The Lessons of Skytrain

One of the chief virtues of Vancouver’s SkyTrain public transit system is its frequency, which reduces the fixed time cost of taking public transit. Jarrett Walker explains that the key reason SkyTrain can afford to run so frequently is that it is economizing on labor costs by using driverless trains:

Some non-automated subways do run as frequently as SkyTrain, but they’re in places like Manhattan, London, and Paris, cities vastly larger than greater Vancouver.  (Paris, by the way, now has a driverless line, and is beginning to convert existing lines to driverless.)  No non-automated system could have delivered such high frequencies late into the night in a city of Vancouver’s scale. 

The lack of a driver is the key to those extreme frequencies.  When you have a driver on every vehicle, the labor cost is the dominant cost of operations.  So when you have to cut service, as many North American agencies are doing this year, you end up cutting frequencies, starting with late night and weekend.  Many North American light rail systems are dropping below even a 15-minute frequency in the evening, making themselves increasingly useless for the spontaneous trips that are essential to freedom in urban life.

Alas, most public services can’t be automated in this fashion, but we ought to at the very least automate those that we can.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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