Friday, August 21, 2009

Are new trains, like Vancouver's Canada Line, the solution?

I arrived back in Vancouver at the beginning of the week, just in time to be among the first passengers on the new train connecting the airport and the city of Richmond with downtown.

The $2 billion “Canada Line” train link was built more or less as part of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic bid. Hence the patriotic name that offers no indication what part of Vancouver the train line actually services.

At first glance, the Canada Line is the type of transportation initiative that environmental activists and climate campaigners should celebrate. A new train should equal fewer vehicle trips which should equal fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Right?

Unfortunately, in many cases, seemingly positive and well-intended developments like new transit infrastructure or new government programs to encourage the purchase of fuel efficient vehicles are often rather economically inefficient means to achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Some of this has to with design. For example, if a new subway or elevated train line replaces existing bus routes, the reduced bus traffic may lead to an increase in the number of cars on the road.

The biggest challenge, however, might be that new transit lines and hybrid car rebates preach to the converted. Local transportation expert Stephen Rees explains that the train lines in Vancouver may be well-intended, but are mostly expensive projects that have not significantly increased the fraction of the population using public transit. Similarly, a recent UBC study concluded that the majority of people buying hybrid cars were not motivated by the government rebates. In other words, the rebates mostly went to people who were already intending to purchase a fuel efficient or hybrid car. [I won't even get into the arguments about the US 'cash for clunkers' program].

I certainly enjoyed being able to ride the train part of the way home from the airport. Had the train line not been finished, I simply would have taken the bus the entire way, just like I have in the past. In my case, and many others, the existence of the train didn’t eliminate a vehicle trip. It just saved me one switch and about 15 minutes. The Canada Line may be a worthy long-term investment... but not if people like myself are the primary users.

In addition to building the transit infrastructure, the government needs to implement programs that increase acceptance of public transit with young people. A master's student at Simon Fraser master’s student, Elizabeth Cooper, found that the local program to provide cheap transit passes to local university students may have helped create a culture of transit use. From the Georgia Straight:

Based on the results of a survey Cooper conducted of former SFU students, the paper notes that 53 percent of former U-Pass holders are frequent transit users, averaging between one and two round trips on public transportation per week. An additional 23 percent of former U-Pass holders reported that they continue to use transit, although on an infrequent basis. This gives a total of 76 percent of former U-Pass holders remaining transit users. Survey results for SFU alumni who were not U-Pass holders provide a different picture: only 42 percent reported being frequent transit users, while 17 percent said they use transit infrequently, for a total of 59 percent. “This indicates that the pass has had success in influencing transit use postgraduation,” the paper points out.

The U-Pass program certainly does not convert everyone; many graduates complain about the high cost of public transit without a U-Pass, and revert to driving. The effect of the program does point towards the type of initiatives that may be necessary to support a robust public transit system. Any suggestions?

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