Stephen Rees's blog

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

San Diego Light Rail Opens

with 15 comments

San Diego Union Tribune

I have written about dmus on existing tracks before – and this project in particular. It opened, finally, yesterday.

Some facts I want to draw your attention to

Sunday’s launch marked the culmination of 30 years of planning and development, at a cost of $478 million. The project was funded by a combination of federal, state and local funds, including the county’s ½-percentage-point Transnet sales tax.

About two dozen passengers on the first train were employees or friends of North County Transit District, the developer of the 22-mile rail line, but most were just local folk who wanted to ride history.

22 miles $478 million

That is why I think surface light rail on existing tracks with diesel rail cars should be the starting point for rail rapid transit. If you have no existing tracks and a lot of road space (King George Highway is a good example) then convert two of the general purpose lanes to bus only. That is even cheaper. Of course, you will have to enforce the bus only lanes but the easy way to do that is ban parking on street altogether, and fit the buses with a camera in the nose and a button for the operator to push whenever a car gets in the way. And you can also set the traffic lights to turn green for the bus. That is all very cheap indeed.

When you have a low market share and not much money, building grade separated, computer controlled, gee whiz systems makes no sense at all. Incremental growth building on what you have makes a lot more sense.

OK Malcolm. You take over from here.


UPDATE March 16

The first week of operations went well with a significant boost to transit ridership over the former bus service

Written by Stephen Rees

March 10, 2008 at 11:38 am

Posted in transit

Tagged with ,

15 Responses

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  1. 22 miles for $478 million is a kinda steep to the casual observer when fully electrified LRT lines are being built for the same cost. Here lies the main problem in North America, we tend to gold-plate transit projects with needless but expensive do-dahs. Though, in a prudential light, the new San Diego DMU service is longer than RAV/Canada Line at one fifth the cost!

    In Europe, transit specialists, are trying to reduce costs for rail transit and the results are very intriguing. In Spain, today, LRT is being built for the spectacular sum of $6 million/km. including cars!

    The high cost for the San Diego DMU has more to do with local politics and very out dated rules for operating ‘rail’ services.

    An observation: Why to railways have to sound their horns and have not just wig-wag lights w/bell at grade crossings and/or crossing gates, when many light controlled road intersections rely on simple traffic lights? Hwy. 17, 91A, (80 kph speed limits) etc. all have simple traffic lights at important intersections.

    Any modern 4-lane roadway in the Metro region can accommodate, not just buses, but modern LRT, either operated as a streetcar or as light rail. The question is: “do we have the ridership on this route to justify bus or light rail?” And here lies one of our major problems with TransLink, they Plan grand ‘metro’ routes on imaginary corridors, and do not plan for the quality of transit appropriate for the actual transit route.

    Example: RAV.

    TransLink, to inflate ridership projections for the RAV/Canada line, included every bus service south of the Fraser River that crossed the Arthur Laing; Oak St. or Knight St. Bridge into Vancouver and Oak St. Cambie St. and Main St. bus services. This means that for everyone, except those who live on Cambie St. or along #3 road to Garden City, one must take a bus and transfer to RAV. Already in south Delta and south Surrey, there is growing agitation from transit customers to retain the direct express bus services to Vancouver. Unhappy transit customers do have the option not to take transit.

    By building much cheaper ‘rail’ transit means that a lot more can be built, extending ‘rail’ services further out into the ‘burbs’, attracting more customers.

    Certainly there is a demand for more express bus services, but for buses to compete with the car, they must be guided, but guided bus costs only a little less to build than light rail and they have proven not to have the same ability to attract customers as LRT. So, for a few dollars more, cities are building with LRT.

    As for grade separated, computer controlled, gee whiz systems, they are good keeping engineers and planners busy, but not so good in alleviating congestion and pollution.

    Who builds with SkyTrain?

    No one?


    Malcolm J.

    March 10, 2008 at 3:11 pm

  2. Stephen, do you really have to encourage him? I mean this one is too easy. What I would really like to see one day is that he makes a case for building a tram out of a post about building a new hospital for example. Now that would be creative…

    Dejan K

    March 10, 2008 at 6:57 pm

  3. In Japan the practice is to build simple and cheap at first and then improve as the areas around stations gain density and riders. Most stations in Japan started off as the MOST basic concrete platform with a simple roof and were quite unappealing aesthetically (many still are in less urbanized areas), however as the surrounding area is built up the station goes through a steady process of upgrades not only to handle the increased traffic, but also reflect its status as a community transport hub. These changes only come AS ridership is established, and there is no thought to having starchitects design glamourous stations from the get-go.

    Of course this all happened over the past 60 years in Japan, and now they have some very nice stations and transportation systems indeed.

    One way of doing things I suppose.


    March 10, 2008 at 7:28 pm

  4. A historical note: In the late 19th century, many hospitals in Europe and North America had special tram or streetcar links. During WW1, many English hospitals laid tram track right to the hospital, due to the massive numbers of patients.

    But Dejan, here is an example of the versatility of LRT. With a subway under Broadway, any station for VGH would be inconvenient for many people, due to age and/or infirmities. Any, thought of providing a short line to the hospital for direct service would be hugely expensive.

    With LRT, a short loop or terminal line to VGH would be financially feasible and such a line would be desirable.

    As for transit mode, there is a hierarchy of service, starting with bus, blending with light rail, then ending with metro. If SkyTrain was carrying 400,000 passengers a day, there would be no debate, because a metro would be needed to carry the passenger loads. In Vancouver, we have omitted light rail from the hierarchy of transit, so we are only left with buses (poor in attracting ridership) and metro (SkyTrain), which is too expensive to expand. LRT is the missing link, so to speak.

    Translink’s policy of building hugely expensive ‘trunk’ metro lines, being fed by buses has proven inferior to at-grade, ‘on the pavement’ light rail. France is investing heavily in urban transit and especially with LRT, despite a major push by the central government to build with the VAL automatic metro. City after city rejected VAL and in many cases forfeiting large government subsidies to built the first line, in favour of much less expensive ‘tramway’s’. There are many reasons why this happened, but one of the more important reasons was the cost to build future lines, which would not be subsidized by the central government. A show case metro line is next to useless if one can’t afford to extend it.

    Sounds familiar? it should, because the excuse for not extending SkyTrain to lesser populated areas is “there isn’t enough density for rapid transit.” Light Rail is a huge success story in France and VAL, like SkyTrain, is a historical footnote; an operating museum piece.

    Malcolm J.

    March 10, 2008 at 9:09 pm

  5. Glad the focus was on another city where freeways have reigned for every one those 30 years and more, as well as on King George which needs all the help it can get, and not on Broadway this time which has been built up for a lot longer than 30 years and where pedestrians now rule.

    Oh, and let’s contimue to deride the local architecture profession and avoid raising the level of discourse to include urban design principles. Hire first year engineering students and apprentice contractors instead and save another few cents. Let the people then comment on the result.

    My only other comment is that the cart seems to be before the horse: one should start with a planning process that determines first and foremost what kind of city the people want built over the next century, which has very serious challenges indeed, then work from there.


    March 11, 2008 at 8:36 am

  6. I think we have had that discussion. People in this region made their preferences known prior to 1995 when the LRSP was adopted, and that included the Transport 2021 findings. Both after a lot of work and widespread public consultation. A similar process is underway now (the Sustainable Region Initiative) and the meetings I have attended have not suggested that there was much wrong with the LRSP – except that it did not include affordable housing and we did not implement it as well as we might have. All the municipalities have produced Official Community Plans which must by law be supportive of the LRSP. Again, there is a notable slippage between the reality of what has been implemented and what was in the plan. For example the City of Vancouver’s priorities for transportation and what they are doing on Cambie Street and plan to do on the Burrard Bridge (both covered here in recent weeks).

    The discussion is not about what we want, but why we aren’t getting it!

    Stephen Rees

    March 11, 2008 at 8:51 am

  7. I think that using existing rail lines or freeway parrallels fails us. That is to say that usually those lines don’t connect the places where people want to go and enforce the low ridership stereotype of transit. Look at BART vs the DC Metro. Same distance, one is a subway that goes where people want to go, the other has two big downtowns and travels along freeway ROWs. BART and the freeway ROWs gets 350,000 pax a day and DC gets almost 1,000,000. Huge difference.

    In Austin Texas they decided to use a freight ROW instead of going down the main arterial. Starting and ending in basically the same place, the freight ROW will get 2000 riders a day while the previous LRT plan down the arterial was modeled at 38,000. Cheap is the enemy of transit expansion.

    The Overhead Wire

    March 11, 2008 at 10:37 am

  8. Traffic lights on roads with posted speed limits 70 km/h or higher are required to have advance warning lights in addition to simple traffic lights, so that is somewhat analogous to the extra equipment (ie, crossing gates) that one finds on high speed rail lines.

    …but the biggest difference between road crossings and railway crossings? At railway crossings, there are no “lights” for the train; they always have the right of way; they’re not expected to stop for “traffic” at level crossings at any time. Crossing arms at high-speed crossings are there for safety; for while a motor vehicle may be able to avoid a red light violator by braking or swerving, neither of those options is viable for a train.


    March 11, 2008 at 11:34 am

  9. The LRSP and its update are good foundations. But I was hoping Surrey and other cities would adopt a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood consultation / visioning process, like City Plan. This would help avoid the pitfalls of not consulting widely enough, but would help resist future poorly-drafted initiatives, something people can fall back on liek City Plan does over EcoDensity.

    OCPs are not that detailed (more or less at the guideline level) and usually do not have a very deep consultation process. Filliong out a two-page survey or comment form is certainly not “visioning”.

    The slippage you refer to between the plan and what occurs on the ground has a lot to do with projects imposed by senior governments, but I agree with you on the Burrard Bridge.


    March 11, 2008 at 11:50 am

  10. Am I wrong in thinking that driving schools are no longer teaching that a red light means stop? I have concluded with local observations that this is indeed the truth when i saw a driving school car (with two people) ignore a red light on Hwy. 17 and Hwy 10!

    Most light rail operations have signals indicating the settings of the traffic lights ahead and thus do have the option to stop.

    Maybe a greater onus should be placed with the car driver to ‘stop’ at a stop sign or stop at a red light. Most UK level crossings on main rail routes have CCTV watching the crossing and large fines for those who wish to disobey.

    Malcolm J.

    March 11, 2008 at 12:26 pm

  11. @ Overhead Wire

    I oppose LRT in freeway medians too. This blog is about better land use and transportation integration, and what you highlight is the failure to do that.

    One thing that has to happen when you invest in fixed route rapid transit is that the land use around the stations has to change. If there is no transit oriented development, then the investment in increased mobility is wasted. This is exactly what occurred along the first ALRT (SkyTrain) Expo line. Neighbourhoods around the stations resisted change – so they show no development at the station nodes. There are exceptions (Joyce) but at most stations (22nd Street, 29th Avenue, Nanaimo) the area around the station is still single family homes.

    We did not get LRT on Arbutus because “la creme de la creme” opposed change in their area.

    I cannot speak about the cities you mention because I do not know anything about them, but you will note that in the last twenty years cities like Portland OR have been promoting TOD around their stations. Which is as it should be.

    High cost rapid transit systems bring massive benefits to a small area. Low cost transit improvements bring a much wider range of benefit to a much bigger area. The first option can only be equitable if the population of the benefitting area is allowed to increase.

    This is not unique to Vancouver. The Bloor Danforth subway in Toronto also met huge resistance to land use change around stations, so again a lot of money was spent to benefit relatively few people.

    AND you cannot put TOD in a freeway median. The King George Highway is a major 6 lane urban arterial not a freeway.

    Stephen Rees

    March 11, 2008 at 1:09 pm

  12. I disagree about the Expo Line. The three stations are the exception, not the rule.

    To iterate, the development immediately adjacent to the Main Street station is the most dense residential development in Western Canada. Broadway / Commerical is already quite dense, but could use more — after all it’s a hub station. Joyce is a well-planned transit community (but bland from a design perspective). The huge high-density Metrotown development was justifed by the Patterson and Metrotown stations (but unfortunately still gives too much space to cars). Royal Oak is surrounded by new low-rise townhouses now, and Edmonds is fast becoming a relatively well-planned high-density town centre because of the presence of the Edmonds Station. The New Westminster station will soon be much improved by a high-density development right over the platform.

    The Millennium Line has also stimulated a tremendous amount of development at the Gilmore, Brentwood, Holdom and Lougheed stations, perhaps approaching a billion dollars worth by now with a lot more to come. Lakecity is a dead zone, but that station was demanded by Burnaby (not Glen Clark / BC Transit) to serve its vision for an office / high tech park of questionable value. The University station is at the other end of the office park and could use more transit-oriented development.

    I’m not going to entertain a SkyTrain vs. LRT debate here — it’s moot …. SkyTrain is here and it ain’t going away. Gotta live with it.

    However, as for “high-cost rapid transit systems bring massive benefits to a small area”, I believe Surrey Centre is a swan of a high-density, well-planned and beautiful transit-oriented development in the making, but is still kind of an ugly ducking at present.

    Light rail down a wide, landscaped centre King George median with about four stops in Surrey Centre alone, and with wide sidewalks resplendent with beautiful finishes, outdoor furniture and large street trees, and shops brought right up to the edge of the sidewalk, are completely justified. Let’s hope if it happens they are able to get pedestrians safely across the road and celebrate the pedestrian element a lot more than currently possible. That is key to a successful community.

    Given that around 1/3 of the traffic on the Port Mann is Surrey-Coquitlam bound, I would consider extending the line north on a bridge to Coquitlam Centre via River view. Perhaps even south to White Rock. I know that’s jumping the gun on the often long, long wait for population to increase and justify the steel-on-steel expenditure, but given the upcoming challenges of operating cars on any reasonable budget, the people need to see highly visible transit alternatives within the next 10 years, preferably earlier. And it takes years of prior planning and project design work.

    In addition, planners need to have the tools to help shape growth in appropriate ways now, not next decade when compact car fillups will cost $750, and rapid transit works magnificently in that regard. There are perhaps two or three potential town centres on the KG Hwy, and another at Gilford, and all need excellent transit links. Surrey, after all, is the second largest city in BC, and it could under the right circumstances demonstrate to other regions how to plan for smart growth.


    March 11, 2008 at 3:35 pm

  13. Portland has done OK with TOD. The Streetcar has done much more than the LRT as the older sections are built on freeway ROW. I would point to Arlington VA and the Orange Line Subway as the Ultimate TOD in the States. In the 60s the county rejected a freeway alignment and went for a subway. Subsequently 8% of the land above the subway generates 33% of the counties tax revenue allowing the county to have the lowest taxes in Northern Virginia. To top it off, 70%+ of metro riders walk to the stations and it has the highest level of 0 auto households outside of New York. If you look back at Ian McHargs design with Nature, the bulls eye concept on this line is front in center. With that all said, i agree with your thoughts on the Nimbys. I just wish we (meaning a national conversation) could start talking about what freeway and railroad ROWs really mean for transit.

    The Overhead Wire

    March 11, 2008 at 6:26 pm

  14. Here’s an interesting article, or at least an interesting title, from the Ottawa Citizen: “LRT a pricey, but needed, fix for urban sprawl.” I’m not familiar with the area so I can’t comment but at first it did make it sound like LRT is an expensive mode.

    Meredith, I’d have to argue that pedestrians don’t rule Broadway. They rule the Granville strip where only buses and taxis are allowed, but as far as I’m concerned, the city as a whole is built for cars, not for people. That alone would inspire the Government to put transit underground. Broadway is, however, leagues above King George Hwy, Fraser Hwy, etc. and light years above from my least favourite intersection ever, 200th St & the Langley Bypass, where you wait for several minutes in Uglytown to cross 6 lanes of spewing traffic. It’s a great model, but it’s not pedestrian/transit/cyclist/taxi-only. I’d hate to think what charm we’d lose building a subway there.

    Erika Rathje

    March 11, 2008 at 9:03 pm

  15. Well true enough, Erika, pedestrians don’t “rule” Broadway — a poor choice of word in my haste to make a point. Vehicular traffic still rules the 6-lane road. But my underlying objective was to illustrate that because of the presense of the four existing dense neighbourhoods in the Broadway corridor, there is an historically high proportion of pedestrians.

    For the 9 km length of Broadway from Commercial to Alma, the vast majority of housing is anything but single family. Moreover, the eastern third contains a high number of lower income households who depend more on walking and transit than others. Further, the sidewalks west of Main St see constant human activity 14+ hours a day, and there is a signalized crossing at almost every intersection (i.e. every 120-160m). No other road outside of downtown I can think of has similar characteristics.

    Because of this, if surface LRT was implemented in a dedicated (therein fenced) median on Broadway, there’s a chance pedestrians, cyclists and merchants will take up arms because the median will act as a barrier. A lot more was written on this issue in the Broadway Tube piece a few posts back.

    One more point. Many assume that proposing a tube in general is just an expensive way of avoiding the inconvenience of blocking cars with trains on the surface. While that may be true in several projects around the world, it’s not true of every one. I don’t believe such a glib principle should automatically be thrown at Broadway.

    Therefore, any transit planning processes for that and any large project MUST account for the existing character and land use of the community and always put pedestrians and creating / enhancing walking communities first. In my opinion, even if a tube was built on Broadway they should take away two of the six lanes of traffic and give them to pedestrians. That is, build out the sidewalks at every intersection and station, and provide wide, well-marked signalized mid-block crosswalks on every block. Mid-block x-walks serve an ageing population well. They’ll still need commerial loading zones and some on-street passenger loading in the existing curb lanes.

    Getting back to pedestrians, I am very familiar with 200th St and know that Langely is the antithesis of a walking community except in the heritage core of Langley City. The Golden Ears bridge will make it worse. But look at the bigger picture. This is an opportunity to demonstrate how transit can modify growth patterns and harness the forces of the developers to channel everything into building cities for people instead of cars.


    March 12, 2008 at 8:34 am

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