This was quite a week transportation-wise. We are headed into a second week with snow and ice on the ground, and even more forecast tonight, and like many of you, this has messed with my plans.
Monday was a Council day, so I spent most of it inside not thinking about how frightful the weather was outside. Tuesday I faced transit delays on my way into work, and transit chaos in my way home, but I managed to get to the QRA meeting in Queensborough for the 7:00 start, only to find the meeting cancelled due to a power failure. Wednesday was a true “snow day” where I did some work from home, but mostly went out every couple of hours to shovel Kootenay-quality powder off of my walk and driveway. Thursday saw more transit delays with some sort of “power rail meltdown” on Skytrain. Today was slushy with promise of more to come, but was actually a seamless transit day both ways, though ridership was notably higher than usual, as I assume fewer people wanted to risk the still-wintery roads on bikes and in cars.
I love transit, and I rely on it. Though it arguably provided safer and more reliable service than driving in those weather conditions would have, this week got me thinking about the resiliency of the system. During snow events, trains run slightly less frequently (with staff on board to help manage the controls in case of a weather-induced track intrusion alarm), and there are some issues with how the automatic doors manage ice build up, but much of the overcrowding and delay was related to the system running at 110% during a normal rush hour, and 25% more people show up wanting a ride during a weather emergency. The system feels fragile: it is on edge and under pressure on the best of days, and quick to disappoint when conditions veer from nominal (in the NASA use of the adjective).
Strangely enough (and this is definitely anecdote, not data), all of my bus rides this week were uneventful and reliable, if sometimes a little more crowded than usual. I even made a strategic mistake in route planning one day, deciding to use Canada Line-SkyTrain instead of a bus-SkyTrain option that would have allowed me to skip the “trouble spot” on SkyTrain. Aside from the issues around keeping up with road clearing and our ongoing trouble with maintaining universal accessibility at bus stops during snow conditions, it is the distributed and flexible nature of the bus system that provides the resiliency to our transit system that the SkyTrian back bone sometimes fails to do.
The Skytrain system has grown remarkably in ridership over the last decade, as has always been the regional plan for transit-oriented development. But until recently, there was no money or political will to invest in making the system grow to match this increase. That has changed
when Jordan Bateman started stumping for contractors with new investments and proper funding of the Mayors 10-year plan, which includes significant SkyTrain capacity increases (bigger stations, new cars, reduced time between trains, etc.). But we are still playing catch-up, and I don’t think it is enough. Everyone is doing the best with the resources we have, but there is no escaping the simple math: the system is at capacity, ridership is exploding, we need more money to expand the system now, and we need consistent capital funding from senior governments to plan for future growth. That is the only way the system will become more resilient.
There is an ongoing discussion right now about the future of TransLink, and I (as always) have my own opinions about things like embracing-the-newest vs fixing-the-fundamentals spectra and the roles of different solutions, but I hope people who care enough to read this far in my post will go there and take part in the TransLink discussion.
I also hope as the Federal and Provincial governments continue discussions about spending billions on expanding road capacity on Highway 1, under the Fraser River, or even right here in our own neighbourhood, we can re-frame the discussion to talk about economic impacts of an unreliable transit system. The tunnel replacement and highway expansion is always talked about as an economic imperative – cars and trucks stuck in traffic are a negative cost. I argue that this picture right here shows the real economic backbone of the Province. 7.5% of the national GDP, almost half of the Provincial GDP is earned within 10km of this spot, and the real cost of congestion and traffic that looks like this is never accounted for:
But I want to say a couple of positive things about this week’s experiences in Snowmageddon.
I spent a lot of time this week on crowded platforms, stuffed cheek-to-jowl on lurching trains, and lamenting on Social Media about it all, but I have to say the human experience of it was way more positive than you experience when an accident on a bridge causes traffic chaos in the adjacent neighbourhoods. We’ve all seen the cursing, honking, banging-steering-wheel impotent anger of people trapped in traffic gridlock, some of us may have even felt it at some time. But my experience in the Skytrain mob was not like that at all, There were some long sighs, a muttered curse here and there, but it was mostly concert eye-rolling and “we are all in this together” comradery. And it is amazing how diffusing that energy is. The few times I was starting to feel a little hot under the collar because I-am-going-to-miss-my-important-meeting-I-am-an-important-person stress hormones or whatever, the feeling that we were all in the same boat, and the many lame humour attempts by my fellow straphangers got me out of my own head, and out of my own ass, and into the shared reality. Transit is a community that way. Beats the hell out of traffic on the worst day.
The real local positive this week was that the QtoQ Ferry ran pretty much as scheduled, and had a lot of new riders. As repeated snow-ice cycles made it hard for our road crews to keep up with Primary route clearing, never mind Secondary routes and local roads, a lot of people on the east end of Queensborough found the QtoQ to be a better alternative than to drive on snowy/icy roads and taking a chance on traffic chaos around the bridge. This itself speaks a bit to resiliency. A robust transportation system needs to provide alternatives, and the QtoQ is one of those “niche” solutions that takes the pressure of the entire system. I hope folks at TransLink see this story, and see in it the value of integrating more flexible solutions to local transportation needs (cough cough Gondolas cough).