As I mentioned last week, greater Vancouver leads the Northwest in transit ridership, with somewhere between two and three times as many annual bus and train rides per person as Portland and Seattle.
So the obvious question: how come? Why does Vancouver do so much better in transit statistics than its southern neighbors?
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If you’re from Seattle, the “obvious” answer might seem to be Vancouver’s SkyTrain light rail system, which carries about 66 million passengers each year. Seattle is working hard to expand its measly train system—which currently consists of a lightly used commuter rail service and a 1.6 mile light rail line in Tacoma. But SkyTrain already carries about two-thirds as many passengers as all of King County’s buses.
Yet SkyTrain can’t be the only explanation for Vancouver’s advantage over its southern neighbors. After all, Portland has MAX light rail, and a streetcar to boot—and Vancouver beats the pants off of Portland, too.
If anything, the MAX system is more robust than SkyTrain: it has more track (71.5 km total, compared with SkyTrain’s 49.5 km), and nearly twice as many stations (64 stations for MAX, vs. 33 for SkyTrain). Still, SkyTrain claimed about 66.3 million boardings in 2005, while MAX had fewer than 33 million in 2006—which means that a typical SkyTrain station handles about four times as many passengers per day, on average, as a typical MAX station.
When you look at bus statistics, Vancouver’s advantage is even more striking. SkyTrain has about twice as many riders as MAX—but Greater Vancouver’s bus system carries about three times as many passengers as greater Portland’s buses. And even though greater Vancouver’s population is about one-third lower than greater Seattle’s, Vancouver-area buses provide one-third more rides than all of Puget Sound’s buses.
(As a sidenote: it turns out that buses are the workhorses of all three cities’ transit systems. Buses carry virtually all of Seattle’s transit passengers, three-quarters of Vancouver’s, and two-thirds of Portland’s.)
What all this statistical mumbo-jumbo means to me is this: when it comes to encouraging transit, mode choice—ie., train vs. bus vs. streetcar—isn’t the most important factor in determining how many people use a transit system. Not at all.
Far more important is the layout of communities served by transit. In particular, compact neighborhoods can concentrate people and jobs near major transit routes, which helps make transit more convenient and cost-effective. As far as I can tell, Vancouver’s transit advantage stems not from any particular feature of its transit system—the type of trains it uses, or the frequency of bus service, etc.—but mostly from its comparatively compact urban form.
To be clear: I am not trying to poo-poo transit expansion plans in Seattle or Portland. And I’m not trying to enter into any sort of bus-vs.-train debate. (Personally, the antipathy between the pro-bus and pro-train camps turns me off, since it seems to dissipate the energies of both sides.) What I am saying is that neither buses nor trains will get as many riders as we might hope—unless we get our neighborhoods right first. That’s where Vancouver’s real transit advantage lies.
Your point about compact form is borne out by the experience of Greater Victoria. With no light rail, commuter rail or tram service, Greater Victoria generates 21.9 million trips per annum on a population base of 330,000; or about 66 boardings per capita, which puts Greater Victoria second only to Greater Vancouver in the region according to your figures. Getting the land use right is more than half of the solution, and it provides other transportation benefits as well. For example, the mode share for cycling exceeds that for transit in Greater Victoria, in large part because 2/3 of the regional population lives within 8 km. of Victoria City Hall.
Great point, Clark. But what’s interesting is that Seattle’s even more dense than Portland, and yet our transit ridership isn’t as high. Part of that probably has to do with the density of the respective region, but in some ways it does give hope: build it and they will come.
Isn’t it possible that Vancouver’s transit carries more passengers simply because more people live in Vancouver? I don’t doubt that their system is very successful, but without scaling the numbers to population size it is difficult to make comparisons.
I think that that Frank and josh may be conflating the population size and density of the official City of Seattle and City of Vancouver with their overall metro areas. Considering metro areas as a whole, Seattle’s bigger than Vancouver and less dense than Portland (going by the sprawl statistics linked to in the original post).
I don’t know exactly how it works, but students at UBC and Simon Fraser (and perhaps other colleges) get “free” passes on metro transportation when they enroll (I believe there is a fee added to their tuiton so you can debate the free aspect). This gets students (future workers/commuters) in the habit of using mass transit. I’m pretty sure ridership saw a big spike after this policy was implemented a few years back. Sorry if I have some of the details wrong but the gist of it is true.
dbsk,You’re absolutely right about university students in greater Vancouver.But this U-pass concept was actually pioneered in Seattle more than a decade ago at the University of Washington, with similarly excellent results.Off the top of my head, I can’t recall whether Portland State also has integrated transit passes into their ID cards.
Frank—I think that Eldan has this right. Portland proper is less dense than Seattle proper (though I wonder if the difference is so great when you remove uninhabited areas—industrial zones, the ports, airports, and parks. Portland in particular has a lot of parkland—Forest Park alone covers about 5000 acres (~8 sq miles)—and both cities have a lot of land area that has essentially no housing. Hard to know how that turns out.But if you look more broadly at the entire metro region, the urbanized and suburbanized areas in Seattle and Portland have comparable average density. IIRC, metro Portland overall is a little more uniform in density, while Seattle is a bit clumpier: more high density cities and town centers (esp in Seattle proper), but also more people in low density suburbs.And Josh—metro area sizes are:Greater Portland: ~2.1 MGVRD: ~2.2MSeattle: ~3.2MIn my previous post, I measured ridership per capita—and that’s how I got the Vancouver>Portland>Seattle comparison.Finally—and this is a big caveat that I should have thought of earlier—I’m measuring transit trips as “boardings”, which is the best apples-to-apples comparison. But you can combine several “boardings” into a single trip. So if I could find data for transit trips, I might find that Vancouver’s transit advantage narrows somewhat.
Related to the U-Pass issue: It might be interesting to compare what the respective regions spend on transit service—a less dense region that was willing to subsidize transit more might also see higher ridership.Obviously, subsidy is tricky to calculate exactly, given issues like value of street right-of-way, depreciation and capital costs of train systems, etc., but as a ballpark figure, does Vancouver spend more or less per capita than Seattle and Portland?
Right, I was talking about inside city limits, which is tricky b/c the Portland MAX goes outside the city limits. It’s also tricky depending on whether you include water or not, as Clark noted.
Steve,A few years ago, I looked at the share of transit operating costs that were covered from the fare box (and revenue from sales of passes). In very rough terms, greater Seattle and greater Portland were at about 25 percent and greater Vancouver was at about twice that.This reflects much higher “capacity utilization”—fuller buses and trains—in Vancouver. And that reflects, primarily, higher density across the entire metro area.
Another factor in high transit ridership in the Vancouver region is the extraordinary number of English language students from around the world, going to school downtown, and living throughout the region in citizen homes supporting what is called homestay. Most ESL students obtain bus passes to move around. I’ve read that the single biggest industry in downtown Vancouver BC is ESL schools—English as a Second Language. There are over 100 such schools. For a sense of the scale see this site.
Great post,I think one huge factor that was overlooked is the Vancouver’s lack of a freeway system in the central city. While both cities have similar single-family neighborhoods (1920s craftsman houses) Vancouver as a region has notably fewer freeway miles per capita than Seattle and Portland. Indeed, Seattle has three times as many freeway miles per capatia than Vancouver.For the wonkie wonks out there, you can read an analysis about impacts of freeway miles per capita (including metrics on Seattle Portland and Vancouver) HereI would speculate that this is at least as influential as rail miles or transportation mode type (bus v. rail) in Vancouvers impressive transit ridership figures.—paul chasan, Seattle
Don’t forget to factor in the cost of gas when doing your analysis of why Vancouver does public transit better. Today’s gas prices in Vancouver BC are still 75cents(US)/gal higher than Seattle.
I think Paulish is right – the lack of freeways plays a huge role in Vancouver’s transit usage. The process of weaning people from excessive car use takes many years and it helps to not have freeways which simply invite people to drive. Every time I’ve been to Vancouver, I’ve been struck by how well used the buses are at all times of day, especially at night. The relationship to public transit there seems more European, and not so singularly focused on rush hour.
I believe the causal chain goes like this:no freeways—> more time-consuming to travel—> more incentive to locate centrally—> higher in-town land values—> fuller in-town development—> higher density—> shorter travel distances + more riders per stop—> much more transit usage.There are, no doubt, several other parallel and interlocking causal chains.
It looks like time for someone to say something about potential “tipping points”. Is there a point at which transit becomes ubiquitous and convenient enough that ridership sees a quick upturn – that the mainstream sees it as acceptable as in Tokyo, London, NewYork or Vancouver? Lack of freeway alternatives would certainly help feed this, but I see this as much as a cumulative group of factors as a causal chain. If it is a causal chain it should start with “political will for change”.
For Vancouver, you cannot talk about Transit, if you don’t include the rest of the Lower Mainland. Which means all the other Municipalities North, South and East of the City of Vancouver. The powers that be, like to talk about Vancouver’s Transit statistics by talking about specifically the ‘City of Vancouver’s statistics. However, they don’t always clarify if the other roughly 19 municipalities are included, which is more than double the population of ‘The City of Vancouver’. Pretty much all of these Municipalities need more transit, especially those along the Fraser River and up the Fraser Valley. When it comes to transit and the real facts of ridership and transit supply, I believe the only decent apple on the tree right now is the City of Vancouver (800,000?). I think that leaves out 1.4 million other residents! Yes, we are building more “Light” rapid transit lines, one actually. It goes to one other municipality (Richmond) and has a spur off to, you guessed it, the airport. It has been said by many transit and planning experts that we need a minimum of 1,500 new buses and more Light Rapid Transit lines. It is not exactly clear for which municipalities the buses will be used in. People here in the Lower Mainland know their own specific transit needs and certainly, those of us out in the suburbs want better services within and between our areas. But I can tell you that we have huge traffic congestion problems everywhere, including the City of Vancouver. So it is interesting to hear Vancouver’s transit (and…?) being compared to Portland and Seattle’s. We know we have big transit and road issues and many of us are pushing for more transit solutions and less roads. Now, we also know that as the price of oil goes up, all our old ways of moving around will change as evidenced by Vancouver’s (which municipalities…?)recent rise in transit ridership. The tone of your post Clark, is that we have great transit up here in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. My fear is that, that tone translates into the misconception that we may not need to improve our transit as much as we really do!
I live in Surrey and have used the Skytrain and bus system for commuting to work every week day since about 1986. I am writing this note from Portland where we are vacationing right now. While here, we made a point of riding several of the MAX lines and probably covered close to 3/4 of the total track runs, just to see how the system compares with Skytrain and think I can make several observations:In Portland, there is room for the city to grow on at least 3 of 4 sides so that driving commuters are not compressed into a small number of highway links. In Vancouver, residents are confined by mountains and rivers such that most of the residential expansion has been to the east – so that commuters have to either face crowded highways or use Skytrain. That is one major reason Skytrain is more popular, and it would therefore be heavily used irrespective how well it was managed.Portland planners have obviously elected to pay for a myriad of highways, overpasses, bridges, and cloverleafs whereas Vancouver planners have not. In fact, one of the Vancouver aldermen (Gordon Price) had noted some years ago that Vancouver planners had deliberately left the three laned Lions Gate Bridge (with the middle one alternating direction) as the only road connection to West and North Vancouver as a means of throttling vehicle numbers coming downtown. Although Vancouver drivers complain about the relatively poor freeway system in the Greater Vancouver Regional District, I think few would tolerate a freeway structure similar to what I see in Portland anywhere near their own neighbourhoods. So Skytrain gets the passenger load instead.But it should also be noted that Skytrain is busy even in mid day, in the evenings and on weekends, when the freeways are not so congested; obviously, it is an attractive way to get around the city.In Vancouver, gas costs about 20% more than in Portland and people are increasingly giving up driving to get to work. In Portland, the newspapers are complaining about gas prices but so far, it appears that fewer drivers are prepared to do anything about it. This failure to act will come back to bite them if there is ever a shortage of gas and one cannot fill their tanks at any price. At such a time, I would bet that citizens will be thanking their lucky stars for politicians with the courage and foresight to have promoted and built MAX.I can only hope that our Vancouver politicians and voters have the same level of courage and foresight for the lower mainland area. Since we complain about inadequate roads but will never accept Seattle or Portland style freeways through the city, it is essential we accept the inevitability of extending rapid transit to other parts of the lower mainland – particularly Coquitlam, UBC and eventually, Cloverdale and Langley – and build them soon.In Vancouver, there are massive condo developments around many of the Skytrain stations. This probably reflects the relative lack of land for housing close in to downtown Vancouver and demonstrates how critically dependent Vancouverites are on good transportation. In Portland, I didn’t see this concentration of condo development around stations in Portland although I saw the beginnings of it in the Ross Island Bridge and River District areas.Finally, Vancouver’s Skytrain is FAST – being elevated up above the traffic, it runs 50 mph between all stations right from end to end, and it averages 35 mph overall, including station stops. MAX is fairly quick outside downtown, but it is painfully slow downtown (where it has to stop for traffic lights, pedestrians and cars) and through any residential areas. I cannot drive downtown Vancouver faster than I can get there on Skytrain, which makes Skytrain an attractive alternative. Since Skytrain is elevated, trains can run frequently (every 2.5 – 3 minutes during rush) without affecting or being affected by car traffic. MAX trains run about every 15 minutes. Consequently, it is fair to call Skytrain “Rapid Transit” but I cannot honestly say the same of the MAX system.In summary, I think Skytrain is winning partly by default (because for many, it is the only alternative to get downtown) and partly because it is a very good system, and many people prefer it to driving.
Now that Seattle’s light rail to the airport has opened carrying about 25,000 per day, and Vancouver’s somewhat heavier rail to the airport has opened carrying 100,000 per day, Cascadia is ripe for a careful study of why Vancouver, BC pulls so much more movement onto transit than Seattle, and Portland for that matter. It would be useful to have the study cover the entire urbanized regions, since the suburbs of the central city is where the greatest population growth is occurring in all three places.