Seattle Light Rail set to open this year

Seattle's Link light rail - courtesy Seattle Times

July 18, 2009 is the big day for a new era of transit in Seattle.  All right.  New era is probably a bit much, but things will definitely be changing.  The Link, Seattle’s new light rail line will run from Seattle’s downtown to Tukwila in the south.

In Cascadia, that brings the big three metro areas all up to rapid transit status.  Vancouver has two SkyTrain lines with a third due to open in September 2009. Portland has had 3 MAX light rail lines with a fourth opening this summer.  And now Seattle has the Link.

One of the key questions in the article is “Who will ride the Link?”  As with most rapid transit projects, initial ridership is often low and does not meet initial targets.  People just don’t live within convenient reach of these stations at the outset.  However, if we look at Vancouver’s lead in terms of Transit-Oriented Development, it has been successful in developing residential towers in and around many of the SkyTrain stations.  If we look at the Millennium SkyTrain Line, it was very quiet for the first few years, but with the completion of major residential projects along the line (mostly in Burnaby), the ride has gotten busier and busier.  If Seattle follows Vancouver’s suit, then they should be little villages surrounding the stations where commuters will walk or bike to the nearby station and hop on.  One thing that Seattle could improve on from Vancouver’s example is the ability to siphon jobs in and around the stations.  Vancouver has suffered from a lack of jobs around SkyTrain stations because the residential condo market has just been way too profitable for developers to pass up.

courtesy The Seattle Times

courtesy The Seattle Times

One of the graphics from the article really struck me as interetsting.  It lists some info from the light rail lines across the Western U.S. and Vancouver, B.C.  It has the city name, miles of rail, years the lines opened, the cost, and the ridership.  Vancouver’s SkyTrain numbers look quite impressive at $1.7 billion spent for a daily ridership 240,000.  On the outset, I would say Vancouver got the best deal for their buck with two current SkyTrain lines for $1.7 billion.  However, the big footnote is that the cost has not been adjusted for inflation.  However, Vancouver has built their system for the same amount of money as Portland.  The lines have operated for roughly same amount of time.  Portland has 44 miles of line over 3 lines versus Vancouver’s 31 miles over 2 lines.  The real zinger, though, is that Vancouver’s ridership is over double that of Portland’s (240,000 in Vancouver vs. 107,500 in Portland).

What gives Vancouver’s system a huge ridership advantage over Portland?  I would like to see that question answered by somebody out there.  it’s quite impressive to see Vancouver with such a huge ridership number compared to comparable systems.  I can only think of a couple of key differences.  The Vancouver SkyTrain is actually a mini-metro with a huge tunnel and elevated guideway infrastructure that gives a dedicated right-of-way throughout the system.  That translates into an average speed of 60-70 km/h on the system.  So perhaps the cost of the SkyTrain technology has actually paid off (much to my surprise).

Another possible explanation about higher ridership in Vancouver is the land use around the stations.  Let’s not forget the land use and transportation must go hand-in-hand with one another.  We have significant development around a lot of the stations.  The downtown core has 4 stations with an ever-increasing residential population surrounding them.  The commercial buildings have not increased a huge amount downtown, but they are definitely a huge draw for work.  Outside of the downtown, Joyce Station is probably the only Vancouver station with significant development around the station.  Burnaby has certainly taken the bull by the horns by building aggressively in it’s 3 main town centres around Metrotown, Brentwood, and Lougheed Stations.  Add on Edmonds station with a very significant high density neighbourhood and a growing New West downtown skyline and you get a lot of potential riders within steps of the SkyTrain.

So who knows exactly what might be the deciding factor(s) involved in more ridership.  The only caveat is to take all numbers with a huge grain of salt because there are so many ways to frame stats to make things look better or worse.  If only there was an accepted international standard by which governments and the public could evaluate the true value of proposed projects.  A way to measure apples and oranges with one standard to compare them all.  Any university grads interested in a thesis?

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