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What is transit data (and a bus ride) worth?

October 28, 2014 at 10:15 pm

TransLink, the regional transportation agency in metro Vancouver, BC, is preparing to roll out its Compass Card program, which is intended to replace a variety of fare payment methods on the region’s trains and buses.

Much like other cities which use fare payment technology by Cubic Transportation Systems, the launch has been beset with difficulties, forcing delay upon delay in the $194 million program. Chicago readers will be familiar with every possible complaint in the Ventra program, which is operated by the same company. My own experience with Ventra was fairly positive, but I encountered many times when the card would not scan, took too long to process (leading to delays), or over-charged for a trip. There are also other complaints: the $5 card fee makes it more difficult for social service organizations to assist low-income residents, the $0.75 fare increase for a single ride ticket, and so on.

Compass card readers have been added to all doors on buses.

Compass card readers have been added to all doors on buses.

Compass promised to be even more difficult, requiring users to tap their card when getting on and off of a transit vehicle. This is not as cumbersome when travelling via rail, which tends to cover longer distances, but it is definitely problematic on buses, where egress is sort of like stepping off the vehicle and the station at the same time. There are no turnstiles to pass through or agents to help with any issues with the card. But TransLink would require tapping-off because some of Vancouver’s buses run across fare zone boundaries.

Vancouver regional zone map. Source: TransLink.

I can think of a handful of buses that pass through more than one fare zone, but I personally don’t find it fair that TransLink requires passengers to pay for multiple zones on bus trips. Another city that uses a vast and complex zone-based fare system, London, charges a flat £1.45 for all bus journeys regardless of length or the number of zones traversed. Not only does this eliminate requiring passengers to tap-out, but it is also more fair considering that journeys by bus are, in my Vancouver experience, more prone to getting stuck in traffic and much slower than rail travel.

Gordon Price wrote in August that TransLink should rethink requiring bus passengers to tap-out because it would need to become a habit over time; people would forget to tap-out and be charged a three-zone fare ($5.50) even if they travelled only one ($2.75) or two zones ($4.00) (I’m not sure if the software is sophisticated enough to know, for example, that a passenger on the 99, a bus that travels exclusively in zone 1, could not possibly have passengers travelling between two zones, and therefore only ever charge a one-zone fare even if a passenger forgot to tap-off).

The 99 B-Line between Commercial/Broadway and UBC is the busiest bus route in Canada or the U.S., and permits passengers to get on at all doors to speed boarding. Image via Metro File/Jennifer Gauthier.

If Cubic’s customer service in Canada is anything like the customer service I’ve dealt with in Chicago, this would lead to intense backlash and public criticism, especially when the transit-riding public already complains profusely about rare 10-15 minute train delays. In many North American cities, such delays are called “the morning.”

Tonight, the Vancouver Sun reports that TransLink will likely get rid of the tap-out component for bus riders. The process of tapping the card to pay a fare takes a lot longer than anticipated, leading to delays and frustration among riders. It may also require TransLink to create a single fare for all bus rides, retaining the multi-zone fares for train trips only.

While the customer service aspect of potentially overcharging tens of thousands of passengers and undermining the public’s trust in a transit agency is unquestionably important, I am more interested in why: A) the provincial government believes fare evasion, estimated at $5-7 million per year, is worth the $12 million TransLink will now pay Cubic yearly to operate the system, and B) TransLink believes the rich journey data that can be gathered from requiring tap-on/off is worth the added expense – in dollars and in passenger happiness.

Fare gates at SkyTrain stations have been installed, but remain perpetually open for the time being. Image via CityHallWatch.

I love data analysis and while I’m guessing the sort of detailed journey data TransLink could collect would not be public, it could still use the data to make better-informed decisions in planning transportation services. But there are already other ways of obtaining more estimated data on the number of boardings, the actual length of a bus journey, whether the bus was too full to pick up passengers, and so on that enable TransLink to make decisions without inconveniencing passengers. After all, several other cities around the world provide decent public transportation service without this sort of finely-detailed information, and Vancouver is no exception. While there are certainly public transportation issues to be worked out across the region, I’m not sure if the data from Compass would be very helpful (although I’d love to be educated on what sort of data would be the most helpful).

Regardless of whether or not TransLink ditches the tap-off requirement for buses, I still believe the Compass card system will be better than what exists today: non-reusable single-ride tickets that must be purchased in books of ten in stores, monthly passes that must also be purchased in stores, U-Pass tickets that must be exchanged monthly, and so on. One card to replace monthly passes, and introducing stored value, is a lot easier in the long run even if the change period is rough (just ask a Chicagoan). However, to avoid complicating what has otherwise proven to be an easy way to pay fares, TransLink should ditch the tap-off requirement and move to a one-price fare for bus journeys.

My spectre still gets rid of beg buttons in Chicago

October 23, 2014 at 4:05 pm

I may no longer live in Chicago, but I can still try to get rid of some of its antiquated and pointless push-to-cross buttons (or “beg buttons”). Last fall I noticed a busy pedestrian crossing in my old neighborhood required people crossing to push the button to cross Ashland on Leland – even though a green light for car traffic moving in the same direction ran on a set timer. The only purpose the button served was to activate the pedestrian walk signal and countdown timer. Before, people would cross anyway without the signal or timer, potentially dangerous as the crossing is 65′ (20m) wide across four lanes. After a few months of having CDOT look into it, Alderman Pawar’s (47) office notified me that the signal would always illuminate without having to press the button.

Ashland Ave and Leland Ave. View Larger Map

This past spring I noticed another pedestrian crossing at the busier Montrose/Wolcott intersection in Pawar’s ward also had a beg button. Similar to the earlier case, the entire intersection was on a timer with a pavement sensor on Wolcott (one-way, south) and push-to-walk buttons for people crossing Montrose on Wolcott.

Montrose Ave at Wolcott. View Larger Map

The intersection is one block from the busy Montrose Brown line station, a bus route, and several businesses. It is also on a designated Pedestrian Street (P-street), which is “intended to promote transit, economic vitality and pedestrian safety and comfort.” On promoting and ensuring safety and comfort, beg buttons fail.

Happily, I received an email today from Pawar’s office letting me know that CDOT will change the signal so that the button will no longer need to be pressed to get the signal to cross Montrose. Alderman Pawar has been a fairly reliable alderman when it comes to active transportation issues, making many streets better for people walking, biking, and riding transit, and I’m glad to see that his office respects this down to some of the most minute details (such as my vendetta against beg buttons).

This is only the second instance of an outdated beg button I bothered to pursue, but I’m sure there are many more throughout the city. If there’s enough interest and enough people find them an annoyance, it might be a good idea to go out for a walk and jot down where other such buttons exist so a full list can be submitted to aldermen and they can be investigated together, instead of in an ad-hoc fashion (which takes months).

Protected bike lane on Commercial Drive would improve Vancouver’s bike network

September 19, 2014 at 4:29 pm

Vancouver has a pretty impressive bike network, by North American standards. As I rode around the downtown/False Creek areas yesterday I remarked on the (previously-noted) protected bike lanes downtown. They are some of the widest lanes I’ve seen in North America and take up a third (or more?) of the street width.

It’s a bit of anomaly, but even the short protected lane leading from Kent Ave in Marpole up Cambie St to the Marine Drive Canada Line station is wide.

That said, Vancouver’s “AAA” bike network (“All Ages and Abilities”) is limited to the downtown and the Seaside greenway leading to Spanish Banks along English Bay. AAA bike infrastructure is not all in the form of barrier-separated lanes, but may also be on traffic-calmed streets, and is thoroughly connected – there are few broken links.

There is plenty of room for improvement and expansion to other neighbourhoods. Currently, most of Vancouver’s bike network relies on “Local Street Bikeways,” traffic-calmed streets that are well-signed and discourage thru traffic through the use of traffic diverters. However, they still have car traffic and are therefore not AAA.

45th St Local Street Bikeway.

45th St Local Street Bikeway – nothing spectacular, except traffic-calmed and well-signed.

How I feel about Local Street Bikeways is a subject for an entire post, or perhaps even further study. In a nutshell, they provide safety and refuge from pollution, but by pushing the pedal-powered to side streets, out of sight and mind to many, and away from neighbourhood attractions, businesses, and events. The trade-offs still bother me; on one hand, being away from pollution and noise is nice. On the other hand, the great part of riding a bike is discovering new places – you’re going slower but still able to cover long distances, it’s easier to stop if you see an event to check out or a store to patronize, etc. Mostly, we’re human, and we like watching other humans and being seen by them, too. By excluding bikes from most commercial streets throughout Vancouver, we’re at a bit of a disadvantage.

So I was quite happy to see this tweet this morning:

Commercial Drive is a neighbourhood in East Vancouver; it is bordered on all sides by Local Street Bikeways but none of them pass through the quirky principal street. There is plenty of bike parking and quite a few bicyclists out on street regardless of the lack of bike infrastructure. Chicago readers would find the area similar to Andersonville.

Commercial Drive (near the centre of the map) is surrounded by local street bikeways.

Commercial Drive (near the centre of the map) is surrounded by local street bikeways.

Streets for Everyone proposes a “complete street” down the Drive, complete with protected bike lanes and Dutch-style intersections that make it easier to turn, as well as additions such as covered bike parking and more outdoor seating.

Busy sidewalks are a sign of a healthy, walkable community, but there is always room for improvement. Image: Streets for Everyone.

The renderings (not perfectly to scale) show what could be done with the street:

One issue I foresee is right turns. In the above rendering, cars’ right turns would either have to be banned or subjected to their own signal cycle – which is difficult, because there is only one thru lane for car traffic.

With AAA upgrades to Grandview Highway, Great Northern Way, and Ontario St, the bike lanes could also link to False Creek, downtown, and Gastown, filling in a gap in the bicycle network.

The existing AAA network (yellow highlight) could be expanded (red outline) to Commercial Drive (solid red).

The existing AAA network (yellow highlight) could be expanded (red outline) to Commercial Drive (solid red).

It would be nice to see the proposal realized. It would expand bicycle options into East Vancouver, make it easier for people on foot and bike to frequent Commercial Drive businesses while retaining access for transit and driving, and put Vancouver closer to its transportation and “greenest city” goals. Equally important, it would also increase the visibility of people on bicycles and allow them to experience the neighbourhood just as everyone else is.

Funding plan for $2.6 billion IL-53 highway extension project pleases no one

September 18, 2014 at 11:37 pm

The US Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) released a report today outlining several new highway projects throughout the US that are most likely no longer needed due to a change in the number of miles Americans are driving. With that number falling and plateauing, it seems we just don’t need new road capacity in the form of massive highways any longer.

One of these projects, double-decking Interstate 94 in Milwaukee, WI, is included in the report and was part of a report released by Wisconsin’s PIRG last week, which I covered at Streetsblog USA.

Smaller but expensive projects like a bypass in my hometown, Burlington, WI, were constructed and remain underused, falling far below original traffic expectations. Photo: Casey Jacobsen.

With VMT continuing to fall it makes little sense to expand highway capacity by laying down new roads or expanding existing ones. In the case of IL-53, which I’ve covered here, here, here, and here, is an expensive highway expansion that we probably don’t need, nobody wants to pay for, and will likely be underused.

The current portion of IL-53 as a highway ends at the Lake County, Illinois border. The entirely untolled highway portion is essentially built to interstate standards – high speed limits, medians, shoulders, and large on-/off-ramps. The extension of the road through Lake County and up to Interstate 94 will be a slower-speed (45 mph/70 km/h) “boulevard,” and will also be tolled at a rate much higher than any other toll road in the state.

The $2,600,000,000.00 project will likely be paid for by various methods. From the Lake County News-Sun:

What the components share in common is that everyone will hate at least one of the ideas. And lots of people will hate the entire idea, starting with spending $2.6 billion on a road that only begets bad funding ideas.

If shared pain is a compromise, then this one is a beauty. Every driver on every road across Lake County will pay more, perhaps forever, for Route 53.

New tolls will be added at several places along I-94 where no tolls exist now (on-/off-ramps to the roads serving Six Flags and Gurnee Mills mall, for example), and an increase in the county’s gas tax by 4c/gal.

What I still cannot understand is that, after months of back-and-forth debates about how to pay for the new road, there was no proposal to toll the existing road. Would tolling the existing road push the cost of driving high enough that some people decide trips could be combined, carpooled, shifted to transit, or just not made at all? Would tolling the road now impact future development decisions in Lake county that might influence some to live closer to the places they need to go, avoiding the frequent need to drive dozens of miles across counties?

There are political reasons why the existing IL-53 highway cannot be tolled, but if the extension is really necessary – or, rather, the need to reduce the amount of traffic congestion is necessary – they would find a way to make it work.

The presumption is that Route 53 travelers would pay, too. Will they? How much? Seems a pertinent detail to have glossed over.

The originally-proposed toll, $0.20 per mile, would cover somewhere around 15% of the project’s cost. And yet that amount still seems too high for drivers.

It’s 2014 and we’ve got to come to grips with the fact that highways are expensive. If the road is really needed, the people using it will need to pay something closer to what it costs to build and maintain. While it wasn’t cited in the USPIRG report, the 53 extension is a boondoggle and should not be built.

Meet the 5,679 square foot LEED Gold-certified home

September 16, 2014 at 4:16 pm

As if you didn’t need more proof that LEED is a fairly weak method of energy-efficiency:

rather than slavishly re-create an architectural classic, the two have produced a house that crisply articulates mid-century ideals, while anchoring it firmly in the 21st century. (It’s the first single-family LEED Gold–certified residence in San Diego.)

via dwell

The home in the Mission Hills neighbourhood of San Diego. Image via Dwell.

Years ago I wrote that I distrusted LEED certifications in part due to my alma mater reaching LEED status for its new dormitory buildings despite the fact that their location required the use of diesel buses to shuttle students to campus and back on a frequent basis. Of course, LEED certification in this case is for buildings and building sites.

But that hasn’t prevented parking garages from receiving LEED green-building certification. (Apparently this practice is being disallowed for new buildings?)

On the home’s location:

Capture d’écran 2014-09-16 à 15.06.34

Remember that Walk Score usually miscategorizes many types of stores people go to for errands: in this case, a juice bar, English specialty grocery shop, and a marketing firm were categorized as “grocery.”

Capture d’écran 2014-09-16 à 15.09.44

Another form of environmentally-friendly transport is the bicycle, and a lack of infrastructure (and probably hills) makes otherwise-sunny San Diego relatively bike-unfriendly. Whoever resides in this home is probably making multiple trips in an automobile every day (and I wouldn’t be writing this if it weren’t for a paragraph focusing on the all-important driveway).

I respect the will of anyone to build a bigger home if they can afford it and they want to live in it. But to call this home environmentally-friendly based on its location only reinforces my opinion that LEED is just a feel-good marketing scheme; at the least, it’s an organization who focuses solely on site design without consideration for how a building influences decisions on how its users get around.


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