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.


Sheila said...

I don't think that you can make such blanket statements. I think that the particulars always matter.

For example, I don't know much about the situation in Victoria's wester suburbs but in the Fraser Valley, the WestCoast Express is a great success, drawing increasing numbers of commuters. The trains were just expanded to keep up with the growth. Buses couldn't draw commuters like that.

On the south side of the Fraser Valley, fast buses to Vancouver have been tried many times over the years but have always failed. Mainly b/c buses face the same traffic jams as cars and can't keep to schedules. Now that Hwy #1traffic is stop and go as far out as Abbotsford many times a week, buses to a SkyTrain station to Langley couldn't keep to a schedule.

I like SkyTrain in the right urban places but for the premier to suggest spending billions to extend it to Langley (across miles of farmland and low density suburbia) does not make sense.

Instead, the existing old BCR rail line passes near most of the population and employment bases in the Fraser Valley and is estimated to cost $5 million per km to upgrade compared with over $100 million per km to build Sky Train.

Yes, some people enjoy longer distance buses but not only do they get stuck in traffic as do cars but many people who can read or sleep on a train get 'car sick' on a bus if they tried the same.

I fear that people get politicized 'for' or 'against' SkyTrain (or the Port Mann bridge expansion) rather than looking at the particulars in each case.

I normally appreciate your thoughtful analysis but think that you came out 'partisan' rather than thoughtful and informed on this one!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Iconoclast,

Thank you for the well written article. BC Transit has the Wrightbus Streetcar (rubber-tyred articulated vehicle) currently on display. Please show your support for this innovative option and speak out against expensive light rail/streetcars. Unfortunately rail hobbyists are rather vocal.


The bus lanes being built on the TC Highway should solve the problem of buses getting stuck in general purpose traffic. The West Coast Express is completely different from the old BC Electric rail line. It is direct to Vancouver from Mission with Maple Ridge, Coquitlam and Port Moody in between. The Southern Rail line (formerly BC Electric) follows a tortuous path, and except for Langley and Cloverdale, passes through agricultural and industrial lands.

In the Fraser Valley, buses, which are embellished to mimic rail, should be used. Comparing the cost of Skytrain and at-grade rail is a straw man argument. Skytrain is costly and the premier's comments about extending Skytrain to Langley rather silly, but the default should be better buses, not light rail or streetcars.

Anonymous said...

I agree that urban rail is often oversold, but I think that Victoria will eventually have a rail link to the Western Communities. Traffic is increasing, there are choke points on the Trans-Canada and the Old Island Highway; there's already track in place (rickety, but still...). If they can get a basic service up for $200m, as claimed, they should do it, and then expand (or not) as demand dictates.

Chris Burd

Anonymous said...

Most people think that the majority of Fraser Valley commuters go into downtown Vancouver. In fact, the majority stay south of the Fraser. A study of Abbotsford regular commuters found that only 13% crossed the Port Mann Bridge. By far the majority went to Langley and Surrey.

Interestingly, that is where the old BC rail travels. It would connect to SkyTrain at Scott Rd, but a great deal of traffic would be getting off at other places.

The recently released study indicated that travel time on an upgraded BC Rail line would be 90 minutes from Chilliwack to Scott Road, 60 minutes from Abbotsford and 30 from Langley. Those times compare reasonably well to the West Coast express.

Wickson said...

Please have a look at

Bernard said...

I am aware of Todd Litman's work. His study is in my opinion not a well done analysis, it may have lots of data but it is not inclusive of all the data possible in each of the areas.

Ultimately it is very much a straw man style argument he does in the paper that cherry picks examples to prove his point.

I would write a full critque of his paper but my I have too much else to do and I suspect I will be subjected to a lot of rants if I were to do that.

As one simple example, the two graphs he has on page 18 do not support the sort of line he puts on the graph, the statistical margin or error on the data does not allow for it.

Rail works where there are a lot of people going from point A to point B and by a lot I am talking about something in the order of 100,000 per day.

Rail is expensive and is very unflexible, once it is in place you had better you right or you screwed yourself. There are way too many examples in the US of bad decisions for rail in the last 20 years. In Canada we have avoided that.

What people should be asking is why do we in Victoria use bus more than people in cities with rail use transit? Should we not be trying to find out what the success has been in Victoria so that it can be repeated? And if we are succeeding with buses should we not reinforce that?