In comments from a few a threads back, David asks some questions that I have too:

The South Delta routes are a perfect example of the “carrot” approach failing. The service is there far in excess of demand, yet it has done nothing to get people out of their cars.

What does that tell us about providing the service first and then punishing drivers? Is South Delta a failure simply because the punishment isn’t harsh enough yet? Do the buses not go where the people want them to? Is South Delta mostly populated by snobs who refuse to “slum it” on the bus?

What does the South Delta example tell us about expanding service to other low density “bedroom” communities in Surrey, Langley, etc? Is bus service to the Morgan Creek area doomed to fail before it even reaches the drawing board?

Here’s the issue, as I understand it.  Translink’s extended bus service into low-density communities around the region, and it’s done so as part of a broader strategy to encourage people to get out of their cars and take public transit.  The theory behind the strategy seems to have two important points.  In the short term, people can’t take buses that don’t exist, so the first thing you do to attract passengers is run bus routes out to them.  Makes sense.  In the long term, you run transit out into low-density communities in order to encourage more transit-oriented development.  The hope is, once there’s solid transit running along a busy corridor of an otherwise low-density community, the transit will make that corridor more attractive to people looking for a place to live.  Once more people want to live in the neighbourhood, it can sustain higher-density, mixed-use transit-oriented development.  That means more people can live there, and can live there in ways that are less dependent on cars.  That means you increase your transit ridership — both in raw numbers and, more importantly, the percentage of people taking transit — and you can afford to start running new bus routes into other, lower-density parts of the community.

There a lot to like about this strategy.  What I like especially is the focus on longer-term time frames means it’s actual transportation planning, instead of transportation constantly-scrambling-to-catch-up.  But there’s also something that really worries me about the strategy.  Translink ultimately has no say about zoning for higher-density development.  That’s up to the cities.  And if they don’t want to zone that way — I’m looking at you, Surrey — there really isn’t anything Translink can do about it.  So I worry the strategy amounts to a plan for leading horses to water, without having any more plans about how to make them drink once they get there.

That’s what I’d guess is going on with those empty South Delta buses.  The horses are at the trough, but they’re not drinking.  Clearly part of the problem is that the buses we’re talking about aren’t nearly frequent enough, and most people still have to walk too far to get to a stop.  So, you might think, the problem is that Translink just hasn’t run enough buses into those communities.  But there isn’t — and never wil be — the money to run that many buses or light rail into every corner of low-density sprawl in metro Vancouver.  It just can’t be done.   You need to hit a certain threshold of density before you can afford to have a lot of frequent buses running close to people’s houses, schools, offices, and bowling alleys.

So what are Translink’s options?  Let’s assume a Translink-sponsored putsch to take control of city councils south of the Fraser isn’t really an option.  Still, Translink — well, Translink, the mayors, and the province — can set policies that would, over time, increase demand for higher-density development.  They can make driving more expensive, so that more people are looking for places to live near transit.  All of which is a long-winded way of saying that people in low-density parts of the region aren’t going to start taking transit more until driving is a lot more expensive.