Posts Tagged: LRT



Hamilton Gondola — We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

NOTE: An earlier version of this post originally appeared on December 4th, 2009 (yup, that’s over 7 years ago, kids). At that time, the report “City of Hamilton Higher Order Transit Network Strategy” was available online. Unfortunately, it is no longer available. 

Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know and that’s really nobody’s fault.

For example:

In the spring of 2007 a working paper by IBI Group called City of Hamilton Higher Order Transit Network Strategy came out. For those who don’t know, Hamilton is a city in southern Ontario that is cut in half by a 700 kilometer long limestone cliff that ends at Niagara Falls. It’s called the Niagara Escarpment and has made higher-order transit connections between the Upper and Lower cities difficult.

You See The Difficulty

You See The Difficulty

In the IBI paper the writers conclude that a connection between the Upper and Lower cities is “physically impossible” and that the Niagara Escarpment Commission might “strongly resist” any new crossings of the escarpment. As such, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) became the focus and preferred technology of the report. That’s because streetcars and Light Rail can’t handle inclines of more than about 10 degrees. The only way for a rail based technology to work, IBI concluded, was if a tunnel or viaduct was built.

No where in the report, however, was Cable Propelled Transit (CPT) even mentioned, despite cable’s ability to resolve most if not all of the issues IBI highlighted.

It’s no real surprise. Back in 2007 there was virtually no publicly accessible research available on cable. Believe me, I know; I had just started my research in 2007 and it was incredibly difficult to find anything.

Should IBI have considered cable? Should they have known about cable? I don’t know . . . and furthermore, I don’t think it’s relevant to this discussion. What you don’t know, you don’t know and that’s all there is to it.

What is, however, relevant to our discussion is this:

Hamilton Gondola

Photoshop of a gondola traversing the Hamilton Escarpment. Image via Hamilton Spectator.

The City of Hamilton is now updating their Transportation Master Plan and they’re surveying the public on their opinions. And the survey includes a question on gondolas. Last summer, meanwhile, around half of the people that responded at Hamilton’s Transportation Master Plan public meetings said they liked the gondola concept.

So why does that matter?

Because in less than 7 years’ time, a large North American city made a complete about-face on this matter. They went from a place where they thought (incorrectly) that a specific transit problem could not be solved with a fixed link solution due to their topography; to a place where they are actively soliciting the public’s opinion on using a gondola to solve the very problem they previously thought couldn’t be solved.

I know people in the cable car industry think seven years is a lifetime. And it is. But not to a large municipal bureaucracy. To a city, seven years is a heartbeat. In a heartbeat, Hamilton went from basically not even knowing cable cars exist to considering it as a part of their overall Transportation Master Plan.

That’s progress no matter how you look at it.

Creative Commons image by John Vetterli

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Three Eye-Opening Papers On How We Build Transit

The other day I discussed how modal choice often has less to do with the intrinsic qualities of a technology and more to do with extrinsic factors. Those comments caused something of a stir with people coming out saying a variation of the following:

  • Light Rail is a scam.
  • Light Rail is awesome.
  • It depends. (Note: This is the camp I tend to fall in.)

Within the comments I disagreed with a commenter who referred to a “Light Rail Scam” but also admitted that “LRT has been foisted onto places that didn’t need it and probably shouldn’t have been built. But that’s not the case everywhere.”

Which prompted frequent commenter Matt the Engineer to question “What LRT lines weren’t needed and shouldn’t have been built?”

Very good question, Matt.

For readers interested in this issue, there are three essential articles they should look to (Note: clicking on the title of the article will allow you to download it):

The Pickrell piece is insanely readable for something as mundane as transit ridership forecasting. If you only have time to read one, this is the one you should look at. It gives a rather disturbing insight into how public transit is planned, funded and built in North America.

The Flyvbjerg piece, meanwhile, is a little more technical but nevertheless eye-opening. In fact, most of Flyvbjerg’s work is essential reading for anyone interested in how we (in)effectively conduct mega projects in the developed world, particularly in regards to public transit. If you take the time to work through his materials, you’ll come out the other end with a different mindset than when you entered.

The FTA piece, lastly, is boring beyond belief. But is great as a reference point to see how this all comes together. In it, you’ll find out which LRT systems in the US are the star performers (they’re not the ones you think), which are the true dogs (they probably are the ones you think), and which ones are middling at best (a few surprises).

If you’re a transit nerd, you need to read these.

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Transit Aesthetics – AutoTram / BusRail

Can the AutoTram revolutionize the way we think about transit planning? Image from

When a city plan is planning a new transit infrastructure project, a lot of time is often spent deliberating over which technology should be implemented. This discussion generally floats back and for between bus and rail (and more recently, sometimes even CPT). For many cash-strapped cities looking for quick wins and cost-effective mass transit solutions, the debate often settles on the mid-tier options, namely bus (BRT) and lightrail/streetcar opportunities (HRT tends to be too expensive and time-consuming to construct.) Amongst the many debate points — capacity, aesthetics, speed, cost, etc. — proponents of both technologies claim their technology is superior.

From my personal experience (your experience may be different), based on conversations with transit planners, engineers, operators and average joes, one of the biggest arguments in favour of LRT is its aesthetics. You can go on and on about all the capabilities and characteristics of modern bus technology, but in the end, a bus is still a bus.

But what makes a bus, such a bus? Its shape? Size? Look? Smell? Other than rubber on road vs steel on rail, what if a bus could be completely remodeled and redesigned to look and feel like LRT? Would this make it as attractive as LRT, and therefore able to attract just as much new transit riders as the rail systems claim?

The Fraunhofer Institute decided to find out. In 2005 they introduced the AutoTram — essentially a road-based LRT. The makers of this technology describe it as:

“… [it] combines features of conventional buses (e.g. high flexibility, low infrastructure costs and moderate life cycle costs) with the advantages of trams like high transport capacity, driving comfort and the possibility of partial emission-free operation.”

Could the AutoTram succeed and if it does, what does this mean for the future of light rail and transit planning?

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The Trouble With Ford’s Plan

As any Torontonian knows, Toronto’s transit plans are seriously in flux. After what seems like an eternity of planning a network of Light Rail lines, new mayor Rob Ford has decided to unilaterally nix that idea and build a new subway under the auspice that the “war on the car is over.”

Yet amidst all the hand-wringing, protesting and name-calling, no one seems to have actually scrutinized Ford’s plan. Which is good for Ford because his plan doesn’t look good.

Arguably, the single most important purpose of transit is to get people from where they live to where they work in the most efficient way possible. Connect lots of people to lots of jobs, and there’s a pretty good chance you’re doing your job right.

By that measure, Ford’s plan makes little sense:

The Toronto Subway network - simplified.

The above is a very simplified portrait of Toronto’s subway network. A few features for those not from Toronto:

  • The eastern half (right side) of the yellow line is the Yonge line. It’s either at capacity or over it – depending upon whom you asked.
  • The station that allows transfers between the Yonge line and the green Bloor-Danforth line is overcapacity.
  • The purple (Sheppard) subway line has only 5 stations and is underutilized since it opened in the early part of 2000’s. The system is so poorly used, there has been talk of shuttering it to save cost.

Rob Ford’s plan is this:

Rob Ford's plan to extend the purple Sheppard subway line.

So Ford’s plan amounts to extending a subway line that no one uses into an area where there aren’t many jobs and not that many people (relative to the rest of the city):

Population Density of Toronto - Source: Statistics Canada.

Worker Density in Toronto - Source: Statistics Canada

Overlay the two maps together and you get an even clearer picture of the problem:

Overlay: Population Density and Worker Density in Toronto

Essentially the Ford plan moves suburbanites from one mall (Scarborough Town Centre) to another mall (Fairview / Don Mills). Given that it’s Christmas season, I can see the appeal of that, but after the gifts have been unwrapped and the credit card bills have (hopefully) been paid, whose going to use this line? Doesn’t every mall offer basically the same thing anyways?

Oh, and it will only cost three-and-a-half billion to do it.

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When Is A Road Not A Road?

Toronto’s grand LRT scheme, Transit City, appears headed for a premature grave. Almost immediately after assuming his new role as Toronto’s Mayor, Rob Ford declared to the province his intention to kill Transit City and replace it with subway lines.

Toronto media has been ablaze with the story since it hit yesterday, but no one seems to know what to make of it. Does Mr. Ford have the power to unilaterally declare dead a plan that was 8 years in the making? What will the province’s response be? What of Metrolinx, the regional transit planning authority? What of all the money spent on contracts, plans and new Light Rail vehicles?

No one seems to know.

Even staunchly pro-LRT advocate and Toronto transit buff Steve Munro seems lost for words. Says Steve: “Readers who know me well will appreciate that today is not the brightest day in my history of transit advocacy.  It would be easy just to write a bitter rant against the incoming regime.  That would be a waste of time — they won’t read it anyhow.”

Anyone who knows me knows I’ve never been a fan of Transit City, but let’s put that aside. Let’s put the mode choice/technology debate aside for a second.

Ford’s actions concern me. Maybe it’s just for political showmanship, but Ford unilaterally declaring the “war on cars” to be over is ridiculous and dangerous theatre. Whether such a war actually exists or not is besides the point. In Mr. Ford’s world, roads are for cars not people. (This assertion of Ford’s is so universally known in Toronto, it’s almost pointless to link to it, but just in case, check here and here).

So let’s put Transit City, LRT and subway lines to the side and agree on one thing: Roads are most certainly, 100% not just for cars. Maybe it’s just a matter of definition, but roads are also for people, too. People and roads existed for thousands of years before cars did.

History makes clear that roads aren’t just for cars. Roads are also for…

. . . eating . . .

A Chip Wagon Outside Toronto City Hall. Image by flickr user Danielle Scott.

. . . walking . . .

Barcelona's famed pedestrianized Las Ramblas. Image by flickr user Carlos Lorenzo.

. . . playing hockey . . .

Street hockey in Montreal. Image by caribb.

. . . boating . . .

Venice's Grand Canal. Image by flickr user gnuckx.

. . . relaxing . . .

Car Free Day in Vancouver. Image by flickr user thirteencentpinball.

. . . Christmas shopping . . .

Zürich's Bahnhofstrasse. Image by flickr user meckert75.

. . . and anything else you can think of.

Rob Ford had best be careful. Announcing the end of a war that never existed might just start the war he claimed was already over.

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Duck Season!!! Rabbit Season!!!

The 1950’s Looney Toons animated short Rabbit Fire is perhaps one of the best-known of all Bugs Bunny cartoons. It’s an influential piece of work that’s invited all kinds of scholarly conversation.

In it, the confused and generally helpless Elmer Fudd is hunting for rabbits. Self-servingly, Bugs Bunny convinces him that it’s not actually rabbit-hunting season. Bugs claims it’s duck-hunting season instead. This – quite understandably – raises the ire of Bugs’ long-time nemesis Daffy Duck (who appears out of nowhere).

The two engage in an almost never-ending argument over whether it’s Duck Season! or Rabbit Season! With no objective outside way to resolve the debate, Elmer becomes increasingly impatient and angry and lashes out, firing indiscriminately at both Bugs and Daffy.

The genius of the work is that there is no single authority to answer the question. Surely in the rational world outside of cartoons, a park ranger could answer the question very easily. Yet the film’s creators wisely leave all semblance of authority out of the debate as it increases the drama and prevents any side from having objectivity on their side (you’ll see where I’m going with this below).

I can’t help but imagine the LRT vs. BRT debate in much the same way.

Like the Duck Season! Rabbit Season! debate, both sides claim a position (LRT is the best! No, BRT is the best!) that is impossible to prove. The two sides are virtually equivalent, both with a performance-cost package relatively similar to each other. There are plusses and minuses to each, but both are reasonable facsimiles of each other.

Conveniently, authority is left out of the conversation and when such authority is brought in, it is typically just as partisan (see the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute and Light Rail Now! for two such groups) Like in the cartoon, it’s a great way to increase the drama, humor and entertainment value of the situation, but really only causes confusion, anger and frustration.

Unfortunately, in this debate, the public is cast as the exhausted and impatient hunter, Elmer Fudd. We’re mere observers in a debate that has no judge, no jury and no solution. We’re powerless onlookers whose opinion switches every moment we hear a new talking point. All we really know is that someone’s face is going to get blown off and – like in the cartoon – it’s likely to be our own.

One thing we’ve tried to do with The Gondola Project is get above the knee-jerk, reactionary mode-choice debate. LRT’s great when implemented in the right way, poor when implemented the wrong way. Ditto for BRT. Same for Urban Gondolas and CPT. Again, it’s about multi-modality and options. We believe transit planning isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s about match the right tool to the right task at the right price. Sadly, this is a position other transit advocates don’t seem to share.

Hopefully sometime in the near future, LRT and  BRT will find a way to elevate their feud to something a little more than cartoon-level antics. Until then, it’s likely to be a never-ending farce resulting only in people getting hurt.

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The Cost of Light Rail

I tend to pick on Light Rail for a reason. It’s a technology akin to the average beauty contestant. It looks good on the outside, but is kind of useless on the inside.

Subways (HRT) can move hordes of people quickly and buses can move a moderate number of people cheaply, but Light Rail seems incapable of either. LRT is not quick, it doesn’t move a tonne of people, and it’s certainly not cheap. But as I’ve said before, Light Rail managed to come up the middle between a technology we cannot afford and a technology we do not like.

I’ve talked in the past about the speed of Light Rail, but let’s now talk specifically about that cost matter.

According to several recent studies by Bent Flyvberg, a respected scholar from Denmark, urban rail systems cost on average, US$50-150 million per route-kilometre. Granted, this range includes both light rail and heavy rail, but the point is this: At the low end of analysis, an urban rail system will cost a minimum of US$50 million per route kilometre to construct. It’s reasonable to assume that systems in that range will be of the light rather than heavy variety.

Cable systems rarely reach such costs. The Portland Aerial Tram, yes, reached the US$50 million per kilometre threshold, but that system is the exception rather than the rule. When looking at systems build worldwide, cable rarely eclipses the US$30 million per kilometre mark.

Given that cable is cleaner, quieter, more reliable and safer than light rail, the cost factor more than justifies cable’s place in the minds of transit planners everywhere.

I’m not saying forget about Light Rail entirely. I’m just saying that there are several instances where cable could do the job and is worthy of consideration.

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