Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Transit By Night

When putting together a transit system, it's easy to overlook the peripheries - in space and in time. Just as sprawling, lightly-built suburban areas tend to have limited service at best, in many cities the quality and frequency of service tends to go down with the sun. It may be because I spent a year on the graveyard shift, but I consider night service to be a key part of any transit agency's mandate, and the character of that night service tells a lot about the agency itself.

When I lived in Toronto, I didn't have much to complain about when I found myself having to take the TTC in the middle of the night; sure, I've heard stories of the people you encounter on the Vomit Comit at three in the morning, but that's hardly something the TTC can be held responsible for. When I felt unaccountably ill at 4 AM, I was able to jet away for a sick half-day and hop the streetcar home.

Toronto's Blue Night Network is still a relatively new system - in 1986, there were only seven routes providing all-night service in Etobicoke, York, North York, East York, and Scarborough - but I don't think even Rob Ford would find any gravy within it. Twenty-four routes, two streetcar and twenty-two bus, ply Toronto's roads between 1:30 AM, just before the subway closes for the night, and 5:00 AM, when regular daytime service starts to ratchet up again. The routes are set up in a grid to maximize coverage of the city, and while it's not nearly as in-depth as daytime service... hey, it's night. At least it's easily feasible to get around in the middle of it.

CLRV 4077 takes on night passengers at Yonge and King. Note that the 504 King route is not a night route, though I have known streetcars to run there until after 2 AM.

When I moved to New Westminster, I had to adjust to the fact that the situation here is considerably different. If I had to pick one word to describe TransLink's night bus service for Metro Vancouver, it would be "anemic" - though "spotty" might also work. It's something I had to study, and make careful plans because of, when I went to attend Yuri's Night at the Space Centre last Saturday.

Compared to Toronto, things stop early here. Most buses, from what I understand, tend to stop running shortly after midnight, as does the SkyTrain; hell, on Sundays, the last full Millennium Line trip leaves Waterfront Station at 11:31 PM. When I returned from Toronto back in January, more than two hours late thanks to those wonderful delays I've now come to expect from Air Canada, I made it on a late run that was only going as far as Lougheed Town Centre - uncomfortably close to being stuck downtown.

In contrast to Toronto's web of twenty-four all-night routes, TransLink offers the people of Metro Vancouver twelve routes... and they're not all-night, either. From what I've been able to find, most NightBus routes seem to stop running around 4 AM. What's more, their coverage is minimal at best; sure, TransLink crows about how the NightBuses "cover more ground than all three SkyTrain Lines," but the point of a night bus network is not to replace the rapid-transit spine of a transit system; it's to provide night service. For that matter, parts of the network aren't replaced at all. New Westminster itself is served by only one night route, the N19, which appears to use Royal Avenue before it crosses the Pattullo Bridge to Surrey; I can't tell because, unlike the TTC, TransLink does not offer route maps for individual routes. So if you live in Sapperton and you need to get home from downtown Vancouver at 3 in the morning, it's down to walking through the depths of the night or cab fare.

New Westminster is hardly alone in this, either. Burnaby and Vancouver are the only cities in Metro Vancouver that are served by more than one NightBus route - and even then, service can be spotty. NightBuses in Richmond go no further than Richmond Centre, and Surrey isn't served past Surrey Central Station; the District of North Vancouver, West Vancouver, Delta, White Rock, and Port Coquitlam, just to name a few, have no night transit service whatsoever.

Much of this is, no doubt, due to the incredibly sprawling nature of TransLink's operational authority; where it has to deliver public transit over a 2,877 square kilometer area, the TTC only has to concern itself with the six hundred and thirty square kilometers of Toronto. But it's still a great hole. It's not as if people don't go out for the night in Vancouver; it's more the case that people who do tend to have to cab it home. With $50 fares not out of the question for a trip between downtown Vancouver and New Westminster, plenty of people might just stay home.

There will always be people who need to get around, no matter what time it is. The gravely limited network Metro Vancouver has today is nothing to be proud of, and does no favors to those who work the graveyard shift.

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