Debunking [further] myths

We recently received a message from a light rail supporter, who had attempted to “debunk” our 22 points.   This is a post that debunks the claims he attempts to make, further explaining why we believe the SkyTrain extension of the Millennium Line is the right option.

We would like to point out that light rail supporters mix “LRT” and “tram” statistics interchangeably, thus the arguments made by supporters are quite flawed: the main problem with pro-LRT activists is that the broad scope of LRT systems allows them to take bits and pieces in their argument that do not add up to the whole.

For instance, cherry-picking favourable statistics:  for neighbourhood impacts and construction costs, the light rail supporters quote tram/streetcar stats; for travel times and capacity, they quote LRT (ie. more grade separation and intrusion into neighbourhoods).

Another prime example could be (in quotes and italics):

“LRT can have the same capacity as SkyTrain”: Yes, it can be, however only if it is built to a similar exclusive right-of-way  specifications as SkyTrain (like what has recently been built in Seattle, which Seattlites decry as “over-built”).
“LRT is much cheaper”: Yes, it can be, if it is built to a streetcar standard that won’t serve long haul/regional needs.

Furthermore, we do believe that trams and LRT have a major place in the region (such as in Surrey, the Fraser Valley, other municipalities, and certain corridors in Vancouver that act as secondary routes).   Our organization is not anti-LRT, however, it is fundamental that the backbone of any rapid transit system be integrated, convenient, and of high speed and capacity and the Broadway-UBC corridor is one of significant regional importance requiring an extension of this backbone.

Most European cities that have built LRT and streetcars over the last two decades already have established regional transit backbones.   Their LRT and streetcar systems serve to complement these backbones, not as the backbones themselves.   American LRT systems are a terrible example to follow, given a pattern of choosing the least costly transit mode for any rapid transit system expansion.   The lack of committment to quality public transit in the United States in favour of road expansion should be noted.  In general, Canadian cities have rates of public transit use which are two to three times as high as comparably sized U.S. cities.  Census data for 2006 show that 11.0% of Canadians use public transit to commute to work, compared to 4.8% of Americans.  This means that transportation planners must allow for higher passenger volumes on Canadian transit systems than American ones.

A Portland and Vancouver comparison:

Portland LRT data:
– Number of lines: 3
– Kilometres of track: 71.3km
– Average weekday ridership: 118,200 passengers

Vancouver SkyTrain data:
– Number of lines: 2
– Kilometres of track: 49.5km
– Average weekday ridership: 271,000 passengers

LRT SUPPORTER: Fact #1 – SkyTrain doesn’t have more capacity than LRT, both modes have about the same capacity. Any LRT/tram line can carry over 20,000 persons per hour per direction (pphpd), something that SkyTrain has yet to achieve.

OUR RESPONSE: That is false.  Unless an LRT system takes complete priority of its right-of-way, it will see stacking/congestion issues when you increase the frequency to that which would serve 20,000 pphpd. This can be seen on existing B-Lines or trolley buses which have been known to arrive in packs of sometimes up to 6 buses by the time they arrive to Sasamat Station in the Vancouver Westside.   It is highly unlikely that an LRT along city streets, i.e. Broadway, would be given a complete priority right-of-way.

A LRT line would not be able to achieve anywhere close to 20,000 pphpd given the blocks along Broadway are 120-metres long, there are pedestrian crossings on each block, many cross streets, and left-turn bays.   At the most, 80-metre trains operating at 3-minute frequencies would be the maximum capacity for the Broadway corridor.  At these frequencies and train lengths you will likely run into serious problems with traffic flow problems along Broadway, especially at all the cross streets, and with the LRT trains due to bunching.  A pedestrian crossing requires close to 1.5-minutes on Broadway, limiting the headway time already to 3-minutes.

Calgary’s 3-car C-Train LRT trains would fit within almost all block lengths, and that system (with 3-car trains) has a maximum practical capacity of just under 15,000 pphpd.   The capacity with 3-car trains assumes a minimum practical headway of 120 s, which is again likely not practical given the number of intersections.  It also probably wouldn’t be cost-effective to operate an LRT system with such low headways.

In addition, the maximum operating speed for any LRT/tram line on Broadway is 50-kmph as it must abide local street traffic laws.   The maximum operating speed for the completely grade-separated SkyTrain is 80-kmph.   The average speed of the Calgary C-Train is 30 kmph, while the average speed for SkyTrain is 45-kmph.

Furthermore, few rapid transit rail lines immediately start out with their max. capacity.   Reaching to its maximum design capacity is instead done over time, through the addition of trains to the schedule or the lengthening of trains with additional cars (which may require the lengthening of platforms, if need be only).   This applies to both LRT and SkyTrain systems.

The Expo Line will fulfill the region’s capacity needs over the next few decades.   By simply adding more trains to the schedule and lengthening trains so that they occupy the entire station platform, it will be able to reach its maximum design capacity of 25,000 pphpd in the future (it currently uses 15,000 pphpd during peak hour).   Currently, Expo Line congestion is a result of lacking trains.   However, 48 more vehicles will be arriving throughout this year and into 2010.

LRT SUPPORTER: Fact #2 – Given equal quality of rights-of-way and stations, travel time will edge slightly in LRT’s favour, due to longer dwell times allowed for driverless transit systems.

OUR RESPONSE: We would like to contest this as there is an additional transfer point required for anyone arriving from the Millennium Line which will likely account for a large amount of riders.

There is also a considerable likelihood of such a scenario infringing upon the right-of-way on the LRT which could delay trains.  Isolating the right-of-way from general traffic will take additional signals, lower capacity of all cross streets, and add considerable costs to installing signalling along the length of the line. As well, traffic incidents where a driver attempts to make a left turn and results in a collision with a train will grind the entire LRT line to a complete halt.   The likelihood of these events are relatively high.

LRT SUPPORTER: Fact #3 – SkyTrain has failed to take cars off the road, why build more? Many cities operate metro and LRT.

OUR RESPONSE: And yet, SkyTrain is still packed… Ridership would fall off significantly if SkyTrain were replaced with a slower system.  It’s common sense.  Looking at the ridership numbers the Evergreen Line estimates generated, travel times (and thus speed) are a vital for attaining ridership.

LRT SUPPORTER: Fact #5 – Why duplicate transit (very expensive) service after investing $4 billion on a subway to UBC. With LRT, there will be no need for buses on Broadway.

OUR RESPONSE: If you make the LRT a local service it will be ineffective for its role as an express/rapid transit service, even to the point it will lose its edge over the existing 99 B-Line rapid bus service.  Existing buses have a stop almost every block for the entire length of Broadway; on local buses (such as the #9), the bus will often stop at nearly every local bus stop.

Why bother making an LRT if it will take nearly an hour to cover 12 km?  Trolley bus/local bus routes will still have to be covered if the LRT is to be anything but slow.   The main purpose of any rapid transit rail extension is to provide a fast, reliable, and convenient service.

It is not true that buses will not be needed, unless an LRT has as many stops as the #9 in which case the LRT would be slower than the 99 B-Line rapid bus: with all that said, why spend millions on LRT in the first place?

LRT SUPPORTER: Fact #6 – The study assumed that SkyTrain alone will attract more riders than LRT and was based on a false premise by N.D. Lea & Delcan studies. There is no study today that supports this and in fact on-street/at-grade LRT/tram has proven to attract more ridership than elevated or underground transit systems.

OUR RESPONSE: If the LRT is slower than SkyTrain by any significant margin, then its lower ridership compared to SkyTrain seems to be common sense.   Once again, speed is vital for attaining ridership.

LRT SUPPORTER: Fact #8 – With LRT you do not close parking lanes, you increase capacity on traffic lanes from about 1,600 pphpd to over 20,000 pphpd.

OUR RESPONSE: Our initial point refers to the effects of short-term construction, not long-term. In the long-term, bottlenecks will still be created. A large portion of the population in Point Grey is simply not a demographic which is interested in public transit for their commute, the cars will still be there (thus, why speed and travel times are vital for attracting “choice riders”).   More importantly, road capacity should be maintained in the east-west corridor of the city; Broadway is a major artery.

Yet, with SkyTrain existing road capacity would be maintained and an additional 25,000 pphpd in capacity would be built to complement road capacity.   No parking spaces will be removed for SkyTrain, but it would be required for LRT to make way for station and track space.

LRT SUPPORTER: Fact #9 – No! Modern construction techniques for LRT means that merchants will be affected on a block by block basis, with partial street closures for a month at a time.

Not even true one bit to a point it could be considered as a blatant lie.   Consider the lengthy construction timeline of the Granville Street redesign, and they’re not even building LRT!   Consider LRT construction is not just a simple road construction or repaving project.  LRT construction on Broadway would require much longer road closures than just one month.

LRT SUPPORTER: Fact #10 – This is called traffic calming and is part of every LRT/metro scheme. Why spend money on transit, then cater to the auto?

OUR RESPONSE: Most of the City of Vancouver is already significantly and effectively traffic calmed due to large quantities of poorly timed traffic lights, poor pavement surfaces, lack of turning lanes, and large volumes of traffic on inadequate streets. We believe that there is absolutely no need to remove more capacity from our roads nor do we believe in adding more capacity to our roads.   Also, buses travel on these exactly same “traffic-calmed” roads.

LRT SUPPORTER: Fact #11 – The Hass-Klau studies found that the majority of ridership for transit comes from a 300 metre radius around each station or stop.

If you are using this as the source, then we find no clear indication of most riders coming from 300-metres around the station as there is no relationship between ridership and the ratio of population density of 300-metres or 600-metres (the table is on page 6 and 7 of the document).  Note that this is a comparison between light rail systems, not light rail vs metro.  Something that has not been included in discussions is the number of riders lost if the LRT takes twice as long to travel as SkyTrain.

LRT SUPPORTER: Fact #13 – Big myth here as LRT can be built as cheaply or as expensive as one wants it. In Spain a new LRT system system was built for under $8 million/km.! Over engineering drives up the cost of light-rail.

OUR RESPONSE: At $8-million per kilometre, this  tram line would be a barebone design running on a pre-existing right-of-way.   An LRT on Broadway will not be running on a pre-existing right-of-way and will require significant engineering and design features.

This further adds to our point in the beginning of this post of interchanging/cherry-picking favourable “LRT” and “tram” statistics due to the broad scopes of LRT/tram systems.

Unfortunately, all these examples of LRT at one-tenth of the cost of SkyTrain are mostly built along existing right-of-ways through suburbs, along highways, and rail lines.  This means that you would have to assume that the more accurate construction cost for Broadway would be the Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC) figure of about $43-million per kilometre, or about one-half of what SkyTrain costs.  However, keep in mind that the TTC’s proposal for their cross town line (just like Broadway) involved some tunneling and came up to 74million per km.

To build true LRT lines in the City of Vancouver where there is no pre-existing right-of-way would likely be a bare minimum of $40-50million per km.   The limited capacity and travel speed would remain.

LRT SUPPORTER: Fact # 19 – you forget that the huge annual subsidies and debt servicing charges for metro/subway constrain investment in the rest of the transit system. Today, SkyTrain is subsidized by over $200 million annually! As well, if one can build 3 or 4 LRT lines for the cost of one SkyTrain Line, one has 4 LRT lines with a potential capacity of over 80,000 pphpd compared with 1 SkyTrain line with a capacity of 20,000 pphpd.

OUR RESPONSE: The debt servicing cost is actually from the capital cost of the system spit into a year-by-year basis, as the provincial Ministry of Transportation (not Translink) needs to borrow to pay for the construction of the system.  The same cost (although in a slightly lesser amount) would also apply to LRT too.  So, saying the SkyTrain cost $200-million annually for debt servicing is the same as saying that it cost nothing to construct initially.  (As well, the Ministry and Translink own quite a bit more in assets than just SkyTrain, it is highly unlikelythe debt servicing for SkyTrain would be as high as $200-million per year).

To build four LRT lines with the same money, it will cost the same $200-million per year in debt servicing, plus more subsidy if the cost recovery is less than 100%.  (Unless it runs with frequency less than 10 or 15-min off-peak like C-Train, which is even less frequent than the busiest trolley bus routes in Vancouver.  Also, SkyTrain’s operational cost recovery for 2007 was 106%.)

As mentioned before, the SkyTrain construction debt is on the province’s books and not Translink’s.  The SkyTrain debt therefore has no impact on the level of service that Translink offers.

There is no reason to believe that the money saved by building LRT as opposed to SkyTrain would have been spent on LRT.  The province has a capital budget for each year and the following two years.  As LRT systems tend to get built one at a time, any money saved would probably been used for roads or some other capital project and not more LRT.  The evidence of this is that Calgary’s system is shorter than Vancouver’s in spite of them using LRT.

LRT SUPPORTER: Fact #20 – Sorry just not true! Calgary’s LRT line costs about 60% less to operate than the SkyTrain Expo Line. Driverless operation costs more to operate than LRT, unless traffic flows exceed 25,000 pphpd.

OUR RESPONE: Yet, SkyTrain operates at least 60% more frequent than the Calgary C-Train.   For each of the three lines of  the C-Train (the entire system except the downtown area), the frequency is 4-5min at peak, 10-min off-peak, 15-min late night, and 10-15min weekends.  Compare to SkyTrain’s Expo Line, which operates at intervals of 1.8-min at peak, 3min off-peak, 4min late night, and 3-4min weekend for most of the line.  The Millennium Line also operates at a higher frequency than the C-Train.

Higher SkyTrain operational costs can also be associated with providing commuters with a much faster, reliable, and convenient service than the C-Train.

LRT SUPPORTER: Fact #22 – Sorry to say, most of your information is about 3 decades out of date. Driverless automated light-metros fell out of favour in the late 80’s, made obsolete by LRT, that’s why no one buys SkyTrain!

OUR RESPONSE: Vancouver’s SkyTrain system was one of the pioneering automatic train control systems.   Despite your claims, many automatic systems have been built eversince the construction of the Expo Line in 1985.

Click here for a list of worldwide automated train systems:

Click here for a list of Bombardier ALRT systems (Vancouver SkyTrain technology):

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