Fun ways to get from Richmond to Downtown Vancouver on transit

I commute from Richmond to Downtown Vancouver every day for work.  Normally I take the Canada Line, which is a quick and reliable way to and from work.  As much as I like trains, some days it just seems boring; after all, the majority of the ride is underground.

So I tasked myself to find five different ways to get to work (potentially one for each day of the week), if I wanted to take a break from the Canada Line.  Let’s assume we’re commuting from Richmond Centre to Waterfront.  Obviously we’re not optimizing for travel time.

Option 1: 403, 480, 44

A nice ride to UBC then along 4th Avenue, Burrard Street Bridge downtown.  If you’re lucky, you can complete this entire route on articulated buses.

Option 2: 407, 22

I’d probably consider this one the most unscenic one, but it only involves one transfer and is a bus-only route.  Probably a good one for napping.

Option 3: 430, Expo/Millennium Line

An express bus to Metrotown, then a ride on the SkyTrain downtown.  If you’re extremely lucky, you may find a seat at the front of the SkyTrain.

Option 4: 410, Expo/Millennium Line

Kind of the same as the previous option except this one includes a highway run along Highway 91, but no express through the city.  This has a longer SkyTrain ride too, which also includes passing the SkyTrain yard.

Option 5: 407, 480, 17, 50

And finally the crazy bus-only route.  Almost guaranteed to ride four different types of buses – a New Flyer 40 footer on the 407, an articulated bus on the 480, a trolley bus on the 17 and most likely a Novabus on the 50.

Of course these options aren’t exhaustive; there are many other combinations that can loop through all parts of town.  But these are the ones off the top of my head that balance being interesting and getting to work in a reasonable amount of time.

The end is near for Whistler’s hydrogen fuel cell buses

1006 hydrogen fuel cell bus

In one week, Whistler’s fleet of hydrogen fuel cell buses will be parked as their five-year pilot project ends. Nova Bus diesel buses will be replacing them as of April 1st, 2014.

The fleet of twenty buses is currently the largest fleet of hydrogen fuel cell buses operating in the world. The fuelling station for the fleet is also the world’s largest hydrogen filling station.

1006 hydrogen fuel cell bus
A hydrogen fuel cell bus at Whistler’s Gondola Transit Exchange.

The hydrogen fuel cell buses were brought to Whistler by a five-year demonstration project sponsored by the federal, provincial and municipal governments, and the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association. The buses arrived in late 2009 and the fleet commenced full operation in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The hydrogen fuel cell is a green technology as the only by-product is water. That means there are no harmful fumes emitted from the bus! In addition, the efficiency of the fuel cell is about 60-70%, which is significantly higher than the average diesel engine at 30-40%.

Hydrogen tanks
The world’s largest hydrogen fuelling station at Whistler Transit Centre.

One of the difficulties for the project was getting the hydrogen fuel from a green source. Up to this day, hydrogen is trucked in from a supplier based in Quebec. Although it is possible to produce the hydrogen fuel closer to home, using non-renewable resources to perform the electrolysis would negate the environmental friendliness of using the hydrogen fuel cell in the first place.

The hydrogen fuel cell demonstration project is deemed a success. The technology is still at its infancy so there’s high hope for it in the future. Although the hydrogen buses were environmentally friendly, the overall operating cost per kilometre far exceeded those of diesel or CNG buses. As the technology matures and the hydrogen infrastructure expands, hopefully the operating costs will decrease to something comparable to diesel or CNG.

For the twenty buses in Whistler though, let’s hope to see them repowered with a different engine (compressed natural gas maybe?) so that they don’t need to see the scrap heap so soon.

A Nova Bus diesel bus on the left, and the New Flyer hydrogen fuel cell bus on the right
A Nova Bus diesel bus on the left, and the New Flyer hydrogen fuel cell bus on the right.


Transit highlights from my Toronto trip

TTC #9004

While I was in Toronto these past few days, I got a chance to see two of Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC) newest transit vehicles.

For those unfamiliar with public transportation in the Greater Toronto Area, a number of transit authorities provide local transit service within different regions in the GTA.  The TTC provides transportation services within the Toronto proper, including the subways, streetcars and bus service.  I suppose a more detailed introduction to the different public transportation services would be ideal in a separate post.

The articulated buses

The first were the Nova Bus LFS articulated buses. These buses, introduced mid-last year, were the first articulated buses in the TTC fleet since 2003. This one was seen on the #7 Bathurst line.

TTC #9004
TTC 2013 Nova Bus LFS Articulated Bus #9004 on the #7 Bathurst line

I must give credit to an Android app called Transit Now Toronto for helping me find out when the articulated buses were coming down the line. I actually did not realize that TTC had real-time arrival data available, so actually I spent half the time trying to find these buses the “old-school way”.

The new streetcars

The second was one of the new streetcars. This was a bit of a lucky catch as I was at Bathurst station originally looking for the Nova Bus articulated buses. When I was coming up from the subway as I saw the streetcar demonstrator pulling through the streetcar loop. I would have liked to chase it further for better photos, but my time was constrained.

TTC #4401
TTC 2013 Bombardier Flexity Outlook Demonstrator #4401 at Bathurst Station

The new Toronto streetcars are built by Bombardier, and are similar to the ones that were demonstrated here in Vancouver during the Olympics. A fleet of 204 Flexity Outlook units have been ordered and are replacing the aging fleet of CLRV and ALRV streetcars that were built in the 1970s and 1980s.

The weather

On an unrelated topic, the weather in Toronto was very forgiving while I was there. I was hoping to see some real snow fall, but the weather turned out to be “relatively warm” (by Toronto standards); on some days it was even sunny. So before my flight back, my cousin took me to the largest (manmade) snow mound he knew of. I climbed on top of it just for kicks.

Me on snow
Me on a mound of snow. Yes apparently it’s all snow, I’m assuming the land here was flat before they started piling the snow up here.

Side Project 1: Real Time Bus Map in Vancouver

Since TransLink released their new mobile Next Bus site with real-time GPS updates of bus locations, I’ve been trying to find ways to get the data and rehash it into something that  Metro Vancouver transit enthusiasts (more specifically, enthusiasts who chase buses and monitor the transit system’s operation) will find useful.

There were two main shortcomings of TransLink’s site from the viewpoint of a transit enthusiast:

  1. Can’t search for a specific bus.  Often times transit enthusiasts “chase” a particular bus, usually a new bus, a fresh bus after a midlife refurbishment, or a bus with a new advertisement wrap.
  2. Can’t see the entire system as a whole.  This one’s pretty self explanatory.  It’s just fun to be able to see where all the buses are.

So I created a system which gleaned information from the TransLink site and aggregated it into a useful interface which I called “T-Comm”.

This is named after CMBC’s Transit Communications centre which has an interface similar to what I created.  Using the information I was also able to add additional functionality like grabbing the bus’s schedule for the current trip and even the entire day.

Since most transit enthusiasts would be using this on the go, I knew I had to make this site mobile-friendly. The enthusiasts I knew used a myriad of mobile devices including Blackberries, iPhones, and Androids, so it would not have made sense for me to create a native app for each of the platforms; it would have killed me in terms of time and energy.  I chose to use jQuery Mobile and Google Maps API as the basis of the frontend.  The backend is powered by PHP/MySQL. I was amazed at the ease I was able to make something mobile-friendly using jQuery Mobile.  It was actually fun too.  More importantly testers reported positively on their mobile devices.

I’m hoping that TransLink will release the GPS data officially for developers.  They’ve said after April 2012 on Twitter, so I’m crossing my fingers.

Contact me if you would like access to the site.  Since the current site hammers TransLink’s servers I’m trying to tread lightly.  Once official GPS data is used I will open it to the public, but I don’t really see this being used by the public as it is quite enthusiast-oriented.

Update: The site has been updated to use TransLink’s official data feed for real time bus data, so here’s the link:  More info on this site can be found on my T-Comm project info page.