Counting wrong

By Gene Miller, July 2011

Is a billion-dollar LRT for the Langford-Downtown corridor the best way to solve a $25 million problem?

I have the pleasure of introducing you to the exquisite Italian fashion model, Bianca Balti. Can you imagine your life if you were involved with her romantically? Or if you were her best friend, with benefits? Your life would be perfected, a dream, right? You would feel youthful, alive. You would always be happy. Could she be stupid and nasty? Could her appetites put a big hole in your bank account? Don’t be silly! Your very existence would be perfumed and your entire life would be a dance in the air. Days would be tropically warm, evenings molten. You would sail on rails of silk past the traffic gridlock on the Island Highway between Millstream and downtown.

Poof!

What the hell was that? That was the sound of reality finding a parking spot—a not un-apt image for the subject of this piece: the steadily quickening dream of light rail transit in the Capital Region.

Media has been flogging the light rail story and the blogosphere has been alight for a few months, ever since BC Transit released news of its considered preference for light rail over a bus option as a response to mobility challenges (and opportunities) between WestShore  and the downtown core. 

Bianca BaltiIf this piece on light rail transit begins with the image of a distractingly beautiful woman, it’s because there is a not dissimilar cloud of projection and fantasy around light rail: it’s easy to be dazzled by rail enthusiasts whose expectations approach the Catholic belief in transubstantiation; by complex social semeiotics and the perceived ‘sexiness’ of light rail; and by studies, data and analyses that can get your toes tapping during an initial read, but which raise as many questions as they answer once the buzz wears off.

 

Yes we can’t

Light rail, by some accounts, has the power to do everything including raise the dead. It will whisk people quickly and pleasurably between WestShore and Downtown (with some key stops in between). It will trigger economic re-animation by inspiring new density around the ‘nodes’ of station stops. It will get everyone out of their cars, reducing fuel consumption and countering global warming. It will end the crush of slow-moving or standstill traffic on rush-hour arteries. Plus it’s a progressive crowd-pleaser (who’s not a progressive?) and so twenty-first century.

In such a jumped-up atmosphere, it becomes difficult to understand exactly what job or jobs light rail is meant to do, and equally difficult to make an objective or informed judgment about value for money.

Ballparked to cost about $950 million (the always dodgy ‘$9.99’ of infrastructure cost-estimating), the system is being floated for shared (presumably one-third) funding by the feds (taxpayers), the province (taxpayers) and the CRD (that is, the CRD’s municipal constituents)(that is, the taxpayers).

Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard is a man with a public persona so reasonable and placid that I’m convinced he goes home and kicks the dog, or re-enacts famous train wrecks in his basement, or has some other unspeakable emotional outlet. I mean, there he was, mid-May, prudently and all-too-temperately suggesting that maybe the idea of public spending on light rail be put to a non-binding plebiscite when people go to the polls this November, instead of shrieking: “Are you insane? “Are you out of your effing mind about loading homeowners with another $250+/year on their property taxes, and commercial property owners (read: commercial tenants) with five times the current transit levy?” 

The outburst is fictional, but the fact is that he stands alone amongst regional politicians in questioning the cost-benefits of LRT. His call for public temperature-taking this fall is intended to…what? Measure public appetite? Stall? Slow the momentum behind the push for LRT? Give people time to study the facts and sober up?

Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin, while echoing Leonard’s call for a plebiscite, clearly laid out his transit preferences: “I would be quite happy to get out there and campaign in behalf of the yes.” 

 

Transportation science or woo-woo?

If you were looking for a knowledgeable, Smart Growth-oriented transportation expert, and a champion of diverse mobility options to serve the community’s needs and provide travel choices, you would have to go no further that Victoria’s Todd Litman, founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, a research organization and think tank dedicated to the analytical study of transportation and mobility policy choices and impacts. 

Over coffee in late May, I ask Litman to frame the broader context for LRT in Victoria. More than once during our conversation, he returns to the cautionary thought: “You have to be careful how you define the problem. Will LRT ‘cure’ traffic congestion? No,” he says, and adds that LRT may offer an appealing alternative to car commuting for some small slice of the traveling public. 

It’s his view as well that the business case for LRT rests significantly on the potential longer-term benefits tied to evolving land use. That is, there is an expectation among planning professionals that greater residential densities will spring up around LRT stations, generating increased economic activity, raising land values, and making those populations somewhat less car-and-energy-dependent. Litman is fairly direct in claiming that the only way to justify the capital costs of LRT is by calculating such ‘externalities’ as these.  I ask him coincidentally to make a distinction between LRT and busway options. He acknowledges the difference in capital cost (BRT is cheaper) but minimizes the operating distinction, suggesting the differences on the results side are not that great.

 

Who wants to ride the ‘loser cruiser?’

But warming to the subject of bus transit as it exists now, Litman observes: “Waiting conditions are key. BC Transit needs to stop thinking like engineers…needs to take more of a marketing and customer service approach.”  He begins to tick off the amenity improvements that could and, in his view, should be made: more, and more comfortable and attractive bus shelters; digital read-outs at stops so passengers know how soon the next bus will arrive; a universal swipe card for fares; cupholders, so you can bring your latte on-board; improved frequency and guaranteed seats (no standing) for commuter runs; high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes for higher rush-hour speeds; sexier-looking buses with more comfortable seats (no sardine seating) and more amenities like wi-fi…. The list goes on. 

Such ideas do raise provocative questions and issues. Why are so many features—the so-called ‘service continuum’—of bus transit designed to reinforce the idea that public transit is a second-class travel option, that the only people who take the bus are ‘losers’ who can’t access a private vehicle—the young, the old, the poor? Why—as transit attempts to rise to the provincial challenge of expanding ridership and doubling travel share—does the system put so many practical and psychological obstacles in the way of enjoyable bus travel? Why have things been designed so that a billion-dollar train between Langford and Downtown seems like an inevitability? Consider the potential bus-user’s thought balloon: “I have to stand in the drizzle or drag myself an extra six blocks to a more distant sheltered bus stop. I have to freeze my ass off for six months of the year. I have to guess/hope the next bus will be here quickly. I’m stuck on this vehicle whose physical presence owes more to penitentiary design than riding pleasure. It’s a crapshoot whether I get a seat. What have I done wrong that I don’t deserve any comfort or amenities? Why do I do this? What’s the matter with me? I hate my life!”

Hint to BC Transit: This is not the secret formula for increasing market share.

Chris Corps, Principal of Asset Strategics, a Victoria-based chartered surveyor and the former President of Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Canada, directs me to a US General Accounting Office 60-pager produced in 2001, comparing bus and commuter rail service: 

“While transit officials noted a public bias toward Light Rail, research has found that riders have no preference for rail over bus when service characteristics are equal.

“While environmental benefits have helped justify Light Rail systems, the gap in environmental benefits between rail and buses may be narrowing. FTA and bus manufacturers have focused on improving the design of buses not just to increase their attractiveness, but also to reduce their noise levels and emissions.”

 

Victoria’s ‘rush minute’

It’s interesting to consider how these grandiose infrastructure ideas take hold and how, unwittingly, they can produce weapons of mass transit, when a flyswatter is called for. If you want to understand, in part, BC Transit’s thought process and how it came to the conclusion that light rail was the way to go, this excerpt from BC Transit’s recent Victoria Rapid Transit Work Plan will help:

“In January 2008, the BC Government released the Provincial Transit Plan (PTP) committing $14 billion for transit projects throughout BC between now and 2020. This plan is focused on expanding fast, reliable, green transit and calls for a doubling of transit ridership, increased mode share and expanded accessible services in British Columbia. The accelerated implementation of transit in this provincial plan presented the opportunity and impetus to undertake a more detailed regional study and advance a full rapid transit network plan with a target of finalizing a recommendation to proceed with a downtown Victoria to Westshore rapid transit link as the first phase. Therefore, the Douglas Street Busway project has been put on hold.”

 

Intermission

Let’s take a break from this earnest subject and give ourselves a bit of a palate cleanser before we plunge back into the transit story. 

It’s almost “Jim Who?” here in Victoria. That’s how long it has been since the febrile and enterprising mind of Jim Hartshorne has prospected for development opportunities in the core area; but us oldtimers can remember when his name was scrawled next to an extraordinary percentage of core area development—condo blocks, commercial strips, ‘care-aminiums’—in Victoria and Saanich. 

So where’s Jimmy now? Well, he’s working for his longstanding local patrons, near-billionaire brothers Reg and Roy Stewart, as the development manager for Westhills, adjacent to Langford Lake—an emerging community of 6,000 homes and, in due course, a million square feet of commercial. (For reference, 6,000 homes would produce a population roughly equivalent to that of James Bay.)

Jim has moved his own office out that way and I gather he’s having a heluva good time with the Westhills project, remarking here and there that he will be chasing every attractive, viable downtown retail, service and office business he can, hoping to convince them to move to Westhills as the development’s commercial component kicks in.

And in a parallel story, you caught the news that Cineplex Odeon is mid-construction on a new 7-theatre installation in the Langford shopping nexus? State-of-the-art. Along with Fright Night 14: Revenge of the Hypoglycemic, they’ll be hosting live simulcasts of the New York Metropolitan Opera and other high-concept fare for the Westshore culturati. Not too shabby for the back of beyond, huh? A decade ago, culture in Langford was demolition derbies. Look at the place now!

Makes me wonder how long it’ll be before Westshore, appropriating more and more of the regional economy, starts to claim a share of provincial offices. It would mean more hell for the Victoria economy but, ironically, it would take some people off the commuter hamster wheel.

Now, back to transit.

 

Somewhere over the trainbow…

A cheerful and forthcoming BC Transit representative, Erinn Pinkerton, spoke in early June to a large, interested UDI (Urban Development Institute) luncheon audience about the recent history leading up to the decision to go with the light rail option between the urban core and Langford. As bar graphs and pie charts flew by on the screen, Pinkerton narrated the wandering, multi-year history of regional transit decision-making, leading to the selection of LRT as the preferred choice.

Fielding questions at the end of her presentation, Pinkerton volunteered that in some future “Year One,” ridership on the LRT is projected to be 7 million. BC Transit says current annual bus ridership in this corridor is 4.5 million. If everyone who is now taking the bus shifts to LRT, then Pinkerton is counting on 2.5 million rides materializing from...where?

Well, her hope is that they come from two sources: people who don’t yet live in WestShore but who will choose the LRT once they get there, and people currently driving cars and trucks through the corridor. If BC Transit could find those 2.5 million new rides, what would it look like in terms of relieving congestion? For example, how many cars would the LRT remove from the evening Colwood Crawl? Let’s do a little napkin math.

BC Transit is assuming that 60 percent of new riders will come from population growth and 40 percent will come from people shifting from cars and trucks to LRT, thereby getting out of the Colwood Crawl. Forty percent of 2.5 million rides is 1 million. Since these are two-way trips, that works out to 500,000 roundtrips each year.

Dividing that by 300 days of the year (that’s how BC Transit does it), we get 1667 actual riders. That’s how many cars we would be removing, in total. But not all of these riders will be using the LRT during the evening rush. CRD traffic studies show that 28 percent of daily traffic occurs during the 3-hour evening rush. That means that of those 1667 daily riders, only 470 are likely to ride sometime during the three-hour rush.

So, in “Year One,” using the best assumptions available to us—courtesy of BC Transit— we calculate that LRT is likely to take only 470 vehicles off the Island Highway for the full three-hour evening rush. 

Turning our napkin over and dividing our capital investment of $950,000,000 by those 470 vehicles, we come to the jolting conclusion that, with LRT, we are going to spend roughly $2 million per vehicle removed to ease traffic congestion to WestShore. Slightly.

Hmmmmmmm.

 

LRT Ridership Scenarios—WestShore to Victoria

Loss leader, anyone? Consider the IKEA 50-cent hot dog

A confession: When I’m on a Vancouver day-trip, and if time permits, I will detour off Highway 99 and make my way to IKEA just to buy two hot dogs for a dollar. The idea of saving four bucks or thereabouts is so compelling that I can’t resist. I’m a slave emancipated by a bargain. Gene 1, IKEA 0! Put it to the Swedes! Oh, and maybe since I’m there, I’ll pick up a dozen Snitt wineglasses and a Snott closet organizer and a Snort magnetic knife holder….

If we went with Todd Litman’s idea of snazzier buses with wi-fi and all the other service goodies including an on-board restroom and complimentary coffee, tea or juice (hell, throw in a muffin), coupled to HOV lane restriction for greater bus speed, might we attract another thousand riders? What would that cost all-in (new vehicles, road improvements, etc.)—$25 million, covering vehicle lifecycle capital costs and operating deficit?

Executive commuter bus

Alternatively—since Erinn Pinkerton indicated that there is already a healthy carpool culture on this commuter route, how about if we paid for gas or in some other clever way rewarded new recruits to the world of carpooling? I’m guessing wildly that we could do that for $2 million a year, or less, and remove roughly the same number of cars from the road as LRT. Or we could do both of these—upgraded express bus and carpool incentives—together, and simultaneously increase transit ridership, reduce highway volumes, and achieve beneficial environmental outcomes.

Or we could tackle the peak period problem at its source and create a Langford office centre for government workers who don’t need to be physically present downtown. One thousand workers times 300 square feet equals two 12-storey office buildings. (Sounds like Westhills would love to step up.)

Is there any possibility that light rail poses a billion-dollar solution to a roughly $25 million problem?

 

Fixed rail, fluid destinations and the deceiver blob

On its website, BC Transit has a graphic image of the Capital Region filled with flow lines of various colours and circular blobs representing origin points and destinations. The only thing such a graphic overlooks is reality. People don’t travel from or to a blob. They travel from 947 Turnstone Drive in Langford to a medical secretary’s job at a walk-in clinic on the corner of North Dairy and Shelbourne; and while they may hate the Colwood crawl, a commute involving car or bus to LRT station, light rail to a Hillside Avenue stop, bus to the Hillside Shopping Centre, and a walk to the office is not likely to become the travel mode of choice. 

And there are similar uncertainties with BC Transit’s base numbers. While it’s easy to think of those numbers as a statistical portrait of the river of Westshore-downtown morning or afternoon rush-hour traffic, nothing could be less true. The real model is a distributed one, with vehicular traffic originating from a wide geography across the Westshore and even north of the Malahat, and peeling off to a hundred destinations fanned across another enormous geography stretching from the airport to the university to Downtown to Naden in Esquimalt. Presumably, much of this, under a light rail regime, would involve transferring from light rail to the finer grain of the existing bus system, implying waits and lost time, and a loss of convenience for travelers. Weighing comparable all-in travel times by transit or car, and a comfort and convenience factor, might the commuter be pardoned for choosing his or her own car, even with the annoyances of peak-time slowdowns?

 

Innovation bankruptcy: if BC Transit was BC Mobility…

Read and weep: "Power companies in Britain have been required to progressively reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and this year 68 percent of that reduction had to come from subsidizing professionally installed insulation in customers’ homes. Low-income and elderly customers got the home improvements for free. Others paid less that $1,000 to insulate a four-bedroom home, the full cost subsidized 40 to 60 percent. Residents recouped their investment in 12 to 18 months as fuel bills after insulation typically decreased 20 to 30 percent." (NY Times, June 8, 2011) 

Other British initiatives include payments to homeowners who generate electricity and heat with renewable power.

I mean, BC Transit could give a thousand people a new deluxe barbecue, or a mountain bike, or a $500 food credit at the Superstore as an inducement to enter a carpool or an express bus system; or free, introductory fare for six months…at an annual cost of $500,000. It could double the incentive or the number of enrollees, and still just spend a million. It could do that for the next 950 years for the price of a Langford-Downtown LRT. Of course, BC Transit is not mandated to give people bribes—sorry, incentives—to take the bus, but the corporation could make dramatic improvements to the existing bus system and transit-way to directly influence travel consumer choices and achieve the same beneficial outcomes. And really, isn’t LRT something of an expensive bribe?

 

Touching the “third rail” of progressive sensibility

Folks for whom the ecological agenda is paramount see in light rail the promise of a cleaner, greener, cooler world; and see the rejection of light rail as a blow to the ecological agenda and a victory for the troglodytes. I have enormous sympathy for these views. The world’s going to hell, and it would be unconscionable to mock or criticize people who have dedicated their lives to changing our suicidal behaviour. But even if it’s a holy war, specific practices and choices need to be scrutinized, and need to pass muster.

There is also financial ecology. Every regional or municipal expenditure forecloses on other expenditures or investments, so it becomes important to consider ecological value for money spent. And with bang for the buck it doesn’t matter whether you favour the hundred-mile diet or 100mph at NASCAR—we’re all citizens and taxpayers. Here’s an excerpt from a World Resources Institute report in Grist online:

“Another exciting possibility for cities [trying to manage greenhouse gases] lies in bus rapid transit (BRT). Cities are installing these systems because they bring reductions in cost, commuting time, and traffic, among other reasons. But another co-benefit of BRTs is the reduced emissions.

“BRT installation is accelerating at a tremendous pace. Around 120 cities now have BRT systems or bus corridors, and the vast majority of them were constructed in the last 10 years. Interestingly, most cities embracing BRTs are in the developing world, where they have proven a less costly alternative to light rail.”

 

So why, exactly, is light rail the right choice for Victoria?

Isn’t it ultimately ecological to seek solutions scaled to the size of the problem? I mean, if a $950,000,000 capital expenditure will only remove several hundred cars from the highway system, doesn’t that create an obligation for us as a regional community and for the agencies that serve us to innovate, to find a solution at least as good, and much cheaper? 

 

A date with the data

One of the most interesting aspects of preparing this piece has been a review of online sources reporting on, analyzing, discussing every conceivable aspect of transit systems—individually and comparatively; in Canada, the U.S. and globally; now, then and projectively; from an engineering, financial, energy, ecological or ideological perspective. I have reviewed more than two hundred documents and, hoping for the reader’s trust on this, my conclusions are that the data can be spun to produce any outcome you favour, and that it is impossible to make an objective, hands-down case for LRT over other transit options.

 

The bus stops here. And here. And here

There is concurrence on one point, though. Urban geographies have become highly ‘distributed’ and multi-nodal, and linear or radial transportation systems based on an outdated image of the city and the moribund idea of downtown as the commercial, office and even cultural centre of a region—the place everybody goes to for work, shopping and fun—are fighting a risky, possibly a losing, battle. People want to ‘get where they’re going.’ Their daily lives are cluttered with multiple demands spread across a large urban geography and can only be effectively met with a highly adaptive, responsive and convenient mobility system. 

 

Welcome to the car.

Transit systems compete with this reality and, in my view, the more car-like they can be, the better they will do. This has largely to do with service, convenience, amenities and speed; and long before agreeing to astronomical transportation investments, this regional community might reasonably ask BC Transit to maximize the potentials of the existing bus system.  

 

The biggest externality of all: The Future

Read the news today? Oh boy! Two recent news pieces on Huffington Post caught my attention—this:

“Responding to the possibility of a ‘double dip’ recession, Robert Shiller, co-founder of the U.S.-based Case-Shiller Home Price Index noted in a recent interview that he wouldn’t be surprised to see U.S. home prices fall by another 25 percent during a slide over the next 20 years.”

And this:

“Exhausted by the political stalemate over the sputtering U.S. economy Democrats and Republicans have been reduced to magical thinking, hoping that things will eventually get better by themselves. But time isn't on America’s side. The country is suffering its highest average duration of unemployment since at least 1948. ‘The longer this goes on, the greater the danger that the cyclical downturn becomes structural. People and things that lie idle start to lose their productive value. Then you’re into all sorts of troubles,’ says Karen Ward, senior global economist at HSBC Holdings in London.”

When I consider the economic, environmental and social roller coaster we’re all riding these days, and add that to the bill for the new sewage system and other infrastructure commitments current and pending, and to municipal tax bills that are going up by significant increments, and to declining municipal reserves, I think: wouldn’t this be the perfect time for regional politicians and community-serving utilities to hedge bets, stay lean and innovate brilliantly, not expensively?

 

Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.