UBC Rapid Transit Workshop

On Nov 5, 2009 Translink held a workshop for the UBC residents describing the UBC Rapid Transit study currently under way. Presenters at the meeting came from Translink and a consulting firm – Steer Davies Gleave.
The study appears to be driven by the concerns that the existing bus service connecting UBC with the city is being challenged by the volumes of passengers that are using it.

It was a very informative meeting, it provided many details regarding available technologies (aka. bus, streetcar, train etc.), covered examples of possible implementations and it provided an opportunity to point out shortcomings or areas for consideration.

In this part of the presentation we learned about different transit systems and differences between them.

Buses are the most familiar sight and they range from electric to hybrid and to articulated diesels.

Light rail is perhaps the least familiar to us and can be described as a supersized streetcar running on rails separated from the rest of the traffic. Supersizing comes from the “train” being longer than a streetcar but still remaining quite low to the ground allowing for easy access from the street level. Light rail trains are meant to run on dedicated lanes so they do not get slowed down by other street traffic. This way they provide for greater volumes of passengers transported by a light rail than a bus. Apparently, light rail can run at-grade, be elevated or placed in a tunnel.

Sky train is an example of rapid rail so this technology is familiar to us already.

It seems that every transit system has its own, unique passenger capacity.
Buses can move from 3 to 6 thousand passengers per hour, light rail moves 8 to 10 thousand passengers in an hour and rapid rail carries 20 to 30 thousand. Perhaps then, the answer to what type of the transit system to use lies “simply” in modeling future demand for transportation along this East-West corridor from Commercial St. to UBC and using the corresponding technology. At the time of the meeting Translink was not able to provide estimates of future demand so it would be premature to be deciding on the type of transit to be used for any UBC rapid transit project.

Other differences include the distance between stops with buses being able to collect passengers along many stops along their route and rapid rail having comparatively fewer stops with light rail being in-between.

Costs are considerably different and considering the initial, capital costs and the ongoing operating costs will be a very important part of the study.

A lengthy and informative exchange of ideas followed the presentation and it identified a number of points that should be expanded upon or be explicitly included. I am including some of the points that were discussed.

Establishing a baseline for the study.
As with any project one needs a reference point to compare the benefits and costs of a proposed solution. The participants in the meeting noticed that, to-date, Translink used the existing 99-B bus line as the baseline against which other proposals are contrasted. This was identified as a shortcoming of the study and concerns were raised that the study’s recommendations may be discredited on the basis of invalid comparisons. It was proposed that Translink prepares a “best case baseline” against which any new solutions are compared. Such best case baseline would demonstrate what passenger capacity can be achieved with the existing technology – buses, “some paint” – to change the layout of traffic lanes and perhaps sign changes that may prohibit street parking to gain space for buses. It was suggested that Translink puts forward their ideas on how to modify the pattern followed by the buses along the east-west corridor connecting Commercial St. with UBC and stretching from 4th Ave to 16th Ave. Brainstorming ideas that were put forward from the floor included supplementing the 99-B line with shorter bus lines that serve the travelers between Commercial St and the VGH and a separate line that runs between UBC and VGH. Participants suggested that Translink goes beyond relying to the extent that it does on Broadway as a bus route and looks to 16th, 12th and 4th Avenues for additional capacity.
Then, against such low cost, best case baseline, we will be able to evaluate the size of gains brought by the proposed new technologies versus their cost.

Questions and concerns during the discussion brought up an issue of oversight of the study. Ultimately the funds for any rapid transit project will be sourced mainly from the Provincial Government and yet the apparent lack of challenging questions even at those early stages of the study suggests that there is little direct oversight of this project from the agencies that will be asked to fund it.

Listening to the presenters one might have got an impression that the experts liked the idea of light rail transit as the transportation system for the UBC rapid transit. Large amount of time was devoted to learning about the technical aspects of this technology and the term “light rail” kept on coming up with frequency. Participants were treated to really nice pictures of smart looking trains, moving on discrete rails, with use of plants to soften the visual impact of separating the light rail from the rest of the traffic. Presenters spoke of taking half of the road for the light rail transit and continue to use the other half for vehicles moving in dedicated single lanes in each direction. Consideration was given to cycling routes and pedestrian flow.

Kudos to Translink for this informative presentation that helped the participants understand what the technologies are. Based on the openness of this workshop it is reasonable to expect that questions and concerns raised will be addressed.