Thursday, October 14, 2010

If you build it they will come?

All over the place people keep pushing for rail based transit in the belief that if it is built people will magically decide to use transit instead of driving.    I find this thinking naive and bizzare for a host of reasons.

We have buses - I often used the 603 from Tsawwassen to Downtown Vancouver when I would stay with my mother and go to meetings in the city.   The bus was either comparable in time to driving or faster, it also was a more pleasant experience than driving because I could read and did not need to worry about stop and go traffic.   Even with a fast bus from the 'burbs to downtown, the majority of people drove cars.    The trip has changed this year, the buses now stop at Bridegport and you take the Canada Line from there.  

As much as I like the Canada Line, it is not an improvement for the people commuting from Tsawwassen.   You now need to transfer which means having to get out into the cold and walk up a bunch of stairs and wait for a train.   The worst part now is that you have to stand for half your trip, there is never a free seat in rush hour at Bridgeport.  Previously you had a seat all the way into town on the 603.  Finally, the time to get to Bridgeport and the time at the station leaves the transit time from Tsawwassen to Downtown basically the same as before though less pleasurable.

Are there more people in in Tsawwassen using the bus because of the Canada Line?  Not that I can see.  In general there is no measurable bump in traffic in for Translink with the opening of the Canada line.   Buses exist and for commuters are a nice traveling experience, this is not #14 Hastings bus experience.

So if the buses exist and they are a decent travelling experience, why are more people not using them?  What makes people think that changing from bus to rail will improve transit use?

I can understand rail doing well in situations where it has a significant time advantage, but when there is not one I do not see the evidence that people prefer trains over buses.   I am looking for the evidence that rail based transit is preferred to bus based transit and I can not find any definitive examples of a preference unless there is a significant time savings.  This says to me there is no case for the use of streetcars anywhere at anytime.  

Streetcars are no faster than buses but are dramatically more expensive to build and operate.   They are also much nosier than electric buses such as the ones used in Vancouver.  Streetcars remain unflexible and require a fundamental change to how a street is set up to allow for the stops.

In urban areas of BC, like the City of Vancouver and the City of Victoria, the use of buses is higher than comparable cities in North America with streetcars.    Since we are doing better using buses why would be change away from this?   The answer from the rail advocates is that more people will use transit if we do, but there is no evidence for this assertion.

Here in Victoria people keep talking about the desire to have rail transit to the Westshore but I have never seen any concrete evidence that there is any significant body of people wanting to take transit but refusing to do so because it is a bus and not rail.   I do not see the evidence there are a lot of people that will change their patterns if there were rail.

If we look at the current commuting patterns there is a  very rational base for people taking the bus from the Westshore to downtown.   The trip time is not dramatically different from Colwood to downtown for the bus compared to a car.   The bus offers a nicer view and allows you to read and relax while the car drivers are stuck in stop and go traffic.    Driving your car to work increases your insurance, gas use, maintenance, and you have to pay for parking.  The added cost to drive from the Westshore to downtown is about $4000 to $5000 a year over the cost to use the bus.  The benefit rises to about $7000 a year if a family can give up one car.

So, if you live on the Westshore and use the bus you can have a nicer trip to work and be able to take the family to Mexico for two weeks each year on the savings.    This dramatic benefit of using the bus is not enough for most people.    What makes anyone think that changing to rail is going to change things?   Rail only offers a marginal benefit in time, possibly.

There is no evidence that people switch to transit because of a shift from rubber to rail.   To assume it will happen is bad planning and will lead to over estimations of traffic.   The over estimation of traffic for rail based transit systems in the US in the last 20 years has lead to total havoc in the systems.   Operating costs per rider are higher and revenues are lower than projected.   Many of these transits systems have had to cancel bus services to be able continue operating the rail based services.   There are US transit systems were overall transit use has gone down after rail has been brought into use.

Rail based transit has a place in the mix but only where the physical capacity of the roads can not accomodate the buses needed to move the people.   At this point a grade separated SkyTrain system makes sense and only a SkyTrain system.
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