More on Vancouver’s Obsession With Filling Buses (Hoisted from Comments)

Via Human Transit, I learn that Translink has a bus service performance summary with an infographic on PDF-page 16 contrasting high- and low-performing routes. As usual, Translink claims that the high-performing routes have strong anchors at their ends as one of the reasons for their success. Unfortunately, the claim is not completely correct, and on top of that the definition of “high-performing” is stretched to make anchored routes look better. In particular, this implicates Vancouver’s strategy of upzoning the most intensely at its southern rim while ignoring its center.

To paraphrase my second comment on Human Transit, the summary rates routes on three metrics: boardings per hour, capacity utilization, and cost per boarding; a high-performing route is one that is in the metro area’s top 25 on all three, and a low-performing one is one that is in the bottom 25 on all three. However, only the first and the third are actually useful for the passenger. The second is a measure of pain – it’s the product of turnover with crowding, and although it can be raised by raising turnover, it can also be raised by making the bus more crowded.

An updated list of Vancouver buses and their productivity measures is available here. Measured by cost per rider and boardings per hour, the unanchored 8 is more productive than the 49, which has anchors but nothing in between. But the 8 ranks 29th in capacity utilization, so it’s penalized. The 5 and the 6, which are very short routes serving the West End, are also penalized solely because of their low crowding levels and their short length, which makes turnover more difficult. The 8 has high turnover (like the 3 and 20, which did make the infographic), so it achieves more passenger boardings per hour but fewer passenger-km despite its weak outer-end anchor, and the 5 and 6 are so short that even passengers riding all the way through provide many boardings per hour relative to capacity utilization.

Translink unfortunately does not break down capacity utilization into its two components, and only cites the crowding level at the most crowded point of the average trip. But we can still construct a table of some routes with their performance on the three metrics as well as their crowding level:

Route Boardings/hr Capacity use Peak Crowding Cost/boarding
3 113 110% 49% $0.89
5 105 67% 53% $0.95
6 98 68% 48% $1.02
8 102 98% 41% $0.98
9 103 160% 64% $0.97
20 113 124% 50% $0.89
25 81 187% 74% $1.23
41 105 180% 78% $0.95
49 96 169% 82% $1.04
99 176 167% 86% $0.57

The 3, 9, 20, 41, 49, and 99 are in the infographic on the list of most productive routes; the 25 narrowly misses on cost per passenger and boardings per hour but is second systemwide in capacity utilization, and the 5, 6, and 8 miss only on capacity utilization. The 25 and 49 have strong anchors at their outer ends, a single strong central anchor at the Canada Line, and nothing else; On the metrics relevant to the passenger who’s expected to ride the bus and fund it by paying a fare, they are somewhat lower-performing than the short 5 and 6 and the short-trip-encouraging 3, 8, and 20, but have far more crowding. The 9 and 41, both in the infographic, are about on a par with the 3, 5, 6, 8, and 20, and have more turnover due to additional destinations on Broadway and 9th that don’t exist on King Edward and 49th, but are still much more crowded than the unanchored routes. The 99 beats all others in performance, but the cost in terms of crowding is even higher.

The purpose of anchoring is explicitly to keep buses full all the way; the 25 and 49 are great at that, since people ride them longer distances, not having much to go to between their major destinations. However, it’s not a measure of passenger satisfaction or of transit agency finances, but of passenger-km. The surreptitious focus on passenger-km is dubious as a performance metric for urban transit, since transit-using city dwellers usually prefer shorter commutes and do most non-work trips on foot.

And if it’s dubious as a transit proposition, then as an urbanist proposition it’s destructive. As discussed in my previous post on the subject, Vancouver is upzoning Marine Drive (slightly) more intensely than the area south of Broadway and near the stations on the Canada Line between Broadway and Marine Drive – see PDF-pp. 26-27 of the draft plan. Despite the hysteria about urban planners using social engineering to make people live close to city center and take transit instead of driving, here we have a city with an otherwise well-deserved reputation for greenness using social engineering to make people live farther out.

This focus on anchors is making Vancouver build itself to be on a regional scale like how the 25 and 49 look on the local scale. The famous high-rise Vancouverism is really about looking like the 5 and 6 – i.e. upzoning near Downtown so that people will walk or take short trips – but future development is not intended to occur near Downtown but rather in strategically chosen secondary CBDs farther away. And what is really needed is continuous corridor development, as is practiced on the corridors hosting the 3, the 8, and the 20.


  1. Tom West

    I’ve always felt the anchor-at-each-end seemed designed to make buses full along their length (and thus appear well-used), rather than maximise boardings (and thus actualyl be well-used). Given most local transit agencies have a flat fare (or very coarse zones), the financial situation is that the bus completely empties and fills at every stop. More realistically, if it empties out (and then refills) at several points along the route, then that means it be used by more people than if it fills up along its length and empties out at the “anchor” at the end.

    This means a route will perform better if it sreves multiple (small) destinations along its length, rather than one big destination at its end. (This links to Jarett’s “be on the way” maxim).

  2. Dave

    I fail to understand why your article implies that “making the bus more crowded” is a bad goal for TransLink to pursue. As long as “more crowded” doesn’t lead to “left behind,” it seems that “more crowding” leads to lower per-unit costs for TransLink and thus, potentially, enables them to provide more transit service on that route or cross subsidize transit service elsewhere.

    Why exactly then is it bad for TransLink to pack its vehicles as tightly as possible with fare-paying customers (again, as long as they aren’t actually leaving anyone behind)? Would it be better for TransLink to allow everyone enough space to sprawl out on their vehicles… leading to less revenue collected per trip… and thereby requiring higher taxpayer subsidies?

    • Alon Levy

      Actually, the most strongly anchored east-west routes have huge problems with leaving people behind. The top four routes for pass-ups are the 49, the 99, the 22, and the 25. In contrast, the most productive north-south routes achieve lower cost per paying passenger with far fewer pass-ups.

      The problem with using crowding as a productivity metric is that cost per rider is already a metric. Holding cost per rider fixed, it is better to have less crowding rather than more crowding.

  3. Rico

    Good post, something I don’t always think about….but maybe I should. Note though Vancouver is also planning increased densities (mainly in a more or less continuous fashion) for the whole Cambie Corridor (and I think the Broadway corridor) not just at the stations.

  4. Jarrett Walker


    I’m really not getting why a mathematician would over-read TransLink’s claim to the extent that you do. Nobody is saying that anchoring is predictive of productivity by itself. Anchoring is obviously one of a number of indicators of a strong transit corridor.

    (The purely geometric fact is that anchoring reduces the degree to which capacity is permanently wasted as buses sized for a high-demand line reach a low-demand endpoint on that line and therefore tend to run empty near that endpoint. That point is so geometrically obvious that I care about empirical refutations of it about as much as I care about empirical critiques of the value of pi.)

    It is not the only indicator, and nobody claims that it has sole predictive power. It’s one of several indicators, including obvious things like average density, length, straightness, etc etc.

    So the point is not refuted because some north-south lines do well without a strong southern anchor. The weak anchor still pulls them down and they succeed despite that problem because of other indicators of success. Nor is it refuted because strongly anchored east-west lines still experience overloading. What it does mean is that these east-west lines, under their capacity constraint and the pass-ups it may entail, are delivering more passenger-km of access than they would without the strong anchoring.

    (Yes, passenger-km matter, not just passenger boardings. Contrary to Tom’s cynicism, TransLink is trying to liberate people to access things over distances, not just collect fares.)


    • Alon Levy

      You keep saying “purely geometric fact” to obscure value judgments about the benefits of filling buses. It is not geometrically obvious. In fact, if you define benefits in terms of passengers rather than passenger-km, then the opposite is what should be obvious: a train that runs half-empty from Marine Drive to King Edward and then fills to Downtown is not delivering fewer boardings than one that’s full all the way.

      Passenger-km aren’t access and never have been; they’re mobility. They’re a good unit of intercity transportation, but there’s a good reason local transit agencies report passengers and not passenger-km. In an urban environment without the history of US suburbanization (and sometimes even with that history, e.g. in Brooklyn), people do not voluntarily move farther out of the core. Prices are higher near the core because that allows for shorter commutes. When suburbanization has already happened, corporate headquarters sometimes suburbanize to be near where the CEO lives: the suburbanization of corporate headquarters (if not always of jobs in general) happens in the same direction as the favored quarter, e.g. Westchester and Fairfield Counties in New York.

      Vancouver is not replacing passenger-km in cars one-to-one with passenger-km in transit. No city is, but in Vancouver, with its aggressive TOD, the relationship between passenger-km and transit use is especially tenuous. The land values as well as the transit accessibility to the rest of the metro areas are such that, if zoning were completely liberalized, the towers would spring up on and near Central Broadway, allowing for short commutes to a large variety of destinations. Marine Drive might get some towers for the waterfront views, but nothing of the intensity currently planned, not if developing Broadway, King Edward, Oakridge, and Langara is an option. Limiting the upzoning near Broadway while upzoning aggressively on Marine Drive doesn’t liberate people to access things over distances – it forces them to access things over distances, in the same way that the Bay Area’s zoning regime forces rather than liberates people to drive in an hour and a half each way from Stockton. It’s actually worse for transit performance defined as mode share, because Marine Landing will never get east-west rapid transit and so cars will always be the fastest mode of transportation connecting it with Metrotown and Surrey.

    • Tom West

      I don’t think I was being cynical – for “maximise fares” you could substitute “maximise boardings”. Multiple small destinations along the line will attract more boardings per route-km than a single big anchor at either/each end…. and that implies greater ‘usefulness’ in my eyes.

  5. Roland S

    Destructive urbanism? I think it’s the opposite. The creation of dense nodes in formerly undesirable areas (around busy malls, near industrial districts, etc) avoids sparking local opposition from low-density neighborhoods, while still adhering to the broader goals of densification and increased transit use.

    Ultimately, whether it’s destructive or not depends on how self-sufficient each node is. If the density is high enough that I can walk for many daily errands and needs, then this reduces the number of trips I make and offsets the longer trips for work/socializing.

    • Alon Levy

      But Vancouver did not try to upzone continuously along Cambie and then scrap the plan in response to NIMBYism, leaving only Marine Drive with high-intensity development; it planned to build towers in Marine Drive from the start, and Jarrett specifically said this is best for transit productivity. Vancouver has a long history of upzoning residential areas – such as several areas near Expo Line stations. It also plans to upzone Fairview and eastern Kitsilano once the Broadway subway is built, even though those are the densest city neighborhoods outside Downtown and the West End today.

      • Rico

        Vancouver does NOT have a long history of upzoning residential areas along the Expo line (Burnaby and to some extent New West does) all the new residential on the Vancouver portion of the Expo line to date (Grandview plan is in the works now though) have been former industrial sites…including Joice although I think some of the newer Joice developments may be former residential.

        • Alon Levy

          I was under the impression Joyce was always residential?

          But you’re right that I was thinking mainly about Burnaby and New West upzoning.

      • Rico

        Pretty sure the Cambie plan has not been scrapped and it has continous density along the corridor including high density nodes at Marine, Oakridge, I think also 33rd and City hall.

      • Alex B.

        Is there a real difference between attempting to upzone and then scrapping the pla due to NIMBYs, as opposed to keeping your powder dry and not even attempting the upzone due to NIMBYs?

        The pattern of focusing upzonings in areas that are already commercial or industrial isn’t new; pretty much all of the DC area TOD around Metro stations follows that pattern.

  6. Alan Robinson

    Capacity utilization, as defined by Translink, is a measure that confuses me because it’s most strongly tied to the route length. It should rather measure the shape of a route’s loading profile and wasted capacity.

    Alon, while the total number of trips is a better measure than passenger-km system wide, we do need to measure passenger-km on a route-by-route basis. A boarding on the 5/6 is less valuable than a boarding on the 135 as more passengers will be able to complete their entire trip on the 135. A trip on the 5/6 will generally add cost to another connecting route. By measuring passenger-km’s, this cost can be aportioned.

  7. Tonys

    I take 25 every day to work and back and I know how terrible it is first hand. There are days where I wait for 45 minutes before a full bus shows up and leave me behind. And last winter, because of the slush on the road, they just stopped running the route without any notice and made us walk all the way past boundary rd to catch it back to vancouver from burnaby. And right now, because kids are back to school, it is the worst it’s ever been in the last 5 years.. I donno how their graphs and charts could put any positive spin on my daily agony with #25.

  8. Zmapper

    This makes sense now…

    Imagine a route between downtown and the end of the line. If the line is not anchored, and features a uniform density throughout, Andy alights at the midpoint, and Barb alights at the end. This looks inefficient, as Andy is only filling a seat for half the distance. With an anchored line, both Andy and Barb alight at the end of the line, filling a seat all the way from downtown. This looks efficient, as all seats are full the whole way, but means there is no space for trips not involving downtown. With an un-anchored line, Carl might have boarded and alighted somewhere between the end and the midpoint, filling what was Andy’s seat. Perhaps “Carl” only is on 20% of trips, but the point remains: Assuming a full bus once near downtown (in this case, assume the “bus” can only carry two people), any capacity used by Andy is capacity that Carl could not occupy, if Andy did not alight at or before Carl’s stop.

    Of course, only in select places (such as Vancouver) do the buses consistently run full, where every amount of capacity must be accounted for. Only with buses with no space capacity can the above observation hold true. Where the buses run with plenty of excess capacity, then even anchored routes allow space for all customers.

  9. BruceMcF

    From a system performance perspective, if you have two routes with the same cost per boarding and same cost per passenger mile, but different capacity utlizations, the route with the lower capacity utilization has spare capacity available. Delivering the same cost performance with more spare capacity available would be a good, not a bad.

  10. Jarrett Walker


    OK, I follow. But I’m still questioning the claim that “valuing anchoring implies valuing passenger-km over passenger trips.” You may be able to get there in a flash but I need to take this apart.

    For me, this conversation starts with the image of a bell curve, which is the distribution of load along a transit line if land use is uniform everywhere. The fixed capacity defined by vehicle size and frequency must be sized to the top of the curve, so that the space above the curve toward the ends of the lines is permanently wasted capacity.

    So we build something at the end of the line, or design the line to end somewhere that people are going, and now more people are going to/from the end of the line. This raises the ends of the curve, reducing the area over the curve which is wasted capacity.

    Unless, of course, the people added from the new anchors ride into the middle of the line, raising demand there, and thus raising the top of the curve higher, above it’s capacity limits. And of course some of them will. That’s overcrowding. (TransLink, by the way, is well aware of it, understands the pain involved, and is monitoring it all the time. You are fortunate to live in a region where almost all of your transit planners are transit riders, mostly from homes in Vancouver, and are therefore have few illusions about the customer experience.)

    So the most optimal solution, in capacity utilization terms, is big destinations at the end and not-so-big (but not zero) destinations in the middle. Then you get lines like 25 and 49. Lots of demand from the endpoints to the middles, but not so much that the middle becomes overcrowded. So if you compare 49 to 41, 49 obviously has less stuff in the middle, crossing the Canada Line at Langara instead of at the bigger node of Oakridge, etc. That’s why 41 still has a bell-curve shaped peak in the center, pushing upward into overcrowding, while 49 has less of one.

    Crucially, 49 doesn’t have towers in the middle, but it doesn’t have nothing. There’s a junior college, and the Canada Line station, and the rising density as you approach the east end, generating (for example) zillions of short trips between eastern Vancouver and Metrotown (a shopping mall and huge transit hub).

    What’s so cool about 49 is the high utilization, almost 200%, which means that each place on the bus is occupied twice in the course of each one-way trip.

    This actually means lots of relatively short trips, passengers but not passenger-km, which is exactly contrary to your claim. This is transit working at its best to touch as many customers lives as possible, and anchoring makes it easier to deliver that.

    What anchoring is achieving here is keeping the bus useful to the end, thus increasing the odds that we’ll serve two passenger-trips out of every one way seat-trip, instead of just one. This is a very, very good thing. We’re providing lots of short passenger trips cheaply.

    All that happens on 41 and 99 too, but because those routes have so much more stuff in the middle, we still get a more bell-curve shape with severe overcrowding. That means we have to add capacity to meet the demand in the middle, and we end up back with the original bell curve shape, wasting capacity near the ends.

    There is larger debate about the valuation of passenger-km vs passengers on which I am largely on your side. I prefer to measure how many lives we liberated rather than how far we moved people; it’s the difference between access and mobility. Our outer-suburban friends will always insist on a passenger-km measure but I don’t see what it has to do with this issue.

    I remain unclear on how intentionally increasing the height of the bell curve, by focusing all growth in the middle, makes any sense from an overcrowding standpoint, since this only creates more demand where capacity is already most expensive.

    There is of course a larger argument about urban form in which proximity yields walkability, and that is a valid part of the case for greater aggregation toward the centres of lines.

    But in a city as expensive as Vancouver it isn’t an either/or. Less-central places will be less expensive but the demand is still astronomical so the case for towers is still there. All the better then to build them along Marine Drive where the capacity they will use is mostly already there.

    • Alon Levy

      I’ll respond with a detailed mathematical model soon. However, let me just say that building anything, anywhere, will increase the height of the bell curve. You can’t just use the tail ends. If you build more stuff at the end, you’ll raise the height of the ends of the bell curve, but you’ll also raise the height of the middle, because some people will be traveling from the other end of the curve.

      Bear in mind, the model says that peak crowding depends only on how well origins and destinations are mixed (mixed-use is better than use separation). Anchoring turns out not to change anything about the height of the peak: briefly, if origins and destinations and perfectly mixed together, then there will be a median point somewhere on the line, and exactly a quarter of travelers will cross it in each direction. An anchored line will have a broad peak consisting of a quarter of all travelers, a line with concentration of activity in the middle will have a narrow peak consisting of a quarter of all travelers.

      This is not quite what we see in Vancouver – crowding on the 25 and 49 is worse than on the 41 and 99 measured relative to the number of boardings (e.g. compare the ratio of passups to boardings), which can be explained as a matter of greater separation of uses for the 25 (destinations at the west end, origins at the east end) but not so much the 49 because of Metrotown (though perhaps UBC is a much greater destination for bus riders, whereas Metrotown perhaps draws workers who if they can’t use SkyTrain drive rather than taking the 49). On top of that, there’s a fair amount of use separation on the 3, 8, and 20, which are also not very crowded by the passups-to-boardings metric – perhaps, again, there are many destinations scattered along the lines south of the Expo Line connections.

      • BruceMcF

        However, the issue for capacity utilization isn’t the absolute height of the peak by the height of the peak relative to the height of the trough.

        The perverse incentive in place if capacity utilization is seen as something to be maximized is best seen by going beyond (1) recognizing that reducing the relative difference in size can indeed be accomplished by policies that finding anchors at counter-flow locations to (2) recognizing that the ideal outcome is to support an increase in quality of the service through increasing the frequency of the service.

        In Newcastle, NSW (Australia), I have supported the establishment of the Glendale transport interchange, which includes a train station for the through train line and a bus interchange on a newly built road overpass. The road overpass will serve to combine two medium sized transport destinations into a single more substantial transport destination. And this will recruit patronage from the direction of downtown Newcastle, so it will provide exactly the kind of multi-pole transport target that the strategy of anchoring at both ends is aiming for.

        And when looking at routes that will be able to run through the Glendale interchange, the effect is to reduce the relative difference between the peak about 20% from the CBD end of the route and the trough at the route origin away from the CBD, by adding passengers from the route origin bound for a point traversed on one side or the other of the Glendale interchange.

        But the point is to increase the farebox recovery of those buses is not to just get a higher capacity utilization number. It is to allow for an increase in frequency under the current institutional constraints that the Newcastle Bus Service operates under. And aiming at maximizing capacity utilization would discourage that increase in frequency, since the increase in frequency will lead to a lower per-bus capacity utilization.

  11. Pingback: Modeling Anchoring | Pedestrian Observations

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