Stephen Rees's blog

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

A Cost Comparison of Transportation Modes

with 19 comments

Professor Patrick M. Condon is the James Taylor Chair in Landscape and Liveable Environments at the University of British Columbia. He has recently produced (in conjuction with Kari Dow) a paper which examines the sustainability of our public transport choices. In this region we have chosen grade separated rapid transit which is designed to favour faster longer distance commuting. Many people who understand this business have been dubious about the wisdom of this choice, and the main point of that argument was the very high initial capital cost. However, there are other factors that need to be considered too. The most important is the effect on greenhouse gas emissions but also the longer term cost efficiency. “Long term capital, operating, maintenance and replacement costs need to be considered and evaluated to find the most efficient transportation mode.” His department has been working on the Sustainability by Design initiative, and that has provided the sustainability principles used in this paper.

Rather than summarize the paper I will simply provide the link to a pdf file you can download but I have copied from it the conclusions

Based on the three sustainability criteria, reducing trip length, greenhouse
gas reduction, and lifecycle cost, trams represent the best investment. This
investment is entirely dependent, however, on a long term commitment to
balancing jobs and housing and a gradual reduction in the per capita demand
for daily transportation of any kind. If most trips in the region are short then
the rationale for investment in trams is overwhelming. If all trips are long
then the rationale for the very expensive Skytrain system may still hold sway.
Currently our region is at a tipping point between the two. Decisions made
now about which mode to invest in could precipitate very different land use
consequences, consequences lasting for decades. These arguments apply to
every North American metropolitan area. All are struggling with these same
questions. This bulletin does not provide a definitive answer to which path to
take, but attempts to illuminate the significance of the choice. This generation of
citizens and decision makers will determine, by its choices, what the Vancouver
region, presently home for two million residents, will be like when it contains
four million. Hopefully it will be much more sustainable than it is now. How we
spend the billions proposed for investment in transit this decade will likely be

Cost is not the only concern of course. There are a number of other factors that will come into play. Sadly, in this region, we have taken the vierw that as 80% of the trips are made by car, that this “majority” should determine how the rest of us live. Grade separation is not about producing the best transit system for transit users but rather the one that has least impact on car drivers. Other cities long ago decided that cars in and of themselves were the problem. In urban areas the desire to drive imposes huge externalities on the community. People who bring tons of metal with them everywhere they go make huge demands on space -both for moving and parking. The vehicles currently are somewhat better than they once were in terms of local air pollution, but there are so many of them that they still produce air which is not healthy to breathe. They also keep their occupants safer but have a dramatic effect on unprotected humans, and the rate of deaths and injuries would not be acceptable in any other mode of transportation. Mostly, cars defeat the way cities have always worked to bring people together in an environment where all kinds of formal and informal interactions occur. Vibrant city centres have been created in many places where cars have been kept out completely – or at the every least significantly constrained. European cities that tried grade separation for their trams – putting them in tunnels in preparationm for later metro conversion – quickly reversed that policy. Trams now stay on the streets, which are closed to other vehicle traffic, and the economy and sociability of the city centre blossoms.

The reason that I opposed the Canada Line was that it would bring more car traffic to Cambie Street in Vancouver and along No 3 Road in Richmond. The landscape effect of the overhead right of way is also a visual blight on No 3 Road and the damage of cut and cover construction on Cambie Village is well documented. We seem to be about to make the same mistake along Broadway – although as before the province is promising to use bored tube not cut and cover. Why anyone would believe them when they broke the same promise before I do not know. I do know that Broadway could accomodate a lot more people moving capacity than it does now. Good design would make it both safer and pleasanter for residents, shoppers and people who just like to be around other people.  Patrick has already demonstrated that the proposed budget for the Broadway tube would pay foir the re-establishment of the Vancouvber streetcar system – and more. Of course some car moving and parking capacity would be lost – but in my view that is a positive not a neagtive outcome. There are much better things that can be achieved in our public realm than the ability to drive fast and park easily.

I am very pleased that he has allowed me to give you all a sneak peak at his paper before its formal publication. I suggest you not only download it but save it somewhere on your computer for ease of reference. It is going to be very useful I think.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 21, 2008 at 9:42 am

Posted in Economics, transit, Urban Planning

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19 Responses

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  1. It is unfortunate that the Mr. Condon’s paper does not include articulated electric trolleybuses in the modal comparison. The most heavily used routes, Main St. and Commercial Dr. exhibit these 18 metre buses. Swiss, German and Latin American cities use bi-articulated 24 metre eletric trolley buses (Van Hool and Volvo). Before pursuing the costly exercise of laying tracks in streets, revising our passenger vehicular regulations would be prudent.


    October 21, 2008 at 11:36 am

  2. TransLink speaks!!


    October 21, 2008 at 1:04 pm

  3. In other news, apples and oranges are different.

    Not really sure why this is a useful exercise. In European cities, they offer many different types of rail including high-speed rail for trips between major cities, regional rail for trips between regional centres, metros for longer trips within cities and trams for short trips in cities. Seems like it is not an either or. We really need all types as they really serve to compliment each other and provide people with transportation choices for all of their trips.

    With such short trip distances, trams compete with walking and cycling. Depending on the situation, trams could actually increase GHG emissions if they discourage people from cycling and walking. Meanwhile, according to the report, SkyTrain seems to competes for the long trips where the only other option is the automobile.

    In the last report Condon published, comparing the Portland Streetcar to the UBC Line, they didn’t bother calculating the capital cost per passenger. If they did, they would have found out that both the Portland Streetcar and UBC Line were similar in this aspect. If they would have calculated the cost per passenger mile, the UBC Line would have soundly trounced the Portland Streetcar.

    Regarding the energy required, I thought SkyTrain was more energy efficient than stated in the report. I expect it performs a bit worse because the high frequency of trains during off-peak hours (3-5 minutes) as opposed to the usual 15 minutes for trams.

    While this work seems better than the last effort, it still seems rather biased in favour of trams.

    Richard C.

    October 21, 2008 at 1:04 pm

  4. I’m not sure that I agree with Condon’s assumption that Skytrain is best for long distance trips. I have found that compared to other regional rail systems (separated ROW systems) that I have ridden around the world (Berlin and Osaka for example), Skytrain is very slow as it is unable to bypass stops using an “express” system with sidings for through trains.

    Skytrain’s other major failing, in my opinion, is its lack of versatility. Unlike conventional rail lines, which can pretty much carry anything with the same gauge and a motor, Skytrain binds us to one type of rail car, with one type of propulsion system, and one type of ROW. What happens when these become worn out, obselete, or circumstances change?


    October 21, 2008 at 1:17 pm

  5. A note on trolleybuses. Sad to say that European transit builders have got the construction costs so low for new LRT/tram systems, that when compared with the trolleybus, for a ‘few dollars more’ for LRT, one gets a whole lot more benefits with rail. Trolleybuses, I’m afraid are a diminishing breed.

    Speed or commercial speed of a transit system is based on 1) quality of rights-of-way and 2) the number of stations or stops per route km.

    Again I mention Europe, where many tram systems operate on reserved rights-of-ways (some as simple as a HOV lane with rails) in city centres. RROW’s combined with priority signalling at intersections has greatly increased comercial speeds of trams, so much so, that commercial speeds are very close to what a metro can achieve.

    Now lets look at Karlsruhe Germany, birth place of the very successful TramTrain or trams that can operate on the regular railways; TramTrains, operating as commuter trains, with widely spaces stations can achieve very high commercial speeds, much higher than SkyTrain.

    That Condon mentions SkyTrain most likely reflects a very strong SkyTrain lobby in UBC. The truth be known the 1982 TTC Accelerated Rapid Transit study (ARTs) and a little later, Gerald Fox’s “A comparison of Automated Guided Transit (AGT) Systems and Light Rail’, put the knife in the back of SkyTrain (and to a lesser extent, France’s VAL) a long time ago.

    Only, no one here bothered to read.

    Malcolm J.

    October 21, 2008 at 1:20 pm

  6. Richard

    The point is not do we need all types of transit? The answer to that question is obviously yes. The question is which one do we build next. It is my view that the under served South of the Fraser area should get first pick as it has been so left behind for so long and yet that is where most of the next million will live. We also need to concentrate on how to do things quickly and cheaply, because the problem is not just immediate – it has been left undone for far too long. A subway under Broadway should be left until 2030 and rail for the valley and BRT for KGH started now.

    Stephen Rees

    October 21, 2008 at 1:56 pm

  7. Well, regarding South of the Fraser, this isn’t really the argument that Patrick is making in his paper.

    Then is it is time for people South of the Fraser to step up to the plate and stop Gateway and highway expansion so there is funding for transit improvements. They need to support vehicle levies, road pricing or higher gas taxes to pay for transit. The reason why we are in the mess today is politicians South of the Fraser rebelled against the vehicle levy.

    It is counterproductive to fight over limited resources when really all transit improvements in the region are way behind.

    Richard C.

    October 21, 2008 at 2:45 pm

  8. Corey, SkyTrain, like any other rail system can have express bypasses. It is just a matter of spending the money to build them.

    For express regional rail, probably better to use the conventional rail network instead of trying to graft it on SkyTrain.

    Richard C.

    October 21, 2008 at 2:55 pm

  9. Likewise, if LRT is to be built, then politicians north of the Fraser River have to accept the fact that people commute through their municipalities and allow LRT tracks to be built at-grade through them, whether on existing ROWs or in street.

    Ron C.

    October 21, 2008 at 2:57 pm

  10. Stephen

    Your argument regarding regarding more cars along #3 just doesn’t fly. There still would have been two lanes for automobiles as there is plenty of right of way. With surface rail, there likely would not have been space for bike lanes though.

    On Cambie Street, they would have built LRT down the boulevard or removed so no lanes of traffic would have been eliminated.

    Light rail on Cambie would likely have been just as bad for merchants along Cambie.

    If the Arbutus Corrdior would have been used, no lanes of traffic would have been eliminated elther.

    Richard C.

    October 21, 2008 at 3:03 pm

  11. An interesting post, as always Stephen. However, I have to challenge your remark about the transit line being a blight on Number 3 Road in Richmond.

    For those of us who have been obliged to experience No 3 Road on a daily basis over the past couple of decades, it has always been the ugliest street in North America (with the possible exception of Niagara’s main street). The strong but slender concrete lines of the SkyTrain extension have the advantage of blotting out some of the worst cross-street vistas.


    October 21, 2008 at 3:18 pm

  12. It sad to see, with so much information available about all aspects of light rail, the same old dreary myths emerge. It is strange that, despite being on the market for almost 30 years, SkyTrain has singularly failed as a transit mode, instead it is sold as a prestigious transit line for airports and such.

    Light metro’s like SkyTrain, are obsolete, made obsolete by light rail. There is a many reasons for this, but the established SkyTrain lobby will have none of it and continue to debate the undebatable – something akin to the flat earth society.

    Note #1:

    Linear Induction Motors are more energy efficient that ‘squirrel cage’ motors, when exact alignments are kept. With tyre and rail wear on SkyTrain, the precise 1 cm. gap between LIM and the reaction rail can not be maintained thus energy consumption fluctuates wildly. Somewhere in the late Des Turner’s files is a letter from Laithwaite (who did much work on LIMs) lamenting the fact that ICTS/ALRT’s (SkyTrain) attraction style LIMS were the wrong type and should have been repulsion style LIMs as used on MAGLEV’s, for the above reason.

    Note #2: In cities with new on-street LRT, adjacent businesses see about a 10% increase in trade.

    Vancouver will build with LRT, when politicians south of the River get some backbone and refuse to support taxes that benefit only Vancouver. When the Vancouver ratepayer has to pay for subways, realistic transit solutions will suddenly appear. Even the Japanese are rethinking at-grade LRT and investing in new at-grade/on-street lines.

    There are some 600 cities, including London, Paris, Toronto, Los Angeles, etc., that have at-grade LRT and it seems to operate quite well. Why is Vancouver so different?

    Malcolm J.

    October 21, 2008 at 3:52 pm

  13. I have to say that I think No.3 Road turned out much better than expected. It reminds me of many asian cities that I have been to, and that undoubtedly reflects Richmond’s recent demographic shift. The only place it looks absolutely terrible is in front of parking lots like at Lansdowne Mall. Where the towers dwarf the line however, it looks pretty decent.


    October 21, 2008 at 4:00 pm

  14. What I like about Patrick’s article is that it compares energy consumption by transport mode, something I haven’t seen yet except in a brief report by Jeff Kenworthy (who also compared GHG emissions in some 60 cities worldwide, including Canada’s largest five, in another report).

    It’s so obvious by the graphs that you can draw a fat line between electric rail and petroleum-fueled vehicles in terms of energy consumption and emissions per passenger mile, a very important consideration when legislating and budgeting for action on climate change.

    As always, Patrick always makes the vital link between public transit and land use, something I think is often ignored in these comments on mode.

    Further, site conditions differ widely between Broadway (I didn’t see THAT name in the report … unless I missed it) and South of Fraser streets like King George, 200th Street and the Fraser Highway.

    To repeat what I’ve said several times on this blog before, Central Broadway is unique in that there are 23 crossings in the densest portion with a signalized crossing at every interection. The blocks are 130 to 170 metres long, far less distance than the typical 300-600m spacing of tram stations cited here before.

    I am very concerned that at least half these crossings, which are currently absolutely vital for pedestrians, bikes and commercial vehicles, will be severed by a dedicated LRT corridor.

    If the corridor is not dedicated, then the trams will merely replicate the B-Line bus, a route, by the way with a considerable portion — perhaps a majority — of long-distance passengers.

    Condon also couches his tram slant in terms of IF there is or is not a large number of long-distance riders. Doesn’t he know?

    I would agree that most arterials could support streetcars / trams, but that remains to be proven along Broadway.

    Lastly, the argugument could also be made that in all cases and modes, stealing space from cars is totally justified … even with a Broadway tube which could remove 100-200 parking spaces to create exceptionally wide crosswalks at all intersections in the central corridor, and even something frowned upon by all traffic engineers: the signalized mid-block crosswalk.


    October 21, 2008 at 4:43 pm

  15. A note: The Tuen Mun LRT in Hong Kong has 42 street crossings, yet carries over 25,000 pphpd, in the peak hours. Certainly, if Hon Kong can carry high capacities on what can be described as a ‘super’ streetcar (Tuen Mun’s vehicles are not articulated), a rather modest affair by comparison on Broadway would work well.

    Some time ago at a City of Vancouver ‘transit’ meeting, there was serious discussion in reducing crosswalks and cross traffic on Broadway, just for rapid bus. If LRT were to be used, there would be major street and crosswalk changes on Broadway.

    Broadway would be a natural for LRT, it is just waiting to happen.

    Malcolm J.

    October 21, 2008 at 10:01 pm

  16. There are 55 crossings on the Broadway corridor in the 8.75 km Commercial Drive-Alma stretch. The vast majority of which are currently signalized and accommodate very significant flows of feet, bicycles and commercial vehicles.

    It is a sad day when chomping away at an existing very important pedestrian realm to meet the operational requirements of certain modes of public transit is proposed. Passengers, local residents, merchants and their customers, and especially patients and employees in the hospital district have every right to be concerned.

    I’ve sad it before. Residents, employees and merchants within 1 km of the Broadway corridor, and UBC transit users, should have the final say on surface vs underground rail. It is, after all, their neighbourhood.


    October 22, 2008 at 12:43 pm

  17. Quote:

    “I’ve said it before. Residents, employees and merchants within 1 km of the Broadway corridor, and UBC transit users, should have the final say on surface vs underground rail. It is, after all, their neighbourhood.”

    And the same folks should be prepared pay the difference between LRT and a subway too, about $200 million a KM. million more! If one wants a subway, one should not expect others to pay for it.


    “There are 55 crossings on the Broadway corridor in the 8.75 km Commercial Drive-Alma stretch.”

    Well over half of these crossings (27 to 30) are minor streets that is almost impossible for cars to cross during the day. Baring cross street access on Broadway would be just insuring safer driving all around.

    Priority signalling is fact on European tram systems and it seems to work very well. with ‘stop’s every 500 or so metres apart, the 8.75 would see 17 stops all light controlled at intersections; all very safe.

    Malcolm J.

    October 22, 2008 at 3:06 pm

  18. As long as car infrastructure is funded from the general revenue accounts of public agencies, then public transit should be. It’s a basic principle.

    Extending your unequal proposed funding principle, we should remove the $2,700 annual public subsidy on every car in car-addicted suburbs, but keep it in place in denser urban areas.

    If you think a surface light rail line from Commercial Drive to UBC can be built for under $1.5 billion, you’re dreaming. Yes, it’s cheaper than a tube, but I contend there is a price to be paid in regard to serious impacts on the existing pedestrian realm at crossings at street level, unless it’s a slow moving tram on a milk run.

    I referred to EXISTING SIGNALIZED crossings, of which the vast majority are in that entire 55-block stretch. All (i.e. 100%) of the 22 crossings in the densest area from Main to Arbutus are signalized. And I referred to pedestrian, bicycle and commercial vehicle cross traffic, not car traffic, which I don’t give a damn about on or off Broadway.


    October 23, 2008 at 4:31 pm

  19. I would just like to second Meredith’s most recent comment, paticularly with regards to the West Broadway ‘village’ between Larch and Blenheim. “Baring cross street access” at minor cross streets (and they’re all minor except for Macdonald) to provide a high quality LRT ROW would not be in the best interest of the neighborhood.

    David Banks

    October 25, 2008 at 12:44 am

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