Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Transportation in Vancouver BC

So, as usual, it's been a long time since my last post. I've since moved from the Richmond District to a studio in this lovely building on Polk St (at Ellis), in the Civic Center/Van Ness/TL area. Thanks to the move I no longer have to depend on the 38 Geary to get me to and from work or other places downtown. I can actually WALK to work now, which only takes about 10-15 minutes... about 15-30 minutes less time than it took to ride the bus from 17th & Geary.

Since I'm so centrally located, I actually almost never need the bus to get anywhere anymore, except when visiting friends in other parts of the city or when exploring other neighborhoods. Sometimes I'll walk up to Van Ness Station to catch the Muni Metro up to Castro or down to Embarcadero. I'm also right by the 47-Van Ness & 49-Mission/Van Ness lines, so it's super easy to get down to SOMA or The Mission, or I can go 1-2 blocks to catch the 31-Balboa or 38-Geary if I wanna head out to my old stomping grounds in the Richmond. It's also much easier to catch BART now (at the Civic Center Station) if I want to head over to the East Bay.

ANYWAY, enough about me. I'm currently finishing up a week long trip to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and thought I'd comment on their fantastic transit system. The city seems almost as large as San Francisco in terms of population and size, however it seems to have a MUCH more efficient transit network (what a surprise, right?).

I'll mainly be talking about TransLink, which is the regional transit authority that runs the majority of the buses, the SkyTrain and the SeaBus (however I didn't have any experience with the SeaBus, so it won't be discussed here).

Fares throughout the system range from $2.50-$5.00 CDN depending which zones you're traveling between and what time of day/day of the week it is. Similar to Muni, their transfers are good throughout their network for 2 or 2 1/2 hours (I forget which).

Also similar to Muni, they run their trains and buses from early in the morning until about 1:30 at night, with a night bus service taking over after that.

They have an extensive bus network (including the largest trolley bus network in the North America, after San Francisco) and for the less traveled/hillier routes, they use smaller coaches (similar to the UCSF shuttles). I think using such shuttles on the less travelled routes was part of the SF Transit Effectiveness Project proposal, and I think it's a great idea. Not only are they cheaper to buy in the first place, but they probably also use less fuel, and prevent empty busses from driving around wasting money and resources. What's interesting, though, is that, unlike San Francisco, they seem to run these smaller bus routes almost as often as the main bus lines! Unlike San Francisco which only runs them about ever 1/2 hour (if you're lucky!).

They also run a B-Line rapid bus network (I think on about 3 different routes) where people are allowed to board all three of the doors (they use articulated diesel buses for these routes), as long as they have pre-paid and have proof of payment with them. These routes generally have dedicated bus lanes. It seems to be pared-down version of the proposed Geary & Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit projects in San Francisco.

They recently vamped up their fleet with all new busses. They have pretty much the same types of buses as Muni: standard, trolley, long articulated (bendy bus), and small shuttle coach; but unlike Muni, all their buses (with the exception of the small coaches) are low floor models (which greatly speeds up boarding for seniors and persons with disabilities). The bus drivers are generally very friendly and helpful, and when you pay your fare, a transfer/fare receipt is automatically printed out of the fare box with the amount paid and the expiration date/time.

All their busses appeared to run at regular intervals (about every 3-15 minutes... and I never saw any "bunched up" buses like you so often see in SF. They were all well spread out and timely. Also, almost every bus I saw seemed very full, but not to the point that you couldn't fit more people on them or that they would be uncomfortable, which makes it seem like two great things are happening here:

1. A lot of people use the transit system here.

2. They've found a way to utilize the passenger capacity available on the buses, without making them so packed they're uncomfortable or unable to take on more passengers. They appear to do this by paying close attention to the needs of each particular route and running the appropriate types of busses at just the right intervals based on those needs.

The city and surrounding Metro area is served by the SkyTrain, which is a fully automated system, and is (I think) the most extensive fully automated train network in North America, if not the world.
BART is fully automated, however it has "drivers" on each train to close the doors, make announcements and take manual control of the train if the system goes down. Unlike BART, though, SkyTrain has no drivers or conductors on board and all the stop announcements are pre-recorded (like on the subway portion of Muni Metro).

Most the network operates on elevated guide-ways, however there is a small underground section downtown. There are no fare-gates, however just like BART & Muni, you must purchase your ticket before boarding, or face the possibility of a citation from the Transit Police.

The most amazing thing about SkyTrain is how often it runs. Get this, each line runs every 2-5 minutes! I rode it several times, and this proved to be true. No more than a few minutes after arriving at any station, a train would arrive. So there was no need to run to catch the train, because I was confident another would arrive in a few minutes. Like the buses, the trains were generally very crowded, but there was never a time that it was too crowded to board more passengers, and even if it had been, it wouldn't have been that big of a deal to wait a few minutes for the next train.

Now, they do have a much less extensive network than BART or Muni, with only two lines (soon to be three), but it's still very impressive. Even their new Canada Line, which is set to open before the upcoming Winter Olympics next year, is scheduled to arrive every 5 minutes or less.

Whenever I told locals here that most our trains/buses (with the exception of some of the busier lines or during rush hour) generally only came about every 5-30 minutes (sometimes longer if there's a delay, or if they get bunched together), they were shocked, and thought that a train coming every 2-5 minutes was normal, and that it'd be nice if they came more often. O, Canada!

So basically, Vancouver seems to have a well run, well funded system that's designed and operated in a way that actually meets the needs of the community and is therefore frequently used by said community.

I'm sure if I were here longer, I'd discover some of the problems with their system, as every community always has some complaint or another about their transit system, but at first glance, it seems pretty damn good, especially when compared to San Francisco.

San Francisco could learn a thing or two from Vancouver, or London, or Paris, or Zurich, or countless other cities that have found ways to provide frequent, reliable transit service to their citizens.

Now, I do realize that things are a little different in the US. For example, we spend about $700 billion on our military, while Canada only spends about $20 billion. So Canada has a lot more money to spend on things like single-payer healthcare and transit infrastructure. They also don't have as many people or as many large cities as the US, so there's probably more money available for the large population centers.

But, even with all our financial woes, it seems like with the right political will, and someone in charge at the SFMTA who actually understands public transit needs and infrastructure, we might actually be able to create a functional system, and find the proper funding sources to keep it functional. Also, it's just common sense that if we have an efficient, on-time, frequently run system, with good fare collection methods, then more people will ride it, which means more fares and more funding.

For more info on TransLink in Vancouver, check out: or

On a side note, I thought it was awesome that every taxi I saw was either a Prius, Civic Hybrid, or another fuel efficient car, like the Corolla. I didn't see one Crown Victoria while I was here. Apparently the provincial government is going to make it law (if they haven't already) that all new taxis are hybrids, and they give incentives to cab companies to help achieve this.