March 1, 2010
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Vancouver transit posts record-breaking ridership
BY FRANCES BULA
The following article appeared in the Feb. 18, 2010, issue of The Globe and Mail, Toronto, ON. Reprinted by permission of the author.
VANCOUVER – Vancouver’s Olympics might be bombing in events like chain-link fences or snow on mountains.
But when it comes to running a transit system, it appears to be headed for gold.
Records have been broken night after night for the number of people carried on the city’s rapid-transit lines, bus routes, trains, and SeaBuses, with almost double normal volumes. And pedestrian traffic on bridges into downtown has soared far beyond the numbers on the best summer day in Vancouver.
That’s because the city has hit the target set by VANOC [Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games] of reducing car traffic by 30 percent just as the number of people streaming through the city has increased enormously.
On Sunday—a day on which no one expected a surge—more than 1.5 million people used the system, with volumes up anywhere from 25 percent to more than 100 percent on different lines. That includes 700,000 riders for the day on Expo, Millennium and Canada lines, more than 800,000 on the buses, and 40,000 on the SeaBus.
Numbers haven’t been crunched yet for Day 5, which had three hockey games and a victory ceremony, but they’re expected to be higher.
TransLink officials had said before the Games that they were expecting only about a 20-percent increase in transit ridership, to about 960,000 riders a day from 800,000.
Those kinds of statistics have transportation planners at TransLink and the city giddy with excitement, because it proves their case that people will get out of their cars if they feel they have attractive options.
“We’re learning if we provide high-quality service, people will use it. They’re saying, ‘Hey, you’ve given me a good choice. You’re not just asking me to get out of my car,’” said a happy Dale Bracewell, the Vancouver engineer overseeing traffic management during the Games.
Doug Kelsey, the SkyTrain CEO and sports-talking manager of the Olympics transit system, who is running his team like a hockey coach in the finals, is beaming too.
Not only is the system coping with high volumes, but also it has adapted well to sudden changes, like the city’s decision after the third day of the Games that it was too difficult to keep buses running along a lane of pedestrian-only Robson Street as planned.
And complaints are relatively few. To keep people entertained in line-ups, Mr. Kelsey brought in buskers and people from the Salvation Army to hand out hot chocolate.
Simon Fraser University and Whitecaps athletes help manage traffic flows, so that if an unexpectedly big load of 2,000 West Coast Express commuters show up, they can quickly be guided along.
Mr. Kelsey’s team communicates constantly to figure out if shuttles are needed to get around gridlock or deal with a problem.
Although some long-time transit users are not thrilled at the Hong Kong-like conditions on some routes, the improved service has attracted and impressed people who aren’t regulars.
“It’s great,” said Derek Longmuir who, with partner Lois Chadburn, has been commuting from Chilliwack, parking and taking transit. “There are hardly any line-ups at all and the drivers help us out.”
The biggest gripe, said Mr. Kelsey, is about the lack of washrooms at the Waterfront Station. He’s working to put some in, even though that’s not strictly his bailiwick.
But he’s not relaxing.
“You can go from headed for gold to not being on the podium very quickly. We’re a heartbeat away from having problems.”
What’s he worried about?
“Late-night partiers who get out of control. I was here at midnight last night and there were lots of drunks coming in.” The weekend forecast is for spectacular weather, which means tens of thousands of heavy-drinking revellers are likely.
He is also trying to prepare for staff burning out or a serious breakdown on one of the rapid-transit lines.
Neither Mr. Kelsey nor Mr. Bracewell will say that all of this makes a good case to show the province that with more money—like the $17 million VANOC provided—TransLink could get more passengers and take the region’s transit system to a whole new level. But they have to be thinking it.
Editor’s Note: On Feb. 30, the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority (TransLink) announced that an average of more than 1.6 million people a day used the agency’s bus, SkyTrain, SeaBus, and West Coast Express services during the first week of the Winter Olympics, Feb. 12-19. According to preliminary figures, the SkyTrain Expo/Millennium Line set a single-day record of 488,000 rides on Feb. 14—more than three times the average for a Sunday.