Could the Vancouver bus system be the key to finally ramping up the timeline on urban transportation projects?

Of the myriad things that don’t make sense in life, here’s one that strikes some people from time-to-time. Because of the culture and context aligned in an industry like tech, you can get a brand-new iPhone app in about three days from execution to completion. That’s a nice-to-have in life. But because of the bureaucracy involved in politics and urban planning (and, well, the expense), it can take 10-15 years for an urban transportation project to get rolling. Thing is, better urban transportation is a need-to-have, and yet it’s about 91,000 times slower than nice-to-have stuff. I suppose that’s only logical, but still … there may be an answer looming.

Here’s an interesting article from CityLab on varied attempts to speed up the urban transportation planning process. They talk about ‘Young Professionals in Transportation’ and their recent event around ‘lean transportation planning.’ (“Lean” is a word you’ve probably heard in a variety of business contexts; it essentially means doing things faster and more effectively.) They talk about a couple of different examples, but here’s an interesting one from Vancouver:

Better bus queues in Vancouver. The lean concepts of prototyping and iteration (a loop process in which potential solutions are continuously implemented and improved upon) were used to improve bus queuing along one of North America’s busiest bus lines. Planners used inexpensive, temporary materials (i.e. “minimum viable products”) combined with time-lapse video to test different alignments of bus waiting lines. Their process used a non-traditional approach to site planning and arrived at a more effective solution than one relying on models or simulations, which, in the case of Vancouver, had predicted human decision making and behavior incorrectly.

You can click the link within the pull quote; it takes you to another CityLab article on how Vancouver fashioned the bus queues. Basically the idea here is that “real-time” monitoring beats model/simulation monitoring, because real-time actually shows you human behavior up close (logical, right?). You can take the time-lapse (one is embedded above in this post) and use that to figure out how to better the lines. This is a small thing, yes — it’s not like you’re suddenly taking five lanes in Vancouver down to three and dedicating the other two to bikes and BRT, no — but still, it’s a lot more responsive than most transit projects tend to be.

Here’s a little bit more on the project, which was a brainchild of Nelson/Nygaard. (They’ve worked on a ton of other projects, including some “multi-modal” stuff like the Miami Rivers of Grass Greenway.) One of the authors of the primary CityLab post here also works with Nelson/Nygaard, so there’s a double connection. He did something with time-lapse around the Google buses in San Francisco, too:

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/88424080″>Commuter Shuttle and 21-Hayes EB Bus Stop Observations</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user9047429″>Paul Supawanich</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>

All this is pretty interesting — the bigger idea is more responsive timing on urban transit/planning decisions. I have a little context with this since I grew up on Lexington Avenue in NYC — two blocks over from Second Avenue, where their subway project has seemingly taken 198 years to even get half-finished (2016 is now no longer realistic, apparently). I’ve been living in Minneapolis, which has surprisingly good public transit for an upper Midwest city — but then, they just got this Green Line light rail that connects the two cities (MPLS/St. Paul) downtown with the major economic engine (University of Minnesota). If you look at the first line on light rail, which essentially connects downtown with the airport and a few places people might live, you’d kinda think the Green Line (the newer line) should have come first. That whole arc took years. I’m not saying you can do a time-lapse video and suddenly have a fully functioning light rail system days later (it takes time, money and labor), but seeing transit planning evolve to about 2-3 times faster would be good for the development of our cities.

Ted Bauer


  1. Just to add some context here: transit is chronically underfunded in Vancouver – and has been for many years. It has always been a political football between the province and the municipalities. The province likes to determine how the major capital spending goes. And the result is not very often, not enough and wasted on useless or overpriced projects. The most recent initiative from the province was an electronic fare collection system complete with gates to prevent fare evasion on the rapid transit lines. The cost far exceeds any estimates of potential savings – the project is late, over budget and ineffective.

    The municipalities are reluctant to use property tax to pay for transit but whatever other source of funding they come up with, the province blocks. The result is overcrowded buses and trains, unreliable and infrequent service in the suburbs and disgracefully inadequate provision for seniors and people with disabilities unable to use the conventional system.

    The province has also ensured an inadequate supply of taxis (lowest per capita service in North America) and blocked services like Uber and Lyft.

    Dealing with the line ups for the overcrowded B Line is a band aid for a chronic lack of real rapid transit

  2. Though I’m not familiar with funding schemes in BC or Canada, it sounds like a pretty similar dynamic to most scenarios in the States as well. Even in our most successful system (NYC) the state controls the agency – not the city. I could write a book about Rhode Island but instead I’ll just leave. This place should be an urban planners paradise/lab/best place to live in America, but it’s pretty much Mississippi.

    Regarding the tactical urbanism we see here: you’re right, the “minimum viable product” is delightfully applied. The Cities that can apply that spirit to the capital investment side are going to be successful. But Government is 75 years behind on the funding model and always will be, at least at the federal level (which matters insofar as major transit investments have always had a federal funding component). Buuut, maybe that federal story is coming to its conclusion, as the trust fund looks to be dead. As it should be.

    Here’s what should replace it: states that actually want to invest in modern streets, roads and transit should get together and create the mythical infrastructure bank themselves. Bypass the feds entirely. Require seed money buy-in so we can lock out South Carolina forever. Then, this quasi-public agency attracts private investment, because we’re not funding solely “public” transit, but actual investments (think land value capture, tolling, bus franchise fees, farebox revenues, even more exotic stuff like tax credits and social impact bonding. This profit-motivated entity will have an incentive to innovate, so they’ll encourage iterative techniques like your bus queue striping. They can transfer that innovation far faster because they can run the same experiments in three different cities at the same time. And they will invest in successful projects, not the pet projects of congress. Also because they will seek out the local partners that actually want to do something productive with the money, and who will be able to get shit moving faster because they owe the money or a deliverable in far shorter timelines than current bonding schemes.

    All of this could make Andrew Cuomo President if he ever thought about the subway at all.

    Finally, while I’m here, see these guys: http://www.strongtowns.org/

    Some of the best thinking on this stuff I’ve found.

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