Posts Tagged 'metro vancouver'

Sooner or later: Cost disease and Canadian transit.

Back in 2015, in the wake of Metro Vancouver’s failed referendum campaign for a 0.5% sales tax to fund an ambitious list of regional transit upgrades, I argued that the big-ticket items on the list should be scaled back or postponed while we focussed our limited dollars on improving bus service. Subways and LRTs are great, I said, but a couple big rail projects will eat up all the money we could instead use to make the whole network faster, less crowded, and more enticing to commuters.

I still think my argument makes sense. I occasionally take the bus during rush hour, and I seethe at being stuck behind lines of idling cars when I can see how a simple bypass lane, costing a paltry few million bucks, would save thousands of straphangers five or ten minutes out of their commute each way, every day. Many roads wouldn’t even have to be widened – simply sacrificing a few on-street parking spots would do the trick. There must be dozens of such chokepoints around the region, and they could all be unchoked for a fraction of the cost of putting a subway down Broadway. Though I’d like us to build the subway too.

But a post last month on Slate Star Codex – Scott Alexander’s estimable blog, to which I lately find myself linking with unseemly frequency (see here and here) – makes me wonder if my sensible, fiscally-prudent argument was in fact completely wrong.

Alexander discusses something called Baumol’s cost disease, a phenomenon in economics where increasing efficiency in one industry counterintuitively leads to increasing costs in an entirely unrelated industry.

Suppose new manufacturing methods save an auto plant part of the cost of building a car. Profits rise, allowing the company to boost its workers’ wages by a couple bucks an hour. Meanwhile the meat processing facility across town hasn’t seen any improvement in productivity, but if they don’t offer an equivalent wage hike they’ll lose their best workers to the auto plant. They pass the higher costs along to their customers, and suddenly the price of meat goes up because the cost of manufacturing cars has gone down.

That’s Baumol’s version of cost disease, anyway. Alexander wonders whether it’s a sufficient explanation for the perpetually increasing costs in four different sectors of the U.S. economy – education, health care, housing, and public transportation infrastructure. Even after adjusting for inflation, costs in these four sectors have gone up in my lifetime by factors of two, five, even ten, without commensurate improvements in outcomes. Life expectancy is flat. University grads are as semiliterate as ever. Apartments aren’t appreciably nicer. And subway tunnels are pretty much the same as the ones our forefathers dug for a fraction of the cost.

Alexander is American, and in his brief section addressing ever-pricier subway construction he restricts himself to American data. In fact one of the questions he asks is why the U.S. seems to be more susceptible to cost disease than other countries. So my first question was – does this disease afflict Canadian public transportation infrastructure as well?

Let’s look at the costs – adjusted for inflation – for a half-century’s worth of rapid transit projects in the two big cities I know reasonably well, Vancouver and Toronto:

toronto subway costs

vancouver skytrain costs

(Click on images for data and sources.)

Some caveats and observations:

  • With so few data points to work with, the trendlines are susceptible to being skewed by one or two pricey outliers, like Toronto’s bonkers Line 1 extension to Vaughan.
  • Reported final costs are questionable, since governments tend to find ways to obscure overruns. Vancouver’s 2016 Evergreen extension, for instance, is known to have blown past its budget, but we’ve been assured that the unanticipated costs will be eaten by the contractor. The true cost, therefore, is higher than the figure shown.
  • The graphs are to the same scale, but the cities’ rapid transit systems shouldn’t be compared directly since they use totally different technologies. Vancouver’s light, high-frequency, mostly-elevated SkyTrain permits smaller stations and (for the 20% or so of the system that’s underground) narrower, cheaper-to-build tunnels than Toronto’s heavy-rail subway. (I’ve left Toronto’s SkyTrain-like Scarborough RT and under-construction Eglinton light-rail project out of the analysis for this reason.)
  • Even within each city, these aren’t apples-to-apples. In the Toronto graph there are visible discontinuities between the early cut-and-cover subways in the city core, with stops every 500-600 metres and relatively low per-station costs; the 1970s extensions into suburbia, often at surface level and with fewer, more widely-spaced stops; and more recent bored tunnels where the costs shoot into the stratosphere.

In any case, both graphs show a discernible upward tick since the 1990s or so, suggesting that cost disease may indeed have spread to Canada. But if so, what are the causes?

The libertarianish Megan McArdle waves away Alexander’s data on the rising cost of subways as merely “union featherbedding combined with increasingly dysfunctional procurement and regulatory processes”. Maybe those are worsening the problem – I don’t know enough to comment – but off the top of my head I can think of four other possible contributing factors:

1. The cost of land acquisition goes up at a rate faster than inflation (because they keep making people but they aren’t making more land).

2. The ground beneath and alongside city streets is ever more crowded with pipes, cables, parking structures, and so on, which must either be relocated or awkwardly worked around.

3. An increased emphasis on worker and bystander safety slows and complicates construction. (Some of this probably falls under the definition of “union featherbedding” as mentioned by McArdle.)

4. Projects now include the expenses of mitigating environmental damage, preserving historic neighbourhoods, averting noise pollution, accommodating the handicapped – all that touchy-feely stuff previous generations didn’t give a rip about.

Doubtless there are other causes I haven’t thought of, but I’ll stop at those four because they pair off neatly into two groups I’d like to examine a little more closely. When you think about it, all four are side effects of growing wealth:

  • Causes 1 and 2 – the rising cost of land and the build-up of clutter along possible transit routes – accelerate as a city becomes more populous and its taxpayers demand more and better services.
  • Causes 3 and 4 – worker safety and the mitigation of environmental and social externalities – might be thought of as perks, which previous generations were willing to forego in their pursuit of progress but which we in our prosperity don’t mind splashing out on.

I think the “perk factor” actually explains much of the cost disease in the sectors Alexander identifies. As we’ve grown wealthier we’re willing to spend more on things that are orthogonal to the actual missions of health care, education, housing, and public transportation – things like prioritizing the physical and mental well-being of our workforces, or ensuring that their gender and ethnic compositions are representative of the wider population. These perks require added layers of administration that do nothing to improve the outcomes we’re attempting to measure. Those layers aren’t failing – they’re doing what they’re meant to do – but those things aren’t captured in graphs like the ones in this post.

As a taxpayer I suspect we could afford to do without much of this extra padding. But I don’t want construction workers risking their necks, or rivers recklessly diverted, or noisy trains rattling people’s cupboards, just to save a few bucks. I know next to nothing about health care or university administration or housing construction, but I suppose the people who are familiar with those matters have equally strong objections to cutting what may strike me as frivolous perks.

In any case, sticking to transit infrastructure, there’s no reason to suppose we’re likely to care less about safety, or the environment, or architectural heritage in the future. In fact those concerns will almost certainly grow, making construction ever less affordable.

To return to causes 1 and 2 – land costs and infrastructure clutter – it should be possible to mitigate cost disease through better planning – say, through more farsighted property acquisition, and coordinating with other agencies to ensure that future transit corridors aren’t obstructed. But I assume we’re already trying to do those things, and my suggestion of “Okay, well, just do them better” is not too helpful.

Sooner, or later?

One way to avert cost disease might be by preemptive surgery – building rapid transit today, at today’s comparatively reasonable prices, in anticipation of tomorrow’s needs. Metro Vancouver’s overall outline is pretty well established by geographic barriers like mountains and rivers, and more recently by the imposition of an urban containment boundary meant to preserve nearby farmland.

metro vancouver urban containment boundary

Source: Metro Vancouver. (Click for original.)

Therefore we can assume that the Vancouver of the future will be much the same shape as the Vancouver of today, only a lot denser. We should be able to predict with fair accuracy where future demand for transit will lie, and build in anticipation of that demand.

However, of the four causes of cost disease mentioned above, preemptive surgery really only targets the first one – rising land costs. It sidesteps the cost of infrastructure clutter only by transferring that cost to future generations who will have to spend more to build around the clutter we create today. And while it might seem thrifty to thwart the next generation’s opportunity to waste money on what we consider silly perks – by using construction methods that they’ll see as barbarously unsafe, maybe, or by bulldozing some architectural monstrosity before it’s declared a heritage monument – who are we to say what the future’s priorities should be?

I’m grateful for much of the infrastructure earlier generations of headstrong builders bequeathed me, but I wish they’d been more cautious about what they smashed in the process – like the whole blocks of Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood destroyed in the sixties to make room for the Georgia viaducts, which planners are now preparing to remove. Building preemptively means we risk building unnecessarily, as the future evolves new habits of getting around that we can’t anticipate.

Still, being made aware of cost disease has tipped me in favour of building rapid transit now, while it’s still barely affordable, rather than putting it off as demand grows and grows. Spending sooner rather than later may actually be the sensible, fiscally-prudent thing to do.


Planners versus riders: Metro Vancouver transit after the referendum.

So the results are in from Metro Vancouver’s recent mail-in transit referendum. (Technically a plebiscite, but I’m fuzzy on the distinction.)

The issue on the ballot was a proposed 0.5% sales tax hike to help pay for the so-called Mayors’ Plan, a raft of regional transportation improvements. Specifically:

  1. A tunneled extension of the Skytrain rapid rail line through the busiest stretch of Vancouver’s Broadway corridor;
  2. Two new LRT lines in the fast-growing suburb of Surrey;
  3. A replacement for the past-its-expected-lifespan Patullo bridge between New Westminster and Surrey;
  4. 11 new “B-Line” high-frequency express bus routes;
  5. More trains for Skytrain, more sailings for the Seabus to North Vancouver, more buses, more late-night service – just more transit in general;
  6. Improvements to cycle and walking paths throughout the region.
metro vancouver transit map mayors plan

The Mayors’ Plan.

To the surprise of approximately no-one, the Mayors’ Plan was roundly rejected, by majorities ranging from about 51-49% in Vancouver proper up to 75% in the more distant exurbs.

I voted Yes, as the proposal would have benefited me personally: I take transit regularly, and spend very little, so I would have enjoyed the improved service while barely feeling the pain of higher taxes. However, I sympathize with No voters who objected to that extra fraction on their sales tax on top of the already staggering cost of living in the Lower Mainland.

Since voting ended, the federal government has announced a substantial new fund to support large transit infrastructure projects, and both Surrey and Vancouver have pledged to look into this and other means of achieving their respective rail ambitions. Which means a very possible outcome is that in a decade or so we’ll end up with items 1, 2, and 3 from the list above, but none of the small-beer improvements that would actually have made getting around the region more efficient in the short term.

metro vancouver mayors plan rail proposals

The Mayors’ Plan, big-beer version.

This is a little annoying to me, because although the Broadway subway and Surrey LRT are worthy projects, and the new bridge is probably a necessity, they’re going to suck up all the funds we could have used to make less flashy but far more useful upgrades.

Problem: Rapid transit doesn’t take you to places you want to go.

Transit serves two very different purposes, and it’s easy to forget that they are actually in conflict. The first purpose, the one riders prioritize, is to take you to places you want to go. To your home, your job, your school, a bar, a doctor.

The second purpose is to shape growth – to redirect investment and development to underdeveloped areas – to remake the city. Which is why cities are constantly building rail lines to precisely the places riders don’t want to go. Where there are no homes, no jobs, no schools, no bars, no doctors. Not yet, anyway.

Ideally there should be a balance between serving the first purpose and the second; between the short-term needs of riders, and the long-term goals of city planners. But the planners tend to win out, because they have a pretty strong argument on their side: It’s expensive to build where stuff already is. It’s cheap to build where there’s nothing.

So you wind up with a project like the Skytrain’s Millennium Line, which at the time of its opening in 2002 connected a string of down-at-heels suburban malls and light-industrial zones.

Meanwhile, over a decade later, riders wanting to go to the University of British Columbia, or Stanley Park, or Granville Island, still have to ride the bus.

The two big-ticket transit items in the Mayors’ Plan are a decent balance of short-term and long-term. The Surrey LRT would stop at many a weed-choked lot, but the communities at the extremities of its three arms – Newton, Guildford, and Langley – are already busy, built-up suburban centres. And Vancouver’s Broadway corridor is a thriving business district abutting a dense residential population heavy on renters and students.

The ultimate objective is for the Broadway subway to extend all the way to UBC. Maybe I’ll get to see that before I die, though I wouldn’t bet on it. In the meantime, the plan has the line terminating at Arbutus Street, or not quite halfway.

metro vancouver mayors plan broadway subway

Millennium line subway down Broadway.

Which means that, barring other improvements, taking transit to school from the middle part of the corridor – say, the intersection of Broadway and Oak – will actually be slightly less convenient than it is at present. Instead of boarding an overcrowded express bus that takes you all the way to UBC, you’ll have to travel a couple subway stops and then transfer to an overcrowded express bus. Much of the time you save from having bypassed a few dozen blocks of traffic will be eaten up in transferring and waiting.

Let’s forget about the rail proposals for a second and consider only the express bus routes – the B-Lines – laid out in the Mayors’ Plan.

Metro Vancouver transit map - Mayors' Plan - proposed B-Lines

The Mayors’ Plan, small-beer only.

Absent the subway, the existing Broadway B-Line would remain in operation, but be supplemented by another one along 41st Avenue, creating a more direct route to UBC for students coming from the south and southeast, and alleviating the ridiculous congestion on Broadway.

Two new routes would head east out of downtown Vancouver, helping to relieve the overcrowded Expo/Millennium Line. Another would lead up through the West End and Stanley Park to the North Shore.

What’s missing is an all-day express route directly linking downtown and UBC via the Burrard Bridge and 4th Avenue West, to take further pressure off the Broadway B-Line. [1]

metro vancouver mayors plan b-lines

Proposed B-Lines – with my suggestion (green).

Simon Fraser University, Capilano University, and BCIT would all enjoy all-day express service under the plan. So would Burnaby Heights, Kerrisdale, Hastings Park, Park Royal, White Rock…all places people either already live or might actually want to go.

The initial capital cost for all eleven proposed B-Lines would be a shade under $100 million. On top of that the plan proposes $193 million in “transit priority” upgrades – things like queue-jumper lanes and traffic signal priority for buses. That’s $300 million, total – or about 1/6th of the cost of the Broadway subway.

And unlike the subway, we could be enjoying at least some of these improvements immediately.

Problem: Buses are the worst.

It’s strange, but some folks out in the suburbs aren’t too keen on getting around by bus. Why could this be?

  1. Waiting like a schmuck in the rain or in the sun.
  2. Time listed in the schedule is only an approximation. Did I miss it? Should I just start walking?
  3. Inscrutable notice tacked to bus stop seems to be saying on certain days I have to wait at a different stop two blocks away.
  4. Not sure how to use unfamiliar payment system, driver vaguely hostile when I make a mistake.
  5. Nowhere to sit. Packed shoulder to shoulder with the plebes, swinging from a strap, broiling in summer heat.
  6. Bus stuck in rush hour traffic along with all the idiots in their cars. At least those idiots have air conditioning.
  7. Never been on this route before, not sure when to pull the cord.
  8. Shouldn’t we be turning here? Am I even on the right bus? [2]

Some of these drawbacks are shared by trains. You’re as likely taking a train to be confused at first by the payment system. You’re as likely to be wedged in between a wheelchair and a sweaty hiker’s backpack (although at least on a train the aisle is wider and the ride smoother). There’s still a chance of getting on the wrong train, though the maps conveniently placed above the doors, and the big signs on the wall when you pull into a station, make it easier to recognize when you’ve made a mistake.

It seems to me the main advantages of taking the train are that your waiting area is sheltered from the elements, your route will be clearly mapped and easy to follow, and – of course – the speed and frequency of service.

City planners, with their emphasis on long-term goals over short-term needs, will say: People hate to take the bus. Let’s build new rail lines and attract those people.

Whereas an emphasis on currently existing riders would say: People hate to take the bus. Let’s make the bus-taking experience better.

Let’s build clearly-marked, well-lit, fully-covered platforms instead of rinkydink shelters. Let’s have an electronic timer counting down the minutes till the next departure. Let’s put the payment system at the entrance to the platform so passengers can board the bus itself more smoothly. Let’s have dedicated bus lanes so those who elect to leave their cars at home actually enjoy a time advantage over drivers of single occupant vehicles. Most importantly, let’s have more and more frequent buses.

The best thing about this strategy is that the cost-savings advantage swings from planners to riders.

If we tripled the $300 million B-Line investments described in the Mayor’s Plan, we could make getting around by bus almost as attractive as taking the train. And it would still cost only half as much as a new rail line. [3]

Specific suggestions for Metro Vancouver in the wake of the plebiscite’s defeat.

I’m not saying let’s not build rail lines. I love rail lines. They’re fast, they move a lot of people, and yes – they attract a lot of new riders to the system. Rail is worth building – when you can afford it.

But if we have to pick and choose which improvements we can afford to make right now, maybe let’s put a little more emphasis on the needs of existing transit riders than the needs of the possible future riders of 2040.

If there are federal infrastructure funds available, instead of blowing them on a couple big rail projects, use them to build platforms and dedicated lanes for express buses. [4] They’re not very glamourous but they’ll get people moving.

Start with the B-Lines proposed in the Mayors’ Plan. Maybe we don’t do all of them right away – I’m not sure we need two separate express buses trundling along Marine Drive in North Vancouver, as the plan proposes. Maybe for now we focus on the most congested corridors.

If there’s a little money left over, get to work on extending the Millennium Line as far as the new Emily Carr University campus scheduled to open in 2017. Then, stop.

Pause to think about whether it’s worthwhile to continue tunneling on down Broadway. Maybe it would make more sense, and be less expensive, to close the gap between the Millennium and Canada Lines by building along 1st Avenue, the old rail corridor, to Olympic Village Station.

Vancouver Skytrain - Millennium Line extension options

Millennium Line extension options.

Maybe a system of east-west express buses down, say, 4th, Broadway, and 41st could do the job of keeping students flowing to and from UBC while relieving congestion on Broadway.

If we choose trains over express buses, I can live with that too. I’m sure I’ll enjoy riding the Broadway subway in 2025 or so. On my not-too-frequent trips out to Guildford, I’ll happily take the LRT.

But when I go to Stanley Park? I’ll drive.


1. My proposed 4th Avenue B-Line would be a slight augmentation of the existing 44 express, which already runs every 10 minutes at peak times on weekdays.

2. Recent technological improvements have made the bus-taking experience significantly better. TransLink has a website that will tell you based on GPS tracking data when your next bus is due to arrive. Smartphones allow you to follow your progress on a map to make sure you’re going where you think you’re going. And the little digital display at the front of the bus showing the next stop makes riding an unfamiliar route much less stressful.

3. To be fair, the ongoing operating costs for the B-Lines would be quite a bit higher. Operating the 11 new proposed routes would cost about $50 million a year, twice as much as the completed Broadway subway.

4. We’ll also need to put aside some money for new off-street parking lots. This is to appease local business owners when we start taking away street parking for bus lanes.