Stephen Rees's blog

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

Transport study derails thinking on outer suburbs

with 10 comments

Thanks to Ned Jacobs for sending this around. Its quite a short piece from The Age in Victoria, Australia.

In a paper for the journal Australian Planner, Dr John Stone, of the University of Melbourne, and Dr Paul Mees, of RMIT University, argue that many city dwellers have been presented with a false choice – live in apartments and enjoy good public transport or retain the house and land and rely on cars.

Shame you have to be an Australian Planner to actually get to read it.

Quite appropriate here given the recent government sponsored twaddle about rail for the valley and  “not enough density” to support transit.

They do it by comparing places that have good public transit to Australian cities. There is of course one great outlier – Los Angeles, even though it is the most densely populated city in the United States, has low transit use. So what is needed then?

The keys to increasing public transport use in outer suburbs are more frequent buses, running at least every 10-15 minutes, and not just in peak hour; better co-ordination with rail services; more convenient transfers; and fares that allow free transfers between modes.

Which I think Translink would say that we already have in large measure.  But there are still really low levels of market penetration in places like Langley. Not as dreadful as Chilliwack of course. And we really do not have rail in our outer suburbs like they do in Australian cities – electric trains that run in both directions, all day and every day.

My conclusion is that it really requires more than just density – as Los Angeles shows – and more than lip service to issues like frequency. Fifteen minute headways are really not “frequent” – especially when service is unreliable, due to traffic congestion or the multiple problems that beset under funded transit systems. Yes we can make transfers at no extra charge but convenience – and reliability again  – is a big issue. There are still quite bizarre scheduling decisions – like short turning half the #3 service  at the end of Main Street instead of running all the way to the Canada Line Marine Drive Station one kilometre away. Far side of the intersection bus stops impose delays and the need to cross busy intersections on foot meaning even scheduled meets will often be missed – and so and so forth. The devil is always in the detail, and we don’t do that well. Like ignoring the benefits of clock face service – something taken for granted in Zurich – same size, same density, lots more transit use. It comes down to money in the end. No mention of that here. And, of course, what it is spent on.

It also seems to ignore the fact that a lot of Vancouver is built at suburban densities yet has much more transit service than places further out but as dense or even denser.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 10, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Posted in transit

10 Responses

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  1. basically taking raw density numbers, you can find out Tokyo is lower density than Vancouver,
    and Zurich even lower density, then you can conclude that the lower the density you have, the better transit you get and it is proven by the fact that New york has lower density than LA…or the fact that the busiest Richmond route, the 410 is the one going thru the lowest density part of Richmond (Hwy 91)…

    Obviously that doesn’t make sense.

    And it doesn’t make sense because raw density numbers are the wrong metric to explain/justify Transit level.
    It could be my main critic of the Paul Mees’ work: I have read his last book and it has inspired my post
    trying to explain why the raw density means nothing…

    Jarret walker has also posted a couple of time on the topic…If you want as good transit as in low density conurbation such as Zurich or Tokyo you probably need to have a similar urban model, which is not the one found in the Fraser valley which is rather following the Riverside county pattern in LA area. There is no surprise to expect of it!

    and if it is certainly possible to provide 10/15mn transit in front of the Fraser valley ranches (where even in Zurich area you don’t have much better transit than 15/30mn frequency in the burbs): who is gonna pay for it?


    January 10, 2011 at 11:11 pm

  2. […] year [Vancouver Sun] Vancouver asks for more time to finish infrastructure projects [Vancouver Sun] Transport study derails thinking on outer suburbs [Stephen Rees's […]

    re:place Magazine

    January 11, 2011 at 8:45 am

  3. Just a note on your last paragraph, higher frequencies in the low density sections of Vancouver versus the suburbs. It seems to me this is likely true, and that it is probably due to ‘being on the way’ and a better range of network connections nearby (not a deliberate conspiracy to slight the suburbs (note I am originally from North Delta)).
    I am unfamiliar with Australian transit usage, but Jarrett Walker had a post that had some interesting transit usage comparisons between Canada, Australia and the US. I think it was ‘further cause for Canadian triumphalism.’



    January 11, 2011 at 9:58 am

  4. Rico – I doubt “being on the way” actually helps much at all outside of the major inter-regional corridors. And when routes are over capacity – as has been the case for the 99 B-Line for a very long time, it is a decided disadvantage.

    It is now a historical advantage – Vancouver always had frequent transit and manages to maintain that. Other places have not had the opportunity – even when they increased density at provincial urging to “qualify” for transit – Port Moody for instance.

    And, as has been discussed here frequently, investment decisions in rapid transit are driven by political agendas that have little to do with getting people out of their cars

    Stephen Rees

    January 11, 2011 at 10:09 am

  5. There’s a serious flaw to this study you may not be aware of related to density. Yes, Los Angeles has a greater overall density than New York, but more people in New York live in high density homes, which accounts for the higher ridership. This piece looked at that issue specifically:


    January 11, 2011 at 12:24 pm

  6. You probably also need to factor in the distance that the commuter will need to travel. Even at “suburban densities” most Vancouver single family houses are probably about 30 minutes away from downtown.
    Plop a bus 20 km farther out and expect a rider to ride twice as far at a slow pace (even if combined with SkyTrain) probably isn’t going to compare favourably.


    January 11, 2011 at 4:50 pm

  7. The first time I went to Japan (Osaka and several other Kansai towns around Osaka) what surprised me what that there were so many single family houses right close to downtown. And not all these houses are as small as we think they are over here (I was lucky enough to be invited in a dozen homes). Low density yet their transit system is great.

    Same when I eventually went to Tokyo on a 3rd visit to Japan. From the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in Shinjuku you can see low houses for miles around in a couple of directions..

    I have often read/ heard in Vancouver that European have great trains systems to the suburbs etc. because of the high density. But many, if not most, lines were built in the late 19th century FIRST and to link major towns.
    Suburban housing near lines came later. As shown also in Osaka suburbs along the Hankyu and Hanshin railway lines. Hankyu first lines were built on a wing and a prayer…then home buyers came. Both companies, and many others in Japan, are private by the way (Hankyu and Hanshin merged a few years back but kept their distinctive personalitiees and service separate areas).

    From the 60s to the 80s secondary trains lines lost lots of customers as people in the boonies bought cars and freeways were so practical…
    The trend has now been reversed in the ever expanding metro areas around major provincial towns in France and around Paris. But it was only possible because the tracks were still there.

    Anyone that goes to White Rock, Langley etc. can’t help notice that the new housing is pretty dense. Lots of row houses/ townhouses! BUT where is the land for rapid transit /LRT??

    Red frog

    January 11, 2011 at 6:55 pm

  8. Here is another article on the study that includes a key bit of info:

    ”There is no doubt that a compact and connected urban form enhances the potential for oil-free mobility through walking, cycling, and greater public transport use,” the authors write.

    ”Therefore, some localised intensification of residential development – achieved through an inclusive democratic process and with appropriate controls on the quality of design and construction – and, perhaps more important, concentration of employment and other trip destinations, are necessary objectives for urban planners responding to oil vulnerability.”

    It seems like they are saying that higher density nodes within a suburban environment are needed to support good, high-frequency transit, which makes a lot of sense. The point is that transit doesn’t require tearing down all the low density development and replace it with higher density.

    A good example of this is Burnaby where most of it is still single family but there are several higher density nodes, most of which are connected by rapid transit. As a result, the transit commuting mode share was 25%, the same as the City of Vancouver.

    With respect to Vancouver, there are several higher density nodes including, Downtown, UBC and the Broadway corridor where people living in lower density areas are likely to go thus good transit is practical. In places where there are no higher density nodes, people are going from everywhere to everywhere which is very difficult to serve with transit, TransLink’s “pick up sticks” model as opposed to a hub and spoke model that in general is in place in places where transit works well.


    January 11, 2011 at 9:08 pm

  9. But many, if not most, lines were built in the late 19th century FIRST and to link major towns.
    Suburban housing near lines came later.

    This seems consistent with the Livable Region Strategic Plan strategy of rapid transit lines linking Regional Town Centres (and then infilling between, as applicable, with whatever built form is allowed).

    I suppose, ultimately, lines will be successful if they go where a lot of people want to go – i.e. higher density nodes/towns/regional town centres/municipal town centres


    January 12, 2011 at 3:12 pm

  10. Indeed Ron, but how do we convince a Provincial government that hasn’t shown much interest in trains and LRT? the same government that know and care so little about transit they never noticed that the platforms in the tunnels on the Canada line might be too short within 20 years (and likely much sooner…).
    Other places built transit tunnels in the late 19th cent./ early 20th cent. pretty much by hand at first, yet built underground stations that are still adequate today despite a huge increase in the daily number of passengers.

    Red frog

    January 12, 2011 at 11:07 pm

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