Stockholm is currently expanding its transit system, with about 19 kilometers of subway extension, and another 6 kilometers of a commuter rail tunnel taking regional traffic off the at-capacity mainline. The subway extension, excluding rolling stock acquisition, costs about $2.1 billion, and the commuter rail extension $1.8 billion.
The US is currently building five subways: Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 (2.8 km, $4.6 billion), East Side Access (2.2 km, $10 billion), the first phase of the Wilshire subway (6.3 km, $2.8 billion), the Regional Connector (3.1 km, $1.4 billion), U-Link (5 km, $1.8 billion). Two more projects are partially underground: the Crenshaw/LAX Line, a total of 13.7 km of which 4.7 are underground, at a total cost of $2.1 billion, and the Warm Springs BART extension, a total of 8.6 km of which 1.6 are underground, at a total cost of $900 million. (Update 2/1: the Central Subway is $1.6 billion for 2.8 km. Thanks to Joel for pointing out that I forgot about it.)
The first observation is that Sweden has just
700 meters 3.5 km of subway under construction less than the US under construction, despite a vast gap in not only population but also current transit usage. Stockholm may have twice the per capita rail ridership of New York, but it’s still a small city, the size of Indianapolis, Baltimore, Portland, or Charlotte; 450 million annual rail trips is impressive for a city of its size, but the US combined has more than 3 billion. This relates to differences in costs: the amount of money Sweden is putting into heavy rail infrastructure is $3.9 billion, vs. $23.6 billion $25.2 billion among the seven eight US projects, which approaches the ratio of national subway and commuter rail ridership levels.
The second observation is that the US spending is not really proportional to current rail ridership. Two thirds of the spending is in New York, as is two thirds of US rail ridership, but nearly everything else is in Los Angeles, which takes in a majority of current subway construction route-length. Los Angeles is a progressive city and wants better public transit, but the same is true in many of the six major US transit cities – New York, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. And yet, of those six, only New York and San Francisco are building urban subways (BART’s one mile of tunnel is in a suburb, under a park).
The difference is that Los Angeles builds subways at $400-450 million per km in the city core (less in future phases of the Wilshire subway), whereas in most of the US, lines are either more expensive or more peripheral. Boston, the Bay Area, and Washington are expanding their rapid transit networks, but largely above-ground or in a trench, and only outside the core. Boston’s Green Line Extension is in a trench, but has had major budget overruns and is currently on the high side for a full subway ($3 billion for 6.9 km), and the MBTA is even putting canceling the project on the table due to the cost. Washington’s Silver Line Phase 2 is 18.5 km and $2.7 billion, in a highway median through the Northern Virginia suburbs. BART’s Warm Springs extension is about $100 million per km, which is not outrageously high, but the next extension of the line south, to Berryessa, is $2.3 billion for 16 km, all above ground.
Let us now stay on the North American West Coast, but go north, to Vancouver. Vancouver’s construction costs are reasonable: the cost projections for the Broadway subway (C$2.7 billion ex-vehicles, PDF-p. 95) are acceptable relative to route-length (12.4 km, PDF-p. 62) and very good relative to projected ridership (320,000 per weekday, PDF-p. 168). Judging by the costs of the Evergreen and Canada Lines, and the ridership evolution of the Canada Line, these projections seem realistic. And yet, in a May 2015 referendum about funding half the line as well as many other transit projects, 62% of the region’s voters, including a bare majority in Vancouver proper, voted no.
The referendum’s result was not a shock. In the few months before the vote, the polls predicted a large, growing no vote. Already in February, the Tyee was already comparing Vancouver negatively with Stockholm, and noting that TransLink’s regional governance structure was unusual, saying the referendum was designed to fail. This is not 100% accurate: in 2014, polls were giving the yes side a majority. The deterioration began around the end of 2014 or beginning of 2015: from 52-39 in December to 46-42 in January, to 27-61 in March. The top reason cited by no voters was that they didn’t trust TransLink to spend the money well.
This cannot be divorced from Vancouver’s Compass Card debacle: plans to replace paper tickets and SkyTrain’s proof-of-payment system with a regionwide smartcard, called Compass, and faregates on SkyTrain, were delayed and run over budget. The faregates aren’t even saving money, since TransLink has to pay an operating fee to vendor Cubic that’s higher than the estimated savings from reduced fare evasion. The height of the scandal was in 2014, but it exploded in early 2015, when TransLink replaced its manager amidst growing criticism. The referendum would probably have been a success a year earlier; it was scheduled in what turned out to be a bad period for TransLink.
The importance of the Vancouver example is that construction costs are not everything. Transit agencies need to get a lot of things right, and in some cases, the effects are quite random. (Los Angeles, too, had a difficult rollout of a Cubic-run faregate system.) The three key principles here are, then:
1. Absolute costs matter. They may not directly affect people’s perceptions of whether construction is too expensive. But when legislators have to find money for a new public transit project, they have some intuitive idea of its benefits, give or take a factor of perhaps 2. Gateway is being funded, even though with the latest cost overrun (to $23.9 billion) the benefit-cost ratio in my estimation is about 1/3, but this involved extensive lobbying by Amtrak, lying both to Congress and to itself that it is a necessary component of high-speed rail. Ordinary subways do not have the luxury of benefiting from agency imperialism the way the Gateway project did; if they’re too expensive, they’re at risk of cancellation.
2. Averaged across cities and a number of years of construction, cities and countries with lower construction costs will build more public transit. We see this in the US vs. Sweden. Of course, there are periods of more construction, such as now, and periods of less, such as around 2000, but this affects both countries right now.
3. Variations from the average are often about other issues of competence – in Vancouver’s case, the failure of the faregates and the delayed Compass rollout. Political causes are less important: Vancouver’s business community opposed the transit referendum and organized against it, but it’s telling that it did so and succeeded, whereas business communities in cities with more popular transit authorities support additional construction.
In a post from 2011, Yonah Freemark argued that California HSR’s projected cost’s upper end was just 0.18% of the projected GDP of California over a 20-year construction period. The implication: the cost of high-speed rail (and public transit in general) is small relative to the ability of the economy to pay. This must be paired with the sobering observation that the benefits of public transit are similarly small, or at most of the same order of magnitude.
New York’s survived decades without Second Avenue Subway. It’s a good project to have, provided the costs are commensurate with the benefits, but without cost containment, phase 2 is probably too expensive, and phases 3 and 4 almost certainly. What’s more, the people funding such projects – the politicians, the voters, even the community organizations – consider them nice-to-haves. The US has no formal mechanism of estimating benefit-cost ratios, and a lot of local political dysfunction, and this can distort the funding, to the point that Gateway is being funded even though at this cost it shouldn’t. But, first, even a factor of 3 distortion is unusual, and second, on average, these distortions cancel out. Democrats and Republicans shouldn’t plan on controlling either Congress or the White House more than about half the time, in the long run, and transit activists shouldn’t plan on political dysfunction persistently working in their favor.
The only route forward is to improve the benefit-cost ratio. On the benefit side, this means aggressive upzoning around subway stations, probably the biggest lacuna in Los Angeles’s transit construction program. But in New York, and even in the next five transit cities in the US, this is not the main problem: population density on many corridors is sufficient by the standards of such European transit cities as Stockholm, Berlin, London, and Munich, none of which is extraordinarily dense like Paris.
No: the main problem in most big US cities is costs, and almost only costs. Operating costs, to some extent, but mainly capital construction costs. Congress and the affected states apparently have enough political will to build a 5-km tunnel for $20 billion going on $24 billion; if this system could be built for $15 billion, they’d jump at the opportunity to take credit. The US already has the will to spend reasonable amounts of money on public transit. The difference is that its
$24 billion $25 billion of spending on subways buys 26 km 28.5 km of subway and 16 km of a mix of light rail and el, where it could be buying 120 km 125 km of subway. Work out where you’d build the extra 94 km 96.5 km and ask yourself if ignoring costs is such a good idea for transit activists.
Jarrett Walker has repeatedly called transit agencies and city zoning commissions to engage in anchoring: this means designing the city so that transit routes connect two dense centers, with less intense activity between them. For example, he gives Vancouver’s core east-west buses, which connect UBC with dense transit-oriented development on the Expo Line, with some extra activity at the Canada Line and less intense development in between; Vancouver has adopted his ideas, as seen on PDF-page 15 of a network design primer by Translink. In 2013, I criticized this in two posts, making an empirical argument comparing Vancouver’s east-west buses with its north-south buses, which are not so anchored. Jarrett considers the idea that anchoring is more efficient to be a geometric fact, and compared my empirical argument to trying to empirically compute the decimal expansion pi to be something other than 3.1415629… I promised that I would explain my criticism in more formal mathematical terms. Somewhat belatedly, I would like to explain.
First, as a general note, mathematics proves theorems about mathematics, and not about the world. My papers, and those of the other people in the field, have proven results about mathematical structures. For example, we can prove that an equation has solutions, or does not have any solutions. As soon as we try to talk about the real world, we stop doing pure math, and begin doing modeling. In some cases, the models use advanced math, and not just experiments: for example, superstring theory involves research-level math, with theorems of similar complexity to those of pure math. In other cases, the models use simpler math, and the chief difficulty is in empirical calibration: for example, transit ridership models involve relatively simple formulas (for example, the transfer penalty is a pair of numbers, as I explain here), but figuring out the numbers takes a lot of work.
With that in mind, let us model anchoring. Let us also be completely explicit about all the assumptions in our model. The city we will build will be much simpler than a real city, but it will still contain residences, jobs, and commuters. We will not deal with transfers; neither does the mental model Jarrett and TransLink use in arguing for anchoring (see PDF-p. 15 in the primer above again to see the thinking). For us, the city consists of a single line, going from west to east. The west is labeled 0, the east is labeled 1, and everything in between is labeled by numbers between 0 and 1. The city’s total population density is 1: this means that when we graph population density on the y-axis in terms of location on the x-axis, the total area under the curve is 1. Don’t worry too much about scaling – the units are all relative anyway.
Let us now graph three possible distributions of population density: uniform (A), center-dominant (B), and anchored (C).
Let us make one further assumption, for now: the distributions of residences and jobs are the same, and independent. In city (A), this means that jobs are uniformly distributed from 0 to 1, like residences, and a person who lives at any point x is equally likely to work at any point from 0 to 1, and is no more likely to work near x than anyone else. In city (B), this means that people are most likely to work at point 0.5, both if they live there and if they live near 0 or 1; in city (C), this means that people are most likely to work at 0 or 1, and that people who live at 0 are equally likely to work near 0 and near 1.
Finally, let us assume that there is no modal splitting and no induced demand: every employed person in the city rides the bus, exactly once a day in each direction, once going to work and once going back home, regardless of where they live and work. Nor do people shift their choice of when to work based on the network: everyone goes to work in the morning peak and comes back in the afternoon peak.
With these assumptions in mind, let us compute how crowded the buses will be. Because all three cities are symmetric, I am only going to show morning peak buses, and only in the eastbound direction. I will derive an exact formula in city (A), and simply state what the formulas are in the other two cities.
In city (A), at point x, the number of people who ride the eastbound morning buses equals the number of people who live to the west of x and work to the right of x. Because the population and job distributions are uniform, the proportion of people who live west of x is x, and the proportion of people who work east of x is 1-x. The population and job distributions are assumed independent, so the total crowding is x(1-x). Don’t worry too much about scaling again – it’s in relative units, where 1 means every single person in the city is riding the bus in that direction at that time. The formula y = x(1-x) has a peak when x = 0.5, and then y = 0.25. In cities (B) and (C), the formulas are:
Here are their graphs:
Now, city B’s buses are almost completely empty when x < 0.25 or x > 0.75, and city C’s buses fill up faster than city A’s, so in that sense, the anchored city has more uniform bus crowding. But the point is that at equal total population and equal total transit usage, all three cities produce the exact same peak crowding: at the midpoint of the population distribution, which in our three cases is always x = 0.5, exactly a quarter of the employed population lives to the west and works to the east, and will pass through this point on public transit. Anchoring just makes the peak last longer, since people work farther from where they live and travel longer to get there. In a limiting case, in which the population density at 0 and 1 is infinite, with half the population living at 0 and half at 1, we will still get the exact same peak crowding, but it will last the entire way from 0 to 1, rather than just in the middle.
Note that there is no way to play with the population distribution to produce any different peak. As soon as we assume that jobs and residences are distributed identically, and the mode share is 100%, we will get a quarter of the population taking transit through the midpoint of the distribution.
If anything, the most efficient of the three distributions is B. This is because there’s so little ridership at the ends that it’s possible to run transit at lower frequency at the ends, overlaying a route that runs the entire way from 0 to 1 to a short-turn route from 0.25 to 0.75. Of course, cutting frequency makes service worse, but at the peak, the base frequency is sufficient. Imagine a 10-minute bus going all the way, with short-turning overlays beefing frequency to 5 minutes in the middle half. Since the same resources can more easily be distributed to providing more service in the center, city B can provide more service through the peak crowding point at the same cost, so it will actually be less crowded. This is the exact opposite of what TransLink claims, which is that city B would be overcrowded in the middle whereas city C would have full but not overcrowded buses the entire way (again, PDF-p. 15 of the primer).
In my empirical critique of anchoring, I noted that the unanchored routes actually perform better than the anchored ones in Vancouver, in the sense that they cost less per rider but also are less crowded at the peak, thanks to higher turnover. This is not an observation of the model. I will note that the differences in cost per rider are not large. The concept of turnover is not really within the model’s scope – the empirical claim is that the land use on the unanchored routes lends itself to short trips throughout the day, whereas on the anchored ones it lends itself to peak-only work trips, which produce more crowding for the same total number of riders. In my model, I’m explicitly ignoring the effect of land use on trips: there are no induced trips, just work trips at set times, with 100% mode share.
Let us now drop the assumption that jobs and residences are identically distributed. Realistically, cities have residential and commercial areas, and the model should be able to account for this. As one might expect, separation of residential and commercial uses makes the system more crowded, because travel is no longer symmetric. In fact, whereas under the assumption the peak crowding is always exactly a quarter of the population, if we drop the assumption the peak crowding is at a minimum a quarter, but can grow up to the entire population.
Consider the following cities, (D), (E), and (F). I am going to choose units so that the total residential density is 1/2 and so is the total job density, so combined they equal 1. City (D) has a CBD on one side and residences on the other, city (E) has a CBD in the center and residences on both sides, and city (F) is partially mixed-use, with a CBD in the center and residences both in the center and outside of it. Residences are in white, jobs are in dark gray, and the overlap between residences and jobs in city (F) is in light gray.
We again measure crowding on eastbound morning transit. We need to do some rescaling here, again letting 1 represent all workers in the city passing through the same point in the same direction. Without computing, we can tell that in city (D), at the point where the residential area meets the commercial area, which in this case is x = 0.75, the crowding level is 1: everyone lives to the west of this point and works to its east and must commute past it. Westbound morning traffic, in contrast, is zero. City (E) is symmetric, with peak crowding at 0.5, at the entry to the CBD from the west, in this case x = 0.375. City (F) has crowding linearly growing to 0.375 at the entry to the CBD, and then decreasing as passengers start to get off. The formula for eastbound crowding is,
In city (F), the quarter of the population that lives in the CBD simply does not count for transit crowding. The reason is that, with the CBD occupying the central quarter of the city, at any point from x = 0.375 east, there are more people who live to the west of the CBD getting off than people living within the CBD getting on. This observation remains true down to when (for a symmetric city) a third of the population lives inside the CBD.
In city (B), it’s possible to use the fact that transit runs empty near the edges to run less service near the edges than in the center. Unfortunately, it is not possible to use the same trick in cities (E) and (F), not with conventional urban transit. The eastbound morning service is empty east of the CBD, but the westbound morning service fills up; east of the CBD, the westbound service is empty and the eastbound service fills up. If service has to be symmetric, for example if buses and trains run back and forth and make many trips during a single peak period, then it is not possible to short-turn eastbound service at the eastern edge of the CBD. In contrast, if it is possible to park service in the center, then it is possible to short-turn service and economize: examples include highway capacity for cars, since bridges can have peak-direction lanes, but also some peaky commuter buses and trains, which make a single trip into the CBD per vehicle in the morning, park there, and then make a single trip back in the afternoon. Transit cities relies on services that go back and forth rather than parking in the CBD, so such economies do not work well for them.
A corollary of the last observation is that mixed uses are better for transit than for cars. Cars can park in the CBD, so for them, it’s fine if the travel demand graph looks like that of city (E). Roads and bridges are designed to be narrower in the outskirts of the region and wider near the CBD, and peak-direction lanes can ensure efficient utilization of capacity. In contrast, buses and rapid transit trains have to circulate; to achieve comparable peak crowding, city (E) requires twice as much service as perfect mixed-use cities.
The upshot of this model is that the land use that best supports efficient use of public transit is mixed use. Since all rich cities have CBDs, they should work on encouraging more residential land uses in the center and more commercial uses outside the center, and not worry about the underlying distribution of combined residential and job density. Since CBDs are usually almost exclusively commercial, any additional people living in the center will not add to transit crowding, even as they ride transit to work and pay fares. In contrast, anchoring does not have any effect on peak crowding, and on the margins makes it worse in the sense that the maximum crowding level lasts longer. This implies that the current planning strategy in Vancouver should be changed from encouraging anchoring to fill trains and buses for longer to encouraging more residential growth Downtown and in other commercial centers and more commercial growth at suitable nodes outside the center.
Last week, Bill de Blasio proposed a citywide ferry system in his otherwise perfectly boilerplate State of the City speech. Ferries, as Ben Kabak notes, are a tried and failed solution in New York, with a $30 per passenger subsidy on the ferry to the Rockaways, one of the neighborhoods mentioned in de Blasio’s speech. At the same time, some ferry routes do attract large numbers of passengers, including the Staten Island Ferry and SeaBus; in addition, MBTA Boat attracts fewer passengers than SeaBus, but achieves better cost recovery than the MBTA’s land transportation services. The purpose of this post is to explain which urban geographies could be well-served by ferries, and why New York could not.
Until the invention of the railroad, the fastest, cheapest, and most reliable form of transportation was the boat. Inland transportation of goods was by canal whenever possible. Overland transportation was so expensive that, as noted by Andrew Odlyzko, the cost of coal would double twelve miles away from the mine (see p. 14). As a result, cities were founded on shorelines and in river estuaries, and shrank if their rivers silted.
Railroads inverted this equation. Even in the 1830s, trains achieved higher speeds than ferries do today: the London and Birmingham averaged 31 km/h at opening, whereas SeaBus, which uses fast catamarans, averages at most 20 km/h. They could climb grades without resorting to locks and derailed much less often than boats sank; and, with the world still in the tail end of the Little Ice Age, the railroads did not freeze in winter. In this situation, a seaside location is no longer an advantage. At coastal locations, railroads have to cross more rivers, as did roads before; the current route of the Northeast Corridor in Connecticut was not the first but the third rail connection to be built between New York and Boston, after the Long Island Railroad (with ferry connections at both ends) and the inland Hartford and New Haven Railroad route.
The 19th century was a period of fast population growth in the industrialized world, especially the US, and fast urbanization. The industrial cities were then sited based on the optimal locations of a railroad network and not that of a shipping network. Birmingham and Manchester were already the largest cities in the UK outside of London, but the first railroad was, not coincidentally, built precisely to give Manchester port access without relying on the Manchester Ship Canal. In the US, we can see this in action, especially in New England: Boston has always been New England’s largest city, but many other early-settled cities – Salem, Newport, Plymouth, Provincetown, Portsmouth – declined, and now New England’s second cities include not just coastal New Haven and Providence but also inland Hartford, Worcester, and Nashua-Manchester.
In some areas of Long Island and New England, we can see towns with dual centers: an older coastal center, and a newer inland center, near the train station or a highway interchange. As Long Island had extensive suburban growth in the postwar era, the inland centers there are usually the larger ones, whereas in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the coastal centers are usually larger.
Boston’s ferries serve these coastal centers. The Greenbush Line is locally infamous for its low ridership, about 3,000 per weekday in each direction. And yet, the ferries serving Hingham are fairly well-patronized: about 3,500 weekday passengers in both directions. (Both figures are from the 2014 Blue Book.) Now, the trains still carry nearly twice as many passengers as the ferries, but, relatively speaking, the ferries are doing quite well, since that part of the South Shore was settled before the railroad came, so the ferry serves passengers better than the trains do.
The other issue is which mode of transportation offers the most direct route. On the South Shore, the ferries go in a straighter line than the trains, which have to detour to remain on land. The Staten Island Ferry goes in a straight line, whereas roads and trains take big detours, especially for passengers leaving from St. George and not from near the bridges to Brooklyn and New Jersey. SeaBus, likewise, takes a direct route.
The significant fact for the Staten Island Ferry and SeaBus is that there economic centers of Staten Island and North Vancouver are right next to the ferry docks, coming from the fact that those areas were settled as suburban regions connected to the center by ferry. Because constructing a road or rail link across the New York Harbor or Burrard Inlet is difficult, those ferries were never replaced by fixed links; this is in contrast with Jersey City, which was also connected to New York by multiple ferry lines, but had enough demand a hundred years ago to fill the Hudson Tubes and later the Holland Tunnel with commuters.
None of these histories and geographies applies to the routes proposed by de Blasio and other ferry supporters. A Rockaway ferry has to detour around all of Brooklyn to reach Manhattan. The various waterfront ferries between Manhattan and Queens don’t really serve neighborhood centers, which are located around subway stations. Subway stations, like railroads, dislike coastal locations, not because of construction difficulties but because half their walk sheds would be underwater. Even Red Hook, which is cut off from the rest of the city by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and has no subway service, is not centered around the waterfront: the projects are several blocks inland, and Ikea Dock is facing the wrong way, south instead of west.
New York’s commercial centers, likewise, are inland. Why would a Midtown office developer waste any time building a skyscraper on the East River when the easternmost subway stations in Midtown are at Lexington Avenue? Thus the high-rise towers that line First Avenue are more residential than commercial, making them poor candidates for ferry connections. Lower Manhattan is better-connected to the water, but it is served by a large number of subway lines in all directions, none of which is at capacity since Midtown is the bigger office cluster. It’s also far from the waterfront condo clusters de Blasio wants to serve with ferries.
Even service between Staten Island and Manhattan shouldn’t be a ferry. A rail tunnel would offer a large improvement in trip times: about 8 minutes or even less, compared with 25 by ferry, and one to two transfers less than today. The question is entirely whether the costs could be contained enough to be in line with a realistic demand projection. Of course this is best realized as part of a regionwide commuter rail modernization plan, but even without such a plan, a connection to the 1 train would substantially reduce Staten Island’s commute time, which, at least last decade, was the longest of all US counties.
And this is an origin-destination pair that, given current infrastructure, is actually well-served by ferry, unlike the routes that de Blasio proposed. Ben tried to propose a better way of running ferries in New York, but with no real anchors to connect to, Ben’s proposal is a polite way of what I would phrase as “just don’t.”
Unlike Cuomo, de Blasio is not inherently hostile to public transit. However, he does not particularly care about transit, either. In this view, what he says about ferries is of limited consequence; the amounts of money in question are trivial. He’s not like Bloomberg, who directed $2 billion of city money to the 7 extension ahead of more deserving subway investments. Perhaps it’s wiser to focus on his plan to deck over Sunnyside Yards, or, more specifically, his invocation of massive projects including Stuyvesant Town, Coop City, and Starrett City – precisely the models that a Sunnyside decking should avoid.
However, there’s a good reason to focus on this, unimportant as it is. Cuomo’s failings are characteristic of an autocrat who is hostile to transit. De Blasio’s are characteristic of an autocrat who is indifferent. Although there is a long-term transit plan in New York, centered around completing Second Avenue Subway, this is not what de Blasio talked about, at all. Instead, he went for projects that can be done during his first term: off-board fare collection on a few more bus routes (“Select Bus Service,” complete with the pretense that they are bus rapid transit), and ferries. He won’t just follow an agenda set by others a long time ago: he has to remind people he exists on this issue as on his signature issues, but, as he doesn’t actually care about it, he will propose distractions that would at best do little (Select Bus Service) and at worst would be complete wastes of money (the ferries).
In a democracy, good transit advocates can push themselves into key positions at the ministry of transport, or its equivalent, such as a parliamentary committee on transportation (including the Congressional one, even). The same is true for people who care about other aspects of government spending and policy: housing, health care, education, defense, social welfare, policing. In an autocracy, such as the strong mayor system, it boils down to asking the autocrat to care and to take the right position. But the autocrat is just one person, and cannot pay equal attention to everything. Hence, ferries and Select Bus Service, in lieu of real transit investment.
I’ve had an argument in comments with the author of Purple City about who commuter rail should serve. He’s argued before that cities should make sure outer suburbanites can get to the center via express commuter rail, and I will add that American cities do do that, and orient commuter rail too much around the needs of peak-hour outer suburbanites. Insofar as I think cities should have commuter rail there’s no disagreement, but what I think they do wrong is focusing too much on the peak. The two practices in contention are the low off-peak frequency (for example, Metra’s Union Pacific-North Line, which has no freight to speak of, has worse than hourly off-peak service), and the stop distribution, which has trains making few or no stops in the city proper.
The common thread of these two practices is that they optimize one variable: peak travel time for a suburban commuter to the CBD. This neglects other sources of ridership on commuter rail, which are suppressed in the US but significant in countries with more modern operating practices. I will contrast the peak-focused approach with a rapid transit approach, using examples that I believe will show that the latter is bound to get far more ridership, even in the suburbs.
First, let us imagine a contrasting system, one in which North American commuter rail looks more like an RER, an S-Bahn, or a Japanese commuter rail network. Such a system will have the following features:
1. Relatively consistent stopping pattern. The busier lines may have local and express trains, but the express trains will stop at the same major stops. Local trains will make all local stops over a fairly wide stretch.
2. Low ratio of peak to off-peak frequency, in the vicinity of 2:1 or even less. In a major city like Chicago or New York, a line that can’t support half-hourly service all day, at a bare minimum, will likely have no service at all; the only exceptions I can think of are services at range so long they’re practically intercity, like New York-Hamptons or New York-Allentown.
3. An urban stopping pattern that’s not too express. If there’s a parallel subway then it’s okay to have a somewhat wider stop spacing than in the inner suburbs beyond the subway’s range, but still closer to the 2-3 km range than the 4-5 km range of Metra.
If it’s possible to do so technologically, then the commuter line may be interlined with a subway line, even. This is usually hypothetical, since subways and commuter trains, where both exist, are almost always technologically incompatible; Tokyo and Seoul are the two major exceptions, with London a borderline case. However, it’s useful to consider such hypothetical cases, to examine what would happen to train service. I will consider two such cases: having Vancouver’s Evergreen Line take over West Coast Express (the original argument), and having Boston’s Red Line take over Old Colony Lines. Neither situation is technologically possible, even ignoring FRA and Transport Canada regulations, as both Boston and Vancouver build subway tunnels for much smaller trains than run on the mainline, but this discussion may be useful in cases where a takeover is feasible, such as when the commuter line is an isolated branch. I prefer to discuss the hypotheticals since the two examples in question are purer examples of priorities: outer-suburban peak service, or rapid transit-style service.
Vancouver’s rail service consists of the SkyTrain network, which gets about 400,000 weekday riders, and the West Coast Express, a peak-only commuter rail network running 5 trains per day per direction, with 11,000 weekday riders. SkyTrain’s under-construction Evergreen Line will intersect the West Coast Express at Port Moody and Coquitlam, and then serve more stations in Coquitlam off the mainline, while the WCE continues much farther to the east, into the Vancouver exurbs. The WCE connects Port Moody to Waterfront in 25 minutes and Coquitlam in 30 minutes; the Evergreen Line is projected to take 33 and 38 minutes respectively, with a transfer at Broadway/Commercial. Despite the slower service, the much higher frequency, all-day service, and connections to more of the Vancouver metro area win: the projected ridership for the Evergreen Line is about 23 million a year (see Table 2 on PDF-p. 4 here), which corresponds to about 75,000 per weekday.
Now, what’s in contention is whether it would be wise to have the same treatment at WCE stations farther east. The potential ridership at those stations is lower since they’re in less built-up areas, so it is likely cost-ineffective to build an Evergreen Line branch along the Canadian Pacific mainline and have it replace the WCE, but if such a line were built, it would most likely have the same effect on travel times: people would have to transfer at Broadway/Commercial, and not including the transfer time take 8 minutes more to get to Waterfront. The eastern end of the line, Mission, has 75-minute service now, and this would change to 83-minute service plus a transfer.
I claim that Mission residents would still take the train more often if it were 8 minutes lower. The reason is simple: as a proportion of overall travel time, the 8 minutes are more important to a 25-minute Port Moody commuter than to a 75-minute Mission commuter. Mission commuters live farther out, so they’re somewhat less likely to care about service to various neighborhoods along the way, but they’re even less likely to care about 8 minutes. They also are less likely to care about very high frequency, since their trips are longer, but they do care about service availability all day, even if they’d be okay with half-hourly service. Moreover, the Evergreen Line will connect to secondary nodes like Metrotown better than the WCE does, and eventually have direct service to Central Broadway and UBC, both of which draw commuters from the entire region.
In the present, the WCE works as a placeholder – it’s possible to reduce staffing and improve turnaround times to allow off-peak service, but there’s too little population east of Coquitlam to justify a SkyTrain extension, and so far population growth is fastest in inner-suburban Port Moody and Surrey (see here and here) and not east of Coquitlam. In the future, if those areas grow then it will make sense to replace the WCE with SkyTrain. WCE upgrades are unlikely – adding infill stations is practically impossible, as the line hugs an active port, with no good station sites. While SkyTrain’s driverless configuration keeps operating expenses down, it makes it impossible to extend branches to the suburbs cheaply by running them at-grade and in mixed traffic with freight.
Several of Boston’s subway branches are parallel to extant or closed commuter lines. The Orange Line runs alongside the Northeast Corridor to Forest Hills, the Blue Line took over parts of the narrow-gauge Boston, Revere Beach and Lynn Railroad, the Green Line D Branch took over a commuter rail loop used by the Boston and Albany, and the Red Line took over a New Haven Railroad branch line to Ashmont and runs alongside the Old Colony Lines to Braintree. At the time the Braintree extension opened the Old Colony Lines were closed for passenger service, but they have been since reopened, running from Braintree to South Station with just one stop in between, either JFK-UMass or Quincy Center (never both, except on trains that skip Braintree); off-peak frequency is about every two hours on each of two lines, and with some off-peak trains skipping Braintree, service to Braintree is worse than hourly. The Red Line takes 26-27 minutes to go from Braintree to South Station, the Old Colony Lines take 19-21 minutes.
As is projected in Vancouver, ridership on the Red Line is much higher: according to the 2014 Blue Book, on PDF-pp. 14 and 74, the busiest MBTA commuter rail station, Providence, gets 2,325 riders per weekday and the busiest Old Colony station, Bridgewater, gets only 1,036, while the Braintree extension’s five stops get 6,975, 4,624, 8,655 (Quincy Center), 4,785, and 5,122 (Braintree). Those five stops get 30,000 riders between them, meaning 60,000 since it’s unlikely people ride internally on the extension; this is nearly half the entire MBTA commuter rail ridership, and three times the ridership on the Old Colony Lines (counting Greenbush, which diverges at Quincy, as a third line).
As in Vancouver, I claim that a Red Line extension taking over the Old Colony Lines would have much higher ridership. Of course the frequency per line, already middling since the Braintree extension is a branch, would not be very good; but at the range of the suburbs served by these lines, half the current frequency of the Red Line, giving about 20 minutes at the peak and 30 off-peak, is enough, and is a massive improvement over multi-hour headways. The extra 5-8 minutes of travel times matter less as one moves farther out, again; travel time to South Station from the first Old Colony stations past Braintree, South Weymouth and Holbrook/Randolph, is 28 minutes, about the same as from Braintree on the Red Line, and those two stations have a bit more than 500 weekday riders each.
Moreover, the Red Line has something the commuter trains don’t: service to multiple centers within the inner Boston region. Downtown Crossing is closer to most jobs than South Station, saving people the walk. Cambridge is a major job center in its own right (it has more jobs than any New England city except Boston, ahead of Providence, Worcester, and Hartford). Back Bay is a bit more accessible via the Orange Line at Downtown Crossing or the Green Line at Park Street than via commuter rail at South Station.
Like SkyTrain, the Red Line can’t run on mainline rail tracks, and there is not enough population to justify an extension, nor enough population growth in New England for such an extension to ever pencil out. However, it’s possible to modernize commuter rail, as I have written before. This would not provide direct service to Downtown Crossing or Cambridge, but could provide cross-platform transfers to Back Bay, decent frequency all day, and, since regional EMUs can have very good performance characteristics, much higher average speeds than with today’s slow diesel locomotives even if trains make more stops.
The examples of Boston and Vancouver’s ridership patterns suggest that it’s okay to sacrifice speed to provide coherent service. It’s worth noting here that the bulk of present-day ridership on North American commuter rail would not benefit too much from such sacrifice. North American commuter rail provides awful service in the off-peak or to non-CBD destinations: even the Newark CBD, relatively well-served by New Jersey Transit, has a 26% mode share as a job center as of 2000, as per an Alan Voorhees Transportation Center report called Informed Intuition (PDF-p. 13). There’s a huge amount of latent ridership on North American commuter rail, which is why rapid transit gets so much more ridership than peak-focused commuter rail.
This doesn’t change much at different ranges of distance from the center. The few minutes saved by expressing through the city to the CBD matter a great deal to the suburbs right beyond city limits, but those innermost suburbs are precisely the ones that could make the most use of service to multiple city nodes. Farther out, where commuters to the city tend to be more likely to be working at the CBD, since it is more specialized than most secondary nodes, frequency and service to everywhere matter less, but the extra few minutes matter even less.
However, since present-day riders are precisely the narrow slice of potential users who are okay with the current setup, they have the potential to engage in NIMBY protests against any attempt at modernization. Why change what works for them? This is why Long Island representatives oppose such modernization attempts as letting Metro-North access Penn Station; it’s entirely a turf war. Even reforms that do not degrade trip times to the CBD are unlikely in this political situation, for example mode-neutral fares: the people paying premium fare to ride the LIRR or (to some extent) Metra are the ones who are okay with paying this fare, and who may object to increased train crowding coming from lower fares.
Judging by the ridership multiple between the Evergreen Line and WCE, there are likely to be a few million weekday rides coming out of Eastern Queens and Long Island if the LIRR is modernized, but those are not the Manhattan-bound commuters who dominate the discussion today. Instead, they are people who have gotten used to unusable commuter rail, and drive to work, or take long bus-subway commutes to avoid paying higher fares. They do not seem like a significant source of regional rail ridership because they are not current riders (or they ride local transit instead), but they are precisely what makes the difference between the low ridership of every North American commuter rail system and the higher ridership of many European systems.
Many people have heard that certain regions are well-suited for these projects, for example the Northeast Corridor is unusually good for HSR because it links four major cities and several medium-size ones on a single line. By implication, there has to be a flip side, i.e. regions that are poorly-suited for HSR and cities that are poorly-suited for new rapid transit. If there weren’t – if every region were like the Northeast Corridor – then the ridership models would just have higher first-order estimates. Several proposals I’ve seen in comments and on my blogroll in the last few days are in areas where the urban geography makes it harder to justify such projects. These and a few others are the examples I will use in this post.
As usual, there’s a caveat that difficult does not equal bad. Some of these ideas are worth pursuing, but have more challenges that their easier counterparts do not, and if those challenges are solved, then they can perform well. One of the biggest success stories of modern rail investment, the TGV, is in an urban geography that’s not particularly conducive to rail: France’s secondary cities surround Paris in all directions (although Lyon and Marseille are collinear with Paris), the stub-end layout of stations in Paris and many other cities forces awkward branching, Lyon needed a business district to be built from scratch around Part-Dieu. France made this work, and it’s possible some of the projects on this list can be made to work in similar vein.
High-Speed Rail in Sweden
Project: greenfield HSR lines connecting Stockholm with Sweden’s major secondary cities, Gothenburg and Malmö.
The problem: Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö do not lie on a straight line. The three cities are quite small by the standards of more populated countries: Stockholm has a bit more than 2 million people, Gothenburg has a bit less than a million, Malmö has 700,000. A line connecting just two of them, or even a Y-shaped line, is unlikely to get enough ridership to justify the construction costs of full HSR. There are no large intermediate cities: the largest, Linköping, has about 100,000 people. As noted above, French urban geography is not great for HSR, either, but at least the LGV Sud-Est could serve both Lyon and Marseille, and France’s greater population ensures that its secondary cities are large enough to generate enough traffic to fill an HSR line.
As a silver lining, Malmö is adjacent to Copenhagen, and the difficult part, bridging the Øresund, has already been done. While international lines tend to underperform, the tight cultural and economic connections between the Scandinavian countries make it likely that international projects within Scandinavia would be exceptions to the rule. Copenhagen would add another 2 million people at the end of the line. However, even that is unlikely to generate enough ridership to pay for 500-odd kilometers of greenfield HSR (plus a connection to Gothenburg).
Because of its poor urban geography for conventional HSR, Sweden has investigated cheaper solutions, allowing higher speeds on legacy track or on greenfield tracks built to lower standards. As a result, there is research into the possibility of high-speed tilting trains, running faster than the 250 km/h Pendolino. This research is likely to be useful in the UK and US, where the urban geography is better-suited for HSR but fully greenfield construction is obstructed by suburban development near the rights-of-way and by high construction costs, but the original context was faster speeds within Sweden.
High-Speed Rail in the Pacific Northwest
Project: greenfield HSR connecting Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. This is not officially proposed anywhere that I know; current plans focus on incremental improvements to the Amtrak Cascades. However, every American HSR fantasy map I’ve seen (including the ones I’ve drawn) includes this link, since at least superficially based on city populations it would succeed.
The problem: getting out of the major cities involves a slog on curvy legacy track in areas where it’s hard to straighten the right-of-way. Heading north of Seattle, the route goes along the water, in terrain that is too hilly for an easy inland cutoff all the way to Everett, 50 km north. Getting out of Vancouver is also hard, because of suburban development in Surrey, and becomes even harder if one wants the Vancouver station to be Waterfront rather than Amtrak’s current stop, the less centrally located Pacific Central. The Northeast Corridor is said to have slowdowns near the major stations, leading to proposals to bypass them with new tunnels, but at no point are there 50 nearly-continuous km of low curve radii; the New Haven Line does not look as curvy, while the Shore Line farther east is easy to bypass on I-95.
The Seattle-Portland segment is much easier: the route heading south of Seattle is not constrained, and north of Portland it is possible to run alongside I-5. However, the most important intermediate cities, Tacoma and Olympia, can only be served with exurban stations, since getting into their centers would require the mainline to detour on curvy alignments.
Through-Run Commuter Rail in Chicago
Project: there are many proposals by transit activists to construct new infrastructure to enable through-running on Metra, analogous to Crossrail, SEPTA Regional Rail, the Paris RER, and multiple S-Bahns. Details differ, but other than the lines through Union Station, through-running generally means connecting Metra Electric to some of the lines feeding into Union Station from the north or the Union Pacific lines; UP-North is especially notable for serving dense neighborhoods and not having any freight traffic.
The problem: the layout of the lines entering the Chicago central business district makes it hard to build a coherent network. What I mean by coherent is that commuter lines can make multiple CBD stops to serve different CBDs, or different parts of the same CBD: in New York, a Penn Station-Grand Central connection would let trains serve both the West Side and the East Side. Look at the map proposed by Sandy Johnston, in the second link above: there is no station on the Near North Side, there is no connection from the West Loop stations to the Loop, and effectively lines are still going to be split between lines bound for the West Loop and lines bound for the Loop in the through-run system.
None of this is the fault of any of the people drawing these maps. To serve both the West Loop and the Loop, a line would have to go east-west in the vicinity of Union Station, where there is no legacy line pointing in the right direction. The options boil down to a long greenfield east-west subway, and an awkward transition to the preexisting east-west lines, BNSF (which is too far south) and UP-West (which is too far north), which to add another complication carry heavy freight traffic.
A system prioritizing north-south connections runs into different dilemmas, concerning the tradeoff between service to the Near North Side and easier connections to the rest of the North Side Metra lines. A north-south line connecting UP-North to Metra Electric through the Near North Side would be beautiful, and miss all other Metra lines and most L lines. Sandy’s proposal has Metra Electric swerving west to meet UP-North just north of its terminus at Ogilvie Transportation Center, meeting all L lines and potentially the North Side Metra lines but missing the job centers in the West Loop and Near North Side.
Rail to LaGuardia
Project: construct some rail extension to LaGuardia Airport. Which rail extension varies based on the proposal. The most mainstream proposal, in the sense that it was supported by Giuliani until it was torpedoed by neighborhood opposition, would have extended the Astoria Line east to airport grounds. More recent proposals from various activists have included not just the Astoria Line extension, but also a Northeast Corridor spur, an AirTrain from the Astoria Line, an AirTrain from Jamaica with JFK connections, a subway shuttle under Junction, and a subway running from the airport to 125th Street along the route of the M60 bus.
The problem: all of the above ideas face the same pair of problems. At the airport end, the airport competes with other urban destinations, rather than complementing them by lying on the same straight line with them. An extension from the west, such as the Astoria Line extension, needs to choose between serving the airport and serving the Astoria Boulevard corridor, which has high residential density and no nearby subway service; Astoria Boulevard itself is so wide that as with Queens Boulevard, an elevated line in its middle would be an improvement. Farther east, there is nothing that a LaGuardia extension could be continued to, because of Flushing Bay. An extension across the bay going to Flushing or College Point could be useful, but an extension of the 7 to College Point would be even more useful and avoid underwater tunneling. The bay, and more generally the Long Island Sound, dooms any proposal for a loop returning to the mainline, in the manner of Zurich Airport, while a spur would again compete for capacity with more important lines. Compare this with LAX, which, going along the Harbor Subdivision, is collinear with Inglewood, the Slauson corridor, and Union Station, and would have an easy connection to El Segundo.
At the other end, the question with every airport extension is, what does it connect the airport to? The answer for LaGuardia has to be the Upper East Side, where as I remember most riders originate; but there is no good way of connecting to the Upper East Side, which has no east-west subway line, and shouldn’t, as there are perhaps a hundred kilometers of higher-priority tunnels in the region. A connection to 125th Street is ruled out by the fact that Second Avenue Subway has an even better connection to 125th. The Astoria Line serves the Midtown hotel cluster well, and has a connection to the Lexington trains to the Upper East Side, but I doubt that it can beat a taxi across the bridge in non-rush-hour traffic.
Providence East Side Tunnel
Project: restore rail service through the East Side Rail Tunnel, with a new connection to Downcity at the western end and connections to new or restored rail lines in and beyond East Providence. In Jef Nickerson’s version, the trains are light rail and drop to the surface at the Downcity end. In mine, they continue elevated through Downcity, with a new station replacing Providence Station for both commuter and intercity rail. All versions include a stop at Thayer Street for Brown University service, should one be constructable at reasonable cost.
The problem: there’s no real need for local or regional service from the east along the tunnel (intercity service could be sped up by about half a minute to a minute by avoiding curves in Pawtucket). Light rail service would run into the problem of incredibly spread-out suburbanization east of Providence. Commuter rail would run into separate problems: the legacy lines go along the water in East Providence and don’t serve the town itself well; beyond East Providence, the line going north serves the same suburbs as the existing Providence Line minus Pawtucket, while the line going south would need extensive and costly restoration work to get to Fall River, and only passes through small and low-density intermediate points.
Cutting off Providence Station to move the city’s main station to the south is useful, but the only rail from Providence to Pawtucket and Woonsocket goes due north of Downcity and would be left out of this system. Shoehorning it to the same station that leads to the East Side Tunnel would produce every adverse impact of viaducts on cities: heavy visual impact coming from elevated-over-elevated grade separation, squeal coming from low curve radii, takings of condo buildings near the existing Providence Station.
Via Human Transit, I learn that Translink has a bus service performance summary with an infographic on PDF-page 16 contrasting high- and low-performing routes. As usual, Translink claims that the high-performing routes have strong anchors at their ends as one of the reasons for their success. Unfortunately, the claim is not completely correct, and on top of that the definition of “high-performing” is stretched to make anchored routes look better. In particular, this implicates Vancouver’s strategy of upzoning the most intensely at its southern rim while ignoring its center.
To paraphrase my second comment on Human Transit, the summary rates routes on three metrics: boardings per hour, capacity utilization, and cost per boarding; a high-performing route is one that is in the metro area’s top 25 on all three, and a low-performing one is one that is in the bottom 25 on all three. However, only the first and the third are actually useful for the passenger. The second is a measure of pain – it’s the product of turnover with crowding, and although it can be raised by raising turnover, it can also be raised by making the bus more crowded.
An updated list of Vancouver buses and their productivity measures is available here. Measured by cost per rider and boardings per hour, the unanchored 8 is more productive than the 49, which has anchors but nothing in between. But the 8 ranks 29th in capacity utilization, so it’s penalized. The 5 and the 6, which are very short routes serving the West End, are also penalized solely because of their low crowding levels and their short length, which makes turnover more difficult. The 8 has high turnover (like the 3 and 20, which did make the infographic), so it achieves more passenger boardings per hour but fewer passenger-km despite its weak outer-end anchor, and the 5 and 6 are so short that even passengers riding all the way through provide many boardings per hour relative to capacity utilization.
Translink unfortunately does not break down capacity utilization into its two components, and only cites the crowding level at the most crowded point of the average trip. But we can still construct a table of some routes with their performance on the three metrics as well as their crowding level:
|Route||Boardings/hr||Capacity use||Peak Crowding||Cost/boarding|
The 3, 9, 20, 41, 49, and 99 are in the infographic on the list of most productive routes; the 25 narrowly misses on cost per passenger and boardings per hour but is second systemwide in capacity utilization, and the 5, 6, and 8 miss only on capacity utilization. The 25 and 49 have strong anchors at their outer ends, a single strong central anchor at the Canada Line, and nothing else; On the metrics relevant to the passenger who’s expected to ride the bus and fund it by paying a fare, they are somewhat lower-performing than the short 5 and 6 and the short-trip-encouraging 3, 8, and 20, but have far more crowding. The 9 and 41, both in the infographic, are about on a par with the 3, 5, 6, 8, and 20, and have more turnover due to additional destinations on Broadway and 9th that don’t exist on King Edward and 49th, but are still much more crowded than the unanchored routes. The 99 beats all others in performance, but the cost in terms of crowding is even higher.
The purpose of anchoring is explicitly to keep buses full all the way; the 25 and 49 are great at that, since people ride them longer distances, not having much to go to between their major destinations. However, it’s not a measure of passenger satisfaction or of transit agency finances, but of passenger-km. The surreptitious focus on passenger-km is dubious as a performance metric for urban transit, since transit-using city dwellers usually prefer shorter commutes and do most non-work trips on foot.
And if it’s dubious as a transit proposition, then as an urbanist proposition it’s destructive. As discussed in my previous post on the subject, Vancouver is upzoning Marine Drive (slightly) more intensely than the area south of Broadway and near the stations on the Canada Line between Broadway and Marine Drive – see PDF-pp. 26-27 of the draft plan. Despite the hysteria about urban planners using social engineering to make people live close to city center and take transit instead of driving, here we have a city with an otherwise well-deserved reputation for greenness using social engineering to make people live farther out.
This focus on anchors is making Vancouver build itself to be on a regional scale like how the 25 and 49 look on the local scale. The famous high-rise Vancouverism is really about looking like the 5 and 6 – i.e. upzoning near Downtown so that people will walk or take short trips – but future development is not intended to occur near Downtown but rather in strategically chosen secondary CBDs farther away. And what is really needed is continuous corridor development, as is practiced on the corridors hosting the 3, the 8, and the 20.
A major idea due to Jarrett Walker, adopted with gusto by Vancouver’s Translink, is that transit should be anchored at both ends. That is, transit lines should have busy destinations at both ends, and should strive to reorient development such that the maximum intensity is near the ends. I was skeptical about this from the start, but now that I live in Vancouver and see the practice every time I go to UBC, I realize it’s much worse.
The Translink document justifying the layout has a figure, Figure 10 on PDF-page 15, showing that if development intensity peaks in the middle, then the bus will be overcrowded in the middle and empty at the ends. In contrast, if development intensity peaks at the ends, then the bus will be crowded but not overcrowded the entire way. Or, as Jarrett says, “If a transit line is operating through an area of uniform density, about 50% of its capacity goes to waste.”
Both in theory and in practice, this argument fails to note that a bus with development at the ends will be overcrowded the entire way, because people will travel longer. If UBC were located around Central Broadway instead of at the very west end of the metro area, people would just have shorter travel time; at no point would there be more westbound a.m. crowding because at no point would there be more westbound passengers traveling at the peak. There would be more eastbound a.m. crowding, but that’s not the Broadway buses’ limiting factor. Of the top four routes for passups, which have far more than the fifth route, three are east-west with strong anchors at both end (UBC at the west, the Expo Line at the east) and one, the third worst, is a C-shaped amalgamation of two north-south routes, with peak development downtown, in the middle of the C.
On a theoretical level, development intensity is a result of high land prices justifying high density, and in an urban area high land prices come from proximity to other urban land. In cities without topographic or political constraints on development, the CBD is always near the center of the metro area, and in coastal cities the CBD is usually near the shore but near the center along the axis parallel to the shore. Major secondary nodes usually arise in areas close to many suburbs, often the richer ones, and there’s travel demand to them from all directions: see for examples La Defense near Paris and Shinjuku and the other secondary CBDs in Tokyo. Some of those nodes happen to be near the shore (UBC, Santa Monica and Long Beach, Coney Island) but most aren’t. Any newly-built anchor will sprout further development around it unless there’s very strong local resistance. To connect all those neighborhoods that lie beyond the secondary CBD, unanchored transit lines are then unavoidable.
We’re left then with anchors that are at geographic edges, such as on shores. Those raise travel distances, because people can only live at one direction from them, so for a given residential density they will have to travel longer on average. They look attractive to transit managers because they also make the buses more uniformly full, but they’re worse for passengers who have to travel longer, often standing the entire way because of overcrowding. They’re not even good for transit agency finance, because urban transit invariably has either flat fare (as is the case within Vancouver proper) or fare that depends on distance fairly weakly. Short trips generate as much or almost as much money for the agency while requiring less effort to run because of lower crowding levels. Trips in which most passengers ride end to end are the least efficient, unless they can overcome this with very high crowding levels all day.
Now, what does help finances as well as the passenger experience is bidirectional demand. Anchors are good at that. However, what’s just as useful in cases of asymmetric peak demand is destinations that are short of the most crowded points. For example, in Manhattan the north-south subways fill as they go southward in the a.m. peak. This means that commercial buildings north of Midtown, generating passenger traffic that either is northbound (hence, reverse-peak) or gets off the train before it gets the most crowded within Midtown, add ridership without requiring running more trains. The MTA’s guidelines explicitly call for matching frequency to demand at the most crowded point of each line based on uniform sets of peak and off-peak crowding guidelines. This favors not outlying anchors, but development sprinkled uniformly along transit lines outside the CBD. The same development in the North Bronx would have low transit mode share (UBC has high transit mode share, but it’s at a geographic edge, and on top of that it has a huge body of students), while on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side it would have high transit mode share. The only outer ends where heavy upzoning is appropriate are those that aren’t really ends, such as Flushing and Jamaica, preexisting secondary centers in their own right to which people take the subway from the west and drive from the east.
De facto, Translink makes cost figures available for each bus route, and we can compare costs per boarded passenger on the east-west routes and on the north-south ones. The east-west routes have an initial advantage because they have bidirectional peak demand, whereas the north-south and C-shaped ones do not, and have few destinations short of the CBD, mainly just on Central Broadway or Commercial Drive. Despite this inherent east-west advantage, cost per rider is not lower on the east-west lines. Of the top ten route numbers, there are five balanced east-west routes: 99, 9, 41, 49, 25; and four north-south or C-shaped ones serving downtown: 20, 16, 8, 3. (The 135 is east-west connecting downtown with SFU, and could be included in either category.) Going in the same order as above, the east-west routes cost $0.61, $1.21, $1.10, $1.31, $1.47 per passenger, while the north-south ones cost $1.02, $1.29, $1.09, $1.06. (The 135 costs $1.32.) The three routes that interline to UBC on 4th Avenue – the 4, 84, and 44 – cost $1.62, $1.30, and $0.78 respectively, averaging to $1.30; the 84 is anchored at the Millennium Line, the 44 is anchored downtown, and the 4 is anchored downtown but also continues farther east.
The 99 is much cheaper to run than the other routes despite its high proportion of end-to-end ridership, but it is also critically crowded and benefits from multiple peaks as it serves both a secondary CBD and a university; it is also express, which among the other routes under discussion is only true of the 44, the 84, and the 135. Among the local routes, the north-south routes are actually a bit cheaper to run than the east-west routes even if we exclude the 4 as a not fully anchored exception. The 20, the 8, and the 3 all have their maximum development intensity at the downtown end with some extra development in their inner areas, near SkyTrain and Broadway, and a lot of medium-intensity development at the tail. This provides suitable short-of-CBD destinations adding passengers at low cost.
For one measure of productivity, we can divide the number of boardings per hour by the average load. The result is the reciprocal of the average number of hours spent by each passenger on the bus; a higher number means each passenger spends less time on the bus, indicating higher turnover, or equivalently more revenue relative to crowding. The 99, 9, 41, 49, and 25 have ratios of 2.79, 3.13, 2.65, 1.93, 2.13; the 20, 16, 8, and 3 have ratios of 3.26, 2.73, 3.57, 3.24. The 20, 8, and 3 again look very good here, helping explain their low operating costs and also their low crowding (they rank 12th, 27th, and 20th respectively in passups but 2nd, 6th, and 7th in weekday ridership). The 49 and 25, both highly anchored routes, do not look as good, and indeed have many passups relative to ridership (they rank 1st and 4th in passups but 8th and 10th in weekday ridership); they have the redeeming feature that they protrude slightly into Burnaby, where zonal fares are higher, but judging by a map of the passups, the 25 seems to get a large majority of its ridership strictly within Vancouver, with Nanaimo Station as the eastern anchor rather than Brentwood.
We can extend this analysis further by looking at New York’s bus operating costs. Cap’n Transit laboriously compiled a spreadsheet of operating cost per New York City Transit bus route. Within Manhattan, the pattern is that east-west routes have much lower operating costs per passenger than north-south routes. The M15, the busiest route in Manhattan with ridership comparable to that of the 99 in Vancouver and with the best finances among the north-south routes, almost breaks even on direct operating costs; most of the major east-east routes are outright profitable counting only direct operating costs. The key difference is that the east-west routes are much shorter, so passengers are paying the same amount of money for less distance. In his own analysis, the Cap’n notes that the express bus with the best finances is also one of the shortest, and that in general the profitable-after-direct-operating-costs buses have many transfer points to the subway, which suggests short trips as well.
Having seen more evidence for the theory that good bus finances require short trips rather than endpoint anchors, we can go back to Vancouver and compare more routes. The busiest north-south route not on the above list, the 2/22, works more like the 16 than like the 20, 8, and 3: not only is the 22 C-shaped rather than terminating downtown, but also it serves corridors that are less busy than Commercial and inner Main, reducing the availability of short trips. The shorter 2, overlying the longer 22, has 3.42 boardings per hour per load, but still costs $1.43 per rider; the 22 has only 2.15 boardings per hour per load and costs $1.61 per rider, and also ranks 3rd citywide in passups versus 11th in weekday ridership. On both the 16 and the 22, the north-south legs (Arbutus and Renfrew for the 16, Macdonald and Clark/Knight for the 22) are streets that aren’t very busy by themselves, but instead act as important cross-streets for Broadway and other east-west streets. Here are Knight, Renfrew, Arbutus, and Macdonald, and here are, by contrast, Commercial, Fraser, and Main, all around the same cross avenue (near but not at 16th).
The same is true of the east-west buses. The 99, 9, and 41 have better finances than the 49 and the 25. They also do better on passups, ranking 2nd, 11th, and 10th versus 1st, 3rd, and 4th in ridership. The 99 has much better finances than all other buses, which can be chalked to its overcrowding, but ultimately comes from continuous intense development all over Broadway making it a prime corridor. 41st has some of this development as well: here is how a strip of it looks close to the cross street I live on. Compare this with 49th and King Edward around the same cross street. This is not cherry-picked: 49th and King Edward just aren’t commercial streets, and even where they act as important cross streets such as at Cambie there’s not much development there. Of course 4th does have this commercial development and is almost as expensive as 49th and King Edward, but its commercial development is discontinuous, and the relatively intense section between Granville and Balsam is short enough that people can walk it.
So what this means for transit-friendly development is that it should not worry about anchoring, but instead try to encourage short trips on local transit. In his original post about Vancouver’s anchoring, Jarrett says of Marine Drive, at the southern edge of Vancouver proper, “From a transit efficiency standpoint, it would be a good place for some towers.” This is not good transit: from the perspective of both costs and ridership any residential development south of Broadway in which people take the bus downtown is equivalent, so might as well put it immediately south of Broadway or at King Edward, 41st, or 49th to connect with the east-west bus routes and let people live closer to work. Commercial development, too, is best placed short of downtown, because if it’s on Marine Drive people will drive to it whereas if it’s along the blocks immediately south of Broadway many won’t.
Better would be to do what Vancouver hasn’t done, and encourage medium-intensity development all over the major corridors, of the kind that exists on Commercial, Fraser, Main, and 41st and allows their respective bus routes to serve productive short trips, generating low costs without excessive crowding. Towers on Marine Drive, to the extent that their inhabitants would even use transit instead of driving, would clog all the north-south buses. Mixed-use medium-rise development running continuously along Arbutus (which already has an abandoned rail corridor that could make a relief light rail line if the Canada Line gets too crowded) and the major east-west corridors would have the opposite effect, encouraging local trips that wouldn’t even show up at the most crowded point of the line. I’ve argued before that this urban layout is good for walkability, but it appears to also be good for surface transit productivity.
This is also relevant to upzoning around SkyTrain stations. There has not been so far any upzoning around Cambie, even though the Canada Line has been in operation for 3.5 years and was approved for construction over 8 years ago, but there will be some very soon. Vancouver’s draft plan, as shown on PDF-pages 26-27, permits 4 floors of residential development on the cross streets with the stations, 6 on Cambie itself, and between 6 and 12 with mixed use near the stations themselves. Continuous commercial development will be permitted only on Cambie between 41st and 49th. This will be of some use to the east-west buses because there will be more destinations at Cambie, but it will not create the same variety of small destinations available on Main, Fraser, 41st, Commercial, and Broadway, not without further upzoning near intersections that are nowhere near SkyTrain. It’s better than the towers of the Burnaby stations, but it’s still not very good. There is commercial upzoning near Marine Drive, but that can’t be very transit-oriented given the location, and it can’t do much for north-south bus productivity since in the nearby neighborhoods car ownership is high.
It’s too late to change the rezoning plan to permit more linear commercial development on the cross streets, but it’s possible to do better when Vancouver gets around to building Broadway SkyTrain. On Broadway itself, general intensification, allowing more residential density and replacing residential-only zoning with mixed-use zoning, should suffice. There is continuous commercial development from east of Cambie to west of Arbutus, with a two-block gap to Macdonald, and a one-block gap between Macdonald and Alma; both gaps are within a few hundred meters of the cross streets and can be closed easily. The Alma-Sasamat gap on 10th is probably too hard, though. The Arbutus-Macdonald gap on 4th can also be closed, though those blocks are nearly a kilometer from where the stations would be. But it’s as important to allow commercial zoning extending as far south as possible on the major north-south streets, especially Arbutus. Continuous mixed-use zoning should extend at least as far as 16th, and maximum residential density should be at a minimum 4 floors and ideally 6, as Arbutus, Macdonald, and 16th are very wide and the intersections feel out of scale to the current 1-story development.
Of course, this principle of design is true only of urban transit, both surface and rapid. Once the stop spacing increases to regional rail levels, it is no longer feasible to have continuous commercial development, and usually the street networks of the different suburbs are separate anyway without continuous arterials. In all cases it’s important to allow commercial zoning around stations, but the spiky development characteristic of the Expo and Millennium Lines becomes a better idea the longer the stop spacing is. Endpoint anchoring also becomes more justifiable at near-intercity scales, such as New York-New Haven or Boston-Providence: the fares are closer to proportional to distance, and also neither New Haven nor Providence is sprouting suburbs at such scale and distance that it’s justifiable to extend Metro-North or the MBTA with their usual stop spacing past those cities. But at the scale of urban transit, or even inner regional rail, the natural endpoint of a line is not a secondary anchor, and transit agencies should control peak-to-base ratios by commercial upzoning along corridors and near many stations outside the CBD rather than by making people ride transit kilometers longer than would be necessary if the zoning were different.
I live about 3 minutes from an express bus stop, where I can get the express bus and be at UBC within 15 minutes, whereupon I can walk from the diesel bus loop to my classroom in 6 minutes. Since I teach at 10 in the morning, it means I should leave around 9:30 or just before and then with rush hour headways I can be guaranteed not to be late to my own class. Unfortunately, because classes start on the hour, everyone wants to ride the last bus that makes the 10 am classes, and by the time this bus gets to my neighborhood, it is full. To guarantee getting on a bus I need to be at the bus stop by 9:20 or not much later, which since I have no real reason to show up to campus 15 minutes ahead of time lengthens my effective commute to 40-45 minutes. A bus that is in principle faster door-to-door than any proposed SkyTrain extension, which would serve my area at a much farther away station, becomes more than 10 minutes slower at the time of day relevant to me.
Vancouver has a general problem with passups – that is, passengers at a bus stop who have to let a full bus go. A list of the bus stops with the most passups is dominated by UBC’s peak caused by classes starting and ending at a synchronized time: eight of the top ten stops are for east-west buses serving UBC, and at those stops the passups are concentrated in the AM peak for westbound buses and the PM peak for eastbound ones. Of those eight stops, two, on the 49, are partially connections to the Canada Line (compare passups east and west of Cambie here), but the six on the 99-B are not, since a sizable fraction of riders ride end to end and there are substantial passups west of Cambie as well.
The demand generated by a traditional CBD can be smoothed with flex-time work and with a general spread of the peak around a peak half hour. With a university this is not feasible: to ensure maximum flexibility for students’ class schedule classes should be synchronized. When I was at NUS, a commuter university like UBC, I had a similar problem with full buses heading from campus to the subway stations after classes. Because UBC is nowhere near SkyTrain, its demand has to be spread among many bus routes, and is so great that it’s clogged not just the 99-B but also parallel routes such as the 25 and relief lines such as the 84.
The only alternative for investment in the Broadway corridor that has enough capacity to meet this demand is a full SkyTrain option. Any option that relies on a connecting bus part of the way not only won’t solve the capacity problem, but might even make it worse by concentrating all the UBC-bound demand at the westernmost SkyTrain station on Broadway, at either Granville or Arbutus. Today, people who take the Millennium Line can use the 84, which is faster than the 99-B; any extension of the Millennium Line west, even just to Cambie to complete the gap from Commercial to the Canada Line, is likely to concentrate demand on one corridor, overwhelming the truncated 99-B even further.
A light rail option probably has enough capacity, but does very little for Central Broadway or for completing the SkyTrain gap, and would also require pedestrian-hostile reconfiguration of stoplights and left turn cycles, making crossing the street even harder than it already is. UBC, which doesn’t care about Vancouver’s own needs, advocates an all-light rail option, while the city, which doesn’t care about UBC’s, wants a subway initially going as far west as Arbutus with a bus transfer to the west. A combo option with SkyTrain to Arbutus and light rail the rest of the way exists (Combo A in the alternatives analysis), but is almost as expensive as a full subway. The ridership projection for the combo option is almost even with that of a full subway, but such a projection is based on optimistic assumptions about transfer penalties and passengers’ willingness to travel on slower transit: the combo option is slower by about 7 minutes than the full subway from most preexisting SkyTrain stations as well as from Central Broadway, and requires an extra transfer for people traveling from the Millennium Line or Central Broadway.
Because the project has a $3 billion price tag, various critics have already begun complaining that it’s needlessly expensive (in reality, the inflation-adjusted projected cost per rider is the same as those of the Millennium, Canada, and Evergreen Lines) and proposing inferior solutions, and I believe that this cost is why the city and Translink are thinking of truncating the extension to Arbutus and only doing the rest later. It’s fine to spend a higher sum on the combination of the Canada and Evergreen Lines, which look nice on a map and make a lot of suburban mayors happy, but when it’s just one line that more or less stays within the city it’s too expensive and needs to be chopped into phases.
The other issue is that SkyTrain extensions have been more about shaping than about serving, i.e. serving areas that can be redeveloped rather than ones that are already dense. Look at the density map by census tract here: the residential density on Central Broadway and in the eastern parts of Kits is high, comparable to that of the census tracts hosting most SkyTrain-oriented developments. Even as far west as Alma there’s fairly high residential density. However, this is low-rise density, distributed roughly uniformly in the census tract, rather than clustered in a few high-rise buildings next to the SkyTrain stations. High-rises are possible throughout the corridor – there already are a few near the future Alma and Sasamat stops – but because of Point Grey’s affluent demographic it’s easy to write it off as not densifiable. Empty or very low-density plots are easier to redo from scratch than an existing neighborhood, even if the neighborhood already has enough development to justify a subway.
I suspect part of the problem comes from the context in which Vancouver’s TOD is located in. The Expo Line follows a private right-of-way with pedestrian-hostile streets connecting to stations, and the Millennium Line is elevated over the mostly sidewalk-free Lougheed Highway. The fastest way to get from some houses that are close to SkyTrain on a map to the station is to walk through mall parking lots. The walking range of SkyTrain stations located in unwalkable parts of Burnaby is not as high as it would be at ones located in a walkable urban context. At the level of how many people would live within a kilometer of SkyTrain, Kits and Central Broadway are already outperforming most of the Expo Line’s TOD, and even at the 500-meter range they do quite well; but in Burnaby the relevant distance is much shorter, and this may affect Translink’s ridership projections elsewhere in the metro area.
The only medium- and long-term solution is to find the $3 billion for the UBC extension, just as the metro region will have spent $3.5 billion in 10 years on the Canada and Evergreen Lines. Nothing else works for both UBC and Central Broadway; the counterarguments are based on generalizing from a different urban context; the difference-splitting intermediate solutions make some of the transit problems even worse than they are. It is always wrong to downgrade projects just because of a sticker shock, and if a very large project still has a good cost-benefit ratio then it’s a good investment to raise taxes or borrow money to fund it.
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.