Transit in Metro Vancouver is always a hot button topic. Anything and everything from fares, bus stops, right up to the technology used for transit vehicles. It seems that in the last decade or so, TransLink (the operating company behind Metro Vancouver’s public transportation system) and the government (both municipal and provincial) have proven they are incapable of effectively providing any sort of reliable operation to commuters in the Lower Mainland.
I’ve lived in the Vancouver area all my life and watched SkyTrain grow beyond the New Westminster station to Columbia, then over the Fraser to Scott Road and eventually out to King George, the Millennium Line when it only stopped at Sapperton, when there was no fare gates, and that you had to walk up steps when boarding a bus. Before the turn of the century, everything was branded as BC Transit, in its red, white and blue colour scheme of the Union Jack on our provincial flag. While there have been some major improvements and changes to the way we get around the region, not all of it is positive.
Many of those who live in Vancouver proper, Burnaby, New Westminster and parts of the Tri-Cities (Port Moody, Port Coquitlam and Coquitlam), transit is generally available and reliable. The story changes to the communities south of the Fraser River, where buses are frequently delayed or non-existent, and local governments ignore the advice of the people that elected them into office by offering unpopular methods of transportation.
That unpopular method is LRT (Light Rail Transit). For the last decade or more, the City of Surrey has been doing studies and waffling over the idea of how best to connect its many town centres (Surrey Central, Newton, Guildford) together with the existing SkyTrain network. In the last year or two, the city has made the firm decision to implement LRT going down King George Boulevard to Newton and out east along 104 Avenue to Guildford. I could go on and on about why this is a terrible idea (read my thoughts on this), but once the decision from the provincial and federal governments to issue funding for construction for the LRT, there has been a hard stance from all levels government that LRT is going forward. Their lack of vision and all the computer-generated imagery showcasing a happy community with less cars and more pedestrians is short-sighted. Surrey is a growing city and a decade after LRT is in place, the city and TransLink will again be petitioning the provincial and federal governments for expanded SkyTrain service, thus wasting more of our tax dollars which could have been spent efficiently from the get go. The LRT will eventually be dug up and replaced with an elevated SkyTrain guideway (akin to when the express bus lanes down No. 3 Road in Richmond were built to great fanfare only to be torn up a few years later for the construction of the Canada Line).
Now Vancouver is considering LRT along a major east-west thoroughfare: 41st Avenue. Yes, the 41 bus is always crowded and yes it takes forever to get from Joyce-Collingwood station out to the University of British Columbia. Here we go again. If you drive along 41st Avenue, you’ll notice it’s not very wide and always congested. Lined with single family homes, the city will need to expropriate a large number of properties to make this work, driving up the cost exponentially. While the city is trying to find ways to move people to their destinations with fast and affordable service, LRT, again is not the right idea. You’re basically moving the bus onto rails at additional cost with limited room for increased capacity. And with the Oakridge area undergoing major renovations to include high density residential space, this idea will fall flat on its face. A better solution would be dedicated HOV lanes for transit vehicles and cars with two or more occupants.
Furthermore to TransLink’s and the government’s poor knowledge on building transit is the Canada Line. Completed in 2009 before the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, the Canada Line became too popular for its own good. Listening to the complaints of local business groups in Richmond that two tracks would make their establishments lose money because of an unsightly sterile concrete guideway, the line became single tracked after Lansdowne station (and out at the Vancouver International Airport). But it’s no joke now that the density in the island city is increasing with plans to tear down Lansdowne Mall to replace it with new high-rises and commercial space. But that’s not the worst of it. The Canada Line was crippled from the beginning with short platforms limiting the trains to two cars total. This lack of thought for future capacity has filled station platforms and crowded trains. TransLink has ordered more cars from Hyundai Rotem (the group that manufactured the first trains) to add more to increase service. There was even talk of making the trains into three cars, but that never materialized. Now Vancouver and Richmond are building up density along this rapid transit route which cannot possibly keep pace with that growth. Let’s not forget the clandestine construction which pitted local merchants along Cambie Street against TransLink and the builders over lost sales from lack of customers avoiding said construction (they’re now finally being awarded damages).
Then there was the Compass card debacle. How many transit systems around the world use fare gates/turnstiles and contactless cards for admission? Quite a few, and yet TransLink managed to drop the ball repeatedly because they didn’t redesign the fare structure beforehand. Trying to get proven technology to work with TransLink’s zone-based fare structure was a headache for the company and the public in general as costs spiralled out of control to the tune of $194 million dollars. The fare gates sat open almost four years before they were all closed in July 2016 finally forcing riders to tap in or out and ending nearly 30 years of the honour system.
The only recently positive news coming from TransLink and the levels of government is the extension of the Millennium Line out to Arbutus Street (and hopefully further out to the University of British Columbia). The Millennium Line has long been reviled as the “SkyTrain to nowhere” and its daily passenger counts are far less than the Expo Line, this has the potential to bring longer trains (no more two-car Mark II trains) as it connects with busy Broadway corridor. As long as TransLink plays its cards right and builds stations with longer platforms, this addition to SkyTrain becomes a much needed respite to the crowded 99 B-Line buses.
And to add a cherry on-top of it all, a TransLink bus stop in Pitt Meadows was named the worst in all of North America. Why? Because it’s on the paved shoulder of Lougheed Highway against a jersey barrier. Passengers are forced to endure speeding vehicles if they wait on the shoulder or they have lumber over the cement barrier to board their bus when it arrives. TransLink said they would address this, but why was it built in the first place? How could this ever have been a good idea from the beginning?
While TransLink continues to roll along like a sow in slop, it’s safe to say their executive leadership (along with the assistance of the Mayor’s Council*) will continue to draft up impractical and ill-considered plans to expand and “improve” the future of transit in Metro Vancouver.
*While TransLink is an independent entity, the Mayor’s Council (that’s 21 Metro Vancouver mayors, the Chief of the Tsawwassen First Nation, and the elected representative of Electoral Area “A”) pretty much has final say over the costs of projects, TransLink board appointments, fare increases, and executive compensation plans.