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

A Field Guide to Transit Quarrels

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Jarrett Walker at SFU City programme

August 4, 2010

This post is giving me problems. For one thing, the talk is by a blogger – Jarret Walker writes His blog has been on my blog roll for quite a long time and I have no problem recommending it to my readers. I hope he reads this – and decides either to comment or send me an email if there is something that needs correcting. At the start of the evening, Gordon Price said that he advised Jarret at the start of his blogging to post something – even if it was short – regularly, to keep people coming back. I am not sure that is necessarily a great idea. I now only post when there is something that I feel I have to say. And even then I am increasingly conscious that I am repeating myself. Blogs need content – and that is my problem. This longish piece is not my content – it is what Jarret said last night – and much of it can be found on his blog. So to some extent this is going to look a lot like riding his coattails.

There were also significant technical problems yesterday evening. I got there on time – which meant I had to sit at the back of a very large room. I needed to be next to an electrical outlet, as the battery on my net book is no longer holding charge (it’s a replacement battery too!). The microphone fitted to Jarret was wireless, but picking up all kinds of interference, and as he himself admitted, he cannot stand still behind a lectern mike.  So what with my slow typing speed, and the speed with which he went through his topic, there is plenty of room here for things to have been missed or misheard. Which is another reason why I hope I get feedback from those who were there – and Jarret himself. What follows after the horizontal rule are my expanded notes of the lecture and subsequent public question and answer session. Then there will be another horizontal rule and my own reaction.


A field guide to transit quarrels

The “field guide” is a metaphor. He is trying to categorize the arguments in ways that describe but do not judge or recommend. He thinks that the quarrels reflect the “chaos of nature”. There are all kinds of claims, put forward with intense fervour and absolute sincerity. He has a book coming this fall that deals with this mass of claims about service and technology which he tries to place upon a “spectrum of authorities”

  • my feelings
  • our feelings
  • culture
  • psychology
  • biology
  • physics
  • math/geometry

The intensity increases as the “sphere of influence” declines. It goes from cold to hot (bottom to top)

The requirement is to “figure out how to do something with emotions that has usefulness”

For example , it is frequently said that  “LA is a car culture”. Now, it is also said that humans tend to underestimate the rationality of others. In this case, the statement underestimates the rationality of the people of LA.  It is not so much a question of culture but that they are responding entirely rationally to the choices available to them.

Another example is urban streetcars. We love how they look and feel. Streetcars signify permanence – the fact that they run on rails means that they are less easy to take away than a bus service. But the fact remains that simply replacing buses with streetcars is not a mobility improvement. You can only go so far with marketing. In mixed traffic there are lots of things that will trap a streetcar that will not trap a bus. It is also claimed by its supporters that people will get out of the way of the streetcar: that is a cultural response to a geometry problem.

The items at the top of the spectrum are hot = subjective, unreliable and urgent. Those at the bottom cold = universal, reliable timeless

The spectrum goes from the dull abstract – practicality to the intense, real – vision

NIMBY (and conservatism in general) is about HOME. Every spring there is media coverage of magpies versus cyclists in Australian cities. the birds attack in defence of their nests – not cars or pedestrians but people riding bicycles. We behave similarly in defense of our neighbourhoods – it has a profound authority – but is not necessarily rational. An attack on what our neighbourhood looks like is not necessarily an attack on us.

Practicality without vision becomes habit – “too much how and not enough why” – this is true bureaucracy in general, and US highway engineering in particular, and is a characteristic of conventional bus operations. Indeed, when a service has to be delivered reliably, day after day, we should expect those organizations good at doing that will not have any vision. “We followed the manual. We do it this way because it works.”

Vision without practicality = boondoggles

Each of these examples are of vision out of control. These emotionally intense visions imagine a finished future but not a way to get there. For instance “slow transit” might produce a better kind of city eventually but will not win people away from the car in the interim. Arcosanti – utopian city in Arizona – has been under construction for 40 years but has not really affected much change.

PRT solves only one problem: “I won’t have to sit in a car with strangers” but until it is city wide it cannot possibly be an effective way to link the multiple origins and destinations required.

Visions fixate on the vehicles, not the service it is supposed to operate.

“Is vehicle love always an escape from the present?” Vehicle choice is something car owners understand. There are enthusiastic claims are either about the future or the past – futurism or nostalgia (illustrated by the Grenoble streetcar and the SF cable car). “The modern streetcar is a perfect marriage of both”.

Practicality is too much “stuck in the present”,  vision is “stuck in the future”. We need voices in the middle. Formalized training tends to emphasize the former – with the exception of the SFU City programme.

He then went on an interesting diversion on how BART serves SFO airport. “It was not built right. It looks good on a map but it doesn’t work.” The triangle looked perfectly fine if it were a highway, but does not fit into transit geometry because branching cuts frequency in half. The service has been changed several times to try and match service needs at Millbrae (connection to CalTrans) and the airport, but all result in excessive service at San Bruno which continues to resist transit oriented development.

Other important basic points about transit geometry are also ignored at the peril of service

line spacing – parallel lines that are too close are competing with each other

connections– “nobody likes to transfer” – against frequency and simplicity  – many routes on each street vs one route on most streets

density to transit demand: double the density is more than double the demand

transit technology choice often makes no difference to outcome: speed reliability and frequency are all unrelated to technology

One powerful thing about simple networks is that almost anyone can understand how to get anywhere easily. For example, the  Manhattan street grid pattern makes it easy within a short time to understand how to walk anywhere. (He did not note, but I will, how that breaks down at Greenwich Village – and how delightfully easy it is to get lost there.)

Another current example is the proposal to build commuter rail to Monterey – objections to transferring lead to a complex service pattern, and one that now is caught up in debate about High Speed Rail. A simple two line service in an X pattern with one transfer would have worked much better.

In the range of densities we have in North America, doubling the density of development will more than double the demand for transit service.

What if we listen to the geometry first? – We would need better manuals but there are some ways forward. For instance, service frequency must be visible on the transit map.

But the main lesson of the lecture is to encourage us to ask the question “Where is the claim’s authority?” (i.e. on the spectrum above)


Q – Why does double the density produce more than double transit demand?

A –  Denseville is twice as dense as Spareville. Within walking distance of every stop, there are double the number of people in the same  range. But there are also double the number of opportunities (destinations) . Moreover  restrictions on car use are higher in Denseville.

Q – Is Paris an example for Vancouver: for instance you say that transit vehicles there seldom have to stop for red lights

A – The bus lanes in Paris happened in the last two decades. The bus lanes came from both moving traffic and parking. The Mayor said we are going to do this. There were no demonstration projects. Yes, you can do it here. Vancouver is ahead of most other [North American] cities of its size and type. Find a path on which to progress which does not look up to anywhere in North America.

Q – Our goals need to be more ambitious – eg reduce carbon emissions – we don’t evaluate our transit success against that sort of need

A. – The recent history of sudden transformative change – the Olympics – is a step in that direction.  Don’t worry solely about funding. Look at streetspace. The Paris bus lanes are also used by bikes and taxis. Our decisions should be based on a goal that has to be reached. And remember we get more from the same [transit] dollar when we speed up service.

Q –  Should transit authorities have powers to do development and land use planning?
A –  Land use drives ridership. We need a constructive relationship, not necessarily allways in the same body. All agencies need to be working to the same plan. It is not always an organizational issue.  Some US agencies do development around their stations [he did not name any].

Q –  In BC all pst secondary students will get a Upass in September at a price of  $30 for all students. But when there are campuses in rural areas there is a huge range of variability in service. We are trying to sell transit to students who have to walk in excess of a kilometre to get to transit. Is walking distance a personal problem?

A – It’s a geometry problem. We need to locate institutions in right places i.e. where transit service is going to be

Q transit vs roads is the same authority – Translink
A – It’s not the organization that matters, it’s the long term plan and the clarity of its resolve

Q faregates
A – This is more about psychology, not the math of fares. It’s the perception of fare evasion – fact versus hunches – it’s about absence. France and Germany have come to opposite conclusions (one has gates, the other doesn’t) based on the same evidence. It is cultural and psychological thing not simple math.

Q – Property taxes that pay for transit are region wide but people in the suburbs get nothing

A –  What I have said that if ridership was then only objective, then this is what you would do. But there are other objectives: social service, fairness and so on. What transit agencies are trying to do is meet contradictory needs. The question I asked was “What is the ridership where that is what you are trying to do?” Poor patronage (ridership) is seen on service that isn’t trying to get riders. South of the Fraser thinks it should get the same quantity of service as Vancouver. I would say no because what you are spending on roads in those areas equals the sum – it is not about fairness!

Q Is there a better or worse way to plan transit?

A It about how they chose to work together – service planning, schedules. There is an intimate connection between the schedulers and operations management (bus drivers). They all have to work together: planning is not about operations. The culture of the organization is significant – there are lots of ways to organise, which can include the private sector – it’s about relationships.

Q Paris – velolib – Montreal/Lyons – does this really work?

A Bike sharing can be one of the elements to increase access to transit. But there are d0wnsides to any system  [and Paris loses lots of bikes, said the next questioner, but the provider is making so much from its advertising contract they can continue to subsidize the Velolib]

Q – The provincial government speaks about the importance of post carbon economy but its MoT is hellbent on supporting Gateway

A – “I would like to work in this region again.”  They are working at cross purposes but you are better off than in Australia, where state governments maintain control of transit. Road investments are contrary to transit investments. The  trouble that you have getting what you want from province is no excuse for not doing anything. The choices that a city makes do a lot.

Q – Can you talk about transit pricing specifically no fares

A –  So far these have only worked  in small cities – fare free and subsidized by the university. Pricing has to be realistic compared to other things. A lot of futile effort goes into trying to produce a perfectly fair system – which is not possible.

Q There is a need to improve transit specifically extending SkyTrain beyond King George station.

A That is very expensive. There a lot of people in Langley, but they live far apart . If Surrey is ready to build towers around SkyTrain stations the it can be extended but Broadway is ready now for transit.

Q What can we learn from Sydney – I would say better integration of buses with ferries

A   Sydney’s weather is better

Q – Interurban to Chilliwack – construction of transit – cut and cover vs boring

A – The geometry of cut and cover is that it is cheaper- deep tubes are hard to access.  Cambie was about communications and promises. TriMet in Portland built an unsuccessful commuter rail project (WES  – see comments below)  between low density areas . The development is not dense enough to support rail and it doesn’t go into the central city. It has to be useful, to get to somewhere that is really hard to drive to.

SkyTrain is not at capacity. Lots of trips don’t end up in downtown (Langley to New Westminster for instance) and if it is extended  you will see a lot more “overlapping” trips.

The gap – see his blog – he did recommend that we extend the Millennium Line to the Canada Line

Q Langley City itself is dense – overall we are mainly ALR – the developed bits are dense!

A I have not thrown out any density stats. Towers are the kind of density that SkyTrain needs in a walk from station. You need density right at the station. Visualise towers – but in the range of transit projects – speed, reliability and service is what you need to look – BRT works with 3 to 4 storey development [so do streetcars].

Q Europe is it just density – or is it culture – vs N America?

A car dominance in US. “Canada gets to do its own thing”: different cities get to do what they want to do because there is less direction from the federal government  [as well as less money]. Older cities are better off. Ask “How big was the city in 1945? “We were doing transit well until then. Vancouver since has been going in a different direction than most of the rest of North American cities. Europe does have lots of cities – but it also has cars and freeways – different mix – legacy of older cities – new cities in Europe have lots of bleak suburban sprawl. Vancouver has done res density right. Business parks in the suburbs condemn people to drive. “The  suburban business park is a direct assault on civilisation“. The geometry is against anything but driving so do not expect good transit there.

Q Buses in Vancouver underserve the people. If we dedicate the right of way at the centre of the road we would do better. The Olympic lanes at the curb did not work because of right turns.

A Fast service, fewer stops and people will walk further to get to it.  We have to allow the B Line to get around trolleys. LA now has many rapid service buses. So why not start with limited stop buses instead of slow basic service transit? Then  fill in with stopping, local service later. Note that on the New York subway Local and express need two separate tracks.

Q   Road pricing, tolls and …

A   There are experts on this – people now pay in time what they can’t pay in money – if technology were available you could abolish traffic congestion.  San Francisco is now experimenting with dynamic parking charges. But when you look at the geometry – the basic math of the market – [the transition is] brutal


Converting last night’s notes into readable text has made me aware of the amount of stuff I have added – add the most contentious I have put in [square brackets].

While he said that he would not judge or recommend, clearly he does. He is about expanding transit – just that he has no particular preferences about what kind of transit. It is indeed one of those things that we see continually here – on this blog – that the enthusiasts for one system tend to think that their favoured solution should take precedence over all others. But one size does not fit all, and circumstances alter cases.

I do not disagree with much that Jarrett said last night, but he does want to work here. I gave up on that notion some years ago. The people in charge then were also committed to seeing I didn’t work anywhere else. And succeeded, but that kept me here, snapping at their heels. It is very significant that planning at Translink – when I was there – was run by people who were culturally not planners. They were much more familiar and happier with transit scheduling and operations. Two consecutive VPs of Planning who hated planning!

The point about a plan – any plan – is that having agreed to it, you need to stick to it for it to work. The problem with chaos is that lots of energy gets wasted in contradictory moves. The point about planning is to get everyone moving in the same direction. In this region, we had a plan – one that everyone agreed was a good plan – but then we failed to implement it, and allowed its opponents to go off in their own direction, clearly in contradiction to their formal endorsement of the plan. That happened at the provincial and the municipal level. But the regional plan was NOT just about transit! Transit is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end. And we must stop thinking about transportation as though it was separate from land use: obviously it is not – it is the same coin, just a different side. But professionally we have planners for land use and engineers for transport. Politically we have people who understand neither but simply want to be re-elected.

“It is not that conservatives are necessarily stupid. But all stupid people are conservative.”

The resistance to change – the desire  to cling to the familiar – the preference for simple sound bites (even though untrue) over complex policy analysis – the distrust of science over faith – these are the things that hobble us – not just in this region, but all over the planet. The tragedy of the commons that is playing out now is due to the preference for individualism, and corporate profits, over human welfare – and indeed the very survival of life (as we know it) on this planet. Arguing about trams versus buses seems utterly pointless on that scale of disaster. I think it does require us to take sides, and to call out those like Kevin Falcon and Gordon Campbell who tell us one thing while doing another. The LRSP did not “fail” so much as  get sidelined by other “more important” considerations than livability – which did not stand a prayer against greed. The attempt to resuscitate the LRSP as the sustainable region is I think doomed.

I also disagree that the province has left transit under the control of the region. It has simply been boxed in neatly to be ineffective while the great land use scramble is unleashed on the valley. That is what the Gateway is about – not transport but changing land use designations to make easy profits on land speculation.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 5, 2010 at 11:11 am

Posted in transit

6 Responses

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  1. Stephen. Mostly a fair summary, and remarkable given the sound problems.

    I would delete the following passage, as I’m not sure what I said that gave rise to it, but it wasn’t this: ” TriMet in Portland has built in the last two years an unsuccessful LRT in low density areas . The development is not dense enough and the LRT doesn’t go into the central city. It has to be useful, to get to somewhere that is really hard to drive to.”


  2. I went to the TriMet web site and found the following


    More than ten years in the making, TriMet’s 14.7-mile WES Commuter Rail line opened on February 2. WES (Westside Express Service) is one of the few suburb-to-suburb commuter rail lines in the nation. WES provides service between the cities of Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin and Wilsonville, connects to MAX Light Rail in Beaverton and adds a welcome alternative to I-5/Highway 217 for commuters in Washington and Clackamas counties.

    On September 2, the 8.2 mile MAX Green Line opened, adding a convenient and affordable way to get around for people living and working in Clackamas County and East Multnomah County. The Green Line travels alongside I-205 to Gateway and continues west to downtown Portland, where it serves the Transit Mall between Union Station and Portland State University.

    Could it be that your comments referred to the WES – the description seems to fit?

    Stephen Rees

    August 6, 2010 at 11:48 am

  3. I definitely remember a reference to line that connected two suburbs and didn’t go into central Portland, possibly involving Beaverton.

    Seems like the WES is having ridership problems, so that is likely it.


    August 6, 2010 at 2:48 pm

  4. Ah, ok. Yes, I was referring to WES. I was thrown by your reference to “LRT.” WES is commuter rail, like your West Coast Express, not light rail. But yes, WES is a predictably unsuccessful service that’s give TriMet a lot of headaches.

  5. A few minor points..
    Dedicated lanes shared by buses, taxis, bikes and separated from car lanes by a low divider were the idea of Paris mayor B.Delanoe, elected in March 2001. The first ones in downtown were built in August (01 or 02) while many Parisians were away. Drivers raved and ranted in September but by then it was too late..

    The Olympic lanes proved what so many other cities around the world have long known. It is possible to have no parking on major streets without businesses on these streets dying.

    Many–if not most–old cities in Europe with a population over 100 000 have long had dismal suburbs with low houses, bits of gardens, small industries. It has only gone worse since the 1960s and the building of motorways (few “free”ways in France..), with huge suburban shopping centers blooming like poisonous flowers.

    The quaint Europe of pedestrian streets, lively squares and gorgeous historical buildings, is only found in the downtown area of the oldest cities. IRONICALLY this was only made possible by the dreaded motorways/ freeways, sprawling ugly suburbs and huge malls..there can’t be a Cinderella-turned Princess without ugly sisters.

    Transit and rail companies building and owning offices, stores etc. around a major transit stations is a given in Japan. Actually it seems that the first department store built above a rail station was the idea of Ichizo Kobayashi, a business man from Osaka, who bought land in the early 1900s in a then sparsely populated area on the other side of Kobe mountain range, just west of Osaka, then built his own electric railway to link the land to Osaka, attracting families with a modest income that wanted to own a house. Banks and business people thought he was raving mad.
    Soon he built a small store by the station, then a bigger one, then a music hall by the terminus of the line in Takarazuka.
    Not too many rail companies have singers and dancers on their payroll..why can’t TransLink mount a musical?

    Paris’ transit company RATP has a real estate division. SNCF, France’s national railways, has long added various stores to many rail stations. Several of its major Parisian stations are a shopping mall as much as a rail station. Rail companies in London, Berlin etc. have been doing the same.

    During a small open house in my building in Coquitlam we asked TransLink staff about their company building and owning commercial facilities around the Evergreen line stations and elsewhere. The staff didn’t have a clue that a transit provider could also be a developer/ landlord etc.

    In many a jurisdiction the regional and municipal governments knows that it is their mandate to plan and budget for all sorts of transportation–both public transit and roads. Both private companies and government-owned ones work together to provide a wide array of modes of transportation. Berlin-Brandenburg transit is made of 42 different companies, some private, some not. Even “socialist” France do the same…

    Red frog

    August 7, 2010 at 1:47 am

  6. […] to what Jarret Walker (whose is currently consulting for Translink), call the lowest level of “spectrum of authorities”, that […]

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