Late last week, I did an interview for CBC in anticipation of GO’s 40th anniversary celebrated on May 23rd. A few clips were used on both TV and radio, but we covered a lot of territory that didn’t get on air. Hence, this post.
For a detailed history of GO’s many routes, including some ideas that never got off of the ground, please turn to the Transit Toronto website. My topic here is more “what might have been” and “what might still be”.
GO began in an era when the wisdom of expressway construction was under attack, and the first train ran fully four years before the Davis government would kill plans for the Spadina expressway (not to mention a network of other horrors that would follow). Clearly, someone understood the idea that just building more and more lanes had its limits and there were better ways to get people into downtown Toronto. It’s worth remembering this context. What we now call the 905 was largely rural, and there were still a few farms in outlying parts of Metropolitan Toronto.
The original Oakville-Pickering rail service was to be a short-term test, a trial to see whether running a regional rail service could forestall or even eliminate the need for capital investment in highway expansion. Suburban development was concentrated along the lake, although soon it would grow to the north, and the primary demand for commuter service was in that corridor.
Then, just as today, the battle between capital and operating budgets clouded the decision. Avoiding capital costs for new highways was a plus for GO Transit, but the ongoing operating losses of actually running the service was a burden Queen’s Park did not embrace happily. Over the years, GO has starved for funds not only to physically expand its reach, but also to operate the service. Like other provincial services, its cost was dumped on the municipal sector even though the savings in road expansion and maintenance accrued to Queen’s Park.
Today we are in a period of modest expansion, a lot of which is catch-up for years of disinvestment in public infrastructure. We have not yet seen anything on a regional scale to compare, for example, with the scope of Transit City for local services in Toronto. Many will laugh at me for saying this and claim that the Toronto plan is all dream and no substance, but it has one vital component missing from decades of plans for the Toronto region — a will to think of changing what transit does and how that can support changes in land use, development, the very feel of our neighbourhoods. Sadly, while there are hopes for redevelopment and intensification in the 416, much of the 905 is comparatively young and very strongly wedded to its existing development patterns. Change there is a decade away, at least.
GO Transit is still, predominantly, mired in the job of getting people into downtown Toronto. This is a worthwhile endeavour, but the problems in the suburbs and beyond are daunting. Unlike downtown, the 905 does not have a single point to which tens of thousands of commuters can be delivered in a few hours each morning, and then ferried back home again in the evening. In the 905, a GO bus running every 15 minutes is not going to make much of a dent in the modal split anywhere whether it’s on a reserved lane or not, but that’s what passes for service on the GO bus network.
I can’t help feeling that much of the busway planning and construction now in the works is little more than highway building in disguise. Busways are great for long-haul express services, but the middle of the 401 or 407 is hardly the place for a transit station. The very nature of highways sterilizes the land around them, and major nodes of employment or residential development will not be served by busways alone.
We hear a lot about the need for integrated fare systems and “seamless” travel across the GTA. One of our greatest failings is that much transit is still fragmented in the 905, and where services do integrate with GO, they serve primarily as an extension of the downtown commuter market. People cannot use GO to travel around the GTA if the service design is overwhelmingly based on getting people to work at King and Bay.
GO faces a crisis in feeding its services. The parking lots are full now, and who knows where more riders will stash their cars for a commute to downtown. Parking garages are expensive, and the entire park-and-ride scheme has negative long-term land-use problems. The very node one would want as a development centre is poisoned by a gigantic parking lot. (We have the same problem at suburban subway stations where provision of parking takes precedence over good bus service.)
For GO to double its ridership, as planned, extensive improvements to feeder bus networks will be required in the 905. Even then, the entire network will only carry about 400,000 daily trips. This is a large number, but small in the regional context.
Looking back at the early days of GO and the original plans for an extensive network, we can see how blinded planners and politicians were in studying the future. The GO-ALRT system has its proponents [please don’t write me long essays — I will not publish them unless you have something really useful to add to this discussion], but it was flawed at its heart.
There is a long history of our transportation plans and needs being highjacked or misdirected, and GO-ALRT was a classic example. On the premise that nothing could fill the place between a bus and a subway at reasonable cost, Queen’s Park set out to invent a new transit mode, to fill a “missing link” in the evolution of transit. [Yes, this is the point where we cue up the pitch for LRT and even for conventional commuter rail services.]
The GO-ALRT network was visionary in hoping to build regional infrastructure before the regions actually existed, but it foundered on the need for a new technology to be developed, perfected and implemented at reasonable cost. The first iteration, the maglev-based system, failed miserably and never made it past rudimentary testing. Years later we got the RT, but even that was early days for automated systems and we have been paying the price for its “new technology” ever since.
On the cost issue, GO-ALRT’s incarnation as the Scarborough RT failed miserably. Part of this was a question of accounting. Much if not all of the development losses were billed to the Scarborough project that acted as a funnel for Ontario money to pass into the crown agency developing the system. All the same, the reputation of a high-cost system stuck (the RT cost well over twice the estimate for the original LRT line in the same corridor) and once again transit was seen as “too expensive” an option.
If GO had set out simply to run a good regional transit system and to expand into new areas with available technology, the system might have grown far larger and far faster. However, available technology is rarely politically sexy with the possible exception of subway extensions.
So where do we go from here?
GO commuter rail is the backbone of the system and it must be expanded aggressively. It’s ironic that after years of complaining that the railways screwed up GO’s operations, we are finally building additional tracks for GO trains, and one excuse for service quality and capacity will be whittled away.
But the rail service needs to become a truly bidirectional and all-day operation. Imagine if we shut down the subway after 8:00 pm and didn’t even run the Sheppard line on weekends. I’m sure someone can make an economic argument for this, and that’s the sort of thinking that keeps GO from becoming the regional equivalent of the subway system.
Bus services, both GO’s inter-regional express routes and the local services, need much improvement so that there is “something there” both to feed the rail lines and serve riders from them. Some inter-regional services may start off as heavy bus routes, but the option to upgrade to LRT needs to be kept in mind.
Services in the outer 416 need attention too. Already, we know that projected demand north of Finch Station on Yonge will outstrip bus capacity within a few decades at most, but nobody is making plans for anything more than platoons of buses pouring into Finch Station. Moreover, suburban TTC services must enable people to move easily around the city, not just to subway/RT terminals.
The fare structure needs serious review. Smart Cards will give us the technology for all sorts of complexity, but the underlying truth is that making it easy for people to move around by transit is going to cost a lot of money. Fares are not going to come close to covering the capital and operating budgets. We can spend years debating how to achieve “equity” or “fairness” in transit fares, and inevitably we will either make it punitively expensive to take a long trip (thereby discouraging the very people we want to move onto transit), or we will stick it to the loyal, local riders on the TTC in order to pay for suburban services. With the long decline in TTC service quality and the growing affluence of city-dwellers, especially in the old city, this is again not the sort of transit recipe we want to brew up.
Whether we go to a truly flat fare, or its equivalent, a fixed-cost pass with a system of major zones, we need to recognize that the cost of not building and running more transit is worse than the alternative. That was the original premise of GO: building and operating a commuter rail system was preferable to continued highway expansion.
We can have a region gridlocked in cars that won’t fit on its roads, or we can make massive investments in better transit.
Today, with GO at 40, I’m not convinced that the GTA is ready to embrace that vision. By the time GO reaches its 50th year, what will we have to show for it?