Vancouver Province column: Our fast-growing region needs better rail service, not more crowded buses

The Province
Monday, September 24, 2007

Last week, during the afternoon rush hour, I tried to catch a 98 B-Line bus to take me over the Granville Street Bridge and into downtown Vancouver. My luck in catching a ride across False Creek and on to Waterfront Station? Not very good.
After waiting 10 minutes, a couple of the buses did appear. But both were full, leading to what’s known as the “pass up” — that frustrating moment when a bus driver gives would-be passengers the “no vacancy” shrug and keeps on driving.

I eventually did board one of the B-Lines, but only after cramming myself into the overcrowded vehicle and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a justifiably grumpy bunch of fellow passengers.

It seems bus riders are grumpy across the Lower Mainland these days. And I don’t blame them. In too many instances, the buses run overcrowded and late, especially during September, when commuters are returning to classes or the office.

According to TransLink, in the first half of 2007, the transit system recorded a 4.8-per- cent increase in ridership over the same period last year. It hit an all-time high for monthly ridership in June, with over 26 million boardings. Translation: The bus crunch is only getting worse.

And yet bus advocates in this region continue to insist that we need to rely on them even more. Many jaded riders have tuned out this cheerleading, however. Some are ditching the bus pass in favour of getting around by foot, bike or carpool. Others are returning to the convenience of, horror of horrors, their own vehicle.

It’s hard to blame them. Most folks want to get to where they’re going in a comfortable and timely manner, even if it costs them more.

According to Vancouver-based transportation economist Stephen Rees, the current situation on the buses has “the effect of deterring people who would be willing to switch from their cars.”

“It is poor quality of service which deters car drivers from using transit,” he says.

Unfortunately, adding more buses is not a quick fix for TransLink’s woes. Nor will it convince drivers to junk their car keys. As Rees notes, TransLink does not have the ability to increase the size of its bus fleet quickly.

Rees argues in favour of light rail. But in my opinion, any and all forms of rail transit should be considered over buses. Consider the success of the SkyTrain and West Coast Express lines to date.

Bottom line: It’s time for transportation planners in the Lower Mainland to think outside the bus.

Vancouver’s growing population and worsening traffic crunch requires a rethink of the status quo. The under-construction Canada Line is a good addition, but it’s not enough.

So let’s get on with building reliable, efficient and environmentally sound rail transit that will meet the needs of our growing metropolis.

In the meantime, TransLink should take its cues from the pizza delivery business when it comes to tardy transit. Your bus arrives in 30 minutes or the ride is free.

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