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The Great Vancouver Transit Experiment

Mar 11, 2010

by Lydia Heard, Urban Planner for VIA Architecture

Part 3 of A Citywalkers Take on Vancouver: Walking the Livable City looks at transit and transportation. Although a citywalker’s favorite mode of transportation is eponymous, transit greatly increases the reach of our feet, so to speak. 
Walking the Livable City, Part 1  
Walking the Livable City, Part 2

Vancouver made great strides in transit improvements even before the Olympics. What did they do in order to move a few hundred-thousand extra people around the city? Getting there to find out is a worthwhile journey in itself.

 From Train to Train
This was my first time taking the train, Amtrak Cascades, to Vancouver. We’ve been talking recently, in our Seattle and Vancouver blogger meetups, about how we’re part of one larger region (sometimes called Cascadia), and how we might start more dialogues about what that means. Taking the train through the region is a good reminder.

We travel in tunnels under cities and under wooded cliffs; through industrial yards and backyards; past cattle pastures, and fallow fields with grazing flocks of swans; by greenhouses, grain elevators and lumberyards; sloughs, ship channels and estuaries; and to the west, directly against the tracks for much of the way, that body of water that the two countries have agreed to call the Salish Sea, acknowledging Puget Sound and the Straits of Georgia as one great system of shared resource, beauty, and hazards. From the train you can see people walking on narrow shingle, flocks of bufflehead bobbing, bald eagles fishing, and the occasional seal, sea lion or whale. The San Juan Islands come to view, in between fern covered cuts and rocky cliffs topped with windswept conifers.

At every stop people are waiting for the train – a couple or a few at Edmonds or Stanwood, a fair group at Mount Vernon and Everett, a big crowd at Bellingham. The track is within view of I-5 from time to time; there is no envy here for the motorists on that dreadfully familiar drive. Here on the train, we are working by handheld or laptop, sleeping, going to the dining car, walking about the train, watching the scenery, reading, taking in the movie – wonderfully free from the monotony of hands on the wheel, eyes on the road.

Going into Canada, we cross the border without stopping, only a walkthrough to check passports and declaration forms. This is a different experience from crossing the border by car, where the wait times can be hard to predict and can be hours long in summer. According to DOT, the crossing times were surprisingly short during the Olympics, with 200,000 cars going north to Canada and 268,000 coming south (supposedly the extra were people who went north before the count started).

We pass the first Canadian town, White Rock, residences terracing up the hillside and every one with a view. The train engineer, our tour guide, informs us that it “takes a lot of dollars” to live there. He announces the Fraser River, and out the window is the beautiful Skybridge with the Skytrains crossing over, passing each other out there on the bridge. This is the longest cable-supported transit bridge in the world, and gorgeous. What does it take to build this sort of infrastructure, and these complete transit networks? I can only guess that, if a governing body has managed to avoid the commitment to building ever more highways, then there are more funds for transit than we seem to find here in the States.

My ardor for Canadian transit cools somewhat when the train arrives at Pacific Central Station. The platform is stingy and open to the rain; we wait in line outside of the small customs area. It’s still a much better experience than flying. Exiting the station dragging heavy bags, the forecourt is annoyingly free of any helpful wayfinding signage to the Main Street Skytrain station.

Even more annoying is the distance to the elevator, which is across a major street, and is hidden away without any hint of how to find it. This station was built in a short timeframe as a terminus platform for the Expo line of 1986. Plans have been made (by VIA for Translink) for a new station and are awaiting funding.

Once aboard the Skytrain all annoyance fades away. I forget my street, go a stop too far and head to another platform for a train back the other direction – I hope, but am not sure. I must look lost (as I often do) and a helpful soul asks if I’m heading for the airport, with my bags, obviously proud of the new Canada Line that goes there. I ask if this train goes back to Granville and get the affirmative. From now on it’s obvious, everywhere, all the time, that this is Vancouver, the Host City to the 2010 Olympics. It’s a constant invitation: Welcome World.

Invitation to Transit 

 A bus goes by, one of many, alternately flashing the route number and the message “WELCOME WORLD”. The buses are full, especially late at night when (a few) celebrants start going home. One night after watching the fireworks from the False Creek seawall, I walk west until the crowds have thinned, and find a tapas place on Howe. Everything is quiet except for the bus stop, where dozens of people are waiting for a bus.

Transportation demands during the Olympics were expected to be 30% greater than average; this was compounded by the various street closures and reduced capacity due to security at venues and to make pedestrian celebration streets. The various governing bodies and agencies involved with the Olympics developed a Host City Transportation Plan to meet the various goals and keep the city moving. One-hundred eighty additional buses were brought in, times extended and more frequent trips provided.

A key factor for bus efficiency was reducing other vehicle trips by 30%. Olympic lanes were designated on some streets for transit (and official Olympic vehicle) priority. Other streets were designated no stopping (no parking) except for buses. Residents were encouraged to plan transit, bike or walking trips rather than driving downtown.

This is my first visit since the Canada Line opened last August (ahead of schedule). It was carrying 90,000 riders a day even before the Olympics. I like to walk but am glad to take the train when time is short or my feet are sore. It’s very crowded; we joke back at the office that it’s like the Japanese trains, and they need the push shields that compress people into the cars so the doors can close. I get caught in the door, once.

 

That was on a weekday. One of my Seattle coworkers went on a sunny weekend and reported that there were long queues and waits to get on the train at all, so she just walked everywhere. During my weekday not-so-sunny visit the queue barriers are empty and unused and there was no waiting, just onboard crowding. The Canada Line was not considered part of the Olympic expenditures, as it is a permanent new system. I overheard one couple leaving the Yaletown-Roundhouse station talking about the Olympics features, then end the conversation with “…and this we get to keep”.

GO CANADA GO…by Streetcar 

The Olympic Line is a demonstration streetcar which runs, until March 21, between Granville Island and the Canada Line Olympic Village station by Cambie. The track of the existing historic line was upgraded, with noise reducing welded rails, to run a modern Flexity streetcar on loan from Bombardier. They had 300,000 riders over 30 days. If funding can be found to purchase two or three cars, the line could become permanent and even be expanded into a network.

Our conductor and guide confessed to being old enough to have ridden the last of the streetcars that used to go to Stanley Park, and hoped to be around to see the network restored. The new streetcar lines in Toronto are to use Bombardier cars that will be manufactured there; that could be the source for any new Vancouver streetcars.

Cyclists Get a Full Plate 

Good hosts not only send invitations; they offer their guest more than they can eat. Generous invitations increase the likelihood of greater acceptance, sooner or later. Vancouver was prepared for tremendous numbers of cyclists, just in case. Bike Valet stations were set up near Olympic venues to encourage cycling. There was already a good network of bike lanes on the streets, Cambie Bridge, and along trails and seawalls. New lanes were added in Gastown, DTES and Chinatown. Even before the Olympics barriers were set up on the Burrard Bridge to create bike lanes in both directions.

 

With access and infrastructure for cyclists as a high priority, people wondered why the Friday Critical Mass cyclist protest event was still held during the Olympics. The organizers said the Olympics weren’t a target; it’s just the usual reminder that cyclists have a right to the road, and a fun social event besides.

Transit Buffet: Better Than A-La-Carte 
In the end, Vancouver didn’t come to a standstill during the Olympics. This was in part because many modes were available and somewhat integrated; not just one system but a combination of several. Heavy rail, light rail, streetcar, bus, increased bike and pedestrian options were provided, and still allowed for necessary vehicular traffic on the streets. 

Many transit options provide flexible access to transit for more people. Some aspects were temporary. Just for the Olympics the transit agencies added 48 additional Skytrains and a third Seabus to North Vancouver, which along with the West Coast Express had extended times and increased runs. Transit systems carried about 1.6 million people per day, or twice the usual number, during the Olympics. 

As a well planned experiment, it was so successful that some temporary measures may eventually become permanent, such as the streetcar. Because vehicular street traffic was successfully reduced, there is a renewed call for taking down the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, those precursors to the downtown freeways that never happened, thanks to neighborhood activism – after the viaducts construction took out part of Strathcona (and are still inhibiting east end development). Largely because those freeways never happened, the city has enviable and extensive transit systems – but the calls for car freedoms are still there.

There are claims that, in order to reach a 30% traffic reduction, Vancouver residents and people who work downtown were encouraged to take their vacations during the Olympics, and that the reduction shouldn’t be considered permanent. This was part of the debate over bike lanes on Burrard Bridge before the Olympics; the debate over the fate of the viaducts is continuing after.

Pedestrians Rule at the World’s Biggest Party
Pedestrians, or people walking, are the lifeblood of any great, livable city. The transportation plan designated pedestrian “celebration” streets on sections of Granville, Robson, Mainland and Beatty streets. These “streets for people” were very well used, and were indeed the life of the party. This topic deserves its own post.

Next: Public Spaces, People Places. Celebrations of people in the street and beyond. 

Image Credit: Welcome World, Train, White Rock