See new updates at the end, based on comments to May 4.
Ricky Leong in the Calgary Sun on why Calgary should spend more money serving far-flung suburbs:
Here’s the thing about providing transit to our far-flung suburban neighbourhoods. The benefits of new transit services will be felt by people everywhere in the city, not just those residents who choose to take the bus and train.
Fewer cars on the road should lead to better driving and cycling conditions for everyone, everywhere, for example.
Suburbanites choosing transit over private vehicles should also mean less wear and tear on roads, so the savings from reduced maintenance would be a net benefit to the entire city.
I’m not trying to embarrass Leung, because the error here is extremely common in journalism, as it is in public perceptions. Last November Lisa Margonelli built a long New York Times article around the same mistake.
Buses circulating in low density suburban areas (as opposed to express to Park-and-Rides) can serve many valid purposes, but getting cars off the road generally is not one of them.
The universal fact that these people are missing is that buses circulating in low-density areas — especially where street networks require transit to thread slow and complex labyrinths — is a predictably low-ridership service. Outside of a bit of rush-hour activity and sometimes a surge at school bell times, this is the fact of life about local service in low-density suburbs. If you don’t believe me, ask for your own transit agency’s stop-level ridership data and compare it to the density and walkability of the area around each stop. Apart from anomalies created by special land uses, you will find it is much higher in more urban parts of your community where these conditions are more favorable.
In 20 years of looking at detailed transit data, I’ve never seen a local suburban bus route whose performance (ridership per unit of service cost) was anywhere near that of a frequent urban bus route operating in area whose layout is favorable to transit.
(“Favorable to transit” means (a) higher density, (b) gridded local streets that provide easy direct access to stops for pedestrians, (c) a safe and pleasant pedestrian environment, (d) a mix of land uses and (e) simple linear paths, usually arterials, where transit can operate efficiently and effectively. These features tend to be found in older inner cities, but they can be replicated and in some cases even retrofitted.)
Indeed, because transit’s market is mostly the area within walking distance of a stop, low density and obstructed street patterns are the very definition of a poor transit market that will yield much lower ridership on investment, and that therefore justifies a poor level of service. Poor ridership out of low density isn’t an empirical fact; it comes close to being a mathematical fact, because in most cases density around a stop is the size of that stop’s market.
To claim that this predictably low-ridership service will result in “fewer cars on the road” is thus a geometrically incoherent claim. “Fewer cars on the road” is the result of people riding transit, not transit existing. So a service that is guaranteed to generate few riders per unit of cost will is guaranteed to get fewer cars off the road per unit of cost, compared to one that is guaranteed to generate many ridership per unit of cost — such as a line in transit-favorable geography or a rapid transit corridor.
The only high-ridership form of public transit that can serve low-density suburbs with obstructive street patterns is based on Park-and-Ride. Where land values permit, abundant park-and-ride and fast radial services can get cars off the road efficiently. Radial rapid transit (bus or rail) is also good because new transit-favorable neighborhoods can often be built later around its stations. Park-and-Ride needs to be understood broadly as also accommodating dropoffs, Bike-and-Ride, etc. But the key thing it does not require is for a bus to actually drive around inside a labyrinth of suburban local streets.
If a transit agency’s objective is to get cars off the road, then like any business you start by focusing on your competition’s weaknesses. The car is least convenient in areas of high density and good walkability, and geometrically these also provide the the highest ridership per unit of investment. The one other area is the suburban commute corridor — the freeway into the city — where congestion during peak periods makes the car a weak competitor. That’s why peak commute services — to Park-and-Ride, not to people’s front doors — is also a high-ridership prospect, and one that gets cars off the road efficiently.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with running bus routes around in low-density suburbs. But it is a low-ridership proposition and therefore can’t be justified by many sustainability outcomes; it’s justification has to lie in social needs and perceptions of equity among neighborhoods. If your city really wants to get cars off the road, however, it’s not a good way to serve that purpose.
This kind of confusion is why elected officials should be asked to think more clearly about how they want to balance the conflict between ridership-related goals (including lower subsidy, fewer cars on the road, and resulting sustainability outcomes) or coverage-related goals (including lifeline access and “equity” across all arts of a community. Both goals are noble, but don’t pretend to be doing one if you’re really doing the other.
Better still, ask elected boards to adopt policies about how much of the budget should be spent pursuing ridership — which means running services where high ridership is the predictable outcome — and how much should be spent pursuing coverage, i.e. distributing service everywhere regardless of low ridership. The Reno area’s transit board did this in 2005, as the result of work I did with them, and as a result, this whole conversation is much clearer, less personal, and more clearly tied to the community’s actual values.
For a more detailed exploration of this fundamental issue, see Chapter 10 of Human Transit.
UPDATES: Comments on this one are often critical, but what I see in them is that:
- People have different definitions of “suburban”. It borders on being an unhelpful word but we don’t have a good word for it. What I meant was: landscapes whose geography is intrnsically hostile to transit, specifically the absence of all or most of the following: (a) relatively high density, (b) gridded local streets that provide easy direct access to stops for pedestrians, (c) a safe and pleasant pedestrian environment, (d) a mix of land uses and (e) simple linear paths, usually arterials, where transit can operate efficiently and effectively.
- As in almost everything, we’re talking about a spectrum rather than a pair of boxes. When I talk about dividing a budget between ridership and coverage, it does sound like I’m dividing the world into two boxes. In fact, many services are in the middle, contributing partly to a high-ridership outcome but with segments or periods that don’t. See Chapter 3 of Human Transit for more on this language problem …
- Ridership can be good by the standards of a local subarea and bad by citywide standards, if the entire subarea is less transit-friendly in the terms outlined above. Another way this issue is sometimes handled is to divide the region firmly into subarea, put budget walls between the services for each subarea, and then assess ridership by each subarea’s standards. This used to be how it worked in Seattle’s King County Metro, and the effect was that a line in the suburbs with a certain performance could be called successful while a line with the same performance closer-in to the city would be judged a failure. Not everyone could follow the “logic” of that and the agency has now let go of that rigidity.
- I am making a point about geometry, not about culture or values or psychology or ethics. I’m certainly not telling people where they should live, only about the consequences of those choices. But concealing or ignoring the facts of geometry leads to policy based on denial, and that leads us in circles rather than forward.
This isn’t an easy topic. Many of the terms are emotive. But there’s an important fact here. Again, see Chapters 9 and 10 of Human Transit for much more thorough discussion.
Of course he was writing from Calgary and Calgary has plenty of examples of park and rides along the Ctrain.
I’m not that familiar with Calgary. Are the far-flung suburbs built to low densities or do they really pack the houses in? How many units per area are typical? Are they more densely populated than inner-ring suburbs?
Does transit of any kind really get cars off the road? If you make space on the road, other cars come to fill it.
Park-n-rides generate traffic into the various parking lots, and other commuters fill the space on the highway. You do get more overall people into the city, but the transportation economics of park-n-ride peak-focused transit are hopeless (as you well know).
The fact of the matter is that many of today’s suburbs including the ones in Calgary, have densities that approach or exceed that of many old inner city areas.
The low density argument is just an excuse.
“n 20 years of looking at detailed transit data, I’ve never seen a local suburban bus route whose performance (ridership per unit of service cost) was anywhere near that of a frequent urban bus route operating in area whose layout is favorable to transit.”
You should check out data on TTC bus routes in suburban areas. The suburban bus routes are almost on par with inner city routes in terms of cost recovery and usage.
At the end of the day you can either ignore a very significant proportion (suburbs) of the population and just say that transit won’t work. Or you can come up with transit ideas that will work in the suburbs.
A great book about this is Transport For Suburbia. The author hits it right on that we have to stop saying transit can’t work in the suburbs. And instead actually come up with solutions to make it work, because the suburbs that were built are here, and people need transit in them.
I live in the suburbs of Toronto, and I am glad the planners here did not right off the suburbs, but instead provide some of the best bus service you will find in North America. The result? I just got off my local bus at 11 p.m. in my low density subdivision, and the bus was full, running at a 10 minute frequency.
Toronto’s inner suburbs may be a special case because of the large amount of apartment tower construction post-WWII. It’s not quite the same as the labyrinths of cul-de-sacs with single-family homes that one might find in, say, Oakville (an “outer suburb” of Toronto, thought a different municipality with its own completely separate transit agency.)
I agree with Jarrett: the built form and street pattern are what make high-ridership transit possible. However, I have another point of contention. Sometimes those low-density, low-ridership routes may represent the breaking point for a family buying an additional vehicle. Imagine if you’re a parent who has a 17 year-old daughter who takes the busy arterial bus to school each day on a high-frequency, high-ridership route. Once a month she takes a slow, meandering route in the opposite direction to a friend’s house, and uses it get home late at night. You could cut that route on the justification of low ridership, but that might force the parent’s hand to buy a car so the daughter can get around. Then, once they have the second vehicle, why take the bus to school?
As an abstract summary, the problem with looking at a route’s individual ridership numbers (or a route’s ridership during a specific time) is that it treats all trips as irrelevant to one another, when in fact “occasional” riders on low-density routes might actually be your best customers, and if you cut a service they use (if even only once in a blue moon) then you are in danger of them buying a car and losing all their patronage on efficient routes.
Jarrett, I’m not sure to what extent the usual rules apply to Calgary. Characterizing new communities as low density suburbs seems problematic. These developments are not much different from 90% of the city’s built form. The street pattern is typically worse than a grid but little of Calgary is actually on a grid and the density is pretty well comparable to everywhere else. These aren’t acreages in another municipality. They are also the most affordable parts of the city.
Now I don’t think that new suburbs are the best place to apply new service hours if the goal is purely ridership but, as far as purely operational improvements are concerned, there is bound to be some increase in ridership and I’m not sure where else it would do significantly better. Really, what Calgary needs is capital improvements if ridership is to improve significantly. This is occurring with platform extensions to accomodate four car C-Trains and the addition of articulated busses on major routes but I don’t think it is enough. Capacity constraints are a very real problem for transit in Calgary. More trains simply can’t be added during peak hours, the tracks through downtown are maxed out between the interlining and the signals. The fix involves separating the lines by building a tunnel downtown. Of course capital expenses are different from operating expenses and the city just can’t afford the kind of capital projects that are really needed to relieve the capacity issues.
@ mike0123: Well the new suburbs, which are within the city of Calgary, typically will become denser than most of the inner ring suburbs. It does take a bit of time though since much of the multifamily development occurs a few years after the single family houses and takes longer to build. It also takes longer for ridership to develop since more of the buyers are just entering the market and either lack children or have children too young to utilize transit. For those reasons, Calgary Transit has a policy of first serving new developments with express peak hour routes then extending the operating hours as ridership develops until, finally, mainline service is provided.
There really isn’t a substantial difference in density anywhere in the city, with the exception of a smattering of low density mansion communities (some of which developed as late as the 70s and 80s and some which are amongst the oldest parts of the city) and a few high density communities near downtown. That said, new communities are getting denser and are actually being built with street patterns that are more conducive to transit than most anything from the preceding thirty or forty years.
@ Rico. The affect of park and rides is often overstated in Calgary. They are clearly important but there are only about 10 000 parking stalls provided by Calgary Transit at C-Train and bus park and rides. That compares to weekday ridership of well over 500 000 with a roughly 50-50 split between Light Rail and Bus. Feeder busses bring far more people to C-Train stations than private automobiles.
There’s a logical failure in the paragraph starting:
‘To claim that this predictably low-ridership service will result in “fewer cars on the road” is thus a geometrically incoherent claim.’
and it lies in this sentence:
‘”Fewer cars on the road” is the result of people riding transit, not transit existing.’
which needs a couple of extra clauses after ‘riding transit’:
…people riding transit, people who own cars and drove them on trips that they are now making with transit’.
I.e, worthy goals such as increasing mobility for people who don’t have cars, or allowing additional trips that would not have been possible nevertheless do not serve to reduce the number of cars.
And I think this is where the ‘suburbs/city’ distinction kicks in. In the city (particularly in the fifties-seventies, when car ownership was more expensive), fewer people would own cars to start with – new transit adds new trips, but doesn’t reduce traffic. Suburban transit use replaces trips that would’ve been taken with cars.
Now, I’m not sure I actually believe what I wrote above is true – but it’s a logical possibility, which shows it isn’t quite so easy to conclusively dismiss the ‘suburban transit reduces congestion theory’ as Jared suggests.
I disagree. I think that better suburban transit has an effect on car use, albeit very small.
Looking at myself, I drive but take transit often living in the suburbs for cost purposes. Since I travel 40km to school daily, I own an unlimited pass for my region so off-peak trips are effectively free and so I take transit whenever convenient.
Unfortunately, bus service here ends at 11pm. If it ended later, I would definitely use it more and drive less. If certain suburb-to-suburb trips were more frequent and direct, I would use them more often too.
However, I am sure that I am the exception, not the norm.
There is one final point I’d like to raise and it’s that suburban transit service is cheap on a per-capita level.
My local suburban agency’s budget is just $8mil for a population of 400000 and service roughly hourly everywhere. That’s $20 per person! It costs nothing to provide!
I was going to say what Mike just did: You should check out Toronto’s bus ridership to see good ridership in the burbs. Inner city routes still generally have a higher ridership per kilometre, but the suburban routes still garner pretty high numbers considering their operating environment.
One thing to note though is that Toronto’s inner suburbs (areas now within the city limits, constructed mostly in the 50s-80s) are now home to most of the region’s lower income residents. This demographic trend not only has an effect on ridership, but also on lifestyle as well.
A few weeks back I was driving several miles along a major artery in the northwest inner suburbs, and over the course of my drive I must have seen hundreds of pedestrians transverse the car oriented environments. Not enough to overcrowd, but certainly enough to make a presence. Compare this to the outer suburbs, where incomes are generally higher, and you can count the pedestrians on one hand.
Is there any part of Calgary built in the last sixty years that isn’t labyrinthine? I always thought the whole Calgary transit model was based less on “nudging” people into apartments and new urbanism and more about making downtown parking really expensive, then providing an extremely-high-frequency LRT and running feeder buses to the stations.
In that sort of context, suburban circulation matters.
I’d like to retract my statement about disagreeing. If I knew how to edit the comment, I would.
To clarify my opinion, I believe that suburban services do, in fact, reduce car use somewhat and that they are fundamentally important. By no means, should anyone, ever advocate anything but excellent suburban service seeing that it is relatively cheap to provide compared to urban service on a per-taxpayer basis.
@Bradley: Yes there are for sure some pluses in suburban Toronto like the apartment towers that add some density in areas.
But even on bus routes which only serve single family, lower density, pretty affluent subdivisions. The bus service is still good, and the ridership is there.
For example, the bus route that serves my area travels to the extreme east end boundary of Toronto, through low density subdivisons which are some of the most affluent in the eastern part of the suburbs.
This bus route still operates mostly every 15 minutes or better seven days a week. Except for late evening service which dips to to about every 20-30 minutes after like 10 or 11 pm.
People use the service because it is there and attractive.
@Ben. Yes there are low income residents in the suburban areas of Toronto, but I think the low income issue is greatly overstated and that data is not all correct.
For example, my area which has a family income around the $80,000-over $100,000 range is listed as high poverty. Well if living in an area where people own nice homes, travel a lot, etc is poverty, then something does not add up.
The fact of the matter is that the low income population in the suburbs could not sustain the high level of ridership or bus service that is provided. Rather it is the choice riders and people who are just used to taking the bus, because the service is so good, that keeps the service going.
Census tract data shows that transit usage rates are relatively the same between low income areas in the suburbs of Toronto, and higher income areas in the suburbs.
The success of Toronto’s transit comes from providing top notch bus service to all areas of the city, regardless of density.
Should be develop better and not build winding subdivisions. Sure. But we can’t write off the places that already built. And how has Toronto dealt with some of these issues?
Easy. Many subdivisions have bus access pathways from internal roads, to the arterial road bus routes. There are ways to fix the problem.
Transit’s success is going to be in gaining suburban riders. Toronto’s success did not come from the inner city. It came from suburbanites hoping on transit in large numbers and building a transit culture even in the suburbs.
Most people I know who continue to live in the suburbs of Toronto, don’t need to take the bus. They have just gotten so used to it, and it gets them where they need to go, and the service is good, that they use it and driving just does not really even enter their mind.
Secondly, if we wright off suburban areas, then forget about building transit ridership. Because you can’t have a transit network that serves some people well, and then cuts people off in other areas. Because sooner or latter someone who rides the bus in the high density area is going to need to access a suburban destination for some reason. And if the bus can’t get them there or the service sucks, then that person won’t be riding transit much.
This actually happens to my sister. She lives in the inner city and relies on transit. But for work, she has on a number of occasions had to travel out to the suburbs of Toronto. That was not an issue, as she knew the buses would come every 10 minutes or so, and that she could get where she needed to go. But if the service was not there, she would be driving her car.
Calgary probably won’t have buses every 10 minutes. But unique ideas like pulse timetables, or timed transfers like Edmonton uses, will probably be the norm.
Of note, and I may be wrong, is that Canada has no mortgage deduction on income taxes like the USA. Thus, owning does not have the same advantages over renting that it has in the USA. And the building of apartment buildings has flourished. Also, and again I am not clear on the relationship, but there are a bunch of high-density buildings in Canada that have been hotel, apartment and condominium in their lifespan, and I recall being told that there are taxation reasons for these changes in use of the buildings after a certain period of time.
Perhaps someone north of the 49th could fill in the details?
Important not to get stuck on the geometry of the pedestrian network. It is pedestrian permeability that is critical. It should not matter if it is a grid or not. In fact, if cul-de-sacs are pedestrian permeable, pedestrian travel distances can be much shorter than driving travel distances thus encouraging walking over driving. With a grid, pedestrian distances are only equal to that of driving providing no advantage to walking.
I have to 100% agree with Jarrett here.
“Suburban” is probably not the right word to use, though, since built environment geometry is actually the key. There are definitely suburbs which are designed to be friendly to public transportation — pretty much every “streetcar suburb” has a single central “streetcar line” arterial with all houses placed within walking distance — and then there are twisty cul-de-sac hells, which are positively designed to *prevent* access.
This is possibly the single most important point Jarrett has ever made. Although Richard Campbell provides some key refinements to the concept, and Matthew reminds us of the key fact (cars will multiply to fill the available roadspace).
As for “low density”, the best “low-density” routes I’ve ever seen are routes which go from one busy node to another busy node and happen to go through a suburban low-density area on the way, usually on an “arterial”. This is an example of the “be on the way” principle. This happens more often than you might think, as there are often pockets low-density construction with higher-density construction on either side, whether because two old cities grew into each other, or because development leapfrogged a rich area, or whatever.
Mike, Toronto’s suburbs have unusually good road layout. Look at that arterial grid.
That is true that Toronto’s suburbs have main streets on a grid. However all the winding streets within the grid are just like other suburban areas.
The difference though is that the interior streets have bus pathways connecting them to the main streets, to allow for easier pedestrian movement to bus stops. An example is in the links below:
I would very much like to see a more in depth response from you, Jarrett, on Paul Mee’s book Transport for Suburbia. Mee’s makes a strong case that density has less of an impact on transit outcomes than many argue. As it stands you only directly address one small aspect of Mee’s book, related to the average density tables listed in his chapter Density Distractions. Unfortunately even here you’ve missed Mee’s main claim, which is much the same as yours. Mee’s demonstrates that average densities over large areas are unimportant, a point he primarily makes to demonstrate that the commonly cited articles by Newman and Kenworthy are fundamentally flawed, a point I’m sure you yourself would agree with.
In his later chapters however, Mee’s breaks down density figures to a much more fine grained inspection, precisely the sorts of densities you claim are important, and shows once again that they have less impact than the quality of service and planning. His chapters on Melbourne vs. Toronto, and the Zurich county being the two main chapters to demonstrate these arguments.
In his chapter comparing Melbourne and Toronto Mee’s demonstrates that much of the geometry and density of Melbourne is in fact better suited to transit than Toronto, yet passenger numbers are far lower, and fare-box return is also much lower. The densities of the outer Zurich counties are again far, far lower than that of either city, yet once again passenger numbers are higher and fare-box return higher.
Julian. The essence of my response to Mees is in Chapter 9 of Human Transit. See also https://www.humantransit.org/2010/09/the-perils-of-average-density.html Jarrett
One also has to remember that job location is actually a much larger factor in transit usage rates than density of residential suburbs.
Ottawa for example, has low density suburbs on the east side with high incomes, which have a 30% transit modal share for transit for work trips. This is because a large segment of the population is commuting to downtown Ottawa, via transit.
And I would bet that the significant proportion of residents who take the bus to work in suburban Ottawa, has a huge effect on decreases in road congestion.
At the end of the day, we can provide excuses or find solutions to fixing transit in the suburbs. It won’t be easy, and yes the suburbs have to be designed to accommodate transit better. But there are ways to provide quality transit service in the suburbs, and gain riders.
@ Jarrett. Yes I’ve read the book, and the post above which is why I point out that you haven’t addressed Mees’ points.
The table showing Los Angeles as denser than New York was used precisely to point out that the highly cited Newman and Kenworthy study was flawed. This is why Mees used it, and I’m sure you agree with him on the actual point he raised, not the strawman you have built of his argument.
The other two chapters I mentioned, on the Canton of Zurich, and Toronto vs. Melbourne are not concerned with average densities, but rather the fine grained densities along transit routes and near stops you argue is important. I would like to read your response to these chapters.
Julian: I haven’t read Mees’ book, but I suspect that the numbers showing Canada does much better than Australia use unlinked trips. If you measure trip-to-work mode share, then Greater Toronto is at 21%, and Melbourne is at 18%. Toronto does better, but not by all that much.
The Zurich numbers involve a competence level that doesn’t exist in the Anglosphere. Even in Switzerland, you see the same density gradient: the highest transit ridership is in the core cities, the next highest is in their city regions, and the lowest is in the rural cantons. All of those numbers are higher than the Anglosphere. I’ll buy that the transit-density gradient is lower than in, say, New York, but it’s still there.
The Canadian numbers are not unlinked trips. Canada always uses linked trips, and the USA is really the only one which uses unlinked trips.
One also has to remember that the stats include entire metropolitan areas. If you look at Melbourne and Toronto’s core inner metro areas, then Toronto vastly out performs Melbourne in not only work trips, but in non work trips. It is the non work ridership which really is outstanding in the Toronto context. And even the level of transit service is vastly better than Melbourne, which hardly even has buses operating in the suburbs in the evenings and on Sunday’s. And that is what Mees was getting at. Density is used as an excuse to not provide service.
Of course less dense areas will have lower ridership sometimes. But the whole argument is that you can’t write them off as not important or failures. The fact is that suburban areas of Zurich or even rural areas have higher transit usage rates than inner city areas in other world cities.
At the end of the day, you have to provide quality transit service to all areas. That is the only way transit will succeed.
“Suburb” is a pretty meaningless term these days. In Toronto, on one extreme you have low density subdivisions in an area like northern York Region, you have buses running every 30-60 minutes and low ridership. On the other extreme you have a road like Sheppard Avenue, where there are large numbers of apartment and condo buildings and some office buildings, an extremely busy freeway (401) and controversy over whether to build a light rail line or a subway. The latter started out as a suburb, and was pretty undeveloped when the 401 was built 50 years ago, but is now a dense urban area.
We have also have low density suburbs with nothing but single family houses, with buses running every 15 minutes or less. And that ridership is there because the service is being provided.
In terms of reducing traffic, there is no doubt that transit has reduced traffic in suburban Toronto. Crosstown bus service in the northern reaches of suburban Toronto near the highway 401, carry over 360,000 riders a day. You would need another highway 401 to carry those loads. And one has to remember that many arterial roads are really only four lanes wide in most places. Vastly smaller than in other suburban areas. There is no doubt the buses are responsible for a significant portion of travel on these arterial roads.
What many cities are terrified to realize, is that the answer to their transit and congestion problems isn’t to bring transit out to far-flung neighborhoods, but to drag those neighborhoods toward the transit grid. It requires letting the suburbs suffocate on their congestion, and exercising the sort of political pressure on developers and residents that would have prevented the problem in the first place.
Moreover, this isn’t just a transit problem. *All* city services–transit, police, fire, schools, water, sewer, etc., etc.–has to be dragged across Hell’s half-acre to get to those suburbs, and you can bet that no one, least of all the developers, wants to pay the excess cost.
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