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Dec. 3, 2021

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As Vancouver’s population grows, C-Tran strives to build mass transit system

By , Columbian staff writer
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Heather Manning of Vancouver sits aboard a C-Tran Vine bus headed east while departing from the Turtle Place Transit Station in downtown Vancouver on Monday. The Vine runs along Fourth Plain Boulevard and is Vancouver's first Bus Rapid Transit line, though two more are in the works.
Heather Manning of Vancouver sits aboard a C-Tran Vine bus headed east while departing from the Turtle Place Transit Station in downtown Vancouver on Monday. The Vine runs along Fourth Plain Boulevard and is Vancouver's first Bus Rapid Transit line, though two more are in the works. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When nearly a foot of snow buried the Vancouver area this month, C-Tran CEO Shawn Donaghy was surprised to see that the number of people who relied on public transit barely dropped.

Ridership dipped to about two-thirds of its normal level on Feb. 13, he said, but then rebounded fully by the next day. Even as swathes of the city shut down during the winter storm, the same people who usually ride public transit went about their business.

“People still have places to go. People still have things to do. There are essential workers who must get to their jobs,” Donaghy said.

By Tuesday, the snow was mostly gone. But the COVID-19 emergency remains.

Across the country, the virus has disrupted public transit agencies and ridership. C-Tran took a hit – average weekday boardings on The Vine, the bus rapid transit line that runs along Fourth Plain Boulevard, dropped by 34 percent between 2019 and 2020. Compared with other communities, it was relatively minor.

“We experienced the lowest dip in ridership of any public transit system in the state of Washington,” Donaghy said.

Those two emergencies, Donaghy said, speak to a broader truth: the people who use C-Tran really, really need it.

Building a useful public transportation system is tricky. Service needs to be robust enough to be practical. A slow, sporadic or unreliable route isn’t a viable option for most people. But transit also needs enough riders – and riders who absolutely depend on the system – to justify the major public investment.

“The chicken-and-egg is more about how you’re building ridership: how do you provide the frequency of service and connectivity of the system?” said Rebecca Kennedy, Vancouver’s long-range planning manager.

Density is one factor. Although Vancouver’s population is growing quickly, its neighborhoods aren’t nearly as dense as in big cities with urban public transit.

Another major consideration is “ridership generators,” Kennedy said. Vancouver has plenty of those: shopping centers, hospitals, college campuses, and job hubs like the Columbia Tech Center. The key to offering successful transit is starting on corridors that already see the highest rates of ridership, and then making those routes more comfortable, frequent and easy to use as a viable trip option.

“It’s not necessarily the density of development. It’s the ridership generators, and how many people are using transit to get places,” Kennedy said. “It’s definitely an incremental thing.”

In addition to regular bus routes, C-Tran has The Vine, its bus rapid transit line. Launched in 2017, the number of riders had been steadily climbing until the coronavirus nosedive.

Encouraged by the increasing demand, C-Tran turned its eyes to another BRT route: a line currently under development along Mill Plain Boulevard, which is expected to go live in 2023. The Mill Plain route will cost an estimated $50 million to build, with about half of that cost covered by a grant from the Federal Transit Administration. A third line is being eyed along Highway 99.

Those routes were designated as high priorities because they currently meet the “ridership generator” criteria, but also because they intersect with future urban development.

The Mill Plain BRT line, for example, will run through the Heights District, the site of a major redevelopment plan spearheaded by the Vancouver City Council. That plan hinges on a surge of new multifamily housing units – and in order to achieve that density, the district will need to make transportation options available for people without cars.

“Parking is something that you want to calibrate carefully. It’s expensive to build. If you require too much of it, you really unnecessarily drive up the cost of development,” Kennedy said. “Transit is one piece of the puzzle, in terms of managing parking demand over the long term.”

‘Right-sizing’

In response to Columbian coverage of the developing BRT routes, some readers wrote comments and sent emails criticizing C-Tran and the city of Vancouver for pumping resources into public transit instead of building infrastructure for privately owned vehicles.

There’s a balance, but public transportation and road capacity aren’t mutually exclusive, Kennedy said.

“Individual vehicle ownership and drive-alone trips aren’t going away. We see that as a key option. But we also want people to have different kinds of options,” Kennedy said. “Roads are really expensive to build, and in a built-out city, they’re really expensive to make bigger.”

Enhancing mass transit also carries an obvious environmental advantage – a study commissioned by the city in 2019 found that a quarter of Vancouver’s carbon emissions comes from on-road, gasoline-powered transportation. C-Tran is responsible for only 1 percent of the city’s carbon footprint.

According to Scott Patterson, C-Tran’s project manager for the Mill Plain line, BRT is one of the more affordable and efficient public transportation systems. Most of the 37 station locations that will eventually dot the Mill Plain line are already public property.

“One of the things that C-Tran has looked at when we started even the early planning of the Fourth Plain project was utilizing the existing public right of way,” Patterson said. “What we wanted to do was the most cost effective, but provided a similar level of benefit.”

BRT is the tool of choice for expanding mass transit in Vancouver in part because it’s a smaller city. Chris Selk, the public affairs manager for C-Tran, said that the flexibility and relative affordability of adding designated bus routes makes it an easier lift than building a metro or light rail system.

“In major cities that have a high population density, the BRT system is more likely to be a fixed guideway (similar to light rail but without the track) system. These types of BRT systems typically cost more to build than non-fixed guideway BRT,” Selk wrote in an email.

“One of the beneficial aspects of BRT systems around the country (and even internationally) is the ability to ‘right-size’ the BRT to best match the community it serves.”

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