Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Will to Build

For more than a year now, off and on, I've been testing my skills at Starcraft II against other people with strange handles, and I've still yet to arrive at the point where I can win more often than not. Having thought about it, I've concluded it's down to my playing philosophy - I will advance my capabilities to a certain extent, but stop somewhat short of the top of the game's technological tree, subconsciously assuming that my opponent is doing the same thing or is slower than I am. Subsequently, I am obliterated by advanced units that I am incapable of turning away with the army I've managed to slap together.

It's common to encounter the same sort of problems in a public transit system... or, rather, a lot of the common problems suffered by public transit systems spring from similar lines of thinking as to what leads me to lose in Starcraft again and again. There's a temptation for cities to rest on their laurels, to decide that their transit system is "good enough," and put off necessary expansions time after time until it's been left behind, and can no longer cope with the demands placed upon it.

Earlier this week, TransLink put out a press release reporting that ridership across Metro Vancouver's transit system - bus, SeaBus, and SkyTrain - is approaching new highs, on track to shatter the 2010 record of 211.3 million passengers over the course of the year. Though TransLink apparently is on a sufficiently stable keel, financially, that it's able to keep the current system in a state of good repair without overstretching itself, that's just not good enough for a system that's consistently being used by more and more people. Thankfully, TransLink recognizes that, and is well aware of the need to expand the system - both to keep up with the demands being placed upon it, and to ensure that ridership continues to increase by making it more worthwhile to use.

Too bad TransLink doesn't have a sufficiently stable keel to embark on a major expansion program. Right now, the only serious plan on the books is the Evergreen Line, still planned for 2014 - and they'd better start building soon if they want to make that schedule; construction of the Millennium Line took four years, from 1998 to the end of 2001, and it's slightly less than twice as long as the Evergreen is planned to be. Beyond that, the Evergreen Line is only the closest-to-realization of an array of projects, many of which have barely even been conceived, that will be necessary to keep Metro Vancouver moving in the decades ahead.

An unfinished portion of the streetcar right-of-way on Toronto's St. Clair Avenue West, as of November 2009.

Transit systems are like sharks, in some ways - if they stop moving they die, and the same is true if they stop building. A transit system that has stopped expanding, that has no plans to expand, is as good as dead; many such systems were built in times of higher ridership, but have since been left to wither on the vine and are no longer capable of addressing urban or regional transportation needs in any significant way. This is unfortunately common in some American cities such as Buffalo and Cleveland - you didn't know Buffalo and Cleveland had subways, did you? Part of that is because the systems there are not enough to provide dynamic transit to the city as a whole. If you did know, well, good on you for knowing.

Thankfully, Metro Vancouver hasn't arrived at that state yet. The system here is still relatively new, still dynamic - in the last ten years alone the Millennium Line and Canada Line have been added to the rail network, and plans are in play to further expand the B-Line express bus system. For now, it seems that TransLink is on a generally ascending trajectory, and that the biggest barriers that will likely be faced for the expansion of Vancouver's transit is how to pay for it - rather than finding the will to expand to begin with.

For an example of a city that did not keep up with that pressure, and which has continually lacked the will to do what was necessary to ensure its transit was up to snuff, you need look no further than Toronto. Back in the 1980s, the Toronto Transit Commission was uncritically known as "the Better Way" - there were TV commercials advertising it! Of course, the 1980s may well have been the last good days for the TTC; the 1990s saw the election of the Progressive Conservatives to provincial government, and the operating subsidies provided to the TTC by the province - to the tune of more than $100 million - were unceremoniously yanked, and it was thereafter forced to maintain service based on farebox revenue and whatever money it could cadge from the city. In 2009, 66.7% of the TTC's cash came from fares paid - contrast this to TransLink, which only got 46.3% back from the box in the same year. Toronto's system is the most reliant on farebox revenue in all of North America - only Amtrak and GO Transit, neither of which are single-city public transit providers, rely more on what riders pay.

That lack of strong financial foundations is obvious now. The last substantial expansion of the Toronto transit network was in 1978 - when there was no SkyTrain and the SeaBus was new. The Transit City light rail plan could have done a lot to correct this imbalance, but thanks to a mayor who has consistently enshrined ideology over effectiveness, all Toronto will be getting now is a single, completely underground, crosstown light rail line that will cost more than some airports.

Vancouver doesn't have to go down this same path. We have the will. All we need is to make sure we find the means to realize it.

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