Bob Ransford discussed the push by the Vancouver Council to get a rapid-transit line down Broadway in his Vancouver Sun column.  Lots of good points.

I sent it off to Human Transit blogger Jarrett Walker to see if he had any counterpoints.  Oh yeah.

So here are the two of them, with Jarrett’s remarks italicized along the way:


Questions about a Broadway subway line must not go unasked

The number of stations would have a huge impact on the shaping of neighbourhoods along the rapid transit line

By Bob Ransford, Special to The Sun – December 8, 2012

Now that Vancouver city council has decided that a $2.8-billion subway rapid transit line to UBC is the best way to meet the growing public transportation demand along the Broadway corridor, some hard questions need to be asked.

Why ask the questions after the decision has been made?

Well, if history is our teacher, we should know that securing a political commitment to finance a transit project close to $3 billion is a near-impossible task. I can almost guarantee we’re facing at last five years of wrangling over transit governance, regional planning priorities, provincial participation, tax policy, cost sharing and a myriad of other issues standing in the way of finding the money. While that wrangling is going on, there will be lots of time for asking and answering questions.

Second, if a miraculous agreement can be reached to secure $3 billion to build a single transit line in a region that needs at least double that amount of money to finance a short list of other transportation priorities, our attention will then turn to another two to three years of serious planning.

It’s during this serious planning phase that we can’t afford to ignore asking the serious questions and answering them honestly and completely.

These are the serious questions that went unasked and therefore unanswered during the dysfunctional planning that led to the construction of the Canada Line. That’s why, more than seven years after the Canada Line station locations were planned, not a single new housing unit along this high capacity transit system has been built in Vancouver. It’s also why at least three and perhaps as many as five transit stations are missing on the line.

JW: The Canada Line is certainly not missing three stations, unless you really do want it to be a slow streetcar. For a consistent station spacing adjusted for density you’d have added just one, at 16th.  Stations are not just a cost factor but also a delay factor affecting total travel times.  This is the first hint that Ransford is uninterested in whether transit is actually useful for getting people where they want to go in a way that is preferable to their alternatives.  

It’s why the system was designed with small station platforms, inhibiting expansion of trains to accommodate increased ridership.

These questions weren’t asked because all the attention focused on seeking consensus on raising the money to build the system. When a tenuous agreement among a long list of partners was reached to fund the project, after seemingly endless wrangling to, no one wanted to provoke any more serious debates. “Forget the questions, let’s just build the system” became the mantra.

JW: I have never encountered a capital project of any size or worthiness that didn’t require a bit of this mantra.  The political system is designed to reward picking things apart rather than putting them together, so a certain amount of this kind of assertiveness is always necessary, especially toward the end of the debate.

We can’t afford to repeat that fiasco. Serious questions need to be asked before a contract to build the system is signed.  The first and most important question that needs to be asked is about how this new transit system will shape neighbourhoods along the line.

JW: Why is this the important question?    Like his hero Patrick Condon, Ransford seems uninterested in the primary function of transit, which is to help a citizenry feel liberated to access the riches of their city without cars.  Development outcomes, like sustainability outcomes, are secondary results of transit systems that get the transportation outcome right.   Development around stations in great.  Ignoring transport outcomes in order to serve the needs of certain developers is another matter.

The plan is to build a subway all the way to UBC with only three proposed stations between Arbutus Street and the UBC campus. Research demonstrates that automobile trips are one of the biggest contributors to GHG emissions. We also know that most people make vehicle trips in a range just beyond where they are comfortable walking, primarily to meet their daily needs

JW: The geographical problem of the Broadway corridor is that density drops off suddenly west of Arbutus and so does redevelopment potential.  The only reason any project extends west of Arbutus at all is UBC itself.  This is why it made sense for TransLink to consider options that end at Arbutus.  

UBC Prof. Patrick Condon has demonstrated in his extensive work comparing transit systems performance and costs that local buses and streetcars extend the walk trip at costs considerably less than SkyTrain LRT, allowing frequent on and off stops for trip chaining (performing more than one errand on the same trip) and accommodating typically short trips to work or to shop when compared to other modes.

Walking becomes the mainstay mode of movement in streetcar neighbourhoods, with the streetcar itself acting as a sort of pedestrian accelerator, extending the reach of the walk trip.

JW: Slow streetcars stuck in traffic, such as Portland’s, are useless as pedestrian accelerators because when you count waiting time, they are barely faster than walking.  When travelling along the Portland Streetcar path, I always start walking and board the streetcar only if it happens to overtake me; I must always allow enough time to walk the entire way, so the Portland Streetcar does nothing to actually save me useful time, ever.  

A more effective relationship between walking and transit is for the two to be in separate, non-overlapping, and therefore complementary roles, which means transit speeds must be well above walk speeds.  Subways are good pedestrian accelerators because they connect one pedestrian-intensive space to another over a longer distance, delivering the customer as a pedestrian.  Surface light-rail and busways can do this too, but only if the “intimate slow neighborhood” crowd isn’t allowed to slow them down to the point of making them useless. 

A mixed-use neighbourhood flourishes when people either walk between their homes and local shops, services or jobs or take a short jaunt on a streetcar and get on or off close to their destination. Typically, streetcar stations are 300 to 400 metres apart. Residential densities within a 400-metre radius of these lines typically average 20 to 30 units per acre. That means low-rise apartments close to the station and townhouses, duplexes and some single-family homes near the edge of the 400-metre radius. With a streetcar, over time along the Broadway corridor, modest redevelopment would occur and the existing retail villages along the corridor would be revitalized and would thrive.

JW: I love all the outcomes that Ransford desires here, but those outcomes work best in the presence of transit that is protected from delay, such as the way subways (or some exclusive-lane rail and busways) function.  Slow transit doesn’t make people live slower lives.  Instead, it makes people use their cars because those become the only way to access the city quickly.

More fundamentally:  The entire presumption of this discussion is that the role of transit investment is to manipulate people’s lives to make them act in ways that certain advocates and developers approve of.   I prefer to think of people as free actors in a free society, and to focus on liberating transit riders rather than trying to manipulate them.

Compare this neighbourhood-shaping influence to a high-capacity, costly subway system with just three stations between Arbutus and UBC, more than a kilometre apart. First, the system is aimed at moving people relatively long distances quickly, rather than serving local neighbourhoods. Hence, three stations.

JW: “Local neighborhoods” or “communites” is almost always code for “lower-density areas that do not have enough demand to justify major transit facilities.”  Do people at Arbutus & Broadway not count as a local neighborhood simply because they live and work and shop at high enough density (and redevelopment potential) that a station is viable there?

The idea is to move large numbers of people from the Broadway/Commercial transit node to the Central Broadway jobs centre and others on to the terminus at UBC.

JW: No, the idea is to move people rapidly east-west across a high-frequency grid, where connections with north-south Frequent Network lines enable fast travel between countless origin-destination pairs all over Vancouver.

This type of transit line will do little to support the existing retail villages along the corridor. There will be pressure to develop density around the three transit stations. It will be the kind of density most existing residents will find unacceptable and will characterize as “spot zoning”.

JW: Rapid transit (subway or surface) has to run quickly and does this by asking people to walk further to fewer stops.  As a result, it tends to be better at supporting nodal patterns but not in linear patterns.  

Transit that stops every block or two is useful mainly for protecting people from having to walk.  This is an issue for a small senior/disabled sliver of the population, but for everyone else, walking is good for you!  If we’re going to manipulate public behavior through transit investments, I’d rather focus on manipulating to do healthy and sustainable things.

Densities around transit stations of this type should radiate up to about 800 metres from the stations and should be in excess of 30 units per acre on average, with much higher densities within the 400-metre radius.

This kind of density transforms neighbourhoods. This is the kind of transformation Burnaby has been embracing along the Expo and Millennium lines for years. It’s this kind of density Vancouver planners and politicians have been afraid to talk about, leaving seas of low-density housing around a number of existing expensive, high-capacity transit stations in Vancouver years after the stations were built.

JW: Ransford has been indirectly ragging SkyTrain up to now, but now he cites SkyTrain’s unique ability to galvanize really massive density.  Why?  Because it’s fast, frequent, extremely frequent, reliable, and doesn’t slow down to the point of uselessness just because it’s going through a linear neighborhood.

Meanwhile, if Ransford is really implying that Point Grey should adopt Metrotown or Patterson as its redevelopment model, he might want to spend some more time talking with folks in Point Grey about what they want, because they will be heard sooner or later.

So after we’ve answered the first question about whether or not we can afford to invest $3 billion of public money in a single transit line moving people from A to B and on to C along the Broadway corridor, we then need to ask how that transit line will reshape our neighbourhoods.

JW: Sorry, Bob, but there are other questions, such as:  What’s the best way help people get where they’re going in a way that’s preferable to their cars?  And what’s the best way to liberate citizens to access the riches of the city to travel sustainably in a way that values their time?  Ransford isn’t interested in those questions, but I suspect the people of Vancouver are. 

Bob Ransford is a public affairs consultant with Counterpoint Communications Inc. He is a former real estate developer who specializes in urban land-use issues. Email: ransford@counterpoint.ca or Twitter.com/BobRansford

JW: Despite my heckling, Bob may be right about some things:  The Broadway line is a tougher sell once you get west of Arbutus because the really high densities that are possible east of there are politically almost impossible to imagine at Point Grey or even around Broadway/Macdonald.  

I could see it possibly making sense to run light rail in subway part of the way westward but to come to the surface between Arbutus and Macdonald, not as a stuck-in-traffic streetcar but as proper surface light rail like Portland’s Interstate Avenue or East Burnside segments or Seattle’s MLKing segment.  That would allow it to have another stop or two, though not a lot more stops, and it would have to have strong surface signal priority etc. 

However, it would help everyone to remember that if it weren’t for the truly colossal demand out of UBC — demand that’s going relatively long distances and that currently uses incredible quantites of fast bus service — nobody would be talking about a Broadway line west of Arbutus at all.  Once we’re west of Arbutus, the Broadway line doesn’t need to be about redevelopment at all; it’s amply justified solely by the UBC market.  It’s about replacing hundreds of bus trips with fewer automated trains, thus allowing TransLink to run much more service at much less cost and lower emissions, and thus freeing up resources that can be used to improve transit service all over the region.