Springtime thoughts on Seattle, Rhode Island (and Calgary)

Spring break! Woo!

What do I do on spring break? Apparently I travel places and look at their transportation networks.

Amongst other things! Last year I went to Calgary to visit a friend living there for the year (and to go skiing). This year it was Seattle for a cousin’s bat mitzvah, to see friends (and to go skiing). And then I came back to Boston (Thanks to TG for the UG) and spoke at a conference in Rhode Island (where another speaker talked about Seattle). My only regret was not spending the $10 in BART fare to get to the In N Out in Millbrae during my layover there (but I did get BART to call me brilliant). Next time.

In any case, since Yonah came back from Canada tweeting about things, I am going to write up some thoughts in a blog post (old school, I know).


I visited friends last year in Calgary, because they were only there for a year. After a day at Canmore and Lake Louise (Advice: “remember that you’re skiing and to look away from the amazing view every so often.”) I browsed my way around the city itself (after visiting November Project, of course), particularly interested in how a relatively new city in the Texas of Canada has such high transit use. It helps to have no downtown freeways and a progressive parking fee scheme (and high parking prices), and bus service which has grown along with the C-Train. (Much detailed here, by Yonah.) The C-Train is the stand-out service, carrying more than 300,000 passengers daily, with the routes converging on a single, at-grade segment downtown.

Outside of the city, the trains run in highway medians and rights-of-way with full signal priority, but downtown they don’t. With level boarding and four-car trains, the trains are able to move in sync one light cycle every stop, allowing 30 trips per hour per direction, carrying 24,000 passengers. Each four-car light rail train carries as many passengers as an eight-car L train in Chicago, and after 35 years, the system has reached capacity. A third line is planned to be built in a subway under the city (Edmonton’s also-successful light rail uses a subway downtown).


One bus came two minutes before
it departed … but these arrival signs
sure are nice!

Before going to Seattle proper, I found myself in Bellingham for a cousin’s bat mitzvah. While I didn’t have the chance to ride the local transit network, I did note that it had a 15-minute network, not bad for a town with under 100,000 people (albeit many of them college students). Then it was off to the main event. The only city in the US to grow transit ridership in the last year. The 206. Seattle.

What has Seattle done right? They invest in transit, most recently voting on a 20-year, $50 billion package to expand to build 110 miles of light rail which will carry 600,000 passengers, building a system that may carry as many passengers daily as the CTA, WMATA or MBTA’s rail systems. This isn’t a streetcar (they have one of those too, although it’s dubious how effective it is) but a heavy-duty system where three-car trains match the capacity of bigger-city subway trains. I rode most of the line four times, each including the section along MLK south of downtown where it runs in a center median on a city street. Despite a top speed of only 35 mph, it is given nearly full signal priority: in the trips I took, accounting for 15 miles of travel and 48 grade crossings we only had to stop for a signal twice; the other 96% of the time the train was lined through the crossings at track speed. Imagine what that would do on, say, the B Line in Boston. 

The Link is ready to go north.

Yet Seattle seems to have learned that for a high-capacity, trunk line, grade crossings don’t really make sense, so new lines are mostly in private rights of way. The extension to the University of Washington is in a 3.2 mile, $1.7 billion dollar tunnel which was completed on time and under budget. It dead-ends at the U-Dub for now, but is planned to go further north (there are bizarre garage doors at the end of the platform) and Seattle may run in to the same issue Calgary faces: a single segment of line nearing capacity. But that’s a good problem to have. And Seattle has found a sweet spot and is building tunnels at a cost of about $300 million per track per mile, stations included. At that rate, the North South Rail Link in Boston would cost about $4 billion.

So many bus lanes!

But it’s not just heavy construction. I follow Dongho Chang on Twitter (you should too!) to see a constant barrage of bus and bicycling infrastructure in another city. Seattle does overnight things which seem to take years in Boston. I’m sure it’s more complex than that, but Seattle is a fast growing city which seems to be planning for the future, not one ignoring growth until it’s too late. What does this get you? Bus lanes seemingly anywhere there’s a long traffic queue to jump by. As I’d coincidentally learn in Providence, an investment by the city in transit such that the number of people living within a 10-minute walk of a bus which comes at least every 10 minutes will rise from 25% to 72%. And this in a city barely half as dense as Boston, Cambridge and Somerville. But when the buses aren’t always overcrowded and/or slow, and when they have priority lanes to get them by traffic queues, people use them. The light rail is nice, but most Seattle commuters ride the bus.

See, adding a protected bikeway isn’t that hard.

Are all the roads wide enough there’s plenty of room for bikes and transit? Hardly. The roads are no wider than many of the main streets in Boston. Spring Street a road with parking, a bike lane, two lanes of traffic, and a bus lane. It used to look like most roads in Boston (Beacon, Tremont, etc): three lanes of traffic and two parking lanes. Now: two lanes of traffic, a bike lane and a bus lane. Bike lanes get real protection. It’s not rocket science: if you make transit fast and biking safe, people will use them. The point is not to abolish the use of cars, but to make other options more competitive.

Then there’s land use. Seattle is not a very dense city, but it’s growing quickly. From 1980 to now, Boston has grown from 562,000 to 673,000, gaining 20%. Seattle has gone from 494,000 to 704,000, gaining 40%. So the new light rail line? The surrounding area was rezoned. It’s sprouting four-to-six story buildings with reduced parking requirements. Land use, housing and transportation go hand-in-hand. I’m sure what Seattle is doing isn’t perfect, but at least they’re trying.

One thing I did notice were the dockless bike share bikes around town. I’m not sure what to make of the dockless systems: I’m used to Hubway in Boston (although I’ve been using it less and my own bike more, partially because they moved the nearest rack about 50 meters further from my house, which matters for short trips!) and not knowing where a bike might be could be troublesome. I’d also wonder how well the bikes work in a hilly city like Seattle. The jury is still out, it seems, and the ridership numbers aren’t huge given the number of bikes, but the up-front costs are certainly lower, and I’ll remain interested in which model works best there and elsewhere.

Oh, and it has an all-night bus network, too. And this bus driver, who writes this blog. And there goes my evening.

Rhode Island

In Rhode Island, I saw a presentation about Seattle.

I stepped off a plane in Boston and got on a train 9 hours later to Rhode Island to be a panelist talking about regional rail in the, well, the region. I traded $4 for an hour of sleep and took Amtrak down and then a plodding MBTA train back, illustrating how messed up the Providence Line is (big idea: Strava, but for transit). The panel was a good discussion and was well-attended; it’s hard to remember what was said when you’re saying some of it, but I think there is still a lot for people to learn about how the rail network works (and doesn’t work) in the region. I did get to poll the audience and as usual, they underestimated the percentage of people using Commuter Rail to get in to Boston. We talked about level boarding, electrification, and all the things the T really should be doing between Boston and Providence.

Just as interesting was the afternoon panel, and some of the remarks at the start. The governor talked about tearing down the 6-10 Connector and replacing it with bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure after the community said it didn’t want a bigger highway (hear that, MassDOT?). The state also has a transportation master plan that looks like more than the Commonwealth’s laundry list of projects thrown in to a blender and spit out. So, something to learn from our neighbors to the south.

Perhaps we should look north?

What is the best analog for the future of transit in the US? If you ask the ITDP, they point south: Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, countries which have invested heavily in bus rapid transit. It’s a rather curious comparison for a couple of reasons. First, those countries have much lower standards of living than the US does, so that operating costs for high-personnel transportation systems (buses require five to ten times as many drivers as trains) have a lower cost. Another is the streetscapes: many South American cities have Haussmann-style boulevards with plenty of room for BRT systems which are wide enough to support high-capacity systems. We don’t have that in the US. There is also a climate question. Countries with no freeze-thaw cycle can more easily build asphalt and concrete busways and expect them to last, while in the US, they require more preventative maintenance.

So perhaps the best place to look is not to our south, but to our north. That’s right. Canada. Unlike the US, no city in Canada had a pre-war subway system. When demand outstripped street supply, Canadian cities have taken a number of different tacks towards addressing transit needs:

  • Montreal’s looked to Paris and its Metro system is today the third busiest metro system in North America, with more than a million passengers daily, more than all but Mexico City and New York. It’s bus system carries another million and a half passengers.
  • Toronto’s Rapid Transit system also carries more than a million passengers per day, and is supplemented by the city’s extensive surface network, which carries nearly two million more passengers, and Go Transit commuter services, which launched only in the 1960s and carries nearly 300,000 passengers, and is being upgrade to electrified service to provide faster and more frequent trains. All told, Toronto has nearly 3 million daily riders, and TTC’s 73% farebox recovery ratio is the highest of any system in Canada or the US.
  • Ottawa’s OCTranspo carries more than half a million passengers daily, nearly all of them on buses. Many of these buses use mostly-grade-separated transitways and Ottawa is the only city in the ITDP’s database (scoring bronze status). Yet Ottawa is working to convert most of it’s bus rapid transit to light rail. Why? Capacity. The downtown segment, with 100 mostly 60-foot buses per hour, is oversubscribed. Even the ITDP admits it (although their circular logic is that this just points to the success of BRT, although they don’t give any solution for increasing capacity). 
  • Calgary and Edmonton both have light rail systems. Calgary’s is very well patronized, with more than 300,000 daily passengers using a single downtown trunk line, and illustrates that surface-running light rail can far exceed bus capacities in a limited corridor (including double the capacity that the ITDP quotes for light rail). Calgary’s system is now the most heavily-used light rail system in North America (yes, more than the Green Line in Boston) and both systems are expanding.
  • Vancouver hosts Canada’s newest rail system, Skytrain, a “light metro” system which is fully grade-separated but has slightly less capacity than a full metro. Most of Skytrain is above-grade, although several sections are in tunnels as well. Notably, it is fully automated, reducing operation costs further. The city has several very busy bus routes (particularly the 99 to UBC) which are planned to be replaced by Skytrain lines in the future.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) the ITDP hasn’t studied these Canadian systems, because—especially in the case of the newer systems outside of Toronto and Montreal—they don’t fit in to “BRT good light rail bad” narrative. If Ottawa had built light rail like Calgary, they would not have the capacity constraints that are now causing them to build a light rail line instead. Downtown Calgary is booming for a variety of factors, but one is that its light rail line has the capacity to serve the number of commuters necessary to support the dense downtown without highways. It would probably be booming similarly had BRT been build instead, but it’s likely that system would be over capacity and, like Ottawa, would need significant enhancements or a mode change. Montreal had a bus rapid transit line that they’re rebuilding on a peripheral street for US$25m per mile, although costs are ballooning and it’s a lengthy project, and Montreal’s trunk lines are still served by underground rail.

Canadian cities have generally been successful in getting people to commute without driving, much moreso than in the US. Even in the Texas of Canada (Alberta), half the commuters to Downtown Calgary take transit to work (and Calgary does not have many large peripheral office parks; development is focused downtown). Bus rapid transit has worked in Ottawa, but congestion, especially in the downtown area, has caused the system to be replaced with light rail. While the outer portions work with buses, where many routes merge and streets get narrower (and Ottawa has a grid street system downtown with relatively wide roads) it has been overwhelmed.

So, back to Boston, a city which is more similar to Canadian cities than it is to, say, Mexico or Curitiba. Canadian cities have somewhat similar development patterns, highways (Montreal and Toronto both have highways serving downtown and terrible traffic, does that sound similar?) and standards of living. The ITDP chooses analog cities of Cleveland, Mexico City and Belo Horizonte in Brazil. These are examples of cities which have bus rapid transit. I’m just not sure how well they compare to Boston.