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TransLink’s Olympic story, part 1: how we’re getting ready for the Games

TransLink’s Olympic story, part 1: how we’re getting ready for the Games

As you certainly know, the Olympics arrive in February, and TransLink has the enormous task of helping people travel during the Games. So I’ve put together a series of articles illustrating the scope of this challenge and just how TransLink is preparing to handle it. Here’s the first article, giving an overview of our work on the transportation strategy.

When the 2010 Winter Olympics brings thousands of visitors to Vancouver in February, our transportation system will face its biggest challenge in history.

“It’s like having three Superbowls a day for 17 days,” said Mike Madill, vice-president of Olympic Transportation at TransLink. “We’re planning for rush hour traffic conditions all day.”

It’s a traffic challenge every Olympic host city must handle. Thousands of Olympic visitors must be moved, on time, to scheduled events and celebrations… while still serving the travel needs of local residents.

But just like many host cities, Vancouver has been working on this challenge since the bid. And for TransLink, the transit services we provide play a key role in Games transportation.

At the heart of our plans are Mike and the TransLink Olympic transportation team. For over two years now, the 11-member team has minutely focused on those 17 days of Olympic events, planning our strategy to serve our customers as best as possible, despite the enormous demand of the Games.

TransLink’s role in the Games

It’s important to note that TransLink isn’t responsible for every bit of transportation during the Games. In September 2008, Mike, SkyTrain CEO Doug Kelsey, and the Olympic Transportation team finalized an agreement with the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC), defining our Games funding, and responsibility in the following areas:

  1. Providing public transit in Metro Vancouver for spectators and the Olympic workforce, taking them to “city venues” and celebrations, while continuing to provide service for existing transit customers;
  2. Leading regional initiatives to encourage travel alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles; and
  3. Co-leading the Transportation Management Centre (TMC) with VANOC. The TMC connects the operation centres of the regional transportation partners to help ensure smooth travel during the Games.
  4. Transit queue management outside transit stations (a later addition to the agreement).

Again, bear in mind that our focus is solely on Metro Vancouver. VANOC is actually responsible for transportation to Whistler and Cypress, as well as all athlete, officials, VIP, media and sponsor transport. And B.C. Transit is taking care of travel within Whistler.

Making the plan come alive

One of the 48 new SkyTrain cars that will boost capacity during the Olympic period.
One of the 48 new SkyTrain cars that will boost capacity during the Olympic period.

Since defining our role with VANOC, Mike and the Olympic transportation team have been fleshing out just how to deliver on our responsibilities for the Games.

The transportation team has also been working with our subsidiaries to provide extended hours of service, and to make sure our transit services can carry the high numbers of passengers expected. About 30 per cent more people are expected to ride the system every day: a jump from 700,000 daily passengers to over 1 million.

“It’s uncharted territory for us,” says Mike. “But we’ve had other events like Celebration of Light, where there can be hundreds of thousands of passengers on a big night. We’re able to rely on our expertise and say, we know how to do that, so we should be able to handle Games events as well.”

So, orders of new vehicles made years ago are now arriving in time to increase capacity on the system for the Games period, including 48 new SkyTrain cars on the Expo and Millennium Lines. Many older buses are also being held back from retirement to handle the increased loads.

There’s also detailed planning work involved — like predicting the ebbs and flows of passenger volumes, figuring out where to store extra buses, locking in the exact locations of shuttle drop-off points at the venues, and coordinating our routes with Olympic road closures. Much has also been done to build the Transportation Management Centre at VANOC, where all regional transportation agencies will have representation during the Games.

Another big project has been trying to reduce car travel by locals in downtown Vancouver, since Olympic visitors will boost traffic in the already-bustling area.

So over the past year, our Olympic team has contacted more than 700 downtown businesses about the traffic challenge, and many have pledged to use alternatives to driving alone for the Olympic period. (UBC and SFU will also be closed for reading break during the Olympics, taking some more pressure off the system.)

And on top of our official roles, TransLink has put together a host program for the Olympics. About 200 staff from TransLink and its subsidiaries will be out at major transit hubs during peak volumes, to make sure people know how to get where they’re going and answer any questions about public transit.

Research: the Beijing Olympics and the Obama inauguration

For the Obama inauguration, this lineup for the subway took 1.5 hours.
For the Obama inauguration, this lineup for the subway took 1.5 hours.

The TransLink Olympic team hasn’t been planning their strategy in isolation, though.

Advice has come from veterans of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, who now work with the Vancouver Olympic transportation team.

Individual staff members also undertook research trips to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2009 inauguration of President Obama in Washington, D.C.

There were useful lessons from both events. In Washington, Mike went behind-the-scenes with the local transit agency and got to see their operations centre in action. It was also startling to see how early lineups formed for the event: riders started lining up at 4 a.m., even though the inauguration was held at 11 a.m, and the ride was only 30 minutes.

But the agency’s transit host program was very effective, and staff kept the lineups well informed about what to expect. And there was an unexpected lesson: far fewer people were needed to manage the line than he would have guessed.

“The key thing is to have someone going up and down line, giving out info on how big the lineup is, and informing them if they are in the right line, which is the biggest stressor for people,” he explained.

In Beijing, a few pieces of signage were confusing or poorly placed. But Mike saw that loading riders onto the transit system after events was managed as expected – through the use of barricades, signage, and helpful staff.

“What they had there that we won’t have here though is just a whole ton of people,” he said. “I think they got every kid in university and brought them in, and they were the volunteers.”

“I’d say DC is probably more applicable, even though it was only the one targeted event,” he said. “I think that those are the kind of lineups we’re going to see. Beijing was bit more artificial in a way, because of the way the country is governed. They had a lot of levers to manage things that we just don’t have.”

The Games are approaching: “I’m feeling good about where we are”

TransLink's Olympic readiness ads.
TransLink's Olympic readiness ads.

After two years of work on the biggest event our public transit system will ever handle, Mike’s still quite cheerful about the whole experience.

“It is kind of a surreal thing to do,” he explained. “It’s a fair bit of pressure but it’s got moments that make it feel that it’s worthwhile.”

“The Olympic Games, for us in transportation, is all about doing the best that we can do in delivering our service. It’s the biggest challenge that we’ll ever get for public transit in the city. It’s our time to shine, and it’s a great opportunity and a great challenge and I’m sure it’s going to be a very rewarding experience for everybody.

And with the Olympics coming up fast now, the two years of hard work seem to be paying off. Mike and the team have just a few bits of fine-tuning to be done—and not too much more.

“I’m feeling good about where we are,” said Mike. “I think we’re where we should be.”

Stay tuned for more TransLink Olympic articles, including one on the Transportation Management Centre, our host program, our bus strategy, and more.


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