The Transit Pyramid

The Transit Pyramid provides a stepped upgrade path for 0-GHG transit occupying the same amount of road space. Upgrading from bus to Modern Tram achieves 30x more service. Safely integrating trams between tree medians the arterials are revitalized as ‘neighborhood spines’ supporting higher levels of social functioning.



Red lines identify routes shown in a Translink Network that can add capacity simply by moving transit technologies up the Transit Pyramid. At the top of the Pyramid the Red lines turn to Blue. A staggering amount of capacity is delivered by the Blue lines with Levels of Service that double Skytrain capacity. Yet, building Modern Tram (the Blue lines) costs 12x-less than either Skytrain in a tunnel, and Canada Line. And 6x-less than Skytrain elevated on viaducts. Today, Translink operates only at the bottom two levels of the Transit Pyramid. We identify this as the  key problem for transit in our region. And stress that the Housing Crisis—not Transit—is the number-one issue facing our politicians.



The [1] Blue Line map (above) shows the footprint of service comprising:

• Skytrain

• Canada Line

• Arbutus Tram and So. False Creek Streetcar [1—Blue Line]

• So. of Fraser Modern Tram—to Rosedal and Chilliwack [1—Blue Line]

• UBC-4th Avenue-VCC, Millennium Line [1—Blue Line]

• Burrard Street-North Vancouver [1—Blue Line]

• No. of Fraser Modern Tram—West Van to Mission


The Transit Pyramid pulls together all technologies sharing ONE chief determining characteristic:

On-street operation utilizing the same road space.


The top of the pyramid achieves 2x greater level of service than Skytrain using four cars, and 3.3x more service than Canada Line. Yet, ‘Tram 4 Car’ costs 12x less than building Skytrain or Canada Line in a deep-bore tunnel.

Not only that, but downward pressure on over-heated land valuations results from the Transit Pyramid implementation. Transit service, safety, street revitalization and ‘good’ urbanism are also underpinning principles in the Transit Pyramid..

This principle makes possible a stepped upgrade path for transit services that can be implemented in stages. As demand warrants the transit route can add more capacity with minimum disruptions to the traffic flow. Once operations reach levels of 7,200 to 45,000 pphpd the transit line operates in the center of the street separated by tree medians greatly enhancing the safety of the street by shortening pedestrian crossing distances, and providing ‘islands of safety’ in the center of the right-of-way. This change brings the added benefit revitalizing the street to support higher levels of social functioning as the street arterial is transformed from an open traffic sewer into a neighborhood urban spine.

Because the Transit Pyramid creates certainty around the ultimate outcomes, it informs neighborhood improvement projects for decades to come. Thus, community beautification and local improvement projects can provide some of the future elements necessary to add transit capacity years in advance. Or it can happen the other way around. Transit implementation can become part of a local efforts to enhance safety and achieve higher levels of social functioning along a community’s most important thoroughfares and places.

Streetcars or ‘Modern Tram’ are a part of the urban toolkit providing advantages that a grade-separated systems cannot match.


Changing the Rules of the Game

Here are 5 simple rules for transit and neighborhood design:

(i) Anticipate future demand

(ii) Identify routes already operating at maximum capacity.

(iii) Use transit implementation to enhance street safety and boost ‘the sense of place’.

(iv) Keep projects simple. Don’t over-spend on any one system—in urbanism the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If any one of the parts is disproportionately expensive, then other necessary improvements may lag.

(v) Report the transit facts accurately and truthfully. Professionals must keep the trust of the people at all costs.


Transit Technologies Compared

At the top the Transit Pyramid doubles the level of service of Skytrain and Canada Line at a price tag 12x cheaper than deep bore subways; and 6x cheaper than trains elevated on viaducts.


Screen Shot 2019-07-01 at 6.27.13 PM



1. The maximum capacity of the Innovia SkyTrain Line is restricted by law to 15,000 pphpd (Transport Canada Operating Certificate).

2. Canada Line is limited to operating 41 m cars in 2 car train sets.

3. Single trams can operate at 30 to 45 second headway’s, thus capacity can increase between 4x and 6x the number shown in the table.

4. In Toronto, prior to the first subway being built, coupled sets of PCC Cars were obtaining a capacity greater than 13,000 pphpd, during peak hours.

5. The maximum legal capacity of an articulated bus is 110 persons (B-Line).

6. TransLink and the CoV Engineering Dept. further restrict the 99B-Line to 3 minute headways.

7. Three-section articulated buses are illegal to operate in Canada unless they operate on their own exclusive rights of way.

Notes by D. M. Johnston

One of the advantages of Modern Tram is the capacity to operate at tighter headways on dedicated road space between tree medians (‘headway’ is the measure in seconds of the separation between trains or buses arriving at a station or stop. See Note 2).

The trees correct the scale of the arterials. The medians act as ‘islands of safety’ shortening the pedestrian crossing distance to one-third and providing safe refuge for pedestrians all along a revitalized ‘neighborhood urban spine’. The medians provide the space to install ‘fare paid’ tram stops greatly reducing the time it takes to load and alight passengers.

The table comparing Translink technologies turns up a few surprises.

For example, the Skytrain driverless technology is regulated to maintain minimum headways of 3-minutes between trains. Thus, Skytrain is restricted—by regulation—to 15,000 pphpd (see Note 1). Likewise, the Canada Line’s minimum headway of 3.2 minutes is debilitating. However, the real problem for the Canada Line—which is a conventional electric subway, not Skytrain—is the design of the station platforms. The platforms are too short and the stations too small to handle full subway capacities. The Canada Line is stopped from providing higher levels of service by coupling more cars together because the stations and the platforms are under-designed. The station re-construction alone is calculated to shut the system for over two years. A better option would be to run modern tram on the Arbutus right-of-way 2.8 km (1.75 miles) away.


Keeping It Simple

The Canada Line issue raises a very important question… Can it really be that simple? Are the small platforms at the Canada Line and the driverless Skytrain technology the cause for the sub-standard performance of Translink’s two titular systems (15,000 pphpd can be achieved running a single Tram down the middle of Broadway)?

The answer is—Yes.

• Modern Tram can operate at 1.0 minute headways utilizing tram stops that can stretch as far as the length of a city block (500 feet, or 155 m)

Bombardier’s Olympic Tram measured 32 meters in length.

• A 3-car Olympic Tram would be 100 meters long—leaving 55 meters to spare along Broadway’s typical blocks.

• The 45,000 pphpd (tram 3 car) capacity presents enough service for any modern city transit line.

• Cost savings are 10x over Skytrain and Canada. Thus, 10x fewer towers need to be built to recover transit investments by our governments.

• Modern Tram implementations revitalize the neighborhoods they cross; enhance pedestrian safety; and support higher levels of social functioning.





The Modern Tram Solution

A linear upgrade path utilizing the same road space to achieve 30-times higher levels of transit service is a bit of a no-brainer.

Stephen Rees put it to me on email this way: swapping painting lines and building medians for boring tunnels or building overhead viaducts has significant cost implications.

In other words, we can exceed both Skytrain and Canada Line levels of service by laying down tram bed in bus lanes and saving 10-times the cost.


Upgrade Pyramid



The Transit Pyramid Upgrade Path

The Transit Pyramid’s linear upgrade path unfolds this way:

(1) Upgrade from Bus to B-Line—requires buying 0-GHG articulated trolley buses and reducing the number of bus stops. Today this step has the widest application on the 10 lines identified in the Pyramid Transit Network.

(2) B-Line to BRT (Bus Rapid Transit)—requires new buses if B-Lines are running the pollution-heavy diesel articulated buses. Further upgrades: buses trip traffic signals making them green when BRT is approaching, and red when BRT is stopped boarding and alighting passengers.

A major ‘lift’ of this upgrade comes from relocating BRT to the center of the road, separated from traffic by tree medians. This enhancement

• Eliminates conflicts with right-turning vehicles.

• Combined with signal priority, trip significantly reducing trip times.

• BRT stops are designed as ‘fare paid zones’ greatly reducing ‘dwell times’ (time BRT is stopped loading and alighting passengers), further reducing trip times.

• Stops are built on the tree medians freeing up sidewalk space.

Of course two continuous rows of trees planted in the middle of urban arterials are welcome changes:

• greatly enhancing the sense of place.

• act as ‘islands of safety’ for pedestrians,

• cutting crossing distances by one-third.

The tree medians can be built as part of a street beautification project, creating the impetus for neighborhood revitalization and saving costs for the transit implementation.

(3) BRT to Tram: Laying down a 12-inch deep rail bed and steel rails in the road space between tree medians completes the Transit Pyramid.

• Operating a single tram delivers 7x more capacity than B-Line.

(4) Tram-Trains can operate in the same space as BRT or Tram.

• Operating tram 3 cars delivers 3x more capacity than Skytrain or the Canada Line.

   *    *    *    *

The Transit Pyramid makes it simple to integrate surface transit in the overall neighborhood design strategy. Joining forces with local area improvement initiatives saves transit implementation time and dollars making Translink a partner in achieving the overarching goal of building ‘good’ urbanism.

Neighborhood spines with BRT & Modern Tram become people places with a greater drawing power for attracting customers and visitors to the area.

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