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.

On October 15th and October 17, It was a so called “public consultation” on the block 51 respectively titled “a look back” and “a look forward”. If you were not made aware timely by social media like twitter, there is little chance you could have attended it, since it was quickly sold-out (sic).

The Panel of the first evening was a discussion involving Bing Thom, Alan Bell, Nick Milkovich – three members of Arthur Erickson Architects at the time of building the courthouse complex, reflecting on the 1973 design [7]. In the second event a short 6mn lecture by different speaker was given. The historian John Atkin gave an historical account of the north plaza [5]. Lon Laclair from city of Vancouver was here to talk of how great the Olympic experience was. Jenniffer Sheel and Krisztina Kassay from Viva Vancouver, the brains behind the Robson square programming, gave an overview of what has been done on the square. They didn’t explain why the programming need to be exactly in the middle of Robson street to be successful-and not let say on Bute at Robson [6], but were apparently wanting to make the point that according to them, “people don’t want traffic at all here”. Heather Forbes from VPSN explained that an overwhelming majority of entries to their “Where’s the Square?” design competition selected Block 51 as the heart of Vancouver, omitting to mention that the people choice was the North plaza, but noticing that solutions can be found for other user/need, like transit.

Lausanne, la Sallaz, in Switzerland: Square programming is popular in Europe. Usually it concerns non 'self-sufficient' space, or temporary underused space, like this one (left picture): the programming is poised to give place to buses, in a new arrangement of the square called 'espace rencontre' (meeting place) where buses mingle with the pedestrians (right) - credit photo left (1)

Her speech was followed by Matthew Blackett from Spacing Magazine, who, probably not briefed enough on the agenda concerning transit, incidentally presented those “solutions” starting with London’s Exhibition road:

People waiting the bus 360 on the renovated London’s Exhibition road by Gehl Architects.

He followed up with Pioneer square in Portland, Oregon:

Pioneer square in Portland is well served by Transit (2)

and ending with its preferred, Ban Jelačić square in Zagreb (Croatia):

Ban Jelačić square in Zagreb, where the transit go right into the middle of it, is the “best” square according to Matthew

Since Matthew Blackett is from Toronto, he couldn’t have mentioned Yonge and Dundas square. He doesn’t like the electronic billboard, which are “cheapening the place” in his word, but it his hard to deny it has been a successful place since its opening in 2002:

Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas square has been a resounding success since its opening in 2002 – credit (4)

You will have certainly noticed that all the great places presented by Matthew have a transit component, and it is probably not accident to the success of those places. The bus along Exhibition road was rerouted on a very nearby street (Queen’s gate) during its construction, but once completed, the bus came back, certainly for good reason!

The talk session of the evening, was closed by the Pop Rocks designers Matthew Soules and Joe Dahmen presenting how they have designed their huge pillow from recycled roof material of Canada Place [3]. They proposed some interesting design guideline fro Robson Square, summed up in the below artist’s rendering:

A rendering of Robson square integrating Matt Soules design idea:, flat surface; playful pavment; interactive street furniture, example of Rotterdam’s Schouwburgplein hydraulic lamppost was given – credit (13)

The last hour or so of the evenings was a co design workshop, driven by Stanley King’s team co-design [14].


Speakers were certainly interesting, but beside the fact the public was not provided opportunities to interact with them, the whole session was missing key points to a public consultation:

What is the problem?
No proper diagnostic of the Block 51 has been done:

  • No metric has been provided on the amount of traffic: how many pedestrian, how many bus rider…: does there is a space allocation problem there? [8]
  • No geometry analysis of the space has been provided
  • When come public space, the audience was seeming to think of a one size fit all [12], what is not necessarily true, and it seems that a wealth of diverging opinion has been expressed. Using the Olympic celebration to explain how the place can be is like using your last family gathering to explain how your dining room can work routinely. It is irrelevant. Spatial Geometry of space is important; A failed party in the large living room, can be transformed in a success in the tiny kitchen [9]; and that supposes to have some known metric.

  • No analysis of what is working and what is not has been done
  • It seems to have been an non spelled rule; worship of Erickson work is mandatory; preventing any honest and franck diagnostic of the robson Square deficiencies.

  • No context analysis has been provided
  • The site has been presented on a North-South spine. That was effectively the original Erickson idea. But nowadays, Robson square is dominated by an East-West flow. No discussion on the future of the VAG was opened: The organizers seem to think that a place-making can be done independently of its context, what seems perfectly silly.

What are the solutions?

Since, in fact no problem was identified, the whole function of the consultation was to find a reason for the only proposed solution: “full closure of Robson square to all traffic“. That was the apparent purpose of the co-design exercise.

What are the potential impact of the proposed solution?
No evaluation was provided at all

  • Transit?

    Apparently, the organizers didn’t find useful to invite Translink to the consultation table. Transit is considered as a second thought, not to be integrated in the urban thinking of the place, what is a striking departure of successful placemaking. Transit has several implications, among them:

    • Operating cost of the re-routed line
    • impact on handydart if people can’t use regular transit
    • impact on the ridership at large, due to lack of clarity, speed, good network connection, involved by transit change
    • impact on pedestrian safety: transit riders are pedestrians, and have them boarding/alighting in safe spot is important (today bus 5 is rerouted thru Burrard, one of the most pedestrian accident prone arteries of Downtown)

    They are not the only reason Transit is important

  • Street vibrancy
    In Vancouver, vibrant streets, with flourishing retail businesses, are more often that not correlated to transit rich corridors. Transit has certainly been a causation effect in the past. could it be still true?

    • The example of the struggling Cambie village area after loosing good transit access and visibility need to be compared to the recently flourishing areas next to the Yaletown station

    Could it be different with Robson? Why?

    There is also the problem of the Robson street segments between Burrard and Hornby and between Howe, Granville and Seymour. Traffic closure between Howe and Hornby, involves a drastic motor traffic reduction on those segments, while a successful Robson square involves an increased pedestrian traffic. We could have one without the other making those segments unappealing as it is the case now – but one could fairly assume it is also due to building construction/renovation. That said, it is hard to see how a space reallocation on Robson square can’t involve one on those segments, and then come the subsidiary question: Will it be enough pedestrian to make this stretch of Robson of success? [10].

The displayed lack of sophistication in the discussion surrounding the pedestrianization of Robson square is for the least, curious [11]:

  • It eventually helps us to understand why pedestrian squares are largely a failure in Vancouver, and more generally in North America.
  • Georgia#Granville tends to replace Robson square as the natural meeting place in Vancouve.

    Georgia#Granville tends to replace Robson square as the natural meeting place in Vancouver.

  • It helps also to understand the lack of forthcoming of some other spaces, like Georgia#Granville: A very busy corner since the advent of the Canada line, one which could tend to replace Robson square for some functions, like demonstration, but more importantly, people meeting. The subway station entrance hindering considerably the space when it doesn’t need to do witness this lack of forthcoming. Similar observations could be done at Yaletown, where the subway entrance is turning its back to the square

What is wrong with this idea of Robson square? answer has not been provided – credit photo City Of Vancouver

[1] 20mn romandie, July 6th, 2012

[2] Project for Public Space

[3] see ‘Pop Rocks: Soft Urban Boulder Field’ Installation / Matthew Soules Architecture + AFJD Studio

[4] flikr user sean_marshall

[5] The post Block 51: North Plaza capture most of the presentation

[6] That is a spot identified by the Vancouver’s transport 2040 plan

[7] The post Vancouver courthouse Blocks 51-61-71: The Final Erickson proposal fueled by insight of the conversation, capture part of it

[8] Normally any reallocation of space is preceded by a careful study of traffic, pedestrian, transit riders, and vehicles. Of course, that was the case for London’s Exhibition road, On the section illustrated in this article, there are ~4000pedestrian/hr vs 550car/hr at peak hour (Exhibition Road Monitoring, August 2012). What are the number for Robson square?

[9] Verbatim of Jan Gehl, Livable Cities lecture, Richmond city Hall, Jan 27, 2011.

[10] Robson street is 80′ wide. There is virtually no example of pedestrian only street in Europe with such width. New York Broadway Avenue, at ~80′ wide, could be the closest, but the pedestrianized block around Times Square see a traffic of 350,000 pedestrians/day

[11] for matters of comparison, one can refer to the Paris’s place de la République renovation involving space reallocation in favor of pedestrian. the project is €17millions, what is relatively benign in the Paris city budget of €8billions. Nevertheless, the public consultation process is order of magnitude more elaborated that the one in place for Robson square. It includes the elaboration of shared diagnostic on many aspect of the space, walk tour,…

[12] For more idea about the different function of a public square, see Geography of Paris squares or plazas, oct 29th, 2012

[13] vivendesign.com

[14] The company site explains well the process. A 1973 movie, related to the block 51, was projected in the first evening, chairs for lovers, which introduced the “co design process”. co-design has also a blog

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]