Escalating strike could test Metro Vancouver's dependence on public transit

Nov 4 2019, 7:19 pm

The first labour action of Metro Vancouver’s bus and SeaBus workers in nearly two decades is now into its fourth day, and so far SeaBus services have been particularly affected, with dozens of sailings cancelled since the strike began on Friday.

Currently, labour action that directly affects the level of service provided is limited to a ban on overtime of TransLink’s Coast Mountain Bus Company (CMBC) maintenance crews.

With bus services, a considerable amount of maintenance required by the bus fleet is performed during overtime hours. Without overtime, a growing number of buses that have not seen required maintenance will be unable to operate on the road, limiting CMBC’s ability to deliver scheduled services.

On SeaBus, the spate of sailing cancellations are due to the need to have an engineer onboard the ferry vessel at all times of operations. Each sailing that has been cancelled is therefore attributed to the ban on maintenance crew overtime.

While the union has for now ruled out escalating labour action to a complete service shutdown similar to the months-long strike of 2001, there is ample room for service conditions on both the buses and SeaBus to deteriorate to the point that they can no longer be relied upon, if the ongoing dispute becomes drawn out for weeks or even months.

And this could put Metro Vancouver’s recent dependence on getting around by public transit to the test.

Although the 2001 strike was certainly highly disruptive, far less people used transit at the time.

In 2000, a year before the strike, the entire transit system — buses, SkyTrain, SeaBus, and West Coast Express —  recorded 229.7 million boardings, including 176 million from buses and 5.5 million from SeaBus.

Then in 2001, when the strike occurred, ridership plummeted to 160.9 million boardings, with 112.3 million boardings on buses and 3.3 million boardings on SeaBus. SkyTrain remained fully operational during the dispute, and despite the lack of bus passengers being funnelled into the stations it only saw a relatively marginal decrease in ridership that year — 43.4 million boardings in 2001, down from 46.3 million boardings in 2000 and 43.6 million boardings in 1999.

Furthermore, the region only had a single SkyTrain line at the time, the Expo Line. The Millennium Line opened in January 2002, and the first iteration of the U-Pass program, initially just for UBC and SFU students, was launched in September 2003.

Metro Vancouver became far more intertwined with transit in 2010, with the region’s hosting of the Winter Olympics changing the region’s perception on using transit, coupled with the Canada Line’s first full year of operations. Regional systemwide transit ridership reached 347.2 million boardings in 2010, 354.7 million boardings in 2011, and 361.7 million boardings in 2012.

In 2018, systemwide ridership reached a new record of 437.4 million boardings, with 295.6 million boardings by bus, 6.6 million boardings on SeaBus, and 160 million boardings on SkyTrain. Compared to 2000, bus ridership and SkyTrain ridership in 2018 doubled and quadrupled, respectively.

With that said, accounting for the region’s growing population with over 500,000 more people living in the region today, the transit modal share has only seen some upticks.

According to TransLink’s latest Trip Diary findings, the region’s transit modal share — the proportion of people using transit to get around — went down from 12.4% in 2011 to 11.7% in 2017.

The modal share for transit in 1994 and 1999 was 10%, 2004 was 9%, and 2008 was 13%.

While the transit mode share has seen real ridership figure gains that are generally constant with population growth, but only fluctuations in modal share, the groups that use transit have diversified, with widespread use particularly amongst those who are students, other young people, and those work in the service sectors.

The shift has been extremely evident at the UBC campus over roughly the same period of the last two decades.

Since 1997, transit ridership at UBC has more than quadrupled, not just from the growth of the student/faculty and on-campus populations, but also a general real shift towards transit use, specifically after the 2002 introduction of the U-Pass. Over 81,000 trips are now made to the campus on average each weekday.

Automobile traffic (single-occupancy and carpool vehicles) to and from UBC decreased from 62,400 vehicles per day in fall 1997 to 56,700 vehicles per week day, even though the campus’ daytime population increased by 64% over this 20-year period.

The single-occupancy vehicle (SOV) share has fallen by 31% over the same period. The number of SOV trips only grew by 300 per average weekday, from 46,000 in fall 1997 to 46,300 in fall 2017.

For carpooling, these high-occupancy vehicle trips dropped from 36,100 in fall 1997 to 22,100 in fall 2017 — a mode share decrease from 34% to 14%.