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Is the Canada Line at maximum capacity? No. Will it be in a decade? Depends on …

April 22nd, 2014 · 108 Comments

For the last year, every time I’ve gone to a public hearing or meeting about development, I’ve heard people fret about how there’s not enough capacity to absorb the new people who will be coming with the developments. Not enough schools, hospital space, parks, libraries, you name it.

And it used to be that, along with all that, people complained about the inevitable increase in traffic and decrease in parking space. But there’s a new twist on that in Vancouver. Now people say there’s not enough room on the transit lines, especially if anything is planned along the Canada Line or (less frequently) the SkyTrain line.

In the spirit of public inquiry, I called TransLink to get the numbers on the current state of use and what the future holds. (My Globe story here.) Jeff Busby, who does the agency’s infrastructure planning, kindly answered me in two separate interviews. What it made clear to me is that the Canada Line and SkyTrain do have the physical capacity to absorb a lot more people.

What was clear from speaking with mayors, councillors and engineers who are involved with this issue is that there’s no guarantee that, as lines reach their capacity, TransLink will have the money to do the upgrades needed to increase it.

“I suppose that’s a risk,” Busby said cautiously when I asked him whether there isn’t a danger that, even when the people come, no one will want to fund an increase in capacity.

There is no automatic trigger or defined point at which anyone will say, “Okay, we  now have 300,000 people along this line and you’re legally required to provide a higher level of transit.” (To be fair, doesn’t work that way with cars, roads and suburban development either.)

One could take it as a positive sign that TransLink is currently starting $1 billion worth of renovations to upgrade the capacity of the Expo Line. (And, have to say, I’m totally loving the new look of the Main Street/Terminal station.)

But, given how rapidly and ferociously both commuters and developers have taken to clustering around rapid transit, you have to wonder if the Canada Line expansion isn’t going to be needed a lot sooner and be a tougher fight than the Expo Line’s expansions.

Richmond is expanding its city centre from 40,000 to 80,000. A whole pile of new developments are planned to go in around Capstan Way, where developers are paying for a new station. There’s a cluster of towers under construction or in the works now for the foot of Cambie and, I would guess, more to come. There are developments all along Cambie, with two giant projects — Oakridge and the Pearson-Dogwood site — in the works.

Anyway, because I know there are wonks are there who love numbers, here are a few:

– The current line has a capacity for 6,100 people per hour per direction.

– At the latest count (yes, they go in and do physical counts), the line is carrying a maximum of 5,500 pphpd

– The line could carry 10,000 pphpd if it shortened the headroom between cars from 3 minutes 20 seconds to two minutes. Why don’t they do that now during rush hour? I asked Busby. Well, it’s not that easy. There are 16 two-car trains running. (The system has 20 in all, but two sets are always kept in reserve for breakdowns, repairs, etc) You could run them every two minutes for a brief period but then you’d be stuck with no trains for the rest of the hour because it takes a certain amount of time to do the whole run and back. There’s no way to shorten that up unless you can convince people to load themselves on faster.

So the two-minute runs won’t happen until TransLink orders a whole extra fleet of cars. And that won’t happen until crowding goes up substantially.

– The line can carry 15,000 pphpd if it moves to three-car trains arriving every two minutes. That will mean punching through the walls at the end of the current platforms to extend them. (The stations were designed for that eventuality.)

– One other interesting fact. Development along a line doesn’t necessarily drive the transit numbers. According to Busby, two-thirds of the people in the morning rush hour who use rapid transit arrive from beyond walking distance. So the numbers will go up as growth goes up overall, not just in proximity to stations.

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