Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Buses or trains?

with 12 comments

This debate is kick started here by the BC government’s announcement – which might be summarised as trains for Vancouver, Coquitlam and part of North Surrey and buses for everywhere else, sooner but mostly later.

The same quarrel is raging in Ottawa – and I don’t mean the federal government but the city region. Or at least the bit of it in Ontario. The city fathers are accusing the rail advocates of jumping to conclusions. But the fact of the matter is Ottawa is the only city in Canada that adopted the “Curitiba” approach. And they spent a lot of money on a busway, but used ordinary buses instead of high floor ones, so that the routes could feed onto the busway with no change of vehicle required. This means that in a city whose peak period is mainly civil servants commuting to downtown, they got a comfortable one seat ride – no transfers – from near their front door to near their office.

OC Transpo 8040 Ottawa ON 2002_0209.jpg

But, as usual, the instincts to pinch pennies meant that they failed to do the downtown bit properly, so at the end of the busway, the buses have to fight traffic on street, with nothing like enough bus priority.


UPDATE Feb 3 2008

I have just come across a video of the BRT system in Bogota – and it is even better than Curitiba. I also posted about this on the Livable Blog


Even Calgary did downtown surface transit better than Ottawa! And now the argument turns on a tunnel! WRONG.

Calgary Transit 2206 7th Ave 2005_0713

Why am I against tunnels in towns for transit? Because grade separation is nearly always to give cars free reign on the surface. Cars and urbanity are a problematic but not insoluable issue. But grade separation means that access to transit is harder than on the surface. Some European cities experimented with what they called “pre-metro” – they put the trams underground in the city centre as a first step to a complete metro system. And they quickly realised it was a mistake, for the space freed up by taking up the tram tracks was instantly filled by more car traffic. And what city centres need is more space to walk, and sit around in pleasant public spaces and watch the passing scene.

Surface for transit demonstrates commitment to people – not cars. Rail transit is more predictable – trams cannot leave their tracks, so you know where they are going to be – but you can also do various guided bus ways too. And as long as there is a commitment to transit priority – produced by a combination of regulations and hard engineering (like pop up traffic blockers) there is not much to choose between bus and rail until you get to very high passenger throughput. So called “intermediate capacity” systems pretty much wash out even with pluses and minuses on both sides.

Rail is better if you want to convince developers you are serious. Buses – even when you build a dedicated bus way – are easy to take away. Just ask Richmond. Oddly enough, underground railways do not attract development – at least that is what the developers told the London Docklands Development Corporation. “A staircase on the corner of the street leading down a hole gives me nothing to sell” said more than one. A rail station will have a much larger walk in area than a bus stop. People are prepared to walk further to get to a train than a bus. So on a greenfield – or a brownfield like the docklands – I would pick rail. But if you have a city with a busway already the reason you might switch to rail is capacity. In Toronto they used to have a rule of thumb. You increase bus service until you have them nose to tail, then you put in streetcars. Then when you have streetcars nose to tail you build a subway. Except of course it did not work out like that.

I think you need to start with what kind of city do you want. Think first of how it will work, and what it will look like to people living, working and relaxing there. Transportation is not an end in itself. It is way of doing everything else. And transportation by any mode starts and ends with a walk. So start your urban design work with walking – and see how to fit in other modes. Cities worked very well for thousands of years, long before cars, and long before buses and trams come to that. The qualities of urbanity can still be seen in the cities that have retained the structure of the pre-industrial age. And it is no surprise at all when we come to create new places, we tend to pick up on the cues that are common to all successful cities. And if you want to see what distopia looks like it is usually dominated by machines. No one wants to live in la ville radieuse.

But since we have machines, if anything goes underground it should be the utilities not the people. Trains overhead – the el – I find oppressive as a pedestrian – even if the view from the train is better. What London has rediscovered recently is that when your underground system is straining you can do a lot with buses – and bus lanes and bus only streets. Especially if you add road pricing to pay for them.

What is instructive about the debate in Ottawa is how sterile it is. It is an argument between transit enthusiasts – not a discussion about how to make Ottawa a better place. I think the debate here is at least a step or two forward, since we start with Livability as the criterion. Not mobility – which has turned out to be such a snare and a delusion. And yes that is hard for some to grasp – especially those who are only interested in making lots of money quickly, or defending their self interest. Or who see economic growth as a desirable end in itself – arguing it makes all other things possible when in fact what it does is shut off some of the best possibilities.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 31, 2008 at 2:49 pm

Posted in transit, Urban Planning

12 Responses

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  1. In Calgary, the LRT downtown was originally supposed to be a subway. The planners of the day shelved that plan in order to use that money on building more km’s of track instead of the expensive underground downtown portion.

    Now, 30 years later, one of the major bottlenecks in Calgary is the at grade 7th Ave downtown track. Trains often have to wait just outside 7th Ave for their turn to enter. So planning has now begun to build a tunnel under 8th Ave to accompany (not replace) the surface LRT downtown.

    I wonder if you would agree that this is an acceptable approach, building surface LRT first and then underground to accompany it years later when required. Is it still acceptable when the cost to build underground would have been a fraction of the cost 30 years ago as it will be now. Or perhaps you think an additional surface line on 8th Ave, which is mainly a pedestrian only street would be better?


    January 31, 2008 at 3:23 pm

  2. Stephen I found the Montreal Transportation Plan very interesting and in my opinion well thought out and comprehensive. The link is below and then go to Transportatiion Plan Your thoughts on it compared to what we are doing in BC.,261592&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL

    Ron Coreau

    January 31, 2008 at 3:56 pm

  3. It’s my guess that Vancouver had a better public transit system 50 or 60 years ago. The region suffers from poor forward planning and has for years. The Expo Line moves thousands of people a day, unfortunately it’s the cheap and nasty version of rapid transit. It looks as if we could have managed quite nicely without the Millennium Line by running the 99 B-Line east of Commercial Dr. Let’s use the roads for moving traffic instead of parking cars and spend our transit tax dollars on an excellent bus network.


    January 31, 2008 at 3:58 pm

  4. S – in general you get more for your money if you build surface LRT. It also creates a better city in my view. “The people ride in a hole in the ground” just about sums it up. Older cities like London really had no choice but to tunnel as there was very little space on surface. When the Metropolitan Railway opened there were no cars – but the Euston Road was still jammed solid. By the way, that was cut and cover too – but part of the reason was the need to let the smoke out of the tunnel at regular intervals.

    As a visitor to a foreign city, riding the subway would not be my recommended way of seeing the city – but Calgary needs to take care of its citizens first.

    Ron – I like what I see so far, but it is a massive document that will take some time to absorb. Thanks for the link.

    Wayne – 50 years ago the city was much smaller and there were fewer cars. With the benefit of hindsight, scrapping the streetcar and interurban systems was unwise, but it seemed like a Good Idea at the time. The Millenium Line can be creditted to Glen Clark – indeed I still think VCC station should have been named for him. It is at least geographically accurate and lays the blame properly. I just hope somebody somewhere kept a copy of that animation of a Grenoble streetcar in “Clean Air Bus” livery swooping along the proposed Broadway LRT line. It was a Thing of Beauty.

    Stephen Rees

    January 31, 2008 at 4:42 pm

  5. Calgary

    I would not favour an 8th Avenue lrt in Calgary. The pedestrian mall is popular. The shops along 8th Ave are much nicer than those along 7th Ave where the lrt runs. I hoped that planners would consider putting the CP rail line in a tunnel under downtown (or moving it out of town) and converting the freight rail line into an lrt. The north-south streets downtown dip under the railway, built as underpasses years ago. Grade separation is already largely in place. Costly underground stations would not need to be built. Platforms could be built along the north-south arterial underpasses. An lrt ride would be much more pleasant on surface, as you state.


    It is disappointing to see transit enthusiasts deriding buses as a 1980’s solution for transit. The O-Train has been conceived well, but the busway has too. Train versus bus reminds me of my younger years when cattlemen arguing over which breed was better. It didn’t really matter much considering the problems everyone faced as BSE gave a body blow to the beef industry.


    January 31, 2008 at 6:55 pm

  6. Now here’s a link for you

    Hawaii is looking at a $3.8 billion fixed guideway from Kapolei to Ala Moana. And they have twelve different systems to chose from

    More at

    Stephen Rees

    January 31, 2008 at 6:57 pm

  7. It is a shame that all that lovely Vancouver scenery will be missed by riders of the Canada Line. Even on a rainy day, a grey sky is still better to look at then a dark tunnel or reflections of your fellow passengers in the glass. Years ago, I used to find a short stretch of tunnel that Calgary’s LRT goes through to be awkward. Everyone would go from looking out the window to all of a sudden turning away from the window and looking at each other momentarily and then awkwardly looking away at the floor or adverts or nothing in particular, just begging for the train to come back to ground level.
    With nothing to look at out the windows, I have a feeling a lot of books will be read on the Canada Line in the years to come. Maybe someone could set up a ‘take a book, leave a book’ on one of the cars 😉


    January 31, 2008 at 8:57 pm

  8. Wayne, the 99 B-Line did indeed used to travel east of Commercial Drive back before the M-Line was built, i used to take it once a week.. The problem with it was only every other bus or so went all the way; some short-turned at Broadway Station, some short-turned at Brentwood.

    The other problem I found was that the bus would sometimes leave Broadway & Granville several minutes ahead of schedule, meaning a 20 minute wait for the next bus on a route that was suppsoed to have 15 minute headways. I I find the M – Line with its 5-6 minute headways is a vast improvment over that; so much so that when it came time to purchase a home I bought along the line.

    Dave 2

    February 1, 2008 at 12:47 pm

  9. Interesting discussion. We are going through some of these same debates in Boise, Idaho. I advocate a Curb Guided Busway system (see, combining the fixed-route priority of rail with he flexibility of busses. Perhaps your built form is dense enough to support rail, but in a sprawling U.S. city, the desity to support rail simply does not exist.


    June 7, 2009 at 11:07 am

  10. I am not sure that “guided” gives much advantage – few places that have invested in such systems have extended them. We had “rapid bus” – with limited amounts of dedicated rights of way – which was ripped out only a few years after it was built to make way for the Canada Line. The main thing is to invest in transit systems that encourage greater density redevelopment. Auto-oriented sprawl is not sustainable.

    Stephen Rees

    June 7, 2009 at 11:12 am

  11. My apologies: my blog is at


    June 7, 2009 at 11:14 am

  12. Stephen, the guided aspect of busways likely won’t give much practical advantage, but it may encourage developers as it requires a capital investment and may capture some of the sex appeal of trains. Retrofitting a train system costs more than the entire budget of God and this may be a good compromise. Our situation in Idaho is that we have a lot of abandoned train ROW that could be converted to Curb Guided Busway or even just paved as a special-access road for busses and emergency vehicles, yet they could leave the busway and venture onto city streets. About 90 percent of Boise’s built environment is not dense enough for rail so we have to think of something else.


    June 8, 2009 at 6:12 pm

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