Way-To-Go Vancouver Olympics - Lessons For Transport Planners

Todd Litman's picture

The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and Paralympics are over now. City Planner Brent Toderian described in a recent Planetizen blog how the event showcased Vancouver's Urbanism, including the quality of its neighborhoods, streets and public transit system, and the delight of a shared community experience.

There are other important lessons for planners from this event. Let me share some observations about the Olympic Transportation Plan. Overall, it was successful. With just a few exceptions, everybody got where they needed to go on time, with reasonable comfort. This success resulted from excellent planning by many people representing various organizations: Olympic committees, cities, regional agencies, provincial and federal governments, and various service providers.

Let me share some thoughts based on my experience having helped in a small way develop the plan. It was a very fun planning exercise. Basically, this was a huge party attracting many honored guests. Our job was to insure it went smoothly and everybody had a great time. This is logistical science at its best. We needed to insure that tens of thousands of people could travel reliably between numerous diverse venues, including about 30,000 people from Vancouver up to Whistler and back every day for more than two weeks. We had tremendous resources available: if it required six hundred extra buses with 1,800 extra drivers, or total control of a highway or traffic lanes, we got them.

Oh, did I mention that this all takes place during the middle of winter, and much of the travel involves mountain roads? Did I mention that schedules were subject to change at any time due to weather or other unexpected events? And did I mention that security trumps everything else, so each component of the plan needed security review?

No problem – we are planners! Making all of this work simply required applying basic transport management:

  • Encourage use of efficient modes. Improve and promote walking, cycling, ridesharing and public transit.
  • Discourage unnecessary automobile travel. Discourage driving, and limit vehicle traffic and parking in key areas such as downtown.
  • Give priority to more valuable trips and the more efficient modes. Expand sidewalks and bike lanes, and bus lanes.
  • Provide clear information to users. Use websites, maps, brochures, signs, volunteers and news releases to let visitors and residents know how to travel and what to expect.

To accomplish this we identified and prioritized the various categories of trips: competitors, coaches, officials, media, visitors, various staff, and freight deliveries. We estimated volumes of each group, prioritized them, and determined how best to transport them taking into account each groups requirements: some need to stay together, some required extra equipment (clothing, skis, guns, etc.) and some (particularly paralympic participants) used mobility devices.

Although this may sound like a big event, it is really just a blip in regular travel volumes. The Vancouver region has about two million residents. Adding 100,000 visitors is just a 5% increase. Experience with such events indicates that given suitable services and incentives, residents can reduce their driving so total vehicle travel is below normal levels. The key is to improve efficient alternatives and frighten residents just enough that they minimize driving.

Vancouver's Olympic transportation plan included the following features:

Projects like this give me great respect for coach buses, the large buses used for long-haul passenger transport. They are key to Special Event and Emergency Response transportation management. To appreciate the efficiency of a fleet of such buses, let's do a little math. Under favorable conditions, a single highway lane can carry up to 2,200 automobiles, or about 6,600 passengers at three passengers per vehicle. The same lane can carry about 1,000 buses, or about 50,000 passengers per lane-hour at 50 passengers per bus.


Coach buses have other attributes that make them particularly useful for such circumstances:

  • They have professional drivers who are (generally) well trained and responsible.
  • They have good communications systems that allow operators to communicate with dispatchers, police, and other drivers.
  • They can carry lots of baggage.
  • They are designed for long-distance highway travel (local transit buses are not and may overheat on long climbs).
  • They can contain washrooms and other amenities such as padded and adjustable seats, televisions, wireless Internet access, and even bar services.

These features are very important. The availability of real-time information, comfortable seats, and clean toilets can make a huge difference in the overall enjoyment of a trip. Whenever you need to transport tens-of-thousands of people, call in the coach buses!

However, large buses have constraints that must be considered in planning. They are difficult to maneuver and take time to load, and so require large staging areas to insure that everybody knows exactly where and when to board. Staging areas require good access (parking, public transit access, taxi stands, etc.), guidance (wayfinding signage and people who can answer questions), washrooms, refreshments and (if possible) entertainment.

Despite a few minor problems (a bus broke down and a few drivers got lost) the Vancouver Olympic's transportation program went very well. Everybody involved in planning and running the event should feel proud. It displayed Vancouver at its best and demonstrated the value of high quality public transportation, effective transport management and an attractive public realm. Many residents who previously relied on automobile travel began using public transportation during the Olympics and now continue.

My biggest disappointment is the limited legacy. Although Vancouver got a new rail line between downtown and the airport, other public transit services reverted to previous levels. Buses are once again crowded and stuck in traffic. In contrast, South Africa implemented wonderful new Bus Rapid Transit systems for the 2010 World Soccer Cup, which will provide durable benefits to residents and visitors into the future.


Todd Litman is the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.



THE property bubble to watch

Vancouver, top of the last Demographia survey, is THE property bubble (at least in the First World) to watch as from now. Sorry.

Sydney, Australia, is next.

We are only very slowly getting to the lessons that the urban planning profession needs to take out of all this.

Todd Litman's picture

Let's stay on topic

Wodehouse's posting is neither relevant nor accurate.

My blog concerns the process of Olympic transportation planning. It has nothing to do with housing affordability. It is best to stay on topic.

Although Vancouver does have high housing prices, these reflect positive fundamentals: it is an attractive and economically successful region, rated as one of the world’s most livable cities, so many people want to move there. Housing will always be unaffordable in such situations. In addition, transportation and healthcare costs are much lower than in typical U.S. cities, leaving households with more money to spend on housing, which stimulates housing prices.

Canada’s real estate market is quite stable compared with the U.S. due to better regulation and less speculation, and so has experienced much less price volatility. Just because Vancouver's housing is expensive does not indicate it will experience a “bubble.”

Demographia’s analysis is biased and narrow (see Michael Dudley's critique at www.planetizen.com/node/42679 ). It only considers housing costs, but lower-priced housing is not really affordable if it has excessive transportation costs. Experts therefore recommend evaluating affordability using an index that combines housing and transportation costs (http://htaindex.cnt.org). Many places that that rank well according to housing affordability rank poorly according to overall affordability.

The city of Vancouver acknowledges its housing inaffordability problem and is working to address it in an effective and sustainable way by encouraging construction of more lower-priced housing in accessible areas, called EcoDensity (www.vancouver-ecodensity.ca). This achieves true household affordability, and by reducing per capita vehicle travel and land consumption provides other economic, social and environmental benefits.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

The One Cause Of Bubbles

"Canada’s real estate market is quite stable compared with the U.S. due to better regulation and less speculation, and so has experienced much less price volatility."

Regulate the financial industry to control bubbles? That is a shocking idea.

We all know that the one cause of bubbles is land use regulation - from the Dutch tulip bubble of the seventeenth century (obviously caused by regulation limiting the amount of land used for growing tulips) to the Florida development bubble of the 1920s (obviously caused by zoning that limited development in Florida) to the Tech bubble of the 1990s (obviously caused by zoning that prevented new tech businesses from opening offices).

Remember what Alexander Pope said: "All looks yellow to the jaundiced eye."

Charles Siegel

Nice one Charles

A touch of humor is always welcome

Where have we heard this before


We have heard all that before, about "positive fundamentals" and "working to address housing inaffordability by.......Ecodensity".

"Demographia's analysis is biased and narrow". Hang on, there's no better analysis for identifying where there are housing bubbles about to blow up. If you know one, please tell me. How many people apart from us fringe lunatics who follow Demographia, were right about California? Or anywhere else in the USA or the world for that matter? From Greenspan and Bernancke down, all the responsible disciplines were caught napping. And still are. We can hardly blame urban planners if the economics profession itself hasn't woken up yet.

"Canada......has experienced much less price volatility...."

Excuse me? Vancouver has had 6 years of price inflation akin to the worst of California's a few years ago before it blew up. All these markets STARTED as "affordable" BY DEMOGRAPHIA's MEASURE, at one time, generally as recently as 1990. Something has gone badly wrong.

Let's agree to differ and we will see who is right in a few months time, shall we?

I will also restate that "encouraging construction of more lower-priced housing in accessible areas, called EcoDensity", is doomed to failure as long as land prices remain too high for prospective tenants of these redevelopments. Again, the evidence is there to see everywhere it has been tried, and I see no special reason that Vancouver's land market can defy the laws of economics.

"Ecodensity" will only work where land values are kept down to historically affordable levels. It is like having to break eggs to make an ommelette; you will have to shut your eyes and grit your teeth and abolish those urban lmits. THEN watch all your other planning tools suddenly become effective as land prices return to affordable levels.

We have a golden opportunity to honestly try this now that we are at the bottom of a crash in California and so many other areas. I cannot pretend to know what the POST-CRASH effects of urban limits are, we simply have not been here before. But England might be a good case study, seeing they have had urban limits for so much longer than everyone else. And they are in big trouble by every measure. Average house space per person lowest in the OECD, below Japan now. Average age of a first home buyer, 38 years. Housing bubbles and busts, every 14 years for the last 5 decades. Land inside urban limits 500 times the price of land outside of it. A housing shortage in the millions of units, and a newbuild rate about 10% of that necessary to replace irrepairable old houses and allow for population increase.

Economists slowly waking up

Demographia Research Summary


OECD Economists Slowly Waking Up

OECD Report: “Overview of Housing Markets”


Read 3.2 – 33 and 34 Supply – where the authors state that little is known about this topic at the micro level.

This could be considered “progress” when an international institution notes the poor understanding of the structural issues driving local housing markets. It probably means that there will be more costly public policy blunders, while time is allowed for the economics profession to educate itself, in what should be the simple study of structural urban economics.

Going on to para 35, they say:

"Green et al (2005) have estimated housing supply elasticities for 45 US Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA's). They find that elasticities vary widely across MSA's, ranging from around zero to more than 10. They also find that heavily regulated MSA's always exhibit low elasticities. These results are in line with those of Glaeser et al (2005), who argue that since 1970. the rise in house prices in the US "reflects the increasing difficulty of obtaining regulatory approval for building new homes", rather than fundamental geographic limitations to increasing supply. There is also evidence of regulation-induced supply rigidities in the United Kingdom (Barker, 2006; Muellbauer and Murphy, 2008), and other countries - eg Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands (Hoeller and Rae, 2007)."

So there is some encouragement there in the form of names that we might have been unaware of before; Muellbauer and Murphy, Hoeller, and Rae. And the elasticity study by Green, Malpezzi, and Mayo.

But they have missed the Demographia Reports, and everything that people like Cox and O'Toole and Moran have been saying.

And then in Para 36 they go on to say:

"Over the last expansion, changes in residential investment have been strongly correlated with variations in real house prices...."

They seem to miss the point from here on, that the "increases in residential investment" were mostly feeding price increases, not "supply" in its true sense.

The Green, Malpezzi and Mayo study referred to by the OECD, does not seem to be freely available online.

JSTOR has page 1 as a "teaser"

This page alone is well worth reading. There is an undeniable correlation between urban limit regulations, and housing supply elasticity.


This OECD “Overview of Housing Markets” contains a massive amount of analysis, and expresses wonder at so many housing markets around the world bubbling at the same time, and all of them bubbling to a level that was never previously exceeded by any one housing bubble. What is more, no (even comparatively small) housing bubble in the past had ever occurred in more than 4 countries simultaneously.

I agree completely with their point about bubble psychology being an ingredient. But this time, as they have noted, something altogether unprecendented has happened with house prices. This is not just the share market again, or gold or some other commodity.
What has always historically stopped the family home becoming caught up in bubble psychology, was simply the ease of supply of new homes and the plentiful farmland available for conversion without legal hindrance. Bubble psychology has always existed and would have applied to housing at any time in history “supply” was interfered with. In fact, England has provided us with an early example of urban limits in action; they have had 3 of the severest housing price bubbles ever to have occurred in history, all connected with political “tightening” phases of their 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. The OECD Report refers to this; they also refer to regulatory difficulties underlying other early house price bubbles in the Netherlands and Denmark.
It now just remains for some well-placed economist to make himself famous by connecting the dots and doing the broad study that proves the point beyond doubt. But so far, we have more and more evidence all pointing the same way.

The common factor linking ALL these housing bubbles, is environmentalism, conservation, and global warming mania driving urban planners to impose tight urban limits, drive land prices up, and trigger classic “cornered supply” speculative bubbles. The other factors that have been popularly blamed for this crisis simply do NOT exist in all these countries simultaneously.

But one extremely good conclusion in this report is that care needs to be taken in future to avoid imposing regulations that are “pro-cyclical”. That is putting it mildly. Of course urban limits are not the only form of regulation to which this conclusion applies, but I hope the OECD notes their "procyclical" nature along withall the other regulations they had in mind.

Not all have awoken, however.

Gosh, Wendell Cox likes the Eichler piece about Seattle, despite its large flaw. I wonder why. And golly, trotting out the Krugman 'Zoned Zone'. Who knew that it would be trotted out by a libertarian, even though seemingly every libertarian on the planet holds it up like an icon, turning it in the light to catch its fancy sparkle? And quote-mining Glaeser? Who knew?

Silly wabbit. Trix are for kids.



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