September 25, 2020

Does more WAH mean less VMT

Translation: Will the increase in people working at home mean we’ll drive less?

Answer: Apparently not.

Here’s a summary from the terrifically named Center for Advanced Hindsight:

While there may be less commuting, there will be more local trips for shopping and, no doubt, Zoom breaks.

There’s another big implication that’s not mentioned: possibly less congestion during the traditional drive times, but heavier traffic throughout the day.  More accidents too, I’d bet.  And more conflict in how we allocate or reapportion road space.  (In other words, bike lane wars.)

The real-time experiment as a consequence of the pandemic in how we manage our transportation network shouldn’t be wasted.  Minimally we should be measuring and reporting on the day-to-day changes that are occurring out there (as discussed here in “How do we start limiting congestion NOW?“)  and then trying out different options so we don’t lose the gains we’ve made even as we respond to the ‘climate emergency’.

(Of course, ‘climate emergency’ is not a concern of the Park Board apparently, which showed how easy it is to succumb to the desire to go back to ‘just the way it was.’   Even though we never can and never should.)



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  1. I’ve been saying something similar for years, Not that anybody cares, This is not so different than building SkyTrain to Langley about 20 or 30 years too soon.

    As Covid reduces work commutes so is the argument that Langley SkyTrain will do the same. But it will just encourage more people to move way out there where they will drive for everything else. It is not encouraging a real walkable urban core. It is undermining the urban cores trying to evolve around earlier regional town centres. Same old sprawl mentality with a different mode of transportation.

    1. But if Skytrain to Langley leads to sprawl in Langley, does that not also apply to Fraser Highway and the No 1? Thus if we are to pursue of policy of limiting transportation to fight sprawl, ought not the roads be included in that cull? Why must only transit be kneecapped in pursuit of planning goals and not road transport? Until the Fraser Highway and the No 1 are torn up, Skytrain to Langley must be built.

      1. You are comparing tearing up existing infrastructure to overbuilding new infrastructure. I’ve been against the Port Mann/Hw1 expansion since it was first proposed. The Fraser highway does not seem overbuilt (last time I was there) but it should certainly not be expanded.

        If SkyTrain to Langley must be built, then why not to Aldergrove? Chilliwack? Hope?

        There are almost no cities in the entire world that have metro service as sprawled out as SkyTrain to Langley and those two or three are mega-cities. For good reason. If you want to get more people out of cars you’d be better off spending the same money improving the transit network within the area that is already getting denser so more people have more transit options for more trips in places where they are less car-dependent to begin with.

        Our regional town centres are just barely beginning to crawl out of their infancy and now we are kneecapping them in favour of more development sprawling further out. An Oakridge – Metrowtown – Brentwood LRT would be better for transit in the region than a gangly single in to the hinterlands.

        1. I’m not really comparing building versus ripping up so much as comparing before and after. None of these roads are going to be ripped up, so our two possible scenarios are (A) Fraser Highway and the No 1 or (B) Fraser Highway, the No 1 and Skytrain. To my mind, B is obviously superior.

          Skytrain to Langley makes sense because it has a net benefit. Skytrain to Chilliwack would definitely not. There is no slippery slope here.

          It’s true that our metro system is getting more sprawled out but it is not out of line with our peer group. Portland’s Blue Line is 53 km, more than the Expo Line would be to Langley, and Denver has some long lines too. Seattle’s longest line when fully built out will be closer to 100 km. Thus far we have been able to build very high quality transit at the same cost as LRT projects, but that is a good thing. Definitely a feature and not a bug. Our high quality rapid transit has really improved our bus system by driving ridership and making bus routes more efficient. It’s true that there are core areas that could have better bus service, and that would lead to better bus ridership, but I don’t see many areas where that would be huge save for a few. Most improvements would involve speeding buses up as much as adding more of them.

          Extending transit is hardly kneecapping anything. Some of our regional town centres are struggling, but for very obvious reasons. They are malls surrounded by a few bland condo towers without much going for them. Not enough consideration has been put into good urban design. Brentwood is classically bad, although it might be turning the corner. It would have been a better idea for some of the town centres to pick some themes and try to differentiate themselves from the others. Surrey Centre and Metrotown made a play for Class A tenants from downtown, but that wasn’t realistic. They really should have thought about different style of commercial operations. Metrotown needs a style of development for workshops and light industrial that is in more of an urban type probably with residential on top. Kingsway and Imperial has many of these types of car shops and tyre dealers that could be made much more urban if Burnaby developed and permitted a building type that fulfilled those functions. But there is nothing in all of this that suggests that bringing in a rapid transit alternative to driving is going to harm them. And for Surrey Central, it is going to be a boon. Make it much more like Metrotown in desirability rather than the end of the line.

          1. You can twist any numbers to show a net benefit for SkyTrain to Langley. The truth is their projected ridership is really really low for such an expensive piece of infrastructure.

            More to come…

          2. Brentwood is what Metrotown was 25 years ago. Metrotown finally has a real urban plan in the works that is more than towers growing out of a mall and Brentwood will eventually do the same. But they will both suffer from reduced development potential if a lot of that potential is moved out to Langley instead. A SkyTrain to Langley isn’t pulling people from the Valley inward, it is drawing people from the inner region outward. It takes half a century or more to create a truly urban regional town centre and Langley SkyTrain will be needlessly lengthening that process.

            It is disingenuous to use Portland, Denver and even Seattle (though a little less so) as examples of the length of transit lines even if they did support your argument. Only Portland has longer lines but they radiate in opposite directions – so you can take any given line and cut it’s reach in half. It is not inevitable that we should encourage further sprawl just because we have a city core located such that it doesn’t have that opportunity. I would really like to see your evidence that those LRTs cost the same to build as SkyTrain.

            I am in favour – though it now seems moot – of building LRT to Langley as it would enhance Surrey’s goal of being the region’s second major employment centre. The business community in Surrey largely supported Surrey’s LRT plan because of its benefits to business rather than SkyTrain’s benefit to Langley commuters working in Metrotown or Vancouver.

            SkyTrain has it’s place but its very design encourages long distance rather than shorter hop travel. That encourages sprawl. It does it at great cost compared to LRT. And it is far less flexible. The Canada Line is a terminal dead end. It will never make sense to expand it further south. If it had been LRT, as Richmond council was begging for, it would make complete sense to expand it south and eventually to Ladner and Tsawwassen including a ferry connection. Not so with expensive grade separated systems.

            An Oakridge – Metrotown – Brentwood LRT could eventually be expanded to UBC on one end and the North Shore on the other. It would be better for transit networking and interconnectivity and promote transit use for far more than just commuting. Langley will just be a primarily commuting line. It is a lost opportunity cost.

          3. I’m curious as to why you say that transit damages town centres and draws activity out instead of in. I can’t imagine that Brentwood or Metrotown would be anything like they are now without rapid transit. Building the Millennium line certainly didn’t kneecap Brentwood. It was the making of it. As will a line assist Surrey Central. And why on earth would Skytrain hurt Surrey but LRT benefit it? More people will ride Skytrain, making Surrey Central more accessible to those outside it. LRT is slower, so it is less practical for longer trips, but it doesn’t make sense that Skytrain doesn’t work for short trips as well. Our current network shows that folks quite happily use it for short trips. You can watch people get on and off after one stop.

            As we saw with the Millennium Line and Expo Line extension planning projects, the cost different between LRT and Skytrain is small. Skytrain is only about 10 to 15% more. Part of this is that Skytrain gets higher ridership and thus more fare revenue. So with LRT, you really only can go a bit farther.

            The Portland stats back this up. The five line MAX network cost about 3.5b USD in currentish dollars (I totted this up a few years ago). The Skytrain network cost 6.7b CAD. On one basis, this isn’t too bad for MAX because the total network is long. But on the other hand, the ridership is about a third of Skytrain’s which means that on construction cost alone, Skytrain is much better bang for the buck. But when you add in fare revenue, it gets much worse for MAX. Translink gets a bit less than 50% of its revenues from fares while MAX gets a dismal 15%. I couldn’t get the operating segment statistics right now, although I have seen them, but Skytrain alone covers its operating costs, but MAX is well behind. Looking at Trimet’s revenue, it is reasonable to assume that MAX needs a yearly injection of 200m per year. A decade of that and you have systems that have the same cost.

          4. “I’m curious as to why you say that transit damages town centres and draws activity out instead of in.”
            When developers in Langley start marketing condos and apartments that are 25% cheaper than in Metrotown it’s going to draw people out. And when they start marketing houses that are just a ten minute drive from Langley Station for half the price of a house in Burnaby it’s going to draw people out. The Vancouver region is not populating itself with people moving in from Aldergrove.

            Surrey LRT was Surrey focused, bringing the south of river community to Surrey Centre and then making it a bit sticky. A transfer not only discourages those in Langley from commuting to Vancouver it puts people on the street and that’s always an important first step in generating a vital and dynamic place.

            Our SkyTrain-focused transit network often forces people to make short trips on SkyTrain. But the stations are farther apart and take effort and time to get into and out of. That investment in time and effort makes more sense for long trips and less sense for short trips. Nobody would build a 15 km SkyTrain line and call it a day. But that would work with trams and LRT. Given the choice, would that person going one stop on SkyTrain after walking an extra 3 minutes to get to the station, negotiating a couple of flights of stairs or escalators, then another set of stairs and escalators and then walking an additional 2 minutes to their destination not prefer LRT? SkyTrain is not designed for community. It is designed for commuting.

            Taking your own figures at face value, SkyTrain costs 2X the cost of Portland’s MAX., not 10% to 15% more. Ridership is comparing apples to oranges. Canadian transit systems (other then NYC) have much higher ridership numbers than equivalent US cities. Calgary has 2.7 times the ridership of Portland for example. Fare box recovery is not a reliable metric when comparing across the border.

          5. I think this colloquy is coming to a close, but I’ll have another go.

            The best information that we have for the relative costs of LRT and Skytrain in Vancouver are the studies from Vancouver. You can look them up. There is only a small difference in cost with operating costs and revenue factored in. Actually the difference in cost isn’t that large without those two. I don’t have the report to hand, but if I recollect, for the Millennium line, the cost for the enhanced LRT was actually more than Skytrain. (Enhanced meant some underpasses so that the LRT would match Skytrain performance.) And data from Portland bear that out. The lower construction costs have to be balanced against a continuing operating deficit.

            One of the reasons that Skytrain works so well is its frequency. So the station access time is alleviated by the high frequency. LRT might be easier to access, but you have to wait longer, and the trip is slower. And as demonstrated, people do use it. Ridership on the Cambie corridor, not even counting Richmond traffic, increased hugely, more than doubled. By the short trip logic, people ought to have preferred the bus because of the closer stop spacing. But no, they preferred the speed and frequency. And by a lot. The poor Cambie bus is a lonely thing now. And the longer stop spacing also connects with a move to active transportation, LRT competes with walking and cycling, and Skytrain competes with driving.

            The core of your argument is that Skytrain is for commuting and LRT is for community, but you don’t have any evidence of that. No numbers, studies or examples. Why do you believe this? When you look at Madrid, do you see anomie, and when you look at Houston, bonhomie? Or maybe that Calgary is a community and Vancouver is a commute. Go to SE Stark and Burnside in Portland, these days remotely, and look around. Where is the community? This is exactly the type of development pattern in Surrey that LRT is supposed to transform. Or maybe some statistics that LRT based systems have less peaky daily ridership profiles that would show all day ridership rather than just commuters. I haven’t seen those.

          6. Who did the studies comparing SkyTrain costs to LRT costs? Were they truly independent? SkyTrain has always been a creature of politics and people love it because it doesn’t get in the way of their driving like LRT does. So politicians score big points with drivers by going with SkyTrain since they are still the majority.

            There is no reason LRT can ‘t have similar frequencies to SkyTrain.

            I used your own figures on the cost differences between SkyTrain and LRT. No doubt that operational costs will be higher on LRT until they too become driverless. For vehicles on rails I don’t think that is very far into the future.

            You just can’t compare American transit to Canadian transit but I’ll go to SE Stark and Burnside if you go to Lake City Way Station. Transit can help with land use planning. It does not guarantee a great development pattern around stations.

          7. Why don’t you read those reports and see if there is something wrong with them? You imply that they contain politically motivated reasoning without even looking at them. Just saying “fake news” at something you don’t like doesn’t really cut it. And not to bury the lede, you really have busted yourself out by admitting you haven’t read those reports. The Millennium Line reports are a bit historical, but the Surrey Rapid Transit report is central to this discussion. Why bother writing all these comments and getting so exercised when you haven’t looked at this key document?

          8. TransLink has spent well over $200 million, maybe approaching $300m just on refurbishing a handful of existing stations in the last few years. These stations needed massive new capital expenditures after just 30 years of service. All the rest of those initial stations will require further work soon too. How much more will that cost?

            Do you put that in the operational costs column? It would wipe out any purported savings of SkyTrain operating costs. You could build a dozen LRT stations from scratch for the cost of one SkyTrain station refurbishment and the cost to maintain and update them is negligible.

            Don’t you find it just a little bit odd that actual constructed LRT/tram costs come in at 1/4 to 1/2 the cost of SkyTrain but magically they cost nearly the same when TransLink wants to build them?

          9. Rotterdam. A modern port city designed around the car with a metro population of 2.7 million. Sounds a lot like Vancouver. Some perspective re use of trams and reach of the metro. The longest reaching line is 2/3 the length of the Langley extension at 30kms.


            This is an interesting channel if you’re interested in not just cycling in the Netherlands. Lots of great urban planning and transportation info from a knowledgeable observer.

          10. Rotterdam. A modern port city designed around the car with a metro population of 2.7 million. Sounds a lot like Vancouver. Some perspective re use of trams and reach of the metro. The longest reaching line is 2/3 the length of the Langley extension at 30kms.


            This is an interesting channel if you’re interested in not just cycling in the Netherlands. Lots of great urban planning and transportation info from a knowledgeable observer.

          11. No great surprise here, but I am familiar with transit in NL. The observation of transit and transportation there helped form my current ideas. Most of the tram lines in NL were torn up at the same time that ours were, and very few were revived. Now it is only the biggest cities that still have their tram systems and the bulk of the post war expansion of those systems from the 70’s has been of the sneltram variety, not the streetrunning trams that were proposed in Vancouver. It is the weakness of the streetrunning trams – they are either slow and pedestrian friendly or fast and unpleasant to other road users – that moved Amsterdam to sneltrams on exclusive or partially exclusive ROWs. And in further recognition of the weakness of a tram only transit system they have gone and built a metro system with underground lines and sneltram lines.

            Rotterdam may have been rebuilt to be much more car oriented than traditional Dutch cities, but it is still amazingly compact. Without the port area, most of Rotterdam fits comfortably within the city of Vancouver. The totally separate city of Delft is only around 12km away, about the same distance as downtown to metrotown. And there are farms in between. And of course between Rdam and Delft, Den Haag, Utrecht et al are frequent trains. This is the metro system. It even has a beep in beep out system like a metro system. So it is not correct to say that the transit lines are not as long in Rdam. Actually they are just as long.

            As to the cost of metro and LRT systems, actually I am not puzzled by the comparative costs. That’s because I regularly read transit reports from Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle and Portland and irregularly read transit reports from all over the world. I am puzzled by the overall cost of construction in North America, but the comparative cost is right in line with those reports. I see that you pulled up a Translink memo, but that is not the actual report. So keep looking.

          12. You can’t seriously be comparing the train from Rotterdam to Utrecht with SkyTrain can you? First off these are two very distinct cities in their own right. Second, though the frequency is high, it is not nearly as high as SkyTrain, Third, these are non-stop or very limited stop services. Fourth, this service is not priced like a metro. It costs minimum $30 up to $75.

            The reach of the metro – we were talking about metro – is about 30km.

            Yes Rotterdam is compact, like all Dutch cities. SkyTrain to Langley is only going to exacerbate Metro Vancouver’s sprawl.

          13. Obviously the further the two cities are apart, the more the train service will be like intercity service and less like metro service. But take Rotterdam to Den Haag. At rush hour the trains are:


            The intermediate stops on most of them are:

            Schiedam Centrum
            Delft Campus
            Den Haag Moerwijk
            Den Haag HS

            On the NS website, the cost for a one time, one way ticket from Centraal to Centraal is €5.20, but with the discounts for frequent commuters we can expect that to be the cost of a return ticket. This is a metro.

            From Rdam to Utrecht it is less frequent and more expensive, but the trains run every 15 minutes and cost €11.20 for a one time, one way ticket. There are two intermediate stops. This is more expensive that practically all metros, but this is still metro-like service.

            This headline says that 1.3 million people ride NS trains every weekday:


            It isn’t clear whether this is boardings or distinct passengers, but in a country of 17.5 million, it is staggering. And very like a metro.

          14. Den Haag is actually on Rotterdam’s metro. No issue there. It’s only just over 20km – a reasonable distance for a metro. That’s why I called you out on Utrecht. It is an intercity train. Not a metro.

            Maybe regular commuters get better deals but search on line and it starts at $30 one way.
            Correct me if I’m wrong but I’ll bet you also get a seat too. Not a metro.

            I’d be much happier to see trains running up the Valley. I don’t think they lead to sprawl in the same way that a metro that is way too long does.

          15. Correction: The price was already converted to Canadian dollars. So starting at $20 one way (not $30) and up to $50. Still not metro pricing.

  2. On the plus side, we appear to be using our road network more efficiently, spreading travel across the day instead of just gushing forth in the morning and late afternoon and then griping that the consequences are everyone else’s fault. The traditional notion of “congestion” was exclusively a peak commuting phenomenon and is currently moot. At least based on this scant summer data. On the negative side, more trips means more crashes and GHG’s.

    If we want to reduce VMT, keep making transit faster and personal vehicle travel slower and less convenient. Policy stuff.

  3. I didn’t look at these studies, but one issue is that work commuting tends to have a higher transit share than other types of travel. Thus the decline in work commuting has a lower affect of VMT than, for example, a decline in travel to sports leagues et cetera. Another issue with these studies might be a snapshot comparison between commuters and teleworkers. If the studies were only looking at a point in time and not at a switch over time, the teleworkers might be people who have very long commutes who decided to trim them by working from home a few days a week. That might account for the surprisingly high VMT for people that worked at home some of the time. Anecdotally, prior to the pandemic, the teleworkers that I knew were people with very long commutes: Bowen Island to Vancouver, Vancouver to San Francisco.

    1. “I didn’t look at these studies, but one issue is that work commuting tends to have a higher transit share than other types of travel. Thus the decline in work commuting has a lower affect of VMT than, for example, a decline in travel to sports leagues et cetera. ”

      Am I missing something? I’d argue the exact opposite. And it just supports my point about SkyTrain to Langley.

      1. The higher transit mode share for commuting, at least vis-a-vis automobiles, is a matter of fact. Thus is makes sense that a decline is commuting is going to have a greater impact on transit mode share than on VMT.

        1. But you said it has a lower impact. So we can both agree that you were wrong in your initial statement. And that does not bode well for a bright transit oriented future around an expensive SkyTrain to Langley.

          1. I said it has a lower impact because it has a lower impact. I read my initial statement, and aside from the typo, “of” should be “on”, it’s fine.

            If work travel is 80 units car and 20 units transit
            And other travel is 90 units car and 10 units transit
            Total travel is 200 units, 170 units car and 30 units transit

            If work travel is halved, that is 40 units car and 10 units transit
            Total travel is 130 units car and 20 units transit

            If other travel is halved, that is 45 units car and 5 units transit
            Total travel is 125 units car and 25 units transit.

            Thus the decline of work travel has a lower impact on VMT than a decline in other travel.

          2. In a vacuum. And on the assumption that VKT goes down. But you didn’t say it goes down, you said it has a lower affect. In reality al lot of those who were still working switched from transit to car. Since work commuting has higher transit use, the switch from transit to car would have a higher affect on VKT. Since other travel has lower transit use a switch to car has a lower affect.

            So I think we’ve been talking about two different things.

            But the point of the header is that VKT did not go down, Who is having the biggest affect on it not going down when the economy, and many reasons for travel, surely did.

    2. Yes, that makes sense, because trips to work are typically single purpose, which are easy to do on transit.

      Linking trips to disparate places for errands and chores (grocery shopping in large quantities, sports practices, daycare, piano lessons, etc.) is much harder to do on transit – so those trips remain by car.

      WORK from home only affects – you got it – WORK trips.

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