At a time when “both TransLink and the City of Vancouver are aiming to establish a common vision for bus service in downtown Vancouver“, it is still interesting to have a look at what has been done in past in that respect

In 1975, the Bureau of Transit Services, then depending from the Minister of municipal affairs prepared a transit service plan to complement the City land plan [1]:

1975 Vancouver Downtown transit Plan

1975 proposal for the Vancouver Downtown transit Plan, extract from [1]

This plan is important in many aspects, and mainly the adopted methodology

It lays down the general picture in which a downtown plan can take shape

Thought not in service in 1975, the West Coast Express concept were already discussed, and the terminals and vessels, for the seabus, were under construction. The skytrain was still a quite distant concept [2], but the LRT discussed in the plan is clearly considered as a pre-metro, aimed to be underground in the Core Business district.

But More importantly,

It lays down 7 principles guiding the plan
Those principle are subdivized into 3 common service characteristics:

  • Direct Routing
  • (1) Don’t divert routes to serve specific needs: Diversion means a less attractive service for most of the travellers
    (2) Use secondary services connecting to main ones, to serve “out of the way” area (rather than divert main routes)

  • Minimize unecessary transfers
  • (3) Use the downtown grid for “random schedule” transfers

  • Minimal walking distance to final destinations
  • StraightThru
    (4) Go Straight thru the “center of gravity” of an area, and not its periphery, which increases the total walking distance by half.
    (5) Transit and pedestrians: the concept of pedestrianization and transit must not be treated independently.
    The study cites Jane Jacobs [3] to support the idea of bringing together the transit network with the pedestrian area [6]
    (6) Prefer two way operations over one way, since it offers the maximum coverage
    (7) Prefer nearside bus stop over farside, sinec it allows the passengers to alight before have to wait at a traffic light.

Many, if not all, of this principles are what Jarret Walker calls the geometry of Transit, and that is the reason why they are still as valid in 2013 as they were in 1975:

  • Principle (7): Thought some cities like Montreal and Toronto, have bus stopa on the nearside, most of the cities adopt a farside model, since it usually allows a better general traffic output, and modern LRT/trams use also farside bus stops, since it allows a more efficient signal preemption
  • Principle (1), (4) and (6): They are very strong transit geometry principles which have justified the conversion of Manners Mall in Wellington New Zealand, from a pedestrian only street to a transit mall.
  • Principle (4) and (5) are why transit needs to be considered as part of the urban fabric

Some comments on the DT plan
The geometry of transit largely comfort the relevance of the historic streetcar grid:

Robson bus 5 ( Ex-Saskatoon Brill trolley 2363), at Robson square, in May 1980. Note the “Shoppers Free” Bus sign – Photo, courtesy from Angus McIntyre

  • The choice of the streets is guided by principle (4)
    • At the time of drafting the plan the Robson bus was using the couplet of one way streets Smythe/Robson: a two way service along Robson is clearly the privilegied choice.
  • The streetcar service along Hornby, was expected to use the Arbutus line outside the DT core: the routing thru Hornby plan is consistent with the 1972 Erickson plan developped for the court house complex.
    • The advent of the Canada line kind of fullfill this vision.
  • The Robson square is envisioned to be a pedestrian oriented area, serviced by transit in full accordance with principle (4), and the Arthur Erickson’s vision for Robson square:
      The only traffic through the square will be inner city buses, linking the West and and False Creek. Since buses function as people movers, they are seen as a compliment or enhancement to the pedestrian activity of the civic square [...]


The underlying philosophy leading to the plan, articulating pedestrian areas around transit, and not the reverse, illustrates the dramatic shift of the current Vancouver council approach, which dismiss the transit geometry, as illustrates the Robson bus circling the square
to serve a “specific need”.

At the end a transit service is envisioned on Nelson to complement the planned development of the westend, as well as a pheripheral line, to serve the “social and recreational” place on the pheriphery of downtown:

Remarkably, they are echoing recurring wishes for Transit in downtown, but the plan warms that “…there really is not much to be gained in professing support for programmes to get more people to use public transit without commitment to actions to give transit priority use of streets in Downtown Vancouver and in other urban centres in the metropolitan area.”

Alas, the current Vancouver council policies could not be farther apart of this commitment to transit.

One can also consult [5] for a different coverage of [1]


[1] Draft memorandum on transit service planning to complement downtown peninsula plans of the City of Vancouver, Bureau of Transit Services, BC Minister of Municipal affairs, Sept 19, 1975. (13.6MB file)

[2] the underlying concept had been drafted by Harry Rankin by 1970, see The Case for Rapid Transit…in 1970

[3] The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, Random House, New York, 1961

[4] 51-61-71 Project, block 71 Schematics, Arthur Erickson Architects, 1974

[5] Vancouver’s 1975 downtown transit plan, John Calimenete, April 7, 2010

[6] This view is echoed by Jan Gehl, among others, providing rational for Transit on Sydney’s George Street.

Transit as integral part of the urban fabric

We are in a beautiful city, “what you would like do in its down town?” is the asked question. The answer, is, and has always been:

relax and enjoy watching the city life:.

The world best expert in urban life, the Parisian bistro owner, knows better that anyone, what people like is to “sit, relax and enjoy city life” – (here cafe Beaubourg at 100 Rue Saint-Martin, Paris)

Fulfilling the request has always been tricky in a city where the space is at a premium, and there is the competitive and not less important need, How to get there?. by feet, bike, transit, or by car ?

It has become clear that the car is consuming too much space. Walking certainly allows a much more efficient use of space, but does it is a good answer to the elders and disabled who are also part of the city?

Answering all these questions will spell a new paradigm for transit:

relax, enjoy watching the city life…and contribute to it

…by bringing the necessary influx of people to make the city public spaces a success. One city more than any other epitomizes this new paradigm:

Strasbourg

The reintroduction of trams [3] in European cities, date back of the 80’s. but it is in Strasbourg, France, in 1994, that the tram paradigm will be radically changed. It is not thought anymore only as a transportation service, but more as a way of life, an integral part of the urban fabric. To this purpose, the train itself is integrally rethought, and its design become important:

  • integrally low floor (Strasbourg is a first) to minimize any access/movement barrier
  • As large as possible Windows on the city
  • The train design is unique to the city

The design looks revolutionary in the beginning of 1990, but good design age well, as you can see in the picture below. The integration of the tram in the city is particularly well thought, and the tram is integral part of pedestrianized square and street (naked street concept), since it wants penetrate the city in its very heart, bringing its lifeblood, irrigating vast pedestrian areas

The re introduction of the tram in Strasbourg has been a turning point in the way the transit in city is thought. Notice that this tram design, dating from 1990’s – credit photo (2)

The success is immediate, and up to date, Strasbourg has been the showcase of successful urbanism and transit integration- Translink routinely illustrates LRT proposals with the Strasbourg trams-and it can be considered as the veritable origin of the tramway renaissance in Europe, and beyond the new way to think transit in Europe.

Bordeaux

We will have to wait almost 10 years, to see a new transit network able to cast shadow on the Strasbourg innovations, it will be in Bordeaux, France, where most of the historic city is classified as World Heritage Site by the Unesco making the mere presence of an overhead wire a major issue. Here, none of the Strasbourg innovation has been repelled, but only improved.

At the difference of Strasbourg, Bordeaux is a city of large boulevards-called cours by the locals- and the tram could have avoided a large part of the pedestrianized streets and squares:

the trams goes right into the heart of the city and its pedestrianized zone – Place de la Comédie-thought other option using large boulevard 100 meters away could have eventually be possible

Its designers have chosen not to do so. Here too, the trams affirm their presence right into the heart of the city and are part of the pedestrianized street and square, like illustrated below:

Place de la Comédie- Bordeaux : the tram is mingling with pedestrians and bikes, in a very natural way. no street curb, no bollard, not even an overhead wire (…but pavement texture variation, allow visually impaired people to recognize the tram right of way)

The “naked space”, imposing very low speed, comes at a cost for transit operation, but it is the cost the city has chosen to not disrupt its fabric:

Shared space as at a cost for transit efficiency… but a detour too. Enhanced City life and transit rider experience can command the first option

Influence of The Val/tram debate on the Transit paradigm

The VAL, is an automated mini-metro system, similar and contemporary to the Vancouver Skytrain. Both Strasbourg and Bordeaux were poised to have a VAL, not a tram, up to decisive civic elections, seeing mayoral change [4]. Vancouverites can easily imagine how heated could have been the debate between advocates of respective technologies in those cities: The stand-off had translated in cities lagging behind others moving forward on the urban renewal front. Thought one of the argument of the VAL, not taking road space, was loosing steam very quickly, the tram advocates were not going to win the technology argument (speed- frequency), and presenting the tram as a cheaper second choice was not necessarily very appealing to city aspiring to be leading European metropolis (better build less, or wait… but build it right). Another paradigm was needed:

The tram/subway debate is not about money, it is about urbanism

Of course, the geometry argument always rules, but eventually tram advocates of Bordeaux and Strasbourg have been able to demonstrate that with a ~3km typical average trip in their respective cities, the advantage of the grade separated transit (typically VAL), can become moot… especially when the shared spaces in the historic center, usually not much than 1 or 2km, is balanced by segregated right of way in the burbs

The lag taken by those cities during their transit technology choice debate, have also allowed them to learn from other cities, making the renewal a leap forward: That was especially true in Bordeaux, which was a decaying harbor-city

The bus

The bus has long been the poor parent of the tram evolution in term of design, but things are slowly changing beyond the simple mimicking of the train feature [1]. Thought cohabitation of bus and pedestrian in a naked space, is less frequent that in the case of tramway, it is more due to the fact that the naked street concept is relatively new than some inherent limitation imposed by the bus.

Besançon, France used to have a bus route in a shared space, before converting it to Tram; eventually showing the progress toward a naked space.

Place de la Revolution in Besancon: the bus used to travel in a shared space, where its ROW is identified by pavement. The introduction of the tramway allowed to bring the “shared” space to up to date standard, where the transitway, marker is more discret (the rails show the direction, but some, discreet pavement color/texture changes show the Tram ROW – credit top (wikipedia)

Neuchâtel, Switzerland, is an example where the street paving gives no indication of where the bus is passing.

Place Pury is the heart of Neuchâtel, Switzerland: It is a pedestrian square criss-crossed by buses (the trolley overhead give you the idea)

The above example has shown to be successful, and cleared initial concern on the cohabitation between bus and pedestrian, so the concept is taking off in more major cities, like Exhibition road in London which is also open to bus traffic:

People waiting the bus 360 on the renovated exhibition road transformed in a pedestrian-priority road

In Paris, the rehabilitation of Place de la République-by Trevelo and Viger Kohler, is also adopting the “naked concept” for bus. Notice that here too, imposing a bus detour to avoid the pedestrianized plaza has been ruled out.

(top) Place de la Republique Paris – the right hand size of the square is open to bus traffic using the naked street concept (bot) View of the concept for bus traffic on the square

Place de la Sallaz in Lausanne is another example we could name


[1] see post Hynovis or the Hydrogen bus

[2] pic.atpic.com

[3] trams is the non american name for streetcar…but in the hierarchy of transportation, the modern European tram is an intermediate between the streetcar and the LRT as known in Portland or elsewhere in America.

[4] Catherine Trautmann from the center left, defeating center right incumbent Marcel Rudloff, in 1989 in Strasbourg; and Alain Juppé succeeding to Jacques Chaban-Delmas in Bordeaux. It has been an interim mayor in Bordeaux from 1995-2004, Hugues Martin, due to the fact that Alain Juppé was also member of the French government. Alain Juppé had also got convinced of corruption, preventing him to be elected for a year: it has spent this year in Montreal, where there is little doubt he has found inspiration for the waterfront renewal of Bordeaux.

Or how some streetcar advocates make their case by using the Iraq war’s lobbyists strategy.

Such strategy is not to be embarrassed with facts, but to express an opinion legitimated by an ample corpus of previously expressed opinions, which are presented as facts. It becomes then a mythology, because it is asked to people to believe unquestionably in them. and if it succeed at it, the unsubstantiated “facts” become “truisms”!

The streetcar example with a report : Streetcar Land Use Study

It is a report commissioned and published by the Planning department of the District of Columbia- so must be serious (We refer to it as “the report”)- which explains that a Washington D.C. streetcar network could generate $15Billion of investment along its corridors.

How it arrives to such a conclusion?

Basically it is grounded on a Portland streetcar company‘s paper [9], analyzing the real estate development in the years 1997-2008, which eventually happens to coincide with a global real estate boom, and general gentrification of cities’ downtown across the continent.

In addition of the global factors above, it has been also some more local factor attracting development in Portland:

  • A green belt constraining the development area
  • Other transit development (3 max line, an aerial tram…), all converging in downtown
  • Insitutional development [1]
  • Tax credit [1]
  • A street car loop

What is the exact contribution of the streetcar loop among the above cited parameters? It is not deciphered by the Washington D.C. study, apparently considering that the entirety of the developments occurring in the 2 blocks of the streetcar are triggered by virtue of its track presence.

No streetcar related redevelopment example: left, The San Fernando Building in LA, A successful revitalization effort in Down-town Los Angeles by developer Tom Gilmore- photo credit (3)-right the Woodward building neighborhood in Vancouver

What are the inherent quality of the streetcar provoking that?

The report describes it as a “Premium transit” transit service that is “reliable, predictable, and offers a high-quality ride—in other words, Metrorail [Note: the DC subway] or the streetcar“.

What about speed and frequency? does it really doesn’t matter? …and in what aspect a streetcar operating in mixed traffic can be more reliable-or predictable- than a bus?

A streetcar operating in mixed traffic is subject to the same reliability issue faced by a bus...with even less ability to avoid road impediment- credit photo (4)

What are the involved cost of the streetcar?

The venture of the report in this area is rich of learning. It states that: “Evidence [...] suggests that streetcar vehicles offer better long-term cost-benefit value than buses”. Where are the evidence? 2 references are cited:

  • Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the Twenty-First Century – Gloria Ohland & Shelley Poticha; 2009
  • Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities from Patrick Condon [5]

It is worth to mention, that, first the conclusions of Patrick Condon are grounded on the finding of the other referenced book, and secondly, [5] presents numbers which should be subject to caution [6].

Circular referencing, but no cross checking…That was also the strategy of the Iraq war lobbyist

In anyway, a blanket statement like “streetcar vehicles offer better long-term cost-benefit value than buses” is discounting too many parameters to be taking seriously: one of them is that the long-term cost-benefit of a vehicle is tied to its productivity, which depend in part of the ridership.

What about other alternatives

The bus alternative is briefly investigated to be better dismissed: “Although well-designed BRT systems attract some development, their impacts are typically much less than those for rail”, this by citing [7] where one will have hard time to find which aspect of [7] leads the report to such a conclusion. In fact [7] suggests that “there is growing documentation of [BRT] positive development effects; however, given the newness of most BRT systems, more information is needed” while another [8] find that “the type and level of investment occurring near BRT stations appears comparable to the experience with TOD near rail transit”. Notice that this later reference provides relevant number:

“Since the Silver Line BRT was introduced, there has been over $571 million in investment along this corridor, and the tax base grew by 247%, compared to a city average of 146%. “

Relative growth on tax base in the corridor versus average… The Kind of information the streetcar report fails to provide.

And, outside transportation… does there is no other cost-effective avenue to shape development? Institutional impetuous as seeing in Surrey BC, seems to produce good effect, other large scale development like the Woodward building in Vancouver also…

Mythology building

Like in any mythology, with the streetcar mythology, facts are second to beliefs. The Streetcar myth just needs a critical mass of believers. If enough developers and buyers believe in it, the prophecy will be self fulling…that is why all the produced literature referencing itself is paramount.

Vancouver’s believer will then ask the question as Gordon Price did: “why not at least a return of the heritage tram to Science World?“, but the question shouldn’t be framed like it, it should be

  • “what you want to try to achieve by returning the heritage tram to Science World?”

[1] Numerous of land lots, developed around the streetcar, are or were institutional, and a 10 years property tax waiver has been put in place to “faciliate” development in the streetcar corridor(source: [2])

[2] Debunking Portland The City That Doesn’t Work, Randal O’Toole, July 9, 2007

[3] Eric Richardon

[4] Jarret Walker

[5] Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities, Patrick M. Condon

[6] In term of operating/capital cost: Number provided by APTA and Translink could suggest a pretty different picture, from the one stated in [5], see for example this post.

[7]TCRP Report ıı8: Bus Rapid Transit Practitioner’s
Guide
, 2007

[8]Bus Rapid Transit and Transit Oriented Development, Breakthrough Technologies Institute, Washington, 2008

[9]Portland Streetcar Development Oriented Transit, Office of Transportation and Portland Streetcar Inc.

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