
Wider transit system risks and dependencies; and
How agencies would measure performance
In the approximately 3 years since this Audit was released and the 7 years since the decision to switch to SkyTrain, new information has been released that makes it possible to fill in all four of these gaps, as well as the other concerns raised by critics and the City of Burnaby.
In an effort to compile this new information, I performed the research myself, which included extensively looking into all business cases (2006, 2008 and 2010) and other supporting evidence (including all 61 archived pages of the original Evergreen Line LRT discussion thread on Skyscraperpage). With the conclusion that the Evergreen Line business case was not manipulated to favour SkyTrain, I present my results below.
1. Were SkyTrain and LRT compared properly?
The first and foremost concern by the auditor general was that the SkyTrain and LRT options may not have been compared properly – as sufficient information on aspects like ridership wasn’t provided. An explanation of how the ridership estimates were conceived was not provided in the 2008 business case, but there is little reason to believe that the 2008 business case was wrong in assumptions.
The City of Burnaby’s staff report probably best summarized the issues that were raised surrounding the comparison. However, much of the research I performed has explained these perceived shortfalls:
Capital cost estimates
As the capital cost estimates for LRT increased from $970 million (2006 business case) to $1.25 billion (2008 business case) with little explanation, the City of Burnaby complained that this increase was unreasonable – especially as it brought the cost difference with SkyTrain down to a mere $150 million (12%). Light Rail advocates and critics, including Gerald Fox, complained that the cost increase was manipulated to favour SkyTrain.
It was noted in the 2006 study that the cost estimate of then was done at a 90% preliminary design stage – not a fully detailed design stage presenting a finalized cost. It thus seems conceivable that costs increased while the final alternative was being analyzed for the 2008 business case.
Recently I performed some research on the capital costs of Canadian rail transit systems. With several rapid transit and light rail systems now proposed across the country, I took the opportunity to compile an inflation-adjusted comparison of the project capital costs – adjusting each project for the amount of grade-separation (tunnelled or elevated) and using that as a guideline to compare the costs. This extensive research took me several weeks to complete as I had to manually measure most of the proposals to assess the amount of grade-separation.
Unsurprisingly, I reached the conclusion that with the steepest trend in perecentage-to-cost, bored tunnel is the most expensive alignment to construct.
The Evergreen Line, no matter whether it were to be SkyTrain or Light Rail Transit, has a 2km bored tunnel as a part of its alignment through the mountainous terrain between Burquitlam and Port Moody. This accounts for about 20% of the entire route.
My measurements indicated that the 2006 cost-per-km estimates were the lowest of the other projects. The estimate was significantly below other projects with a ~20% bored tunnel percentage, and below the average trend line that related percentage in a tunnel to rapid transit cost per km.
In other words, the 2006 cost estimates are too low and were probably incorrect.
And now that we know how much trouble it took to construct the Evergreen Line’s 2km tunnel, it’s certain that the LRT project’s final cost would have come closer to $1.25 billion. LRT tunnels need to account for pantographs and higher vehicle heights; whereas the linear motors used on our SkyTrain technology lines are more optimal for tunnels as the train is lower and closer to the ground. As a result, an LRT tunnel would have been larger and more complex and would have likely lead to additional potential problems.
Just imagine what kind of liability chaos there’d be if a sinkhole did open under a home above the tunnel route. It hasn’t happened with our SkyTrain tunnel, but it’d be more likely under a larger tunnel (and larger tunnel boring machine) needed for an LRT.
The operating costs rose from $12.21 million in 2006 to $15.3 million in 2008 (both measurements were in 2007 dollars). While it doesn’t seem that anyone in particular raised this as an issue, the cost increase can be explained by a difference in service frequency.
The 2006 business case’s estimate was based on a 6 minute initial operating frequency. The 2008 business case’s operating costs were based on a higher 5 minute initial operating frequency. Whereas the 2008 cost estimates are 25% higher while a 5 minute frequency is 20% higher than 6, the newer numbers seem just about right to me.
The City of Burnaby’s assessment of travel times suggested that the SkyTrain alternative’s travel time estimates were far too high and the LRT alternative’s estimates were far too low. It provided this graphic to show the disparity:
Burnaby complained that the Evergreen Line’s LRT speed estimates were lower than two existing LRT systems in Canada (Calgary and Edmonton). However, most of Calgary and Edmonton’s LRT systems are built off-street, and with gated crossings and absolute priority like railway systems. Most of the Evergreen Line as an LRT would be in the middle of streets and would have to follow the roadway speed limits (typically 50-60km/h). Naturally, this would result in slower average speeds than Calgary and Edmonton, where trains may run at 80km/h on dedicated rights-of-way.
While the SkyTrain alternative had much higher average speeds than the current system (with its average of 43km/h), the addition of Lincoln Station has added some length to the travel time to the extent that the Evegreen Line’s end-to-end travel time is now usually described as 15 minutes – an average speed of 43.6km/h.
Even then, at the end of the day these differences aren’t really dictated by the transit technology. The Evergreen Line will have the system’s longest station-less segment, which is largely in part due to the 2km tunnel between Burquitlam and Port Moody stations. The higher average speeds near here would be comparable to other long sections crossing geographical features, such as the 2.3km SkyBridge segment on the Expo Line over the Fraser River.
Gerald Fox also raised an issue that the stated maximum LRT speed in the 2008 business case (60km/h) was lower than the potential speed limits that could be achieved in the off-street, 2km tunnel. The 2006 business case accounted for faster running speeds of up to 80km/h inside the tunnel.
However, the end-to-end travel time estimates in the 2008 business case were actually lower than that of the 2006 business case by 0.4 minutes.
Thus the 60km/h expression was probably meant to highlight the speed on most of the on-street sections (outside of the tunnel).
Based on the data I’ve collected above it doesn’t seem that SkyTrain and LRT were compared unfairly. There could’ve been better distribution of the info at hand, and some improvements in the planning process (like the addition of Lincoln Station from the beginning). However, no skewering of the numbers and manipulation to favour SkyTrain has taken place.
2. Was ridership over-estimated?
Ridership was an additional concern raised by the City of Burnaby, which complained that the ridership estimates for the SkyTrain option (at 2.1 million passengers annually/km) were too high, and that the LRT ridership estimates were too low.
The LRT ridership estimates were said to be too low because they were lower than two existing Canadian LRT systems (40% lower than Calgary, and 9% lower than Edmonton). For the same reasons as I explained above, it’s not possible to put the Edmonton and Calgary systems in the same category as an Evergreen Line LRT. The Evergreen Line LRT is largely on-street; the Calgary and Edmonton systems are not, and tend to run on exclusive rights-of-way at speeds of 80km/h.
This leaves the high ridership estimates with the SkyTrain system. The auditor general raised an issue that the SkyTrain ridership assumptions with the Evergreen Line were made with assumptions that a completed transit network would be built by 2021 following the Provincial Transit Plan. This included SkyTrain extensions in Broadway and Surrey, neither of which will be built by 2021 based on the current situation.
Burnaby complained that at 2.10 million annual passengers per km, the estimates were higher than the existing SkyTrain system (1.60 million annual passengers per km) and thus much higher than would be realistic.
When this annual ridership is worked out per-km, the Canada Line is carrying 2.10 million annual passengers per km – the same amount that was projected for the Evergreen Line.
A huge part of the reason the Canada Line was so successful was because efforts by the City of Richmond to make the elevated segment on No. 3 Road at-grade (like a light rail system) were defeated, resulting in the construction of a fully grade-separated line. The full grade-separation enabled higher trip speeds, which have been cited in rider surveys as the #1 most-liked aspect of the Canada Line system – outpacing every other favourable aspect mentioned by riders.
The Evergreen Line’s SkyTrain switch decision was largely based on favouring the faster travel-times and transferless journeys of a SkyTrain system. It’s thus conceivable that the Evergreen Line could see the same kind of ridership success that the Canada Line did.
3. Were the risks properly and thoroughly assessed?
The auditor general commented that the 2008 and 2010 business cases did not provide information on the risks that came with connecting Evergreen Line outcomes with the performance of other parts of our regional transit system. In particular, the Evergreen Line’s performance estimates did not account for the potential impacts of:
the level and coverage of bus connector services on ridership;
parking at the more popular Evergreen stations;
changes to the West Coast Express (WCE), which provides peak commuter services for passengers who want to travel between the northeast Metro Vancouver and downtown Vancouver
Evergreen services on those parts of the SkyTrain system that are near or at capacity in the commuting peak periods (for example, around Broadway station).
These concerns present significant risks and it is of my opinion that they should have been addressed.
However, accounting for these risks whenever a large transit priority is laid out in our region doesn’t seem to be common practice. The transit projects of today have continued the practice of tying performance estimates to grandiose plans for the rest of the regional transit system, like the transit vision crafted by the Regional Mayors’ Council that was defeated in the March 2015 referendum.
When the referendum went down the toilet, so too did the additional commitments to connecting bus service that would have been critical to the success of the included rapid transit projects. It’s raised concern among decision-makers such as Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart, for example, who raised a concern with the potential costs of increasing parking as additional bus services connecting to the Evergreen Line were rejected along with the other proposals.
Nevertheless, local governments have forged ahead in planning for these lines, despite the new risks created with the lack of a regional vision component. As I believe that there will be opportunities in the future to return to those other critical transit priorities, continuing planning is the best practice for moving these projects; it has certainly moved the Evergreen Line.
4. How are we going to measure performance?
The last issue concerned the collection of performance data to measure performance after the line’s opening. No framework had been set in the 2008 and 2010 business cases, and the lack of such a framework would have a consequence on future transit planning.
However, the Auditor did acknowledge in his report that a framework could still be completed in time for the line’s opening. Although it remains to be said if the province has followed through on this recommendation, this issue isn’t relatively as much of a concern as the others as it has an immediate, clear solution.
So what’s the real “Evergreen Line Story”?
When the Evergreen Line was changed to a SkyTrain extension project in 2008, the switch came after an extended halt in design work and public consultation.
Like today’s rapid transit projects, the Evergreen Line was determined through a multiple-account evaluation that includes a Phase 1 (draft option comparison), Phase 2 (detailed option comparison) and a Phase 3 (finalized option comparison and detailed design). The 2006 study was finalized at the phase 2 stage, and it noted that its cost estimates were done at the 90% preliminary design stage.
After that, there was silence in the project design work.
At the time, there were plenty of issues around project funding (which can be backtracked to on the Skyscraperpage archives). I can understand delays with transit funding (still a very big issue with projects today) but the funding issue shouldn’t have delayed detailed design work on the Evergreen Line LRT project. We didn’t hear anything from planners, politicians or anyone involved regarding the project’s design until rumours of a major announcement surfaced in January 2008. The final business case that was then released in February had been completed by the province rather than TransLink.
So it honestly has me raising questions: what exactly was going on in there? Why did Evergreen Line design works come to a stop, and why didn’t the next phase of consultations take place? Perhaps the planners at TransLink realize they under-estimated the LRT costs, and had nervousy about going public with the news? Did local governments start losing confidence in the at-grade project’s business case?
There’s all these disconnects that don’t seem to make sense, and I would argue that this should have been of far greater concern than the provincial government’s decision to switch the project to SkyTrain. It’s not the province’s fault the planning department of the time had decided to cut us off for just over a year on the project’s progress. It’s almost as if the sudden switch to SkyTrain was a measure to deal with these problems.
All I do know is that in October 2007, the B.C. Finance minister came to the public with a statement that the Evergreen Line’s progress had indeed been frozen, but that it wasn’t due to the funding shortfall…
“The premier did say last week that the Evergreen will be built,” Taylor said. “The funding is not holding it up. They haven’t decided on exactly the route and exactly the stops. So, we have made the commitment to financially be there when everybody’s ready to go.”
This almost certainly indicates that the LRT planning department had run into issues with the design, since the 2006 business case had anticipated the start of construction by September 2007.
Instead, in October 2007 the design hadn’t been finished and the planners in-charge “hadn’t decided on exactly the route and exactly the stops.”
You be the judge, but it sounds a heck of a lot like that the province managed to narrowly get us out of an Evergreen Line LRT fiasco in its decision to build SkyTrain instead.
Jaded by SkyTrain and a lack of LRT
There hasn’t been a single, grade-level Light Rail project approved in this region except for the currently proposed project in Surrey, and that’s probably what has raised the irk of some people who have been enthusiastic about the idea of at-grade rail. It’s probably why there’s a commonly-held belief that only provincial government overrides result in SkyTrain, and that at-grade Light Rail systems don’t have major shortfalls of their own that have resulted in their rejection here in Metro Vancouver so far.
At-grade rail advocates argue that the lack of at-grade rail infrastructure in this region really caused us to lose out on transit benefits (i.e. we could have built a bigger transit network!) but at this point that’s entirely debatable.
I think part of this is because the benefits of SkyTrain (and how we’ve built it) don’t seem to be that clear to decision-makers, planners and transit enthusiasts in our region.
Despite the constant use of grade-separation and SkyTrain technology, Metro Vancouver’s SkyTrain network expanded at a faster pace than any other system in Canada. Vancouver’s rapid transit growth has lead Canadian cities – and when the Evergreen Line opens to the public next year, we’ll have the longest rapid transit system in Canada spanning nearly 80km – and the longest driverless transit network in the world. The lower operating costs of driverless trains make it possible to keep expanding our transit network without bankrupting our operating budget on the cost of drivers.
SkyTrain also has the highest ridership of any rapid transit system in North America that isn’t classified as “heavy” rail. At nearly 9,000 boarding passengers per kilometre, SkyTrain outperforms every single at-grade rail system in Canada and the U.S.
* Q3 numbers were not reported. Data from Edmonton Transit, collected during the same period, used instead.
** Q3 numbers were not reported. NJ Transit’s own FY2014 data is used in place (the same number is reported in APTA’s Q4 ridership report).
On top of everything, SkyTrain has made us one of the most successful metropolitan areas in transit ridership with an annual ridership per capita that is 3rd highest on this continent (beat only by New York City and Greater Toronto)
Above: The Canada Line at Marine Dr. Station. Featured photo by Larry Chen.
There’s been a lack of clarity when it comes to the big numbers that define the planning of transit systems in Canada. It’s particularly evident when transit technology becomes a matter of discussion.
Of course, millions of dollars are at stake. So there’s no doubt that when the cost estimate for a major project is higher by so much as a few million dollars, it’s the kind of thing that sends transit advocates scrambling to get attention and some people in the media practically screaming.
So I decided to take all the recent and upcoming Light Rail projects in Canada, research their costs and alignment details, and put them in a table for proper comparison. I put the data in a Google spreadsheet:
Data shown in alphabetical order, with Vancouver (NoF) on top.
All projects were included regardless of technology. Alignment was divided by percentage and split into/measured in 7 categories: on-street, above-grade (i.e. elevated), below-grade (i.e. tunnel, open cut), disused R.O.W. (i.e. railway R.O.W., other empty lands), bored tunnel (the most expensive kind of tunnelling), shared-lane (on-street in mixed traffic like a streetcar), and the total at-grade percentage.
Since the transit planning complaints here in Vancouver always seem to be directed at grade-separation, I decided to focus on seeing if there was a cost trend regarding the amount of grade separation for the line.
Same data as above, but sorted by amount of grade-separation.
What I found is that there is a trend that occurs when the chart data is pinpointed on a graph and assessed by percentage, but it’s very inconsistent and the projects are all over the map:
Several projects end up below the average and several end up above it. As an example, there’s a difference in the four projects on this chart closest to the 100% mark. The highest mark is for the proposed Scarborough extension of Toronto’s Bloor-Danforth subway line, which will be fully underground. The lowest mark is from the estimate for a SkyTrain Expo Line extension in Surrey, which will be fully grade-separated but built in an elevated guideway as opposed to a tunnel.
Despite the use of grade-separation, many of the highest-cost projects are not fully grade-separated and feature many at-grade segments that can limit potential. Even projects with only about 20% grade-separation can come close to or even breach $200 million per km.
In order to account for the differences associated with much more expensive below-grade (tunnelled) segments, I took the data and assessed it by percentage below-grade and found a much steeper and more consistent trend-line:
The amount of systems at the 100% mark has decreased from 4 to 3, and the trend-line now hits the middle of these three dots. The middle dot, closest to the line, is the current ongoing extension of Toronto’s Yonge-University Spadina subway line. The lowest dot is the cost estimate for the ‘Broadway Subway’ (the Millennium Line’s proposed extension down Broadway), which is below the trend-line but is built around a medium-capacity system unlike Toronto’s fully-fledged, high-capacity subway.
Still, there are some differences to account for in terms of alignment. At the 45-50% mark there are two projects that deviate both from the trend-line and from each other.
The higher of these two marks, at $279 million per km, is the Eglinton Crosstown LRT being built in Toronto. The Crosstown was planned as an on-street LRT system, but the central portion will be placed in a 10km dual underground bored tunnel, which spans more than half of the final construction. The lower of these two marks is actually our SkyTrain system’s Canada Line. The Canada Line is a fully grade-separated light metro and a slightly higher total percentage of it is below grade. However, only a much smaller portion of this is expensive bored tunnel – the rest was done as less expensive cut-and-cover. Therefore, it manages to be less expensive despite the full grade-separation.
To account for that difference I created one more plot excluding everything but projects with bored tunnel segments. The plot line managed to stay the almost same, and the relationship between high capital costs and tunnels is thus made clear:
Since only 13% of the Canada Line was built in a bored tunnel, it is now to the left of where it was in the last chart and sitting very close to the trend-line (the Eglinton Crosstown is also closer to the trend-line). Meanwhile, our Evergreen Line SkyTrain extension, which encountered challenging soils with its single tunnel bore, is right on the trend-line when set amongst the other systems.
This article surmised that our Light Rail cost estimates are triple what they should be, based on cost estimates being about one-third as much in European and American cities. (And it was, of course, brought up as a way of hurling tomatoes at the idea of a Broadway Subway line – which is still a great idea for a number of reasons).
Interestingly, of all the American cities that could’ve been chosen in the comparison, it was Minneapolis and its Hiawatha Blue Line. This comparison is invalid as over 80% of the line is placed in either disused R.O.W. or tunnel, with only 20% of it being on-street. All of the other examples are from cities in Europe.
Regardless of whether you believe these numbers or not, the reality is that transit projects and their costs are more complicated than being able to be broken down into a simple cost-per-km value that can apply nationwide, across nations, or across transit projects. There are differences in labour laws, work schedule expectations, material costs, acquisition costs, logistics costs, varying land values, differences in local terrain and differences in economy. All of these need to be accounted for and thus it can’t be assumed that a transit project that cost a certain amount in Europe (or any other country, really) could be replicated in Canada for a similar cost.
Here in Vancouver, for example, any big rapid transit projects are likely to cost more than anywhere else in Canada simply because the higher cost of land would likely significantly raise the costs of project elements such as the operations & maintenance centre (OMC).
Despite this, at the end of the day, both the Broadway Subway and the LRT proposals were consistent with the trendlines across Canadian rapid transit systems.
To further address the point raised by The Tyee, I compiled one more chart between the predominantly on-street LRT systems:
From the wide spectrum in cost of what would otherwise be similar at-grade, on-street LRTs, it may appear that The Tyee would have a point. Even this can be explained, however. The two lowest-cost systems on this chart are Kitchener-Waterloo’s ION rapid transit and the proposed Victoria LRT system. They also happen to have the highest percentages (44% and 31% respectively) on a disused right-of-way (i.e. beside a railway), which is the least expensive place to build any transit because there’s no utility removal, property acquisition or street-scaping work adding to the cost.
In the middle are the Mississauga and Hamilton systems, which are slightly lower than the big-city systems in Greater Vancouver and Greater Toronto (they are also among the 3 systems with occasional mixed-traffic rights-of-way), which seems just right to me. The Mississauga system (Hurontario LRT), in particular, is being built on a wide roadway that in most places still has significant allocations on either side where the roadway can be expanded if necessary (in other words, there’s almost no property acquisition).
The cost for a Broadway LRT system is certainly on the high-end of the spectrum. This makes sense as a Broadway system would need to offer the highest capacity of all of these systems and would face street-scaping challenges with the need to stay within property lines (though this won’t stop property acquisitions from being necessary at station locations). There’s also the uncertainty around an OMC, which would have likely had to be built underground and/or expensively due to the lack of lands along Broadway and high land costs in Vancouver.
In the end, the amount of bored tunnel has a somewhat linear relation with project costs – but grade-separation altogether does not. This doesn’t mean we should avoid building systems with bored tunnel segments from end-to-end (at the end of the day, whether to go that far or not should come down to detailed evaluations of each corridor and transportation needs), but what I do hope to achieve with this article is to facilitate an improvement in the discussion of rapid transit projects (Especially capital costs, since it seems to be the only thing people want to talk about when thinking of rapid transit projects – I, of course, completely disagree).
It’s time to stop thinking that we can build paradise if we replicate the results of other countries, at the costs those other countries experience – it’s impossible. Let’s build transit systems that are adapted to the way our cities work, so that we are sure to be rewarded with positive outcomes.
Pictured above: A Compass card next to my personalized SUICA, the IC card used on Tokyo’s transit network.
I neglected to make a formal announcement on this blog before I left, but I’m sure many of you were following me this past year for my journeys in one of the most transit-developed countries in the world. My opportunity to live in this country came with a scholarship study program that I was admitted to last year, and brought with it a form of excitement in terms of not only getting to lived in a country I had dreamed of visiting for personal interest reasons, as well as further my personal ambitions – but to see what I could take back from a country that has developed what may perhaps be the world’s best, most comprehensive transportation network.
As a student without a lot of money (apart from my scholarship money) there wasn’t really a lot to expect, and I didn’t think I would make it much further than destinations near my hometown in Nagasaki prefecture – but I was determined to make it more than just a matter of staying in one city and picking up another language. Fortunately, I was proved wrong and it was thanks to the country’s excellent transportation system.
With the 3rd biggest domestic flight market in the world, the expenses of domestic air travel had dropped to the point where you could fly to other cities with just a few hours of earnings on minimum wage – this materialized for me in January when I was able to book no less than 7 individual flights with an airline for under $200 CAD. Train operators offered deals like the JR Seishun 18 Pass and Kintetsu Rail Pass that helped me cut down on the costs of intercity travel. All in all I was able to amass more than 10 weeks of travel experience, reaching all of the country’s biggest cities, and numerous areas in-between. I did this all with only the resources I had in my pocket and no drivers’ license, no car and no need for taxis to fill the gaps.
For a country with one of the world’s most prominent and largest automobile industries in the world, car usage in Japan is surprisingly low. The Japanese have lived with a built-in culture of utilizing transit options, boosted heavily by the small size and relative density enabling the inexpensive construction of nationwide train networks.
In my view, after a year of experiencing the country, Japan’s transportation excellence primarily comes from its advantageously small size, and its commitment to keeping transit networks around. There are few areas in North America with the same kind of supporting density as can be found throughout this East Asian country, and you won’t be surprised to find that these areas also have well-built inter-city and intra-city train and transit systems. Many of the rapid transit train lines you’ll find in cities have been around for anywhere between 50 and 100 years, built in advance of developments with developments and communities orienting themselves around transit lines. Stations are meeting places, and are often community hubs with large pick-up and drop-off places and a large congregation of businesses. Often these businesses are built into the station itself.
We have a few examples of that here in Vancouver, the most prominent being the newly built Plaza 88 and Shops at New West Station, and I would really like to see more of them. Japanese cities have mastered the maximization of the accessibility of a train station. In large cities like Tokyo, major train stations are built under or adjacent to massive, 10-story shopping malls with every single service you can find. Businesses, including shops and restaurants, can set up their shops/restaurants at fewer locations than you would expect, because it’s fast and easy to get there from anywhere in the city. Many smaller businesses set up shop only at or near the busiest train stations, yet have no problem reaching and catering to a large amount of people from faraway places. The versatility, flexibility and cost-savings in having transit has proven to be a strong driver in Japan’s consumer economy.
Japan is famous for not only its trains and what its trains have made possible, but also for its railway innovations and pioneers. The “Shinkansen” or “bullet train” was the world’s first high speed rail system between Tokyo and Osaka, which is now the busiest line in the country and is in the process of being replaced by a 600km/h maglev.
Big cities in Japan have extensive transit systems supported by trains that run skip-stop “express” and local services on the same track, carefully timed to the second, with coordinated transfers between those services to maximize passenger flow and minimize travel time.
In addition to pioneering the systems that have been popularized in other countries, Japanese planners are keen to pay attention to trends from abroad. When our SkyTrain system in Vancouver opened in 1986, it was one of the most innovative transit systems in the world. Many Japanese cities have borrowed the same “SkyTrain technology” we use, best characterized by the linear motor rail in the centre of the track, in high-capacity, big-city subway systems – taking advantage of the tighter radius curves and smaller tunnels to save trillions of Yen in public transit projects.
Japanese cities have used linear motor propulsion on nearly every subway line built since the 1990s – all of which I have visited during my 1 year stay. In many of the cities the trains are of a newer-generation than the ones used here in SkyTrain. Fukuoka’s Nanakuma Lines trains are not only well-built and modern, but surprisingly quiet going through tunnels.
The latest system, the “Tozai Line” in Sendai, will be opening this December, and will revitalize transit and tourism in a city which in my experience was comparatively lacklustre with its supporting buses.
All in all I enjoyed fulfilling my objectives, especially in transit research. Returning to Canada was a challenge in my realization that many of the Japanese lifestyle things I enjoyed cannot be found in Canada. There’s a lot to say about my time in Japan and how I viewed particular aspects in transit planning topics, but that’s a discussion I’ll be saving for later. I look forward to returning to active blogging on both Metro Vancouver and Japan topics.
The new salary offer for TransLink’s next CEO is out and as expected, members of the public are complaining non-stop about a number that is being described by media as “massive” and “fat” as it is north of $300,000.
Now that the new CEO salary figures are out and everyone is once again relentlessly complaining, I decided to run the numbers again to see where TransLink is now against Canada’s major cities. The base salary is now in line with that of Toronto’s TTC and Montreal’s STM, but not when a bonus of up to 30% is considered:
But, when you consider all of the transit agencies servicing a metro area, the executive payment in this region is comparatively minuscule:
Our region has 1 transit operator with 1 CEO; others have many different operators and multiple CEOs. It’s a concept that’s so simple and easy to understand, and it is absolutely crucial that we familiarize ourselves with it.
When TransLink’s context of a single, region-wide transportation authority is considered against what the region-wide setup is in Canada’s other metropolitan areas, Metro Vancouver actually has the lowest per-capita CEO salary of any major city in Canada. Even if our CEO receives a full 30% bonus.
We now pay about 17.5 cents per capita if the CEO earns a 30% bonus; whereas the people of greater Toronto pay between 1 and 12.5 more cents more for their executives (depending on what you would include as greater Toronto’s transit operators), and the people of greater Montreal each pay between 6 and 12.5 cents more.
We will also be paying our new CEO less for every revenue hour of transit service they manage, even if the CEO receives a full 30% bonus:
The revised, lowered CEO salary will put a maximum of 5 cents back into people’s pockets and would not even pay for buying a single bus. Despite the relatively minimal benefits to Metro Vancouver’s citizens, attracting a new CEO will be a more difficult task with a lower offer, and TransLink should be commended considerably if and when they are able to do so.
The response a TransLink spokesperson offered in Jeff Nagel’s recent report for the Surrey Leader pretty much sums up why TransLink can’t be considered a “transit operator” in the usual vein:
“It needs to be a competitive salary,” Moore said, adding the challenge with comparing TransLink to other transit authorities is there is nothing similar in North America.
“The No side in the plebiscite wanted to compare the CEO of TransLink to one of nine CEOs in Seattle or one of eight CEOs in Toronto,” Moore said, referring to areas where multiple separate agencies do the work of TransLink. “Nobody else has an integrated rail-bus-road infrastructure.”
But, I don’t think most people are ready to understand this – it’s probably easier to think that our transit operator is a transit operator like any other, regardless of the serious differences in the way we are organized. It’s clear that much of the “NO” vote in the recent referendum was motivated by an unfavourable view of executive salaries, which were not being looked at in a proper context.
If anything, this should have an effect on how the provincial government interprets the “NO” vote altogether. At this point, the only way that the misinformation around executive salaries in this region can be offset is for someone to take leadership and recognize the serious flaws in how people have been informed on this matter.
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
Here’s an interesting collaboration I did with Kyle of 257vancouver over a Twitter conversation. After he posted a few charts with preliminary data, I asked him plot the below chart showing how the referendum YES vote correlated with the commute mode-shares for public transit and driving:
Notice on how the top set of grey dots, there are more dots up where the driving mode share percentage is higher, closer to the left where the yes vote percentage was lower. The opposite is generally true for those who rely on public transit.
To me this is a rather unsurprising but a very important trend to pay attention to. With at least a part of the “NO” vote outcome coming not necessarily as a result of choice of funding method or a distrust of TransLink, but as a result of any opposition to the details of the Mayors’ Council’s transit plan, I think this really says something about how we need to be looking to plan big-ticket transit expansion here in Metro Vancouver. That is, at least, if we want it to get more support for it from the public.
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.