Transportation
Opinion
Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the interpretation of facts and data.

OPINION: How to pull out of Vancouver Island’s intercity ‘death spiral’

A transportation planner argues that potential network benefits are ignored at our peril

Denis Agar
January 14, 2023
Transportation
Opinion
Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the interpretation of facts and data.

OPINION: How to pull out of Vancouver Island’s intercity ‘death spiral’

A transportation planner argues that potential network benefits are ignored at our peril

Denis Agar
Jan 14, 2023
Another private company, IslandLink, has stepped up to provide a bus service between Tofino and Nanaimo, after Wilson's Transportation suspended service. But is the solution to intercity travel on Vancouver Island? Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Another private company, IslandLink, has stepped up to provide a bus service between Tofino and Nanaimo, after Wilson's Transportation suspended service. But is the solution to intercity travel on Vancouver Island? Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Transportation
Opinion
Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the interpretation of facts and data.

OPINION: How to pull out of Vancouver Island’s intercity ‘death spiral’

A transportation planner argues that potential network benefits are ignored at our peril

Denis Agar
January 14, 2023
Get the news and events in Victoria, in your inbox every morning.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
OPINION: How to pull out of Vancouver Island’s intercity ‘death spiral’
Another private company, IslandLink, has stepped up to provide a bus service between Tofino and Nanaimo, after Wilson's Transportation suspended service. But is the solution to intercity travel on Vancouver Island? Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

When I was in Grade 8, I got my first cell phone. I researched the cheapest phone, the cheapest prepaid plan, and hounded my parents about it until they relented. At the turn of the millennium, it was certainly a luxury, but more importantly, it was completely useless. Who was I going to call? None of my peers had cell phones, nor did my parents. The crab game it had was fun though; I caught many apples with those little claws.

The state of intercity transportation on Vancouver Island is a tragedy far beyond little Denis’s empty contacts list. But the two problems have the same root: A single phone, or a single link in a network, is almost useless. Your phone has value because the people you want to talk to also have a phone. A transportation network has value if it can take you to the places you want to get to, when you want to go, at a reasonable price.

The few bus trips on Vancouver Island that were recently cut never had a fighting chance. Transportation planners and former MySpace users are familiar with the idea of the “death spiral” that happens when network decline begets more decline. Against the backdrop of remarkable ridership on Vancouver’s urban transit network, the province’s intercity transit network is in the last stage of that decline.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” I type, feeling the op-ed cliché deep within my bones. Great articles have already been written about how the province must step up and provide subsidies if we ever want to see a bus in Campbell River in January ever again. On that I agree. What I fear is that the province might decide to raise exactly enough money to reinstate the same anemic service that got cut in the first place. This is the same thinking that led to the creation of a subsidized bus network, BC Bus North, covering the top half of the province that offers no connections outside of that region . Or a separate bus service that links the hub of that network, Prince George, with Vancouver, but restricts boardings to people that have a medical appointment—even excluding riders who would be willing to pay full-fare and help subsidize it.

There’s no doubt that these services are a lifeline for the people whose needs are met by it. But—to stick with the cell phone analogy—imagine a cell phone that is pre-programmed to reach only one number. It’s the exact same device that could reach billions of people, but all that potential is removed.

Networks! Networks, networks, networks. We’ve come to expect convenient, thought-out networks for both car and airplane travel, and those networks have undergone enormous ongoing investment and growth over the last 70 years. But there are two big problems with both of those networks: 1) they cost a lot to use, and 2) they play an outsize role in the heatwaves, fires, and floods that we’re getting used to as a province.
Surely you know someone who’s marveled about taking a intercity bus in South Korea that comes every 15 minutes, or a high speed train to some small town in Switzerland. In these places, you can show up in a city and have an easy buffet of options allowing you to explore the region, at a decent price, without a car. Indeed, we did have that kind of passenger network before in BC, and we could have it again.

In Canada and the US, we’ve forgotten how to offer that sense of freedom to residents and visitors alike. The only freedom of movement left is behind the wheel of a private car, or, in bigger cities, behind airport security. But there remains an appetite for alternatives, at least among international tourists, who seek the same level of mobility here as they have at home. This is perhaps why for-profit bus operators have signaled that they will rev their coaches back up in the peak tourist season.

I’m calling for a strong, connected provincial transportation network for the benefit of its residents. But there’s another obvious beneficiary, if we could pull it off: the travel industry. There is a shortage of car-free ways to access nature, especially in Canada and the US. I envision a future where our province markets itself to the world as the place where you can take a coach bus to a campground beside a mountain stream.

The vision that I’m describing is of a transportation network that is convenient enough and cheap enough to guarantee free movement within this province. Something that works for patients seeking care in an urban hospital, students seeking education in a faraway college, and urbanites seeking a tranquil holiday. Each additional need that is met by the network strengthens it, and allows it to grow, meet more needs. Because if networks can have death spirals, can they not also have (um) life spirals?

A network like this could grow to be something magnificent and life-giving, but if the target is profitability, we might as well give up right away. A network that connects Comox and Penticton, year round, with reasonable fares will likely never be profitable. Even Japan’s bullet train companies would lose money without real estate development. Most countries subsidize a transportation network because they know that the return-on-investment is not on the balance sheet—it’s in the strengthening of rural areas, improved access to healthcare, enhanced tourism, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

That doesn’t mean it has to be expensive. Saskatchewan ran a provincial network at an annual subsidy of $17 million per year before it was eliminated entirely in 2017. With much larger tourism traffic than the prairies, we could use a progressive fare structure to ensure tourists subsidize essential trips. And let’s not forget that there remain some profitable bus routes—for instance, Victoria to Nanaimo—which could be turbo-charged with the benefit of a network of connections.

That also doesn’t mean that rail can’t play a role; we currently have rail routes going to Toronto, Prince Rupert, and Portland, all subsidized by other governments. Their tracks in BC are all in poor condition, leading to face-meltingly long travel times. There is famously a single rail bridge across the Fraser River in Metro Vancouver—it has a single track, a speed limit of 16 km/h, and was built when the region’s population was about 1/40th of what it is today.

But rail is too often the goal and the rallying cry. The real goal, though, should be connection: How quickly can I get to Port Alberni? How many departures per day? Will I be able to afford it? Will I be able to get around once I get there? We’ve spent the last 70 years investing in our highways and disinvesting in our railways, meaning that any kind of coherent rail network is billions of dollars away—but with a 7- or 8- figure investment, we could stand up a world-class provincial bus network by the end of the year. It would kick-start the life spiral (I’m going with it) and give everyone a taste of how things could be.

Denis Agar is a transportation planner and a father living on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and səlilwətaɬ Nations. He can be reached at denis.agar@gmail.com.

Article Author's Profile Picture
EMAIL:
TWITTER:
contact@capitaldaily.ca

Related News

OPINION: How to pull out of Vancouver Island’s intercity ‘death spiral’
Stay connected to your city with the Capital Daily newsletter.
By filling out the form above, you agree to receive emails from Capital Daily. You can unsubscribe at any time.