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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Interagency cooperation within metropolitan regions and on intercity rail lines where appropriate. This includes fare integration, schedule integration, and timetable-infrastructure integration.
- Urban upzoning, including both residential densification in urban neighborhoods and commercialization in and around city center.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.