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Why we’re kidding ourselves when we wish for affordable airport transportation
On any given Thursday, even in mid-pandemic times, five flights leave from Victoria International Airport before 8am. The airport recommends arriving no later than an hour and a half before a plane takes off for a domestic flight, so anyone taking one of those flights should arrive at the airport before 6:30.
The trouble is, without a car or $75 for a taxi, there is currently no way to arrive that early.
The very first bus to arrive at the airport every morning pulls in 22 minutes after the first plane leaves, and too late to have a hope of catching the next two. Google Maps, for its part, suggests catching a bus from downtown at 11:51pm on Wednesday for a morning flight.
The YYJ Airport Shuttle from downtown suspended service effective Oct. 11, highlighting the conspicuous lack of bus service to the airport. It’s an absence that Victoria airport officials have been well aware of for more than a decade.
In that time, the public has repeatedly asked the airport authority for better ways to get to the Victoria airport. But the economics of airport transit—both the unfeasible cost of adding an express bus and the airport revenue that comes from passengers’ reliance on cars—have meant an express bus likely won’t be pulling up to the airport anytime soon.
“It really comes down to setting priorities in a field of a lot of high priorities,” explained Susan Brice, the chair of the Victoria Regional Transit Commission and a past director of the airport authority. “There are areas that took a higher priority.”
For the airport authority, the demand for better bus service—or even an express bus—has come up again and again in public consultation and annual plans. People have asked for increased service, and when in the past bus service was increased, ridership grew, too.
The airport authority has asked for a direct bus enough times that in 2018 BC Transit quietly commissioned a study looking into its options.
A draft of the study, which was never publicly released but which BC Transit provided to Capital Daily, compared Victoria’s airport transit system to those in major cities across the country. It found that there are plenty of cities with buses and trains to the airport, which serve employees and passengers alike. But there’s a caveat: “Only the largest airports like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal can generate sufficient transit ridership to support high-frequency transit services between the airport and downtown,” the report reads.
Victoria’s airport suffers from three major obstacles when it comes to planning for transit. First, it’s small and serves a small city. Second, it’s 27 km north of downtown. And third, it’s 3 km off the highway.
A small airport means fewer passengers and employees to fill buses. That makes every trip more expensive per passenger (whether that cost is paid by the passenger or swallowed by the bus operator) and makes it harder to maintain a high frequency of trips. That in turn means fewer people want to take the bus, feeding back into the original problem.
The distance is also a problem—both the straight distance and the dogleg at the end. An express bus to the ferry is possible because it’s a straight there-and-back trip that can be timed with the arrival and departure of ferries.
That logic doesn’t work as well for the juke west to the airport.
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“Geometrically there’s only a few things you can do with it,” says Denis Agar, a Vancouver-based transit planner.
Adding a diversion to the airport would hobble that efficiency, and timing it with flights would be next to impossible.
The report’s author presented four options to BC Transit, costing between $175,000 and $2.2 million to implement. The simplest and cheapest was to rely on a connector bus, like the existing 87 and 88 buses, which bring people from the airport to the McTavish Exchange, where they can connect with the north-south express bus; this would cost the least by far but would also have just a third of the expected ridership that other options might.
Two other options involved diverting the north-south express bus and creating a new airport route. The diversion would cost an additional $780,000, while the dedicated airport bus would be $2,223,000 and require buying eight new buses. The routes would be expected to serve 125-150 new passengers on weekdays.
BC Transit, evidently, implemented something resembling the first, cheapest option, relying on the connector bus.
A BC Transit spokesperson said on Tuesday that a new transit plan is being developed for the Saanich Peninsula. The plan, to be completed in early 2022, may include a bus from the airport every 15 minutes instead of the current 30-60 minute frequency.
The new option would still require a transfer between the connector bus and the north-south routes. Adding that extra step exponentially increases the complication and lowers the convenience—and in turn, the maximum number of interested riders. The earlier study expected that slightly increasing bus frequency would add about 10 riders per day to the existing 30-40.
“This modest increase reflects the modest improvement in service frequencies,” the report said.
The report did not account for the 15-minute frequency that’s now being considered, but the connector also naturally results in situations like the inaccessible morning flights; there is a north-south 72 bus that arrives by 6:15, but it’s a long walk for anyone trying to reach the airport before the first 88 bus. At a run, assuming no luggage, it just might be possible to arrive breathless at the gate for an 8am flight. To be on time for the five earlier flights, a car is the only option.
There’s a bright green line streaking across the map of the airport in a 2008 airport authority strategy document.
“One day conventional passenger vehicles and buses will be unable to meet the increasing demands for environmental [sic] friendly transportation to the Airport,” the document reads. “Recognizing this, VAA has reserved a future right-of-way on Airport property to accommodate light rail.”
Wistfully, it adds, “At present, this right-of-way is just a line on paper, but it is a line that will help secure our future.”
The line kept showing up as late as 2012 in reports, but now, that future appears to have been abandoned. There are currently no plans for a light rail line to the airport.
“It turned out that the price for that was beyond the communities’ belief they could afford,” Brice said.
Instead, the airport staked its transportation future in part on ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft—which have yet to materialize in Victoria—as well as the private shuttle that was discontinued earlier in October.
Meanwhile, the airport had been making money hand over fist prior to the pandemic from taxi operators, car rental companies, and parking. The airport makes more from so-called non-aeronautical sources, which on top of transportation also include restaurants, retail, and advertising, than it does from flights.
In non-pandemic times those sources had been growing more and more lucrative, from less than $7 million in 2011 to $12.4 million by 2019. The pandemic, of course, has flattened airport revenues around the world.
So while the airport may be asking BC Transit for more efficient service, it stands to lose money if that ever happens—a cost that would be compounded if it had to help cover the cost of a bus, since BC Transit concluded in its 2018 review that “airport service typically underperforms,” and that it would have to be subsidized by the airport authority.
It wouldn’t just be the airport that could lose out. A 2017 economic impact study estimated the private companies that transport people to and from the airport made $6 million the year before, and employed nearly 200 people.
With the suspension of the airport shuttle, that number has now dropped. The pandemic slammed the airport’s coffers, with ground transportation companies hit as hard as anyone.
“When we re-started service in August we were hopeful that we could revive the service,” the shuttle company wrote in its announcement. “Unfortunately, with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, as well as travel restrictions, passenger counts remain too low to make the service viable at this time.”
The airport itself has fared no better. Overall, it took a $22 million hit in 2020 alone.
The airport authority expects recovery will be slow until more people are vaccinated and travel reopens. But right now, the airport will be reluctant to splash out for expenses that don’t seem likely to pay themselves off—and that doesn’t bode well for anyone still waiting for the bus.