The vast majority of Metro Vancouver’s public transit buses are now travelling slower on the roads compared to five years ago, and it is largely out of TransLink’s control.
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According to a new TransLink report that will be deliberated by the Mayors’ Council in a meeting this week, 80% of the region’s bus routes are experiencing greater delays due to a lack of bus priority measures and increased traffic congestion.
This has resulted in longer and less reliable travel times, as well as longer waits and increased overcrowding from bus bunching.
At the top of the list of the top 20 corridors for passenger delay is King George Boulevard and 104 Avenue in Surrey — served by the 96 B-Line — followed by Highway 99, West 41st Avenue in Vancouver, Broadway, and Hastings Street.
Municipalities are largely to blame
A lack of turning left turning lanes, cars that line a right lane ahead of a bus stop approach, curbside street parking, intersection design, and the number of traffic signals — especially signals that are not timed with lights, and are pedestrian controlled — are major impediments to bus service. Other hot spots include bridge approaches and the entrance to transit hubs.
Road design is under the direct jurisdiction of the region’s 21 municipal governments, and in some cases, depending on the road, the provincial government, such as Highway 99 and the Lions Gate Bridge.
TransLink says there are a wide range of proven bus priority strategies created by cities around the world that can fix the “inherently solvable” problems. This includes bus stop and curb management, bus stop placement, traffic regulations, movement restrictions, street design, bus stop infrastructure, turn pockets, queue jumpers, bus-only lanes, and various forms of traffic signal priority.
Some of these bus priority measures will be in place for four of the top 20 problematic corridors for the first five RapidBus routes slated to launch in early 2020, including on King George Boulevard and 104 Avenue, the Marine Drive corridor from Park Royal to Phibbs Exchange, 41st Avenue from UBC to Joyce-Collingwood Station in Vancouver, Lougheed Highway from Coquitlam Central Station to Maple Ridge, and Hastings Street from Burrard Station to SFU Burnaby.
Altogether, 30 km of new bus priority lanes are being implemented under this initial RapidBus program.
“We recognize that prioritizing transit — like any mode — requires examining trade-offs between users of the roadway,” reads the report, adding that public transit authority planners intend to assist municipalities in having those discussions and determining how best to reduce bus delay in the context of each community.
“TransLink is committed to assisting municipalities with that process. We developed tools that enable an evidence-based approach at a fine-grained level. This makes it possible to determine the respective benefits and costs of different allocations.”
TransLink is planning to address hot spot issues through a new Bus Speed and Reliability Infrastructure program that is jointly funded by the public transit authority and municipal governments.
Early this fall, TransLink and the City of Vancouver began a pilot project of painting curb lanes red at bus zones to remind drivers that they cannot stop in these areas.
$75 million in extra annual bus operating costs from delays
The public transit authority’s report paints a critical picture of the changes needed, as the delays are having a major financial impact on operating costs.
It is estimated slowing bus service has increased TransLink’s operating costs by $75 million per year — equivalent to about 700,000 annual bus service hours or 12% of the annual operating costs of the bus fleet.
“The slowing of bus service costs money and is a strategic risk to TransLink and Metro Vancouver transit service,” reads the report.
With deteriorating travel speeds and times, more buses and bus drivers are needed to keep buses on a scheduled frequency. For instance, a bus route that previously had a travel time of 50 minutes and a frequency of every 10 minutes required five buses, but with a longer travel time of 60 minutes on the same route, it would need six buses to maintain the frequency of every 10 minutes.
Additionally, the bus fleet operating costs increased by a further 16% from the added recovery time spent at termini. Recovery periods are necessary for the union-mandated breaks for bus drivers and to ensure on-time departures. However, when travel times become more unpredictable, recovery time needs to be increased.
TransLink’s bus schedules are adjusted every quarter to maintain on-time performance and provide drivers with breaks, but adding more bus trips and service hours adds between $2.5 million and $5 million in annual operating costs each year — equivalent to the cost of creating a new RapidBus line every one to two years.
“Bus delay due to congestion is a major problem for TransLink’s customers, budgets and our ability to expand. However, it is a problem for which many solutions exist, as has been demonstrated locally and globally,” the report continues.
“These solutions can deliver meaningful transit travel time and even capacity benefits relatively quickly and inexpensively, particularly when compared to larger transit infrastructure projects. Doing so saves money, enabling a greater share of future funding to go toward service expansion, rather than extra service to maintain schedules.”