Many cities are currently struggling with their transport infrastructure. There are multiple issues and conflicting pressures to deal with. The present study offers a brief overview of one Canadian city: Vancouver1
The single biggest transport issue is usually seen as car dependency2; this is true all over the world, but nowhere more so than the North American continent. Some of the relevant aspects of Vancouver are:
- Coastal city: this brings a maritime climate, which avoids the cold winters characteristic of many other Canadian cities
- High Density: the city centre is characterised by many high-rise buildings
- Wide roads: this allows for four lane roads, and also reasonably wide pavements
- Diversity: Vancouver is diverse, in many ways: ethnically, culturally, demographically and economically
- Transit: Vancouver has a fairly good “sky-train” network (only partially elevated), which offers a handful of lines that offer basic cover of the city, and out to some of the suburbs3
- A dense and efficient bus network
Vancouver city centre, like most other North American cities, is laid out in a regular grid structure. This means a large number of similar junctions, almost all conventional traffic light controlled cross-roads. Catering for the diverse needs of public and private motorised traffic, cyclists and pedestrians is, in general, notoriously difficult. Vancouver deals with these problems with a particularly simple traffic light system: when the traffic light is green for one way, the pedestrian light is also go (white) for the same way. Turning traffic is required to wait for pedestrians; this applies both to left and right turning traffic.
This means that traffic behind the waiting, turning, vehicle is also waiting, but the two-lane road means that straight-on traffic is not usually delayed.
Significantly, the pedestrian waiting time is lower, and the walk time (time you can walk) is higher – than more highly segregated systems common in Europe.
Also significantly, this means the buses than ply generally straight up and down the major roads, are less delayed by lights than their European counterparts.
Arguably, this system is dependent on a highly traffic regulation compliant population, which is possibly the case in Canada, more so than some other jurisdictions.
Public Transport Ticketing
The majority of users, including tourists, use a “Compass Card” to “touch” on buses and the Sky-train. Like similar systems elsewhere, you only “touch on” on buses, but have to touch both on and off on the Sky-train. Compass cards can be bought and topped up etc. at machines at every Sky-train station. Recently, it has also become possible to use credit cards. Cash also is used occasionally.
It is very obvious that buses are much used by senior citizens and those less physically able, including wheelchair users. The bus includes a hydraulic fold up and down ramp than can be quickly deployed for a wheelchair, as on the right.
There is also a cultural element to this: when a wheelchair user is boarding, other passengers move out of the way, vacating fold-up seats to make space for the wheelchair.
Buses operate a conventional two-door system, where you board at the front and exit from the middle door. It appears acceptable to exit from the front also e.g. when the bus is full. There is a touch pad for fare payment at the front door.
It is not uncommon to see one or two people board from the middle door, where there is also a touch pad, but this appears to be done to evade payment. Interestingly, drivers do not seem to attempt to intervene, perhaps because the subsequent disruption and delay would represent a worse outcome than the loss of the fare.
Bus stops are quite closely spaced, and are placed just after junctions, which offer slightly reduced delay4
Bus Power Source
Buses use overhead power-lines, which provide low voltage direct current. This offers a system that is both energy and space efficient: electric engines are much smaller – and quieter – than internal combustion engines. They also offer better acceleration.
The overhead wires characterise buses as semi-guided, as they can move sideways somewhat i.e. to move lanes, but cannot operate detached from their power source. There are plans to introduce electric buses with battery backup, which will offer flexibility e.g. to divert round road works or temporary road closures5. Some diesel buses are also used.
Bus Information Technology
Buses include a visual and audio indication of the next bus stop; a stop will not usually stop unless either there are passengers waiting to board, or a passenger has requested the next stop, which is common elsewhere.
Most bus stops only show the number of the bus service(s) offered at the stop; no real-time information is given. However, every bus stop has a unique code; if this code is sent as a text to a number shown on the bus stop, the time of the next bus(es) is returned; this obviously requires a passenger to have a phone and be willing to use it. Apps offer the same and more information, but this requires a Smart-phone and the use of mobile data, hence is less likely to be useful to an overseas tourist.
Most buses seem to be sufficiently frequent that even this modest effort is largely unnecessary.
By devolving the point of use system to the users’ phone, the IT systems become cheaper to install and supply, as the distributed part of the system, always the most difficult and expensive, is externalised.
In the city centre, cyclists are evident on all roads, although not in large numbers. Certain roads offer a bi-directional cycle lane, placed every few roads, in the grid structure.
Such roads are thereby reduced to one lane each way, with perhaps a single line of parked cars also.
Since wheeled traffic and pedestrians use the same traffic light system, the addition of cyclists does not need additional signaling. However, it is not clear how a cyclist might turn onto or off a cycle lane, nor exactly how pedestrian and cycle traffic interact.
Off-road i.e. non transport oriented cycling is very popular e.g. in Stanley Park, undoubtedly the jewel in Vancouver’s “Green” crown. In fine weather a nearly continuous stream of cyclists is seen, many on rental bikes. This route is one-way only for most its length.
Increasingly, other forms of non-vehicular traffic are seen; these include electric bikes, electric scooters, roller skates, hover-boards etc. Some of these move quite quickly and present new and mostly unexplored issues.
Overall, although there is some visibility of cycling in Vancouver, it seems unlikely that levels are high enough to manifest the well-known safety-in-numbers effect6
Even at a casual glance, it is obvious that Vancouver has got something important “right”, at least compared to other North American cities. This is obviously no accident, and is only so, and will only remain so, if the necessary political will is present.9
The core features of the city and its built, IT and social infrastructure that seem the most important are:
- Frequent and reliable buses and Sky-trains i.e. every 5 – 10 minutes for at least 18 hours of the day
- Dense i.e. high-rise city centre accommodation, where people can live a connected life without needing a car
- A tolerant society, where the less able feel confident to get out and about and use public transport easily, and all users feel safe
- Good Information Technology, in printed material, in display systems, in ticketing, in Apps, in websites
- Cycling is fairly well supported, although not yet all that popular
- Diverse use culture e.g. a) cash is rarely used but is still acceptable b) having a Smartphone and being able to use it confidently is an integral part of most peoples’ use of public transport, but is not essential to use the services c) Lifts, ramps and / or low-floor buses are available for the less physically able
- It is obvious that there are fewer cars than are seen in other car dependent jurisdictions, both parked on-street and in motion; were this not so, it is doubtful that Vancouver would be as successful as it is
- From a European perspective, four lane roads would generally be seen as undesirable in a city centre; Vancouver seem to have made this work quite well, apparently by a combination of limited on-street parking, frequent buses, frequent on-street cafe spaces and periodic cycle lanes
- Anecdotally, the city “feels” reasonably safe; not that streets are quiet, more that noise and activity seem harmless
- This short paper was based only on a brief visit; there is clearly scope for further investigation
- City of Vancouver transport portal: https://vancouver.ca/streets-transportation.aspx
- Revisiting car dependency: A worldwide analysis of car travel in global metropolitan areas, Pedram Saeidizanda / Koos Fransenb / Kobe Boussauwb, Elsevier, Volume 120, January 2022, 103467
- All public transport in Vancouver is managed by: https://www.translink.ca/
- Transit Design Manual: https://www.bctransit.com/documents/1507213895398 – 2.1
- Bus transit modernisation: https://www.kiepe-electric.at/electric-buses/trolleybuses/references/vancouver-canada
- Safety-in-numbers: An updated meta-analysis of estimates, Rune Elvika / Rahul Goelb, Elsevier, 2019
- City of Vancouver: https://vancouver.ca/streets-transportation/biking.aspx
- Vancouver Cycle Campaign Group: https://bikehub.ca/
- Environmental determinants of cycling, Samuel Nello-Deakin, Elsevier, 2020