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Layers of design: guiding themes for planning a transit network

Layers of design: guiding themes for planning a transit network

The numerous layers of our transit network

This post is part a series about Managing the Transit Network: all about how TransLink plans transit service in our region. Click here to see all the posts.

When we plan our transit network, we have three main objectives: to maximize ridership, encourage long-term ridership growth and provide access to transit service across the region. With these objectives in mind, we employ four design themes that contribute to the overall network design.

Interdependence/Network Integration

Good network design requires thinking about the network as more than just a collection of isolated single transit lines. It means recognizing that each transit line influences and depends on the others. For a network to be useful, it is integral that all the parts work together and complement each other.

Networks by nature connect. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a network as, “a fabric or structure of cords or wires that cross at regular intervals and are knotted or secured at the crossings.” That fabric/structure in Metro Vancouver consists of cycling infrastructure, rapid transit, frequent transit, local transit service and road and pedestrian infrastructure. This, of course, includes SkyTrain lines, bus lines as well as cycling and pedestrians paths.

Everyone would love to have a direct one-seat ride from their home to work, but that simply isn’t doable with public transit, since we all live and work in different places. TransLink tries to help people get where they want to go quickly and efficiently by providing high-frequency service between key connection points (the knotted crossings of the dictionary definition) in the transit network. The inconvenience of having to transfer is often overcome by shorter wait times, leading to faster travel times overall. Jarrett Walker’s blog explains transit networks versus no-transfer service very well.


Public transit serves a variety of users with a variety of needs. Our planners base their plans on the travel patterns of millions of individual trips made by different people. To meet these diverse needs of our riders, we strive to provide accessible multimodal service at most hours in the day in all directions and seek to design services that appeal to a wide variety of people making a number of different types of trips.  We seek to avoid designing services that have a limited market or too specific a purpose.


An efficient and productive transit network is a constant balancing act

When planning a transit network, productivity means maximizing return-on-investment. This means balancing the ridership a line attracts with the cost of providing that service. This is no easy task.

In order for a service to be efficient and productive, a sweet spot needs to be found somewhere between over-supply and overcrowding. We try to find this equilibrium by altering frequency of service (how often a service runs), span of service (when and how long a service is offered), stop spacing or by introducing transit priority measures such as bus/HOV lanes or signal priority.

TransLink only has so much money to spend on transit service. By being efficient with our resources and ensuring the services we do offer are well used, we can actually provide more service for the same cost. As mentioned in the second part of this series, “We sometimes make tradeoffs” when it comes to balancing the objective and themes of our transit network in order run a financially prudent transit system. This means we sometimes have to decline requests for transit that is expensive due to the small number of riders who would use that service. TransLink’s service optimization efforts are all about maximizing efficiency of the network by shifting resources from services that have low ridership to services that are experiencing overcrowding or pass-ups.


Our challenge as the transportation authority for Metro Vancouver is to meet the needs of our region now and in the future, when an added 1 million more residents are expected to be moving throughout the region by 2040. As the demand for public transit and land increases, it’s more important than ever for TransLink to have productive relationships with our municipal partners and other stakeholders in the region.

Part of this cooperation is a transit-oriented land use approach adopted in Metro Vancouver’s Regional Growth Strategy, which emphasizes growth in urban centres and along corridors well-served by transit. This means developing land near the FTN (Frequent Transit Network) where transit runs every 15 minutes or less throughout the day and into the evenings.

Land use decisions are not decisions TransLink can make. We do, however, work with our regional and municipal partners, developers and other groups to support the development of transit-oriented communities throughout the region. Here’s a breakdown of how decisions are made about land use in the region:

  • Municipalities are responsible for land use planning and regulation, so they have considerable influence over what will be allowed to be built, and where.
  • Developers choose which developments go forward, based on market demand and other considerations within the land use and zoning framework of the municipality.
  • Individuals and institutions make decisions about where they want to locate.

What do you thnink?: questions for discussion

Senior planner Peter Klitz has supplied these topics of debate regarding network design themes:

1. Debate the pros and cons of a high frequency grid-based network that seeks to maximize connectivity but requires multiple transfers between services, versus a network that tries to offer a direct one-seat-ride to specific travel markets, but may not have a broader appeal to a wider array of transit users. What are the challenges in designing each network?  What are the benefits or limitations? Are there impacts in our ability to shape growth?

2. What does versatility mean to you? Should TransLink focus on services that appeal to a broad range of people? How should TransLink respond when requested to provide transit service for small or very specialized markets?

3. Does transit shape or serve (or both)? How do we work with cities and developers to make decisions which encourage transit and land use to be mutually supportive? What are the challenges we face if development occurs in areas that are contrary to our collective goals and objectives?

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts. The discussions in this series have been great so far!


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