Those Who Do Not Read Transit History…………….

A more grist for the mill.

There is a belief in North America that subways are the great panacea for urban transit.

This poses a question, what is exactly meant as a subway in North America?

Generally, the term subway is used to denote heavy or light metro traveling in a tunnel under the city, with stops every km or so apart.

This is both very expensive and not user-friendly.

Today, in Europe, subways are only considered if traffic flows on a transit (tram) route exceed 20,000 persons per hour per direction. It is the last resort in catering to transit customers.

Last resort?

Yes, because Europe had a post war subway craze, especially in Germany, where it was though subways were the answer to congestion and provide bomb shelters in case of war.

Problems arose, including the high costs of subway construction, which meant smaller transit networks and studies showed that a subway would become a vast “charnel house” in a nuclear war.

Then the mid life rehabs happened, bankrupting many local transit authorities that opted for subways, which in turn degrade transit services.

Metro Vancouver taxpayers are being kept in the dark with the Expo and millennium Line’s mid life rehabs as the signalling, electrical and track rehabs will cost over $4 billion. Not to mention the replacement of the ALRT cars with ART/MALM cars costing $717.5 million.

Added to the $2.7 billion subway under Broadway and the $4.1 billion Expo Line extension to Langley (and let us not forget the $500 to $1 billion Operations and Maintenance Centre #5) the real cost to the taxpayer to extend the SkyTrain Light Metro line a mere 21.7 km is a staggering $12 billion+!

Why does America have such terrible transit?

Simple answer is, the politicians what gold plated transit systems costing billions of dollars more to build than cheaper, yet more effected transit options. The result: it is too expensive to build a full network, making the very expensive ‘rapid transit’ line to cumbersome to use.

Soon, politicians and planners on this side of the pond will soon discover the lessons of bloated, over built transit projects, that were taught to  their European counterparts 40 years ago.

Those who do not read transit history are doomed to repeat the very same expensive mistakes.


‘Unique in the world’: why does America have such terrible public transit?

A new book looks back at the mass transit histories of 23 major cities in both the US and Canada, detailing the routes to where we are today

Tue 14 Nov 2023

Last modified on Tue 14 Nov 2023 18.01 GMT

“North America really is unique in the world in the lack of good public transit,” the author Jake Berman told me while discussing his new book, The Lost Subways of North America. The oversize, map-laden volume is a slickly designed deep dive into the mass transit stories of 23 major cities in the US and Canada. Packed with fascinating histories and tons of absorbing information – ever wonder why elevated trains went out of style, or why monorails just don’t work? – the book is a lively and compelling examination of how mass transit has succeeded and failed across the continent.

A lone commuter rides a normally packed, San Francisco-bound Bay Area Rapid Transit (Bart) train in 2020. The subway and overground train service has struggled to rebound to pre-pandemic levels, prompting fears of a financial death spiral.
The last stop: what happens when a US city’s subway starts to die?

“European cities never decided to build the kind of copy-and-paste suburbs that we built in North America,” said Berman, explaining why transit has fared so much better across the Atlantic. “The other part of that is, American cities do not make particularly good use of the land near their transit systems. For instance, many stops on [the Bay Area’s Bay Area Rapid Transit] Bart is surrounded mostly by strip malls, or single-family homes or gigantic parking lots.”

While talking with Berman, the misuse of land around transit hubs was a recurrent topic, a common pitfall that undermined the design of subways, light rail and streetcars in many major cities. In one of multiple examples, Berman shared that Dallas’s many miles of light rail doesn’t necessary equal a valuable transit system. “It’s crazy to think that Dallas has about as many miles of rail as Barcelona,” he told me. “The difference is, there’s not a whole lot near Dallas’s rail stations, whereas in Barcelona there’s apartments, there’s stores, there’s businesses, there’s churches – basically everything that you need for daily life.”

Surprising winners emerged from Berman’s research for Lost Subways of North America. While Dallas may conform to stereotypes about gas-guzzling Texans and their lack of good mass transit, the neighboring city of Houston proved to be one of the locations that is doing transit right. As Berman explains, Houston’s light rail within the city’s core took advantage of reforms in laws reducing mandatory parking lots and increasing housing density – the result is that transit in the city’s core functions far better than similar light rail in places like Dallas and Los Angeles, which don’t give access to major infrastructure and employment hubs, and which don’t supply adequate housing.

Metrorail train with Houston skyline


Metrorail train with Houston skyline. Photograph: Stephen Finn/Alamy

In addition to commenting on contemporary situations, Berman’s book is also a rewarding look into the history that informs our contemporary transit mess. For instance, he does an apt job of retelling the oft-told defeat of Los Angeles’s streetcar system by freeway – including a strange moment in which an LA monorail almost took hold. This retelling makes for the perfect prologue to Berman’s discussion of LA’s decades-long pursuit of a viable light rail system, which continues to this day. The idea of such a venture took hold because of a rivalry with San Francisco’s Bart in the 1960s. “It really is an interesting thing seeing how municipal rivalries played out in the transit space,” he said. “LA put a subway system on the ballot in 68 because the Bay Area had approved Bart six years prior.”

LA’s light rail would remain a dream for decades, but eventually that city did come to develop about 110 miles of track (favorably comparing to the Bart’s current 131 miles). Unfortunately, Berman laments that all those Southland metro miles are for naught, as the city still conceives of itself as “a horizontal city, not a vertical one”. With the failure of LA to pursue high-rise housing developments around metro hubs, Berman argues the city’s mass transit system will remain unsuccessful.

While LA is widely talked about as a mass transit hard case, lesser known is Berman’s treatment of Rochester, New York, at 211,000 inhabitants the “smallest city to ever build a subway” and “the only city in the world to build and operate a full-blown subway system, then abandon it entirely”. Completed in 1927, the problem with Rochester’s subway was that, in the words of a city newspaper, “it starts nowhere and goes nowhere”. After some successful years, the system fell into insolvency after the second world war, eventually entering a ridership death spiral that saw it shut down in 1956, making way for freeways.

Whether it’s Rochester or Los Angeles, Berman argues that making a successful mass transit system isn’t overly complicated, as most successful systems are so for the same reasons. “There’s that line from Anna Karenina,” he said, “all happy families are alike, and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. And the adage definitely applies to transit. There are a whole lot of things that cities with good transit systems do correctly, and most of those things need to come into place for the system to work.” That would include building apartments and businesses around stations, as well as other kinds of amenities that people would be willing to ride transit to reach. “There’s been a sort of forgetting that transit doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” he said.

San Francisco Muni Metro trains sit parked at the Curtis E Green Light Rail Center.
San Francisco Muni Metro trains sit parked at the Curtis E Green Light Rail Center.
Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If there are common factors in mass transit success, there is also at least one common factor in mass transit fails – bureaucracy, which often prevents the creation of transit routes, as well as the creation of the necessary amenities to make said routes thrive. Berman writes that in San Francisco, along the major transit corridor Geary Street, “it took from 2000 to 2011 to replace the bankrupt Coronet Theater with rent-controlled senior apartments … All the while, San Francisco keeps adding more jobs.” Berman argues that the continued creation of jobs throughout the Bay Area – without a similar rise in housing stock – is one of the key drivers of the homelessness crisis.

He contrasts the current failure to create housing in a timely manner to the can-do attitude that originally made San Francisco’s Muni bus system develop many key routes quickly and efficiently. “A lot of what I talk about in the book is related to very deep questions about transit planning and why cities can’t build infrastructure quickly,” Berman said. “The Geary Boulevard subway in San Francisco has been planned since the 1930s. It’s very hard to get things done these days like they could in the old days. When Muni built the Geary Boulevard streetcar in 1912, it took six months to do it. There is a lot to be talked about regarding making the perfect the enemy of the good.”

Although Berman sees much to critique in contemporary transit, he remains hopeful that a book demonstrating everything that was once done right – and those things that still are being done correctly – might inspire a transit turnaround. One of the reasons he wrote Lost Subways of North America is to share his belief that it’s not too late for cities across this continent to get with the program. “I would hope that people have a certain sense of optimism that we were able to do this once and we can do it again. Back in the day it was normal for people to build apartment buildings near train stations. We can do this. Providing perspective of the past is what I hope to give to the reader.”

  • The Lost Subways of North America is out now


4 Responses to “Those Who Do Not Read Transit History…………….”
  1. The high cost of subways precipitated the Subways-and-Towers urbanism. I can’t speak for Germany, but the Elizabeth Line in London is responsible for the sudden burst of towers littering the skyline of what was once the pristine Georgian townscape.

    In Paris, one would hasten to add, the subways came after the Napoleon-Haussmann maisonettes redefined the character of that city, while pumping most of the wealth to the 1% of the population who were ardent supports of the Napoleon III regime (c 1845 and 1871). The subways were built later, and the fact that they could be ‘cut-and-cover’ construction under the Boulevards, meant costs could be kept in check. Furthermore, there was little disruption to movement on the surface. The boulevards have center lanes separated by treed medians from ‘contra-allées’ or side lanes. Thus, construction crews could pick from three different places for digging their trenches, etc.

    By far the poster child in all of Towers-and-Subways urbanism is Manhattan. NYC opened its first subway in the first decade of the 20th century, hardwiring City Hall to Wall Street… Just let the poetry of that plan float in our collective imaginations for a minute… At the City Hall Station… government… At the Wall Street Station… some of the biggest banking and brokerage firms in the world.

    You can almost feel the ooze riding the trains to grease government’s hands. Then heading back to the office filled with good news.

    The Woolworth Building and the City Annex Building count among the first skyscrapers in Manhattan—and the world. Both built at the City Hall station, both hugely larger than anyone expected. The Woolworth building added floors three times during construction. One expects there would have been a fourth increment of new storeys added, except the bearing of foundations might have been exceeded. It was rank capitalism any way you measure it. The Woolworth five and dime international retail empire was run out of 1.5 stories in the tall tower. The rest were built for rental income. Now, the tower has undergone a multi-million dollar renovation to rent condos. Just like the Hydro building in our downtown.

    The tower game is ‘land lift’. If you can build 40-times more space in the same parcel, even if government takes away a lions share, it is still worth it when you consider generating rental income in perpetuity.

    I remember all the woes about the costs of the Elizabeth line in London. Seeing documentaries revealing the technical headaches and geological hick-ups encountered along the way. Then… suddenly, without any discussion… I started seeing images of towers sprouting up in London. They even have their ‘bunker busting bomb’, the Gerking office tower— in fact shaped like a bomb, rather than a Gerking or pickle—as the first tower to go up in the City.

    And that is the pickle we are in. The Skytrain, our ‘subway’, is 13-times more expensive to build than Streetcar|LRT, operating on grade, where it will not block views to the mountains and the sky.

    The system that was demonstrated here at the 2010 Olympics, and was purchased by Kitchener-Waterloo and Edmonton, costs 13-times less to build per km than the Broadway tunnel. Yet it will carry double the passenger capacity of the biggest Skytrain trains.

    Part of the reason for building towers, then, is for government to extract revenues from the tower buildings in a mad game of trying to recover the costs of an over-the-moon expensive Skytrain.

    They could do just as well with human scale prouct (bungalows, row houses, courtyard houses, and walk-ups) building in tramtowns along Olympic Tram lines.

    But governments are too lazy to work out the details. It’s just easer to sell condos on the global markets to pay for the needlessly costly Skytrain, consequences (like the housing crisis) be damned.

  2. Major Hoople says:

    On our side of the pond the lessons of U-Bahn were stark, most cities could not afford them.

    Built with generous federal government subsidies, many became classic white elephants, eating all the money needed for transit expansion.

    It was, in 1980, almost a universal plan that all Strassbahnen, trams, would be gone from Germany by the year 2,000, except for Stadtbahn lines.

    Today there are around 60 cities with tram/stadtbahn lines and this number will increase. This is not to say that no subways will be built, but the financial realities of the tram, makes it the primary urban transport choice.

    In North America, your streets are paved with gold as are your rapid transit systems, but with continued dark skies and storms from the east, we believe many of your gold plated transit is more of fools gold than anything else.

  3. legoman0320 says:

    I read the book The lost Subways of North America. Those for the history of subways in Canada and the USA.

    1. Mostly before World War 2, there was a need for transit.

    2 Mobile shift from transit to personal automobiles.

    3 Cities and jurisdictions regulated zoning Laws. Hampering the developers and builders of new houses.

    4 transit remained owned by the city or disappeared.

    Writer at the book does put it on opinion on the cities outlook.

    new $110 million SkyTrain control centre
    OMC 4 is approximately $300 million?

    MK 5 $1.47 billion
    95 new SkyTrain cars allowing for a phased retirement of our first-generation MKI vehicles, which entered service in 1985.
    110 new SkyTrain cars will improve capacity on the Expo and Millennium Lines, and help support expansion for the Broadway Subway.
    An option for additional cars to support Surrey Langley SkyTrain.
    After passing all their testing, you might see some of the cars in service in 2024, with the full fleet on our system by late 2028.
    2023 New Capital Program ($ thousands)
    BCRTC Rail Switch Machines and Turnout Replacement Program (2023‐ 2025)
    Replace 170 existing switch machines and 24 Turnouts/Track switches that are past their useful service life over the span of the next three years (2023‐2025) $ 24,830
    Expo Line Linear Induction Motors (LIM) Rail Replacement $ 6,212
    Operations and Maintenance Centre (OMC) 1 ‐ Space Optimization Design and Early Works $ 1,024
    OMC 1 Yard Track Reconditioning Remaining Switches and Power Rail Design
    Phase 2 of the PTC BEB infrastructure project. This project is to provide electrical infrastructure at PTC to support up to 79 BEBs. $14,997
    Skytrain Roof Asset Renewal Program
    Detailed design for roof replacement at Brentwood Transit Centre and implementation services for 2023 roof replacement at Holdom Station, Lougheed TC Sub Station and Sperling‐ Burnaby Lake Station. $1,370
    Operations and Maintenance Center (OMC) 5 Project Development
    A new OMC 5 will be designed to support operations of the Surrey Langley SkyTrain extension and provide long‐term train storage and maintenance capacity for the Expo and Millennium Line network. $42,233
    SkyTrain Station Power Capacity ‐ Phase Two $7,140
    Waterfront Station Power Systems Upgrade
    Upgrade power system core capacity from 400 KVA to 750 KVA.$2,617
    Automatic Train Control (ATC) Existing Equipment Replacement Program $14,663
    Expo Line Traction Power Equipment Upgrade ‐ Phase 2
    Design and install alternating current and direct current for 4 substations on the Expo Line substation traction power equipment. $18,486
    SkyTrain Advanced Radio (STARS) System ‐ Phase 3
    Replace the existing SkyTrain vehicle radio system to maintain a state of good repair as the current vehicle radio system is end‐of‐life and operating with degraded functionality. $22,000

    Some of the BCRTC Infrastructure projects going on or completed. Transformers and the power system have Improved to meet the capacity always needed. Electricity supply is now ready for the MK 5. Quality of life or replacements have been done on an on time basis. Other projects I did not mention due to them either not being completed this year or at/Under $1000.
    MK2 MK3 MK5 Not compatible to each other. Do to LIM and Motor Control computer. Intergenerational communication between the MK.
    Cheaper to keep them in the Separate conscious.
    Rails are currently being replaced.
    New ATC Control room includes redoing the fiber optic Line, capacity for new lines and extensions in the future.
    Station upgrades are been put on hold until prices are reasonable.

  4. zweisystem says:

    The following is laughable. I think the real costs are in the 100’s of millions.

    A new OMC 5 will be designed to support operations of the Surrey Langley SkyTrain extension and provide long‐term train storage and maintenance capacity for the Expo and Millennium Line network. $42,233
    SkyTrain Station Power Capacity ‐ Phase Two $7,140
    Waterfront Station Power Systems Upgrade
    Upgrade power system core capacity from 400 KVA to 750 KVA.$2,617
    Automatic Train Control (ATC) Existing Equipment Replacement Program $14,663
    Expo Line Traction Power Equipment Upgrade ‐ Phase 2
    Design and install alternating current and direct current for 4 substations on the Expo Line substation traction power equipment. $18,486
    SkyTrain Advanced Radio (STARS) System ‐ Phase 3
    Replace the existing SkyTrain vehicle radio system to maintain a state of good repair as the current vehicle radio system is end‐of‐life and operating with degraded functionality. $22,000

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