A new vision for transit

UPDATE: Many transit riders are confused by the NPA’s March 11 decision to approve a pilot test of a downtown streetcar, thinking this means we’ll have the streetcar system in time for the Winter Olympics. In fact, we’ll have only a modest test track. I think it’s time to move ahead with construction of the full project. One approach could be to seek voter approval in the 2011 capital plan — it’s too late for this year’s capital plan referendum.

There are many ways Vancouver could take action immediately to improve transit service, some quite cheap.

Unfortunately, transit service under the NPA remains inadequate as fares keep rising – overcrowded buses, long waits, snarled traffic.

We can do more to improve bus service. Here’s how:

  • Buses, particularly on the crowded, chaotic east-west routes to UBC, could speed up dramatically if the city invested in more bus priority measures. It may be time, particularly during peak periods, to create dedicated bus lanes along more routes like the ones that help move the 98 B-line along Granville.
  • A free downtown bus service, often proposed but never investigated, would help tourism and residents in the downtown core. It’s time to determine how much a service would cost and what the benefits look like.
  • Consider a Vancouver answer to West Vancouver’s Blue Buses if that’s what we need to move more people – we can buy the buses if Translink won’t.
  • Hold the line on fares.

Another transit option, which was scheduled to be debated at council March 11, is to push ahead with construction of a pilot project for a downtown streetcar system. But for the $8.5 million expenditure proposed for this year, Vancouver will get only track upgrading and preparation for the aptly-named “Phase Zero” of the project linking Granville Island with Science World. (Disclosure: I live along this section of the track.) This could pave the way for a “demonstration project” in time for the Olympic Games, meaning a full project could still be seven to 10 years away.

A multitude of reports since 1996 has indicated this route will move people out of their cars, generate significant revenue, boost tourism and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We know streetcars work – we don’t need a demonstration!

Council after council has endorsed the project. But city staff warn the city can’t afford to build the project without senior government funding. (Phase 1, from Granville Island to Waterfront Station, would cost $60 million in 2005 dollars.)

Given that Vancouver is also seeking federal and provincial support for the multi-billion dollar Skytrain extension to UBC, it is hard to imagine regional support for two rapid transit projects entirely within Vancouver boundaries.

It’s time to see if could Vancouver go it alone on the streetcar project. I think we can. Here’s how:

  • Seek more detailed price estimates from qualified firms for the entire system, assuming it would be built by the city and operated by Translink.
  • Look for new sources of revenue, particularly from future development sparked along the route – a successful technique used in Hong Kong, Portland,Toronto and many other places;
  • Seek revenue from increased charges for downtown parking – Vancouver remains a cheap city to park downtown.
  • See if the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could be a revenue generator for the city through a carbon trading system.
  • Invite citizens to debate and vote on a more detailed proposal in the upcoming capital plan referendum during the civic election vote.