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Sunday, October 17, 2004

Tri-Cities Transit Follies 

In news closer to home, the Tri-Cites (the one consisting of Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody, Anmore, and Belcarra) are to be subjected to a light rail system. I think this is the wrong choice, a sentiment reinforced by a conversation with my dad, who works for SkyTrain. This makes him both something of an expert on transit issues and a bit biased in favour of a particular transit solution.

To the facts. There were three systems being seriously considered for a transit solution, which mostly meant finding some way of getting people from Coquitlam Centre Mall (or the Coquitlam campus of Douglas College, or the Coquitlam city hall; take your pick as to the most useful description of the area) to the Lougheed Mall SkyTrain station, and thus to the rest of the transit system. It appears the preferred route goes through Port Moody.

The slowest, cheapest option was buses, or better yet, guided rubber-tire transit, which is a doofus stopgap system that amounts to an elevated bus lane. It was apparently dismissed as "too risky," though I suspect that could be re-read as "too dorky." Nonetheless, I think it offers few advantages over just running a B-line fast-bus route on the roads, and adding bus-lanes where necessary to speed things up.

The fast, super-expensive option is SkyTrain. 13 minute estimated travel time from end to end. That's really, really fast! In rush hour, it would be, no contest, twice as quick as any other way of getting from Coquitlam to Lougheed Mall. That's the kind of speed that puts people in the seats. Coquitlam Mayor Jon Kingsbury disputed that speed estimate, but he's an idiot. More on that in the next section.

SkyTrain's dirty little secret is that it roughly pays for its operating costs (not its capital costs) out of the fare box, which is nearly unheard of in transit systems, and Greater Vancouver has about as small a population as you can have and still justify a light rail system. But SkyTrain is expensive and it doesn't look cute, with those big guideways and big cars.

Light rail is oh-so cute! It's got cute little trains, it has cute little stations, and it's all very "human scaled." It's also a dog. It's most of the way to the capital costs of a SkyTrain system, but it can't carry as many people, and more importantly, it takes 20 minutes to make the trip. That's not unbearable, but I think the faster trip would be worth the trouble. The gap between trains will also be longer than SkyTrain

Now, back to His Worship, Mayor Kingsbury. From the article above: "Kingsbury said the SkyTrain estimates were unrealistic because they failed to consider stop times of 1.5 minutes at each of the nine stations along the route." Well, my dad had some strong words to say about that, since the stop times that SkyTrain actually puts in right now are well under 20 seconds, and they sweat that number to the second, trying to get it as low as possible at each stop (I think that 13-15 second stops are done at the less popular stations). With 9 stations on the route, SkyTrain would spend at most 3 minutes at rest on this route, not the 13.5 minutes the unclever mayor wants to claim. I'm not even sure if the light rail system would actually be that slow in practice, though I assume that they'll use techniques like fare-taking as you board, which slows things down considerably compared to SkyTrain's pay-before-you-get-to-the-platform system.

So, I don't think a good decision has been made. I think the resulting system will work, after a fashion, and I'm sure to use it on occasion, and I'll try not to resent the big headways (6-15 minutes, versus something more like 1.5-5 minutes between SkyTrains). But SkyTrain would be faster, and faster is really important to making a transit system useful and popular.

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