Roszan Holmen: Rush to rapid transit too rapid

I’ll never forget my first ride on Toronto’s subway.
I was a wide-eyed exchange student at the university, and new to the ways of the big city.

I’ll never forget my first ride on Toronto’s subway.

I was a wide-eyed exchange student at the university, and new to the ways of the big city.

Token in hand, I was headed for the escalator when the whooshing sound of the train echoed through the subterranean space. Panicked about the prospect of missing it, I started pushing my way through the crowds standing idly on the moving staircase.

I arrived two seconds too late.

As I swore under my breath, I noticed nobody around me appeared the least bit fussed. Their behaviour seemed odd to my Edmonton way of thinking. Back home, even women in heels and men in suits would break into an awkward sprint to ensure they caught the train. Missing it meant up to a half-hour wait, outside peak hours. And that’s a long time when you’re by yourself in the evening, at a virtually empty station.

Back at Toronto’s Spadina station, I realized my foolish mistake in a matter of minutes. Soon after the sound of the missed train faded to silence, the sound of the next could be heard in the distance.

Now that’s rapid transit!

To be fair to Edmonton, its lightrail line has since nearly doubled in length to 21 kilometres and the city has halved the waiting time.

Coincidentally, Edmonton was the first city with a population under one million to attempt light-rail transit. The six-kilometre line opened in 1978 serving a population of roughly half a million, plus suburbs, at that time.

Which brings me to Greater Victoria.

B.C. Transit recommends an initial route 16 kilometres long, with more stations to come. If it goes ahead, Greater Victoria will be one of the least populated regions to attempt such a thing without linking up with a larger transit system belonging to a neighbouring metropolis. That makes me feel like a bit of a guinea pig.

B.C. Transit, however, insists the population base isn’t the only relevant criteria.

“Population and city size … go hand-in-hand with population density and constraints in the rest of the transportation network,” according to B.C. Transit’s research. “The network in the Capital Region is limited by the shape of the land and the sea, resulting in fewer transportation corridors accompanied by more concentrated growth centres.”

Fair enough. I have no doubt a good number of the Colwood Crawlers will embrace light rail transit to avoid the daily jam on Highway 1 or the Old Island Highway. But how many? B.C. Transit estimates about 36,000 passenger trips per day, but also admits there won’t initially be any time savings in taking rapid transit over the car.

I’m a big supporter of any initiative to get us out of our cars. But I’m not convinced the timing is right for rapid transit.

I’m worried our population can’t swallow the $950-million price tag, even if the federal and provincial governments provide their two-thirds share.

We need more information to make a sound decision, which is why I applaud Victoria MP Denise Savoie, who called for an independent study of the issue on Tuesday. I’d like solid financial analysis of the experience of smaller cities that have built similar lines.

By the year 2040, (when the rapid-transit line promises a significantly faster option than the car) the Capital Region’s population will have grown by about 60,000. That’s many more taxpayers to share the significant capital costs, and many more potential riders to pay into the system’s ongoing operating costs.

More riders justify more frequent trains, ensuring no half-hour waits on Douglas Street at 9 p.m.

rholmen@vicnews.com

Roszan Holmen is a reporter

with the Victoria News.

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