PHOTO: Accident blocks LRT in Toronto (this is what Surrey wants)

We would like to share this hilarious image portraying the effects of a single blockage of light rail tracks in Toronto.  The streetcars are lined up in front of a broken-down car.

Tram block in Toronto

Tram block in Toronto

The tracks prevent the many streetcars from moving around this broken vehicle.  While track blockages are a reliability problem faced by all rail systems, the risk can be exacerbated for light rail systems that are placed in risky on-street rights-of-way, as there may be several vehicle and pedestrian crossings that serve as possible conflicts.

The City of Surrey has planned to build light rail in a similar way.  Apparently, the image above is what Surrey wants.

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Streetcars worsen mobility

We would like to share a posting on the Human Transit blog that debated claims that streetcars would be more appropriate for Vancouver and provide mobility benefits for a lower price.  The post concerns the effects of streetcars (i.e. a type of light rail implementation – comparable to buses on tracks) on per-corridor mobility and points out well how there might not be any mobility benefit in the end.

From Jarrett Walker’s “Human Transit” blog,

Of course, that doesn’t matter to Condon*, because to him, speed isn’t the point. He points specifically to the redevelopment outcomes of the Portland Streetcar, just as many Portland commenters on my first streetcar post did.  If turning buses into streetcars causes all those streets to redevelop, with dramatically higher and yet walkable density, wouldn’t that be a good thing?   That wouldn’t improve mobility, but it would improve access.  We wouldn’t have to go as far to do things, because everything would be closer.

Yes, but Condon needs you to believe that (a) such redevelopment won’t happen anyway and (b) no such redevelopment will happen if we just keep improving the already-intensive bus system while adding one or two rapid transit lines.  The reason streetcars currently trigger investment is that the rails in the street symbolize mobility.  The development happens not just because of what will be in walking distance, but because the rails in the street suggest you’ll be able to get to lots of places easily by rail.  So rails in the street create redevelopment, which improves access.  But they do that by offering an appearance of mobility.  That may not be the same as actual mobility; in fact, it might be the opposite.

Let’s imagine 41st Avenue** 20 years from now in a Condonian future.  A frequent streetcar does what the buses used to do, but because it stops every 2-3 blocks, and therefore runs slowly, UBC students who need to go long distances across the city have screamed until the transit agency, TransLink, has put back a limited-stop or “B-Line” bus on the same street.  (Over the 20 years, TransLink has continued to upgrade its B-Line bus product.  For example, drivers no longer do fare collection, so you can board and alight at any door, making for much faster service. Bus interiors and features are also identical to what you’d find on streetcars, just as they are in many European cities.)

Suddenly, people who’ve bought apartments on 41st Avenue, and paid extra for them because of the rails in the street, start noticing that fast, crowded buses are passing the streetcars.  They love the streetcars when they’re out for pleasure.  But people have jobs and families.  When they need to get to a meeting on which their career depends, or get home to their sick child, they’ll take the fast bus, and the streetcar’s appearance of offering mobility will be revealed for what it is, an appearance.

Now, when we’re talking about what drives real estate markets, and hence redevelopment, it’s called “speculation” for a reason.   We’re all speculating.  I speculate that the current ability of streetcars to generate redevelopment, compared to what excellent bus service can do, will diminish as it becomes more and more obvious that buses often run faster and more reliably than streetcars in many real-world situations, particularly on busy urban arterial streets where the ability to change lanes is often crucial to getting through the complex patterns of traffic.

In fact, the scenario I just described on 41st Avenue is not all that different from the changes that led to the first demise of streetcars, in the mid-20th century.  Condon, like many, argues that introducing streetcars is a return to something that worked well in the past, so the idea seems like a logical extension of today’s “neo-traditional” concepts of good town planning.  But as this marvelous 1906 video shows, streetcars worked well around 1900 because there were very few cars or buses.  Not much got in the way of a streetcar, and no competing transit service could run faster than it did.  That’s not the reality of the 21st century street.  And however much we wish it wasn’t so, we choose our transportation mode from among the available alternatives, so a solution that worked when there were fewer alternatives may not work as well now.

  • * Condon, Patrick – a UBC professor of landscape architecture, the person who Human Transit blog writer Jarrett Walker is debating.  He has been known to misuse the facts by applying broad-spectrum light rail values to comparisons against SkyTrain, once claiming very wrongly that SkyTrain implementations cost at least $200 million per km (when looks at historical values prove actual implementations costs to be just 1/3rd of that for an elevated line).
  • ** 41st Avenue – a major east-west corridor in Vancouver, running roughly in between Joyce-Collingwood SkyTrain station, Oakridge Mall and SkyTrain station, and UBC

Read the full blog post at [CLICK HERE]

Streetcars in a public square in Istanbul, Turkey.  Notice  how they cannot operate so well.  Today is 2012, not 1912.  The modern street has changed drastically.

Streetcars in a public square in Istanbul, Turkey. Notice how they cannot operate so well in this environment - pedestrians and vehicles stand in the way. Today is 2012, not 1912. The modern street has changed drastically.

Streetcars that replace local bus service must stop at all the locations of the previous bus service to be as effective as such, thus providing no mobility benefit – although they may provide a small capacity benefit (longer vehicles could operate safely) and the appearance of mobility, such that could easily be just as well provided by intermixing express limited-stop alongside localized bus services on the same corridor, servicing parallel corridors, at the avoidance of capital costs such as expensive street-scaping and widening that may impact properties in order to maintain rail tracks, adequate road capacity and station platforms on one corridor.

There is an interesting way that this argument applies to Surrey.  Early plans are indicating a possibility of Light Rail/streetcar service on 104th Avenue linking Surrey Central and Guildford.  One of the key concepts is that the implementation will reduce the lane count on this essential city corridor to a single lane per direction.

This may require the force removal of 104th ave as a major essential truck route, force extra investments into expensive upgrades of 108th and 100th Ave to handle offloaded capacity (that may drive the end-cost of implementation above that of SkyTrain), and also force the removal of nearly all parallel bus service due to congestion.  Thus increasing travel times for nearly all Guildford-Surrey Central travellers except perhaps those travelling directly from station to station, and worsening mobility.

Where there could be opportunities to provide express bus service that may be able to travel faster in such situations, those opportunities would simply not exist in this one and primarily due to the reduction in road capacity – buses must continue to run on the shared traffic lanes.  There would be no on-this-corridor opportunity to correct this worsening of mobility.  This would impact several commuters – particularly those from Fraser Heights, who already enjoy transfer-less express non-stop bus service (TransLink Route 337) between Fraser Heights and Surrey Central SkyTrain station.  Travel times would worsen vs current service with the transfer requirement onto light rail as well as the fact that it is not a non-stop service.  This may attract more Fraser Heights commuters back to driving, as they may be able to find grace on the alternate corridors of 100th and 108th Avenues.

For Fraser Heights travellers into the Metro Vancouver area (as opposed to Surrey and area), the light rail line would simply no longer be a feasible option in any respect.  Travellers from that neighbourhood could see travel time benefits regained from making use of the Highway 1 RapidBus service from 156th Street to Lougheed Town Centre via Highway 1 as opposed to bus + light rail through to Surrey Central Station – furthermore reducing the ridership potential of the light rail service by being, on its own, a better and faster service.

SkyTrain implementations will overcome this by providing move frequent service that will handle bus-to-rail transfers with more ease than light rail and travelling at a speed that is faster than the 60km/h on city streets – which makes up for any stop requirements along the route.

Streetcars remain competitive in places like Europe due to the different nature of streets and urban design.

Streetcar-like implementations (which are probably closer to larger light rail implementations, by definition) remain competitive in places like Dublin, Ireland in Europe due to the different nature of streets and urban design.

There has been some limited talk of support for a local streetcar/tram-type LRT (as opposed to the somewhat more rapid, segregated-corridor LRT implementations that TransLink has been studying) network by some groups and individuals in Surrey.

Unfortunately what those people do not realize is that such a network cannot be feasible.  Conditions in Surrey are not in the least bit like conditions in cities that may still maintain streetcar networks, i.e. several in Europe.  In a city that is one of the fastest growing in Canada, where densities may be lower and travel times are expected to be, and where mobility benefits are still strongly needed and expected, you cannot afford to make a large investment into a system that will not provide a mobility benefit, and perhaps reduce transportation capacity all over the city.