Wanted: smart Island transit planning

What would persuade automobile commuters between Duncan, Langford and Victoria to ride transit?

What would persuade automobile commuters between Duncan, Langford and Victoria to ride transit?

If a sufficient number make the switch, the province could chop money out of road budgets and the cost of health damage from collisions and air pollution, gridlock from Malahat crashes and time wasted in congested traffic.  

Smooth, fast, reliable low-fare rail service would be a good start. Then we must bridge the gaps in mainline transit between homes, workplaces, stores, theatres and sports arenas.  

The smart political leaders of Portland, Ore., showed us the way when they placed the city’s convention centre and arena, home of Portland Trail Blazers basketball, on the Max rail line, with reduced car-parking space. That’s transit-oriented development (TOD).

Boulder, Colo., invented another part of a practicable people-moving strategy. The city politicians and planners of that university town researched travel patterns and citizens’ wishes in depth — not flimsy pretend-consultations.     

They offered communities and large employers a low-priced package pass and more frequent service with buses that ran full instead of half-empty. The scheme worked quite well. But it did not receive the investment of time and money it needed.

Those modest successes can be repeated on south Vancouver Island by a competent future B.C. government.

One failure story points the way to change.

In the mid-1990s a social-campaign committee offered free bus tickets to relieve Cowichan-to-Victoria commuters of the dangerous job of driving the whole distance.

The commuters rode the bus from Lake Cowichan for a short time, then went back to their cars.        

The rejection of cheap bus transport was predictable. Experience in the Lower Mainland shows that cost has only a minor effect on most automobile-versus-transit decisions.   

It does have some effect, so it is worth including in the package. Some people see cost as important (you can save $10,000 a year by not owning a car) but most drivers feel that cars are necessary freedom machines.

Key incentives are speed, comfort, convenience and reliability. Without these factors, nothing happens. Experience also shows that automobile commuters are more likely to switch to rail than to buses.

In light of these facts, B.C. Transit’s planners arguably should go back to their computers and draw up a practicable people-moving design to replace their current Capital Region “rapid transit” plan, which looks like a guaranteed failure. A commonsense plan would co-ordinate people-moving systems within the true planning region, which is Greater Victoria plus Cowichan. 

The design would include devices for encouraging car-drivers to switch to transit — each device being integrated with the others and testable by action research.

A real-world plan would use dedicated rights-of-way, free from traffic signals and clutter. Toronto dug tunnels for its urban rail system and linked rail with secondary and feeder bus lines.

We already have two clear rights-of-way, the Island railway and part of the Galloping Goose.   

Because the inept B.C. Liberals starved transit of money and the co-ordinative brainpower that only senior governments can provide, BC Transit’s “rapid-transit” plan is excessively road-entangled. Arguably its journeys would be too slow to convert car-drivers into transit-riders.

Liberals are a lame-duck regime. Transit can begin shaking off their influence and preparing for a new government.

An intelligent Vancouver Island people-moving structure will have two main sinews: diversion of part of the road budget to rail (which Portland achieved) and strengthening of the Island railway to make freight profitable for the operating company.


—G.E. Mortimore is a Langford-based writer. Think About It appears in the Gazette every second week.

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