Circulator Buses - The Best Transit for Downtown Victoria (right now…)

I would truly love to see proper rapid transit in Victoria, but I have also come to accept that it is not going to happen any time soon. It is too expensive and our population remains too small to really support it adequately. We could have had something close and I am still sad about not having proper Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) down Douglas Street. Somehow that plan was killed off by a few car focused businesses near Mayfair Mall with the Pantry leading the charge (If you are wondering where the Pantry is, they went out of business shortly after stopping the BRT from being put in). What I loved about that plan is that it truly put buses in their own lane for almost the entire length of the trip from Belleville Street to Langford. This separation would have allowed for easy upgrading to rail if the numbers had been warranted. If you want to read more about what we missed out on, here is a contemporaneous article from the Times Colonist.

There is a lot of focus on the benefits that rapid transit provides to the larger region, with a particular focus on the commuting population from the West Shore. One area that gets less focus or sometimes none at all, are the benefits that a rapid transit service provides in a much smaller area. If you have ever visited New York and used its amazing subway system, you may know that you can often save time and your feet by hopping on the subway even if you are just moving between two relatively close places. This creates a huge amount of benefit both the the transit user and the city.

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For the user, you can accomplish a larger amount of sightseeing as a tourist or errands as a local in a shorter amount of time. I would bet that it would be faster than using a car in most instances as well, especially if you include the time to find a parking spot. It is also much more relaxing than trying to drive around a city going from store and parking spot to store and parking spot. As you might have guessed from this blog, I like to walk places and usually, even in places like New York, choose walking over the Subway, but I am not most people and really even I might choose the subway at the end of a long day when my feet are giving out so I can get to that one last place I want to see.

It is that last point that really creates the benefit for the city. If you can maximise the ability of people to move around downtown in a variety of ways, you are going to increase the amount of opportunities they will have to spend their money, while also increasing their experiences and connection with places in a smaller area.

Thinking of a specific scenario, imagine a person that lives in Quadra-Hillside or Jubilee and they are planning on a haircut downtown so they take the bus down to as close to their hair stylist as possible on Johnson. They have some other things that they could do, like go to a deli, pharmacy, grocery store and maybe even visit a book store, but they don’t want to walk too far and there is no easy way to get to all those places on transit. So instead after their haircut they head home and take their car to the mall later on or spread their spending over the next few days. There is an easy solution that is not rapid transit and I think could have a significant positive impact on downtown - Circulator buses!

I have envisioned this type of bus service for years and it could be one of the few times where Victoria’s weird road network could actually be used to a benefit to others besides those driving cars by themselves. The idea would be to start small on two short routes. The buses would be brightly painted to indicate that they were part of the circulator network and could denote which route they worked on. They would be high frequency so five minute or less intervals between them and they would simply go back and fourth along a relatively short straight route. This would allow people to hop on and off them easily. It would be important that riders not have a need to think about a schedule and could have the route easily mapped in their mind.

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The first of the two routes that I think would work perfectly, would be west along Yates Street and east along Johnson Street. The buses would go as far west as Wharf Street and east to the Oak Bay Junction. This routing would connect Jubilee, Rockland, Fernwood and Harris Green with downtown and specifically the shopping areas of Lower Yates and Johnson.

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The second route would run south along Douglas Street and north along Government Street and travel between Superior Street in the South and Hillside Avenue in the north. In a perfect world I would actually prefer this route to run north and south on Government. Perhaps if there is a plan to move private vehicles off of Government, the road could be turned back into a two-way street for transit only. This was actually part of the plan for rapid transit in the city when it was being looked at in the 1990’s which often envisioned a first leg between Ogden Point and Chinatown to service the tourist trade and those moving between downtown and James Bay. Anyways, back to this plan, having the routes suggested aligned like this would ensure that both routes crossed each other and would allow easy transferring between them. For those spending time downtown ,these two routes would offer considerable benefit in moving around and provide a strong motivator to keep their car out of the downtown core.

I know that some will remember that a sad attempt at this sort of transit was made during the early part of this decade, but it really was focused on moving around the western part of downtown in one of those Langford rubber wheel trolleys. The biggest problem with it apart from how hokey those look, was that the frequency was not significant enough and the advertising around it was atrocious. For this idea to work you need proper low floor buses at a very high frequency. I really think something like the service I am proposing would have a larger impact on transit ridership then handing out free passes to kids (or anyone really). What gets people to use transit is service level and quality, not cost.

So let me know what you think? Would you use something like this in downtown Victoria? Is there a better routing that would be more useful? Tell me in the comments below.