Transit shutdown will certainly cripple Metro Vancouver

Nov 21 2019, 5:55 pm

People who normally depend on public transit will be inconvenienced.

To say the least, this would be a gross understatement if even a single day of Unifor’s planned three-day shutdown of Metro Vancouver’s bus and SeaBus services proceeds next week from Wednesday, November 27 to Friday, November 29.

Currently, there are plans to resume regular transit services on Saturday, November 30. But beyond this date, in all likelihood, if both sides are unable to come to an agreement, there will be continued scheduled shutdowns of services. This is the last and most powerful card the union can use to push TransLink subsidiary Coast Mountain Bus Company into caving into their demands.

The labour action promises to be the most widespread disruption to transit services in nearly two decades. More importantly, after years of encouraging people to ditch their cars for transit, the alternatives of getting around during work and school days will not be able to absorb the sheer transportation demand that is currently fulfilled daily by buses and SeaBus.

Demand for transit has been soaring; total systemwide transit ridership grew by 18% between 2016 and 2018.

On an average weekday, the region’s bus system sees nearly one million boardings, accounting for roughly 60% of the entire transit system’s ridership.

The region’s busiest bus route, the 99 B-Line between Commercial-Broadway Station and UBC, sees approximately 56,000 boardings every weekday. A very significant proportion of the 81,000 bus trips to and from the UBC campus are made on the 99 B-Line.

Transit is, obviously, how many post-secondary students get around.

According to TransLink, as of this month, 121,000 post-secondary students in Metro Vancouver have a U-Pass. This universal unlimited-travel transit pass program did not exist at all in 2001, when the last strike of transit workers resulted in a four-month-long shutdown of bus and SeaBus services.

The U-Pass program began in 2003 with UBC and SFU, and it has since expanded to a total of 10 post-secondary institutions in the region.

As a case in point: UBC’s transit ridership demand, as a result of the U-Pass coupled with improved transit services, has more than quadrupled since 1997 from the growth of the student/faculty and on-campus populations and a general real shift towards the transit mode.

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 weekday, 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%.

Over at Simon Fraser University’s campus atop Burnaby Mountain, approximately 25,000 bus trips are made on an average weekday.

Getting to these major university campuses by car — by SOV or carpooling — will be the most feasible option come the latter half of next week, but on-campus parking supply is designed to be limited.

Many working in the service industry, such as in retail, hospitality, and other entry-level jobs, rely on public transit.

Other major groups that will be hurt are youth and seniors; as of this year, there are about 55,000 Compass users aged five to 18, and tens of thousands of low-income seniors and people with disabilities are users of the provincial government’s BC Bus Pass program.

Additional road traffic volumes, perhaps even worsened congestion, can be expected everywhere, especially on the road crossings between the North Shore and Vancouver.

Tens of thousands of people take the various bus routes that cross the Lions Gate Bridge and Ironworkers Memorial Bridge on a daily basis. Approximately 20,000 boardings are recorded each weekday on SeaBus, with residents and students living on the North Shore commuting into Vancouver. The only alternative is to drive over the chronically congested bridges.

Commuters into downtown Vancouver will still be able to get around and access the city by using SkyTrain’s Expo Line, Millennium Line (via Expo Line), and Canada Line, although there is now some labour uncertainty with the Expo Line and Millennium Line, with workers on both lines voting this week to strike. The privately operated Canada Line is unaffected, as its workers are under a different union.

SkyTrain could also see lower ridership during the shutdown, given that much of the bus ridership funnels into train stations across the region. Some of the train ridership reductions could be offset from bus riders driving to a nearby train station and parking nearby, while others could be dropped off and picked up by private vehicle.

In 2000, a year before the last shutdown, 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.

Aside from taking a person vehicle out of the garage, whether it be for single-occupancy trips or carpooling, these are the main major alternative transportation options currently in place in Metro Vancouver:

  • Approximately 2,100 taxi vehicles across all cab companies. But the actual supply is constrained even further because of municipal boundaries. As a result, only about 900 of these cabs registered with the City of Vancouver can pick up passengers within the city. Ridehailing could provide a further boost, if provincial regulators provide services such as Uber and Lyft the green-light to operate over the coming days.
  • Approximately 3,500 carshare vehicles across the region, mainly operated by Evo and Share Now (formerly known as Car2Go). But the home areas of both operators are limited to Vancouver and just a handful of other major points of interest outside city boundaries. One-way car share services account for 80% of the total car share fleet.
  • Approximately 2,000 bikes on the Mobi bike share system. For those who do not own their own personal bike, the Mobi system is available to use, but its service area is limited to the downtown Vancouver peninsula and the Central Broadway Corridor, framed by Arbutus Street to the west, West 16th Avenue to the south, and Commercial Drive to the east.