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

Archive for January 18th, 2012

Public Transit: What is the Question?

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Jarrett Walker at SFU 17 January 2012

Jarrett has a blog ( and makes a living as a consultant in North America and Australia. He is currently resident in Portland OR and has just published a book – also called Human Transit, and the evening was the first stop on his book tour. It is in paperback, costs $35 and is based on his blog. I did not buy a copy.

Because Jarrett has a blog, I am a bit reluctant to use this blog to simply write out what he had to say. At the same time there is very little that he said that I would take issue with, although I think it is worthwhile to note that he is in the business of promoting transit use in a society where many of the leaders are both unfamiliar with daily use of transit and somewhat inimical to “social engineering”. For instance, he is careful not to promote the health benefits of transit, as that might be seen as saying “using transit will make you walk more and that will be Good for You”. He also said that as he has a deep, powerful voice “when I say things people think I am giving them orders”. Throughout his talk and the question and answer period, he stressed that he is not about prescribing solutions but rather suggesting the questions that need to be asked. He also stated that he was “thinking out loud” and wanted to promote discussion.

He opened by stating “you will hear a lot of answers” offered by transit experts, but very few of them agree on exactly what the question is that they are trying to tackle. For example, much transit discussion circles around choice of technology (rail or bus, subway or streetcar). Partly this is because choosing a transit system is often thought to be like deciding what kind of car to buy. But that is a false analogy. People actually care little about the transit vehicle they are going to use compared with questions like “Will it take me where I am going?” and “How long will it take me to get there?”

If you ask people “What is the essential task of the police?” the answer is obvious – law enforcement. But if you ask “what is the essential task of transit?” the answers are many and overlapping. They might well also include notions like “fun” (see Darren Nordal “Making Transit Fun”)

Jarrett’s answer is the provision of “Abundant personal mobility without a personal vehicle over distances that are too far to walk“. He also made the  point that abundant transit is efficient transit. While transit delivers pedestrians over distances that are too far to walk, there are also other concerns which include “coverage services” – transit for places that will never have enough ridership to justify service, but have people who need the service. He also said that “transit leads development” – which I think should have been expressed as a normative rather than a descriptive statement. We too often insist that transit cannot be provided until there are enough people to justify a service (SkyTrain to Coquitlam, or the Scarboro LRT to Malvern) or that having provided a high capacity service we do not wish to see increases of density along the line (Expo Line through East Vancouver, or the Bloor/Danforth subway in Toronto).

He also introduced the idea of “symbolic transit” – like monorails and cable cars. He did talk about the San Francisco cable car – which is now simply a tourist attraction, not a regular transit service – but did not mention the F line streetcar, which is as (or more) important as a people mover given the lack of capacity on the cable cars, and the number of tourists moving between downtown and Fisherman’s Wharf.

He was very impressed with the accessibility maps now available on These maps are not just about transit but rather the overall journey time from any point in a city. It is a tool that produces a “map of freedom” – “How much of the city is available to me?” Freedom is important – and walking is an essential part of transit. He produced images of isochrone maps – “blobs” that showed how much of the city could be reached within 15, 30 and 45 minutes from any one point. I do not see how that type of map can be produced from that web page – maybe someone else can illuminate this for me.

One of the issues for transit is how to measure how much transit service you have. There are five variables:

frequency, span (hours/days of service), speed, reliability and capacity (a critical issue for many Vancouver transit users).

Much of the discussion about transit is about the last three issues – when frequency may be the most significant for any regular transit user. It is a concept that is very hard to grasp for any non-transt user and is hard to illustrate – but waiting time and uncertainty are two of the biggest deterrents to transit use.

Commuter rail is perhaps the best illustration of what happens when it is held that speed is the most important concern for transit. Most commuter rail service is so expensive to provide that it runs infrequently, only at peak times and in peak direction, and ends up being very little use except to those who can make a regular appointment to use it. There is almost no opportunity for spontaneity – and very little concern about people’s overwhelming need to “get on with their lives”.

He did become prescriptive when he started to talk about the virtues of the grid network for transit systems. He said “don’t pick favourites” i.e. that transit planners tend to “tell stories” about where and when people travel, and design routes around those major flows. The grid provides connectivity “everywhere to everywhere”. He also stated that the optimum was 800m spacing and noted that services in Vancouver along 4th Avenue “compete with” Broadway.

He told the story of the cancellation of bus route #305 in Los Angeles as “symbolic transit”. This was the bus route that connected Watts to Hollywood – the line that domestic servants from the poorest neighbourhood “needed” to get to their jobs cleaning the homes and looking after the children of the rich and famous. In fact the route was slow, infrequent and indirect and the regular “grid” services provided better penetration of neighbourhoods at each end (both Hollywood and Watts are large areas) and with one transfer most journeys were quicker and more convenient. The system was more efficient without the #305 and service overall was better. That did not stop the media from making a song and dance over the perceived attack on the poor.

He also was sharply critical of bus routes that run on one way couplets (or those have large one directional loops at the end of the route) “We need to get back too!” A one way couplet actually has a smaller service area in terms of the 400m walk distance from both directions of travel.

“Be on the way.” Transit works best on a straight line route with destinations like beads on the string. Every diversion to serve an off route destination slows travel end to end. He cited both SFU and UBC campuses as classic errors in land use planning – major destinations at the top of a mountain or the end of a peninsula cause major service issues for transit. He also cited a new development at Laguna West near Sacramento, CA.

This new suburban centre is shown on the map above as a red dot. The map does not show the railway line that runs between I5 and Highway 99 and passes the centre to the east. The designer who put the new town centre on neither route ensured that it was a cul de sac – and thus would never develop as a transit way station would – with service in more than one direction.

He also said that transit must complement walking, not compete with it. In other words, bus routes should not be too closely spaced, nor should stops, as neither produces an attractive and efficient service.

Having initially dismissed the discussion of technology, he ended with an illustration of a new type of bus (that looked very like a light rail vehicle)  that provides level boarding with the sidewalk and with an exclusive bus lane at the curb (parking has to removed to somewhere else) makes transit part of the street. He said that it did not matter whether this was a rail or rubber tire vehicle, but also talked about how bus designers are working to improve their vehicles while LRT has remained largely unaltered since the introduction of MAX to Portland. He had also earlier shown a “massive” european tram (streetcar) with multiple sections that had a very much larger capacity than any bus I know of. I think in terms of technology while some South American cities use double articulated busses for their BRT systems, that is the current practical limit for steering and control, whereas multiple section trams seem to be able to be extended indefinitely.

UPDATE One day after I wrote the above China announced its own double arctic bus  82 feet long, 40 seats, 300 passenger capacity

I did not make notes during the Q&A session as it moved faster than I could scribble on my Palm Tungsten. I do better when I remember to bring an old fashioned dead tree notebook. There was quite a heated exchange with Richard Campbell over the speed of all vehicles through pedestrian environments – and reaction too to his (Jarrett’s) criticism of the proposed closure of Robson Square to transit.

I do recall that one questioner asked if real time information made any difference to perceptions of convenience when frequency is reduced. Jarrett answered that it didn’t, but that was based on the very drastic reductions in service frequency now common on US transit systems under financial pressure.

Another asked if ride sharing could help make up for the loss of transit service – and he said that the mathematics of vehicle occupancy and street space make that an unworkable solution in city centres, but might work in low density suburbs.

I would also liked to have understood why the event was an hour earlier than usual. It seemed to me that the room was less full than usual – which also might have had more to do with the weather than the time.


I think it is a bit unfair of me to nitpick over some of his statements for what he did not say, since in any 45 minute presentation much will be left out – and he was trying to sell a book. He also speculated on what a follow up book might look like – if anyone has a grant available to fund it. (If he had a grant to write the present one, he did not mention it nor is it credited on the UBC Press order form). Obviously geography and topography are important; and, as he mentioned with reference to San Francisco, are the major reasons for the discontinuities and diversions of Vancouver’s street grid. It is also important to state that operating transit requires  there be space for adequate terminal facilities – storage space for vehicles to ensure reliable service and the simple human needs of the operators (washrooms, refreshments). A major constraint on planning bus transit in downtown Vancouver (and formerly the airport) is the premium on curb space.

There is also a need to take into account the diversity of population. US transit providers are currently engaged in studying how to accommodate people who are now much larger (on average) than when current standards for seats were determined. An aging population, and one which is reluctant to exercise, also influences decisions about route and stop spacing. It is also the case that “too far to walk” is an indeterminate distance. It varies by individual, time of day and journey purpose. I am quite happy to walk further when the environment is pleasant and I am not in a hurry, and unencumbered by luggage or shopping. People will walk further to a transit stop that has better service (more frequent, longer span, more reliable, faster). They will actually go out of their way and travel in the wrong direction just to be assured a seat. When people cannot drive their needs must be considered by transit planners, or those people lose all mobility.

I agree with him that securing an exclusive right of way is critical to successful longer distance transit service – or indeed reliable transit service over any distance in congested areas. However, the allocation of street space between the two building faces is a much more complex issue. And the quality of the pedestrian realm is as, if not more, important than transit – to city planners if no-one else. I have often heard it argued that parked cars can offer a safety barrier to cyclists and pedestrians from faster moving motorized traffic. Merchants, of course, believe that parking in front of their store is indispensable: I believe they are wrong about that – but that does not make persuading them to give it up any easier.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 18, 2012 at 10:27 am

Why a 24 hour SkyTrain service is not a Good Idea

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I was at a social function recently, where I was introduced as a transit expert. The person I was introduced to was adamant that SkyTrain ought to operate twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. He claimed that is what happened on other transit systems (though he could not name any). He was supported by a musician who pointed out that bars stay open later than the transit system, and getting those people home without them needing to drive was an important safety concern.

I did try to explain why nighttime was important for maintenance – and the need for a safe working environment – but I could tell they were not convinced. SkyTrain is, of course, driverless though I suppose half speed trains under manual control might be better than nothing (not that I went into that detail then.)

About the only system I am aware of that operates round the clock is the New York subway.

Railway Age reports that they are finding that closing overnight for maintenance has some very important benefits

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority says its new FASTRACKmaintenance strategy has produced “unprecedented productivity gains.” Under that strategy, while lines are closed overnight for track maintenance, a first for a 108-year-old subway system that has taken pride in running its trains 24/7. The initial deployment of FASTRACK forces was completed on the Lexington Avenue Line over the weekend.

“It was clear from the first night that in terms of productivity and efficiency, FASTRACK is a major improvement in the way we perform subway maintenance and a perfect example of what can be accomplished when labor and management work as a team to improve the system,” said NYC Transit President Thomas F. Prendergast. “I consider this effort a success and it could not have come about without the hard work and dedication of the hundreds of Transit workers who worked on the tracks, tunnels, and in the stations.”

For four consecutive weeknights, three work trains supported nearly 70 workcrews in the stations along the line segment as well as the tunnels and into the Joralemon Tube that connects Brooklyn to Manhattan.

“Jobs that would usually take weeks or months to complete were accomplished in days because, for the first time, maintenance workers were allowed to perform their tasks without the interruption of passenger trains rolling through a massive work area that stretched from Grand Central-42nd Street to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn,” said MTA. “During the four-night period, more than 300 vital tasks were completed—from rail replacement to roadbed cleaning to the scraping and painting of ceilings over tracks and platforms.Much of this work had not been performed in several years and some of it could only be done in the absence of trains over an extended period of time.”

While Skytrain is closed for four and a half hours overnight service is still available by NightBus although service is not frequent or especially widespread. It is however much more reliable than bus service during the day as there is no traffic to compete with for road space. It takes about an hour to get from downtown Vancouver to Richmond Brighouse so it is not especially fast either.  And is not much help if you need to get further south.

Maybe like the less dense suburbs this is a time of day when shared ride might shine?

Written by Stephen Rees

January 18, 2012 at 10:22 am