“Final Thoughts on BRT”

Without a doubt, the last thing I wanted to write about this week was Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), especially given the high likelihood that a majority of Council will proceed with final approval of the Shift plan regardless of any further expression of concern by a Council member or the public.

Still, and despite the vote being largely fait accompli, I thought that I would provide my final thoughts on the project both good and bad, and offer some suggestions to Council that might help aid in the project’s success, and begin to repair the damage caused by this rather divisive exercise to-date.

The Good

Before even reading the plan, I was pleased to see the new civic leadership team appoint a full-time manager to the project.    While I do not know the manager personally, I understand her to be very competent and capable of implementing a project of this magnitude.  Her appointment and the pending creation of a full team dedicated to BRT (ideally with some private sector and transit experience) certainly lends confidence to the project and boosts the likelihood if its success.

After reading the plan, I was pleased to see the project cost increased to account for a number of remaining unknown costs (e.g. Western on-campus routes, Transit Villages, expropriation costs, etc.).  I now believe that the contingency fund is of sufficient size and that, barring any changes to the plan, we finally have identified the investment ceiling for the project.

Finally, I very much like the detailed Conceptual Design illustrations that now accompany the package.  I believe that they will provide the public with a much better understanding of the project and its implications on specific business districts, streets, campuses and neighbourhoods.

The Bad

I must confess that I still do not like the Economic Case for this project.  Perhaps the benefit/cost methodology applied to this case comes from a similar methodology used by Metrolinx (an RT organization facing its own struggles).  Perhaps it is a methodology recommended by the Province or another transit service.  Whatever it is, the inclusion of any benefit, such as greenhouse gas emission savings or health benefits from walking to the transit stop, that is not clearly identifiable and quantifiable, should not be included in the project’s core benefit/cost (B/C) ratio, even if such exclusion results in a negative B/C ratio.    At least then, politicians and the public will have a clearer understanding of the true benefit/cost ratio, and can decide if the project can be justified with the addition of these less quantifiable attributes.

I also have a problem with some of the assumptions contained in the plan.  For example, if I correctly calculated the improved travel times associated with BRT from the new tables provided in Section 2.5, the travel times by vehicle are still far superior to the improved travel times by BRT.

Let’s take the case of a commuter travelling from Western to Downtown.  According to the tables contained in the plan, the current transit time averages 18 minutes, 3x longer than a vehicle travelling the same distance.   The Plan continues that the average travel time under BRT would take an average of 12 minutes, resulting in a 6 minute savings, but still 2x longer than by vehicle.

This makes me wonder why anyone travelling by vehicle would be incented to travel via BRT, especially when one might also need to add time to board a feeder line or the time to connect to the BRT after parking near a transit village (assuming parking availability).   Therefore, I am not yet convinced that such marginal improvements in transit times between one location and another warrants the considerable cost and constraint on existing roadways when a vehicle can still get you to your destination twice as fast.

I also have an issue with the ridership projections.  I am not sure why the plan estimates ridership increases at past rates of growth when major transit services across the country are experiencing flat or declining ridership levels (“Stagnating Transit Ridership has Officials across Canada Stumped” Globe and Mail, May 2016).  I would have preferred a more conservative growth rate to protect against overstating returns.

I also have concerns over the feeder system.  With the exception of the Richmond St corridor, I understand and accept why the primary routes were chosen.  However, it would help to better understand what the London Transit Commission is doing to improve the overall system (e.g. market coverage, service frequency, accessibility, transactional ease), to build confidence in the system and ridership into the core.  I am equally concerned that the southeast and southwest quadrants of the city where the city’s own plan projects the highest growth in population and employment over the next 20 years are so far off of the primary spine.

Finally, I am concerned about the application of the city’s Development Charges (DCs) to justify the city’s contribution.  Based upon a very cursory review of London’s Growth Management Implementation Strategy, as I understand it, the city collects approximately $25-32MM annually in Development Charges from new construction, depending upon the state of the real estate in any given year.  I also understand that large percentages of these DCs are already allocated to capital projects (e.g. sewers, watersheds, arenas, etc.) and some operating investments (e.g. police, fire).  Obviously, a new transit system would and should qualify for DCs.  My questions are: (i) what does the DC forecast look like over the life of the BRT project? (ii) what projects, if any, are not being funded in order to pay for BRT?, and (iii) what risks does the taxpayer face if the real estate projections fail to emerge as planned?

Some Final Thoughts

Given that a majority of Council will likely approve the plan regardless of the concerns outlined above, I believe that Council should also consider the following concurrent steps:

  1. Conduct an independent peer review of the current routes by transit experts. The city already conducts such reviews for proposed buildings and subdivisions, and given the price tag for BRT, it would be prudent to get a second opinion.  Such a review will lend credibility to the Shift plan and start to re-build the public’s confidence in the project.
  2. Re-consider a more measured approach for the rapid transit route structure (BRT Lite). The current routes and dedicated lane approach seems like a bit of overkill given London’s modest ridership projections, short travel distances and nominal time savings.  It occurs to me that a BRT Lite plan that includes; peak hour (diamond) lane use, preferred traffic lighting, and improved frequency could nearly match the transit time savings offered in the current plan at a fraction of the cost.   It would better leverage the existing infrastructure, reduce business impacts along the route, build confidence in the system and respect all modes of transportation.
  3. Redo the business impact studies along the narrow corridor along Richmond Row now that the tunnel has been removed from the project, and initiate one for those businesses along Wellington Road South, Dundas, Oxford, and the Transit Village areas. Such information would be helpful for the City to fully understand the potential project impacts on these important retail corridors.
  4. Consider extending the Fanshawe line to the airport and examine the prospects of developing a new multi-modal station in a large area capable of linking air, HSR, RT and vehicular traffic, conveniently and much more cost-effectively.
  5. Explore alternative financing options such as a public-private partnership.  Such approaches will certainly add cost, but it will also reduce risk.

One final point.  In the event that neither senior level of government completes its evaluation of this project prior to next October’s municipal election, Londoner’s should expect that every candidate, be they incumbent or challenger, be prepared to clearly convey where they stand on this issue.  At the two public meetings that I attended on BRT, a number of Londoner’s requested that Council hold a referendum on the project.  If this plan is not funded by October 2018, in a way, those Londoner’s may just get their wish.