Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Why does it cost so much to build transit in Metro Vancouver? Lessons from Continental Europe

Over the last few weeks, I have been on a holiday that took me through parts of France, Germany, and the Netherlands. While I was there, there were several news stories about how it cost way more to build transportation infrastructure in the UK compared to the rest of continental Europe. It costs about double. They included Canada and the US in their comparison, and we faired even worse.

Sam Dumitriu, who works for Britain Remade, detailed this information in the post, "Britain's infrastructure is too expensive."

What contributed to lower transportation project costs in places like Spain, France, and Germany? They used off-the-shelf equipment, no-frills designs, and cost-effective construction.

In Strasbourg, they were debating building a SkyTrain-type system or a tram network in the 1980s. Many people wanted to build the SkyTrain-type system because it would have less impact on driving and parking.

I had a chance to ride their tram network in Strasbourg, France. It opened in 1994 and has been continually expanding. It was four times less costly than their originally proposed SkyTrain-type system.

The first picture shows the Landsberg Tram Station in Strasbourg.

Landsberg Tram Station in Strasbourg. Select the image to enlarge.

The second picture shows how they adopted four-lane roads for transit, walking, and cycling.

Mother and Child Crossing Street with a Tramway on Bikes in Strasbourg. Select the image to enlarge.

So, what does this have to do with Metro Vancouver?

While I'm proud of our SkyTrain system, it is one-of-a-kind, which means that compared to other rapid transit systems, it does cost more to build.

The TransLink Mayors' Council wants to get more high-quality transit to more people and places in our region over the next decade than ever before. While we are committed to building SkyTrain to UBC and Langley, the future of rapid transit in our region will be Bus Rapid Transit.

What makes transit networks great isn't whether it is built with rails or rubber (buses) but whether it is fast, frequent, and convenient.

We will build more transit per dollar using off-the-shelf buses, traffic light prioritization, high-quality but no-fills stations, and existing road right-of-ways.

Building cost-effective rapid transit is the way to go, but change management challenges exist. We will have to change some general travel lanes to bus-only lanes along many bus rapid transit corridors. While most folks in our region support building high-quality transit, there will be opposition to reallocating road space. In some communities, this opposition may give elected representatives pause. I remember that RapidBus didn't continue to Ambleside but stopped at Park Royal in West Vancouver due to the opposition to reallocating road space.

While we can build cost-effective rapid transit in Metro Vancouver, there will be tough political decisions to be made in some communities.

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