****This report is a "work in progress" and will be corrected as errors and omissions are discovered. Error reports are welcomed and should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In November 2007, I visited Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada to look over their public transit and especially to ride the “Sky Train”. I was there November 5-8.
The Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority is called TransLink. It operates the buses, the SeaBus ferry and the SkyTrain light rail. Translink’s website is www.translink.bc.ca
I just rode the Greater Vancouver public transit; I did not ride the commuter heavy rail “West Coast Express” or the BC Ferries to Vancouver Island.
This is not a technical report on Vancouver’s transit, or even a transportation policy study. This report is just my personal impressions as a transit rider.
I flew from Oakland to Vancouver, with a stop in Seattle. Vancouver is threaded by waterways – Burrard Inlet, False Creek and the delta of the Fraser River. The weather was very nice for my arrival.
The flight from Seattle to Vancouver was on a turboprop, which flew relatively low so I could see the city and the waterways.
Canada Immigration stamped my passport. The pleasant young man asked me why I’d come to Canada. When I told him I was going to write about the local public transportation, he wrinkled his nose and said there were some gaps in the bus service. He remarked that the new hybrid buses were a good idea. (I never did see any hybrids; maybe they are yet to be introduced)
At that time, the US dollar didn’t quite buy one Canadian dollar. I pocketed some 20’s showing a picture of Queen Elizabeth.
The Plaza 500 Hotel was about 18 stories, and located on a hill south of False Creek at 12th & Cambie. It was near Vancouver City Hall, with its large clock, illuminated at night; I could see it (roll the picture to the right) from my room on the 7th floor. From one of my windows, I could see Cambie Street and a construction project with a deep ditch.
After I settled into my room, it was after 4pm and starting to get dark, so I just strolled about the neighborhood. Across the street, I discovered a shopping complex with a Starbuck’s, a Safeway store, various shops, a food court and a branch of Scotia Bank with a convenient ATM.
I saw a bus running on Cambie Street. This was the 15 line, which I was to ride back and forth many times to downtown Vancouver during my visit.
The deep ditch turned out to be part of the subway tunnel for the new Canada Line, which will connect downtown with the airport. A sign near the ditch said that concrete would soon be poured to make two tunnels, one above the other. They were putting in rebar to reinforce the ditch. The sign said the new line would open in 2008, but the TransLink website says 2009. The new subway will have a train every 15 minutes. The Canada Line should be open when Vancouver hosts the 2010 Winter Olympics.
The weather had been sunny when I arrived, but soon turned cool and rainy, and stayed that way for most of my visit.
The neighborhood of the hotel included several apartment buildings and professional offices. Nearby Ash Street had a sign “Traffic Calmed Area – Local Traffic Only”. Later, I saw several more of those “traffic calmed” signs elsewhere in the city.
I walked down Cambie to Broadway, which has lots of shops and restaurants. It’s also a major bus corridor, with at least 4 lines. One stop for the “99 B-line to UBC” had a sign “3-door boarding in effect at this stop”. People with a pass may board through any of the three doors of the articulated bus; those paying cash must enter at the front door and use the fare box.
Near the doors on this and some other buses I saw a sticker saying that the inside of the bus is a “fare paid area”, which I think means that riders need to carry proof-of-payment.
I ate supper at the restaurant which was part of the hotel; I could charge my meals to the room. When I checked in, the hotel gave me a $10 voucher for each day of my stay. I could only use the vouchers at the hotel’s restaurant, for breakfast or lunch.
I soon discovered the hotel’s “business center” -- a room with two computers on which I could access email and the Internet, for a credit-card charge.
There is also a “scratch and ride” pass, which one validates by scratching the date of desired travel; it then acts as a day pass.
One can buy several unvalidated day passes anytime, and hold them until the day you want to use one. A pass is validated by dunking it into a special slot on the fare box. The pass is then stamped with today’s date. For subsequent rides, one does the same dunk, and when the machine sees the pass has already been validated, it emits a beep. The first time I used my pass, the bus driver had to show me which way to insert the pass – so that the magnetic stripe matches the diagram on the fare box. Then I thought the beep meant the pass was invalid, but the bus driver told me to sit down. As with transit anywhere, a new rider has to learn.
Slightly lost, I wandered into the “Gastown” district, down on Water Street, which parallels the seaport on Burrard Inlet. In the old days, Gastown was the grubby “skid road”, but now has become trendy and touristy. There were only a few decrepit bum-types around on that rainy November day. One guy was ranting about something. I got panhandled by a guy on a bike, who said he was freezing in the cold rain. A store advertised Cuban cigars. I took a picture of the “steam clock”.
I finally looked at my map and corrected my course to head for the Waterfront Station.
I located the stairs leading down to the SkyTrain platform. A sign warned that I was entering a “fare paid zone”.
I was OK; my validated day pass was my paid fare. There were no fare gates; one simply gets on the train. SkyTrain follows proof-of-payment (POP) rules; one must have a validated ticket. There are plenty of ticket machines in the stations. There are fare inspectors, but I never saw one in action during the few days of my visit.
At 8:48am I boarded my first SkyTrain, on the Expo Line going to King George. The Waterfront station is underground, but the train soon emerges above the ground for the first station “Stadium/Chinatown”. Most of SkyTrain is elevated, hence its name.
My train was nearly empty, since our direction was opposite to the commute, and this was past the prime commute time.
Most SkyTrain trains have three cars, Each car has 2 doors, on both sides.
Most of the seats are for two people, and face forward. There are some 1-person seats too. There are two sets of (senior-friendly) 6-people seats, facing the aisle in the middle of the car, conveniently close to the doors.
The tracks look like standard railroad gauge. At the Waterfront Station, it looked like some SkyTrain cars were parked on the regular rails next to the West Coast Express trains.
Automated voice announcements tell the current station, and the direction and destination of the train. Most stations have the trains in the middle and riders board from the sides. To cross to the other platform, one must go upstairs to a bridge.
As the SkyTrain moved along, I saw many tall buildings even away from the central city.
I got off at Edmonds station. This was a wooded area, with pleasant multi-family residential buildings. The station has a small bus mall.
I’d been told that SkyTrain does not have an operator, but I found that hard to believe. The trains keep moving along, and don’t stay at the stations for more than 15 or 20 seconds. The trains come along about every 5 minutes. I watched the trains as they approached Edmonds station. In the front of the first car, there is a window, but I couldn’t see anyone behind it. On one train, I saw a man behind the front window, apparently seated, but not doing anything. I boarded a train and went to the front of the lead car. There was a man seated in an alcove behind the front window, but I couldn’t see any controls. He was chatting with another man in one of the side seats. I realized they were both just passengers. Finally, on another train, I sat in the fold-down seat behind the front window. Nobody prevented be from doing so. I got a great view of the tracks ahead. I could see the power strips along the side of the trackway; SkyTrain gets its electricity the same way as BART does.
On either side of my alcove were closed cabinets. I could hear relays clicking within; I think this was the brains of the train. From outside the train, I could see that these cabinets have no window.
SkyTrain is really a robot. The cars zoom along, pausing at the stations, waiting for passengers to clear the doors, then zooming onward. Inside the cars is an intercom panel which one may use to speak with somebody somewhere. There’s a yellow strip which can be pressed to generate a “silent alarm” if a rider needs assistance. I take it that somebody remotely monitors the trains from a central location, to deal with problems, but for most of the routine operations, SkyTrain is a free-running robot. Here is TransLink’s web page on the subject. The shuttle trains which carry airline passengers between terminals of the Seattle-Tacoma Airport are also automatic, with no operator. Many other intra-airport shuttles operate the same way.
The control technology for SkyTrain is supplied by Alcatel, the same company which provides control for San Francisco Muni and BART. There are several different levels of train control, ranging from simple speed control to fully automatic operation. These technologies are generically known as Seltrac.
At the Production Way Station, I had a good conversation with a SkyTrain official. He told me that indeed there are no operators on the trains; their operation is entirely automatic. The flat metal pieces between the tracks are used to control the train’s speed, using electromagnets under the car.
The power comes from a paddle touching the high voltage strips along the tracks; he said they use 720V.
He also said the SkyTrain has been running for 13 years, without any problems bad enough to bring back operators. I’m sure the trains can be operated manually when necessary.
I was impressed with SkyTrain, and continued to be impressed as I rode the trains and watched their smooth operation.
I estimate that the trains stay in a station about 15 to 20 seconds. Somehow, the robot knows if people are still passing though the doors. Several times, I saw the door cycle repeated, probably to wait for passengers to stop blocking a door in another car. On each door cycle, the sound system emits a “doong-deeng”. I don’t know what happens if the doors are blocked for too long; perhaps someone remotely monitoring the cars can alert one of the strolling SkyTrain officials.
There’s a great Wikipedia article on SkyTrain, which goes into a lot of detail. It says there have been no derailments or collisions in the history of SkyTrain.
Some of the trains have names, e.g. “Spirit of Saanich” or “Spirit of Nanaimo”. Most are 3-car units; I did see a few 2-car units in the middle of the day. I saw several different types of car. SkyTrain has been putting on new models all the time, but the older models are still used. The models are referred to as “Mark 1, Mark2, …” The SkyTrain official told me that a new model (Mark 4?) will soon be deployed. At least some of the cars are air-conditioned. I guess they are heated too; I was comfortable aboard even when cold rain was falling outside.
It is clear that business booms and development flourishes along the SkyTrain route. At several stations, I saw the steel girders of new buildings going up. There were many clusters of tall residential buildings and shopping centers. New Westminster Station is a major transit-oriented complex with shopping and housing.
One of the stations is called “Lougheed Town Center”, pronounced LOW-kheed. I think this is the British name from which we derive the name of the Lockheed corporation.
None of the SkyTrain stations have public toilets. I suppose the idea is for riders to spend some money in the nearby stores and restaurants and use their facilities. It continually amazes me that there’s so much reluctance to install public toilets in a public facility. Maybe there’s just too much hassle with keeping them clean, or with attacks on riders by bad people.
At the bus mall connected to one of the stations, I looked over the TransLink buses. Most were standard 40-ft diesel city buses. I did not see any that looked like hybrids. The only time I heard the whine of an electric motor was from an electric bus, drawing its power from overhead wires. On the major routes, there were 60-ft articulated buses, all diesel that I could see. I don’t know who manufactures any of these buses; I couldn’t find any manufacturer ID on those I examined. Perhaps they come from New Flyer in Winnipeg. I saw no signs bragging about “clean diesel”. I did see an ad poster about “Clean Air Day”.
Besides the big city buses, I saw some vans marked “Community Shuttle” and “Handi-Van”. I think all the vans are operated by TransLink.
A note on demographics: the appearance of most inhabitants of Vancouver is either white European or Asian. I saw only a scattering of African faces, and they looked like they came from Africa – much darker than the typical African-American. I never clearly heard one speak, so I can’t be sure. I did hear some Asians speak – they are nearly all Chinese. I’d read that Vancouver has the largest Chinese-Canadian community in the country, and that many (wealthy) Chinese came from Hong Kong when it stopped being a British colony. I saw many East Indian faces, and heard what may have been Hindi or Urdu. I suppose I’d have heard many other languages if I had been visiting during the tourist season.
Given that Canada is officially bilingual, I was surprised that I never heard French spoken while I was In Vancouver.
After getting on and off SkyTrain and generally having fun riding the system, I rode back to the Waterfront Station. After unloading all us riders, the train put up a sign “DO NOT BOARD”. I guess it goes someplace to turn around and come back for another trip.
Waterfront Station is the transfer point for the heavy-rail commuter train called the “West Coast Express”, serving other communities in British Columbia. I didn’t ride this transportation system at all
But I did ride the Seabus. This is a ferry going from Waterfront Station across Burrard Inlet to Lonsdale Quay on the North side, in the City of North Vancouver. (By the way, Burrard is pronounced bur-ARD, according to the SkyTrain voice announcements)
One boards the Seabus by going upstairs to the street level at Waterfront Station and walking out to the pier inside an enclosed ramp. I encountered what looked like fare gates, so I asked what I should do with my day pass. “Nothing - just walk on through,” I was told. Seabus is on proof-of-payment like the SkyTrain. Clicking myself through the gate got me into a waiting area, in which to my surprise I found doors marked for Men and Women – public toilets. Apparently seagoing transit patrons are allowed to pee even though train riders are not.
There was a “Next Seabus” display showing how many minutes and seconds to the next departure. I could see the ferry approaching – a wide vessel with windows all around. It doesn’t carry cars -- just people and bicycles. The vessel has 6 doors, 3 on each side. When it pulled into one of the two ferry berths, the 3 doors opened on the side opposite my waiting room, and the arriving passengers exited. When everyone had departed, those doors were closed and the 3 doors in front of me opened. Individual ramps, dropped down when the ferry arrived, connected our waiting area to each of the 3 doors. Everyone got on, and took a seat. There was plenty of room. A sign warns “Please remain seated until SeaBus has come to a complete stop.”
Then the doors closed and we heard the obligatory life raft announcement – “in the unlikely event…”
Like many ferries, SeaBus does not turn around; it just reverses direction. Burrard Inset is Vancouver’s wharf area for container freighters, cruise ships, tugboats and smaller craft. I saw several container ships, one turning around preparatory to coming alongside a container crane.
After about a 15-minute trip, the SeaBus pulled into one of the two berths at Lonsdale Quay and the doors on one side opened to let us out.
Seabus service is every 15 minutes during the day (there are two vessels) and is reduced to every 30 minutes in the evening. http://www.bcpassport.com/vancouver-activities/seabus-adventure.aspx
Lonsdale Quay is a fun place. There are many shops and restaurants, including an “international food court”. There’s even a dentist’s office and the “Footloose Travel & Cruises” store. Tourist knickknacks can be purchased; I bought a hat that says “Vancouver Canada”. I wish somebody had sold transit-oriented T-shirts.
There’s a transit mall at the Quay, with bays for maybe 10 buses, to get people where they want to go in North Vancouver.
I wandered around, watching the birds, boats and people. The area is a great place for watching freighters; a helpful sign tells people how to identify container ships and bulk carriers. Another sign said: “Don’t Feed the Birds – maximum $2000 fine.” I chased away a mewling seagull who had been eying the remains of my lunch.
The “Next Seabus” display said 10 minutes. I could see the vessel coming. I took several pictures. A sign on the vessel says SeaBus has been operating for 30 years.
While waiting to board, I saw a machine selling transit passes, so I decided to buy an extra day pass for the next day. This turned out to be a mistake, because the machine dispenses passes already validated for the present day. So I had an extra day pass for that day.
I emerged from the Waterfront Station into the drizzling rain. Sitting on the sidewalk, and wrapped in a dirty blanket an old fellow stroked his dog, staring vacantly at the passing throng; I saw him every day I was there.
It took me a little walking to find where I could board the 15 bus to get back to the hotel. This line runs frequently, so I didn’t have to wait long once I’d found the stop. A contruction project at one end of the Cambie Bridge backed up traffic, but eventually I got back to the hotel to dry off and get a little rest.
About 3:30, I emerged again and caught the 15 downtown. This time, I got off at Seymour & Georgia, which is a short walk to the Waterfront Station. I went into a 7-11 and bought two (unvalidated) Day Passes for the remaining days of my visit.
Then I boarded the SkyTrain Expo Line. It was just after 4pm and the rush hour had started. After the next two stations, the train had a full crush load. Fortunately, I had already secured one of the 1-person jump seats near the door. I rode all the way to King George – the end of the Expo Line. The car stayed pretty much full until the end. We arrived at 4:50. Several times, the doors closed for departure, then re-opened, before the train got under way. People behaved well. S eats were yielded to seniors. People got out of the way to let others get out the door. As on transit in any major city, most riders had the dull “commuter stare”. Some were talking on cellphones – which work well on SkyTrain since most of it is elevated.
King George, in the Surry district, is a shopping center. There is one 30-story building which looked residential. Another building was under construction. I could see many large apartment blocks nearby. Indications of prosperity like these contrasted with my frequent sighting of ad posters on transit offering help with bankruptcy.
At 5:11, I boarded a Waterfront train. This was lightly loaded, so it was easier for me to see where the train was going as it retraced where I’d been. We passed over the long “Skybridge” which crosses the Fraser River; this bridge is exclusively for SkyTrain.
The train had plenty of room until Metro Town Station, when it got to about half-full. I saw a train coming in the other direction which was packed full. By 5:52, I was back at Waterfront Station.
At that point, I decided to call it a transit-oriented day, and returned to the hotel.
The next morning was Wednesday, November 7, 2007.
My first project was to find out how to use the buses to get to the Vancouver airport (without being under time pressure).
I had used the hotel computer to access TransLink’s trip planner, and found out I had to ride 3 buses. I walked down to Broadway and boarded a 99 B-line - UBC. This was a very full articulated bus. I had to be told to get behind the red line (it’s yellow on US buses) and was barely able to do so against the crowd pressure. The 99 was an express, and fortunately Granville was one of the express stops. At Granville & Broadway, I boarded the 98 B-line - Richmond Center. This was another articulated bus, and quite full, but I did get a seat at about half-way to the airport. Airport Station, a small bus mall, is on Sea Island in the Fraser delta. From there, bus 424 took me to the airport terminal. The airport occupies most of Sea Island, some of which might be reclaimed tidal flats. I found my way to the departure area that I’d use the next day, and picked up a US Customs declaration form to fill out. For future reference, I noted a 7-11 store, which was part of the airport. Next visit to Vancouver, I would know where to pick up my first day pass.
Then I rode the 424 and the 98 back to Granville & Broadway.
From there, I boarded the 99 to ride out to the end of its line at University of British Columbia. There is a large transit mall at the campus, with about 20 bus bays.
UBC students are big bus users. They also ride bikes more than people do elsewhere in Vancouver.
Somewhere around this point, I saw an amusing sign: “Rapid Transit for Bugs – Wash Your Hands.”
On the way back on the 99, I got off to find a veggie restaurant that had been recommended to me. This turned out to be of 4th Avenue, which has several bus lines. I rode the 7 – Nanaimo, which I hoped was going to Nanaimo SkyTrain Station downtown. Maybe it did go there, but I got off as soon as I recognized Seymour Street and the Waterfront Station.
Before the end of my trip on the 7, the driver ejected a bearded guy who was trying to get a bus ride without paying full fare. The driver explained to the rest of us riders that this guy tries his trick nearly every day.
Just after that incident, I saw a police officer ticketing a car which was parked right in the middle of a bus zone.
Since I was there at Waterfront Station, I took another round-trip on the SeaBus. One of my fellow passengers was a young woman in a wheelchair, being pushed by an attendant. Wheelchairs have no problems on SeaBus. On arriving at Lonsdale Quay, they headed for a “Handy DART” van. I heard one of them say the woman would be picked up at the end of the DART trip.
Back at Waterfront Station, I saw two interesting signs. One said “Ask Your Employer how you can get a Discounted Transit Pass”. I suppose this is for something like EcoPass. The other sign was on ticket machines; it read: “Selling or Giving Your Ticket Away is an Offence.” So one could not buy a ticket for someone else?
I played slot machines for a little while, and having broken-even after an initial run of luck, I left.
I got a little lost on the way back. The casino is on a walking/biking trail near a major stadium. The trail goes along the shore of False Creek, and was very pleasant in the early evening, with the city lights shining in the water.
Some big event was going on nearby, and there was a major traffic jam on the local streets, with much horn honking. A fire truck came by, not in emergency mode. One of the fire fighters yelled at a couple of limousine drivers who were blocking an intersection with their long vehicles. I was glad I was on foot.
About 8 other riders were waiting at the Cambie stop when I arrived. When a 15 bus arrived, it was showing a head sign “Sorry Bus Full”, and passed us up. The next bus, which arrived about 15 minutes later, had plenty of room, and I rode it back to the hotel.
About 8:30am, I checked out of the hotel, and rolled my suitcase down to Broadway.
The first 99 bus to arrive was packed – I guess it always is in the morning, with UBC students. I let another 99 bus go by, then boarded the third one. It was full, but I managed to get me and my suitcase back of the red line.
The 98 at Granville was only about ¾ full, and I got a seat! The 424 from Airport Station to the terminal was nearly empty.
So I began my trip home, checking with US Customs and Immigration at the Vancouver airport. The US Customs guy grinned as he asked me if I had bought any Cuban cigars (I hadn’t). I flew to Portland, then to Oakland.
I thought my Vancouver transit trip was a great success.
I was much impressed with the whole TransLink system, and especially with the SkyTrain. I was encouraged by TransLink’s efforts to implement proof-of-payment, but I saw on the TransLink website that TransLink claims to lose about $6 million in unpaid fares annually, including $3 million from SkyTrain alone. Transit riding sure seems popular in Vancouver. Maybe the way to go is pay for all of transit from taxes.
It was unfortunate that I did not see the bus-only lanes in Richmond. I probably would have if I'd ridden the 99 B-line father south. I know I didn't see any special lanes for buses in downtown Vancouver. I got the idea that TransLink's long-term plan is to convert the B-line routes to something faster, such as a subway, a branch of the SkyTrain or maybe even a BRT.
end of report - Vancouver transit trip
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