Think of the world’s famous transit systems: the metros of Paris and Tokyo, the New York City subway, the London Underground. All of them moving millions of people every day. Maps of their many multicoloured lines swirl in a kind of modern art.
And, then, there is the bus. The lowly bus. In a 1993 song, the American band the Violent Femmes hit a chord on a reality not much changed all these years later: “Looks like somebody forgot about us / Standing on the corner, waiting for a bus.”
The bus is the overlooked backbone of transit. Overlooked, above all, by politicians who write the cheques. They’re just not flashy or expensive enough. Canada is pouring billions of dollars into new subways and light rail, and these are welcome investments. But no bus route ever gets a ribbon cutting, like the Ontario Line subway did in Toronto in late March, a ceremonial groundbreaking attended by the premier, the federal minister of transport, and the mayor.
So kudos to Vancouver for recognizing that in many places, the humble bus is the future of mass transit.
Last week, TransLink, the Vancouver region transit authority, detailed its plans for the next 10 years. It named doubling bus service as a top priority. This was a surprise, since the current headline projects are a Broadway subway in Vancouver and SkyTrain deeper into the suburbs. But TransLink also calculates that more buses can make a real difference, at a lower cost, in the everyday lives of commuters.
The future of the bus comes in two thrusts: bus rapid transit (BRT), and better service on “ordinary” routes. Research that shows that transit systems thrive, and attract riders, when buses show up often and on time, and move fast. That better service boosts ridership, which actually makes the whole system cheaper to run on a per-rider basis.
A BRT involves dedicated lanes for buses, separated from car traffic, rather than just painted lanes indicating bus priority. BRT is often called light rail on wheels. But it can be built faster, and for less money. So what has discouraged building? The political price of taking lanes away from cars.
TransLink estimates that it can build BRT at $15-million per kilometre, versus $400-million per kilometre for SkyTrain. BRT can also be built in a fraction of the time. SkyTrain can move more people, so it makes sense on the busiest routes. But on a per-dollar-invested basis, BRT can carry more than three times as many people. TransLink sees BRT lines operating around the region within a decade.
And then there’s prosaic, old fashioned, local bus service. For TransLink, it’s an equal priority. Big ideas include “10 until 10″ – buses on major routes running at least every 10 minutes, until 10 p.m.; “15 for 15″ – most bus routes at least every 15 minutes for 15 hours a day; and one-third of routes operating 24 hours a day.
A bus you can count on to get you quickly to and from the SkyTrain would really power ridership in Vancouver. And it’s not just about getting commuters to and from downtown. It’s about moving people around the region. Postpandemic, that is expected to be the growing share of trips, across the country.
It’s part of Ontario’s new thinking. In a big plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe put out last month, the “radial network” of transit – focused on moving people into and out Toronto’s core – will become an “expansive grid that allows people to travel across the region by transit.” Among the goals is frequent local service of 10 minutes or less during busy times.
Canada is in the midst of a transit spending boom. There are investments in subways and LRTs, from Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton to Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. The list is long; the price tags are large. And most will be worth it. (Thought not all: Consider Ontario’s multibillion-dollar plan to tunnel an LRT on low-density Eglinton West).
Now, consider that TransLink’s proposed 134 kilometres of BRT on nine routes all over the region would cost about $2-billion. The 5.7-kilometre Broadway Subway is expected to cost $2.8-billion.
Good transit doesn’t always have to cost a lot: the low-budget work that sped up the existing King streetcar in downtown Toronto, and boosted ridership, proves that.
The bus sucks when it shows up late or gets stuck in traffic. But these problem are not so hard to fix. Let us praise – and invest in – the lowly bus.
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