Two weeks ago, I found a board game store in Vancouver, and through it a variety of gaming events. The store is located about five blocks from my apartment, and I first saw it from a bus nearly two months after moving to Vancouver. It’s in the same neighborhood; to get from my apartment to the store requires walking on ordinary city streets with sufficient sidewalks and room to cross. However, those streets are residential, and so I have no reason to walk in that direction. It creates a split in what is formally the same neighborhood.
In my section of Vancouver, the two major throughfares are 4th Avenue and Broadway (9th). There is some retail elsewhere (e.g. on Cornwall, which is -1st, and even more so on Granville Island), but it’s not the continuous commercial development on the two major avenues. Even if it’s as big as Granville Island, it requires me to go specifically to it, whereas on 4th I can go until I see something I am interested in. Before I had wi-fi installed in my apartment, which is on 1st but which I got to by taking a 4th Avenue bus, I walked on 4th until I saw a cafe with free wi-fi and sat there.
This continuous retail ends roughly at the cross street I live on. It extends far east: on Broadway it’s to and beyond Cambie, but to the west it ends just west of Arbutus; on 4th, it extends east to about the Granville Bridge. As I said in my first post about Vancouver, the development on Broadway is fairly spiky, with peaks around Cambie, Granville, and Arbutus, but there’s also a base of 1- to 2-story retail. On 4th, the development is just continuous 1- to 2-story retail. The next major street west of Arbutus, Macdonald, has retail clusters at both Broadway and 4th, but on both avenues there’s a two-block residential gap between the Arbutus side and the Macdonald side. Living on the Arbutus side, I learned early that if I walk east there are cafes, stores, and restaurants immediately, and if I walk west there aren’t. The result is that even though in principle Macdonald is in my neighborhood whereas anything more than three blocks east of Arbutus isn’t, I go this far east of Arbutus much more than I go to Macdonald.
The main advantage of grid street networks over the gridless network of e.g. Providence is that they can provide continuous development, making it easy for people to spontaneously walk in all directions. In Providence spontaneity was provided only by the fact that I knew where the various retail clusters on the East Side were; in reality I would almost always go to Thayer rather than Wickenden or Wayland Square. In gridded cities neighborhoods are less formally defined around one center, but instead evolve more organically, since the center can shift over time and the street network doesn’t distinguish it from the boundary with the next neighborhood over.
On a broader level, this spontaneity is a good way to promote more access. If I can walk to interesting retail in more directions, there’s a higher chance I’ll find something that suits my interests, just as the gaming store does. It provides the same benefits as an increase in density or in travel speed, in this case specialization of retail.
The relative costs of different technologies of transit are not fixed. Although there are some rules of thumb for the ratio of tunneling cost to above-ground transit cost, the actual ratio depends on the city and project, and this would favor the mode that’s relatively cheaper. Likewise, the ratio of operating to capital costs is not always fixed, and of course long-term real interest rates vary between countries, and this could again favor some modes: more expensive construction and cheaper operations favor buses, the opposite situations favor rail.
In general, els cost 2-2.5 times as much as at-grade light rail, subways 4-6 times as much, according to Table 6 in this Flyvbjerg paper; Table 5, sourced to a different previous paper, estimates per-km costs, and has ratios of 1.8 and 4.5 respectively.
However, specifically in Vancouver, the premiums of elevated and underground construction appear much lower. The cost estimates for rail transit to UBC are $2.9 billion for an almost entirely underground extension of SkyTrain and $1.1 billion for at-grade light rail along Broadway, both about 12 km. Elevated construction is in the middle, though closer to the light rail end: the estimates for the two all-elevated SkyTrain extension alternatives into Surrey are $900 million for 6 km for rapid transit alternative 3 and $1.95 billion for 15.5 km for alternative 1. The under-construction Evergreen Line, which is 11 km long of which about 2 are in tunnel, is $1.4 billion.
In the rest of Canada, this seems to be true as well, though the evidence is more equivocal since the projects that are considered above-ground are often elevated rather than at-grade. The Canadian above-ground projects that Rob Ford’s Eglinton subway is compared with are not wholly above ground. Calgary’s West LRT, which with the latest cost overrun is $1.4 billion (a multiple of the preexisting three-line system) for 8 km, includes a 1.5 km tunnel, a short trench, and some elevated segments. Edmonton’s North LRT is $750 million for 3.3 km, of which about 1 km is in tunnel and the rest at-grade. But while it’s hard to find the exact ratio because of those mixed projects, the costs are not consistent with the ratios found in Flyvbjerg’s sources.
Outside Canada, those ratios seem to hold up better. American above-ground transit projects, such as the Portland Milwaukie extension and the Washington Silver Line, are as expensive as Calgary and Edmonton’s light rail, but American subways are much more expensive than Toronto’s Eglinton subway ($325 million/km, 77% underground and the rest elevated): Manhattan tunneling is more difficult, so its $1.3-1.7 billion/km cost may not be representative, but conversely, BART to San Jose’s $4 billion for about 8 km of tunnel is for tunneling partially under a wide railroad right-of-way, with no crossings of older subway infrastructure as is the case for Eglinton at Yonge.
Conversely, French tunneling costs are comparable to or lower than Canadian ones, but at-grade light rail is far less expensive than in North America. The RER E extension was at least as of 2009 budgeted at €1.58-2.18 billion for 8 km of tunnel (see PDF-page 79 here; this excludes €620 million in improvements to the existing commuter lines the tunnel will be linked with) – somewhere between the per-km costs of Vancouver and Toronto subways, but in a much denser environment with more infrastructure to cross. But the cost range for Parisian trams is much lower, about €30-50 million per km, in line with the subway:tram cost ratio of 4-6; the cost range in other French cities tends to be a little lower.
What this means is that in Canada in general, and in Vancouver in particular, questions about what mode to build should have higher-end answers than elsewhere. It doesn’t mean that the Eglinton subway is justified, but it does bias suburban rail lines in Vancouver toward elevated SkyTrain extensions rather than light rail, and inner extensions toward SkyTrain subways. For the same cost of building a subway under Broadway, Translink couldn’t build too much additional light rail; it could build two lines, say on Broadway and 41st, or maybe three if both non-Broadway routes are short, but certainly nothing like the entire network that SkyTrain opponents believe is the alternative, citing European tramway construction costs.
In New York, two neighborhoods at the edge of the city have both subway and commuter rail service: Wakefield and Far Rockaway. Wakefield has 392 inbound weekday Metro-North boardings, and 4,955 weekday subway boardings. Far Rockaway has 158 riders (an average of boardings and alightings) and 4,750 subway boardings. Although both Wakefield and Far Rockaway are served by the 2 and A, which run express in Manhattan, those trains make many local stops farther out – in fact the 2 and A are the top two routes in New York for total number of stations – and are much slower than commuter rail: the 2 takes 50 minutes to get to Times Square while Metro-North gets to Grand Central within 25-30 minutes; the A takes about 1:05 to get to Penn Station, the LIRR about 55 minutes.
Vancouver, whose commuter rail service runs 5 daily roundtrips, all peak-hour, peak-direction, has a weekday ridership of 10,500. The Evergreen Line, duplicating the inner parts of the commuter rail service, is expected to get 70,000.
Caltrain, a service of intermediate quality between Vancouver’s peak-only trains and New York’s semi-frequent off-peak electrified service, has an intermodal station at Millbrae, which is now BART’s southern terminal. Millbrae has 5,970 BART exits per weekday versus 2,880 Caltrain boardings. And BART takes a circuitous route around the San Bruno Mountain and only serves San Francisco and the East Bay, while Caltrain takes a direct route to just outside the San Francisco CBD and serves Silicon Valley in the other direction.
The MBTA provides both subway and commuter rail service, with several intermodal stations: Forest Hills, Quincy Center, Braintree, Porter Square, Malden, JFK-UMass. In all cases, ridership levels on the subway are at least 30 times as high as on commuter rail. Rapid transit and commuter rail stations are close together at the edge of the Green Line’s D line, a former commuter line; the line’s outer terminus, Riverside, gets 2,192 weekday boardings, while the nearest commuter rail station, Auburndale, gets 301.
Across those systems and several more, such as Chicago’s Metra and Toronto’s GO Transit (no link, it’s private data), the commuter rail stations located within city limits, even ones not directly adjacent to a rapid transit station, usually get little ridership (there are some exceptions, such as Ravenswood on Chicago’s UP-N Line). The suburban stations beyond reasonable urban transit commute range are much busier.
Of course, this is just a North American problem. In Japan, where commuter rail and urban rapid transit are seamlessly integrated, people ride commuter rail even when the subway is an option. Consult this table of ridership by line and station for JR East lines in Tokyo: not only would any investigation of ridership on the main lines (e.g. Tokaido on PDF-page 1, Chuo on PDF-page 8) show that their ridership distribution is much more inner-heavy than in New York and Boston, but also stations with transfers to the subway can have quite a lot of riders. Nakano on the Chuo Line, at the end of Tokyo Metro’s Tozai Line, has 247,934 daily boardings and alightings, comparable to its subway traffic of 133,919 boardings.
Although my various posts about commuter rail industry practices focus partially on operating costs, this is not directly what makes people choose a slower subway over a faster commuter train. Rather, it’s a combination of the following problems:
1. Poor service to microdestinations. Rapid transit gets you anywhere; North American commuter rail gets you to the CBD. For people in Wakefield who are going anywhere but the immediate Grand Central or East 125th Street area, Metro-North is not an option. Station spacing is too wide, which means the choice of destinations even from a station that isn’t closed is more limited, and trains usually make just one CBD stop.
2. Poor transfers to other lines. The transfers usually require paying an extra fare and walking long distances from one set of platforms to another.
3. High fares. In the German-speaking world, and in Paris proper, fares are mode-neutral. It costs the same to ride the RER as the Metro, except for a handful of recent Metro extensions to the suburbs that postdate the RER, such as to La Defense. In Japan, JR East fares are comparable to subway fares, though there are no free transfers. In North America this is usually not the case: it costs much more to ride commuter rail than to ride a parallel subway or light rail line.
4. Low frequency. This is partly a result of low ridership based on the previous factors, partly a tradition that was never reformed, and partly a matter of very high operating costs. With low enough off-peak frequency (Wakefield and Far Rockaway are served hourly midday), commuter rail can achieve cost recovery similar to that of subways, and in some cities even surpass it. People who have no other options will ride hourly trains.
None of those problems is endemic to mainline rail. They’re endemic to North American mainline rail culture, and in some cases to labor practices. It’s all organization – it’s not a problem of either electronics or concrete, which means that the cost to the taxpayers of fixing it, as opposed to the political cost to the manager who tries to change the culture, is low.
The electronics and concrete do matter when it comes to building extensions – and this is where the ARC Alt G vs. Alt P debate comes from, among many others – but even commuter rail systems that do not need such extensions underperform. For example, Toronto does not need a single meter of commuter rail tunnel. Philadelphia, which already got most of the concrete it needs and partially fixed the microdestination problem, gets somewhat more commuter rail ridership in areas where people have alternatives, but frequency on the branches is still pitiful and inner-city stop spacing outside Center City is still too wide, leading to disappointing ridership.
Another way to think about it is that infrastructure should be used for everything, and not segregated into local transit and railroad super-highways that aren’t very accessible to locals. There are eight tracks connecting Manhattan directly with Jamaica, but the four used by the subway are far busier than the four used almost exclusively by suburbanites. Something similar is true of the Metro-North trunk, and some MBTA and Metra lines – the commuter rail infrastructure is redundant with rapid transit and gives very high nominal capacity, but in reality much of it is wasted. In this way, the mainline rapid transit concept including the Paris RER, the Germanic S-Bahn, and the Japanese commuter rail network, far outperforms, because it mixes local and regional traffic, creating service that everyone can use.
Translink has a list of performance metrics per bus route here. Those include ridership, boardings per revenue-hour, crowding measured as a percentage of available seats, and operating cost per unlinked trip. Since the numbers are only given per route, without a single table or chart as one could find for Providence or New Haven, here are the busiest routes, per weekday:
1. 99 – 54,350
2. 20 – 27,900
3. 9 – 25,300
4. 41 – 24,800
5. 16 – 21,250
6. 8 – 20,150
7. 3 – 19,950
8. 49 – 19,700
9. 135 – 19,600
10. 25 – 19,300
The full sanitized data for daily and annual ridership, excluding minibuses and night buses, can be found here. I’ve verified that excluding minibuses and night buses doesn’t change the rankings in the top 50 routes.
Although Vancouver’s buses more or less run on a grid, the grid isn’t very clean. Some lines, like the 9 (Broadway), 99 (Broadway), 3 (Main), and 41 (41st), run more or less straight north-south or east-west, bending only at the ends, but many others do not. The 16 follows a broad U-shaped route, serving Arbutus on the West Side, feeding into downtown, and then going east on Hastings and then south on Renfrew. Multiple routes use Broadway for just a few blocks, to orient themselves to the correct north-south street. Others are L-shaped.
This makes it hard to figure out what the busiest corridors are (Vancouver has enough ridership that the 15-minute frequent network extends too far down to give us the busiest routes). Broadway is clearly the single busiest – if 99 and 9 are considered express and local versions of the same route, then Broadway has nearly 80,000 weekday bus riders, compared with 55,000 on 1st and 2nd Avenues in Manhattan, without counting buses that serve small segments of Broadway along their trip. Not counting buses that zigzag, the next busiest are 41st Avenue (41), Hastings (135, 160), Main, and 49th (49).
But this partial interlining does exist. So how busy is Hastings, anyway? If we add the buses that go on inner Hastings – 14, 16, 20, 135, and 160 – we get 90,000 weekday riders. But the 14 and 16 have half their route on the West Side, and the 20 turns south on Commercial; those are not just Hastings buses. The same problem happens on Main (the 8 partially runs on it), and 4th (west of Granville it interlines the 4, 7, and 84, and west of Macdonald also the 44, totaling 40,000 riders).
This doesn’t mean Hastings has more people riding the bus on it than there are taking the Millennium Line. I doubt it’s even close – the 16 and 20 have long north-south legs with connections to the Expo and Millennium Lines, so people from Fraserview and most of the Renfrew corridor are probably not traveling anywhere on Hastings. But most likely, whatever fraction of 90,000 Hastings has, it is probably the second busiest corridor, or maybe the third after 4th.
The obvious problem here is for SkyTrain development. Broadway is almost certainly getting rail, and judging by how far lesser-used corridors are getting SkyTrain extensions, Hastings should get one too. 4th is half a kilometer north of Broadway, but Hastings is 2 km north of the Millennium Line. Hastings’ distance to the West Coast Express is shorter, but it is an active freight line, with active port industry to its north, and often parks separating it from the street grid to the south. Frequent, frequent-stop commuter rail is still possible, but half the station radius is wasted on water, and the freight traffic is such that it might require too much multi-tracking to be cost-effective for the potential ridership.
I’ve been looking for Canadian mode share numbers that are more recent than 2006; although there was a census in 2011, it apparently did not include such numbers. However, a separate survey regarding commuting was published a year ago, using data from 2010. Mode shares are only included in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal, and those are listed separately for the city and the suburbs rather than for the whole metro area, but we can take a weighted average of population; it’s not perfect because the employment rate in the suburbs may be different from in the city, but it’s very close.
The result: Toronto’s transit mode share in 2010 was 22%, Montreal’s was 24%, and Vancouver’s was 21%. The Toronto number is the same as the numbers in 1996, 2001, and 2006. The Montreal number is a bit higher than past-decade numbers. And the Vancouver number compares with 14.3% in 1996 and 16.5% in 2006 (it was 11.5% in 2001, but there was a bus strike when the census was conducted).
Put another way, Vancouver gained 4.5 percentage points of transit mode share between 2006 and 2010. Judging by the opening of the Canada Line and its relatively high ridership, this is indeed plausible and doesn’t have to be a statistical artifact, though I’ll still want to see numbers a few years from now to confirm the new trend. If the trend holds, it’s over 11 percentage points per decade, enough to make Vancouver the metro area with the largest transit mode share by about 2019. It’s a similar rate of increase to what I included in my April Fool’s post for the US at large, intended to be at or beyond the outer limit of what is plausible if everything is done perfectly. Previously, I’d thought 3-5 points per decade were the best possible in Canada and Australia.
This means Translink has made major success with revival, as opposed to merely retaining old mode share by getting people who previously couldn’t afford a car to stick with transit even as they enter the middle class. If instead it is just an artifact of the Canada Line’s opening, then it suggests Vancouver will continue to do well in the next ten years, as the Evergreen Line and hopefully the UBC extension open. The Millennium Line opened in 2002 and so figures into the 1996-2006 increase, but its ridership is 80,000 a day, versus 110,000 on the Canada Line and an estimated 146,000 on the UBC extension and 70,000 on the Evergreen Line.
I moved to Vancouver last weekend. The slow pace of posting will probably continue for another week, but I do have multiple posts in the pipeline. I am currently at a downtown hotel, commuting to Kitsilano to look at apartments and to UBC to deal with early paperwork.
My appreciation of Translink dropped within a day, after I discovered that discounted books of multiple tickets and monthly passes are only available at 7-11 and other convenience stores, rather than at stations. (The ticket machines offer what appeared to be multiple-ride tickets but turned out to be single-ride tickets, perhaps usable by multiple people at once.) I still think it’s better-run than the other transit agencies of North America, but it has a lot to learn from New York regarding how to make fare media usable by passengers.
The most surprising pedestrian experience I’ve had is about the street width. The streets are wide, which is what I expected, based on Jarrett’s paean to the grid at Human Transit (which is necessarily wide in North America). What I did not expect was that the buildings would be so short away from downtown. Jarrett’s description of Central Broadway, around the Canada Line stop, as the second downtown, made me think Broadway was a continuous corridor of high-intensity development. It is not; it feels more like a secondary retail strip. The commercial buildings are usually one- or two-story, with some clusters of higher density at major street intersections, especially Cambie but also Granville, MacDonald, and others. This development is more spiky than linear, as if there’s already rapid transit on the route, rather than just interlined high-frequency buses.
Away from Broadway, Kitsilano feels very suburban – at least, the part of 11th Avenue I walked on does. The density looks higher than in Providence because a few of the buildings are tall, but most of the buildings have ornamental front lawns, and the sidewalks are narrow paths through the grass, more like a suburb than like the very old New England neighborhoods I had gotten used to over the past year.
There’s a point I made early on in this blog – I can’t remember where – about the relationship between street width and building height. To be pedestrian-friendly, a street needs to have a certain proportion between the height of the street wall – for example, the height of the buildings flanking it if they do not taper toward the top – and the width of the street. The ratio I initially proposed is 1:1, with a favorable range of 1:2 to 2:1; nowadays I’d propose higher ratios – Providence’s East Side’s 1:2 feels a bit too low, while the 2:1-3:1 on old streets in Boston and Providence feels fine – but the principle is similar.
Downtown Vancouver has what feels to me like correct proportions. With the setbacks and the tapering buildings, the height-to-width ratio is kept to average levels, with modernist skyscrapers balancing wide streets. Because there is high density in the core, the streets do not feel desolate, and the major streets are flush with ground-level retail. Buildings that look very similar to Akirov Towers do not make me feel the same revulsion toward their design; Akirov Towers are built like any housing project, but the towers of Downtown Vancouver feel like New York’s towers on a base. Although many of those buildings do not actually have any street wall, enough of them do that I feel like I’m walking in a human city.
Broadway does not have the same feel. From the bus, the trees frame the street, making it feel less like a highway. On foot, it’s different, and it feels more open and less dense. It works well enough for transit – the bus lines on it have extremely high traffic, much of it due to the pull of UBC – but the pedestrian experience is less than perfect. The street is 30 meters wide, the same as a Manhattan avenue or two-way street, and it needs to be framed by buildings about that tall.
UBC is the worst. Granted, it is summertime, so it’s more deserted than it is during the year. But Harvard Square, Kendall Square, College Hill, Morningside Heights, and even Yale are teeming with people at all times of year. UBC clearly has people – they fill the buses to the rest of the city – but the campus is so spread out there aren’t that many of them at one spot (or if there are, I haven’t found it). There is one cluster of restaurants at University Village, and a few cafes and other retail outlets sporadically located elsewhere, but nothing truly mixed-use the way any of the aforementioned Northeastern college neighborhoods are. There is a grid of major campus boulevards, built with landscaped lawns, but they end up feeling like a large urban renewal project. Columbia has some of those, but they have more people using them; the only Northeastern school I know that has similarly lonely throughfares is MIT, but MIT has its livelier parts at the main administration building and near its subway stop.
Somewhat away from the grid is UBC’s bus loop terminal. My first experience at UBC was stepping off the 99-B express bus to a terminal with a few bays for buses, surrounded by parking, and landscaped lawns that are far prettier from a moving vehicle than on foot. According to a presentation about the proposed subway under Broadway, UBC’s mode split among non-Vancouver residents is 71-27 in favor of cars. (Central Broadway’s is 77-21, which surprised me since it looks not particularly dense but not really auto-oriented the way UBC is). For Downtown, the comparable figure is 49-49.
Despite all this, Vancouver is by North American standards a reasonably successful transit city. Its transit usage is okay, and unlike in most North American cities, it is growing, if not as fast as I’d like. Translink believes that a Broadway subway would get 146,000 daily riders, up from 60,000 on the 99-B plus about 50,000 on local buses today; intuitively this feels low to me, though achieving high enough transit mode share to UBC and Central Broadway would probably require more fundamental changes to their urban design than is politically acceptable. For one, local activists would have to stop referring to the few mid-rises amidst the two-story retail at Broadway and Cambie as high-rise or high-intensity development. It’s nothing upzoning won’t fix, but upzoning this intense is unlikely. It’s really too bad, because walking on Broadway I feel insufficient height is the only problem on the street.