Sunday, July 29, 2012

Three Approaches to Suburban Transit: Washington, San Francisco Bay, and Toronto

North American cities were transformed by the arrival of suburbanization and the automobile. Postwar rapid transit development was forced to cope with this new reality. Built in metropolitan areas of comparable size, Washington’s Metro, San Francisco’s BART, and Toronto’s subway took very different approaches, and were met with starkly differing levels of success. BART decided to embrace the automobile, building many of its lines in highway medians and surrounding its stations with large parking fields and garages. Washington chose to promote development around many of its stations, including suburban business centres like Rosslyn, in order to generate walk-in traffic. The planning of the Metro went hand-in-hand with land-use planning, which sought to build high-density "urban villages" in the suburbs and direct suburban office development to the areas around stations. Toronto’s subway, by contrast, supplements traffic from adjacent development with a frequent and extensive network of buses to feed its stations, dramatically increasing their catchment area while still providing pedestrian- and development-friendly stations that aren’t swimming in a sea of parking.

Relying on the American Public Transit Association for U.S. figures and the TTC for Toronto (unlinked trips for easy comparison, 2008 figures are most recent directly comparable statistics), we can see the different results quite clearly:
  • San Francisco BART: 366,200 riders per day, 2,192 daily riders per km. 
  • Washington Metro: 950,300 riders per day, 5,554 daily riders per km. 
  • Toronto subway and RT: 1,176,000 riders per day, 16,800 daily riders per km. 

Washington’s combination of park-and-ride with intensive transit-oriented development at many of its suburban stations is clearly more successful than the Bay Area’s almost exclusively auto-oriented model. It has been remarkably successful at directing development to station neighbourhoods. Both systems make extensive use of highway rights-of-way, but Metro leaves the highway much more frequently to serve the heart of suburban business districts, while BART tends to stick rigidly to highway medians outside the urban core of San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley. Several studies have been written comparing the different approaches of BART and Metro, but none have included the Toronto model: a suburban rapid transit system as backbone embedded within a dense network of high-quality bus service. Almost all of Toronto’s major suburban bus routes operate every ten minutes or better until the late evening. The same cannot be said for Washington or San Francisco suburbs, where buses routinely stop at the dinner hour and run every hour or less on weekends. A good suburban bus network greatly extends the catchment area of a subway station, which is critical in a relatively low-density area. They can also move far more people than any park-and-ride lots could bring. Even better, ridership generated by feeding the subway can justify frequent bus service that is also used for local intra-suburban trips.

El Cerrito del Norte, a BART station (Image: Google Maps)
Bethesda, a Washington Metro station (Image: Google Maps)
York Mills, a Toronto subway station (Image: Google Maps)

The difference between the systems is also illustrated by the ridership at a typical suburban station. El Cerrito del Norte is located in the suburbs of the San Francisco East Bay and is surrounded by large parking lots and garages. Its average weekday ridership is 7,633 (Source). Bethesda station on the Washington Metro is located at the heart of a dense, urban office and residential neighbourhood. Its average weekday ridership is 10,765 (Source). Though it is largely surrounded by forest and low-density single-family homes, York Mills has a ridership of 27,260 (Source), largely due to its connecting bus routes. In fact, York Mills is busier than all but two stations on the entire Metro network. A station with significant high-density residential and employment nearby will have a higher ridership than one surrounded by parking, but truly busy stations in the suburbs need frequent connecting buses.

Despite Toronto’s far smaller rapid transit network, it transports more people than Washington Metro and far more than BART. The Toronto model of high-quality bus service feeding rapid transit stations is clearly the most successful approach to providing transit in a suburban area.


  1. Conclusion: You can have far more people within a bus ride of a subway station surrounded by low/medium density than within walking distance of station surrounded by very high density.

    Also: many people won't be within walking distance of the subway, so buses are needed regardless of how much development is close to the station. Agencies which fail to provide feeder routes to high-order transit are missing out.

    1. Exactly! And you have to provide that service right away, and not wait for some gradual demand increase. If you don't build it, they won't come. Or, in other words, most people are never going to ride a lousy service. If you wait for a lousy service to get overcrowded before improving it, it will never happen.

  2. MBTA rapid transit stations that happen to be either bus hubs and/or dense neighborhood centers also show this pattern, vs the purely park-n-ride stations.

    e.g. Harvard thru Charles/MGH, Forest Hills, Malden Center, Sullivan, Quincy Center, JFK/UMass.