On Envying Canada

In England and Wales, 15.9% of workers get to work on public transport, and in France, 14.9% do. In Canada, the figure is close: 12.4%, and this is without a London or Paris to run up the score in. Vancouver is a metro region of 2.5 million people and 1.2 million workers, comparable in size to the metropolitan counties in England and to the metro area of Lyon; at 20.4%, it has a higher public transport modal share than all of them, though it is barely higher than Lyon with its 19.9% share. Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton, and Winnipeg are likewise collectively respectable by the standards of similar-size French regions, such as the departments of Bouches-du-Rhône (Marseille), Alpes-Maritimes (Nice), Gironde (Bordeaux), Haute-Garonne (Toulouse), and Bas-Rhin (Strasbourg).

As a result, Jarrett Walker likes telling American cities and transit agencies to stop envying Europe and start envying Canada instead. Canada is nearby, speaks the same language, and has similar street layout, all of which contribute to its familiarity to Americans. If Europe has the exotic mystique of the foreign, let alone East Asia, Canada is familiar enough to Americans that the noticeable differences are a cultural uncanny valley.

And yet, I am of two minds on this. The most consistent transit revival in Canada has been in Vancouver, whose modal share went from 14.3% in 1996 to 20.4% in 2016 – and the 2016 census was taken before the Evergreen extension of the Millennium Line opened. TransLink has certainly been doing a lot of good things to get to this point. And yet, there’s a serious risk to Canadian public transport in the future: construction costs have exploded, going from Continental European 15 years ago to American today.

The five legs of good transit

I was asked earlier today what a good political agenda for public transportation would be. I gave four answers, like the four legs of a chair, and later realized that I missed a fifth point.

  1. Fuel taxes and other traffic suppression measures (such as Singapore and Israel’s car taxes). Petrol costs about €1.40/liter in Germany and France; diesel is cheaper but being phased out because of its outsize impact on pollution.
  2. Investment in new urban and intercity lines, such as the Madrid Metro expansion program since the 1990s or Grand Paris Express. This is measured in kilometers and not euros, so lower construction costs generally translate to more investment, hence Madrid’s huge metro network.
  3. Interagency cooperation within metropolitan regions and on intercity rail lines where appropriate. This includes fare integration, schedule integration, and timetable-infrastructure integration.
  4. Urban upzoning, including both residential densification in urban neighborhoods and commercialization in and around city center.
  5. Street space reallocation from cars toward pedestrians, bikes, and buses.

We can rate how Canada (by which I really mean Vancouver) does on this rubric:

  1. The fuel tax in Canada is much lower than in Europe, contributing to high driving rates. In Toronto, gasoline currently costs $1.19/liter, which is about €0.85/l. But Vancouver fuel taxes are higher, raising the price to about $1.53/l, around €1.06/l.
  2. Canadian construction costs are so high that investment in new lines is limited. Vancouver has been procrastinating building the Broadway subway to UBC until costs rose to the point that the budget is only enough to build the line halfway there.
  3. Vancouver and Toronto both have good bus-rapid transit integration, but there is no integration with commuter rail; Montreal even severed a key commuter line to build a private driverless rapid transit line. In Vancouver, bus and SkyTrain fares have decoupled due to political fallout from the botched smartcard implementation.
  4. Vancouver is arguably the YIMBYest Western city, building around 10 housing units per 1,000 people every year in the last few years. Toronto’s housing construction rate is lower but still respectable by European standards, let alone American ones.
  5. There are bike lanes but not on the major streets. If there are bus lanes, I didn’t see any of them when I lived in Vancouver, and I traveled a lot in the city as well as the suburbs.

Vancouver’s transit past and future

Looking at the above legs of what makes for good public transport, there is only one thing about Canada that truly shines: urban redevelopment. Toronto, a metro area of 6 million people, has two subway mainlines, and Montreal, with 4 million people, has 2.5. Vancouver has 1.5 lines – its three SkyTrain mainlines are one-tailed. By the same calculation, Berlin has 6.5 U- and 3 S-Bahn mainlines, and Madrid has 2 Cercanías lines and 7 metro lines. Moreover, high construction costs and political resistance from various GO Transit interests make it difficult for Canadian cities to add more rapid transit.

To the extent Vancouver has a sizable SkyTrain network, it’s that it was able to build elevated and cut-and-cover lines in the past. This is no longer possible for future expansion, except possibly toward Langley. The merchant lawsuits over the Canada Line’s construction impacts have ensured that the Broadway subway will be bored. Furthermore, the region’s politics make it impossible to just build Broadway all the way to the end: Surrey has insisted on some construction within its municipal area, so the region has had to pair half the Broadway subway with a SkyTrain extension to the Langley sprawl.

Put in other words, the growth in Vancouver transit ridership is not so much about building more of a network, but about adding housing and jobs around the network that has been around since the 1980s. The ridership on the Millennium and Canada Lines is growing but remains far below that on the Expo Line. There is potential for further increase in ridership as the neighborhoods along the Canada Line have finally been rezoned, but even that will hit a limit pretty quickly – the Canada Line was built with low capacity, and the Millennium Line doesn’t enter Downtown and will only serve near-Downtown job centers.

Potemkin bus networks

When Jarrett tells American cities to envy Canada, he generally talks about the urban bus networks. Toronto and Vancouver have strong bus grids, with buses coming at worst every 8 minutes during the daytime off-peak. Both cities have grids of major streets, as is normal for so many North American cities, and copying the apparent features of these grids is attractive to American transit managers.

And yet, trying to just set up a bus grid in your average American city yields Potemkin buses. Vancouver and Toronto have bus grids that rely on connections to rapid transit lines. In both cities, transit usage is disproportionately about commutes either to or from a city core defined by a 5 kilometer radius from city hall. Moreover, the growth in public transport commuting in both cities since 1996 has been almost exclusively about such commutes, and not about everywhere-to-everywhere commutes from outside this radius. Within this radius, public transportation is dominated by rail, not buses.

The buses in Toronto and Vancouver have several key roles to play. First, as noted above, they connect to rapid transit nodes or to SeaBus in North Vancouver. Second, they connect to job centers that exist because of rapid transit, for example Metrotown at the eastern end of Vancouver’s 49. And third, there is the sui generis case of UBC. All of these roles create strong ridership, supporting high enough frequency that people make untimed transfers.

But even then, there are problems common to all North American buses. The stop spacing is too tight – 200 meters rather than 400-500, with frequency-splitting rapid buses on a handful of very strong routes like 4th Avenue and Broadway. There is no all-door boarding except on a handful of specially-branded B-line buses. There are no bus lanes.

One American city has similar characteristics to Toronto and Vancouver when it comes to buses: Chicago. Elsewhere, just copying the bus grid of Vancouver will yield nothing, because ultimately nobody is going to connect between two mixed-traffic buses that run every 15 minutes, untimed, if they can afford any better. In Chicago, the situation is different, but what the city most needs is integration between Metra and CTA services, which requires looking at European rather than Canadian models.

Is Canada hopeless?

I don’t know. The meteoric rise in Canadian subway construction costs in the last 15 years has ensured expansion will soon grind to a halt. Much of this rise comes from reforms that the Anglosphere has convinced itself improve outcomes, like design-build and reliance on outside consultants; in that sense, the US hasn’t been copying Canada, but instead Canada has been copying the US and getting American results.

That said, two positive aspects are notable. The first is very high housing and commercial growth in the most desirable cities, if not in their most exclusive neighborhoods. Vancouver probably has another 10-20 years before its developable housing reserves near existing SkyTrain run out and it is forced to figure out how to affordably expand the network. Nowhere in Europe is housing growth as fast as in Metro Vancouver; among the cities for which I have data, only Stockholm comes close, growing at 7-8 net units per 1,000 people annually.

Moreover, with Downtown Vancouver increasingly built out, Vancouver seems to be successfully expanding the CBD outward: Central Broadway already has many jobs and will most likely have further commercial growth as the Millennium Line is extended there. Thus, employers that don’t fit into the Downtown Vancouver peninsula should find a home close enough for SkyTrain, rather than hopping to suburban office parks as in the US. Right now, the central blob of 100 km^2 – a metric I use purely because of limitations on French and Canadian data granularity – has a little more than 30% of area jobs in Vancouver, comparable to Paris, Lyon, New York, Boston, and San Francisco, and ahead of other American cities.

The second aspect is that Canadians are collectively a somewhat more internationally curious nation than Americans. They are more American than European, but the experience of living in a different country from the United States makes it easier for them to absorb foreign knowledge. The reaction to my and Jonathan English’s August article about Canadian costs has been sympathetic, with serious people with some power in Toronto contacting Jonathan to figure out how Canada can improve. The reaction I have received within the United States runs the gamut – some agencies are genuinely helpful and realize that they’ll be better off if we can come up with a recipe for reducing costs, others prefer to obstruct and stonewall.

My perception of Canadian politics is that even right-populists like Doug Ford are more serious about this than most American electeds. In that sense, Ford is much like Boris Johnson, who could move to Massachusetts to be viceroy and far improve governance in both Britain and Massachusetts. My suspicion is that this is linked to Canada’s relatively transit-oriented past and present: broad swaths of the Ontarian middle class ride trains, as is the case in Outer London and the suburbs of Paris. A large bloc of present-day swing voters who use public transport is a good political guarantee of positive attention to public transport in the future. American cities don’t have that – there are no competitive partisan elections anywhere with some semblance of public transportation.

These two points of hope are solid but still run against powerful currents. Toronto really is botching the RER project because of insider obstruction and timidity, and without a strong RER project there is no way to extend public transportation to the suburbs. Vancouver is incapable of concentrating resources where they do the most good. And all Canadian cities have seen an explosion in costs. Canadians increasingly understand the cost problem, but it remains to be seen whether they can fix it.


  1. Ryan R Kennedy

    Vancouver has done a lot of things right. High density, urban redevelopment at transit nodes, no freeways through the city. But the Skytrain system really stands out.

    Vancouver built true rapid transit when cities like Portland, and now Seattle built slow light rail with many painfully slow, on-street portions. Also, Skytrain was fully automated from the very beginning. This, together with the grade separation meant that frequency was twice that of the light rail systems on peak and triple off peak, reducing the “actual,” true trip time, tremendously. Aerials avoided expensive tunneling costs and even the tunneled portions of the Canada line were kept relatively low using cut and cover.

    The Broadway line use of deep tunneling is extremely disappointing. Can someone tell me why we don’t just go ahead and provide compensation to retailers that can show reduced income? The lost revenue over say 18-24 months of construction for those within a block would seem be in the millions, maybe tens of millions. Saving hundreds of millions or billions would seem to be worth it.

    • Coridon Henshaw

      Cut and cover is not just a matter of local merchant compensation. The Vancouver road network is so close to capacity that shutting down Broadway for cut and cover would have catastrophic mobility impacts over a wide area. The surrounding roads would gridlock and emergency access to Vancouver General Hospital would be at risk.

      While the City of Vancouver was very happy to impede ambulance access to VGH for the sake of a bike lane (which, like most bike lanes in Vancouver, is essentially unused), they’d be a lot less willing to impede ambulance access for mass transit construction.

        • Coridon Henshaw

          That’s an incredibly misguided, and, frankly, arrogant, response.

          After decades of public policy malpractice by multiple governments, Vancouver’s mobility infrastructure operates on the margin of gridlock every day. Anything that reduces capacity on a single major road will gridlock a wide area because there is zero excess capacity to absorb extra traffic elsewhere. Closing Broadway for an extended period is absolutely not an option.

          The road network is so fragile that one bottleneck in a bad location can make a 20 minute car trip take two hours and, due to the lack of a comprehensive bus lane system, a one hour bus trip take five hours. In parts of greater Vancouver, 40% of all businesses are planning to relocate because these mobility catastrophes are so common that employers can’t find, or keep, employees. Close Broadway for cut and cover and the congestion spillover would shut down the downtown core and probably bankrupt many businesses over a wide area.

          Given the fragility of Vancouver’s mobility infrastructure, extending Skytrain along Broadway is akin to performing open heart surgery. The end results will improve the patient’s quality of life, but extreme care must be taken not to kill the patient during the procedure.

          • Nilo

            > Vancouver’s mobility infrastructure operates on the margin of gridlock every day. Anything that reduces capacity on a single major road will gridlock a wide area because there is zero excess capacity to absorb extra traffic elsewhere.

            This claim can literally be made about so many cities world wide, all of whom should be building cut and cover subways.

            Do you really think Vancouver has worse traffic than say São Paulo, Jakarta, or even NYC? New York features the busiest bridge on earth and two tunnels between Manhattan and New Jersey. Yet nobody in the 70s blinked at building the Second Avenue Subway cut and cover. Bored tunnels are built due to NIMBY concerns and worries over the health of merchants, when the follow wide Avenues, nothing more or less. I’ve spent an hour and a half doing a trip that should take ten minutes in San Francisco, and two hours doing a trip that should take 20 in Chicago. I sincerely doubt Vancouver’s congestion is anything special unless you can show some metrics that assert otherwise.

          • Brendan Dawe

            >I sincerely doubt Vancouver’s congestion is anything special unless you can show some metrics that assert otherwise.

            It’s really not. Vancouver traffic congestion is pretty underwhelming outside of a few very obvious pinch points (mostly suburban water crossings) that get backed up, but have held pertty steady for traffic counts for decades.

            Downtown Vancouver has less car traffic than it did half a century ago

          • Nilo

            Brendan, that’s why I suspected. I’d bet the (two?) bridges into North Vancouver are frequent traffic congestion points, as all bridges are.

      • threestationsquare

        The possibility that cut-and-cover subway construction would discourage car use through a temporary reduction in road capacity seems like an argument in favour of cut-and-cover, not against.

        • df1982

          Sydney’s recent light rail construction through George St (the main thoroughfare in the CBD) is a good test case for what can happen with construction on a cut-and-cover subway. Although it was surface rail, the length of time the road was shut down (3 years) was equivalent to what would be needed for a cut-and-cover line. George St was the busiest street in the city, and the neighbouring streets were also close to gridlock. But cutting off all traffic on George St had virtually zero effect on traffic congestion on other streets. People simply altered their travel patterns to suit the new conditions. Now it is a pedestrian boulevard with light rail running through the middle, and vastly improved in terms of urban amenity from the traffic sewer it had been.

          I imagine a similar thing would happen in Vancouver if Broadway was taken out for cut-and-cover construction. New York should pedestrianise all of its Broadway for the same reason.

          • adirondacker12800

            Broadway already has a subway under it. Four tracks of it south of 96th Street.
            I wasn’t in Manhattan for the recent Second Avenue construction. The stuff back in the 70s they would close half the street, put in temporary roadway, close the other half and put in temporary roadway. It was annoying not gridlocked.

          • Brendan Dawe

            This comment is peak adirondacker-needs-to-read-more-and-comment less

            This is Vancouver Broadway, not Manhattan Broadway

          • Eric

            The comment adirondacker was replying to did end with “New York should pedestrianise all of its Broadway for the same reason.” …

          • adirondacker12800

            I didn’t realize “New York should pedestrianise all of its Broadway” meant someplace in Canada

          • Henry

            > Although it was surface rail, the length of time the road was shut down (3 years) was equivalent to what would be needed for a cut-and-cover line

            This isn’t really true. One of the benefits of cut and cover is that you can slap a deck on, put the new street over that, and continue working in that hole you just dug, but you happen to have a roof on top of you.

          • michaelrjames

            One of the most significant points, other than facilitating people movement between the top end of town and the bottom (ferry terminals etc), will only be known in time. That is, the impact on retail in this previously awful congested street. The disruption during construction, especially for a tramway FFS (it remains totally opaque to me why utilities like electrics, telecoms and sewers had to be rebuilt for a surface tramway), may have been excessive but any of the complaining owners are seriously dysfunctional if they let their business go because in all likelihood this strip will become one of the most prime bits of retail real estate in Sydney. Of course in Australia’s version of ganger-capitalism it will be the property speculators and landlords who gain the most by jacking the rents as far, or beyond, anything imaginable or fair.

            It’s also true that cut-and-cover for a bit of real high-capacity transit could not have been as disruptive.

      • Alon Levy

        Emergency access can go on 12th, there’s way more east-west road network redundancy than north-south redundancy and the sky didn’t fall when Cambie was cut-and-covered.

        • Coridon Henshaw

          According to the last traffic count data published on VanMap (Vancouver seems to have stopped publishing traffic counts after 2013–perhaps because the figures are too embarrassing), Broadway has about 13% more traffic than Cambie. Unlike much of Cambie, Broadway between Cambie and Granville is a destination, rather than a through-route, which reduces the significance of parallel routes in this context.

          There will be a practical demonstration of Vancouver’s mobility fragility early in the new year, when Vancouver reduces West Georgia to one lane eastbound (from three) for five months for water main repair. It’s quite likely that congestion here will be bad enough that the bus routes that use this part of the road network will effectively cease to operate for the duration.

          • Jason

            What prevents you from arriving to those destinations from parallel streets? If I were driving to any destination on Broadway, I usually take 12th avenue and park on a sides street anyways.

    • Ross Bleakney

      Seattle doesn’t have “slow light rail with many painfully slow, on-street portions”. There is only one tiny section that is surface running, and if this was buried, it would be only a few seconds faster, and a relatively small number of people would have a faster trip.

      Seattle has struggled with lots of other problems, like:

      1) Bad station placement. Mount Baker is really bad (https://seattletransitblog.com/2012/04/18/the-awfulness-of-mt-baker-station/) as is the UW station. The latter is here: https://goo.gl/maps/rQT9AGs7dd6Vwbhd6. It is next to the stadium and parking lot, rather than being adjacent to the hospital or campus. Putting it in the triangle would probably be ideal, since it currently contains an underground walkway to the hospital. That would make bus integration a lot better as well. But instead they put in the absolute worse corner, and then built a huge overpass to an underground station (seriously).

      2) Missing stations — The original plans didn’t have enough stations, and then they dropped First Hill, which is essentially a part of downtown (but significantly apart from the other stations).

      3) Too much money spent building (and ultimately maintaining) long distance suburban freeway stations (similar to BART and DART). http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2016/04/06/youve-got-50-billion-for-transit-now-how-should-you-spend-it/

      4) Building extremely expensive subway lines where an open BRT system would make a lot more sense (https://seattletransitblog.com/2015/02/18/westside-seattle-transit-tunnel/).

      5) Ignoring bus to rail integration when it comes to building the subway (https://seattletransitblog.com/2014/06/30/ballard-uw-should-be-the-next-light-rail-line-in-seattle/).

      6) Inability to change HOV-2 lanes to HOV-3 lanes. Doing that would make a huge difference for commuter buses from the suburbs. The inability to make this simple change has lead a lot of the suburban agencies to push for number three, even though most riders will have a slower ride.

      7) Overly expensive commuter rail. To be fair, the geography and existing rail lines for the Seattle area are challenging — it isn’t a city that could have great commuter rail. But the cost to benefit ratio is poor, and yet another example of poor U. S. commuter rail management.

      There is a reason why folks in Seattle are jealous of Vancouver. Vancouver’s transit system is much better, and much closer to being outstanding. Build the UBC/Broadway line and you have a top notch transit system. Buses can do the rest, providing a good grid and feeding the trains quite nicely. It is frustrating that Vancouver diddles around with suburban extensions instead of just building what should obviously be built next (the UBC/Broadway line) but it is clear that it will eventually be built. It isn’t clear at all whether Seattle will ever have a good transit system, despite spending an enormous amount on what will be one of the longest subway lines in North America (when complete). I think their only hope is to build a really good bus system, and that is challenging, since even if they add sufficient bus lanes to avoid traffic, the buses will still get stuck at traffic lights.

      • Nilo

        Well despite all your complaints Seattle’s light rail system is currently doing better on a per mile basis than any light rail system in the US not named Boston’s green line.

        • rossbleakney

          “light rail” is a rather arbitrary distinction. This isn’t surface rail. There are huge tunnels, and miles of expensive elevated track. It is essentially a subway, and the fact that it lags other subways (substantially) is not good. The fact that they will spend over 50 billion dollars, and ridership per mile will actually go *down* is much worse. The fact that so many American cities have done worse just shows how poorly the U. S. is doing.

          • Nilo

            San Francisco and Philadelphia have extensive subway portions to their light rail systems too! Unfortunately my book with stats is unavailable to me right now, but Seattle is around 81k daily riders. That’s 3.98k riders per mile. In comparison MARTA in Atlanta only has 4.5k riders per mile. I’d suspect as Seattle continues to densify, and Central Link reaches big destinations like downtown bellevue and Microsoft’s campus the numbers should only increase.

      • Henry

        1) No complaints there. My particular pet peeve is how the Union Station complex makes the connection to King Street Sounder non-obvious and out-of-the-way.
        2) It makes more sense if you think about Link as “BART in the North”; the stations are pretty much identical to Forward Thrust Downtown, and where they’re not the same (e.g. north of Roosevelt) the stop spacing is basically unchanged from that plan. Streetcar was supposed to be the local counterpart, but it turns out that Seattle is shit at managing building that.
        3) The major difference between Sound Transit’s Link freeway stations and the other projects is that the suburban cities they go to are going to redeploy the bus resources they currently spend slogging it into and out of Downtown, and use it for much more frequent transit service. On top of that places like Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace have approved dense zoning plans for their suburban stations.
        4) Open BRT would make more sense if we were not living in a world where Seattle and surrounding suburbs have essentially run out of buses, places to store them, and bus drivers to hire, but in 2019 we are sitting on Transportation Benefit District funds because we simply cannot spend it all on bus service. Part of the motivation for light rail is that light rail is more labor-efficient, and coupled with the travel time savings of not running every single bus downtown it will allow for redeployment of bus resources to create a less “Third Avenue or nothing” oriented bus system.
        5) IIRC the modeling showed that truncating all the northern express buses at Lynnwood, coupled with the rezonings planned for the area, meant that all the capacity out of downtown from the north was already spoken for, which is why Ballard UW wasn’t pursued.
        6) Sure.
        7) Sounder South is okay, and the main issue there is that BNSF doesn’t want to provide more slots, and if we were going to build a new double track to Tacoma I-5/99 are more direct anyways. Sounder North is, IMO, in the wrong place entirely; I know Seattle Subway has proposed a 99 light rail line, but that should really be Sounder IMO.

        As far as declining ridership per mile, by definition anything you build in a less dense area will have less ridership per mile. That doesn’t make suburban lines inherently bad, though, because a central city network is only useful if it connects you to places inside *and outside* well, which is why the streetcar isn’t too hot compared to parallel buses. And it’s a limit of the subarea equity model; ideally, Seattle would fund even more light rail with its own taxing district like the TBD or the old monorail authority.

        • rossbleakney

          It makes more sense if you think about Link as “BART in the North

          YES! That is exactly it. You can also think of the Knicks as the Mariners of the east. In case you don’t know much about American sports, those are two of the worst franchises on the planet. They are colossal failures — organizations that have spent enormous sums of money and had terrible results. If they were European football clubs, they would have been relegated a long time ago, and anyone who thought they were a model of success would be laughed at.

          The major difference between Sound Transit’s Link freeway stations and the other projects is that the suburban cities they go to are going to redeploy the bus resources they currently spend slogging it into and out of Downtown, and use it for much more frequent transit service.

          Just to be clear, I do think there is value in having a high quality bus intercept for the ends of a rail system. In the case of Seattle, the obvious place for that is at the city’s edge, where the density dropoff is so high as to be visible on an unmarked density map (https://arcg.is/1fS0XO). This has a big geographic advantage, as it would be the intercept for suburban buses to the northeast, which go around Lake Washington (https://goo.gl/maps/k1AKLarRpQcwdAkL8) along with buses on I-5 coming from the north. But it is a huge stretch to say that the system should go all the way from Everett to Tacoma, making it one of the longest lines in the world. It is a subway (with all the high costs associated with it) in an area appropriate for buses and commuter rail.

          Keep in mind that the entire Snohomish County bus system carries 33,000 riders a day. This includes buses going to downtown Seattle. The county will have dozens of miles of new track (most of it right next to the freeway). Ask yourself if this sort of system: https://tinyurl.com/vbt7ztp, makes sense of a city where just about all the density lies within the city limits: https://arcg.is/19vHC10. I definitely support truncating those buses before they reach downtown, but there is no reason to build a subway line deep into an area for so few buses.

          On top of that places like Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace have approved dense zoning plans for their suburban stations.

          Well, woop de doo. Sorry, but you just aren’t going to get high ridership that way, because no one has. Almost all of the ridership on BART is between the urban core. We can speculate as to why (e. g. you don’t get spontaneous trips to or from Mountlake Terrace) but this helps explain why similar exercises have failed miserably.

          Open BRT would make more sense if we were not living in a world where Seattle and surrounding suburbs have essentially run out of buses, places to store them, and bus drivers to hire, but in 2019 we are sitting on Transportation Benefit District funds because we simply cannot spend it all on bus service. Part of the motivation for light rail is that light rail is more labor-efficient, and coupled with the travel time savings of not running every single bus downtown it will allow for redeployment of bus resources to create a less “Third Avenue or nothing” oriented bus system.

          To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we get rid of the train, or that it was a mistake. Far from it. As I wrote up above, you benefit by truncating long distance suburban buses at the edge of the city. What I’m saying is that West Seattle rail is completely inappropriate. Only a handful of buses will be truncated, and a bus tunnel would handle those buses just fine. West Seattle is a classic trunk and branch area, appropriate for open BRT. The ridership pattern is almost exclusively towards downtown, as opposed to people heading to the station area. West Seattle is connected to downtown via a huge elevated freeway, making a relatively modest investment in a new bus tunnel much cheaper than building a brand new (huge, very expensive) bridge for the train. The new subway line won’t have any new stops between West Seattle and downtown. That means it is essentially a freeway, but with subway costs. A good subway adds value in part because of all of the new, very fast connections it creates *between* neighborhoods — the subway to West Seattle will have none. Instead of asking riders to transfer a couple minutes before their bus would have gone downtown (in places like this https://goo.gl/maps/qb3PcFydwqUYJ7fY8), they could just stay on the bus. With the trunk and branch system, headways through downtown would be high all throughout the day (for perspective, the current line, which is expected to be a lot more popular, has only ten minute frequency in the middle of the day).

          Put the enormous savings into other, much more cost effective mass transit. A train cutting through the Central Area of Seattle (the area with the biggest contiguous density shown on the map) or a train connecting Ballard to the UW would save a lot more in terms of bus service hours, while actually producing an enormous benefit to riders (unlike West Seattle rail).

          IIRC the modeling showed that truncating all the northern express buses at Lynnwood, coupled with the rezonings planned for the area, meant that all the capacity out of downtown from the north was already spoken for, which is why Ballard UW wasn’t pursued.

          This is a rumor that simply isn’t true. The trains have more than enough capacity (https://seattletransitblog.com/2015/03/21/capacity-limitations-of-link/). Even if it was an issue — even if you want those suburban trains running every three minutes towards downtown, there is an easy fix: https://www.flickr.com/photos/67869267@N07/9152772373/in/photostream/.

          As far as declining ridership per mile, by definition anything you build in a less dense area will have less ridership per mile. That doesn’t make suburban lines inherently bad, though, because a central city network is only useful if it connects you to places inside *and outside* well

          Uh, it is inherently bad if you are spending $50 billion on it! If ridership per mile goes down after an enormous expansion, you’ve failed, and failed miserably. It means that you focused on the wrong thing. Rather than build the next Montreal Metro, you’ve built, well, the next BART. Bigger, bolder, more expensive and much longer. Yet, ultimately, it will carry one third the riders, and 1/8 the ridership per mile. It means that instead of having the money to build a nice complementary bus system, you won’t have the money for it, and ridership on those buses will be tiny in comparison as well. It means that eventually, when you finally figure out what needs to be built, it will be generations before you even consider building it.

          • Henry

            > Well, woop de doo. Sorry, but you just aren’t going to get high ridership that way, because no one has. Almost all of the ridership on BART is between the urban core. We can speculate as to why (e. g. you don’t get spontaneous trips to or from Mountlake Terrace) but this helps explain why similar exercises have failed miserably.

            BART hasn’t because of the Bay Area’s ridiculous level of opposition to new housing or development around rail stations.
            On the other hand, Vancouver has done a fantastic job of encouraging transit oriented development, with density even at the ends of lines at Surrey and Richmond, to the point where Canada Line ridership was much higher than projected and it turns out the line is woefully underbuilt. Lynnwood is about as far from Downtown Seattle as Surrey is, so I don’t think that kind of development is totally implausible. And the suburbs will have to be involved if we want to build our way out of the current housing crisis. They may not be dense today, but building out rail lasting for decades or centuries is more than about today.

            Not to mention, there are large trip generators on the ST3 route to Everett; Boeing is one of the largest employers in the region, which is why the route curves towards Paine Field. We’re already connecting secondary suburban jobs centers in Redmond and Bellevue; we may as well endeavor to build a system that is well utilized in all directions during peak.

            > What I’m saying is that West Seattle rail is completely inappropriate. Only a handful of buses will be truncated, and a bus tunnel would handle those buses just fine.

            There already is a very high frequency of buses serving West Seattle. They are already so full that during the 99 shutdown people were complaining of being passed up by multiple buses. And this is something that repeats itself across the region. Given the current shortage of bus depot space and bus drivers, this shows no sign of remedying itself soon.An open BRT would speed up some bus commutes and result in a reduction of some service hours, but it wouldn’t to the degree a light rail line would, because buses are just less labor efficient than trains, period.

            > Put the enormous savings into other, much more cost effective mass transit. A train cutting through the Central Area of Seattle (the area with the biggest contiguous density shown on the map) or a train connecting Ballard to the UW would save a lot more in terms of bus service hours, while actually producing an enormous benefit to riders (unlike West Seattle rail).

            Following what route for either would this even be true? Given the current costs of light rail or even a streetcar, you’d at best be replacing one or two bus routes, but you’d still maintain the rest of the bus’s grid network, given that the light rail is only generally replacing one route. Replacing the 44 doesn’t really mean you get to eliminate parallel crosstown routes. And truncating routes like the E at a Ballard UW stop would subject people to the same kind of thing you are against for West Seattle. And doing that would actually be worse for some riders, since it would mean taking three trips instead of one to use the E to get to South Lake Union, which now has tens of thousands of jobs and residents.

            In addition, there will still be a bus/rail intercept stop, just at Harrison Street instead of 45th. Going the long way around Lake Union doesn’t save that much time over going in a straight line and getting off just before downtown.

          • rossbleakney

            BART hasn’t because of the Bay Area’s ridiculous level of opposition to new housing or development around rail stations.
            On the other hand, Vancouver has done a fantastic job of encouraging transit oriented development, with density even at the ends of lines at Surrey and Richmond, to the point where Canada Line ridership was much higher than projected and it turns out the line is woefully underbuilt.

            That is a ridiculous comparison. You don’t seem to grasp the scale of the two systems. From downtown Vancouver — which lies at the far edge of the transit system — to the farthest subway stop in Surrey is about 14 miles. From downtown San Fransisco (which is more or less in the middle) to San Leandro is 16 miles, and yet that is nowhere near the end of BART (https://www.google.com/maps/d/embed?mid=1M8qoI7QSiHs3i8a2eKPAUl7WIj4&hl=e). To reach the edge, you have to go well past San Leandro, and get to Dublin/Pleasanton (31 miles) or South Fremont (35 miles). Antioch (on a different line) is over 40 miles away! The problem isn’t lack of development, it is distance as well as coverage. Even when you do everything right, and develop the heck out of a station (https://goo.gl/maps/NehDeP478Tic7QbE6) you just aren’t going to get the ridership as a middling urban station (https://goo.gl/maps/wPMT7U2BsMf2epjU9).

            San Fransisco and Vancouver are roughly the same size. BART has 8 stations within the city limits; Vancouver has 20. BART has one shared line through the city, Vancouver has three separate lines. It is simply a different model. If SkyTrain was built like BART, there would be a handful of stations in Vancouver and service extending to Langley and Abbotsford. But instead, Vancouver followed the traditional route, and has focused primarily on serving the core of the city. Of course they should (and eventually will) build the one missing piece (a line to UBC). BART will likely never build the missing pieces in San Fransisco (let alone Oakland) because they blew their wad going to distant suburbs.

            Not to mention, there are large trip generators on the ST3 route to Everett …

            Even Sound Transit — which has routinely overestimated suburban transit ridership while underestimating urban ridership — suggests otherwise: https://seattletransitblog.com/2019/01/30/link-riders-2040/. Most of the ridership will be in Seattle — despite the fact that the subway woefully underserves it. Again — I want to be clear because you keep building straw men. I have no objection to good suburban interfaces. Every good subway has those. But it is ridiculous to go from thinking you need a good interface for the suburban feeder buses, to thinking that you need to spend most of your time (and money) in suburbia, while neglecting the urban core. That has never worked. Not in the Bay Area, not in Dallas, not in Denver, and it won’t work in Seattle.

            There already is a very high frequency of buses serving West Seattle.

            Since when is 12 minutes “high frequency”? That is for “RapidRide” C Line, the most popular bus to West Seattle, and one of only a handful of buses to have the special designation (which is supposed to designate “BRT”, but would receive the “Not BRT” designation by ITDP if they tried). Other buses are similar, or less frequent. A bus tunnel — when built well — has enormous capacity — way more than what is needed for that many buses.

            You also don’t seem to understand that when all is said and done, the buses will still have to carry the bulk of the riders in the system. There will still be a huge number of buses going through downtown, but instead of being in a tunnel, they will slog their way on the surface, largely on Third Avenue. In 2035, when all those trains are done, there will still be over 200 buses an hour running down Third, as opposed to around 250 an hour right now. The old bus tunnel handled 140 buses an hour — more than enough to handle those corridors. (The old bus tunnel was nowhere near capacity). A bus tunnel could easily handle West Seattle and Ballard, along with Aurora — meaning that there would be fewer buses on the surface. If the focus was really to alleviate the amount of bus congestion downtown, then they would have build a bus tunnel serving three corridors, instead of a subway serving two.

            Replacing the 44 doesn’t really mean you get to eliminate parallel crosstown routes. And truncating routes like the E at a Ballard UW stop would subject people to the same kind of thing you are against for West Seattle. And doing that would actually be worse for some riders, since it would mean taking three trips instead of one to use the E to get to South Lake Union, which now has tens of thousands of jobs and residents.

            Who said I was truncating anything? I am simply suggesting you build a subway where it makes sense to build a subway. If you replace the 99 B in Vancouver you don’t truncate anything (and only replace one route). But that isn’t the point. You speed up travel for tens of thousands of riders. I don’t know where you got this crazy idea that we suddenly ran out of buses and that is why we must build a subway. It doesn’t work that way. Truncation is merely a side benefit (when it occurs at all) not the reason for building a subway. There are plenty of bus systems much larger than ours and they manage just fine. Besides, it is quite likely that our bus system will have to grow considerably, simply because the trains will do so little.

            In addition, there will still be a bus/rail intercept stop, just at Harrison Street instead of 45th. Going the long way around Lake Union doesn’t save that much time over going in a straight line and getting off just before downtown.

            Another straw man. Not everyone is going downtown! That is the point. The 99 B carries over 55,000 riders and it doesn’t go downtown. Some of those riders are transferring downtown, but based on station data, most of them aren’t. That is because the University of British Columbia — like the University of Washington — is a popular place. Like the Broadway corridor, there is plenty of population density and plenty of destinations along the way. More than anything, though, it would result in a dramatic improvement in speed over every other mode. Even at noon, it would be faster to take the train than drive. This, in turn, means that trips involving transfers become much faster.

            With very few exceptions (Calgary being one) good transit isn’t about going downtown, or even trips during rush hour. Oh, without a doubt there is plenty of both. But if you actually ride a very busy, very high volume subway system, anywhere, you can see plenty of people getting on and off at every stop.

          • michaelrjames

            San Fransisco and Vancouver are roughly the same size. BART has 8 stations within the city limits; Vancouver has 20. BART has one shared line through the city, Vancouver has three separate lines. It is simply a different model. If SkyTrain was built like BART, there would be a handful of stations in Vancouver and service extending to Langley and Abbotsford. But instead, Vancouver followed the traditional route, and has focused primarily on serving the core of the city. Of course they should (and eventually will) build the one missing piece (a line to UBC). BART will likely never build the missing pieces in San Fransisco (let alone Oakland) because they blew their wad going to distant suburbs.

            I find some criticisms of BART to be strange. It’s called BART for very obvious reasons. You seem to be criticising it for not being Muni or some other local transit. Yet BART was set up by all the Bay Area counties to create a rapid transit system …. for the Bay Area. Doh! It’s aim was very comparable to what the RER was in Paris, and its relationship to Paris Metro is the same as to SF-Muni (or samTrans and the other county local transit systems). Of course several critical counties reneged on the original agreement so it’s taking 5+ decades to come close to the bay-spanning system envisaged, but that can’t be laid at the feet of BART or those whose vision it was.
            So it makes no sense to compare BART to Vancouver transit. In fact you more or less say that (“It is simply a different model.”) but then go on with criticism based on the false comparison.

            The Bay Area is a mega-city approaching 8 million (or 9m depending on definitions) which, as it happens, is ten times the population of San Francisco city. This is ample justification as to why it made sense to plan to build BART in the 1950s when this demographic transformation was predicted. Especially as any transport planner could see there was extremely limited options for expanding freeways beyond the existing two down the peninsula. One can moan about all BART’s deficiencies but there surely is nothing wrong with its conception. Given the herding-cats problem (county government), NIMBYs and car obsessions of the age, it’s quite a feat to have got it this far.
            On some terms it seems to perform reasonably, for example compared to Paris-RER. It’s an unfair comparison as RER is about 4 times the length and serves a lot bigger catchment; BART was planned to, but probably doesn’t reach a bare majority (ie. >50%) of its 8m-9m while RER does reach the vast majority of greater Paris’ 12m (so, a factor of 3 right there). So, no surprise that RER has approx. 2.5x the passengers per km compared to BART (possibly greater as most of the RER data is >10 years out of date). But take RER-C (185.6km with 140m pax) or RER-D (190km with 145m pax) each being approximately the length of BART (175km with 118m pax) and they have only marginally more (1.1x) pax per km relative to BART. Not so bad when you consider how much denser greater Paris is, and how it is typically nuclear (and conveniently organised along several corridors) compared to the Bay Area’s low density and multi-polarity stretched thinly around the bay.

          • Alon Levy

            The problems:

            1. SkyTrain has higher ridership than BART, even though Vancouver is so much smaller. SkyTrain isn’t too far below the combined total of BART and Muni Metro.

            2. BART was designed to be completely incompatible with anything else, complete with its own gauge and cylindrical wheels. The result is that it’s expensive to extend it anywhere – dedicated tracks are required. In contrast, the RER and postwar S-Bahns freely share tracks with other trains far enough from city center that there’s enough capacity.

            3. The Peninsula is linear, but Caltrain’s ridership is pretty weak, because it’s not modernized. Modernizing it requires among other things an expensive tunnel in downtown San Francisco, which can’t connect to BART because BART and Caltrain are incompatible technologies.

          • michaelrjames

            Yeah, yeah, those are the usual complaints but you’re still comparing an inner-city metro with a regional rail/regional express (or “suburban metro”). It’s not a sensible comparison. That’s why I tried comparing it to RER not Paris-Metro. How about with NY-LIRR which at 513km with 89.3m pax (2016) = 0.174m pax/km, is about one quarter of BART. Wiki actually makes the claim that LIRR is north America’s largest regional rail; well large in length of track but it has half of BART’s ridership, and for what must be a comparable population catchment.

            The other complaints concern the implementation of BART. Obviously it was pretty weird and counter-productive to not have BART take over CalTrain’s routes and lines but it must have been an awful, and awfully silly, jurisdictional bunfight like most transit is in the US. Presumably the same reason for “choosing” different gauges. Santa Clara was one of those rogue counties that was supposed to be part of BART but then withdrew, and was almost certainly part of the problem. And the ownership by Southern Pacific (though it seems an opportunity was lost when SP wanted to close it down and CA offered to buy it ….?). They should have created some hybrid like Paris did with SNCF and RATP for RER. Remember too that it was first conceived in the 50s when it was fighting against the prevailing zeitgeist of cars and roads.

            My point was that, despite all the poor decisions (for which BART itself cannot always be blamed) it actually manages a reasonable performance–as regional express rail. Of course it could do better, and eventually might (when there is continuous connection to SJ Diridon?). Not only will there be more ridership but demands for improvement should increase, and maybe more budget?
            I don’t know about you but I always use BART (certainly for Berkeley) and CalTrain for visits to biotechs and Stanford down the peninsula. In most of these places you can walk from the stations to where you need to go.

          • Alon Levy

            But the LIRR serves really far out exurbs, like the Hamptons, whereas BART sticks to inner suburbs for the most part.

          • michaelrjames

            First, it wasn’t designed like that, and it is creeping closer to the 1950s goal.
            Second, it has never been true because when it opened it served the far corners of Contra-Costa and today that line, the Antioch–SFO/Millbrae line is 88km. Sometime in the next decade it will be extended the 26km to San Jose for 114km. SF to Warm Springs/South Fremont is 69km.
            Third, to repeat my earlier point: it is called BART for very obvious reasons, and not “SF-metro” or Muni or whatever. The majority of it isn’t in SF city and the majority of its riders are from outside SF.

          • Nilo

            A couple other obvious criticism besides the whole not compatible with mainline rail. BART uses third rail which imposes both speed limitations and requires complete grade separation immediately. BART’s station placement and immediately station area outside of the Berkeley-Richmond line is poor and is based upon parking pagodas. Clearly this wasn’t inevitable since DC did a far better job. Compare Daly City to say Rosslyn or Orinda to Bethesda. Finally, BART’s choice of Peninsular ROW is never going satisfy its stated aim to be an RER style system. Caltrain and its predecessors own that and BART’s original places to only follow it after a costly and time consuming detour around San Bruno mountain means they can’t serve as a peninsular RER. But of course serving Daly City, the Mission, Glen Park, and Balboa Park was a good idea, which reveals the problem BART really couldn’t decided whether it wanted to be the RER or the metro and it made a series of bad routing and technological choices to this effect.

          • michaelrjames

            Nilo wrote:

            A couple other obvious criticism besides the whole not compatible with mainline rail. BART uses third rail which imposes both speed limitations and requires complete grade separation immediately.

            Again, the criticisms amount to nothing more than retrospective wisdom. And they apply almost equally to Washington Metro. Both use third rail, as do all sub-surface (and most surface) Metro around the world, because of compromises with operation in tunnels. The paradox is that both BART and Wash-Metro were built a tiny bit ahead of the ‘right’ time in terms of the coming revolution in tunneling technology/costs. It’s the same reason why London’s underground trains have those curious arched roofs that match the tunnel. Same as the flat-top BART and Wash-Metro trains. Note, not Paris Metro which was built cut-and-cover. The reason why Paris-RER (first opened 1977 just one year after Wash-Metro) retained catenary is that it is the extension of former suburban rail into thru-rail and which necessitated enormous tunnels, which in turn created huge costs (and even more for huge deep stations without pillars etc, something Alon has written on before). This was very controversial at the time, even in a well-established transit city like Paris but imagine in the Bay Area and Washington where there was close to zero budget at times (most of Wash Metro budget was hived off the massive freeway budgets).

            Let me just note here, for the nitpickers, that ok, BART’s transbay section was actually constructed by the submerged tube (box) method, and its subterranean sections were by cut-and-cover. But the same logic applies, even if all of us wise-after-decades would say it was even more obvious what they should have done. Oh and BTW, all trains in the UK use third-rail, including their intercity fast trains so from the p.o.v. of rapid transit there is really no serious speed limitation.

            Note also that while RER retained catenary, different parts of it were stitched together from incompatible systems, and to this day the northern part of RER-B from Gare du Nord operates different voltage from the southern part, meaning the trains have to be dual-voltage. (At one time they even changed crew at Gare du Nord!). This was a RATP (city transit) meets SNCF (suburban rail) issue so this segues into the same issues in the Bay Area and Washington. I have the Healy & King book on BART history at home so I might add a comment here later (I’ve only browsed the book; first impressions are that it is not very well written …) if they shed any light, but I note in the Wiki on Wash-Metro there is a “(why)” editorially appended to the sentence describing the quarter inch (eyeroll) difference in gauge cf. standard, ie. Metro is 1439mm versus 1435mm. Not enough to make any real difference in manufacturing requirements but enough to ensure Metro trains cannot run on standard rail.

            It is clear that the incompatibilities of both BART and Wash-Metro with standard rail gauge was due to turf wars between the various parties, city transit, mainline rail (Amtrak) and of course the private freight rail companies. I wouldn’t go blaming the people driving construction of BART or Wash-Metro; they did what they had to, to get the things constructed in a fundamentally hostile public and political environment. For example that awkward detour to Daly city, instead of directly down the peninsula (via Brisbane etc), was partly because it did in fact serve more city population at that time, plus a very justifiable short extension to Daly city which was in San Mateo, one of the counties that were initially part of the Bay Area group supporting BART but which withdrew (it took another 40 years for the line to extend to SFO-Milbrae because of the reluctance of San Mateo voters). The peninsular route was controlled by Southern Pacific and nothing more needs to be said about that, surely?

          • Nilo

            Metro’s station land use is far better so it gets far more ridership. With that said, I believe some of the technological criticisms I listed in fact prompted the comment that lead to Alon’s most recent post on S-Bahns.

            Michael, You’ve been to a BART station and a Parisian Station Michael, so surely you must realize how the catenary issue as one of space seems a little silly. I had a friend here in theBbay a few weeks ago from Chicago, and her first comment upon going into a BART station in the mission was, “Wow this is so deep.” Chicago’s tunnels are significantly shallower even when built with a bore through the Loop. BART has plenty of space on the SF subway portion for catenary. How do we know this? First the stations are incredibly deep, second they built four tracks stacked! Two of which they never ended up using! (What a gift to SF’s Muni) There would have been space for catenary if they’d wanted it. Even if there wasn’t you’ve pointed out they could have used trains with dual electrification like say on the New Haven Line. These would permit far higher operating speeds if what they really wanted was to be an S-Bahn not a metro. Third rail in Britain does go 100 mph, but that’s rare, and speeds faster than BART’s 70-80 are best done with a catenary.

            I agree the line to Daly City is good. The problem of course is BART extended it. Even when BART was built I doubt Southern Pacific had much enthusiasm for continuing the Peninsula commute. It was trying to cancel it by ’77. The logical thing to do was have one branch to Daly City and eventually bring what is now Caltrain to Downtown SF and use it for the airport express and peninsular service. In fact this was already a possibility when BART to SFO was planned, but because of Quentin Kopp’s political desires BART was extended instead.

            Again no one made BART choose the extra wide gauge it would have gotten the funding otherwise. Your knowledge of the American political climate of the time is incorrect. BART and WMATA were funded as part of the tail end of the great society when democrats in Washington threw money at everything. WMATA in fact had massively favorable administrations in the White House until Nixon resigned (it is here I note that Carter and Ford were far more hostile to it than Johnson and Nixon.) The bigger problem was inflation. Money not spent immediately rapidly was devalued.

          • michaelrjames

            Well, I said that it wasn’t directly a tunnel boring issue, since neither the transbay part was bored, nor was the Market street section. However your suggestion about two-decks on the transbay tube seems even less likely to be done with catenary, and the scale of the Market street trench was to accommodate Muni which runs above BART. I think you must be referring to one of the numerous propositions rather than what was actually built: the diameter of the transbay tubes is 5.18m (17 feet) which I don’t think is sufficient for two stacked trains let alone with catenaries.
            My point remains that the world’s buried transit systems overwhelmingly use third-rail. In fact, this is true for German S-Bahn which I still maintain is the more appropriate model for BART and Wash-Metro than city metro systems. FWIW, here is Wiki:

            The beginning of the 20th century saw the first electric trains, which in Germany operated at 15,000 V on overhead lines. The Berliner Stadt-, Ring- und Vorortbahn instead implemented direct current multiple units running on 750 V from a third rail. In 1924, the first electrified route went into service. The third rail was chosen because it made both the modifications of the rail tracks (especially in tunnels and under bridges) and the side-by-side use of electric and steam trains easier.

            I may have this wrong but I recall that Paris-RER was something of an exception in retaining its catenary. And that those RER-A and -B tunnels, and stations, were the biggest constructed at that time. Of course RER wouldn’t have been inspiration for the US systems because they were not built by then.

            As to the Daly City versus bayside route, this seems to have been decided decades earlier when any involvement of CalTrain was “resolved”, ie. in the negative sense. The ‘inland” Daly City route actually serves the residential corridor (from Daly City all the way down to SFO and Milbrae, which a casual examination of maps shows almost all those residents are at no greater than 1km from BART–if longer from its stations I suppose) while the bayside route serves almost exclusively industry. Further, another factor that I hadn’t previously fully absorbed is that CalTrain is at ground and has a whole series of road crossings (it seems there are periodic half-hearted plans to create a ROW but the cost and disruption kills such plans; but I assume this is being addressed for CaHSR? presumably part of the huge costs). And even more significant is that CalTrain doesn’t come close to the airport, which is why it has never been part of any transport from SFO. In the 90s when the BART extension to SFO was debated one part of the opposition (amongst many) were perceived threats to the CalTrain bayside route up to SF. But that was kind of silly since they were really complementary, and the connection of the two at Milbrae was to allow BART users from the inland route to Daly City a two-seat ride to those employment centres on the Caltrain route.

            Anyway, on the admitted strange gauge choice for BART, here is the only mention in the book by Michael C. Healy (BART, The dramatic history of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system):

            (p64) Another possibility considered was the use of rubber tires on a steel-track guideway, similar to the French-built Montreal system or the Paris Metro, but the hilly Bay Area topography would cause as much as a 4 percent grade in some areas, and rubber tires would not provide enough traction. Also, that system was known to be very noisy. In the end, PBTB [Parson-Brinkerhoff-Tudor-Bechtel] decided on steel wheels on steel track, with the gauge set at a recommended 5 feet, 6 inches instead of the worldwide standard gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches. The nonstandard gauge–chosen because the lighter cars that ran on the narrower track would be more stable in Bay Area winds–received harsh criticism, primarily because BART trains could not share traditional railroad tracks.

            I don’t find this at all convincing, in as much as it represents any kind of explanation, and no supporting citation is provided. Also I included the bit about rubber wheels because it shows the author has got this entirely wrong!
            I have no direct evidence but believe the choice of gauge had to be intensely political in nature, possibly most related to what trains could use the transbay tube. (There were early plans for the state to fund and own it, and lease it back to BART. Of course the state had taken over CalTrain from Southern Pacific.) Though feasibly it could have also been attempts to improve ride quality and have 3+2 seating and thus higher capacity? It is disappointing that Healy doesn’t document it because most of his book is about the local, state and federal politics involved in building BART. The mystery remains.

          • Lee Ratner

            Santa Clara wasn’t part of the original BART counties. It was Marin and San Mateo that were supposed to be part of the BART system but bailed out. Marin had the semi-serious concern that nobody really wanted to either mess with the Golden Gate Bridge to make it BART friendly or bore a tunnel under the Golden Gate. I have no idea why San Mateo bulked out. They probably thought CalTrain was sufficient transit connection and BART cost too much money.

          • Henry

            > BART uses third rail which imposes both speed limitations and requires complete grade separation immediately.
            This is false. LIRR has third rail, plenty of grade crossings, and a decently high speed for commuter/regional rail (100mph design, 80mph service); any faster and between most stations you’d mostly spend time accelerating and decelerating.

            The main reason people don’t build rail crossings in new metro systems today is to increase system reliability (pedestrian and car crossing accidents are extremely disruptive, and are the most frequent types of incidents experienced on the Seattle Link system) and to decrease inconvenience to motorists; the LIRR now is eliminating the Main Line crossings at great expense because some intersections have gates down for 40+ minutes out of the hour during the rush.

          • Henry

            @Michael: The explanation I’ve always heard is technological hubris. BART was primarily designed by an aerospace company with no rail experience whatsoever. (For WMATA they built the railcars but little else.) And the space age was when everyone and their mother was trying to reinvent the ground transport wheel with aerotrains, vactrains, maglev, monorail, gas-turbine trains, etc. In that context BART was just another failed attempt at a paradigm shift, just one that was well suited to ’60s suburban development.

          • Henry

            Yet BART was set up by all the Bay Area counties to create a rapid transit system …. for the Bay Area. Doh! It’s aim was very comparable to what the RER was in Paris, and its relationship to Paris Metro is the same as to SF-Muni (or samTrans and the other county local transit systems). Of course several critical counties reneged on the original agreement so it’s taking 5+ decades to come close to the bay-spanning system envisaged, but that can’t be laid at the feet of BART or those whose vision it was.

            The criticism here is that BART shouldn’t really have been built at all; the Bay Area has a legacy rail system running to many of these communities it serves, and upgrading those and building shorter spurs to where rail lines didn’t go would’ve been much more value for money, which could’ve then done something more useful for inner-city passengers like linking the Key System to Muni. Letting the Key System get dismantled was the first in a long series of missteps.

          • michaelrjames

            Once again, too many comments are making false comparisons or rewriting history.
            According to Healy it was originally a 9-county concept so Santa Clara was assuredly a part of it; and logically how could they not be, being the bottom third of the bay and the third biggest city (SJ)? In any case my point was that Santa Clara had a big share of CalTrain and so their lack of co-operation had a double-whammy impact on BART visionaries. One can speculate and fantasise of all sorts of things involving CalTrain existing ROW (shared with dozens of road crossings, and ultimately controlled by Southern Pacific!!) but it simply wasn’t going to happen–and if it did, it would probably be fatally compromised by physical issues and commercial cross-interests (like the NEC). Not possible then, and they were wise not to wait. Ultimately BART is being built in an approximation of its original vision. And according to Healy (which I take with a grain/bucketload of salt) BART managed a miracle of timing: a short window in which it was possible to start an entirely new city/regional rail system, the first (he claims) for >50 years (along with Wash-Metro). The reason to believe this interpretation is: how many other such systems, other than these two, have been built in the US since?

            Last night I read Healy’s chapter on the extension to SFO/Milbrae, and the sheer idiocy and small-mindedness and narrow self-interest in the opposition is astounding. The head of SFO, which is supposed to be run by a SF city-nominated board but ran it like a personal fiefdom, was adamantly opposed in what was clearly both immoral and illegal; eventually Kopp forced it to a vote by SF voters and won by a big majority and that CEO quietly left his job. Then there was a Federal Senator (Shelby) on an important (finance) committee who opposed it implacably simply because he was Republican and it was in the Democratic heartlands. He opposed it all the way but the Dems–even in the Republican house after that Clinton midterms disaster–got it thru (Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein played significant roles in back-office deals and arm-twisting). Then the airlines, for entirely nefarious and (misplaced) corporate greed threw their weight around to try to exclude BART from building a station within the airport precinct! This lunacy would have made it no different to the close-ish CalTrain station (San Bruno) that no one from SFO uses. Again it was an extremely close-run thing because if it hadn’t been approved by the time SFO finalised their plans for their airtrain, it was probably dead. Then there were narrow-interests (Santa Clara again plus others) who fretted that it would negatively impact CalTrain. Yes, this ridiculous battle over CalTrain still festers 60 years later!

            The point is that while most of this stuff is kind of totally obvious to a planner–even a US planner–and actually tends to get done in Europe and the advanced bits of Asia, in the US every millimetre of progress is won only after absurd hand-to-hand combat and duels to the death (almost always someone has to “die”, ie. lose their job or their political power). Some here, still write as if BART is a modern transit disaster but as I showed earlier it actually (and to me surprisingly) more or less compares with Paris RER-C and -D. Which, BTW, don’t have express passing lanes (well they might but don’t use them much IIRC) because an RER/S-Bahn type system doesn’t really need them because they have widely-spaced stations, fast trains, and which means passing them would have a deleterious impact on serving the network.

            Too many of you are wearing rose-tinted glasses (in which, as the maxim goes, everything appears pink!) and obsessed with fantasy crayon maps. I wonder if, in fact, it is types like you who are half the problem in the US! It would be one thing if there were ever a transit champion who had real power. And it usually requires a double-act like Napoleon III and his “executive” Baron Haussmann but the only broad US equivalents are the likes of Robert Moses who of course was adamantly against public transit.

            Incidentally, having read some Haussmannian history recently, it struck me that the term “crayon” w.r.t. transport maps originated with the Baron. Famously he had hanging in his office a giant map of Paris (the latest survey he had commissioned with modern tools of cartography) with all the proposed changes marked out in coloured crayon (the word is french). Of course much of it was done by the hand of Napoleon, but sometimes Haussmann had to surreptitiously persuade his boss away from some impractical schemes. Unfortunately that famous map has never been found and some speculate it may have been burned in the Commune conflagration. OTOH, maybe no bad thing in that most of the modern world (exceptions being China and Putin’s Russia) cannot easily convert such crayon into reality. They must do the best possible with far less than perfect tools. I reckon if you remain hyper-critical of BART then you’re not living in the real world.

          • Nilo

            And the CTA has an at grade metro crossing. These are legacy crossings and in fact the FTA/FRA will not permit at grade third rail crossings anymore. I doubt they would have allowed at grade third rail even in the 60s and 70s, thus catenary.

            Well a huge part of BART’s problems is it extends very far into the suburbs but can’t run express trains. A true regional rail system often does though. Pittsburg/Bay Pointe is roughly 58 km from Embarcadero and takes 52 minutes. That’s just not fast enough for actually providing regional connectivity. It means BART is only the preferred option to a car at rush hornet really any other time.

          • Tonami Playman


            Well a huge part of BART’s problems is it extends very far into the suburbs but can’t run express trains. A true regional rail system often does though. Pittsburg/Bay Pointe is roughly 58 km from Embarcadero and takes 52 minutes. That’s just not fast enough for actually providing regional connectivity.

            For express running, BART is pretty fast compared to other commuter rail services. 58km in 52mins is 67km/h average speed. Compare that to the fastest service on the Chuo Rapid which does the 53km journey from Takao to Tokyo in 57mins (55km/h). The Narita Express takes a slightly longer route by making a detour to the Yamanote line after Shinjuku and completes it’s 60km journey from Takao in 68mins (53km/h). The Chuo Rapid makes 13 stops along the way, the Narita Express makes 8 stops, while BART makes 12 stops between Embarcadero and Pittsburg/Bay Pointe.

            Yeah it only has an advantage in rush hour traffic due to the dispersed nature of the Bay area. Anywhere else other than downtown SF, driving is much faster.

          • Lee Ratner

            Henry, with hindsight the Key System shouldn’t been dismantled. Same with the Pacific Electric in Los Angeles and a host of other street car systems. The problem was that America was wealthy, not bombed out be World War II, and in the thorough grip of car culture and suburbia. Even bombed out United Kingdom, where fewer people could afford cars compared to other Anglophone countries, tore up all their street car systems. There was no chance that the wealthier countries would have kept them. The four cities that kept some of their street car systems did so because of geography, San Francisco and Pittsburgh, or because they were part of true rapid transit system, Boston and Philadelphia. New Orleans also kept the street cars for some reason. I guess tourism, nostalgia, general poverty compared to the rest of the United States. So an update of existing systems wasn’t something that was going to happen. It was BART or nothing.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Once again, too many comments are making false comparisons or rewriting history [re SF Bay Area California BART.

            Michael James, you really truly have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

            I’ve been a close observer of SF Bay Area transportation politics for over three decades, overlapping with people whose involvement (and/or complicity and/or whatever) stretched back into the 1960s.

            I’ve found it is best to say nothing when one is uninformed, let alone totally ignorant Obviously a minority opinion.
            I personally don’t spend a lot of time blathering about Paris “intra muros”, or about many other things. Why would I? How would that profit the world?

            Last night I read Healy’s chapter on

            Mike Healy is an old time True Believer and a full-time life-long paid PR shill for the contractor mafiosi who conceived and built all of BART. Pretty much nothing he’s ever written or said or issued as a press release is true. Hey, but billions were made, and the planet is on fire, so great job, team.

            the extension to SFO/Milbrae, and the sheer idiocy and small-mindedness and narrow self-interest in the opposition is astounding

            I wasted the better part of a decade of my life opposing this total disaster — a disaster accurately predicted to be so, contra the fraudulent claims of the proponents. A proven unambiguous fraud in capital cost, ridership, operating cost, and of course in elimination of vastly more utile alternatives.

            You really have less than zero idea what you’re talking about here. This I know for a fact.

            Why type so much? Does it make your fingers feel good or something?

          • michaelrjames

            No doubt you will claim it isn’t worth your effort to actual produce an argument or evidence for what you say is a disaster. But if it is true then it should be so easy.
            Oh, and I’ve said clearly that I don’t trust Healy but that doesn’t mean one can’t extract worthwhile things from what he writes. The politics concerning a lot of its history is a matter of record. Or are you suggesting it is untrue that the SFO tried to block it, or that Senator Shelby didn’t try to block it (on purely political grounds) or that the airlines didn’t try to block it? You think they tried to block it on good transit principles? Or that it was approved in a city vote? And if there were better alternatives (there always are …) then why after 50+ years has CalTrans or CalTrain, not to mention SFO, not done a single thing?
            Convince me, or anyone.

            However, I admit I come with a bias as I happen to think BART connection directly into the airport is a no-brainer. Ditto for connection to SJ. If you are against it and think it is automatically a disaster then I will have to overcome a certain lack of regard for anything you write in defense of the contrary. But if you are going to insult me then you should at least try (or take your own advice and .. be quiet). You don’t get to claim some kind of special right-to-comment and deny it to others. (BTW, you should ‘fess up if you are a Republican.)

          • Nilo

            New Orleans Street Cars that were kept run in Medians. Thus they did not conflict with automobiles is my understanding.

            Toronto of course also kept its streetcars and in a far more extensive form than just about any other city (Though I believe Philly had a pretty extensive non-subway-surface network since until the 80s.

            @RIchard are there any well executed transit investments the bay area has made in the past 65 years? Even Electrification of course has sky high costs and a lolzy time table.

          • michaelrjames

            See, you are doing it again. I haven’t disagreed with the notion that BART and its SFO-Millbrae extension is imperfect but the arguments put about, including by Alon, are in the silliest denial of the awful fact that the “perfect”–or anything remotely resembling it–was never in the realms of the feasible. Just like those who controlled CalTrain (including Santa Clara) and both San Mateo and its SamTrans, and Santa Clara, presumably with CalTrans, wouldn’t have a bar of any of the hyper-logical things planners wanted to do.
            Alon wrote:

            Instead of investing in Caltrain in the 1990s, which would involve electrification and the Downtown Extension (both considered even back then), the region chose to build BART the long way. As a result, trips between Millbrae and the Embarcadero take 32 minutes.

            I mean, answer “who” are those making the worst decisions of all. It was all the guilty parties I listed. So it came down to essentially a bunch of San Franciscans and East Bay types to put something together and to overcome this huge inertial against doing anything. That we have seen almost universally everywhere in every big US city!

            But more, I really tried to be generous after my initial reaction to Alon’s complaining about 32 minutes by patiently reading the rest. Sorry, it was as silly as my first reaction: I mean we’re talking 32min by existing BART from the airport to downtown SF versus a putative vaporware scheme for electrified CalTrain that took 24min, but not to the heart of downtown but to 1.4km (8 blocks) from Market Street (ie. in the absence of another vaporware tunnel to downtown)! Worse, it depended on SFO agreeing to extend its AirTrain west to the San Bruno CalTrain station. We all know what would have happened: nothing, and we pax would have had to schlepp it using some shuttle bus (if that). A recipe for an actual disaster (spending all that loot for nothing).
            Perhaps I have talked myself into it but seriously I think the logic of the SFO-Millbrae link makes some sense. Because (1) a lot of the BART users from the airport heading into SF are best served by the Daly City route and the fact that (2) BART goes the whole length of Market street, SF’s main street, not to mention across the Bay etc.; (3) Those heading south to Silicon Valley, Stanford-Palo Alto, SJ etc. change at Milbrae to CalTrain or those heading up the Bayshore route connect at Millbrae, perhaps not perfect but hardly a massive disaster.
            But really, I think it’s clear that many who are headed to the Bayshore industrial zone or south to the residential or tech industry zones, are much more likely to drive or catch a shuttle or Uber etc. That is not BART’s fault, and even when BART extends to SJ it may remain under-utilised because of the essentially car-dependent nature of that part of Bay area.

            I don’t want to defend BART’s precise choice of route and stations but Alon himself said that since BART was underground at that point (btw, cut-and-cover), having a connection at San Bruno was an expensive option and who was to pay for it? It was incredibly difficult to get San Mateo or Santa Clara to pay a dime to BART (and something strongly resented by the East Bay counties who funded BART). Alon’s claim that San Mateo’s residents paid some of the cost is a bit disingenuous as SFO is the bit of BART that covers its costs, obviously due entirely to air travellers and the surcharge they get hit with (and remember SFO is San Francisco territory not San Mateo). The argument about San Bruno versus Milbrae might have some validity but not as much as these people getting all steamed about it as some kind of disaster. In fact I can’t really see what diff it makes to those transferring to CalTrain whether it is either of those stations. And remember BART was planning ultimate extension to SJ, so one can see the logic. Also, I’d bet there was politics involved in the decision, not simple pigheadedness or technical incompetence on the part of BART (which is the story everyone here seems convinced of).
            Alon wrote:

            In 2006, before Uber, only 7% of SFO passengers used rail, compared with 8% at JFK, 10% at Atlanta, and an impressive 28% at Frankfurt. ….
            As a result of the poor layout of the extension, ridership is low.

            So, BART does almost as well as JFK in a city much more habituated to public transit! Is that a disaster? (Actually in his later letter Alon says it is 11% of O&D air pax.) Moreover, when it gets its SJ extension ridership is bound to improve. Alon says “Most of the shortfall came from Millbrae” so this supports the contention that might change. (And of course as SFO gets its predicted 40-60% increase in air traffic and the I-280 and 101 become even more congested). I think the complaint that BART only goes to the International terminal weak; this is no different to most big airports where one then takes a shuttle or the convenient AirTrain at SFO. Also I suspect they thought more Intl pax are likely to take BART, and I don’t know if that is bad. Again I just don’t see it as a big deal. And as someone who has done his share of world travel, none of that phases me as it is better than JFK, LAX, Narita and all US airports. At Singapore-Changi, often voted world’s best, the metro stops in the middle and you take the Skytrain to the three main terminals or a bus to the Budget Terminal. People-movers are SOP at giant airports.
            But here’s the real thing: Alon wrote:

            Millbrae itself comes from BART’s lofty ambitions to take over Caltrain, dating back to the original system plans from the early 1960s,

            What is wrong with that? It is exactly what should have happened all those decades ago and these absurd conflicts of interest would have been minimised. In the way any mega-city ends up with a single transit authority like TfL for London, IDFM (Ile-de-France Mobilités) for Paris region etc. Do people here need to be reminded who it is that thwarted such rationalisation of Bay Area transit? The same people and organisations that these “perfect” alternative plans rely on, when they have never shown any such inclination! 60 years of this crap! Kopp may be a typical partisan player but in my book he has been on the side of the angels in these fights.
            Nah, sorry, I suspect Alon allowed himself to be seduced by those Bay Area activists who probably hosted him in SF, maybe with a thimble or two of KoolAid:-) The technical details may have been appealing but the real world was never likely to comply to such crayon fantasies.

          • Alon Levy

            Um, no.

            1. Richard and the people he’s channeling have repeatedly called for a fare union and schedule integration on the model of a German Verkehrsverbund or IdF-M. Kopp’s contribution is the exact opposite: agency turf battles with Caltrain, aiming to take over even though Caltrain takes the faster route to SF. At no point could BART ever be anything like TfL, not when Muni, AC Transit, and a million smaller agencies exist. And it’s kind of funny you accuse Richard of being a Republican (lol, he hates the Anglosphere more than you do) and defending Kopp, who’s always been incredibly conservative, e.g. on immigration.

            2. Why would BART to San Jose change anything about BART ridership around Millbrae and the airport? Nobody’s going to take BART from San Jose to SFO via Oakland and SF.

            3. In fact, from the Peninsula, BART to SFO made things worse. Before the BART extension, people connected to shuttle buses at Millbrae. Now, they have to connect to BART at Millbrae to go to San Bruno and then backtrack to SFO, two connections that are not timed because BART doesn’t care.

            4. 7% mode share at SFO is terrible. JFK has a long air train connection at Jamaica, and within New York is not viewed as having great connections. Atlanta, a city that is firmly in my “doesn’t have public transit” category, is at 10%. In Paris the mode share of the RER at CDG is 20% (link, PDF-p. 28) and buses add another 11% – and evidently enough rich people don’t like riding the RER B that the region is spending money on two new airport connectors, the CDG Express and M17.

            5. SamTrans cut a lot of bus service after the BART extension opened, largely because of an increased debt load.

          • michaelrjames

            Those are hardly compelling arguments and at least one of them is apparently factually incorrect. Also you’d have to ask who makes the decisions about those bus-shuttles? (Doh, SamTrans & its sponsor San Mateo. But let’s all blame BART…).

            The argument you give about the impossibility of a single integrated transport authority is acknowledgement of the political and commercial barriers. All irrational and political-partisan. The very reasons why BART went ahead without CalTrain in the first place, but which people here are still arguing over, 60 years later! Yet, the 100 communes in the Ile de France, not to mention the gorilla of Paris itself, created a centralised administrative transit structure that works for this bunch of fractious politicians and residents/voters. This issue is at the very heart of the problems and burying one’s head in the sand all these decades hasn’t helped. As I remarked, Kopp may be a hyper-partisan bastard but as the maxim goes, he’s our bastard and I’d rather have him in the tent pissing out … He actually got an airport link that works for most people who want to use it, despite all the usual (American) issues of cost and imperfect planning, and then under-utilisation. In the 40 years (as it happens 40 years from Xmas ’79) I’ve been travelling to SF I have never once taken CalTrain from/to SFO, mostly because it doesn’t end up where you want. Also catching a bus-shuttle is not my fave option (mostly because what it implies about the transit options). Now, I’d catch BART without thinking. (Incidentally you should combine BART + Caltrain ridership to SFO to compare with other airports.)

            When I look at the opposition, and Richard M., I see all the usual troubles: too many alternative schemes, no political overlay or pragmatism about what was really possible. After 60 years of rabid opposition, these activists somehow magic up friendly technologically-based co-operation by SFO, airlines, SamTrans, SanMateo, CalTrans, Santa Clara and its VTA, not to mention all the car-lobby deadbeats, property speculators and media-owners (often the same people). FWIW, I agree with the #5 alternative which had a new station closest to the airport (but still on the wrong side of 101) shared between CalTrain, BART and future CaHSR and of course served by AirTrain. The San Bruno one is a non-solution given the very long dedicated AirTrain build it required, whereas #5 (essentially where the existing BART wye is) needed a minimal few hundred metres of AirTrain link and very quick shuttle to the terminals (at JFK the old bus-shuttle to the A-train was a superbore because you called at half a dozen other stops en route both directions–because, like San Bruno, it is the most distant point, beyond car parks, airline offices, catering, maintenance etc). But why does everyone here want to unload on BART, when all the historical evidence is that it is the other parties who have always dragged their feet (and their wallets)? Given the continued unco-operative nature of SFO among all the others, I wouldn’t have put any faith in mere promises to get that tiny bit of AirTrain link built–based on 60 years history–and zip of the San Bruno link. We in the Anglosphere know they would have kept the irritating shuttle-bus for decades. It’s called flogging a dead horse.

            One reason I gave up trying to play a constructive role in community affairs is that too many of the “lifers” like Richard M. are utterly unyielding, often very aggressive (or passive aggressive) and often emotional in meetings that it is close to impossible to make progress. Being involved over 20 years is sadly no guarantee of wise perspective, IMO. My years (decades) of observation of these things is that the developers and politicians actually like these types (while avoiding media when they are physically present) because they know it is self-destructive of any coherent opposition (“divide and conquer”). The usual powers and suspects know they will outlast them all and get what they want. And I could ask a brutal question: after 20+ years of activism what has been achieved for CalTrain or Bay Area transit, or a serious link to SFO? (Oh I know: Baby Bullet!) All the real progress has been made by the people & organisations they fight against! The only thing that might bring change is the wall of money accompanying CaHSR … yeah! It’s the only reason why the corridor is finally getting electrified.

            Speaking of CaHSR, surely observers can see the future as murky as it may be? Perhaps I am naive or overly optimistic but I can’t see HSR sharing track with CalTrain over such a long route. Surely at some point the (unstated) intention will be for BART to run commuter services, rather than CalTrain? ie. on its exclusive ROW. Oh, and why is VTA building the BART extension Berryessa to Santa Clara station, and not just to Diridon? Kinda suggests future options to me. Diridon to SC is almost half the route (this is the most expensive capital works in county history).

          • Alon Levy

            BART didn’t just go without Caltrain, which at the time was run by the still-profitable Southern Pacific. It went without coordination with Muni, leading to an awkward setup at Market Street in which transferring between Muni and BART trains requires going up to street level and passing through two sets of fare barriers. It went without coordination with AC Transit, preferring to build parking lot stations at a time when contemporary German S-Bahns were timing transfers with buses. It entered Downtown Oakland from the wrong direction, forcing a frequency split on East Oakland trains between Downtown Oakland and San Francisco while Berkeley, which at the time had weak commute ties to Oakland, got a train serving both Downtown Oakland and SF (and at the beginning, 2/3 of Berkeley trains diverted to East Oakland rather than to SF to allow for intra-Oakland trips).

            San Bruno did not require a long air train. The COST proposal was to build BART to SFO along the same alignment that would eventually be built, and build a transfer station at San Bruno, omitting the branch to Millbrae.

            Kopp is not Our Bastard in any meaningful way. In office in San Francisco he was thoroughly conservative. His BART to SFO concept gets far less ridership than predicted, at a cost per rider that simply does not exist in France; people in Paris are skeptical about M18, which has half the projected per-rider cost. Subsequently, at California HSR, Kopp’s influence was negative: he had no interest in inviting SNCF to build the system that would work along similar lines to the TGV, his idea of Caltrain-HSR integration was not to do any at all to the point that people would have to climb steps and go through faregates to transfer, his construction priorities were the highest-hanging fruit (namely, SF proper) and not how France or Spain or Germany or Japan or Korea or Italy builds HSR.

            The part about Caltrain and HSR sharing tracks over a long route is Diridon’s contribution to the project. He was insistent on routing the mainline via San Jose, instead of using Altamont Pass and splitting into a mainline to San Francisco and a branch to San Jose. (P.S. SNCF would’ve preferred Altamont too.) Ask Richard sometime how he feels about Pacheco; I want to see how he’ll respond, mostly because I want to see what kind of method of death he wishes on the people who made the Pacheco decision.

          • michaelrjames

            Again with all the details of poor decisions, many of which, maybe all of which, I might agree with. (Well, not San Bruno which assuredly is at least 3.5km by the proposed route. In the absence of serious and sincere intent by all the usual suspects, the direct airport BART station was correct, and other issues will be–some have already been–sorted out in time.)
            All beside the point. One can learn from retrospective analysis and critique of past decisions, but my main gripe here has been that neither you nor other activists seem to understand when to stop, when to grab the opportunity despite how notionally flawed. All the righteous anger hasn’t actually been productive, unless I’m missing something, and it seems to me may well have been counter-productive, eg. to other cities who might like to create something similar. As if NIMBY noise isn’t enough, politicians and voters are getting it from the techno-geeks too; has this noise from all sides been part of Newsom’s “cancelation”? RM exhibits all this intransigence, apparently to the point of killing HSR if it doesn’t do his (and maybe many experts) preferred route! Kopp is a typical species of opportunistic politician bully but an odd sort of ‘conservative’ in supporting BART and CaHSR! It reminds one of the maxim, if you eat sausages you should stay away from the sausage factory. I taunted RM with that Republican jibe because he reminded me of the Bernie Bros who stamped their feet at the contemptible corruption of the DNC and (reportedly) went and voted Trump to show their contempt for the awful HRC. They were DINOs.

            And bravo, you’ve induced an ugly threat of painful deaths in fires! Plus an exhortation to ban select commenters. Proving my points.

          • michaelrjames

            Oops, sorry, I had promised myself to no further comments but found this and it more eloquently sums up my overall position. Of course I am pretty sure Fallows favoured the Altamont route rather than Pacheco …

            Extracts from James Fallows on CAHSR (2015):

            1) America is direly short on infrastructure; the financial and political resistance to remedying that is powerful (for reason Mancur Olson once laid out) and usually prevails. China is biased toward wastefully building infrastructure it doesn’t need. The U.S. is biased the opposite way. So when there’s is a real chance to build something valuable in America, I start out in favor of it.
            4) There is an established track record of over-estimating the problems of big infrastructure projects, and short-sightedly under-envisioning their benefits. Here’s the crucial contrast with big military construction projects I’ve written about recently. Repeatedly, big military projects have come in over budget, past schedule, and below performance promises.
            Repeatedly the opposite has been true of big national or regional infrastructure projects. Their drawbacks have been exaggerated before they’ve been started, and their potential benefit has been grossly under-imagined. Here’s a few of the projects that seemed impractical, quixotic, ruinously expensive, or not worth the bother when proposed:
            [11 projects plus:]
            – Washington DC’s Metro and San Francisco’s BART

            All of these projects have had their problems. But without any one of them, the United States would be in far worse shape than it is today. High-speed rail also has its problems, and will have more. But the record of big ventures of this sort suggests that we are better at worrying about the problems and noting imperfections than we are at envisioning long-term rewards. Thus I think that the benefit of the doubt should go with the proponents. People on their side have more often been right.

            But building out high-speed rail has implications for more than California. Americans have effectively given up on a visionary politics, as the 2014 midterms exemplified. The country turned its back on activist government, mainly because they so rarely see anything come from it that they can touch and feel. They resist paying taxes because they can’t identify what they get in return.

            Infrastructure projects can provide powerful symbols of that return on investment, and show that only effective government can create such lasting monuments to progress. Infrastructure nightmares, like the slow-motion disaster that is Seattle’s underground tunnel, breed cynicism and severely damage government’s potential. But those who would drown government and create an own-your-own society cannot explain away the Hoover Dam, or the New York City subway, or the roads linking Maine, Florida, Arizona and Idaho. Those projects worked in their time, and high-speed rail can work for the 21st century. If it succeeds, it creates not only its own economic and environmental benefits, but goodwill that can spill over into other public provisions of services.

            “California, since the beginning, has undertaken big tasks and entertained big ideas,” Gov. Brown said at yesterday’s inaugural. Without a signature achievement like the bullet train, the public’s enthusiasm for such big ideas can falter. The antidote to such malaise is to actually deliver on promises, one shovel-full of dirt at a time.

          • Nilo

            Alon, they actually fixed the stupid backtrack to San Bruno issue with a shuttle from Millbrae to SFO. It’s not super frequent though. I think every half an hour or every 15 minutes. It’s been many months since I rode it.

          • Richard Mlynarik

            Ask Richard sometime how he feels about Pacheco

            The switch to the Pacheo pass routing appeared literally out of nowhere in 1999, at a Metropolitan Transportation Commission committee meeting.

            The point man on staff was Steve Heminger, a quite literally boundlessly corrupt “public” employee and the heir apparent (he moved up in 2001) to the position MTC Executive Director. (You may know him from such other hits as “$5 billion dollar cost overrun on the Bay Bridge East Span” and “no improvements to Caltrain service for 30 years” and “castastrophic regional Vehicle Miles Travelled increases” and so many many more.)

            Steve then, as now (after retiring with a lovely pension from his “service” to MTC, he’s been appointed to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board) always been and always will be the go-to guy if you’re a contractor with a multi-hundred or multi-billion scam that you need pushed through a “public” agency. His particular special friends then — as now — were Parsons Brinckerhoff (who now do business as WSP USA, but no change in competency or ethicality or professionalism.)

            The next two projects that PB had decided the the SF Bay Area needed, after ramming through the disastrous BART extension to Millbrae past the SF airport — were the Muni Central Subway in SF and a BART extension from Fremont to San Jose — the latter, of course, along a low-density corridor and lying largely within existing rail corridors. The first step — after buying off agency officials, who of course control the agendas and outcomes of public agencies themselves, regardless of any “board oversight” — of pushing through a terrible but profitable project is to eliminate any alternatives to the designated project in the designated corridor, and also eliminating any competing projects for funding in other corridors.

            Any non-BART rail alternative between Fremont and SJ had to be disposed of, and this included the previously approved California HSR routing heading west over the Altamont Pass to Fremont and branching to San Jose and a Dumbarton crossing. The voter-approved and partially-funded reinstatement of Dumbarton rail service, too. Collateral damage, as it were.

            Caltrain electrifcation and Caltrain downtown SF extension also had to go, as funding competition for SF Central Subway and BART extension cash. They were shelved, yet, again, for a couple decades, or more, yet again.

            Of course it wasn’t just innocent collateral damage to Fremont-SJ/Dumbarton, as PB was also in fully in control of the HSR Authority — as it remains today — so a “win” in eliminating lower-cost non-BART Fremont-SJ rail was also a win for PB when it came time to the massive duplicative over-building which would be “required” north of SJ by the Pachecho HSR route, and by the vastly higher costs and risks of the Pachecho Pass line itself. A lovely win-win synergy! Tens of billions of dollars wasted, decades of public transportation deferred — it’s just how we like to do things around here.

            The PB-designed and PB-promoted BART extension, of course, went ahead. It is a couple decades late and a few hundred percent over “schedule” and “budget”, but that’s how PB (WSP USA USA USA USA!) projects always go. (PB’s Muni Central Subway? Ditto.) Nice work if you can get it, and somehow they always get it. Funny how US “public” works contracting processes always work out with the right guys “winning”, huh?

            California HSR, of course, is functionally dead — much like most of the planet’s ecosystems will be within your lifetime — but is the gift that keeps on giving, with PB and allied consultants having drawn down well over a billion US dollars in consulting costs to “design” and “evaluate” and “study” and eliminate alternatives.

            I’ve been typing and speaking about this stuff since about 1996. I’m not going to continue typing here any more here and now on a beautiful afternoon.

            I’m also not going to compete with the next wall of hopelessly ignorant text from pointlessly logorrheic commenter Michael James, any more than I would engage with those who today are attributing Australia’s conflagration to the Green Party.

            Anyway, is this good enough for you, Alon? “People like this are why the planet is on fire. They should all die painful deaths in fires.”

            (Your blog needs a one-comment-per-person-per-day rate limit, or just go the quicker route with a couple bans.)

          • Mike

            “Too many of you are wearing rose-tinted glasses … and obsessed with fantasy crayon maps. I wonder if, in fact, it is types like you who are half the problem in the US!”

            To some extent yes, there are constraints on both sides. Those who see tax-funded rail and extensive bus networks as un-American resist expansion, and in most areas they have the levers of power. At the same time some urbanites resist extending rail to suburbs they disapprove of, making the perfect the enemy of the good. They either vote against or don’t rally behind compromise projects, and that can be enough to doom a project that’s right at 50% support. The problem is that if you don’t build high-capacity transit to these counties, the same problems that occurred in the 20th century will occur again: people can’t get around without a car in any practical way, so they demand large parking garages and free parking everywhere, the carless can’t get around, the parking lots and wider streets push everything apart and make it harder to walk to anything, and these areas push for state laws to block larger cities from taxing themselves to improve their own transit.

            Still, 90% of the problem is people who don’t understand transit or oppose any transit expansion or won’t consider non-US examples, and only 10% is urbanist fundamentalists. So blaming them for half of it is like the tail wagging the dog.

    • yuuka

      I really feel like this fetishization of using cut and cover has got to stop. Yes, deep bore tunnelling is expensive, and I admit that. The main issues with 100% cut and cover under main throughfares are:

      1) What if you need to say, turn at a junction? You end up with a Chicago-style sharp bend under the intersection to make the turn. This means that your minimum curve radius drops, and then your options when it comes to throughput go down. The alternative, of course, is to bore deep under buildings. All the more worse when you have an existing network like NYC, but on second thought it would not be too difficult to put in place a ban on 75 footers down there if necessary.

      2) The main drivers of costs are stations, not tunnels. But your stations are constrained to where you can reasonably put a tunnel. Of course, the easy way out would sound something like putting all subway work at 30-40m deep underground or something, but that constraints your vertical space too. In fact, Tokyo has done this with newer lines, largely because they’ve run out of space at shallower depths. The alternative would be to do what Elon Musk is doing and shrink your tunnels.

      3) Sticking with Tokyo, smaller tunnels and sharper curves means smaller trains are needed, and that can drive up costs too. The Tube uses a bespoke design which not even the NTfL can wholly fix, the Oedo Line can’t use the “standard” Japanese EMU type with dimensions of 20m x 2.8m, and I believe the Chinese don’t have a design for anything that small.

      Does that make sense? It doesn’t to me. Furthermore, you lock yourself into a legacy design that doesn’t necessarily scale with demand. Perhaps it might if everyone is doing the same thing – in China they are, but they bore and the tunnels are much larger.

      I guess it doesn’t help that Americans are predominantly trying to send tall streetcars underground, either.

      • yuuka

        On a related note, since this thread is on Canada, can anyone other than Bombardier build trains for the SkyTrain?

      • Alon Levy

        1. It depends on the street… if you have a grid then it’s hard to turn, but then you also can usually just stay on one street for a long stretch. The Canada Line stays on Cambie in the cut-and-cover stretch, and the UBC subway would be cut-and-cover under either Broadway or 10th for most of the way.

        2. Not necessarily – if you have good cut-and-cover boxes for the stations, rather than (say) demolishing buildings for them the way Singapore is demolishing stuff for station boxes on the Thomson MRT line right next to wide streets that could make for good train boxes, then stations aren’t so expensive. In Paris the split between tunneling and station costs is about 1:1, and a short cut-and-cover extension built in the 2000s cost about the same as an above-ground extension and maybe half as much as the bored extensions.

        3. The Tube’s bespoke design is for deep bore tunnels with mined stations… the Met line has trains that are mostly compatible with the British mainline trains.

        And SkyTrain’s Expo and Millennium Lines are vendor-locked to Bombardier, but the Canada Line isn’t and the equipment is made by Rotem.

        • yuuka

          1. Ideally yes, but I just returned from Kuala Lumpur where they tell me it’s pretty bad. They only just built their first MRT line, and the underground sections are really, really deep – even though the stations proper are under roads, routing from station to station involved mining deep tunnels, resulting in deep cut and cover boxes.

          Staying on one street does make life easier (see: LA), but does it really help catchment, especially given most American cities where they’re only just getting their feet wet? Going back to the KL example, there would literally be no point building that subway if you followed roads as much as possible, because the main thoroughfares are already served by light rail, and the rest are literally six lane freeways. Hasn’t stopped them from trying in the suburbs, though, but if they stick to the roads it’s difficult to provide meaningful catchment and capacity improvement downtown – and in fact, there’s plenty of spilled ink on how the Malaysian MRT is missing its ridership targets.

          2. That depends on where – Outram Park on the Thomson line, for example, gets to be in a field because building tunnels over the NEL station is going to be a lot more problematic. It’s also already quite shallow considering it runs through the old town where grids are a bad joke. Orchard is basically the Copenhagen method at scale, where they use the old school site to shift southwards from one road to another.

          There is Stevens, where they stick to the road and reduce a few lanes, but I’m told those suck in terms of site management because there’s no way to easily supply materials and remove spoil from the construction site. When vehicles need to leave the site, you’re talking about needing the entire road width to back out, let alone the inevitable queues of trucks waiting to be filled. FWIW, Stevens Road is also a major trunk road.

          3. That just drives home my point – Bombardier can charge as much as they want when it comes to the Expo and Millennium lines (I seem to recall a big debate about this with the Evergreen Extension). Vendor lock in also seems to be an issue with NYC because no one else wants to work for them, MTA Tax and all.

          It makes me really suspect that bad project management coupled with nasty engineering constraints (which get worse the more dense your network is) is the key here, and no amount of austerity can fix any of that (though a purge of some sort could help the project management end).

          I’m really not looking forward to SAS Phase 4, if and when they do it.

          • Nilo

            On the staying on one street question the answer to that is yes it works great! And should be done normally. The highest performing lines in Paris, M1; and NYC, Lexington Avenue Line are )both straight lines built basically cut and cover under one street (Lex of course hops streets at Grand Central.) Cut and Cover also if your street is wide enough allows you to put four tracks in the ground and run a local express pattern which is nice too. Easy to say imagine doing that for some sort of Cross Loop RER style tunnel in Chicago for instance.

          • Alon Levy

            I mean, pretty much everything in New York and Paris is cut-and-cover. (And Chicago’s L tunnels in the Loop are bored.)

          • yuuka

            Explain the Central London Railway, then, which is of similar vintage, and largely follows roads, with exceptions in the City. Why did they deep bore it, especially when a predecessor company planned to build a sub surface line?

          • michaelrjames

            Explain the Central London Railway, then, which is of similar vintage, and largely follows roads, with exceptions in the City. Why did they deep bore it, especially when a predecessor company planned to build a sub surface line?

            Because tunneling in London was easy and relatively safe, structurally speaking, due to its chalk. Even Brunel (pere) first attempts at a tunnel under the Thames failed because it had to cope with alluvial soils (and of course the penetration of the river above and water table). It’s one of the reasons why London was the first to have a true underground railway (and I’m talking of the 1890 Northern Line not the trenched Metropolitan line in ’63, which IMO shouldn’t be accorded that title).

            And of course that London subsurface was already riddled with structures they didn’t want to have to mess with. In fact these things almost stopped it (Wiki:):

            The proposals faced strong objections from the Metropolitan and District Railways (MR and DR) whose routes on the Inner Circle,[note 2] to the north and the south respectively, the CLR route paralleled; and from which the new line was expected to take passengers. The City Corporation also objected, concerned about potential damage to buildings close to the route caused by subsidence as was experienced during the construction of the C&SLR. The Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral objected, concerned about the risks of undermining the cathedral’s foundations. Sir Joseph Bazalgette objected that the tunnels would damage the city’s sewer system.

          • Henry

            @Alon: The New York transit companies were not shy about bulldozing new streets above where their subway lines were being built. 7th Av and 6th Av through Greenwich Village are a testament to that.

          • Alon Levy

            Yeah, same thing with the District line in London, but the demolitions were in rich areas so property acquisition drove the cost of the whole thing through the roof, to $90 million per km in today’s money, higher than anything until the IND in the 1930s. That’s why London invented the TBM – it didn’t want to go through this expensive process again, and there it took until the 1960s and the Victoria line to surpass the District line’s costs.

            I can see the case for 7th Avenue South, but 6th Avenue was pretty sloppy – the Village was already gentrifying in the Depression, and 6th Avenue Subway farther up was a hot mess of building under the el and around the Hudson Tubes. So it would’ve been better to just send 8th Avenue Subway down Greenwich and built 2nd Avenue Subway instead of 6th Avenue.

          • adirondacker12800

            Greenwich Street had the Ninth Ave El over it. So they went down Greenwich Avenue. Queens was exploding, the six tracks of the El on Sixth and Ninth weren’t enough capacity so silly silly them they built eight. Squint at the proposal from 1930 that is online. they were plotting to six track Sixth, Eighth or both. The original plan for the Hudson tubes was to sink them under the Sixth Avenue lines which would have allowed super express service in the center of the lower level. Sinking the H&M low enough that it could burrow to Grand Central. The money ran out. Six tracks on Second too which if you squint at things, the whole mess was going to replace the El in Brooklyn. Just awful the way people would have had service to the East side and the West Side like they did on the IRT.

        • Rico

          Translink does not seem to feel the Expo/Millenium line trains are vendor locked to Skytrain as multiple vendors manufacturer LIM systems. The latest request for bids on new vehicles is due early this year, it will be interesting to see who bids.

          • yuuka

            Outside of Japan it’s pretty much only Bombardier (the best track record) and Kawasaki (some Japanese projects, Guangzhou) unless you’re talking about rollercoasters.

            Of course, someone else could build the car bodies and source propulsion packages from Bombardier or the Japanese, but I don’t think that will be cheap either. Nationalism might also push Translink back into Bombardier’s embrace.

          • Daryl Dela Cruz

            The Expo-Millennium Lines are not locked to Bombardier – this a common misconception and there have been official statements from TransLink, the BC Ministry of Transportation and Bombardier clarifying that there is no vendor-locking for SkyTrain.

            For one, the propulsion packages are not supplied or manufactured by Bombardier themselves. For SkyTrain, Bombardier sourced LIM motors from Okanogan-based Unit Electrical Engineering (look them up). I believe they are responsible for the motors on the newest Mark 2.5 and Mark 3 vehicles. I’m not as sure who supplied for the vehicles in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, but it is definitely not the same company because their trains make different sounds when accelerating and decelerating. Meaning there are multiple possible suppliers.

            While SkyTrain rolling stock for the E+M Lines has been acquired for the last several years through open RFP, the reason TransLink has only really ever gotten interested and bids from Bombardier is because of the small size of those car orders (the Mark IIIs were a batch of 28 cars in 2016 + 28 options exercised 2018). Economic nationalism probably also plays a role, but IMO the simplicity of maintenance and parts acquisition plays an even bigger role. Mark 2.5 and Mark 3 share the same propulsion systems and the newest Canada Line cars are virtually identical to the original batch from 10 years ago for this reason. I do know that the latest RFP for SkyTrain vehicles had two interested bidders, and I would guess that both of them will source LIM propulsion packages from other companies such as UEE.

    • Nathan Davidowicz

      Mode split has increased for workers but overall mode split for Metro Vancouver has not changed in 50 yrs about 85 % cars and 15 % Transit and Active Transportation. COVID has set us back by 3 or 4 yrs. Many agencies promote 50/50 mode split for 2030 but the likelihood is almost zero.

  2. Jacob

    I think you are being a bit dismissive about transit ridership (bus ridership in particular) in urban-but-not-CBD parts of Canadian cities. Not only is transit mode share in Toronto still at 16% >15km from City Hall, my guess is that people take buses much more for non-work trips in Canada than the US. Toronto’s gridded frequent bus network means that you can visit a restaurant or coffee shop or friend’s house dependably with one transfer in ~30min over a decent swath of the city even if you’re far from the subway (essentially, anywhere with gridded SFH but not cul-de-sac subdivisions). I am thinking about the bus trips I made as a high-school student which in the US — even in NYC! — would have involved being ferried around automotively by my parents or even driving my own car.

    This is not enough to make a transit city by any means but non-work trips can be an important part of ridership, and gridded bus networks are great at serving them. I really think the difference between Canadian and US bus ridership is about the difference between Canadian and US racism.

    • Alon Levy

      I talk about work trips because that’s what the data is available for. In Germany and Sweden, and I think also Austria and the Netherlands, they report all-trip mode shares, which are harder to compare because of how pedestrian and cyclist trip-chaining is treated.

      That said: we can compare overall public transit ridership with commute mode shares, and we’ll see a big US underperformance. For example, metro New York has a 31% mode share and around 105 annual rail trips per capita (and few bus trips that don’t connect to rail), whereas metro Lyon has a 20% mode share and 127 annual rail trips per capita excluding TERs (or just 86 if you exclude trams, which you shouldn’t). This is screaming “people in Lyon take the Metro way more for non-work trips,” esp. since the French work year has fewer days than the American one because of the long paid vacations. Similarly, metro Hamburg, one of not many parts of Germany for which I have work trip data, has 26% work trip mode share but 160 annual U- and S-Bahn trips per capita; even taking U-to-S-Bahn transfers, this has to involve extensive non-work travel.

      • Rico

        Alon, Vancouver has a periodic reporting of trips. The 2017 info was recently released. You should be able to Google translink trip diary.

  3. Coridon Henshaw

    I have some comments as someone who lives in greater Vancouver and uses transit regularly:

    There are some bus lanes here, but they’re mostly short queue jumpers to get around traffic congestion at critical choke points such as bridge approaches. There will be more bus lanes in operation in a few weeks when the new express bus branding (RapidBus) launches, but these are again mostly block-long queue jumpers and are not a complete network.

    RapidBus will also see the introduction of all-doors boarding on more routes.

    As far as I’m aware, the reason fares for the bus network decoupled from those for the rail network and ferry is that the Compass smartcard system is technically incapable of billing for distance-based fares on buses. The rumor posted to social networks when Compass was in testing was that the vendor could not get on-bus tap-outs to register with the accounting backend quickly enough for distance-based billing to work. I have no idea if this rumor is correct or is just the result of many layers of people playing telephone.

    By far the biggest problems with the day-to-day operation of the Metro Vancouver bus network stem from indifferent management that shows no evidence of caring enough about the quality and reliability of service to address problems that would be resolved cheaply and easily. Dysfunctional public attitudes and politics are the greatest impediments to long-term improvements.

    For example, I live at the rural extreme edge of Metro; the only bus in this area runs hourly to a peripheral transit exchange. The rural bus is scheduled to arrive at the same minute that the 3tph express departs the exchange to downtown, meaning that any trip from where I live to the rest of the city involves waiting the entire headway of the express service. Translink doesn’t see this as a problem.

    Similarly, Translink spent considerable money on a GPS tracking system for the bus fleet–complete with driver’s data displays that show operators their on-time performance–but they do not make universal use of this data to fight bunching or to maintain schedule reliability. Whenever there’s a major traffic disruption, Translink makes no effort to restore normal headways. 1h gaps in services that are supposed to run at 3tph are common.

    Further reliability problems stem from an overloaded road network that has above free-flow traffic volumes for at least twelve hours a day, very slow cleanup of car crashes (8h+) and extreme security overreactions that halt transit service, or block the road network, for extended periods.

    Extreme unreliability has a negative impact on ridership.

    Despite transit’s high usage here, there is a widespread view that transit only serves as a means for criminals and the poor to invade wealthy parts of the city. In one wealthy enclave of NIMBYs, there were *street protests* against bus service improvements with popular complaints ranging from fears of buses killing children by reversing over them to a widespread belief that adding an express bus (to an area that already has a 5tph local bus) would bankrupt every local business and bring homeless drug addicts to every doorway. There is also a popular perception that the rail stations are crime hubs, despite the fact that there is no statistical evidence of such. These attitudes are very widespread and have a negative impact on the prospects of any future service improvements.

    • Matthew Hutton

      Singapore had tap out smartcard fares on their buses more than 10 years ago. It’s a solved problem.

  4. SB

    “And yet, trying to just set up a bus grid in your average American city yields Potemkin buses”
    Yet how did Winnipeg and Ottawa (which it only had diesel light rail until this year) got respectable (relative to US) modal share though buses?

    • Coridon Henshaw

      Ottawa is a special case because it has what is probably the most effective BRT network in North America. The bus backbone in Ottawa has a grade separated right of way with limited stops, offline stations, and 90km/h+ speed limits in places. It’s essentially light rail without the rails rather than a bus service.

      Indeed, the BRT right of way was designed from the outset to be converted to rail in the event the city grew to need the extra capacity. Ottawa’s new rail line was that plan coming to fruition as the light rail line is mostly a conversion of the core section of the BRT right of way into light rail with a new tunnel to go under downtown core traffic congestion. Phase 2 of the Ottawa rail plan (if it gets built) will see most of the rest of the BRT alignment converted to rail.

      I think it was a mistake to route the rail alignment along the BRT right of way east of downtown as Ottawa has developed such that the stops on the alignment are in low-density nonresidential land, but changing the route to serve housing regions to the north would have been cost prohibitive.

      Another issue that might be responsible for high transit use in Ottawa is that a very large percentage of the Ottawa population is connected to the federal government and likely has different attitudes towards the value of funding, and using, public services than would be the case in somewhere like Alberta or Alabama.

      • rossbleakney

        Right, and there is no reason why U. S. cities can’t do the same sort of thing. Don’t build hugely expensive subway lines that stretch for miles outside the city, running next to the freeway, with stations that consist of giant parking lots. Don’t run slow trains down thoroughfares in low density parts of the city. Build BRT where you don’t have the ridership per mile, and rail where you do. Make sure all the major attractions are served well — quality over quantity. Then make sure that you have good bus connections along the way, especially as you extend the system outward. Don’t just terminate the buses at the station, either — the buses should cross, forming a grid.

        Most U. S. cities lack the density to produce high ridership from walk-up riders. Park and Ride lots don’t scale. Building a thorough, high quality rail system is too expensive (given high U. S. costs). The only way most U. S. cities can build a decent transit network is by creating a system that relies on rail (or BRT) quickly serving a handful of high quality destinations along with good crossing feeder buses.

        • Henry

          Seattle did this, but then ran into the problem of “we want way more service than there are drivers”. So now the busway tunnel has been fully converted to light rail.

          • rossbleakney

            I live in Seattle, and have followed transit issues for years. I’ve never heard, nor have I ever read anyone use that as a justification for converting the bus tunnel to a rail tunnel. It was just a case of wanting to invest in more transit infrastructure (i. e. build more tunnels). They could have done that by building more bus tunnels, but that wouldn’t have made much sense for the key corridor (University of Washington to downtown Seattle) which is not really a branch and trunk area, but more of a continuous corridor (with urban areas in between). Anyway, the light rail system is about ten years old, and very few buses have been truncated. Since the buses have been kicked out of the tunnel, the city is still not at the point where the train has made bus travel easier over all. In a few years, there will be significant truncations, and that will be the case, but it was hardly the motivation for building the subway system.

          • Mike

            The driver shortage was earlier, at the beginning of the post-recession recovery. The vote to expand light rail was in 2016. The problem with fully implementing increased bus service became manifest after that, and it wasn’t because of a lack of drivers, it’s because the bus barns are full and there’s no room for more buses. That’s a temporary problem that will be solved in the next few years. It doesn’t have any bearing on long-term rail plans that wouldn’t open until the 2030s anyway.

        • Coridon Henshaw

          Given that this subthread started with asking why Ottawa is a transit success story, it’s worth mentioning that Ottawa breaks most of your rules for good transit service. In Ottawa, the BRT alignment (which is planned to become the future light rail alignment) runs down a freeway away from the CBD, most peripheral stations are surrounded by park and ride lots, the non-BRT local bus routes absolutely do not grid, and the pre-rail BRT alignment included a section of extremely slow running in mixed traffic downtown. Despite this, Ottawa is a transit success story.

          • Ottawa man

            No. I live in Ottawa. You are factually incorrect in a few unimportant ways, and fundamentally wrong in an essential way.

            Ottawa’s segregated ROW busway reduced transit mode share (work trips) when introduced in the eighties, which took years to recover. Since just past the turn of the millenium, ridership has been roughly flat, despite rising population.

            The busway also worked to destroy transit culture for non work trips. Planners contorted local routes to make greater use of the new expensive concrete, making the overall system less useful. My fifties suburb was a livable one car neighbourhood, with good direct bus access to shopping before the busway. Now all bus routes are routed through the downtown oriented busway, and it takes 30 minutes and a transfer to get to a grocery store 4kms away.

            The implementation of LRT is following a similarly stupid pattern. The train is commuter oriented, and all bus routes, whether commuter or not, are contorted and truncated to use this new expensive gee-gaw. Operating costs (frequency) were cut to cover the capital costs of the new train. The new “frequent” bus network has fifteen
            minutes or worse headway
            — it’s about as “frequent” as it is a “Hyperloop”. Expect ridership to stagnate or fall (also because of the rail implementation disaster — apparently Alstom can’t build working trains.).

            Ottawa is not an example of good transit decisions. It is an example of an unkillable transit culture, despite repeated construction of badly designed, badly implemented higher order transit. It illustrates that above concrete, electronics, or organization, it is culture that determines ridership.

            That is good news for Canada, but a deadly lesson for the USA. Give up, American transit advocates — Canada’s success only teaches you that your cause is hopeless.

          • Nilo

            Seems false given even semi-competent work in Seattle is producing big changes. It’s seen like a 9 point mode share shift in the last decade. In the other direction WMATA’s catastrophic incompetence has cut transit ridership within a decade by hundreds of thousands of riders.

    • lcpitkan

      Does Winniped have a grid network? The original claim is only relevant to grid networks.

      Ottawa had BRT, now party LRT, so they do have a rapid transit element as well, although I don’t believe the rest of the bus network is a grid either?

  5. Nilo

    I’m madly hopeful that the mayor will eventually let the Metra Electric and Rock Island lines have frequency boosts and integrate with the CTA, but who knows.

    I’d be curious to hear from somebody who knows like Jonathan English how many bus service hours does Toronto have, and how many Chicago has to get an idea of what order of magnitude in service increase would be required to experience Toronto level L usage. One worry I’d have about Chicago is outside of the red and blue lines, which are currently undergoing capacity upgrades. All the other lines share the Loop downtown, and therefore all mutually put some limit on the capacity of each other. Obviously there’s probably a lot of capacity on some of these lines right now, but if memory serves the Orange line only has 8 trains per hour, and the pink, purple, and green line aren’t any more frequent. That means if you have success with this strategy you’re probably going to need to investigate how to build expensive tunnels pretty soon.

    • Alon Levy

      So far she’s doing the opposite – she’s turf warring with Metra because she doesn’t control it and the county official who does is a political rival of hers.

      • Nilo

        Yes which is very bad. But I hope pressure will eventually force her to compromise in some way. To first order Toronto runs twice!!! as many bus service hours as Chicago.

  6. Nathanael

    I’m actually curious which agencies in the US are currently helpful with regard to trying to get costs back in line, and which aren’t. Understanding that this can change quickly.

    Right now I’d guess Boston is being helpful (after watching what they’ve done recently) and that NY isn’t (based on its history) but I haven’t a clue about anyone else, and I’m only guessing about those two.

    • Alon Levy

      All I’m going to say is that if I wanted to put people on the spot right now, I’d name names. Remember, it’s a 2-year project, and it’s plausible that different agencies will react differently as the report evolves.

  7. threestationsquare

    > One American city has similar characteristics to Toronto and Vancouver when it comes to buses: Chicago.
    What distinction between Chicago and SF/Seattle/DC/Philadelphia are you drawing here?

    > American cities don’t have that – there are no competitive partisan elections anywhere with some semblance of public transportation.
    What about the governorships in Massachusetts, Maryland or New Jersey?

    • Alon Levy

      These aren’t ideological elections. The Republicans who run on keeping taxes low really run on divided government, not on a positive vision, while the Democrats run on “we’re Democrats and our state votes for Democrats,” with such an unrealistic wishlist that it falls to a Republican or moderate Democratic governor to prune. In New York it traditionally fell to the state senate to say no, and now that there’s full Democratic control, the populist impulses of the assembly led to a rent law that the governor and most likely a majority of members of both houses did not want to see enacted.

      • rossbleakney

        Yes, and most of the U. S. has that problem. Republicans are no longer interested in good governance. They are simply interested in lowering taxes. They are no longer interested in the “best bang for the buck” (a phrase made famous by the second best Republican President); they want don’t want to pay any bucks.

        Democrats, meanwhile, largely just fight to spend anything. There are a handful of moderates on both parties trying to do the hard work of analyzing the various projects, but it largely falls on deaf ears.

        Consider the Sound Transit 3 proposal, which went to a public vote a couple years ago in the greater Seattle area. This was a massively large mass transit proposal (especially for a city that size) with dubious projects: https://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2016/04/06/youve-got-50-billion-for-transit-now-how-should-you-spend-it/. Yet there was very little debate as to whether we should spend money on that proposal, or something better. Almost all of the debate was between those who “loved transit”, and those who “hated taxes”. The only reason such a monstrosity was proposed was because it largely pleased the various shareholders (e. g. local governments, excited to see light rail come to their city). It passed, largely along expected ideological lines. Urban neighborhoods that would get nothing out of the proposal voted in favor. Either they just assumed this was the best we could get, or they figured they would be next. Both ideas are based on ignorance — the proposal is gigantic and not very good; there is no reason to believe that the Seattle area will ever build anything else.

        • Henry

          Seattle hasn’t quite used *all* the funding mechanisms at its disposal yet; the old monorail taxing authority is still authorized (and if someone pushed for it, could be amended). The city of Seattle hasn’t quite run out of enthusiasm for transit taxation, judging by the overwhelming rejection in the city and county for I-976. And projects like RapidRide and CCC are funded using completely different mechanisms than Sound Transit.

          ST3 was probably as good as it was going to get for Seattle given the subarea equity policy. Seattle simply can’t afford a lot of Seattle-centric light rail on its own, and ST is designed so that everyone gets *their* share. IIRC sub area equity was even bent a little bit to get funding for the second downtown tunnel.

  8. Henry

    Where else can I read about Toronto GO RER being botched? First I‘m hearing of it.

    Also, what do you think about the Ontario Line proposal vs the original Downtown Relief Line?

    • Alon Levy

      Jonathan English has more details, but the gist is that the RER has some insanely high costs, because they figured the benefits were so high they didn’t really need to hold down costs. IIRC there are infill stations for $100 million in that project.

      And what I think about the DRL vs. Ontario Line is that I don’t care what it’s called, just build it for less than C$700 million per km.

      • Zach

        Infill stations have been shelved, and for the most part new stations now require TOD-based private money to proceed. Beyond that, where do you think the problem lies? As far as I can tell RER (officially called the OnCorr project) seems to be moving forward smoothly.

  9. Ross Bleakney

    In the land of the blind…

    Anyway, I could be wrong, but I think the biggest difference between the U. S. and Canada is that Canada avoids huge mistakes. When I think of flaws within the Canadian transit system, I immediately think of things they should build, not things they shouldn’t have. The Montreal and Toronto subways are too small. Vancouver needs to build the UBC/Broadway line. The fact that expansion costs too much plays a big part in the lack of it. But what are the worst mistakes in Canadian transit development? Other than Sheppard Line in Toronto, I can’t think of anything. As mentioned, places like Vancouver spend too much time and money dealing with the suburbs (instead of building what should be built next) but the problem is nowhere near what it is in the U. S. Package up all the mistakes made by all the various cities in Canada, and it is nothing like those found in just Sacramento, Dallas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Denver, or even Seattle. In other words, one typical city in the U. S. has made (or is in the process of making) as many mistakes as all the Canadian cities put together.

    It seems silly to praise a country for not making mistakes. It seems fairly easy to just stick with what you’ve built, or build a minimal amount of infrastructure. But this approach — however flawed — works much better than the U. S. model, which almost always involves an ambitious plan to build miles and miles of big, shiny mass transit, then fail miserably to execute. Bad stations, trains stuck slogging through downtown on the surface, long distance lines to suburban stations in the middle of nowhere — or worse yet, right next to the freeway. These sap the transit agency of funds and enthusiasm. Once you spend all that money building the mass transit system, and ridership dreams fall short, you have a tough time running the trains frequently, let alone building a transit system around it. Canadian cities don’t have enough rail (in part because they spend too much money building it). But by and large, the rail they have is extremely popular. Wikipedia makes a somewhat arbitrary distinction between “rapid transit” and “light rail” when it comes to North American systems (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_North_American_rapid_transit_systems_by_ridership, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_North_American_light_rail_systems_by_ridership). What is striking to me is not only how well the Canadians do in terms of overall ridership, but how well they do in ridership per mile. In boardings per mile for “mass transit”, 3 of the top 10 are Canadian (the same number as the U. S.) and nothing below that. Light rail is similar — every Canadian system has at least 3,000 people per mile. There are dozens of U. S. cities with ridership below that. Some of those are surface rail (streetcars, AKA trams) built on the cheap, but there are plenty of systems that aren’t. These were expensive to build, and are essentially subways — with plenty of capacity — that just isn’t needed. City after city has made a big investment in a mass transit system that was supposed to change everything, then found that it was largely irrelevant. Most transit riders in the area still take the bus, and the bus isn’t that good, because of all the money they spent (and still spend) on the train.

    • Lee Ratner

      I think the main problem is that American politicians and civil servants can eventually build transit despite so many perverse incentives to continue favoring car based transportation, they can’t implement policies that will encourage transit use and punish car use. Policies that would punish car use like realistic gas taxes and other costs on owning and operating a car are a definite no go. Powerful coalitions of voters prevent relaxing or reforming zoning to make transit use more practicable by densifying and commercializing the areas around transit lines. There was a four year battle over a laundromat in the Bay Area because some local activists claimed that the building had historical value because local activists that are kind of sort of famous had offices in the building the laundromat was located in. The activists lost but it was four years of a ridiculous fight to replace a laundromat with much needed housing. Getting politicians brave enough to ignore the worst desires of their voters is going to be a minor miracle.

    • Henry

      I believe the other main difference is that Canadians have no issue shoveling massive amounts of (bus) service hours into their networks, even in places that look like crappily laid out American suburbs: https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2018/11/28/a-suburban-model-for-incremental-transit

      American agencies usually bet the farm on a big rail investment but cut back bus hours as an economy measure, with Seattle probably being the only exception to that rule. And even if they don’t, they hate funding “wasteful” service; Nassau County, NY had its system privatized to save money, and the resulting slashes in routes and services caused transit ridership to plummet by a third over a few years.

      • rossbleakney

        I believe the other main difference is that Canadians have no issue shoveling massive amounts of (bus) service hours into their networks, even in places that look like crappily laid out American suburbs


        American agencies usually bet the farm on a big rail investment but cut back bus hours as an economy measure, with Seattle probably being the only exception to that rule.

        Give Seattle time. OK, not Seattle proper — the city itself has started funding bus service beyond what the County (which runs the buses) is willing to provide. In the rest of the county (and especially other counties, that are in part funding the rail line) there have been minor cutbacks, but mostly it a case of not improving the transit system despite the area growing.

        • Henry

          It’s not all stormclouds.
          Community Transit is doing some planning for increased service hours:

          Community Transit has long discussed its plans to radically restructure its commuter and local bus networks in anticipation of Lynnwood Link, and its first concepts were presented to the Snohomish County Council this week. First noticed last month by The Urbanist, the agency briefed the County Council on its preliminary plans for its 600,000 annual service hours, including a portion saved from avoiding the long slog on Interstate 5 south of the county line.

          By and large, the commuter network would be truncated to Lynnwood City Center and Mountlake Terrace stations, which will both include large bus transfer areas. At Lynnwood City Center (today’s Lynnwood TC), Community Transit anticipates that commuter and local buses will arrive and depart from one of its bays every 35 seconds during peak periods, traveling out to Interstate 5 via its direct HOV ramp or onto nearby streets. The station will have 20 layover spaces for double-decker buses that will be held to meet Link trains as they arrive at the station.

          Sound Transit is also reviewing more frequent, truncated service:

          Potentially 10 bus routes would be restructured to connect to light rail, including four ST Express bus routes that now run between Snohomish County and downtown Seattle and six Community Transit bus routes that currently run to the University of Washington campus.

          The changes would result in shorter, more frequent bus trips, Sound Transit officials said in a press release.

          And there’s Metro Connects for King County Metro as well. Granted, they have to actually execute that, and things like I-976 keep throwing up potential roadblocks, but at least people are making the right noises, which is a hell of a lot more than most other regions could say.

          • rossbleakney

            The Seattle region is booming right now — I wouldn’t expect cutbacks anytime soon. When they occur, they won’t be felt evenly. Snohomish County may be OK, as will areas served by Sound Transit express buses. But those represent a small part of the overall bus network. Pierce County will likely get hammered, but like Snohomish County, their system doesn’t carry that many riders to begin with. It is King County outside of Seattle that will likely see the most damage, as tens of thousands of riders deal with cutbacks (as they have in the past). Other than Seattle and maybe Bellevue, though, I wouldn’t expect any area to have anything resembling decent service, and as a result, nothing resembling good ridership share.

    • Alon Levy

      First of all, “Penn Station is the second most heavily trafficked transit hub in the world, trailing only Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station” is painfully wrong; I’m not sure Penn cracks the top 50. It reminds me of an old myth at the Technion, which is that it’s the #2 technical university in the world, after MIT, because what are the Polytéchnique, Caltech, etc.?.

      Second, New York’s construction costs began exploding in the 1930s. The lines built in the 1960s-80s were already up to around $800 million/km in today’s money.

      And third, the article talks at length about Penn Station as placemaking but never about its utility as a passenger rail station. The agency turf battles between the LIRR, NJ Transit, and Amtrak are a huge problem that has nothing to do with Moses backlash – in fact this problem was apparent even in the 1950s, when the state built the Tappan Zee Bridge at the widest point on the river just to avoid Port Authority jurisdiction. The total lack of integrated planning between timetables, rolling stock, and infrastructure is in line with how the US has always built rail infrastructure – integrated planning is a recent innovation emanating out of Switzerland.

      • Nilo

        To add Mexico City also has a busier rail station, so like the article is just full of wrong facts.

        • Lee Ratner

          The article is wrong in facts but it has an element of truthiness. Building big projects does seem harder now that it did in earlier eras because average citizens have more avenues to oppose them, for better or worse. Tools that were meant to protect the environment are used as weapons of NIMBYism. There is also a lot skepticism of government programs across the political spectrum. Things that used to be seen as examples of civic pride are now hated. Building transit requires the public to see it as a good thing, even when it is built and operated by private companies or an ability to ignore the houndings of the NIMBYs.

          • Eric

            I think it also depends on where in the US. NYC seems to have an unusual degree of gridlock for various reasons. But Dallas built a giant light rail system without too much opposition. Atlanta built a metro system post-Moses and a streetcar in recent years. The Washington Metro is entirely post-Moses, and its failings are in operations not expansion. The Bay Area continues to expand Muni and BART. Sure, in many cases these cities built the *wrong* things (or at least things that didn’t justify their costs), due to lack of competence. But NIMBYism and bureaucracy didn’t prevent them from being built.

          • Henry

            I don’t even think building big projects is very hard in New York, certainly not because of NIMBYism. Almost major transportation project in the last two decades has been cancelled by NIMBYs. We built, or are building
            – New South Ferry
            – Fulton Center
            – WTC Hub
            – SAS Phase I
            – SAS Phase II
            – Moniyhan
            – East Side Access
            – new Kosciuszko Bridge
            All with varying shades of disruption, but no one was ever adamantly opposed to a new project, and no project has died a death related to NIMBYism save for the N to LaGuardia. And all of the people who opposed that are probably dead or have retired somewhere else.
            The only recent transportation project-related uproars have been over the Port Authority Bus Terminal replacement, which at one point proposed leveling a block of Midtown West for the small sum of $10B, or the BQE rebuild which will replace a park with a six lane highway “temporarily”. Neither of which are really unreasonable positions.

          • adirondacker12800

            the Port Authority Bus Terminal replacement, which at one point proposed leveling a block of Midtown West for the small sum of $10B

            The cheaper way to solve that problem would be to have the New Jerseyans go down to the train station to catch a train instead of going down to the train station to catch a bus. The 10 billion dollar plan for the bus terminal has the problem that there isn’t enough tunnel to serve it. Or enough road for the tunnel.

          • Henry

            Many places at the bus terminal don’t have rail connections as it is. Forcing another transfer on already long commutes would probably be a great way to tank ridership even further.

            I think the current alternative they’re looking at is using basement space at the Javits Center, given that it’s already a very large building with lots of loading space and easy access to the Lincoln Tunnel, and some bus pickups already happen in that area.

          • adirondacker12800

            Bus ridership collapsed when Midtown Direct opened. All the people who had been going down to the train station to catch a bus decided to take the train because it’s now faster than a bus. They’ll do it other places that get train access to Midtown. Leaves plenty of space for the buses that serve places without trains. Without building more highway in New Jersey.

      • Matthew Hutton

        If we take 8000 per hour peak passengers and assume a four hour peak twice a day peak that’s 16 million peak journeys a year. Hard to claim with that sort of peak that it has as many total passengers as Kings Cross and Paddington in London who have a total of 30 odd million passengers a year.

        • Henry

          The Wikipedia page for Penn Station (citing the agencies that uses it) says that for FY2017 there were
          – 27.2 million passengers on NJT
          – 10.3 million passengers on Amtrak
          – 69.7 million passengers on the LIRR

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