For a while now, a strain of urbanist thought has been asking: Should we want transit to be slower?
That, broadly speaking, is the question raised by Professor Patrick M. Condon at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Condon heads the Design Centre for Sustainability inside UBC’s Department of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, and is the author of the very useful book Design Charrettes for Sustainable Communities. In his 2008 paper “The Case for the Tram: Learning from Portland,” he explicitly states a radical idea that many urban planners are thinking about, but that not many of them say in public. He suggests that the whole idea of moving large volumes of people relatively quickly across an urban region, as “rapid transit” systems do, is problematic or obsolete:
The question of operational speed conjures up a larger issue: who exactly are the intended beneficiaries of enhanced mobility? A high speed system is best if the main intention is to move riders quickly from one side of the region to the other. Lower operational speeds are better if your intention is to best serve city districts with easy access within them and to support a long term objective to create more complete communities, less dependent on twice-daily cross-region trips.
It’s an interesting question, and it’s having a significant if not always visible impact on transport planning. Darrin Nordahl’s 2009 book My Kind of Transit, reviewed here, also praises slow transit; he makes that case in the same way you’d advocate for “slow food,” by pointing to the richness of experience that comes only from slowing down.
Professor Condon is interested in the urban form implications of slower transit, for which his paradigm is the Portland Streetcar, a tram in mixed traffic, stopping every 500 feet or so, that glides attractively but slowly (averaging 15 km/h, 9 mph) through the redeveloping Pearl District. Clearly, the Portland Streetcar drove not just a dramatic densification of the inner city areas it served, but a pedestrian-friendly mixed-use urban form where many of life’s needs are within walking distance. That much is undeniable. In Todd Litman’s terms, which I explored here, the Portland Streetcar may not have provided much mobility but it certainly improved access. But is that a reason to build lots of streetcars, and stop building rapid transit, as Condon proposes?
In the current Broadway rapid transit debate in Vancouver, for example, Condon challenges the idea that the existing driverless metro system, SkyTrain, should be extended west out Broadway to his own campus, UBC, which lies at the western tip of the city. Instead, he would spend the same funds on a vast streetcar network. Here’s his estimate of how much streetcar Vancouver could have for the cost of that one SkyTrain line.
Condon is consciously dismissing the value of speed. The Portland Streetcar that is Condon’s model is no faster than a local bus. Virtually every street on Condon’s idealised Vancouver streetcar network map already has frequent bus service running at least as fast as a Portland-inspired streetcar would run. So Condon is suggesting spending C$2.8 billion on a huge network of services that do not improve mobility or access at all. After this huge investment, nobody would be able to get anywhere any faster than they can on the bus system now. Condon will object that various things could be done to make the streetcars faster, but as I explored in detail here, most of those things could be done for the buses now, which means they’re not logical consequences of a streetcar plan even if they’re politically packaged with it.
In fact, some of Condon’s imagined streetcars could be substantially slower than current bus service. Consider 41st Avenue, the burgundy line on this map. It’s an east-west boulevard that runs almost the whole length of Vancouver, from UBC at the city’s western tip to the SkyTrain Expo Line (dark blue) in the east. It’s parallel to Broadway (the wide orange line) about 3.5 km south of it. Its transit service is the main alternative to Broadway for travel between UBC and the Expo Line. Partway, it also makes an important grid connection with the SkyTrain Canada Line (light blue).
Today, 41st Avenue has some fast limited-stop bus service (stopping about once per km) as well as slower local-stop service. Both services are very busy. Limited-stop and local buses can share the same lane and move down the street efficiently. Local buses serve every stop, and the limited-stop buses pass them as they do. You can’t do that with streetcars, at least not without building two sets of tracks in each direction and thus commandeering virtually the entire width of the street. In the real world, a 41st Avenue streetcar could only have one stopping pattern, and that would almost certainly mean more stops than the current limited-stop bus makes. So riders of that limited-stop service — which is such a large market that it’s been studied for further upgrades — would end up on something that runs slower than the service they have now.
Of course, that doesn’t matter to Condon, because to him, speed isn’t the point. He points specifically to the redevelopment outcomes of the Portland Streetcar, just as many Portland commenters on my first streetcar post did. If turning buses into streetcars causes all those streets to redevelop, with dramatically higher and yet walkable density, wouldn’t that be a good thing? That wouldn’t improve mobility, but it would improve access. We wouldn’t have to go as far to do things, because everything would be closer.
Yes, but Condon needs you to believe that (a) such redevelopment won’t happen anyway and (b) no such redevelopment will happen if we just keep improving the already-intensive bus system while adding one or two rapid transit lines. The reason streetcars currently trigger investment is that the rails in the street symbolize mobility. The development happens not just because of what will be in walking distance, but because the rails in the street suggest you’ll be able to get to lots of places easily by rail. So rails in the street create redevelopment, which improves access. But they do that by offering an appearance of mobility. That may not be the same as actual mobility; in fact, it might be the opposite.
Let’s imagine 41st Avenue 20 years from now in a Condonian future. A frequent streetcar does what the buses used to do, but because it stops every 2-3 blocks, and therefore runs slowly, UBC students who need to go long distances across the city have screamed until the transit agency, TransLink, has put back a limited-stop or “B-Line” bus on the same street. (Over the 20 years, TransLink has continued to upgrade its B-Line bus product. For example, drivers no longer do fare collection, so you can board and alight at any door, making for much faster service. Bus interiors and features are also identical to what you’d find on streetcars, just as they are in many European cities.)
Suddenly, people who’ve bought apartments on 41st Avenue, and paid extra for them because of the rails in the street, start noticing that fast, crowded buses are passing the streetcars. They love the streetcars when they’re out for pleasure. But people have jobs and families. When they need to get to a meeting on which their career depends, or get home to their sick child, they’ll take the fast bus, and the streetcar’s appearance of offering mobility will be revealed for what it is, an appearance.
Now, when we’re talking about what drives real estate markets, and hence redevelopment, it’s called “speculation” for a reason. We’re all speculating. I speculate that the current ability of streetcars to generate redevelopment, compared to what excellent bus service can do, will diminish as it becomes more and more obvious that buses often run faster and more reliably than streetcars in many real-world situations, particularly on busy urban arterial streets where the ability to change lanes is often crucial to getting through the complex patterns of traffic.
In fact, the scenario I just described on 41st Avenue is not all that different from the changes that led to the first demise of streetcars, in the mid-20th century. Condon, like many, argues that introducing streetcars is a return to something that worked well in the past, so the idea seems like a logical extension of today’s “neo-traditional” concepts of good town planning. But as this marvelous 1906 video shows, streetcars worked well around 1900 because there were very few cars or buses. Not much got in the way of a streetcar, and no competing transit service could run faster than it did. That’s not the reality of the 21st century street. And however much we wish it wasn’t so, we choose our transportation mode from among the available alternatives, so a solution that worked when there were fewer alternatives may not work as well now.
But have I lost Condon’s real point? Is my obsession with helping people get to meetings on time, and my suspicion that people will prefer services that do that, just evidence that I don’t grasp how unimportant speed will be in the future? Maybe. What’s really happening here is that Condon is arguing from an ideal, while I’m arguing from the reality of how people behave today and seem to have behaved yesterday. And “idealism vs realism” is one of those philosophical spectra on which each of us finds our own place. As usual, I’m laying out a position not because I’m dogmatically attached to it. My goal is to help you map out the space between my view and Condon’s, and find your own place within it.
Ideals are essential in planning. Great urban planning is not just about giving people what they want now, but inspiring them to want something better. Urban planners will always be accused of “social engineering” because most of them do want people to make better choices, as a result of having better options. Condon’s praise of slow transit, serving more close-knit communities where people have less need to travel, is very much in that spirit. But when we turn that ideal into a proposal, as Condon does, we have to ask whether this is the right place and time to put the ideal to the test. Transit plans aren’t just about molding the future, they also have to work for the people and institutions that exist now.
One obvious problem with using Vancouver as a laboratory for slow transit is presented by Condon’s employer, UBC, which is a world leader in its commitment to encouraging its students to use public transit. It’s at the westernmost tip of Vancouver, buffered first by parkland and then by several km of relatively affluent neighborhoods where not many students can afford to live. So students who aren’t housed on campus tend to live further away. In fact, buses today bring tremendous masses of students to the campus from all over the region. As we saw on 41st Avenue, replacing buses with streetcars may not improve those students’ commutes. UBC students are smart and practical; they will use what works, bus or rail, and if you drastically reduce their mobility, they, and the University, will notice. That’s why I’ve emphasized that any Broadway rail transit project has to be aggressive about travel times to UBC, because if you spend billions to build rail that’s slower than buses, students will take the buses.
But the more interesting question is this: Is it really true, as Condon suggests, that sustainable urban form, with fine-grained mixtures of uses that permit most of life’s needs to be met close to home, will grow better around slow transit, like a streetcar, as opposed to something fast like a subway?
As I think about the great urban spaces I’ve seen, at many scales, on many continents, I am simply not convinced that highly civilized urban places benefit from transit being slow. Most great cities of Europe, North America, and Australasia grew around streetcars at a crucial stage in their history, but in many such cities — certainly in most of the major cities of Europe — comprehensive rapid transit systems were built a bit later, and these either replaced streetcars entirely or shifted them to supporting roles as connecting services. When I think of really healthy, vibrant, exciting neighborhoods in Europe, or in New York City, I think of places with subway stations. Once people are used to rapid transit, it comes to function as a driving force in determining where people can live at high density, and enables the continued growth of highly sustainable dense urban form.
If any transit system has proven its ability to drive massive dense development, far out of proportion to the Portland Streetcar, it’s Vancouver’s driverless rapid transit system SkyTrain. The first line of the system is only 25 years old, but already most stations are surrounded by clumps of towers, mostly residential, packed with people who’ve chosen a high-density, possibly car-free life because of the superb abundant access that SkyTrain offers.
Now Vancouver, in particular, can be forgiven for a little queasiness about this vision. Some of what’s been built around SkyTrain is pretty depressing. A quick visit to Patterson station, for example, would make anyone hate SkyTrain’s development impact. It’s Corbusier, basically: slabs of apartment towers surrounded by dead expanses of concrete or lawn, with underground parking belching cars. Windswept plazas where nothing is at pedestrian scale. No street-fronting retail, in fact no retail at all. The original Expo Line also features visually heavy and graceless stations, a far cry from the great transit viaducts of Europe.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. The newer SkyTrain stations on the Millennium Line stations are architecturally better, and so is the development around them. And if SkyTrain is underground, as it almost certainly would be on Broadway, there are no local impacts except for new subway entrances. It’s not clear that a continued investment in rapid transit, rather than streetcars, can’t drive the same kinds of sustainable urban form that Condon and I both want to see, with the added benefit that rapid transit is actually useful for going places.
Finally, there’s a crucial sustainability question. Slow transit competes more with walking and cycling, while fast transit competes more with cars.
That’s why I’m increasingly interested in a sustainable transport vision that’s the exact opposite of Condon’s: Focus more investment on fast and frequent services, stopping at widely spaced stations. (Subways where you can afford them, rapid buses or surface light rail where you can’t.) Offer good enough service that those stations are worth walking to. Equip those stations with bicycle facilities so that both cycling and walking are access options. Gradually de-emphasize the local-stop transit services, possibly to the point where they turn into small-bus shuttles for the few who can’t walk.
It’s a vision that leads, I think, to just as many opportunities for great city-building at every scale. But it’s also a transformation in public health, because it forces us to walk and cycle a lot more, and to create streets where that’s what everyone does.
Professor Condon’s response (including to the comments) is here.