Buses or trains?
This debate is kick started here by the BC government’s announcement – which might be summarised as trains for Vancouver, Coquitlam and part of North Surrey and buses for everywhere else, sooner but mostly later.
The same quarrel is raging in Ottawa – and I don’t mean the federal government but the city region. Or at least the bit of it in Ontario. The city fathers are accusing the rail advocates of jumping to conclusions. But the fact of the matter is Ottawa is the only city in Canada that adopted the “Curitiba” approach. And they spent a lot of money on a busway, but used ordinary buses instead of high floor ones, so that the routes could feed onto the busway with no change of vehicle required. This means that in a city whose peak period is mainly civil servants commuting to downtown, they got a comfortable one seat ride – no transfers – from near their front door to near their office.
But, as usual, the instincts to pinch pennies meant that they failed to do the downtown bit properly, so at the end of the busway, the buses have to fight traffic on street, with nothing like enough bus priority.
UPDATE Feb 3 2008
Even Calgary did downtown surface transit better than Ottawa! And now the argument turns on a tunnel! WRONG.
Why am I against tunnels in towns for transit? Because grade separation is nearly always to give cars free reign on the surface. Cars and urbanity are a problematic but not insoluable issue. But grade separation means that access to transit is harder than on the surface. Some European cities experimented with what they called “pre-metro” – they put the trams underground in the city centre as a first step to a complete metro system. And they quickly realised it was a mistake, for the space freed up by taking up the tram tracks was instantly filled by more car traffic. And what city centres need is more space to walk, and sit around in pleasant public spaces and watch the passing scene.
Surface for transit demonstrates commitment to people – not cars. Rail transit is more predictable – trams cannot leave their tracks, so you know where they are going to be – but you can also do various guided bus ways too. And as long as there is a commitment to transit priority – produced by a combination of regulations and hard engineering (like pop up traffic blockers) there is not much to choose between bus and rail until you get to very high passenger throughput. So called “intermediate capacity” systems pretty much wash out even with pluses and minuses on both sides.
Rail is better if you want to convince developers you are serious. Buses – even when you build a dedicated bus way – are easy to take away. Just ask Richmond. Oddly enough, underground railways do not attract development – at least that is what the developers told the London Docklands Development Corporation. “A staircase on the corner of the street leading down a hole gives me nothing to sell” said more than one. A rail station will have a much larger walk in area than a bus stop. People are prepared to walk further to get to a train than a bus. So on a greenfield – or a brownfield like the docklands – I would pick rail. But if you have a city with a busway already the reason you might switch to rail is capacity. In Toronto they used to have a rule of thumb. You increase bus service until you have them nose to tail, then you put in streetcars. Then when you have streetcars nose to tail you build a subway. Except of course it did not work out like that.
I think you need to start with what kind of city do you want. Think first of how it will work, and what it will look like to people living, working and relaxing there. Transportation is not an end in itself. It is way of doing everything else. And transportation by any mode starts and ends with a walk. So start your urban design work with walking – and see how to fit in other modes. Cities worked very well for thousands of years, long before cars, and long before buses and trams come to that. The qualities of urbanity can still be seen in the cities that have retained the structure of the pre-industrial age. And it is no surprise at all when we come to create new places, we tend to pick up on the cues that are common to all successful cities. And if you want to see what distopia looks like it is usually dominated by machines. No one wants to live in la ville radieuse.
But since we have machines, if anything goes underground it should be the utilities not the people. Trains overhead – the el – I find oppressive as a pedestrian – even if the view from the train is better. What London has rediscovered recently is that when your underground system is straining you can do a lot with buses – and bus lanes and bus only streets. Especially if you add road pricing to pay for them.
What is instructive about the debate in Ottawa is how sterile it is. It is an argument between transit enthusiasts – not a discussion about how to make Ottawa a better place. I think the debate here is at least a step or two forward, since we start with Livability as the criterion. Not mobility – which has turned out to be such a snare and a delusion. And yes that is hard for some to grasp – especially those who are only interested in making lots of money quickly, or defending their self interest. Or who see economic growth as a desirable end in itself – arguing it makes all other things possible when in fact what it does is shut off some of the best possibilities.