Study: Trams better than Skytrain

The study concludes that, based on the three sustainability criteria, reducing trip length, greenhouse gas reduction, and life-cycle cost, trams represent a better investment than SkyTrain for the future expansion of Vancouver’s public transit network.

As North American governments struggle to try to rescue an auto industry ailing from serious miscalculations over recent years about public attitudes and behaviour driven by energy costs around efficient and desirable transportation choices, we need to ensure that the decisions governments make about alternative transportation systems are smart ones.

We can’t afford costly miscalculations or misguided decision-making when it comes to planning and building the public transit systems that offer the future alternatives of choice in a world of peak oil production and climate change.

We know that public transit accessibility enables more compact, vibrant, livable and economic communities. We don’t often measure the costs associated from moving within our daily travel sphere, but personal transportation costs are a huge contributor to our overall cost of living. Location efficiency is often a factor we ignore in deciding where we choose to live — a crucial overlooked factor.

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The future of our homes, neighbourhood and cities depends on how smart we are when it comes to planning and building new urban transit systems to expand what is a pretty limited existing public transit system in Metro Vancouver.

A recent University of B.C. study reminds us that our current generation will determine, by our choices, what the Vancouver region, now home for two million residents, will be like when it contains four million people.

Prof. Patrick Condon and his colleagues at UBC’s Design Centre for Sustainability point to how the decisions that are made today about our investment in public transit will in many ways determine how sustainable the Metro Vancouver region will be in the future.

The study evaluates a number of urban transit system options, including high-speed rapid rail transit systems like our mostly elevated SkyTrain, modern tram systems operating in street right-of-ways and bus systems, and trams like the new tram system in Portland, to determine which are most sustainable. The measure of sustainability is based largely on the optimal relationship between the way we plan and build our communities — our land use patterns –and the way we will need to move about urban areas using public transit.

Many metropolitan regions, including Metro Vancouver, have opted largely for transit systems optimized to serve the long high-speed commute trip at the expense of local service. Billions of dollars have been spent to expand a 25-year-old SkyTrain system and billions more could be on the table for future expansions, including the extension of the Millennium Line along Broadway, perhaps as far west as UBC.

Many transportation planners argue in favor of systems that perform better locally but have the slower travelling speeds more suited to shorter trips.

Condon’s study reminds us that shorter trips are better than longer trips simply because moving people requires energy. Even in public transit vehicles more energy is consumed the further people have to travel.

Traditional “streetcar neighbourhoods” that characterize most Vancouver districts built before the 1950s — Broadway, West 16th Avenue, Granville Street, Main Street, Fraser Street and Commercial Drive — generally encourage shorter trip length due to their close proximity of activities, their finer-grained mix of land uses and their grid-like street networks.

The average trip length in a personal automobile in Vancouver is around 12 kilometres. Trip-length averages across North America were found to be 6.3 kilometres for local buses; 11.6 for bus rapid transit; 7.4 for light rail transit; 2.6 for trolley buses, and 2.4 for streetcars.

The study concludes that, based on the three sustainability criteria, reducing trip length, greenhouse gas reduction, and life-cycle cost, trams represent a better investment than SkyTrain for the future expansion of Vancouver’s public transit network.

These conclusions must be taken into account as governments currently study the transit system options for the Broadway extension of the Millennium Line.

However, the study also pointed out that this public transit investment is entirely dependent on a long-term commitment to balancing jobs and housing and a gradual reduction in the per capita demand for daily transportation of any kind. If most trips in the region are short then the rationale for investment in trams is overwhelming. If all trips are long then the rationale for the expensive SkyTrain system may still hold sway.

We can’t afford not to immediately focus in on land use planning and transit as twin inseparable priority tasks in Metro Vancouver.

Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with CounterPoint Communications Inc.

He is a former real estate developer who specializes in urban land use issues. E-mail: ransford@counterpoint.ca

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