Stephen Rees's blog

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

Light rail touted as cure for city’s congestion

with 6 comments

The city in question is actually Copenhagen. Which is why it piqued my interest. You mean Copenhagen has a congestion problem? I thought they were the model we were supposed to be following. It has all those bicycles – and the space between the buildings is dealt with properly. People can not only walk they can also sit outside if they want to. But they still have congestion?

Partly the answer is of course they do because congestion is not so much a problem  as evidence of success. Detroit does not have congestion any more. Moreover, in a flourishing city, traffic expands to fill the space available and congestion occurs at the times when most people want to travel. That is why traffic engineers and transport economists spend so much effort on peak hours and the journey to work. Indeed if congestion is just the banal observation that it takes longer to drive when everyone else does than when the roads are empty, it is a pretty pointless pursuit trying to “cure” it at all. Something Todd Littman has dealt with far more effectively than I could.

There is no magic bullet, but there is a set of approaches which can be adapted to the needs and geography of places – which are all different. No single solution or technology solves every problem – and not all “problems” are going to be completely resolved. We can, however, aim for better solutions and compromises which dissatisfy everybody to the least extent possible.

So what this article identifies is a set of schemes to serve areas which do not have the sort of public transport mode share as the rest of the city region. In fact it is the same problem we have. Copenhagen has a metro and all day, every day, bidirectional passenger rail services. I have to use that awkward phrase in case any of my readers still think “commuter rail” exists outside of a few North American cities. The reason they get 25% of the trips made by the population living near stations on trains is that there is a service all day and every day – and it goes to more than one destination.

Actually that in itself is a significant figure. What do you think they do for the other 75% of the trips? Yes bikes will take care of some of it, as will walking but most will be in cars. And these light rail lines are proposed for the areas that only get a 5% mode share for transit – just like most of our region.

I think it is also significant that the entire article has not a single money figure in it anywhere. If you tried to write a newspaper piece about transit here, someone is bound to ask “How much is this going to cost?” and “Who is going to pay for that?” (which actually means “not me!”) What it does stress is the importance of the network – and of selecting the ” best value corridors that the city ought to prioritise” – which sounds familiar, doesn’t it? “political opposition and questionable profitability could derail these and other proposed light rail lines” – is that Copenhagen or Surrey vs Vancouver? Except here no-one would use the words “profitability” and “transit” in the same sentence.

It also points out the silliness of thinking in terms of some future point when the present set of schemes have all been realized as an end state. It isn’t, and never will be, because there is always going to be more to do. The important thing is chose the right direction to go in. That was something we had done once – the Livable Region Strategy – which was not perfect by any means but did make the priorities clear. And then the provincial government simply ignored it and went on doing what it has always done – built more and bigger freeways. If those resources had been devoted to transit network expansion, we would be looking at a different set of problems – but we would not have solved them all. Let alone “cured congestion”. But then we weren’t trying to. We were just aiming at “increased transportation choice” – which was expressed as a target transit mode share at various dates into the future. Except that the mode share target was always 17% of all trips and the years just kept being put off into the future.

I understand that the Mayors and the Minster are now sitting down and trying to come up with some funding proposal for Translink. Presumably something that she can flourish on the eve of election day. Yawn.

“When free enterprisers have something worth fighting for, we win,” Christy Clark last night

“Win” meaning “win elections”. Free enterprise has also brought us ocean gyres full of plastic waste, global warming trending well beyond 2°C, unaffordable housing and persistent homelessness, the crash of 2008 … the list is endless. When they “win” everybody else loses.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 9, 2013 at 10:37 am

6 Responses

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  1. “bidirectional passenger rail services”? in the past couple of years I kept talking about the numerous regional commuter trains lines they have in Japan and in France (15 lines from dear old Bordeaux to various towns in the region…) and now you tell me–If I understand correctly– that commuter means only a few trains in the am, a few in the pm.

    BUT not all workers start work between 6 and 9 am…In my workplace in Vancouver we had/have shifts starting a 6 am, 7 am, 8 am, 1 pm, 4 pm, 8 pm…some shifts lasting 8 hrs, others 12 hrs, 7 days a week, 365 days a year…. And what about students, even shoppers that may go downtown nearly me since I sort of retired.

    It isn’t too surprising that Copenhagen has congestion…apparently in Aspen Colorado the highway across town has a maximum speed limit of 30 km/h (versus 20 km/h in residential streets) but at rush hours cars can’t even go 30 km/h…

    LRT are fine, if there are enough possible passengers in a given area, but the fact is one can’t have LRT lines or even plain bus lines close to every home…
    What is wrong with using a bike –like many Japanese living in cities– and riding it for 5-10 minutes to the “nearest” rail station (in the suburbs) or subway station (in town)?

    Bus rapid transit is cheaper than LRT, however most of the articulated buses have 1 driver for 120 people, while the average Alstom (or similar) LRT carry 300 passengers per single driver. In Seattle and Portland they run 2 LRT with one driver. Maximum load 400 passengers. Same in Paris and other places.

    Laying out tram tracks is as disruptive as the Cambie tunnel was….not as deep, but still deep enough and nearly over the whole width of a street (underground utilities have to be relocated..) .

    The videos of the Bordeaux tram aren’t the most fascinating, however please note that all the areas with grass ,and of course all the tram lanes downtown used to be wall to wall cars…. the tram starts in the rough looking industrial area .around the 3 minutes mark the pantograph goes down but the tram keeps going… note that besides tickets the yellow validator scan a smart card held close to it

    then…something more pretty

    Red frog

    April 10, 2013 at 1:26 am

  2. It is interesting that the article (though not necessarily the study) ignores electric trolley buses as an option. Diesel buses are not the only option for bus rapid transit, and the largest electric trolley buses now hold up to 200 passengers (perhaps 175 in reasonable comfort). Light rail is great if you can take advantage of the larger vehicle capacities (300+ passengers) and still provide frequent service, but on less busy routes it is hard to justify the cost if other routes are neglected as a result. See

    Eric Doherty

    April 10, 2013 at 9:07 am

  3. “Bus rapid transit is cheaper than LRT, however most of the articulated buses have 1 driver for 120 people, while the average Alstom (or similar) LRT carry 300 passengers per single driver. In Seattle and Portland they run 2 LRT with one driver. Maximum load 400 passengers. Same in Paris and other places.”

    The driver is one important element of the operating cost…for bus… but the typical rhetoric that LRT is cheaper to operate than bus because a LRT carries more passenger than a bus is simply wrong, People need to see it in a holistic fashion, and the reality is that an LRT need to carry many more passengers than a bus to be price competitive.

    NB: Some LRT advocates tend to draw biased conclusion, by comparing bus cost/trip with LRT cost/trip nationwide – it is biased since most of the bus route operate a “social” service, when the LRT tend to “seize” the most productive corridors…to be unbiaised, in the case of Vancouver, the reference benchmark for bus should be the 99B line, that is 70c/trip (see ref. at )…good luck to find a LRT doing better.

    On the capacity of buses
    All is a question of relativity: see
    In Vancouver a 80ft, double articulated bus, electric or not, could have a capacity of around 140 (that is the capacity of the AGC300 to be deployed in Metz, France)…

    but the point is that:
    “Light rail is great if you can take advantage of the larger vehicle capacities (300+ passengers) and still provide frequent service, but on less busy routes it is hard to justify the cost if other routes are neglected as a result.”



    April 10, 2013 at 9:13 pm

  4. Voony you are right on many points of course…I like to play the cute little devil to get a lively conversation going..

    We only have single articulated buses (one front unit + one trailer) in Vancouver, not double or rather bi-articulated ones (one front unit plus 2 trailers) as they are called. .

    Bordeaux had bi-articulated buses from the mid-1980s to early 2004 when the tram system opened, and only on one line.
    They had a neat feature: a big red knob on the outside and near the 2 back doors. If you were running next to the back trailer as the bus started to move hitting the red knob would stop the bus at once ,the doors opened and you go jump in.

    See these Renault Megabuses in action:

    Red frog

    April 10, 2013 at 10:22 pm

  5. To be sure, I am not convinced that in Vancouver the double articulated bus is the right answer, this
    for a host of reasons, as exposed here: , in addition of somewhat its overstated capacity.

    So I could prefer to see longer bus, like 65footer, as seen in action here:
    You will notice the 4 doors, especially the door behind the rear axles, enabling, with a step free floor (or 100% low floor) better circulation and load partition in the bus, making such a bus vastly better than the 60ft Translink bus, including the latest ones (XDE60), in term of “practical capacity” (design also…)

    PSI also, notice that the Curitiba bus you link is 28 meters long (?) – I think the federal legislation limit, road worthy vehicle to not be longer than 25 meters (or 82feet long). That is also the case in EU and the reason why double articulated bus are generally not longer than 82feet (even if “guided”…), which in any case still requires some sort of exemptions to be able to operate. That is apriori also true for single articulated bus longer than 18.75meter in Europe. as well as in North America (LA operates also 65 footer bus)


    April 13, 2013 at 10:04 pm

  6. Great discussion. Important to realize that LRT means relocation of underground utilities and it will not be as easy as laying wall-to-wall carpeting down the hall (… or Broadway for that matter).

    Good to hear electric trolleys in the mix. Can we rebuild the Vancouver streetcar system with BRT(trolley) feeding into Cambie subway and Broadway with either GHG zero electrified trolley buses or trams?

    (Thanks Pat for the content in italics). But there is a point that needs clarification. Or put another way, I have a dumb question:

    [Copenhagen] gets 25% of the trips made by the population living near stations on trains


    Is that 25% of all trips? Or is it 25% of trips during peak hour/congestion times? Do most Copenhaganites use the car indiscriminately, or do they take it out most often when there aren’t a lot of cars around? Do they discriminate between the routine trip (work and back) and the weekend trek to where ever? If we can take trips out of the peak hours we get a bigger bang than if we just take trips out.

    Both in terms of congestion and pollution we can handle lighter loads better than we can congestion. We can have livable streets and support low levels of cars.

    lewis n. villegas

    April 19, 2013 at 9:20 pm

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