For the past two years, Sarah Wald has been commuting by bus from Victoria’s Fernwood neighbourhood to the City of Langford’s core for work. The commutes have varied in length and comfort over the years, she says, but it’s her best option to get around when comparing the cost of transit to the cost of owning a vehicle.
An employee of the popular local coffee joint Poncho’s Cafe and Catering, Wald is known to regulars for coming up with the cafe’s creative monthly drink features. She says she loves her job — so much that she’s willing to put up with sometimes lengthy and unpleasant commutes to get there.
“In the summers and when school is in session there used to be single-decker buses running between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., and those were an absolute nightmare,” Wald says. “We’d be like sardines packed into them. In those cases, I would sometimes wait at work for an extra hour just to try to avoid them.”
Better bus service is key to easing West Shore traffic woes, experts say. Making transit fast, reliable and comfortable is good for bus riders and car drivers alike, if it encourages fewer car trips on the roads. But getting there is complicated, especially when major bus routes cross between municipal jurisdictions. As Wald continues to sit in traffic, the most high-impact solution — a dedicated bus lane connecting Langford to downtown Victoria — is still years away.
And Wald isn’t alone. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, bus Route 50 between the West Shore and downtown Victoria saw about 10,000 boardings per day, making it one of the busiest bus routes in the region, according to BC Transit’s corporate and strategic planning director Matthew Boyd. And with the West Shore’s population estimated to grow by 22 per cent in the next seven years — accounting for more than half of the Capital Regional District’s population growth — the demand for transit options will increase too.
Residents on the West Shore are already raising flags about increased traffic on arterial roads as well as neighbourhood streets. Alouette Drive in Langford was recently identified as an area of concern, with drivers using the narrow Westhills neighbourhood street as a short-cut between Highway 14/Sooke Road and Langford Parkway, CHEK News reports.
In a survey put out by The Discourse, several residents expressed concern about increased vehicle traffic and congestion in the region.
“Traffic has increased and many of the roads are not able to handle it, not only during peak rush hours but much of the time considering so many people from town come here for the Superstore and Costco,” one respondent wrote.
“I have only seen issues related to transportation infrastructure. Such places as Peatt Road, Jacklin Road, Sooke Road are major roadways but the amount of car traffic cannot be accommodated … There is little to no incentive for people to take public transportation pre-COVID and [I] doubt that will change,” another respondent said.
But Eric Doherty, a transportation planner who does independent consulting, says there are things that can be done to encourage transit use — and it starts with a dedicated bus lane.
“I think the really simple [solution] is to invest in the things that help people get around without cars or with fewer cars,” Doherty says. “A really important part of that is getting the bus lane built so that the busiest route in the region, [Route] 50, and other buses that follow that same route aren’t getting stuck in what’s called the Colwood crawl.”
Other solutions, according to Doherty, also include improving infrastructure around bus routes. That means adding sidewalks so people can walk safely to a bus stop, ensuring bus rates don’t increase any more and adding bus shelters as well as nearby bike racks and bike lanes.
The Victoria Regional Rapid Transit plan
BC Transit says rapid transit is designed to improve travel time and reliability for bus passengers, as well as improve comfort and convenience. This is done with a dedicated lane that gives buses right-of-way and frequent, high-capacity bus service that runs all day, every day. Rapid transit isn’t meant to substitute or replace things like local bus service or commuter rail, but rather provide transit options.
With the Victoria Regional Transit Commission, BC Transit is working to improve transit between the West Shore and Victoria using a Victoria Rapid Transit Plan. Dedicated bus lanes going north and southbound on Douglas Street between Tolmie Avenue and Fisgard Street are already in place as part of this plan. Work is in progress to do the same on the Trans-Canada Highway between the McKenzie Interchange and Tolmie Avenue.
Boyd says that the bus lanes have helped travellers shave 10 minutes off their commute time, and Wald agrees.
“It makes a huge difference because you don’t have to move in and out of lanes,” Wald says. “I’ve noticed that you get a more consistent length as far as the ride goes.”
But she says once buses start getting into the West Shore, consistency with timing and trips diminishes. She says she thinks adding priority bus lanes to the West Shore could help alleviate congestion and stress.
More funding for transit infrastructure needed
While he says the RapidBus proposal is a good start, Doherty says more funding should go towards transit and active transportation infrastructure to help reduce traffic and congestion. He says investments in these modes of transportation better align with climate change declarations and targets and will make more of a difference for commuters.
“We need to create a network and aim for a situation where buses never get stuck in traffic,” Doherty says. “With signal priority for transit, with bus lanes — even if they’re not continuous — all those kinds of things, we can get closer and closer to that and then more trips that are faster, and more pleasant.”
He says reliable bus service — the kind where buses show up at consistent, short intervals — as well as a pleasant ride are key factors to convince residents to start taking the bus.
Doherty also notes that highway and road expansion doesn’t necessarily relieve traffic issues.
A 2021 report from the Victoria Transit Policy Institute says “if road capacity expands, peak-period trips increase until congestion again limits further traffic growth.” The added travel after road expansion — called generated traffic — is made up of new vehicle trips, shifts from other modes of transportation and trips that shifted in time, route and destination. This generated traffic lessens the benefits of road expansion in the end.
Recently, the province spent millions of dollars on road improvement and expansions. The McKenzie Interchange project cost $96 million dollars. Since 2017, the province has invested over $120 million in Highway 14 corridor improvements, including expanding a section of the highway to four lanes.
“If you were to think about, ‘Well, what do you get for $100 million?’ You get a lot more in public transit, walking and cycling infrastructure for $100 million than you get if you put that into increasing road capacity,” Doherty says.
In terms of climate change targets, Doherty says personal vehicles contribute largely to greenhouse gas emissions, and that buses — particularly electric ones — can significantly help to reduce those emissions.
A 2021 report from Amnesty International says road vehicles are responsible for 72 per cent of global transport emissions. The report suggests replacing fossil fuel-powered vehicles with electric vehicles. But Doherty notes it’s much easier to replace buses and promote the use of them, rather than individual personal vehicles.
He looks to Vancouver’s Climate Emergency Action Plan as a good example of work being done to promote transit. One of the goals in the plan is to ensure two-thirds of trips in Vancouver are by active transportation or transit by 2030.
In the province’s South Island Transportation Strategy, which was released in the fall of 2020, a rapid transit corridor between Victoria and the West Shore as well as along Old Island Highway in View Royal and Colwood has been identified as a medium-term goal.
Read also: Transportation strategy falls short, say West Shore mayors
Boyd says BC Transit is working with local government partners in the region to build on the momentum of the South Island Transportation Strategy and develop a regional RapidBus implementation plan. The plan is wrapping up and details should be released over the next few weeks.
Both Doherty and Boyd pointed to TransLink in Vancouver as a good example of RapidBus implementation. Boyd says BC Transit has been looking to TransLink as it develops a strategy for the Victoria region.
On it’s website, TransLink says RapidBus is 20 per cent faster than local buses, with all-day service that runs in 10 minute intervals or better during peak times and 15 minute intervals at other times.
In its 10-year vision, the Victoria Regional Transit System identifies West Shore Park and Rides, RapidBus enhancements and West Shore Island Highway Rapid Bus enhancements as short-term priorities. Medium- to long-term priorities include additional RapidBus enhancements, a frequent transit network, a Sooke transit hub, a Royal Bay transit terminal and more.
RapidBus service on the West Shore is still a couple of years out, Boyd says.
A refresh to the West Shore Local Area Transit Plan is set to begin soon and last into next year, according to the 10-year vision. The plan would take a look at local service and how it feeds into a future RapidBus corridor. Boyd says public engagement with West Shore residents will begin in the coming months.
“Residents should start seeing some minor schedule changes this fall with regards to our regular service changes and the reintroduction of in-person classes for post secondary institutions,” Boyd says. “But as far as more structural changes, we’d be looking at the next couple years and we’re definitely looking forward to doing a public engagement in the next few months and talking to the West Shore residents and finding out what the solutions are that they need moving forward.”
A holistic transit experience
Outside of the RapidBus plan and priority bus lanes, Doherty says the experience of riding a bus needs to be improved. Boyd says he agrees.
“A transit trip isn’t just riding the bus. A transit trip begins when someone first leaves their front door and has to walk to that bus stop, wait at that bus stop, catch the bus, arrive at their destination and then ultimately walk to their destination,” Boyd says.
To do so, both Doherty and Boyd say safe walkways and shelters that are easy to access are necessary. The responsibility for this type of infrastructure, however, lies with roadway authorities like local governments or the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.
Ideally, free transit would be encouraged as well but Doherty says it’s tougher to implement a free transit system in a place like Greater Victoria.
Read also: Towards an affordable and liveable West Shore
“There’s a lot of barriers,” Doherty says. “You’ve got a provincial transit agency and multiple municipalities. Most of the places that have made that huge leap to free transit have a municipal transit agency.”
In the short term, Doherty says he doesn’t see many prospects for a free transit system in the region, but he says it could be an eventual vision.
The province’s budget announcement in April included a transit funding announcement that includes free transit for children aged 12 and under in B.C. starting in September, CTV News reports. Boyd says this program will hopefully encourage families to take the bus together, increase ridership among that age demographic and create bus riders for life.
What about people who continue to drive?
For those who choose to keep driving — out of personal preference or need — Doherty says they’ll benefit from infrastructure changes to transit as well.
“I think the main thing is that people who need to drive or really want to keep driving actually benefit from these changes,” Doherty says. “We’re in a growing region. If we don’t shift to a more transit-oriented and cycling-oriented transportation system, traffic is going to get worse.”
If investments are made in transit, Doherty says those who are flexible will start using it which means less vehicles on the road.
He says diverting funding to transit will open up options like passenger rail service, more electric buses or the passenger ferry that the City of Colwood is promoting as well.
This Delving Into Development article is made possible in part with funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC and Journalists for Human Rights. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content.