When it comes to service delivery, the TransLink narrative goes like this:

    Delivered transit service hours have fallen behind the population growth since 2010 reaching levels last in 2008. That is leading to more crowding, more pass-ups and a worsening of the overall transit experience [1][18].

The graph presented to support this thesis is usually a truncated version of the below one:


A problem with this narrative using the total service hours delivered by the TransLink subsidiaries and contractors is that it magnifies the 2010 peak, by including service provided for the Olympic Games. A second issue is that it includes the technical services which could vary greatly without affecting the transit supply. Below is an example of such differences [2]:

route Revenue hour service Total hour service difference in %
All 3,841,860 4,950,000 29%
555 13,500 21,400 60%
96B 42,900 62,400 44%


Revenue service or service supply means service dedicated to move transit passengers (passenger can use the provided service).
Total service is the revenue service + technical service (deadhead run, layover…).
That is matching the APTA definitions. Translink’s reports tend to easily interchange the both terms.

The relatively important difference between the total service and the effective revenue service had already been noticed as an optimization avenue by the 2012 TransLink commissioner’s review [17]. The more fundamental issue is that the service/hour provided is not representative of the Transit supply:

  • The replacement of a 40 foot bus by a 60 foot bus wouldn’t increase the service hours per capita, but it could address overcrowding.
  • Faster bus routes infer less hours of service but are improving the service offer.
  • The replacement of a bus route by a rail one, offering much faster and higher capacity vehicles, can both address crowding while improving the offer, while resulting in a decrease in total service hours.

Seat.Kilometres Supply

The seat.km metric; which needs to be understood as (seat+standee).km in the transit world; is a much better way to evaluate the transit supply, and for this reason is widely used in the passenger transportation industry.

As an example: 1 hour of coach service on the express route 555 using the Hwy 1 HOV lane can provide ~3600 seat.km when one hour of C23 Shuttle bus in Vancouver’s Yaletown, provides only ~320 seat.km. Differences in average speed and vehicle capacity drastically affect the offered service which is reflected by the seat.km metric:


The effect of the introduction of the Canada line service in late 2009 is clear. Though service hours may have stayed stable since 2011, the seat.km supply has slightly increased thanks to a greater use of articulated buses. The advent of routes 96B and 555, having higher speed than average, also provides more seat.km at constant service hours. Is this enough to keep pace with the population growth?


The point is moot. If a downtrend can be observed since 2011, we are nowhere near the 2008 level. The introduction of rapid transit lines tends to exhibit a positive long term trend.

Canadian and International Comparisons

To provide a larger perspective, the Vancouver transit supply is compared to other Canadian metropolitan areas, using numbers as provided by the Transportation Association of Canada [4]. The Vancouver numbers have been normalized to correlate with those provided by the association [5] . Vancouver tends to exhibit favorable trends when compared to its Canadian peers:


Vancouver pales when compared to Megalopolises such as Paris, London or Hong Kong [6], but its Transit supply is much greater than in Portland and comparable to the ones of European metropolises of population size closer to Metro Vancouver, such as Lille or Lyon [7]. Nevertheless, this comes with one caveat: both Lille and Lyon are fed by an important suburban train network which has not been accounted for in the following figure:


The above international comparison is assuming 4 standees per m2 to estimate the vehicle capacity [9]:

system bus LRT Metro RER/MTR/Skytrain
Vancouver 76 386
Hong Kong 105 146 [10] 200 [10]
London [11] 79 252[12] 728 509
Paris [11] 83 230 586 1772
Portland 76 166 [13]

The Occupancy rate
Is the Transit supply good enough or not?

The occupancy rate [14] can be a good proxy to assess the relevance of the supply: the higher the occupancy rate is, the more likely crowding issues will arise. On the other hand, a low occupancy rate could suggest an excess of capacity.

Crowding experienced locally with a low occupancy rate could suggest that the transit supply deployment is not optimal, but some other issues could arise: A directional demand unbalance makes crowding difficult to address without deploying excess capacity on the underused direction.


Possibly a transit world specific: even the busiest systems don’t achieve an occupancy rate greater than 30%. In that light, the TransLink system appears to be a heavily used one.

It is worthwhile to note that TransLink estimates the average transit trip length at ~8km [15] when TfL estimates the average bus trip length at 3.5km and the Underground trip length at 8km [16]. Similarly the average bus or tram trip length is 3.3km and the subway trip length 5km in Paris. The reliability of trip length data could be an issue but a consequence of longer trips in Vancouver is that TransLink needs to provide more seat.km per trip than London or Paris.

(*) This article has been first published in the December 2014 newsletter from Transport Action BC.

[1] Mayors’ council on regional transportation Regional Transportation Investments: a Vision for Metro Vancouver – June 12,2014

[2] Difference between the GTFS data (revenue hr) and the Translink 2013 Annual report (Total service hr). see more in this post

[3] Supply is computed on the first Friday following Labour Day (usually one of the busiest Transit days of the year) of each year from GTFS schedule and fleet deployment observations. The vehicles’ capacity used are the maximum as displayed on the concerned vehicles. see more in this post

[4] Transportation Association of Canada. Urban Transportation Indicators, Fourth Survey. Ottawa :2010

[5] Numbers otherwise differ, possibly due to different assumptions, such as on the vehicles’ capacity. The urban areas, used by the association [4], don’t match either the area covered by the transport agencies, so numbers are subject to caution.

[6] Numbers for Paris come from the Observatoire de la mobilité en Ile-de-France, London numbers from TfL [16] and Hong-Kong numbers from the 2013 MTR Annual report.

[7] Number for Portland, including population, comes from the APTA, and includes the scheduled services provided by Trimet, C-Tran, SMART and Portland city.

[8] Numbers from the Certu (“Annuaire statistique Transports Collectifs Urbains”, 2014) with bus capacity normalized at 83.

[9] Agencies could have different standards (e.g. 6 persons per sqm in Hong Kong). The vehicle capacity is per bus or consist (train) unless otherwise specified. When different vehicle types are used, a vehicle revenue.km weighted average is used.

[10] The capacity is per car. Hong Kong Tram capacity is 125, and Hong Kong Airport train capacity is 120 per car.

[11] Vehicle Capacity number from Report on mobility an transport #1 – Institut D’aménagement et d’urbanisme- November 2014”.

[12] Weighted average of a DLR train capacity (280) and a Tramlink train (200).

[13] The capacity is per vehicle, the Portland streetcar capacity is 200.

[14] Also called Load factor.

[15] Translink: 2014 Business Plan, Operating and Capital – Budget. New Westminster 2014.

[16] Transport for London. Travel in London: report 7. London 2014.

[17] Shirocca consulting Translink Efficiency review. 2012,

[18] A narrative largely echoed by Lower Mainland translink advocates as illustrated here.

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
, 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.

As recently as September 24th, we were reading in the Straigth that a European tram type system could be built for less than $16 million per km. A number whose has been touted around for quite a while by as credible people as academic Patrick Condon, professor at UBC, as shown in a special post on Stephen Ress’s blog.

On could ask the questions:

  • Why Toronto is pricing a 15km LRT line on Sheppard Avenue for
    $950 million?
  • Why Seattle built its central link at a whopping cost of more than US$100 million per km[1]?
  • And obviously why an LRT for the evergreen line has been priced at $1 Billion if not more?

So, it is interesting to understand where come from this magic number of CAN$16 million per km, to justify to crisscrossing the city with an extensive streetcar network, and we could have a begining of answer with the latest series of post of zweisystem listing some features of the tram line of Paris area, T1, T2 in one post and T3 in a second one, and noticeabily claiming construction price as low as €10millions / km, what effectively roughly convert into CAN$16 millions. This deserves some complement of information and this post focuses mostly on the Parisian Tram


Though Paris has seriously invested in its tram [2] network, one should note it has not been exclusive of other investment in new subway line (line 14) and other underground express train (line E), as well as extension of existing subway network lines (line 13) in the meantimes. The Paris’s Tram network can be considered complementary of a backbone rapid transit network, and not an alternative to it as we gonna see it.

Line T1

The line T1 has been estimated effectively at €10millions / km, but in… 1985 [3]. Furthermore, this initial line has been built with a railtrack too weak for the kind of ridership it is today supporting (in excess of 100,000 pax when the line has been built for 55,000pax [9]), so less than 15 years after the inspection of the line, all the railtracks are being renewed on a 5 years period involving complete shutdown of the line for a period of around 6 weeks every years since 2006.

An extension of 4.9km is currently estimated at €150 million by its parent authority [10]

Line T2

The line is reusing a formerly existing railtrack of the french national railway network, still in service up to 1993, when the requalification of the line in LRT is decided in such sort that the €10millions / km relates to the necessary investment related to the LRT requalification by 1997.

One will note that its full segregated right of way original segment allows an average speed of 32km/h with an inter station of 950 meters[4]. A 4.2km extension is currently under construction at an estimated cost of €276 million as posted by its parent authority [11] (average speed on the extension in urban area will be of 20km/h[11]).

Line T3

The line is implemented on the so called “boulevard des Marechaux”, an inner ring urban boulevard offering a minimum of 40m right of way and displaying probably the closest typology to Broadway (Though Broadway right of way vries between 26m to 30m maximum between Commercial and Alma), so if in the context of the Briadway line, some benchmarking with Paris need to be done, it is probably with this line

This line has opened in 2006 at a of CAN$62 million per km [5] and has an average speed of 19km/h[6]. A 14Km extension is considered at an currently estimated cost of €775million by its parent authority [7].

Line T4

The last line came into service in 2006 and is factually a so called “tram-train” line of 8km length, it reuses an existing platform, of the French national railway. It can be a relevant benchmark toward the introduction of a similar service in the Fraser Valley using the BCER right of way or the downtown streetcar in South False creek. Cost to open this line has been estimated at €120 millions by its parent authority [8] for an average service speed of 25km/h [8].

In conclusion, from Paris examples, it looks that in a very favorable configuration where the right of way railway is already existing, the most recent benchmark indicate us a bottom price of $25 million per km, which become order of magnitude more according the line typology. But one could reply that Paris is a whole different world, let’s look closer to home: Portland and its famous streetcar.

Portland streetcar
Portland’ streetcar original loop of 5.7km single track has been opened in three phases between 2001 and 2006 at a cost of only US$88 million, including rolling stock [13], so below the famous US$16 million dollar per km (note it is US$ here)

  • The line carries less than 10,000pax per day and eventually the railbed has been designed for such low ridership
  • A 5.3km extension of the streetcar is now estimated at US$147 million [12]

Back to the streetcar reality
It looks like that the original cost pattern of the streetcar can’t be reproduce, far from it, and again we are talking of a cost of US$30 million/km in a favorable case of very light rail system designed to handle a very low ridership. Nevertheless, the Portland’s streetcar give a a good benchmark for a downtown streetcar, which could be undoubtfully successful, if we subjectively judge by the ridership of adjacent bus routes along Main between DownTown and Main/Science world station

In any case, it looks that the magic number of $16 million per km is

  • Specific to very few system and ample evidence show it can’t be generalized
  • Outdated estimation not anymore achievable even in a very favorable context

Streetcar enthusiasts, in their passion will have forgot the points above. For purpose of illustration, actualized number from some selected systems (as discussed above) can be found in the figure below


[1] Audit of the Seattle Central link Rail project’s initial segment, July 2003. The refered memorandum of the Office of the inspector general of the DOT mention a US$2.4 billion by 2009, including a US$209 million in debt interest incurred by the project completion but not including US$657 million long term debt interest payable between 2009 and 2025, for a 14 miles long line.

[2] By Tram, we refer to a rail system intermediate between the typical American LRT such Portland’s Max and streetcar like in Portland’s Streecar which is popular in Europe and Australia

[4] From Le prolongement du tramway d’Issy-Val de Seine a Paris-Porte de versailles[Fr]. For matter of comparison, average speed on the Canada Line is of 36km/h for an inter-station of 1000 meters (computed from a total posted travel time of 25mn from Richmond Brighouse to Vancouver Waterfront by Translink).

[5] Article Paris T3 Light Rail Development and Extension, France, from railway-technology.com qu,otes €311 million for 8km. Number itself coherent with the study of Patrick Condon and al. dated of May 2008 The Case for the Tram: Learning from Portland

[6] As posted on http://www.tramway.paris.fr [Fr]. For illustration, the posted average speed of the bus #9 Westbound around 9am weekday is of 14.5km/h while the one of the #99 is of 21.5km/h (from translink timetable)

[7] http://tramway.paris.fr/ewb_pages/f/financement.php [Fr] provides a breakdown of the financing.

[8] T4 – Ligne des Coquetiers “Aulnay – Bondy” [Fr] provides a breakdown of the financing in 2003 €.

[9]As stated by wikipedia [Fr]