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British Columbia Vancouver’s North Shore badly needs a train, but don’t expect it any time soon

A TransLink bus travels on West Broadway in Vancouver, on March 22, 2017.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Ever noticed how your North Shore friends are often running a little late? They arrive in a flap at least 20 minutes past the appointed hour, apologizing and blaming bridge traffic as though the tie-up in which they were snarled was a surprising, one-off anomaly. Which, of course, it is not.

Jammed bridges and gridlocked freeways are a near-daily occurrence for people living on the North Shore. But many can’t quite bring themselves to admit it, because they remember a time when they could buzz to the city from their lush mountainside communities in no time at all. Those days are gone, and traffic will only worsen as the population increases.

Most North Shore residents live in single-family homes and drive to get around. In West Vancouver, 77 per cent of trips are made by automobiles, compared with 50 per cent in Vancouver. In North Vancouver, where the Seabus runs from Lonsdale Quay to downtown Vancouver, the percentage drops to 62. It’s highest in the District of North Vancouver, where 78 per cent of trips are made by cars. The reason for this is simple: Transit can’t compete. A 2018 North Shore transportation planning study points out there are no dedicated bus lanes on the bridges, so when traffic is jammed, the buses are gridlocked along with everyone else.

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“The same distance can often be travelled by car in less than half the time of transit,” the Integrated North Shore Transportation Planning Project found.

The dearth of fast, reliable public transit is once again raising calls for a train to the North Shore. Last week, the provincial government announced a feasibility study for a rapid transit line. Now, a study is only a baby step toward a new line. But the fact that a study is being done points to how much worse people expect gridlock to become as the region grows. It is predicted that by 2041, the number of people living on the North Shore will increase by 61,000 people – a third more than today. And they aren’t the only ones using the Lions Gate and Second Narrows bridges. The bridges are the sole links connecting everyone in Metro Vancouver to Squamish, Whistler and ferries to Nanaimo and the Sunshine Coast.

The province’s announcement coincided nicely with TransLink’s planning schedule which is currently setting transit priorities for the next 30 years. And it is possible that when the calculations are all in, investing in a train line to the North Shore will make more sense than building part or all of a SkyTrain line from Surrey to Langley, which Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum wants, but won’t necessarily get. Mr. McCallum rejected the TransLink’s Mayors Council’s plan to build light rail through Surrey and insisted instead on the SkyTrain line. Residents are now being polled to see whether they agree. Regardless, there isn’t enough money to take SkyTrain the entire way and ridership numbers don’t justify building to the halfway point. It’s possible North Shore mayors will argue Surrey’s waffling is a sign the money should instead come to them to kick-start a train line of their own.

A train to the North Shore makes perfect sense, but it should come with conditions. To justify such a massive public spend, there must be faster, more reliable transit connections on the North Shore; no one is going to ditch a car for a pokey bus. And yes, West Vancouver, that will mean B-line express buses and dedicated bus lanes because without them the system is too slow. There should also be dedicated bus lanes on the approaches to the bridges. (Widening the bridges or dedicating a bus lane on them would worsen congestion, the transit study showed.)

But best of all would be to marry improved transit with mobility pricing, making it cost prohibitive to commute by car. This would have to be done region-wide and would take brave municipal and provincial leaders to make it happen. So far, Canadian politicians have not dared emulate cities such as London, Singapore and Stockholm, which charge motorists to drive into the city centre.

None of this will happen any time soon. Meanwhile, don’t be too hard on your North Shore pals. They don’t mean to be late – they just don’t have a train.

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