Saturday, April 05, 2014

STM vs MTR; mass transit can work, and how Montreal could do better

Having lived and worked many years in Canada and then Hong Kong, I have been able to get what I believe is a deep understanding of what really makes mass transit a true alternative to cars.
I can only think of two group of people that would chose one mode of transportation over the other, everything else being equal: people who prefer driving over being driven for the sheer enjoyment of it, and people who will use mass transit no matter how inefficient it is as a matter of principle.
I believe those cases to be marginal.
I believe that when given equal choices, people will chose a mode of transportation that (in order of desirability):
  1. Gives them independence of movement, implying:
    a- can get anywhere they want or need to be (work, home, recreation, shops)
    b- can do so reliably and predictably
    c- can do so efficiently (ie. quickly)
    d- can do so without requiring advance planning
  2. Won't expose them to additional risks or inconveniences:
    a- is safe
    b- won't expose them to vagaries of nature (cold/hot/rain/snow/etc)
    c- will shield them from vagaries of the transportation system (modal shift, payment modalities, lack  of comfort, etc) 
  3. Is cheapest for the individual, or at least, within what they can afford
  4. Align with their values (protecting the environment, sharing, etc) and lifestyle (individual, outgoing, importance of ownership, social class distinction, etc)

I also believe that failure to acknowledge that the first two points trump the third is one key reason for under-performing mass-transit system. Another one is the over-emphasis of the fourth point in promoting one mode of transport over the other.

Comparing Hong Kong and Montreal can give us great insight as to what works and doesn't in building a successful mass-transit system (in this case, our focus is on the subway). Note that I picked both because I know them. Hong Kong just happens to be the most efficient mass transit system in the world. Montreal is middle of the road.

Hong Kong's mass-transit has been the natural option as the land-mass is small and urban development is constricted by its landscape. So, while we will see later that judicious mass-transit development choices were made, geography has forced efficient use of land, conducive to mass-transit.

40% of Hong Kong's territory is occupied by country parks which are not and cannot be developed

The vast majority of Hong Kong is mountainous, which has forced development in valleys, naturally lending itself to rail transit.
On the other hand, Montreal is mostly flat land with little natural obstacles to urban development and sprawl, making it difficult to service with efficient mass-transit.
So while a lot of the new development in Hong Kong is dense as a matter of necessity, it is less so in Montreal as a matter of choice and development costs.

But while Hong Kong's topography gave it a mass-transit edge, deliberate choices made it the most transit-efficient place in the world. The MTR corporation is entitled to develop and profit from areas surrounding its train stations. In return, development around its stations ensures a critical mass of users for its transport operations. The integrated functions of development of rail, housing, commerce and offices, combined with the limited government red-tape in approval of projects generates of virtuous circle which has led to the development of mass-transit facilitating initiatives such as:
  • development of elevated, covered walkways segregating pedestrian from car traffic, ensuring fluid and safe traffic flow for both, and protecting pedestrians from the elements when transiting between their home an the MTR network, or to work
  • development of transport hubs over or under the train stations
  • development of commerce/office hubs over or under the train stations
The shops, offices, apartment buildings within 500m of stations become destinations in themselves while in Montreal, the stations are merely entry points in and out of the transit network.

From top-left, clockwise: Hong Kong elevated walkways map, examples of walkways in Central and Mongkok, and a 3D map of the protected pedestrian network around the IFC mall in Central
In contrast, the Champs-de-Mars station, in downtown Montreal is isolated, sparsely developed, and has weak connections to workplaces, entertainment, housing, shops within a 500 meters radius
Similarly, in one of the densest area of Montreal, the Mont-Royal station, while architecturally attractive, has a single function of in-out gateway to the Metro, with no development above, little in the way of shops, and virtually no connectivity to work within 500m. While there is decent amount of housing within those boundaries, there is no protected direct connectivity with the Metro
As we move farther from downtown Montreal, the situation gets worse. The Rosemont station has a parking and significant space that can be better leveraged as TOD (transit-oriented development)
In contrast, even Hong Kong's Fanling station, about 20 km north of what could be referred to as "downtown", still maintain the same TOD principles; housing, recreation and commerce (in red) directly connected to the station (in green), and serving as a transportation hub for collector buses, mini-buses, and taxis(1)

Another example, in Ma On Shan, a remote area of Hong Kong.
High density housing, leisure, commerce within 500 meters

In fact, in 2012, 43% of Hong Kong's population, and 57% of its jobs, were within 500 meter of a MTR station, compared to 22% & 43% in London and 25% & 37% in NewYork. Although I do not have the statistics for Montreal, we can suppose it would be lower than any of those cities.
When taking into account that the metro service is complemented by bus and mini-buses networks which feed it, it is no a surprise that 90% of all motorized journeys are completed via public transport in Hong Kong.

Another virtuous circle created by density and use is the convenience related to the frequency of service; in order to handle the volume of people caused by high use of the network at any hour of the day, the passenger collection frequency needs to be high. This ensures, in return, a great user experience as wait times are short (usually less than 4 minutes) and journey time planning unnecessary (as it is constant each time).

For anyone living in Hong Kong, it becomes rapidly evident that not only is your workplace and home close to a MTR, everything else in your life is; markets, grocery stores, movie theaters, restaurants, art center, etc. There is truly no place that you may want to go in Hong Kong that is not reachable by mass-transit. Mass-transit de-facto becomes an alternative to the car. The same cannot be said of Montreal.

Last but not least, I believe that Hong Kongers market-driven spirit has also played a big-part in the ultimate success of MTR Corporation: while in Montreal, the profit motive is virtually existent, it is at the center of the operations of MTR Corporation. This is not meant to say that MTR Corp doesn't take the needs of the population and its core mission to move people, but rather, its structure and impetus promotes fiscal efficiency; the Hong Kong government gives it a social direction (I would say, the "collective strategy") as a majority shareholder, and the private operator gives it its drive and efficiency (the profit motive). Even the MTR's. I doubt that the Octopus payment would have seen the light of day and taken the amplitude it has without that market-driven spirit. Fiscal and system efficiency go hand in hand and it is only logical that at one point, the payment system for your daily transit would also extend to most of your daily activities, as the Octopus card does.

So, now that we have briefly compared both systems in terms of the benefits they deliver to their users, what about the costs?

MTR Corp is highly profitable...

... while the STM is not. And it is not getting any better, even as usage is forecast to increase
As those charts from MTR and STM's financial reports attest, the fiscal differences are important. Not that this is a problem specific to Montreal; many occidental cities have let their mass-transit systems become engines of highly protected job creation, rather than keeping to the unique vision of efficient transportation.

Cost of staff compared (HKD)
The chart above (my calculations based on 2012 financial and activities reports of the various transit corporations) clearly highlight the staff cost structure differential; it costs about 2.6 times more to offer the same service in Montreal as it does in Hong Kong.

Unless human resources costs are reigned in, there's little advantages in increased ridership, which is opposite to the very concept of mass-transit.

In conclusion, here are my recommendations for Montreal:

  • Change the corporate culture at STM (might have to be privatized to achieve such goal) so as to focus on the goals of fiscal and system efficiency as well as increased ridership. 
  • Reign-in operational costs of its system so as usage increases, cost per passenger can and should actually go down instead of staying constant or worse, increasing. There are many ways to achieve this, including increased competition and automation
  • Target a minimum level of workplace, commerce, recreation and housing within 500 meters of any Metro station.
  • Grant the development privilege around metro stations to private developers so that development is market-driven, to respond to a true demand rather than social-engineering
  • Streamline the approval/development process so as to make turnaround time on projects shorter and more accessible to smaller developers, thereby fostering increased competition and lower development costs
  • Explore ways to further facilitate the development of measures making the system more competitive to car ownership in terms of comfort, convenience, safety and protection from the elements (rain, snow, extreme temperature) by making it easier to build protected links between the various modes of transportation, stations. Sky bridges, underground Montreal extension, sheltered bus stops
  • Zero-tolerance and immediate action for behaviors such as graffiti-making, begging, littering, loitering, destruction of property. A clean metro projects a sense of safety. Until a culture of respect for shared-use property exist, why not crowd-source the supervision? (ie. install web cameras and have the public report infractions in real-time). The key to change is not the severity of punishment as much as it is about addressing crime as it occurs
  • Building true transportation hubs at places of work, leisure, and residence

Montreal Census tracts
2012 activities report, p30
Going Green, How cities are leading the next economy, Rode and Floater, 2013, London School of Economics