Stephen Rees's blog

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

Rethinking the need for speed

with 25 comments

Globe and Mail.

The opinion piece is by David Beers who is referencing a report by Patrick Condon. Which, of course, the Globe provides no link to – but I can: it is a pdf file.

I think Beers has the right approach on the whole – certainly the sales line has always been “rapid transit”. But that is because buses are perceived as slow. They stop to set down and pick up other people which means they do not keep up with single occupant vehicles. Even though when you space out the stops – and especially if you co-ordinate the bus stops with traffic signals, something we do not do here – the difference can quickly be reduced. But in any event, it is the door to door time that matters to individuals, not just the in vehicle time. So if parking is difficult, remote and expensive, the advantage of the car can starts to wither. Transit that makes you walk a long way to get it (or from it to where you need to be), or climb stairs, or keeps you hanging around to make connections is less attractive no matter how fast the station to station time might be.

But the big thing about Professor Condon’s report is the cost – and the impact on land use. As car ownership spread we started building our towns to accommodate the cars. Doing that made every other mode less attractive. And it is only recently that we have begun – on this continent – to realize that we were creating all sorts of problems for ourselves, and making our cities less habitable. Most places are quickly catching on – and as result, across the US you can read reports that transit ridership is not falling even though gas prices are. Having been given a strong incentive to try an alternative, people are finding that it can work.

Transit ridership is not going to rise in places that do not have enough transit. It is also not going to increase until the routes and service frequencies reflect the needs of passengers. Transit is still run by and for the operators – and schedules reflect operational convenience and economy not what works well to attract new users.

But the most obvious change in policy we need to see is the retrofitting of suburbs – and major educational and other institutions – to reduce the need to travel long distances. Plonking universities on the top of a mountain or at the end of a headland may make a nice architectural statement but it is plain dumb in urban planning terms. Just as the whole idea of a “campus” is suspect – especially if it is too expensive to provide student accommodation. It is not just that we need walkable residential neighbourhoods (though that would help too) but we need both mixed income housing and mixed use development. And before we had the current planning nostrums towns and cities were all very mixed up indeed – and worked much better than they do now.

Recreating streetcar suburbs in the City of Vancouver is going to be quite easy – if we have streetcars. And the same is true of much of Burnaby, North Vancouver and New Westminster all of which developed before widespread car ownership and around a network of interurbans and streetcars. It is going to be much harder in the newer suburbs – and the places which are going to accommodate the next tranche of population growth. It is vital that such places do not repeat the same mistakes of the last sixty years, yet we seem to be locked into that pattern – and by the deliberate decision of one man – Kevin Falcon. If we build more freeways we will get more car oriented sprawl not transit oriented development – because you do not get TOD where there is no T!

It may be that, as others are predicting, car 2.0 will be more environmentally acceptable than car 1.0. But it is still going to require far too much space – for both movement and parking – to allow us to have walkable urban areas. Cars and cities are a bad mixture no matter what kind of motive power system they have.

The fact is we will get a lot more transit for $2.8bn if we don’t spend it all on one underground line to UBC. There is also a great benefit if we use the transit we build to deliberately and consistently reduce the space for cars to move and park. Yes, car free streets. We need to shift the balance of advantage towards environmentally sustainable modes that also will help make us healthier – we need to walk more – and also make our urban areas more livable. Where human beings can interact socially while they move around – and stop – because they do that much better when not encased in a steel cage. And that is as true if the car is a Prius or a Model T. UBC cannot afford to give students a Prius each because there would be nowhere for them to park – let alone get in and out of the campus.

And that is also true in the bigger picture. We have no room here for urban sprawl. We need the land to grow food, and trees and collect rain water. We need the space around us to be accessible for all, not just the privileged who can buy big estate homes. We need it to be possible for our children to walk to school in safety, for us to have a choice of where to work, shop or pursue other interests which does not impose the need for several vehicles per household.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 15, 2008 at 11:56 am

Posted in Light Rail, transit

25 Responses

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  1. If one has read Prof. Carmen Hass-Klau’s 4 international transit studies, including Bus or Light Rail, Making the Right Choice, one would know that speed, in itself, is not the prime reason for people to take transit. Rather it is the over all ambiance of the transit system, including ease of use, ease of ticketing, lack of transfer, etc. that attracted customers to transit.

    In Karlsruhe Germany, when the first zweisystem or tram/train came into operation, eliminating one transfer at the train station (commuter train to tram) ridership increased 423% from 488,400 customers a week to 2,0064,400 a week! The overall cost of Karlsruhe first tram/train worked out to $3.5 million/km. in 1992.

    Subways have been very poor at attracting transit customers and except for lines with massive traffic flows, European transit planners tend not to plan for subway.

    My sources indicate that the cost for a Fraser St. to UBC subway would cost at least $4.5 billion and that is direct costs, not including debt servicing. We could buy one hell of a lot of LRT for $4.5 billion!

    Malcolm J.

    December 15, 2008 at 12:18 pm

  2. Very interesting and an eye opener, as everything I have read by Professor Condon. As cities older than Vancouver have shown transit in the core is a no-brainer. The new suburbs are a problem and, sadly enough, even the Europeans and the Japanese, with their transit knowledge and their high price of gas, have allowed new car-reliant suburbs to be built in the past 40 or so years. The average commuting distance by car in France is now around 35 km one way so we–in Metro Vancouver– shouldn’t feel ashamed of our badly planned new suburbs, as long as we put a stop to it. Regarding the attractiveness of transit–and disregarding the cost– both a LRT and an Automated guideway system are best as the rides are smooth. Obviously I am prejudiced in favor a LRT but right now SkyTrain does the job for me. Buses have a terrible ride-especially the “bendy” ones-and they get stuck in traffic. Too bad that Falcon didn’t bother to pop up in Paris (while discovering London)as they have bus lanes–shared by cabs and bikes–that are separated from regular car lanes by a divider (a low one but too high for a regular car to jump over). Subways are now just too expensive for most towns.

    Red frog

    December 15, 2008 at 12:36 pm

  3. […] from Steve Munro and Stephen Rees to the community at the Urban Toronto Forum, seems to be talking about a very interesting article […]

  4. It is interesting to note that in 1980, in Germany, ten years before the fall of the ‘wall’, a majority of tram systems were scheduled for abandonment. S-Bahns and U-Bahns were replacing tram systems, but a funny thing happened, transit ridership fell!

    Instead of hoping a tram near ones home and hoping off near ones destination was replaced with taking a bus to then S or U Bahn station, transferring and transferring again to bus to complete one journey. Taking the car was just easier.

    French innovation coupled with good German research and sound transportation planning reversed this plan of mass abandonments. Karlsruhe’s zweisystem LRT certainly shows the resourcefulness of transit engineers in making the impossible – possible.

    SkyTrain light-metro systems have been made all but obsolete and are now only sold to airport authorities in private deals with JFK’s ART being a good example. The Germans have a quaint name for exotic transit systems, gadgetbahnen and SkyTrain certainly fits. Despite all the hype and hoopla about SkyTrain it has not yet matched modern LRT’s performance and in the great scheme of things, been left standing at the station.

    What we need is a complete rethink on how and why we build and operate public transit. Until we do that, politicians will still champion expensive transit solutions which look pretty on paper but in the end, taking the car is just easier!

    Malcolm J.

    December 15, 2008 at 3:51 pm

  5. Although I in general agree with Beers and Condon, there is still one point about the UBC line that gives me pause. Why does the line need to go all the way to UBC? Why not extend the Millennium line to Main & Broadway, Cambie, Oak, and Granville, and then run the rest of the distance at grade with LRT? The busy part of the 99 B-line is from Commercial to Granville. The Cambie, Oak, and Graville section of Broadway is an employment hub. Most importantly, extending the Millennium line to Granville would create a network of rapid transit in Vancouver. The costs would be high, but this network of rapid transit could form the spine for the LRT transformation that Beers and Condon call for.

    Adrian N.

    December 15, 2008 at 6:48 pm

  6. When I saw that the Millenium line was extended past Commercial Drive I naively assumed that it was being extended all the way to Cambie to link with the Canada line that was either already started or about to. It would have been easy as most of the terrain is industrial and with enough open space to run the SkyTrain. I would either run the line to the present Main st station then turn sharply South from there to a Station at Quebec and 8th then keep going above ground all the way to Granville. OR go in a curve from VCC-Clark to Fraser and 8th then to Main st. etc. Even buying houses all along would be much cheaper than a tunnel! From Granville to UBC I would have a LRT.

    Red frog

    December 15, 2008 at 9:19 pm

  7. We make the mistake assuming LRT or trams are somewhat inferior to SkyTrain or metro, this is not true. In the real world metro or subways are built if there is the ridership to justify construction. 15,000 pphpd is the figure most common as being the threshold for subway construction (as an aside, this is the maximum capacity of RAV/Canada Line as built!); build subways on lesser routes and the subway subsidy increases.

    Except for Trans Link’s “TransLink speak”, SkyTrain has not offered superior service than light rail. it’s higher commercial speed is due to lack of stations as fewer stations per route km. results in higher commercial speeds but reduces ridership.

    TransLink makes a big hoo-haw over LRT/road intersections, yet with the hundreds of cities that operate light rail, this is certainly not as big a problem as TransLink would have us think.

    For the cost of a few km. of subway, we could build a rather large LRT/tram network, which in turn would create the sort of tram network that would be an attractive alternative to the car.

    See the Tyee blog on this subject.

    Malcolm J.

    December 16, 2008 at 7:48 am

  8. I agree with Adrian and Red Frog. Who says that a combination of skytrain and LRT is not viable. It might be expensive, but you can’t ignore the infrastructure that currently exists. A skytrain to at least the Canada Line would go a long way to complete the network.

    Students heading to UBC are already making a transfer to the 99, so you wouldn’t be adding the inconvenience of an extra transfer. So the rider experience would be same if not better than it is now.

    The Millenium Line extension also doesn’t have to be a subway or elevated line. There are several low traffic streets that could be shut down to allow the skytrain to run at grade at least for a portion of the trip, greatly reducing costs. LRT could then run at grade, sharing space with vehicle traffic or in a dedicated lane from either the Canada Line terminus or from Granville Street (I think there is a little room for debate there) all the way to UBC. There is a little room for compromise here, but I think this makes sense. Skytrain at least to the Canada Line, maybe farther, but not to UBC. At grade when possible. LRT from that point on. This shouldn’t be an either / or situation, it should be about making transit more attractive and getting more people out of their cars.


    December 16, 2008 at 9:35 am

  9. SkyTrain can’t be operated on-street/at-grade because:
    1) It is an automatic driverless transit system.
    2) It is powered by Linear Induction Motors.

    To run at grade, one must erect Berlin Wall style fencing with razor wire to prevent egress.

    Also the RAV/Canada Line is an ‘of the shelf’ metro system and is not compatible with the proprietary SkyTrain.

    Too many transfers, subways, etc will not attract ridership because they haven’t elsewhere. What is needed is a network of LRT/trams, which I have stated before could be built for a few km. of SkyTrain. To continue building with SkyTrain will condemn the region to higher taxes and a small, yet expensive transit system.

    Malcolm J.

    December 16, 2008 at 11:52 am

  10. Why not build Skytrain at grade with nice black fence like they have there at Marine Drive Station and reroute/underpass all the cross streets? Surely the effect on the street would be about the same as an elevated system… 😉


    December 16, 2008 at 12:18 pm

  11. The impacts of Skytrain and LRT are similar if both are exclusive right-of-way systems.

    You cannot compare the costs of an exclusive right-of-way system with the costs of an instreet system – they are apples and oranges. The real question is whether you want apples or oranges (fast (exclusive ROW) or slow (shared ROW)) – which is what the original article is asking.

    Persoanlly, I think that with the constraints of today’s society – everyone multitasking, logging 12 hour days at work, rushing home, etc. – commuters want a fast solution.

    WRT building Skytrain to Arbutus and LRT the rest of the way – that is similar to the proposal supported by the City of Vancouver for the Millennium Line Phase 2 back in 2002 – Skytrain to Arbutus and rapid bus to UBC. It’s the crowding on the B-Line that has peopl looking at a higher capacity system west of Arbutus.
    The problem with building LRT from Arbutus to UBC is where are you going to find acres of land to build the maintenace and operations centre – (i.e. the rail yard) – I suppose you could build it on the UBC endowment lands (Pacific Spirit Park), but I expect that would be a tough sell politically. Assembling land in the Burrard slopes industrial area would be very expensive and there are already residnetial uses in the area that would complain about the noise. The Arbutus right-of-way could be used as a storage yard, but the creme-de-la-creme would object and that corridor should be preserved for a second ine to Richmond in the future. The False Creek Flats is a possibility for a rail yard if the LRT starts at VCC-Clark Station, but that means you lose the “one seat ride” from the Millennium Line to the Canada Line and the Broadway office corridor.
    A second Skytrain rail yard is planned for the Evergreen Line along Lougheed Highway (which will be built before the UBC extension). The existing yard at Edmonds is currently being expanded but have reached the physical limits of the property – they will need much more train storage capacity when the new MKII cars arrive for the Evergreen Line and for the UBC extension.

    Ron C.

    December 16, 2008 at 12:58 pm

  12. Malcolm, why not build a fenced off section of skytrain? I get it; it needs a dedicated right of way and cannot run on street, but that doesn’t mean it has to run underground or on an elevated platform. As Corey said, it would not be a new idea. And of course, its much cheaper. And I’m not suggesting it for the whole corridor, but we should at least look at it if we want to keep the costs low.

    I wasn’t suggesting a direct rail connection to the Canada Line (same trains,same track). I realize the Canada Line is not designed to be compatible with Expo or Millenium line track or cars. But they are both high speed, dedicated right of way. A transfer here would work. ANd my idea wouldn’t necessarily add transfers, it would just change the locations.

    Its not a competition. You should use the technology that best fits the terrain and the projected transit demand. A combination of LRT and Skytrain could work.


    December 16, 2008 at 2:01 pm

  13. 8 foot fences with razor wire tops, certainly would not be conclusive to neighbors and unlike LRT there can be no operation in mixed traffic, including intersections. LRT can operate at high speed as well, Portland and Calgary’s LRV’s travel at 80 kph, on long sections of track. What makes the the commercial speed slower for the LRT systems is that they have about twice as many station/stops than SkyTrain. Transfers deter ridership and a mixture of LRT and SkyTrain would be expensive and not very productive.

    The sad fact with SkyTrain, despite all the hype and hoopla, is inferior in operation when compared to LRT. The speed issue is a canard because LRT can operate as fast or faster than SkyTrain; St. Louis’s LRT has a faster commercial speed than SkyTrain!

    I’m afraid we are stuck with SkyTrain, which means more highways will be built because it is just too expensive to extend SkyTrain very far. I think Vancouver will get its downtown freeway in the next decade, courtesy of SkyTrain!

    Malcolm J.

    December 16, 2008 at 8:00 pm

  14. Glad to see your hatred of Skytrain hasn’t let up.
    But with over 256,000 riders per day and an operating cost of only $77Million/year I think it’s doing a pretty good job.

    PS, I hope you seriously don’t believe a freeway is coming to D/T, if you do, you’re a little crazier then I figured.

    Joe Just Joe

    December 16, 2008 at 8:26 pm

  15. As I said before–too many times already– I am a great fan of LRT ever since I went to Strasbourg in 1995 ESPECIALLY to see their amazing tram. Since then I have seen and used LRT in about a dozen towns in Europe, Japan, the USA, including the one in Bordeaux, my birthplace. However UNFORTUNATELY we have SkyTrain so we might as well deal with it. As others have said, along with me, let’s finish the SkyTrain to Cambie or Granville from VCC (as an elevated section obviously) then have a LRT from the terminus of that line to UBC. To say that in other places LRT provide seamless service from start to end for all users is WRONG. This is only true for those that live or work near the line but everyone else take a bike, bus, subway from home to ta LRT station then from another LRT station to wherever they want to go. This is what have done in Bordeaux, Paris, Croydon, Frankfurt, Berlin, Hiroshima, Portland etc. Doubters should look at the transit maps of these towns.

    Red frog

    December 16, 2008 at 9:58 pm

  16. Just Joe, the cost of SkyTrain is closer to $300 million a year, TransLink want you to forget about the over $200 million annual subsidy for SkyTrain. That is tax money out of health care, education, etc. As for SkyTrain’s ridership, I doubt they carry 200,000 a day, as for their method of calculating ridership, it is a hocus-pocus method, not based on actual ridership counts, but a combination of U-Pass issued, monies collected, and as I have just found out, double counting on the Millennium Line.

    To say just because we have SkyTrain, we must build with SkyTrain is foolish. With SkyTrain we get the light-metro philosophy, which has been proven unsuccessful in attracting the motorist from the car. The same is true of VAL in Europe, VAL may carry a lot of people.but it failed to attract the motorist from the car and it was too expensive to expand. I guess European politicians are just more careful with the taxpayers dollars than our domestic variety. VAL fueled the LRT Renaissance in France.

    Malcolm J.

    December 17, 2008 at 6:34 am

  17. You need to let your hatred for Skytrain stop blinding you. You can not chose to accept figures for LRT just because they suit you, but then you don’t like the figures for Skytrain you choose to ignore them and claim they are fictional.

    Facts are Skytrain “ridership” is over 256K/day, and will hit 270K by 2011. Operating costs of Skytrain are $77M/yr. Those are very good numbers and stack up with any LRT system in N.A.

    Joe just Joe

    December 17, 2008 at 9:04 am

  18. Joe, you are laughable, but then the SkyTrain lobby is laughable, akin to the flat earth society. You ignore a $200 million annual subsidy and take Translink’s word for ridership as gospel. Sorry, very few people do.

    What is the total cost of SkyTrain to the taxpayer? We don’t know, but at best it will be over $8 billion, which includes debt servicing. Most US transit systems costs are based on the total cost, not the direct cost as done here! This is why the Seattle monorail foundered, they played the Vancouver/TransLink game of giving only the direct cost and not the total cost of the system. When the taxpayer realized they were being taken for a ride, the monorail scheme collapsed.

    80% of SkyTrain’s ridership first take a bus to the metro, which according to transit experts, is not a good statistic.

    As for a so-called hatred of SkyTrain, no, I just know a lot about it. Isn’t it interesting that there have been several international studies about ‘rail’ transit, and LRT comes out very good. Where is SkyTrain? Well no one builds with it, nor are they interested in it and that should give reason for pause.

    I think the 1983 TTC ART/IBI study says it all – “SkyTrain costs anything up to TEN times as much as a conventional light rail line to install, for about the same capacity; or put another way, SkyTrain costs more than a heavy-rail subway with FOUR times its capacity.”

    Oh by the way, I don not deal in good numbers, but real numbers, something that TransLink is very loath to divulge. I wonder why?

    Malcolm J.

    December 17, 2008 at 10:24 am

  19. I think the 1983 TTC ART/IBI study says it all – “SkyTrain costs anything up to TEN times as much as a conventional light rail line to install, for about the same capacity; or put another way, SkyTrain costs more than a heavy-rail subway with FOUR times its capacity.”

    The name “Skytrain” wasn’t coined until well after 1983. There was a naming competition about a year or so before the line opened.

    Ron C.

    December 17, 2008 at 2:28 pm

  20. ICTS, ALRT, ALM, ART all the same thing. SkyTrain is a local name, in fact most elevated railways are called SkyTrain or AirTrain. Even though ICTS had an operator, it was fully automatic and to give the operator a semblance of a job, he pushed a button to shut the doors.

    The TTC/IBI study was devastating to ICTS that the TTC abandoned all planning for the mode. ICTS had such a bad reputation that the name was changes to ALRT and sold to the then Social Credit government, which also got Premier Davis’s famed ‘Blue Machine’ as part of the deal.

    Gerald Fox’s later AGT/LRT study also showed that LRT, operating on the same quality of right’s-of-way as SkyTrain would be cheaper to operate. Both studies and and a damning expose by reporter Paul Palango sealed ICTS/ALRT’s fate.

    Malcolm J.

    December 17, 2008 at 4:54 pm

  21. Maybe someone forgot to tell New York, Kuala Lumpur, Detroit, Beijing, and Yougin South Korea how terrible Skytrain is as they all installed lines after Vancouver, most of those cities very recently. Heck you should email the mayor of Honolulu as it appears they will be purchasing a line shortly as well.

    I can see the benefits of LRT in certain areas and under certain conditions, but to argue that it’s somehow superior to Skytrain I can’t agree with. If you build a grade seperated automated LRT then I’m all for it, but you’ll end up with something like the Canada Line which costs the same amount as Skytrain.

    Joe just Joe

    December 17, 2008 at 5:53 pm

  22. One hate to contradict Malcolm J. but European politicians aren’t especially worried about saving money. The mere fact that the E.U has 2 capitals (Brussels and Strasbourg) is but one proof. The 2 main reasons many European towns have built LRT systems instead of VAL (a type of AGT made in France that, like the Japanese ones, use wheels with rubber tires instead of steel wheels, and has platform screen doors separating the platform from the tracks for safety)ARE:1-the size of the towns. Big towns have long used suburban trains as urban transit and also had heavy metros long ago. There aren’t too many medium sized towns (1 to 2 millions people)in most European countries big enough to justify the expense of a heavy metro. In France only Marseille and Lyon could afford a heavy metro. Towns in the 3rd tier (1/2 million to 1 million) like Lille and Toulouse in France chose the VAL because “out of sight in the historical district = out of mind”. In France many mayors are also either a MP or a senator(elected) so the financing of a pet-project isn’t much of a problem as these politicians have a lot of clout (many are re-elected again and again until they are too old). 2- LRT were chosen in many places more to enhance the pedestrian areas that are considered a MUST in every town than to save money. Bordeaux previous mayor (nicknamed the Duke of Aquitaine he was also the local MP and also, for years, the speaker of the French Parliament and the Head of the Greater Bordeaux Council)badly wanted a VAL at any cost but both the terrain and the sheer number of historical buildings downtown made it way too expensive. As it is the LRT didn’t come cheap (and the APS system was only part of the cost; lots of unplanned archaeological digs, adding new bus lines in the newer suburbs and changing old routes added to the cost, not to mention financial compensation to businesses affected by years of disruption) but then again in the 1990s the town spent the equivalent of 60 millions $ Can. to restore the 18th century Opera house and 60 more millions to built a state of the art library. In the past few years they have started building new parks and gardens on both sides of the river. By the way the average local taxes in Bordeaux are Euros 1900 per family, TWICE what they are in Paris. To say that VAL has failed to attract motorists is willfully ignoring the fact that new suburbs have grown like crabgrass in the past 25 years in Lille, as in Toulouse, Bordeaux and all well-known towns, and it is just not possible to have VAL or LRT lines going all over the place. According to one of the blogs in Sud-Ouest (a newspaper in Aquitaine) some people want the Tram to be replaced by an underground metro, no matter the cost.
    VAL has been expanded in Lille and more expansions are planned, as they are in Toulouse and Rennes. Toulouse is also building a LRT and, like in many other European towns and also Japanese ones, use some sections of regional railways lines (built long ago) as part of the urban transit system. Talking about Japan Tokyo opened last May(2008) their newest AGT, the Nippori-Toneri liner. There are about 11 AGTs Japan that I know of.

    Red frog

    December 17, 2008 at 5:56 pm

  23. what strikes me most is it comes down to one man Kevin Falcon making such a mess of things for everyone.

    Bernadette Keenan

    December 17, 2008 at 8:33 pm

  24. Well then he just has to go, doesn’t he.


    December 19, 2008 at 3:29 pm

  25. […] Is “rapid transit” the real solution? Stephen Rees’ Blog – Rethinking the need for speed […]

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