Dec 07 2009

A Transit Wasteland Built on Lies

Sometimes, to really appreciate what we’ve got here in Vancouver, you have to go to some distant hell-hole to see how badly other human beings have really messed things up.

In my latest Cityview column for Granville Magazine, I decided to take the “shooting-ducks-in-a-barrel” approach and looked at the awful state of public transit in Los Angeles. As I noted on a recent trip, the car-clogged freeways of that part of the American nation are a testament to bad planning predicated on an unsustainable assumption (a lie, really) of long-term access to cheap energy.

Los Angeles has invested billions of dollars to pick away at the problem with subway lines and new clean-energy buses. But the fact is that despite these efforts, transit ridership on the whole hasn’t moved in decades.

One can no more fix Los Angeles’ traffic issues with transit than you could fix a badly infected broken arm with a band-aid. There’s just too much of a legacy of expensive road infrastructure to maintain and a persistent attitude among the locals that they are “entitled” to their cars — and the “loser cruiser” is for the poor (This attitude contrasts not just with Vancouver but L.A.’s polar opposite, New York City, where Wall Street traders in suits and briefcases rub shoulders with working class Joes on the packed subways).

My look at Los Angeles certainly wasn’t meant to slag our American cousins. We certainly have our own mutated versions of this unsustainable model: Calgary and most other prairie cities, have spread out in the absence of natural geographic limits to growth, taking on all the unfavorable characteristics of “Edge cities” — lacking distinct neighborhoods, utterly dependent on ring roads and freeways, and ineffective mass transit.

The question is what these cities will do with all of this legacy of expensive, unsustainable infrastructure. Will taxpayers simply keep on subsidizing these urban disasters? Will these urban wastelands just be abandoned (or at least vastly depopulated) a few decades from now? I expect both of these things to happen in succession. The only question is how much longer taxpayers are willing to put up with subsidizing failure.

Recommended reading: I’ve seen one possible future for Vancouver and it’s scary

Also: Calgary Transit Sucks

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4 responses so far

4 Responses to “A Transit Wasteland Built on Lies”

  1. NeilDon 07 Dec 2009 at 11:52 am

    My wife and I were visiting her brother in Vancouver last week and also my sister on Vancouver Island and her brother, a city planner with the city and an avid bicyclist, took us on buses, ferries and the new subway system and we were impressed.

    On the way back home we left Departure Bay on Vancouver Island at 12:15PM, caught a North Van express bus across the Lion’s Gate Bridge at 2:30 and finally the Canada Line downtown to the airport in plenty of time to check in for our 4:30 flight home.
    Planes, trains and auto…. oops, buses. No automobiles until we got back to Toronto.
    The fare from the North Vancouver ferry terminal to the airport was only $2.50 apiece.
    Toronto Transit Commission should take note.

    BTW, sorry for taking the balmy weather with us when we left.

  2. Stephen Reeson 07 Dec 2009 at 1:31 pm

    You are measuring the wrong indicator. Transit ridership is meaningless without context. Transit ridership in Vancouver may have increased – but arguably has not seen much “improvement” since mode share is almost static. In other words, when trip making in general is increasing – due in part to population growth but also increased car usage – rising transit ridership simply means we may only be standing still and not getting much better.

    Greater Vancouver has seen a transit mode share of around 11% for the last fifteen years and has risen hardly at all in that time. Note that I am talking about all trip purposes across the whole of the region. The target set by Transport 2021 (part of the LRSP) was 17% by now. Transit cheer leaders tend to pick more favourable indicators – like journey to work in the City of Vancouver. Transit mode share in cities like Surrey is down at 4% and will not change any time soon because money that should be going to transit is being spent on freeways.

    Doing better than LA is a pretty low target to hit. We should be trying to emulate a city of similar size and topography – Zurich for instance.

  3. jnarveyon 07 Dec 2009 at 1:49 pm

    Hey Stephen. I agree LA was a low target — hence my “shooting ducks in a barrel” analogy. And I absolutely agree that a comparison with a city with a working transit system is needed.

    But at the same time, I thought it could at least provide some entertainment value and perspective on the “motor city” model (certainly not limited to L.A. — in fact there are few American cities that were spared this paradigm) that Vancouver thankfully avoided.

    I also agree that we need to pay attention to mode shares as well. But the point in looking at L.A. is to notice that when population numbers start going off the charts, even when percentages of ridership creep up (and in L.A., the opposite is taking place), a city can get stuck with insurmountable problems. Which leads to an interesting question — is there an optimal size for cities as a general rule, or at least a population level that is no longer sustainable no matter how much expert planning and resources you throw at the problem?

  4. real conservativeon 07 Dec 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Transit is a big issue here in Toronto too. The video hits a lot of the big issues on the head and was well done overall. Riding the bus is frankly seen as the domain of the loser, no matter how you look at it. Transit is acceptable if you live within walking distance of the subway, thus high priced real estate in those locales. But, it is slower, nobody rides the transit thinking they can save time, except during the snowstorm and taking the subway downtown, one of the rare times that Transit easily beats the competition. That is the rub, how much to charge vs the inconvenience you must accept? For many riders there is no choice, the auto is out of question for many reasons, and for another group it is a choice based on ‘what else can I do with those saved $100s each month?’ I would pay double what I pay now for transit if it was really good, can they get to that point? I don’t know, but transit goes up anyways like union wages go up every year.

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