September 2009

Just a few minutes ago, I was standing on the 44 (because of course the bus was jammed), and looking out the window at all the cars parked in the curb lane.  I got a really good look at a few of them, because traffic was so bad the bus inched along more slowly than people walking beside it on the sidewalk.  Sometimes the bus just stopped.  That gave me a chance to think.  One thing I thought was, Why is the city renting space on the road for people to park their cars — at a rate of quarters an hour — when there isn’t enough space on the road for this bus full of 120 people to move?

My 44 managed to make it all of four stops — and a whole kilometer! — into its route before it started passing people up.  That’s pretty good!

Stephen Rees does a nice job of capturing the Kafka-esque absurdity that the mayors find themselves in the middle of, as they try to get the Evergreen Line built one way or another.  The money’s not there to build the line.  So the mayors want the province’s permission to levy new taxes, so the mayors can raise the money to build the line.  The province says no.  But then, if the province won’t let the mayors raise new money to build the line, why not save $400 million by building the line as some kind of light rail instead of light metro?  The province says no to that too.  So, really, what sort of solution would the province accept?

I’ve said that I think there would be downsides to running surface-level light rail along the Broadway corridor.  I don’t think they’re overwhelming, and I don’t think they decide the issue.  But I think it’s at least worth clearly taking stock of them.  So I want to start to do that, although I’m only going to focus on one set of related issues now, and not try to catalogue them all.

Broadway is a six-lane street.  There are a few different ways you could configure lanes of traffic to make sure trains weren’t getting stuck behind drivers turning right or left.  For example, you could have a lane in the middle of the road for lefthand turns and boarding platforms for the trains.  Then the lefthand lanes would be for the trains, the righthand lanes for cars, and parking (or a bike lane?) would be on one side of the street.  Or whatever.  My point is that, so long as the trains have their own lanes — so they’re not getting stuck behind drivers turning — there’s only one lane of car traffic in either direction.

Now, I’m not one to care about space on the roads for cars.  But with only one lane of traffic in either direction, there doesn’t seem to be any space for local buses* — and that, I think, is a problem.

But, you might think, why would Broadway need buses if it has a rail line?  If the rail line’s going to be rapid transit, it needs to be a limited stop service.  Stopping more often than the 99 stops now is going to slow the train down.  Okay, so maybe it doesn’t have to slow the train down too much.  After all, unlike the 99, we’re supposing this train’s never going to get stuck behind cars turning, and we’re supposing it’s going to have a solid signal priority system, so it doesn’t get stuck at red lights too often.  So maybe we can put some extra stops in to make up for the loss of the local service.  What would that look like?

Well, if we had as many stops as the local service does now, that’d be roughly every two blocks, or about every 350 meters.  (The blocks on the route vary in length, so that’s a rough average.)  But right now the B-Line makes 11 stops (including the end of the line) along a 13 kilometer route.  That’s a stop about every 1.2 kilometers.  (Again, that’s an average.  Some stops are a little closer together, and some a little farther apart.)  So talking in really rough figures here, you could double the number of stops on the route, and you’d still be making seniors walk a block farther to catch the train than they walked to catch the bus.

So there’s a really ugly trade-off here.  If the train ran a local service, it’d dramtically slower than the B-Line.  In no sense could it be considered rapid transit.  But if the train were even as fast as the B-Line, it wouldn’t be running a local service and would be dramtically less accessible to anyone with bad mobility.  Or we could try to strike a balance here, where it was only somewhat slower than the B-Line is now, and only somewhat less accessible than the local 9.

(* I’m not 100% sure of this.  I’d be interested if someone could describe a way to fit two lanes of trains onto a six-lane street and still have room for at least a lane in each direction of car traffic plus local buses — and have a way for both bus and train passangers to load and unload safely.  Of course, this problem goes away completely if Broadway were closed to car traffic.  A boy can dream. . . .)

Stephen Rees has a characteristically thoughtful post about contrasting strategies for developing livable, walkable, transit-oriented development.  And since he’s talking about something I alluded to this morning, I thought I’d take a minute to say just what reservations I have about building a lot of light rail into low-density areas.  Here’s Rees’ account of the transit planning strategy he likes:

You cannot have transit oriented development unless there is transit there to make it work. Kitsilano did not become a desirable residential neighbourhood until the streetcars started running. And when they first appeared they ran through a very empty area – which quickly started to fill up as houses sprang up almost like mushrooms overnight.

The strategy is simple and elegant.  Build transit out into low-density areas, and then when those areas develop, they’ll develop in livable, transit-oriented ways around the existing transit.  But if you don’t build the transit first, then when those low-density areas start to develop they just turn into low-density sprawl.  As Kitsilano went in the first half of the twentieth-century, so Langley could go in the first half of the twenty-first.

Rees knows there’s a big difference between transit-planning before the Second World War and now.  When rail lines first got laid on the west side of Vancouver, most people didn’t own cars.  Not so now.  So here’s my worry.  Suppose Translink ran lots of at-grade light rail out to low-density areas of the suburbs.  What would stop developers from building even more low-density sprawl, even further out in to the Valley?  Because now all that light rail makes people’s commutes that much easier.

What would stop that from happening?  Mayors who insisted on transit-oriented development, that’s what.  Some mayors — PoMo’s Joe Trasolini looks like the real hero here — have done just that.  But others haven’t.  Look at the development around King George station.  This is not a walkable neighbourhood, and not because no one ever gave it a rail line.  So why should Translink run rail out into low-density sprawl when, for all they know, they’re laying the groundwork for the twenty-first century’s park-and-rides?

Before the weekend, Voony and Tessa made some excellent points I want to follow up on.  One of the arguments that keeps popping up against the idea of a Broadway subway is about its cost.  It’s not just that it would cost a lot — although of course it would.  The argument is that the money spent digging a big hole on Broadway wold be better spent building a lot of light rail south of the Fraser.  For the cost of 13 kilometers of subway on the Broadway corridor, you could build ten times that much surface-level light rail.  Why not do that instead?

I have some worries about how to ensure transit-oriented development around new rail lines, but I’m happy to put those aside for now.  Because what I really don’t get in this argument is the word “instead.” Why does this have to be an either/or deal?  Why would we want to pay for light rail in the Valley with money earmarked for other transit development? Why can’t we just advocate for more transit everywhere?

Voony did some excellent work over the weekend to put this in perspective.  He figured out just how much the Campbell government’s put into building major new highway infrastructure south of the Fraser and major new transit infrastructure in the city.  Go read his whole post, because it’s eye-popping, but here’s the upshot.  The provincial government has spent nearly three times more for every driver in the region than they have for every transit user.  That’s per driver, so the fact that way more people still drive than take transit is irrelevant.

The South Fraser perimeter highway is going to cost $1.1 billion.  Why not use that money to build light rail south of the Fraser?  So if you want light rail south of the Fraser “instead” of something, why have it “instead” of a subway on Broadway?  Why not have more light rail “instead” of more highways?

I just ducked into the West Valley Market at Davie & Bute to pick up some leeks for dinner, and apparently we can now see what they have on sale by following their Twitter feed.  Looks like organic beans are today’s hot item.  Exciting!

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