Snapshots from Vancouver’s CUTA Transit Conference: Integrating Mobility

CUTA Fall 2016 Conference Logo

The CUTA fall conference theme (Source: Canadian Urban Transit Association)

The Canadian Urban Transit Association (CUTA) recently held its annual conference and giant transit trade show from November 5-9, 2016 in Vancouver, B.C. Billed under the title “Inspiring Sustainable Change,” the conference focussed on changing technology, climate, demographics and customer expectations when it comes to cities and how they move.

I had an opportunity to attend part of the conference and what follows are some of my own personal highlights, especially around integrated mobility, electric vehicle technology and a sneak peek at Vancouver’s new SkyTrain Evergreen Extension.  I’ve also included some key quotes from Canada’s Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Amarjeet Sohi who completely impressed me with his thoughtful responses and sincerity.

But First, a Few Thoughts on Grand Unified Mobility

What’s CUTA?

The Canadian Urban Transit Association is a member-based association that advocates for sustainable mobility and  investment in transit in communities of all sizes.  It also provides its members–118 transit agencies, 18 government organizations and over 350 business members and affiliates from Canada and beyond–with resources, data, research and opportunities for training and networking. (Source: 2015 CUTA Annual Report)

Before I continue, just wanted to say that I felt very fortunate to have been able to attend both this event as well as the Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place conference that also took place in Vancouver in September.  Having both events occur in the same city within a couple months of each other was inspiring when considering how to evolve mobility in our cities.  It also offered some interesting comparisons.

One thing I happily observed is that I felt that the CUTA transit conference sessions included just as much reference to walking, biking and other forms of mobility as the overall Pro Walk Pro Bike sessions did to transit.

While there’s room to continue building on this in both conferences, I was happy to see the full spectrum embraced at each event.  On the larger scale, attending both conferences also made me think about what the steps might be to continue building partnerships and learning across transportation advocacy groups.

So, this vehicle might not be multimodal but am including here just because it looks beautiful. Old BC Electric (the forerunner of BC Transit and TransLink) bus at the CUTA trade show.

Another kind of “playful?” So, this vehicle might not be new but I’m including it here just because it’s darn beautiful. Old BC Electric (the forerunner of BC Transit and TransLink) bus at the CUTA trade show.

I also found a playful, iterative nature to many of the Pro Walk Pro Bike Pro Place sessions that is less evident but gaining on the transit side.  Transit tends to bigger undertakings with a lot of pressure to “get it right the first time.” Going to Pro Walk Pro Bike and then CUTA got me thinking about how we might further incorporate more playful approaches to how we design elements of transit systems.

Also, as my colleague Senior Transit Planner Rebecca Newlove (BC Transit) put it, we need to take hold of every opportunity to work with communities to make each transit stop and station a true place.  (And on that note, the combination of placemaking and transit might be an interesting topic for a future conference).

Integrating Mobility

Integrating mobility across all transportation modes and the idea of shared use Mobility as a Service (MaaS) were recurring conference themes that also framed a number of sessions.  The following are a few of the key links and short takes from this theme:

Key category questions

Excerpt from Brendon Hemily’s presentation showing categories of questions public agencies should be asking themselves about transit and the new shared use modes. (Source: Brendon Hemily)

  • Shared Use Modes: Some QuestionsBrendon Hemily (Hemily and Associates) provided what I thought was one of the most interesting presentations on integrating private shared-use transportation providers  like Uber and Lyft with transit.  He outlined seven question areas that public agencies can ask themselves to determine the policy implications and public benefit for “cooperating, coordinating or integrating with these new modes.”  You can see an overview of these questions in a similar presentation Brendon provided to the Transportation Research Board or you can obtain a full copy of his discussion paper on this topic by writing him at .(And just let him know you read about it here).
  • Shared Use Modes: Some Answers – Another interesting resource came from Adrian Bell (Activate Planning) that he helped develop in his previous role with TransLink.  The Future of Driving: Policy Directions for Automated Vehicles and New Mobility Services in Metro Vancouver is based on a substantial amount of research and conversations held with Metro Vancouver municipalities from September 2015 to April 2016.  The report “recommends potential research and policies” as next steps towards determining a path with shared-use modes in the Metro Vancouver area.  It also includes operating considerations around automated vehicles and mobility services that may be a useful starting point for other jurisdictions as well.
  • Automated Vehicles: Some Caution – I also appreciated Brian Mills‘ (Brian Mills and Associates) perspective on automated vehicles and their potential impacts on public policy areas such as land use, affordability, public health, emissions and others. He also shared information from what appears to be a very useful summary of potential automated vehicle impacts and trade-offs in the OECD International Transport Forum – Urban Mobility Systems Upgrade.

    Integrated Mobility & Land Use

    Sean Rathwell (Dillon Consulting Ltd.) speaking to City of Ottawa multi-modal guidelines, with Integrated Mobility & Land Use Planning moderator James LaPointe (TransLink), left.

  • Integrated Mobility: Reallocating SpaceSean Rathwell (Dillon Consulting Ltd.) presented on work that the City of Ottawa has done around implementing complete streets, and in particular the set of Multi-Modal Level of Service Guidelines that city has developed to guide this.  It was pretty interesting to see the depth of detail covered by the Ottawa guidelines for everything from pedestrians and cycling infrastructure to motorized modes.

In response to this detail, I thought Senior Community Transportation Planning Engineer Stephanie McNeely (City of Vancouver) asked one of the best questions at the conference: how do we balance a more rigid, numbers based approach to reallocating street space with trust in ourselves to also understand and create healthy, connected communities at an intuitive level.  Transportation planning is both “art” and “science,” indeed.

Sabrina Lau Texier

TransLink’s Sabrina Lau Texier (Source: LinkedIn)

  • Integrated Mobility: One more for the future – One presentation that I was very much looking forward to but that didn’t happen due to technical issues was from TransLink’s Manager of Infrastructure Project Management, Sabrina Lau Texier. She was going to present on TransLink’s new exchange at the University of British Columbia and how it’s integrating multiple modes plus also housing and recreation.  I’m hoping that I might be able to follow up with her in the new year to profile that very interesting and technical project here.

Going Electric

Another topic that was featured at the conference was the use of electric vehicles in transit, in particular buses.  While transit systems have used electric propulsion for well over a century for their rail and streetcar lines (as well as trolley buses), emerging technology around battery storage and charging is making electric battery-powered buses increasingly feasible.

Speakers from a number of communities spoke to electric bus implementations and demonstrations from four different vehicle manufacturers:

    • Frederic Delrieu (Nova Bus) spoke to a demonstration project that his company has been undertaking in Montréal, Quebec in partnership with the Société de Transport de Montréal (STM).  I found his presentation interesting in terms of the evaluation criteria described for the project, design of the charging stations, severe winter weather considerations and key findings to date.  I’ve put an excerpt from his presentation below showing a charging station for the project that is also integrated into a subway station.  I’m also very grateful to Frederic that he has generously provided a copy of his presentation here so that others can view its details.


      Excerpt from Frederic Delrieu’s CUTA presentation on the Montreal City Mobility Project.  (Source: Frederic Delrieu, Nova Bus)

    • Eric Hesse (Tri-Met) spoke to a trial of New Flyer Industry’s Xcelsior buses in Portland, Oregon. (You can also see further information on an Xcelsior trial in Winnipeg, Manitoba in this previous blog post).  Included in his presentation, Eric noted that the State of Oregon is now encouraging its power creating companies to work with transportation agencies as a key partnership.  He also suggested that as more transit systems in the Cascadia Region (roughly northern California to British Columbia) integrate electric buses into their fleets, it would be helpful to create a northwest community of practice on this.  Hear, hear.
  • Gary Prince (King County Metro) spoke to work his system has been doing with Proterra Catalyst buses and charging technology in the Seattle region.  Already operating a sizable network of 174 electric trolley buses, King Country Metro has set an admirable target of retiring all of its remaining 200 diesel buses by 2018 and replacing them with electric options.  The video at right shows a charging station in operation.

    BYD electric buses

    BYD electric buses at the CUTA trade show.

  • Len Engel (Antelope Valley Transit Authority) spoke to a project that his Lancaster, California-based agency is undertaking to convert its 85 existing diesel buses to a 100% battery electric bus fleet over the next three years. A partnership with bus manufacturer BYD (see photo of two of their electric buses, right), the project will convert 50 local buses and 35 commuter style transit vehicles over that time frame.

SkyTrain Evergreen Extension Sneak Peek

One definite conference highlight was the opportunity to have a guided tour of the SkyTrain network and get a peek at the new Evergreen Extension before it opens.

Source: TransLink

Source: TransLink

Building on recent changes to the network in October, the new Extension is slated to open on December 2, 2016. Eleven kilometres long, the extension and its six new stations will serve the municipalities of Burnaby, Coquitlam and Port Moody.

“Ghost trips” (in which trains are operating in the segments but are not yet carrying people) are now running on the line to test it out and that provided the opportunity for TransLink and BC Rapid Transit Company staff to lead a tour for conference participants.  They provided great commentary on the older parts of the network and how it has been shaping land use.

They also offered a window into the impressive technical challenges that have been part of the extension project: a two kilometre long tunnel, at grade and below ground track, unique buffers for some of the adjacent sites and connections to the West Coast Express at two of the stations.

The stations themselves were distinctive and felt bright and airy.  They also feature unique public art, including a suspended canoe at the Moody Centre station.  I’ve included a photo of the canoe below but Ottawa-based transportation planner Paul Croft (Morrison Hershfield) offers a nice collage of photos of the two stations here and here.

Moody Centre Station

Suspended canoe over stairwell speaks to transportation of another kind at the new Moody Centre SkyTrain station on the Evergreen Extension set to open December 2, 2016.

Thoughts from Canada’s Minister of Infrastructure & Communities

There were a number of leaders who spoke at the conference, among them CUTA’s President and CEO Patric Leclerc  as well as TransLink’s CEO Kevin Desmond., City of Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, and the B.C. provincial Minister responsible for TransLink Peter Fassbender.  All of the speakers were inspiring and demonstrated true appreciation for the urgency of transitioning our communities to healthier and more diverse ways of getting around.  True to the conference’s theme, they also touched on ideas related to integrating mobility across all travel modes.

One of the speakers was Amarjeet Sohi, Canada’s Minister of Infrastructure and Communities.  Sohi is charged with an ambitious and laudable investment plan to improve transit and infrastructure of all kinds.  That in itself should have made him an interesting speaker.

However, what really made an impression on me was how he spoke and the depth of feeling and conviction that he brought to his words.  Over the past two decades I’ve spent in transit, I’ve had the opportunity to hear a number of provincial and federal ministers speak.  While they have all done their jobs reasonably well, I can’t ever remember hearing from one who seemed to take his portfolio so personally.

“Infrastructure can change communities,” he said, “And I have seen first hand how infrastructure can change lives, how it means access for people and their families to jobs and everything else that communities can offer.”

Referring to his time as a transit operator for the Edmonton Transit System he added: “One thing I saw for my customers at that time was often a lack of choices.  What I want to see moving forward is effective transportation across all major urban centres so that people can leave their cars behind.  So that not only do they have choice, but they can access the integral parts of life.”

Feverishly trying to scribble down Sohi’s words, I’m not sure if I got his quotes exactly right or truly captured the feeling behind them in the above, but trust me, it was awesome to hear from someone so personally attached to their work.

I’ve said in these pages a number of times that one thing that we folks who make our living working with communities should never do is fear our passion.  Showing that we care deeply about our cities is one of strongest tools we have when encouraging others to care along side us.  Hearing Minister Sohi speak was an excellent reminder of that truth and the sustainable change it can make possible.

Much thanks to those who provided me with material for this post or who also helped document the event via Twitter and whom I’ve excerpted from here.  If you see anything you think I’ve got amiss or needs correcting, please feel free to contact me.

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