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public transit

Complete Streets (it’s more than just about cycling)

It is so depressing to think about how much further along in their thinking that places like New York City are than Saskatoon in realizing that not all people own cars.  Just think about it, a street designed for cars, pedestrians, and cyclists.  It could one day happen in Saskatoon.

Why Public Transit is Under Funded

The reason that public transit (and bike lanes) are underfunded is that the rich don’t rely on them

Another report has come out in support of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), an innovative way to provide public transit at a low cost with dedicated bus lanes, stops, and schedules.

The study (PDF), from pro-transit group Embarq, found that BRT drastically reduced commute times, improved air quality, and cut road fatalities in congested cities like Bogota, Istanbul, Johannesburg, and Mexico City. And we already know that BRT is one of the most cost-effective public transit investments a municipality can make.

The catch? In most cities examined in the report, those benefits only extend to low- and middle-class residents. (In Johannesburg, the poorest residents did not use BRT).

“Since the dominant benefit is travel time savings,” the study’s authors wrote, “the majority of benefits tend to accrue to the strata most represented by BRT users — typically lower- and middle-income.”

While it’s great to have a system that improves transportation access for the majority of a city’s population, BRT’s mass appeal could — ironically — be a political concern that prevents its adoption, at least in the U.S. As Alex Pareene wrote in Salon, public transit often suffers because politicians and donors rarely rely on it. The results show in the states, whose existing BRT systems lag behind those in cities around the world.

Even in densely populated and traditionally liberal cities like New York and Minneapolis, politicians neglect transit. And “because they don’t know or interact with or receive checks from people who rely on it every day, there’s almost no hope for cheap, efficient mass transit options anywhere,” Pareene wrote.

Indeed, the Embarq report echoes the public transit wealth gap, and cites that most BRT systems are often paid for by tax revenue collected from those who may never ride it. Bogota’s famed TransMilenio was financed by increased gasoline taxes, and all the systems required both substantial investment and support from municipalities.

But the Embarq report also showed that BRTs benefited cities with environmental and productivity gains more than they strained financial resources. For example, the average commuter in Istanbul now gets to and from work about an hour faster thanks to the Metrobüs, and Mexico City’s BRT system reduced air pollution enough to save 6,000 sick days a year.

As cities continue to grow and congestion increases, the benefits of BRT may become impossible to ignore — even to the rich and powerful folks who are stuck in traffic.

You see the same thing here in Saskatoon.  After last night’s City Council meeting, you could almost say the same things about bike lanes.

Some Winnipeg politicians defend the status quo

Some Winnipeg city councillors don’t want to lead and want city Bus Rapid Transit line to go to city wide referendum

“I honestly don’t think it’s our best value for almost $600 million,” Browaty (North Kildonan) said, adding several of the city’s other transportation needs should warrant a higher priority and can be funded with all the funds allocated for the bus corridor, citing the westward extension of the Chief Peguis trail, widening of Kenaston Boulevard and the Waverley underpass.

“Everyone of them provides a better value for money than rapid transit phase two.”

Browaty joins St. James-Brooksland councillor Scott Fielding in opposition to the project.

The city is preparing a formal request for $140 million in federal funding for the project but Browaty said that request should be put on hold.

Browaty said he favours a non-binding plebiscite or referendum be included in the Oct. 22 civic election ballot, asking Winnipeggers if they support the completion of the rapid transit project, adding he’s prepared to move a motion at next week’s council meeting to put that into place.

Browaty’s concerns come a day after the civic administration released a detailed report on the $590-million bus rapid transit corridor, which needs to be endorsed by council at its June meeting before Ottawa will consider the application for financial assistance.

The latest report says the city will have to pay $20 million a year for 30 years beginning in 2020, for its share of the project.

Again, cars = value while public transit equals burden in many politicians minds.  Some one needs to tell him that bus rapid transit projects provide tremendous economic payoff, often generating $10 for every dollar spent.

A Smarter Saskatoon

Saskatoon definitely lags behind other cities in technology.  Our traffic lights aren’t even synchronized (well unless you use the most and simplistic version of synchronization).  Can you imagine a Saskatoon that automatically adapts to water main breaks, road construction, or works to clear traffic jams.  It would be amazing.

Going underground (and belly up)

From the Economist

NOT many global cities of nearly 9m people lack an underground line, but until the end of last year the eastern city of Hangzhou was one of them. Now city slickers and rural migrants squeeze together inside shiny new carriages, checking their smartphones and reading free newspapers like commuters the world over. There is standing-room only in the rush hour and, with tickets at less than a dollar, the metro is revolutionising the way people travel across town.

Two other Chinese cities—Suzhou and Kunming—have also opened their first underground lines in the past year, and the north-eastern city of Harbin is preparing to open one too. Four more cities have just added a new line to their existing systems. At least seven others have begun building their first lines.

If all the metros approved by central officials are built, 38 cities will have at least one line by the end of the decade, with more than 6,200km (3,850 miles) of track (London has nearly 400km.) As with many infrastructure projects in China, including the high-speed rail network above ground, questions abound about the wisdom and potential wastefulness of such ambitions. Many of the underground systems are needed, but some are being built in cities that are too small to justify the exorbitant expense. By some estimates the total bill could approach $1 trillion, not including the cost of operation.

Zhao Jian of Beijing Jiaotong University reckons that metros in fewer than 20 of the 38 designated cities make sense. He says that perhaps ten of those could be replaced with cheaper light rail, which runs above ground. The minimum core urban population that can qualify a city for an underground system is 3m people, but even a place that big may find the operating costs crippling. Mr Zhao says the systems in Harbin and Kunming are unnecessary.

Shi Nan of the Academy of Urban Planning and Design in Beijing says it is obvious that “we cannot count on private cars” to get around the big cities. But the metro projects mostly rely on government subsidies, and operating them will be a “bottomless pit”, says Mr Zhao. He says city officials tend to pursue grand projects that may not even make money because they will not be around to bear the burden. The performance of local officials is evaluated on how much they increase local GDP, not on whether projects they build are needed. Today’s leaders get credit for spending money. Tomorrow’s must foot the bill.

Even megacities long overdue for more underground tracks—like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou—are building and operating them at a cost that worries planners. Operating the metro lines of Beijing, now up to 442km of track, has cost about $1.6 billion over the past two years, but passengers pay just 30 cents a ride. The metro has helped to alleviate traffic and pollution, yet Beijing remains one of the world’s most jammed and polluted cities; it needs more investment in public transport of all sorts.

I have read a bunch of stuff lately on the debt that China is incurring at all levels of government.  Some have said it could be the next economy to go bad.  After reading more and more about infrastructure projects like this, I am starting to agree.

When public transit is your only option

More than transit, it’s a story of poverty.

Derek Rope on Transportation

Derek Rope has a great position paper on public transit.  You can read the highlights on City Hall Notebook.

Moreover, Melbourne, Australia provides an innovative approach to making transit more reliable: in Melbourne, the operator of the tram system posts benchmarks and its performance against those benchmarks on the tram for passengers to read. If the tram misses its targets, then passengers are compensated. Ultimately, if we can make public transport convenient, efficient and reliable, we will go a long way toward relieving congestion on the roads of our growing city while minimizing our environmental impact.

Cuts in Transit Services

I’ll admit, it has been years since I road a city bus for the simple reason that it’s a pretty easy walk from my house to work and Wendy only has to travel two blocks to her work.  At both of our places of work, there are staff there 24 hours a day.  The Salvation Army Community Services has a policy where we provide taxis to staff who are arriving/leaving late at night and on days when there is no transit services for personal safety issues (shelter staff have been violently attacked in other cities and many of our staff have been threatened).

My problems with the transit cuts are that by cutting them off at 10:00 p.m., what do staff at retail establishments or restaurants do when their shift ends after transit calls it a night.  Some have suggested carpooling or taxis.  I know what our taxi bill is at work.  Even with Comfort Cabs giving us a deal on taxis, it would be over an hour in lost wages for anyone working for a retail job.  That’s a big time pay cut, especially if your shift is only 4 or 5 hours long (welcome to retail).  There is always walking but my employer isn’t all that thrilled with me walking to work for a midnight shift and I am 6’4 and often walk down with our dog that [looks] intimidating.  Wendy has had co-workers assaulted walking home in the middle of the afternoon in an east side parking lot as has one who was walking home at 8:00 p.m. at night.  Both were able to fight off their attackers but no one deserves that.  At one time people probably did live in the same neighbourhoods where they worked but it’s a long walk from anywhere at the big box stores.  This isn’t Mayberry anymore.

Some have suggested car pooling.  Great idea but often times the people working those shifts don’t have much seniority, are working for a low wage and don’t have a car.  It’s the reality of retail.  The hours are long, the pay is low and there isn’t enough benefits to go around.

While we love late night shopping, don’t we have some responsibility for staffs to get home safely and easily after catering to the demands of their clientele?  What can we do about it?  Maybe just fund it.

Portland's Free Rail Zone In the United States, public transit is far more thoroughly funded by all three levels of government.  In the United States the cities fund 21% of the subsidies and in Canada, cities kicked in 77% of the funding so Saskatoon taxpayers are paying a far higher share of public transit funding then they do in American cities.  With the federal government paying a larger chunk of the bill (mostly capital), it means that there are lower fares more resources and better service which of course ads up to an increase in ridership.  Up to 90% of public transit is taxpayer funded in some cities in order to keep rates low and ridership high.  As part of an effort to deal with vehicle traffic in downtown Portland, you can ride MAX Light Rail and Portland Streetcar within downtown Portland, the Rose Quarter and the Lloyd District for free.  Calgary has a similar system on 7th Avenue.

The 2010 transit budget was $32.5 million, $11.5 million came from fares.  Saskatoon Transit’s subsidy increased by $2 million this year to $19.7 million.  That’s not chump change and is frustrating because there isn’t much federal or provincial dollars helping out.  I understand the city wanting to cut costs and increase revenues but it’s not exactly cheap either.  I got a kick out of an old entry from Sean Shaw who pointed out that taking the bus to work actually costs him more than driving and parking and takes an hour longer each day.  At $71.00/month for an adult pass, it is more than we spend on gas for a month if there are not trips to the lake… and more importantly to a lot of people, it’s an extra hour of commute time a day.

At about 2/3 subsidy, we are at the same levels as the rest of Canada but quite a bit less than some cities in the United States.  A quick glance at the cities who dwarf us show that they have LRT’s or subways.  While it’s really easy to cancel a seldom used express bus to the airport, it’s really hard to walk away from a subway line.  The other interesting thing is that in the United States, the federal government takes a much more active role in providing operating subsidies than the Canadian government.  Where we may pay as much as 60% of operational subsidies, many U.S. cities only pay 25% or lower of the costs the state and the feds picking up the rest.  That is the problem.  I expect the low rates and high quality of service of a place like Chicago or Boston but without the federal subsidies that pay for it. 

My feeling is that we figure out how to build a world class transit service.  Find out what Saskatoon really wants and then fund it.  It seems like whenever we look at transit the first thing that comes out of anyone’s mouth is the subsidy.  The subsidy isn’t going away, the debate needs to be are we getting good value for it.  This doesn’t need to be an emotional discussion.  I am not an economist and I think I could come up with a framework for measuring economic impact.  My feeling is that the economic impact of students getting to school (and then the mall), people getting to work (rather than a car payment), cars off our streets, and more parking being available to those doing business downtown rather than working there is well above the $20 million we are paying.  Anyone want to challenge that? I have comments.

Driving Safe in Regina

Most of you know this blog’s unofficial mission is to never miss a chance at taking a shot at the City of Regina whenever we have the chance (when I was toilet training Mark, I used to get him to say when flushing the toilet, “See you in Regina”) but this is too easy.

13 of Regina’s buses were deemed unsafe by SGI this week.

13 of Regina’s buses were deemed unsafe by SGI this week "We know we have fleet challenges," said Onodera, noting that most of the issues SGI identified were with buses from groups purchased in 1990 and 1992 — those vehicles have now reached the ends of the expected lifespans, he said.

Both older buses that have been refurbished and used buses the city recently acquired are in better condition.

It’s long been known that the 1990 and 1992 buses — of which there are 27 in total among the city’s total fleet of 105 — will need work, and the department has a plan in place, Onodera said. The city has been buying inexpensive used buses with life left in them, to replace those older ones. The department doesn’t plan to refurbish those buses from the early 1990s due to significant costs, for which funds could be better allocated elsewhere, Onodera continued. The SGI audit "accelerated" the timing, he said, noting the inspections are being looked at as positive because they call attention to the need for resources to maintain and replace assets.

"The situation’s under control," he remarked. "Nothing is a surprise to us."

So does that mean that the City of Regina knew that they had buses that were considered unsafe to drive and they just kept driving them?  They didn’t take action until there was a SGI audit?  I would love to see the details on what was wrong.