The clogged commute: Will the Canada Line ease road congestion?

Richmond Review

By Matthew Hoekstra

For an average of 77,000 daily riders in its first weeks, the Canada Line is already proving its usefulness.

On Sept. 8, when school returns and summer vacation wraps up for many, the fall commute moves into high gear. It’s also the day after bus service between Richmond and Vancouver will have ceased.

All public transit commuters will be forced to exit their bus—many of which went straight into downtown Vancouver—at a Canada Line station.

Some transit commuters might head for their cars instead of the rail line, given the extra transfers they’ll now have to make. Nonetheless, the transit line is bound to attract hordes of commuters that never considered public transit before.

So will the Canada Line, which promises to be equivalent to 10 major vehicle lanes, reduce road congestion?

The congestion question

Construction of public infrastructure projects and photo-ops go hand-in-hand, and the Canada Line, although a public-private-partnership, was no different. At a ceremony marking the start of tunnel boring, MP Russ Hiebert spoke on behalf of the federal government, touting the line’s ability to reduce urban congestion and related pollution.

Kevin Falcon, then B.C.’s transportation minister, echoed his words.

“The province’s $435 million commitment is a generational investment that will reduce congestion, improve the environment and enhance the economy,” he said.

In fact, it became a mantra of politicians and planners in their quest to sell the $2.05-billion project to the public.

Some believe the line will take tens of thousands of automobile trips off the road each day. Indeed, TransLink hopes to attract 100,000 daily riders to the line. But many of those commuters already take the bus and will be forced to take the Canada Line instead.

Richmond blogger and former transportation planner Stephen Rees suggested bus riders might feel too inconvenienced—or even angered—to bother with the new Canada Line and head for the highway.

“The people who have been riding in a comfortable seat will now be crammed in with everyone else, because by the time they get to Bridgeport, it’s going to be full,” he told the Review.

Commuting motorists will be able to leave their vehicles at a 1,200-space parkade at Bridgeport Station, but nowhere else on the line is there any designated parking.

The line’s airport arm might convince some travellers to leave their car at home, but that’s only if they can get to a Canada Line Station with ease. Even then, a return trip from Vancouver for a family of four (with two children), will ring in at $12.50, not including the expected $2.50 per ticket surcharge expected for airport travellers next year.

According to the TransLink subsidiary responsible for the line, Canada Line Rapid Transit Inc., the transportation corridor connecting downtown Vancouver with Richmond City Centre is one of the busiest in Greater Vancouver and home to one-third of the region’s jobs and 20 per cent of its population.

Congestion is worsening, it points out, noting the average commuter trip time in the region has increased to 26.5 minutes from 19.5 minutes in the last decade.

New cars fill in the gaps

Historically, diversion rates—the number of commuters willing to switch modes of transportation—are low in cities when new public transit is introduced. But SkyTrain has so far bucked that trend, according to University of B.C. professor emeritus Bill Waters, an expert in transportation economics.

And for the Canada Line in the long run, more motorists are likely to switch to transit as they relocate to housing and workplaces that allow them to take advantage of rail transit.

“The other good news is that when roads are highly congested, you only need a small diversion of traffic off roads to make a noticeable improvement in traffic flow. So I expect to see some improvement in the near term,” said Waters.

But it isn’t all good news.

If road traffic gets lighter, new drivers—the “pent-up demand”—will emerge. This, said Waters, is the Anthony Downs law, that traffic absorbs whatever capacity is available.

“Along with this is the ongoing challenge that faces all urban areas: population and traffic growth tends to happen and absorb whatever capacity we can put in place.”

Overall, there will be some important benefits—even in the worst case, we will be moving more people, said Waters.

“So there will be significant overall benefits to people and vehicle movement over the next several years. Whether these benefits will truly justify the $2 billion investment is another issue, which I don’t think has been carefully studied.”

The region’s transportation authority believes congestion will be less come the start of the school year.

TransLink’s Ken Hardie said helping reduce congestion immediately will be the elimination of buses Sept. 7 that connect Richmond with Vancouver. New riders are also predicted to continue to emerge—including those travelling to the airport.

But Hardie cautioned that traffic congestion along the corridors will continue to increase with the natural growth in population and vehicles in the region—one million more people and 600,000 more cars over the next 20 to 30 years.

“Traffic will continue to grow along those corridors, even though Canada Line will have had an impact in taking some cars off the road,” he said.

A long-term fix

Gordon Price, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University, said simply introducing transit doesn’t usually result in a drop in road congestion.

“When you’ve got a system that basically delivers free road space to people, and there’s a reduction for any reason, there’s a real incentive to fill it up again,” said Price, a regular lecturer on transportation issues.

Price said drivers now forced to travel at off-peak times to avoid the congestion crunch could fill the room made by the Canada Line, along with commuters who previously used other modes of transportation.

One way to avoid this is to introduce road pricing—something employed by London, England when the city increased its transit options.

In the meantime, cities successful in reducing road congestion are ones with enough population density to offer a range of transportation choices that are realistic to people: vehicle, transit choices, taxis and car-sharing, bicycle and walking. He predicts Richmond, with its new transit options and walking and cycling paths on No. 3 Road, isn’t far behind.

“Once you put those together in a right combination, turns out the car will start dropping in use and begin to not be the dominate mode—and that’s already happening in the central area of Vancouver.”

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