Stephen Rees's blog

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

Why are Roads different to Transit?

with 5 comments

One of the twitter responses I got to my last post

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Now I must admit that even when I was with Translink – many years ago now – I was not required to do much about the Major Road Network (MRN). It exists because the province was going to download some provincial highways and bridges to the municipalities  anyway. So if they all joined up into Translink they would have access to some of the new funding that was to come with the new authority. The only exception was the City of Vancouver which did not have any provincial highways within it to be downloaded. Fortunately one of the strongest proponents of the new authority was Councillor George Puil, and he came up with the formula that persuaded Vancouver that being part of the MRN would be a Good Idea. Some roads within Vancouver are now identified as part of the regional MRN.

You can refer to Translink’s web site for more information (and a map) which also includes the rather odd list of bridges, one they built themselves – partly paid for by tolls – to replace the free Albion Ferry, two important links that cross municipal boundaries and one bizarre little ancient wooden swing bridge wholly inside Delta. Oddly the Annacis Swing Bridge which connects Delta’s Annacis Island to New Westminster – and also carries the Southern Railway of BC – remains with the province even though the road it carries is not a provincial highway either. Basically the Knight St and Patullo Bridges were overdue for expensive upgrades so the province was eager to get rid of them.

Translink committed to spend $45m on the MRN this year – which out of a total spending of ~$1.4b is not a very large amount. Translink does not itself have any operational involvement – all of that spending is passed through the municipalities and nearly always on jointly funded projects. The MRN is actually run by a committee made up of the Chief Engineers of each of the municipalities, with Translink providing administrative support. Day to day management and operations remain with the municipalities. For cities like Vancouver and New Westminster there is no real interest, or opportunity, for major capacity expansions. The cities are built out and land acquisition costs are huge. And as Seattle is learning (and Boston learnt) tunnelling for additional freeway capacity is not only expensive but very risky. The only real stumbling block has been the lack of willingness to give up road space to more efficient modes. There are no busways here – and very few dedicated separate cycling facilities. No one has ever seriously considered here what the French call “the art of insertion” (link to presentation) to devote more of the space between building frontages of a street to wider sidewalks, tram tracks or dedicated exclusive bus lanes.

It must also be noticed that municipalities themselves do not spend very much on new road building. A lot of new roads get added to the network every year, and “improvements” are made to the existing roads, by developers – or by cities thanks to development cost charges. Many major developments are made conditional upon increases to local network capacity. No-one, so far as I am aware, ever does any examination of the combined network effects of these developments.

The big spender on roads in the region is the province. While other jurisdictions have cut back on road spending to free up funds for more efficient and environmentally friendly public transport, BC continues throw billions at freeways and other major highway expenditures. It has never suggested that any of these projects be subject to dedicated funding – or referenda of local populations. It is merely continuing with business as usual – blacktop politics has long dominated the BC agenda. In part this is due to the fact that BC only has one major urban metropolis. The Ministry of Transportation is in reality the Ministry of Highways since no other mode grabs the attention of the provincial politicians in quite the same way. BC Ferries, of course, being a whole ‘nother topic best left for another day.

The reasons the province gives for its obsession with road construction is always framed in the context of jobs and the economy. It is always referred to as an “investment” which sounds so much less profligate than “spending”. In urban areas like the Lower Mainland it has also been tied to the port – the “Gateway” – even though the vast majority of the import and export tonnage moved through the Port of Vancouver moves inland by railway – and probably increasingly by pipeline in the future.


INSERT The Port of Metro Vancouver has recently announced that it is changing the way it licences trucks that serve the Port. Apparently there are too many of them. Of course none of this was ever anticipated the Gateway proponents and their demands for a much wider Port Mann Bridge and the South Fraser Perimeter Road


In reality, the major growth in traffic on these new roads is single occupant cars and trucks used as cars. Traffic in urban areas expands and contracts to fill the space available – and this induced traffic is seen long before land use changes add their contribution to congestion. Which in any event is not an all day or everyday phenomenon. Most roads, much of the time, have spare capacity. Like the parking lots, they are overbuilt to meet the peak need and the rest of the time are underutilised. It was ever thus.

It is very significant I think that only two new major bridges have been funded by tolls in recent years – and in both cases revenues have been below forecast. Gordon Campbell early on decided to court popularity by cancelling the tolls on the Coquihalla Highway and no-one has ever seriously suggested tolling elsewhere, though a P3 on the Sea to Sky uses “shadow tolls” to calculate payments to the contractor.  User pay is a prerequisite for transit – and ferries. On highways and bridges, not so much.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 15, 2014 at 3:30 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Thank you for the link to the Complete Streets Insertion slide show. I find the tram stop geomatics remarkably similar to the bus stop bulges implemented by TransLink and Vancouver. Of course the French have better urban design budgets and use much more interesting paving. Still, it is quite amazing how much they accomplished on Main Street for only $6 million, and how effective the articulated trolley service is now that they don’t have to keep pulling into traffic at extended stops.

    It’s plain to see why urbanists water at the mouth over those trams in the context of charming European towns. But we don’t have cities in Western Canada that look remotely like Bordeaux or the Parisian suburbs, so perhaps that story is about the historic architecture which predates the tram infrastructure by centuries in many cases. The cost at a bit less than $25 million / km still ends up being billions if one replaces Vancouver’s trolleys with trams on the arterials, something incomprehendingly still promoted by some urbanists who don’t understand project management, transit planning or capital budgets. But I do have to note that the trolleys are a fraction of that capital cost and just as effective in ridership stats with a little assistance from thyings like signal priority. I also note there is no mention of frequency, only boardings per hour or per day. Frequency is directly related to operating costs through the labour line-item, as you pointed out Stephen. Higher frequencies are very attractive to riders.

    Where I see a lot of potential for these trams is in building compact new towns without any existing transit service, where the town planning can be oriented directly to transit from scratch, and where underground utilities are routed away from transit routes from the start. I do see potential on 41st Ave with heavier LRT (Metrotown – UBC) and 600 m spacing between stations (i.e. at an intermediate level between rapid transit and 400 m spacing with trolleys), but there may be some very serious subsurface utility impediments to account for. Also, Coquitlam Centre-White Rock via King George.

    Lastly, I note that the trams and stops are deigned to universal accessibility standards, something that cannot be claimed about great swaths of the Paris Metro or London Underground where Minding the Gap means No Wheelchairs.


    December 19, 2014 at 2:37 pm

  2. Insertion specifically mentions rebuilding the entire street from frontage to frontage. When viewed from that perspective it matters not whether the street is lined with 300 year old stone buildings or 40 year old Vancouver specials. You rebuild the whole thing around trams and pedestrians and if there’s any space left over you can accommodate some cars.

    Having said that I don’t think there are many candidate streets in Metro Vancouver where LRT actually makes sense. You need a corridor where potential ridership exceeds the capacity of articulated bus, there is high passenger turnover along the length of the route, local trucking needs can be accommodated in the remaining roadway and there is no need for grade separation.

    41st suffers from high cross traffic every km and has some long signal phases where N-S traffic is prioritized and turning phases are significant. With design speed roughly equal to the #43 bus the tram would have to rely on ride quality to attract new customers. Arbutus to Camosun would be a significant challenge because there’s really no room for motor vehicles once you insert a tram and provide the necessary pedestrian facilities. Accommodating traffic in shared lanes or putting the LRT into a tunnel are very unattractive. The former for operational reasons and the latter for the $450 million/km price tag (the latest estimate for the subway section of Millennium Line to Arbutus).


    December 23, 2014 at 4:34 pm

  3. […] it thru rail for the valley blog and Stephen Rees. We address here a question of commenter MB in regard of the frequency and pphpd of the French […]

  4. […] got it thru rail for the valley blog and Stephen Rees. We address here a question in a MB’s comment on the Stephen rees blog regarding the […]

  5. David, good points worth considering regarding 41st Ave.

    However, I see this route as having more potential for LRT than most other arterials due to its geometry that would, unlike Broadway, afford a fenced centre median for trains with one kilometre primary station spacing in all but the narrowest sections, the amount of land available in the front yard setbacks of the many adjacent single-family lots, and because of its connectivity to SkyTrain in the east, high and medium density developments in the centre (e.g. Oakridge) and UBC at the terminus which will always garner a significant portion of the ridership.

    I would entertain intermediate stations halfway between primary stations in the densest areas (e.g. Oakridge and other planned higher density nodes), thus establishing a rhythm of a half-kilometre station spacing in the center section of the line. This latter point, coupled with a fenced transit median, may take the service down a couple of notches from SkyTrain, but would still achieve faster speeds and higher capacities than the current buses, which will be necessary as development is stimulated by a new transit line and increased demographic pressures. Intermediate stations will also accommodate cross pedestrian traffic between major arterials which, unlike Broadway, does not occur at practically every intersection. I also believe it’s necessary to keep the two-block electric trolley bus stop spacing throughout the urban areas on this route to service local needs.

    BRT would also work, but should one think about our city and region at mid-century, long LRT trains may be eventually be necessary as population and employment centres multiply. UBC is a regional destination and will always have a high student and employee ridership.

    I think one can consider something less than a 3.3 km tunnel where the road narrows at Arbutus or the heritage buildings have a zero lot line clearance. We also have to be aware that parts of the 41st Ave road allowance east of Knight St are as narrow as 20 m, so the West Side is not the only section that may require special treatment. I suggest a loss of parkland and an en masse buy-up of housing beyond a block or two would be unacceptable to the community, so tunneling at least 2 km from 41st / Joyce in East Vancouver under Central Park to Paterson Station in Burnaby will undoubtedly be a requirement. A possible 2.7 km tunnel to Metrotown Station may be suggested to access the bus loop and shops. A more economical solution on the West Side would be a 1.1 km tunnel below Kerrisdale Village (Cypress to Elm Park) and another 500 m “dip” below Dunbar (Collingwood to Highbury). The cost of tunneling would have to be balanced with the character of the community along the corridor, which is predominantly single family for the entire corridor, except at arterials.

    The line could run for a long stretch at maximum speed in the centre median of Marine Drive to 16th Ave, then swing up to a station on East Mall or Westbrook Mall to serve the South Campus, then north to the UBC Station on University Drive where the future Broadway-UBC subway would presumably terminate.

    Some of the LRT development impacts could be mitigated with trade-offs, but the bald fact remains: the implementation of LRT and trams on a century-old city road system would be very painful and resident opposition will be sure to arise, especially if the engineering studies prove that major utilities will have to be relocated and the construction period extended to two years in some places. One of the more painful losses would be cutting down many mature trees when the boulevards are inevitably carved up near stations and if four lanes of road traffic are deemed a necessity for truck traffic. New trees can be planted elsewhere, but the community may well demand more remediation of their concerns, and I believe urbanists and planners worth their salt should consider the following:

    – Use planning and design workshops extensively with residents for the entire 41st Ave corridor, but first establish a fully balanced, democratic process such as a Citizens Assembly where having a complete cross section of the community is carefully managed and where no one group or political entity can highjack the process
    – Acquiring a limited number of single-family lots in small groups to consolidate into new park land, very wide park-like boulevards where block-long rows of houses are acquired, and plazas in several locations along the route; if density is to increase, then so should park amenities and public institutions (libraries, community centres)
    – Allowing extra density near stations with the proviso that the boulevards will be significantly widened deep into the existing private lots to accommodate generous sidewalks, pocket plazas, bicycle infrastructure and special features (public art, fountains, etc.)
    – Design standards elevated above the utilitarian
    – Risk management studies (public safety, liability) must form a part of the planning process; universal accessibility should not be questioned

    I don’t have a problem with managing the arterial cross traffic should the LRT line (therefore the entire corridor) becomes a major success story and jobs, housing and ridership increase measurably. A 25% reduction in signal duration from N-S arterials onto 41st Ave could be justified in that case. Some kind of commercial truck priority could be given to 41st in conjunction with transit priority. It will be essential, though, to maintain pedestrian crosswalk signal durations and refuge areas in the median station designs given our aging population.


    January 13, 2015 at 4:24 pm

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