A Summary of Mass Transportation Types
July 4th, 2008, by Jeremy Krygsman
November 16, 2007. By Jeremy Krygsman.
Toronto is replacing its streetcars. The classic Red Rocket streetcar design has been in use for the past three decades and is much loved, but it has become unpractical for the demands of the modern city of Toronto. They are becoming unreliable, and their comparatively small size is making them impractical to run during rush hour because of congestion. They are getting old and out of date, and insufficient for today’s needs. The story of Toronto’s streetcars is the story that repeats itself over and over again in any city’s book of transportation issues. A road which was satisfactory ten years ago becomes a crowded mess today, or bus routes that once served a small Ontario city are now overstretched because of rapid suburban growth. How can we fix these problems, not only for today but looking toward the future as well? Transportation management, be it mass transit, highways, or simple roads, are one of the great challenges of modern city planning.
Of the several central transportation issues facing cities today, mass transit has increasingly become top priority, possibly even more important than roads themselves. Governments strive to find the balance between many different factors that can make or break any mass transit system. These include ridership, routing, transport type, and of course the actual cost of the service. If it is done right though, mass transit can be one of the city’s most important assets. Mass transit can take many forms, from busses to rapid transit railways. This section will analyze all aspects of several different types of mass transit, including all four of the above listed factors.
Almost all large cities around the world have commuter rail services that run on the railways leading toward the city centre. Most civic transit services are localized inside the city proper, but commuter rails are designed to carry large numbers of people from the outer suburbs in towards the city centre. Toronto has the GO, Paris the RER, and Chicago has its Metra network. Commuter rails are much less a civic transportation system as a regional transporter to bridge the gap between the city’s core and its edge. Most importantly, their trains have the capability to take tens of thousands of cars off the road every day, alleviating clogged arteries and highways.
The RER (which stands for Réseau Express Régional or Regional Express Network) is widely known as one of the most successful examples of commuter rail in the world. It was first conceived in 1936 as an express version of the Metro (subway) that had been constructed in 1900. Construction finally began in 1961 on Line A, which runs from east to west. The government spared no expense in construction, spending billions of Francs on lavish and massive stations. The investment has paid off exponentially though – today, Line A is Europe’s busiest passenger rail line, carrying over one million people per day. The line has become so busy that double deck trains are being introduced, and advanced signaling has been brought in. The new signaling system allows for unprecedented 90 second wait times at stations – new trains often pull into the station as the previous train clears the track just ahead of it.
Today, the RER consists of five different routes, Lines A to E. It carries over a hundred thousand people per hour, and is of immense and incalculable value to the region of Île de France. It has connected what was previously a relatively isolated central Paris with its surrounding region, bringing millions of visitors into the central business district on weekends. It allows foreign tourists to travel to surrounding attractions, such as Versailles. Most of all, it gives any business located near an RER line a huge advantage in terms of access to a very large labour market – commute times from any given part of the city have been cut drastically, because driving in Paris can often be hectic and slow.
Paris’ RER system is the prime model for a regional commuter rail system, but many different varieties of commuter rail are used around the world. Most of them work on the same principle though: connect the outside with the inside, and make it easy for people to get between them. Although these networks are extremely expensive to initially construct (especially if they require underground central stations), they inevitably pay huge dividends if they are routed correctly. Paris stands testament to this, as do many other commuter rail systems around the world. In a large city, interconnectivity is paramount to a successful economy, and it is simply impossible to depend on expressways to provide it.
Subways and Rapid Transit
When the density of large central business districts is enough to support a rapid transit system, it can form the backbone of an excellent mass transit service. The definition of rapid transit is “a system of public transportation in a metropolitan area, usually a subway or elevated train system” [Dictionary.com]. It never crosses roads or walkways at grade, but is either elevated over them or submerged below them. This allows for frequent trains, something that is impossible with level crossings.
The history of subways began in London, England in 1854, where the first ever underground railway was built. Since then, the London Underground has become the largest and most famous subway system in the world. It consists of twelve lines totaling 408km of track, and carries almost one billion people per year [Transport for London]. Because of its success, it is no surprise that subways have been adopted in dozens of cities around the world. However, a few things are required for a city to be able to support a subway network.
This sort of dense environment is perfect for a healthy subway system, but that doesn’t mean rapid transit can’t survive in more dispersed urban areas. Vancouver’s Skytrain is an excellent example of this. Vancouver has a very dense urban core, but the Skytrain extends far beyond it into the surrounding suburbs. Even though the suburbs might not be dense enough to support a rapid transit system themselves, their connection to the downtown has proven to be a catalyst for development around suburban stations.
Vancouver was entirely without a rapid transit system until 1985, when construction was completed in time for Expo 86 [J. C. Dunn, 2003]. The system used a new technology that was developed by an Ontario crown corporation, using linear induction motors to magnetically propel its trains along the tracks [Bombardier]. From the initial construction of the Expo line in 1985, the SkyTrain network has expanded to include the Millennium line and two more planned lines, which will help serve the 2010 Olympics. It is the world’s longest completely automated network, and consists of 49.5 kilometers of track with 33 stations, servicing 65 million people every year. This is nowhere near the scale of the London Underground, but Vancouver is a very different city – instead of serving an already existing, dense core, the SkyTrain is helping to create new communities and economic opportunities near its stops.
Most of Vancouver is like any other North American city, filled with low density suburbs. The presence of the SkyTrain is changing this, though. Around many stations, the surrounding suburbs have been transforming into medium rise, mixed use condominium developments. Even the outer terminus of the Expo line has seen relatively high density development, which is a great improvement over previous suburban sprawl. In other situations, such as at the Scott Road Station, a park-and-ride system is in effect. The station is surrounded by large parking lots, and acts like a magnet for commuters heading toward downtown Vancouver. Instead of driving into the congested inner city, they drive only a short distance, park at the SkyTrain station and ride in comfort toward the downtown.
These are two examples of very different rapid transit systems which both serve very different cities. London is a good example of a subway system in any very large, dense city – similar characteristics are seen in places like Paris, New York, and Hong Kong. The Vancouver example illustrates what has become a common use for rapid transit systems in modern cities – that is, build the network, and let the density come after because of increased connectivity and business.
Trams and Light Rail
In the past, trams have been a popular mode of transportation in cities of many sizes. Even small cities such as Guelph, Ontario had streetcar lines at the turn of the twentieth century [Guelph Historical Society]. But this was before the automobile became popular, and people had to depend on public transit to get from one place to another. Thus, many small-town streetcar lines had fallen apart by the end of the 1920’s. Today though, trams and light rail are making a resurgence in many cities around the world.
Light Rail is defined by the government of the United Kingdom as “A local railway or tram system, sometimes capable of sharing roads with traffic and heavy railways” [United Kingdom Planning Portal]. It is usually at grade (that is, at road level), and is very versatile because it carries large numbers of people but can share the road with car traffic and does not need its own right-of-way. Streetcars bridge the gap between busses and rapid transit – busses run local routes on the road, and rapid transit is a high capacity system running on grade separated rails. Conversely, light rail takes the on-road, at grade aspect of busses, but the high capacity and rail characteristics of light rail.
One of the largest light rail systems in the world is located in Toronto, Canada. The system has over 300km of track covering the very inner core of the city, and connecting with subway and bus lines. Toronto’s streetcars are not only an excellent way to get around, but they are one of the things that define the city. The Red Rocket is the icon of the Toronto Transit Commission, and indeed one of the icons of the city of Toronto, alongside its famous skyline. And in fact, the streetcars are the most successful part of the TTC system; four of the TTC’s most busy surface routes are streetcar lines [Toronto Transit Commission]. Even today, the number of people riding the streetcar every day is increasing.
Increased ridership demand also means more seating space is needed, so the city has put out a bid to spend 1.4 billion dollars to order 204 new “light rail vehicles”. The new streetcars are of the sort often seen in European cities, with low floors and modern, sleek designs – but problems are already starting to arise. One of the bidders for the project says low floor light rail vehicles are bumpy and unreliable because they are so close to the ground and use unproven technology. This could be a huge issue for the new trams, because unreliability and an uneven ride mean bad service. In a survey conducted by the TTC about the new trams [Toronto Transit Commission], people placed emphasis on frequent service, as well as a comfortable and clean environment. It is hard to imagine a bumpy ride could be comfortable, although perhaps people are willing to sacrifice some comfort for better accessibility.
In any case, this illustrates the issues facing any transportation network in modern cities. All transport networks must balance needs and wants, with costs and technical limitations. In the case of the TTC’s streetcars, building unattractive vehicles with uncomfortable seats could lead to a decrease in ridership. This would negate the investment and decrease the effectiveness of the entire system.
Light Rail routes have increasingly popular as transit alternatives in recent years. Newly implemented light rail is often closer to rapid transit, being separated from the roadway and running on its own separate track. This resurgence first happened in Germany because of its existing tram tracks and the involvement of the engineering firm Siemens AG. Siemens was the first to invent the modern style of light rail, with attractive and comfortable vehicles, which has become popular today. Many cities in Europe have this type of light rail system in operation, which has proven that it can be very successful. And because of its success in Europe, North American transport planners are increasingly deciding they could be successful here as well.
The staple of any city’s mass transit system are busses. They are the first line of attack for any city trying to combat traffic congestion, largely because are extremely cheap compared to any other type of mass transportation. They use existing road infrastructure, the only capital investments needed are the vehicles themselves – which only cost about $500,000 each (a streetcar can cost up to $5 million each) [Transit Toronto]. Busses are used in many different situations, from ultra low density suburbs to crowded downtowns filled with skyscrapers. They are extremely versatile for both these situations – if there is more ridership demand, more busses can simply be added to the same route. Even better, in situations where transportation needs change, the bus routes can easily be adjusted to reflect the new requirements.
The Tri-Cities area of Kitchener-Waterloo and Cambridge are a very good example of where busses do a very good job serving a medium to small sized city. Since the merging of Kitchener Transit and Cambridge Transit into a single company called Grand River Transit, bus services between the three cities have gone far above the typical mid-size city bus system. This is in large part due to the iXpress route, which passes through major destinations in the region. The route is express, which means it has infrequent stops, and it also gets priority at signaled traffic intersections. The iXpress links several already-existing transport hubs, allowing riders to board “collector” busses, get off at a terminal, and ride the express line to another part of the city.
This system creates a sort of elongated hub-and-spoke bus system for the region. Several hubs are connected by the express line, and frequent-stop bus routes branch out from the hubs. This system has greatly improved quality of service on Grand River Transit, and also greatly increased ridership in the previously underserved Cambridge district. It is helping the Tri-Cities area become more unified, and connected – which is a great achievement because connectivity is the ultimate goal of mass transit.
Major Road Networks
In the modern day, one of the objectives of mass transit is to get cars off the roads. However, it is impossible for a city to function without roads. They are required for trade, commerce, and the movement of people. Without them and the freedom of movement they provide, our cities would simply cease to exist. This freedom of movement is necessary for human society, something that mass transit cannot possibly provide. People need to be able to walk down the street to the neighbor’s or the corner store, and North American cities could not possibly survive in their current state without the private automobile. But although roads are a necessary organ for a living, breathing city, they can also leave scars across its landscape.
High speed expressways can be an absolutely vital link between major economic centres. They are a conduit for transport trucks, which are necessary for short-haul and just-on-time deliveries and trade. They allow private car owners to traverse long, empty expanses with relative ease and high speed. They have the effect of shortening relative distances between places, bringing markets and people closer together. For example, people will take a trip down a highway to a faraway place to make a large purchase, even if there is another store that sells the same product closer to home. This is because distances are more often measured in time than in actual distance – therefore, reduce the travel time between two places, and more people will travel between them.
Expressways are great assets for intercity travel, but they can create huge problems when they pierce the heart of a city. 1956, the United States government initiated the biggest public works project in its history: the construction of the massive interstate system from coast to coast to coast [National Highways Act]. The project was actually initiated by President Eisenhower as a national defense issue. After fighting the Nazis in World War Two, he greatly appreciated the advantage the Autobahn network gave the Germans. Today though, the Interstate is seen as one of the symbols of American excess – the word brings to mind images of oversized SUVs traversing massive stretches of asphalt. But this is not the only socially unhealthy aspect of the Interstates. When they were built through cities, they were central causes of urban decay and have caused the decline of several major U.S. cities.
The city of Detroit had seen massive highway construction in the period between mid 1950’s and early 1970’s. In that time, nine different highways sliced through the neighborhoods of the bustling motor city. The central business district was surrounded by five giant interchanges that took up to forty acres of prime land each. These freeways were built to promote urban renewal, in an age where the suburbs were beginning to spread across the land. It was the fulfillment of the American Dream – a family would be able to have a nice house in the suburbs, and the father would be able to drive his sleek new car into the city centre to work in a towering skyscraper.
The idea of this was very appealing to almost everyone, but was a complete fallacy. Instead of promoting urban renewal, freeways ended up killing the city centre. When the city finally realized this in the mid-1970s, it put a freeze on all new highway development within city limits [Wikipedia: Freeway Revolts]. But the damage had already been done. People had already begun moving out of the city center in massive numbers, and once they were in the suburbs, they stayed there. Because of the car culture, the central business district lost its vitality. Instead of living in the city centre and walking or riding public transit to work, people built big houses in the suburbs, and then drove to giant parking lots below sterile office towers downtown. Instead of reversing urban decay in downtown, the highways only accelerated it – although they allowed the suburbs to enjoy a giant construction boom.
In short, highways are excellent assets for trans-regional movement of goods and people. However, if highways are used to excessively within the heart of the city, they can effectively suck all life out of it. Before the interstates were built, we had no idea such a thing would result. But Detroit and countless other cities have shown that urban renewal is never due to increased vehicular access to the central city. Instead, mass transit and high density cities are needed to promote a healthy downtown core.
Arterial roads are defined simply as a major or main route[Dictionary.com]. They often take the form of wide streets or divided boulevards, which can handle a large and relatively fast flow of vehicles. The name “arterial road” is quite appropriate – all the cars from the feeder streets (capillaries) come together to drive through the heart of the city. They are basically the expressway of the urban environment, but instead of scarring the city, they are down at street level, where people can actually interact with their surroundings.
Arterial roads are magnets for commerce and development in modern cities. Because they bring so much traffic into one place, they create prime land for things like office buildings and plazas. In the city centre of large cities, boulevards are often lined with high density commercial and residential developments. The most famous example of this is the Champs Élysées in Paris. The eight lane wide boulevard stretches from the La Défense to the Louvre museum. It is lined with some of the most expensive real-estate in the city, as well as a shopping district with stores such as Louis Vuitton Benetton, Nike, Zara, the Gap, Virgin, and Sephora. All of these are high end, globalized retail outlets that can afford to pay the high rents of Paris’s grand boulevard.
The Champs Élysées has been so successful that it has almost become too successful [New York Times]. Instead of the upscale restaurant, theatre, and shopping district it once was, it has started to become a jumble of international chain stores. Because of its world-class appeal, any big company with money wanted to open a premium store there – and big companies were the only ones that could afford the rent. According to Paris officials, a Champs Élysées full of multinational stores is just the same as any old strip mall around the world. They have dedicated themselves to reversing the trend, and have already refused an application from Swedish giant H&M to locate on the avenue.
Few arterial roads enjoy the same level of success that the Champs Élysées is now trying to avoid. Many are just typical city streets lined with homes or shops. Strip malls dot the major intersections of North America, fronted by huge parking lots. But arterial roads are the lifeblood of the city, allowing people and goods to flow freely. They almost never lead to decay, unlike urban highways. They are the mass transit of the private person, be it on foot, bike, or in a vehicle.
Transportation and connectivity is one of the most important issues facing any city. A badly designed transportation network has the potential to paralyze movement, or even suck all movement out of the city. However, a comprehensive transportation strategy that incorporates the entire range of options can be one of the city’s greatest assets. A large city cannot be successful only by using highways, or only roads, or only mass transit. It must combine all three in an intelligent manner to allow people to get where they need to go. Mass transit can be used to free people from their cars and bring them from place to place with ease in higher density areas. Roads are necessary to free people and goods from the inflexible schedules of mass transit. Used together, these provide ultimate freedom of movement, something that is absolutely necessary for a healthy city. A city is built around transportation, and if transportation is done right, it can become one of the icons of the city – like Toronto’s Red Rocket.