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

Archive for the ‘transit’ Category

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The Daily Hive reports “Vancouver has been ranked as the second best city for public transit in Canada.”

While some residents (particularly transit users) may be surprised, the new ranking comes from Redfin, a tech-powered real estate brokerage.

You have to do a bit of digging but by following the links you do finally get the methodology of the transit score

“The value of a route is defined as the service level (frequency per week) multiplied by the mode weight (heavy/light rail is weighted 2X, ferry/cable car/other are 1.5X, and bus is 1X) multiplied by a distance penalty.”

So basically they use the schedule to determine frequency. Not actual performance.

Note too that even if you had a bus system that had exclusive right of way, or signal priority and lots of bus lanes, it would still score less than rail – no matter if that is grade separated or in mixed traffic. That’s how “modern streetcars” get such a good press, I guess. Just pay no attention to video shot from a bus in Boston whipping past congested traffic. Or to Jarrett Walker who is adamant that the choice of steel or rubber wheels is not really significant.

For the actual experience of using two of Translink’s “high frequency” routes – see the previous post.

The reason I groan at these awards is the effect they can have on Management. Far too often they did not want to hear anything that sounded like criticism – or the need for improvement. What they wanted staff to be were cheer leaders. “We’re Number 1” (in a contest that was no contest at all) was their mantra. I think there has been some change in recent years.

While I’m reposting video from Twitter take a look at this one from Brent Toderian. This is a modern light rail system in Nice, France crossing the Place Massena – and using its batteries. Elsewhere in the city it raises its pantograph to collect power, but what struck me about this delightful urban space is the total absence of overhead wires. While the trolleybuses we now have here can operate on their batteries, it is not an everyday occurrence because the bus is then much slower, has a short range and requires someone to lower and raise each pole individually. So to divert the  #14,  #16 and #17 during Millennium Line extension construction under Broadway new wire is now being strung along 12th Avenue.

Screen Shot 2019-03-23 at 11.45.18 AM

Diagram from Translink via the Facebook group ELMTOT

Hopefully the next batch of electric buses that get bought for Translink will have better off wire capabilities.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 11, 2019 at 1:55 pm

Posted in transit, Transportation

Free transit motion to be debated by Vancouver city councillors

with 2 comments

The headline is taken from a CBC News story and the motion will be debated tomorrow. It also provides a link to the motion as a pdf file. The motion asks Council to support the All on Board  campaign. Apparently there is going to be a “research report containing evidence” – but that is not ready yet. You might think that it would be a Good Idea to have had that ready in time for the discussion. Because there is remarkably little evidence on offer so far either in the motion’s “Whereas” section or the campaign website. Other than some people think it might be a Good Idea and other places have already tried it.

What needs to be considered is how much revenue is going to be lost from this proposal and how it might be replaced. The motion suggests that the Provincial Government will be approached for more funding. Presumably, the Province will also have to consider if this is something that needs to be applied province wide. If not, then you can expect the attention to switch to property taxes as that is about the only source that the municipalities can access. I would certainly expect that someone will actually do the necessary policy analysis, which, of course, is entirely absent so far. This would include some assessment of the costs to increase transit supply at peak periods – and also at times when young people are not in school and can be expected to be enjoying their new found freedom to ride transit as often and as far as they can go. I would also expect questions to be asked like why does this demographic get pushed to the front of the line when others – the aged, the disabled, the desperately poor adult population –  fail to get anything like such generous treatment?

I accept that for low income families even reduced fares for children can be inadequate to be affordable for many trips. At one time people who had transit passes could take their spouse and children with them at weekends for no extra charge. I forget now when that concession was withdrawn, but I would be willing to bet that cost was a concern.

It is true that giving children free rides will increase ridership – though the campaign has not made any forecast of that. Nor have they considered what other ways might also increase ridership and their comparative effectiveness. What we do know, and what is not mentioned anywhere in these materials, is how increasing service frequency and improving reliability (through traffic management measures) can offer much higher rates of return at lower levels of cost, and can be better targeted. For just as there are families that can’t afford transit, there are plenty for whom the fare is not the deterrent that inconvenience, unreliability and inadequate service undoubtedly are. Transit takes you from where you are not to a point at some distance from where you want to be. And for a lot of the trip will expect you to stand, or be crowded with others, or left at a bus stop wondering how long your wait will be. People who have invested heavily in a vehicle, and its insurance (which does not vary by distance driven) have a vested interest in getting as much use out of that expense as possible. And despite traffic congestion and the hassle of finding parking still get a better travel experience than transit riders for most trips. The car is at your convenience and takes you all the way without a transfer!

I do think that the province ought to be increasing what it spends on transit, I just think we need to be a bit more considered about how that money is spent. I also think that transit should not be considered as a social service or a redistributive device. If people are poor then giving them more money is far better than giving them scrip for approved expenditures. Free transit passes are as prescriptive as food stamps and both can be a stigma. Giving free rides to children whose parents are wealthy may not actually reduce car use all that much, if at all and is palpably wasteful.

And anyway, why are we focussed on transit and not asking why these kids are not walking more or using their bicycles? Might it be something to do with concerns about their safety?


Written by Stephen Rees

January 14, 2019 at 2:04 pm

Geography and demographics perpetually conspire against Delta

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There is a piece by Justin McElroy of the CBC that discusses transit – or rather the lack of it – south of the Fraser and in particular – in Delta. As usual this is in the context of the Massey Tunnel. And I found myself irritated by McElroy’s journalistic attitude. Which is a shame since I generally enjoy reading his stuff.

He has got some data that he puts into Infograms – but the one thing that is very obviously missing is this map

screen shot 2019-01-11 at 10.27.31 am

The original is a pdf that you can get from metrovancouver. It is the second one in the list. Most of Delta is either agricultural or the protected area of Burns Bog. The only population centres are Ladner and “North Delta” – the bit of Surrey that flops over the municipal boundary in the northeast corner.

“Strip away the urban studies jargon,” says McElroy – which is frankly offensive. What Kevin Desmond says is simple and obvious. But what would have made it clearer is if the article had included this map. The relationship between transit service and residential density is very basic and very clear. Though what is a bit of a surprise is that Tsawwassen does not even show up on this map. It is not labelled but does show the “urban containment boundary” – and is still pale green , not the orange of the next density step up. I am not sure if the next census is going to be much different – or if it will show the Tsawwassen FN as a separate “municipality”. But then White Rock doesn’t get a label either though Semiahmoo does. But that is because the labels refer to “Regional and Municipal Centres”.

And actually the lack of transit in this region is nothing to do with geography or demographics. It is simply politics. For 16 years we had a provincial government that neglected transit except for a its pet megaprojects – and foisted an unnecessarily divisive referendum on transit funding which has held back service growth. That log jam has now been broken and things are getting better slowly, but clearly priority for new service has to go to where overcrowding is worst. The province is still fumbling over the need for better regional connections because MoTI is still run by traffic engineers keen to build more and bigger roads. Everyone else seems to understand induced traffic, and the only real argument seems to be over transit technology – which is actually much less important than transit priority.

And while I think there is improvement, we have by no means solved the underfunding of transit operations and maintenance. Senior governments only want to fund projects that have nice photo-ops for politicians, not the dull but essential everyday need to keep the fleet running. Which makes me even less tolerant of the people who keep pushing the idea of free transit, as though we did not already have enough issues of overcrowding and pass-ups. If we had lots of spare capacity and the ability to replace fare revenue from some other source I might be more receptive, but these never ever get mentioned by the free fare crowd. They seem to think that somehow not collecting fares actually saves money, which is not true here – and is only true is very small, underutilized systems – mostly in the US. If you really want public services to be free please concentrate on health and education – which are supposedly free but are not by a long way. When you do not need health insurance for any treatment, and anyone can go to post secondary education without needing loans or grants or scholarships, then I will accept that free transit can be next up. But recognize that means making wealthy people pay more taxes. As we have seen with property tax, you can expect pretty hard push back.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 11, 2019 at 10:52 am

Posted in transit, Urban Planning

Tagged with ,

A Guest Post by Professor Patrick Condon

with 4 comments

To appear in the Tyee

Dear Surrey Mayor McCallum.

Congratulations on your recent return to the mayor’s office in my favorite city, Surrey BC. I read where you are wasting no time to capitalize on the mandate granted you (by the 41 percent of the 33 percent of eligible voters that voted you in) to throw out 10 years of transit planning by former and current officials throughout the region. You have successfully trashed their plan for a 10 km surface light rail serving your Gildford and Newton Town Centers in favour of a 4 km Expo line extension to – Fleetwood?

I know you said during the election that you could build Skytrain all the way to Langley City Centre down the Fraser HIghway for the same money as the light rail plan, but sadly Translink and the Mayor’s Council dont agree. They say that since Skytrain costs twice as much per km as surface light rail, the 1.65 billion already allocated will only get you through Green Timbers Park (not a lot of riders there!) to Fleetwood (I bet the owners of the Fleetwood Park strip mall are overjoyed!).

Premier Horgan and PM Trudeau have already said they are still happy to fund the original plan but will not give you one dime extra for the switch to SKytrain. Worse still, the Mayors Council just voted to make you pay back the 56 million already spent on the light rail proposal, which ironically is about the same cost as the Grandview Heights Community Centre and Library, project you scrapped for lack of funds. Wow. That’s what i call a pretty bad day for sure.

But fear not, I can help. What if I told you that there is a way to serve Scot Road, West Surrey, North Delta, Newton Town Center, Cloverdale and Langley City Centre by rail for way less than the cost of the 4 km “FLeetwood Skytrain Express” (as some wags are calling it).

Wait, it gets better! What if I told you that you could also be a hero to the folks in Abbotsford and Chilliwack by extending the line all the way out to serve them too, still for the same money!

Wait! It gets better still! After all that there would still be enough to put a tram line down King George Highway to Newton Town Centre andover to Guildford so you won’t have to pay back that 65 million!

Interested? Here’s how.

For 75 years BC Electric served the locations listed above along a track that is still in use. It’s the old BC Electric Interurban Line. It turns out that the line was never sold, only leased, to CP rail. The conditions of the lease call for the return of the line to the Province if ever passenger rail service were to restart.

Better still, the lease also stipulates that if the frequency of rail service is such that the rail must be double tracked, CP must pay the costs! What can be better than a free double track ROW?

What about vehicles? Well you could run catenary lines on the route for an electric train, but they cost a ton.

Fortunately there is a simpler and far cheaper solution. Alstom Corporation , a global transit company that now supplies transit vehicles to Ottawa and Toronto, just launched a hydrogen powered transit vehicle that can be had for less than the cost of a handful of skytrain cars. And here is maybe the best part. Hydrogen fuel is manufactured right at the BC Hydro facility in Surrey . So the project supports the growth of local green jobs for Surrey too!

The concerns you have voiced about LRT vehicles getting slowed down in traffic and adding to congestion (which are misplaced I would argue, but admittedly strongly felt by some) go away with this plan since the track is in its own ROW for the whole distance with very few at grade crossings. And at grade crossings can be controlled by crossing gates (as is done for hundreds of commuter rail and tram/train systems in North America) or by simply slowing down the train to obey signals as they do in Portland OR. for the MAX Line tram/train.

More good news. This plan has already been studied. The engineering and business case was developed not too long ago in the “Proposal for Rail for the Valley” by Leewood Projects of Surrey UK (yet another Surrey tie in!). They estimated that it would cost around .6 billion for track, vehicles, stations and catenary for a commuter rail tram/train system of over 90 km! A tiny fraction of the cost per km of SKytrain and a 100 year transportation solution for the entire South of Fraser urban region.

That study was conducted in 2010 so it will cost more now. But the study assumed catenary infrastructure not needed if you use hydrogen power and track reconstruction which may not be a cost borne by you (as mentioned above) so who knows, costs could be less.

Worst case, let’s say the cost is a cool billion. You still have $600 million left to play with. And if you want to get the other mayors off your back you could strip the bells and whistles out of the light rail proposal you hate (but the Board of Trade desperately wants) and do a Portland Oregon style tram to Guildford and Newton for less than 60 million per km.

Or maybe you can mollify the other mayors, the board of trade, and your local environmentalists with a hydrogen powered bus rapid transit to Newton and Guildford for even less.

In short, you have many ways to make Surrey the centre of a thriving metropolitan “South of Fraser Kingdom” rather than the dead end of the Vancouver Skytrain line (and get yourself out of what looks like a tight spot politically). Now that you have successfully blown up the whole regional transit plan I am sure you can see the benefits of grabbing this fantastic life preserver, and give Surrey and the whole South of Fraser region the futuristic transit it deserves.

Your humble servant and Surrey booster
Professor Patrick M. Condon.Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 11.30.47 AM

Written by Stephen Rees

December 16, 2018 at 11:34 am

Crowdfundraising: A new type of bus shelter

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I am posting this story as the result of a request from UBC’s Public Engagement: Campus and Community Planning. It has already been picked up by Daily Hive and I don’t feel much need to copy and paste their content. However if the idea of a green roofed bus shelter that mimics forest tree canopy is intriguing to you I suggest you look at the project webpage at UBC . There is a useful video which neatly summarizes the proposal.

We regularly get to enjoy the benefits that humans experience by walking under the tree canopy – most often at Pacific Spirit Park and most recently out at Harrison Mills. I am not sure that a bus shelter offers the same scale of benefits – and I am also not sure that the people working on this project have taken into account the somewhat anomalous situation of bus shelters at UBC compared to the rest of the region. Being street furniture, bus shelters are the domain of the municipality, except for off street locations like bus loops, transit exchanges and some SkyTrain stations. The municipalities do not actually provide the shelters but contract this out to advertising companies (in the City of Vancouver it is presently J.C.Decaux) who make their revenue from the advertising panels. The target market is not bus passengers, or even pedestrians but the people driving past, and that is what determines the likelihood that a stop will get a shelter. Plus of course the availability of enough space. On many city streets, such shelter as might be available is often the canopy of the building at the back of the sidewalk.

Harbour Centre

This is also the case by the way for benches at stops: they seem to appeal a lot to realtors.

We've got a new bench

Of course now that Vancouver is declaring its intentions to become Greenest maybe they will be keen to do a different kind of deal rather than getting their share of the ad revenue – or perhaps the Mark II bus shelter will incorporate a solar panel and lighted ads in the walls that appear to be missing from the current design (the current contract runs until 2022). From the rendering supplied by UBC at the top of the post it looks like they do not understand that shelter is also needed from wind – and wind driven precipitation.

The green roof would be a distinct improvement over the current glass roof of the most common Vancouver bus shelters

No shade here

But in other cities like Edmonton shelter at the busiest stops offers much more than a roof

ETS Bus Stop 100 Street

Looks like all this one needs is its own wind turbine!

I was in Beyond Bread getting a loaf and as I came out realised what a great bus stop this was. Once again no actual shelter but there is a bench and a canopy on the building. Of course if you wanted to you could wait for your bus inside the cafe and enjoy a cup of coffee at the same time. Just keep that Transit app open to be warned of the bus’s imminent arrival – when Translink gets their GPS API working again!




Written by Stephen Rees

December 6, 2018 at 11:33 am

The Surrey Decision

with 4 comments



The Mayor’s Council has decided to support the choice of the electors in Surrey who want SkyTrain over LRT. I am not going to get into why that might be, since they are mostly new Mayors (good) and I have no doubt that the strongest instinct for human beings in group situations is don’t be the awkward, difficult critic. Try and find some consensus, or if you prefer, don’t block their favourite project this time as next time they will block yours.

The difference between SkyTrain and LRT is not the technology. The whole point about the Plan was that it was a real effort to try to match transit technology to the desired land use. There was actually a diagram I saw, not so long ago, that showed how buildout of Surrey LRT would see service on all of the major arterials. This would have facilitated building four to six storey apartments over commercial at street level all along the main roads while a mixture of “missing middle” would fill the bits in between. The Light Rail trains would have priority signals at intersections and exclusive right of way – so not streetcars. This produces journey times door-to-door comparable to grade separated – but without the escalators. Stations on LRT are cheap, and can be relatively close to each other. While the train is loading/unloading, the traffic crosses in front of it.

SkyTrain’s main selling point for electors (boomers: older white males) is that they don’t get in the way of the cars. Because the trains are small, and automated, you can build elevated structures (much cheaper than tunnels) along the highway alignments – see Millennium Line, Evergreen Line. Stations are more widely spaced than LRT. That is because to get people up to the platform you have to offer a faster ride for longer distances. Basically SkyTrain endorses sprawl: it makes longer distance commutes tolerable because the train is faster.  The Canada Line, by the way, is not SkyTrain and it isn’t fast. It’s just not as slow as the jammed up traffic on the surface.

SkyTrain does not have a driver. That means instead of running long trains with long gaps between them (like Edmonton) you can run short trains at shorter intervals, like the Millennium Line, as the cost is the same, but the service level much more attractive. Stations are expensive as they have to have elevators and some escalators. Ideally lots of entrances and exits to make transfers convenient (something the Canada Line deliberately ignored to keep the initial capital cost down) as the punters don’t like to have to cross two six laners just to catch their connecting bus which stops far side of the traffic signals and won’t wait for you.


The development pattern produced by SkyTrain is now most clearly visible at Brentwood. The Lougheed Highway and Willingdon are both wide stroads with fast traffic. The station is surrounded on three sides by high rises. This does not look like a Walkable City. Yes, it is indeed Transit Oriented Development. But it is not at human scale. I used to think that the views made possible by living high up, would compensate for the inconvenience of waiting for the elevator (no one walks up to the 40th floor). But if all you can see out of your windows are the serried windows of the high rise across the street …

That is what the region has now endorsed for Surrey. The population and the overall density won’t be much different, but the point density at transit stations will be very different. But that allows the bits in between to stay something like they are now for longer. So not only do you not have to wait for a streetcar to finish loading, but you can also stay in your present accommodation.  No wonder it appeals to the sort of people who will vote for Doug McCallum.


Hours after I first posted this opinion piece some new analysis came to my attention from the Georgia Straight 

Written by Stuart Parker it is worth your time

…why Surrey could choose an LRT without sufficient public buy-in for the project and then have that project defeated by a candidate claiming that he could fund a $3-billion asset using $1.6 billion of other people’s money that they had set aside for a different project.

Who is Stuart Parker? “Stuart Parker teaches international studies and history at Simon Fraser University. He ran for Surrey council in 2018 as a member of Proudly Surrey.”

Note also there is a comment by Frank Bucholtz under the article which endorses it.

Towers at Marine Drive Station

High rise towers at Marine Drive Canada Line station


Written by Stephen Rees

November 16, 2018 at 8:25 am

Book Review: Trains Buses and People

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An Opinionated Atlas of US Transit by Christof Spieler

Published by Island Press October 2018  ISBN 978-1-61091-903-6 Paperback Full color 290 Photos 185 illustrations 248 pages Price US $40.00


This review will be mainly of interest to my US readers. While there are some references made in the book to how other places do things, this book is concerned with how transit is provided in the US and how to do it better. In the same way that “Walkable City Rules” spells out how to improve car oriented cities – which is most of them – this book identifies what needs to be done to make transit more useful. Given this morning’s events here – where the Mayors’ Council voted to suspend work on the Surrey LRT and start on the process to switch priorities to SkyTrain to Langley – his thoughts on modes are very relevant.

“…mode is not the most important aspect of transit. What riders care about most is where transit goes, how fast it is and how reliable it is. It is better to think of modes as tools … one mode or another may be a better fit in terms of capacity, cost or capability”

It is also significant, I think, that he lives and works in Houston, Texas and takes light rail for most of his journeys. It is frequent – every 6 minutes – and has its own right of way with signal priority at intersections. So he gets pretty much the same sort of on board experience as someone who rides SkyTrain here – but without the need to use an escalator or elevator. He probably has a much better chance of getting a seat. For me that is another essential but then I am very nearly as old as Prince Charles.

” most importantly … it goes to the right places” so it can be used for a wide variety of trip purposes not just the journey to work. Far too many US railroads with passenger service take Commuter Rail far too literally – and West Coast Express is one of the prime examples of how useless it is for anything other than the weekday commute to downtown.

Fortunately not only is there a really good book, with lots of information, there is also a web site.   And that will do much more for you than reading any review.

This is a reference document which you will want to keep handy. It is also something that is worth just idly skimming – for places you know or those you might want to visit. And yes there is a list of best and worst – you can learn from both. Toronto does get a couple of mentions. Vancouver none at all. Neither does Montreal rate a mention. I hope that one day Mr Spieler comes here. I would be happy to show him around.

I would also say that I would disagree with him about speed. The actual pace of the mode over the ground is much less important than how long the overall journey takes, and how convenient it is. If there is a lot of stair climbing and hanging around in grim surroundings, the fact that you get onto a fast train eventually is less than adequate compensation. The Canada Line is downright slow – but it is still better than the #15 bus for almost any trip. And if you want to avoid the traffic congestion that often impacts the bridges to the airport, more reliable than driving, on most trips. In my most recent travels the impact of a two hour wait for a METRA train from Naperville to Union was far more significant than the fact that it never seemed to get much faster than 30 mph, and stopped even more frequently than the CTA Blue Line to O’Hare airport. And the walk from the end of the train to the taxi was a significant issue too.


And when we got home we felt that is was worth splashing out on a cab rather than struggle with our bags on and off a train and a bus – and then a drag through the streets. Had we not been so encumbered then the transit ride would probably been a comparable time but considerably cheaper. You note that fare doesn’t even get mentioned in “what riders care about”.

I would recommend this volume for everyone who likes maps and data, and is interested in US transit. I would also like to see something that does like for like comparison with cities around the world. We used to like to compare Metro Vancouver to Zurich – and Phoenix – just because they were comparable but very different indeed.  I know that I am going to find myself thumbing through it quite a lot. It is a lovely production.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 15, 2018 at 4:30 pm

Posted in transit, Urban Planning

Tagged with