How Many People Can We Get Out Of Cars With Transit?

In all of the feedback on the Spadina Subway issue, I received a note from Leo Gonzalez about the problems of making LRT attractive compared with a subway on Sheppard.  Here is his note:

Hello Steve,

With all due respect, I must say that I disagree with your point of view regarding the proposed Spadina subway extension. Bear with me here…

Generally speaking, there are three types of pubic transit users: captive riders who basically have no other choice, casual riders who may use a subway or streetcar occasionally, and users who have the option of either driving or using public transit. I think it’s safe to say that if you want to see a healthy increase in public transit use, you need to attract people who own cars, but currently tend to drive instead of using public transit.

This is what leads me to disagree with your point of view. I’m a strong supporter of public transit, but even I am reluctant to leave my car at home when my only other option is to take a bus (this sentiment would not change even if that bus were on a ROW and were to come every five minutes). In any of the inner suburbs of Toronto, driving will always be faster and more convenient than any kind of surface transit, even if it’s on a dedicated right-of-way.

To confirm my suspicions, I spoke to 100 people in my office building (located at Kennedy & Sheppard) who currently live in Scarborough, North York, and midtown. These people all drive to work, and a total of 87 of them said that the only way they would leave their cars at home is if the Sheppard subway were extended well into Scarborough (as far as STC or even Markham Rd). I asked if they would still leave their cars at home if a BRT line were built on Sheppard instead, and only EIGHT said they would. A colleague of mine who lives at Bayview & Sheppard pointed out that bus service on Sheppard is currently very good (buses every few minutes in peak periods), but even that is not enough incentive for him to leave his car at home, primarily because driving to work is still faster.

Bottom line, the only real way to compete with the automobile is with subways, not BRTs or LRTs. The downtown core is perhaps an exception to this rule, where taking the Spadina streetcar line, for example, is faster and much easier than driving down Spadina Ave. However, buses just don’t have the same appeal as subways, and streetcars seem to fall somewhere in between. They are quite successfull downtown, but I’m not convinced they would be as successful in the inner suburbs, simply because driving would still be faster.

Finally, I think that not only should the Spadina line be extended to York, I also think Sheppard should be completed (to STC and then Downsview) and the SRT replaced with a subway as well. From there, perhaps LRTs or even BRTs could be used along certain feeder routes to completement the expanded subway system. But if you try to use a BRT or LRT as the backbone of an expanded system instead of more subways, I don’t think we’ll see car drivers flocking to the TTC.

Thanks for your time Steve.


This raises some important questions for planning within Toronto and in the GTA because, at the root, it says that the only way to get people out of cars is to build subway lines.  The fundamental problem is that we cannot possibly build subways everywhere. 

Just to build three current proposals (York University, Sheppard to Scarborough Town Centre, and the SRT replacement subway) would cost us somewhere around $4-billion or more, plus inflation if the construction were over an extended period.  We would still have nothing to serve the northwestern part of Toronto, nothing to serve eastern Scarborough, nothing for the Don Mills corridor, and certainly nothing in the regions outside of Toronto.  This is not a viable proposal if transit is going to make a difference.

However, Mr. Gonzalez makes the very cogent point that people won’t get out of their cars unless we practically build a subway to their door.  A surface bus won’t do it, and by extension LRT won’t either.  Do we abandon current auto trips like these on the assumption that we cannot afford to serve them with transit?

The other side of this coin is the “Avenues” scheme in the new Toronto Official Plan.  The plan foresees medium density (say 8-storey) development along designated streets such as Eglinton with good surface transit serving the new neighbourhoods.  The Official Plan hints at using LRT, but for political reasons (mainly TTC interference) this was not spelled out in the City’s document.  The important point about an “Avenue” is that development is spread out between major intersections rather than being concentrated in high density clusters.

Clusters work for subways with their widely-spaced stops, but LRT works for the Avenues design with its linear character.  We can afford to have more stops and people between the major intersections are not isolated.  For a comparison, look at what has happened on Sheppard between the stations where people have infrequent bus service (which the TTC bean counters want to cut even further) or a long walk to the subway.

One huge problem in Toronto is that nobody knows what LRT really is.  I lay the blame for this at the TTC’s feet for several reasons:

  • TTC connived with Queen’s Park to sabotage the original Scarborough LRT proposal which was to use streetcars on their own right-of-way but with level crossings and traffic signals at road junctions.  The TTC actually produced a report saying that the transit right-of-way through STC would isolate land parcels by dividing the south half from the north half.  This was utter baloney, but it got the original surface LRT design changed to an elevated even before we were talking about the “new” RT technology.  If TTC staff were as innocent of collusion in the technology change as they claim, they would never have written that report.
  • We have never seen a proposal for a modern, suburban LRT line from the TTC.  The only examples people can look at are Spadina and Harbourfront which are at the very low end of what any other city would call “LRT”.  The frequent intersections and the absence of meaningful signal priority mean that this line is hardly a showcase.
  • TTC plans for St. Clair were badly compromised because the TTC will never fight the traffic engineers in the City Works department who take every possible opportunity to grab space for cars.  A lot of the ill-feeling on St. Clair came from heavy-handed design work that now must be fixed in a revised “Phase 2”.
  • There is no attempt to show the media and through them the public what other “real” LRT networks look like and what they can do.  There is no advocacy, and this tells me that most of the TTC folks’ hearts are simply not attuned to LRT.  They would rather build subways.
  • There is so much misinformation about what LRT really is that a TTC Commissioner said on CBC’s Metro Morning that “… we tried LRT in Scarborough and it didn’t work … people want subways …”.  I am wary that the consultant working on an SRT replacement study will be forced to recommend subway technology by TTC.

Coming back to the Avenues plan, our biggest problem is that if we build the housing before we build the transit, the new neighbourhoods will be car-oriented by default.  Already, we have built Harbourfront West where the transit modal share could be a lot better if only there were more service.  Earth to TTC, Earth to TTC:  there are new buildings at Bathurst and Lake Shore! 

If the City is not prepared to really invest in affordable transit infrastructure, and to do this in advance of major redevelopments on the Avenues, then let’s stop pretending that the Official Plan has any meaning and that the ideas of Building a Transit City are going to ever be fulfilled.

We have to face the fact that everyone can’t be at a subway stop, everyone can’t be on even an LRT line, and we have to make regular surface bus routes work across the city.  Reserved lanes will help, but the basic issue is good, reliable, uncrowded service.

People whose idea of commuting is to ride in the comfort, convenience and privacy of their car are not going to change to transit, and we will spend a fortune trying to woo them onto the system.  However, many others’ travel plans can be shifted if only we spend money in the right place and concentrate on the network, not on a single, small line.

One thought on “How Many People Can We Get Out Of Cars With Transit?

  1. Steve,

    Why did people choose VHS (an inferior product) over beta-max? VHS was better marketted, and allowed for a wider selection of films.

    We can give people cadilac transit (a subway in every pot), but people will still choose to drive their cadilacs so long as the car gets them to more destinations, is available for longer hours, is closer to the front door, etc..

    Some of this can be served by better surface operations, some is reliant on built form.

    Generally speaking the the downtown is the only place in the GTA where the built form is such that transit will ever be competitive.

    That means that areas due for redevelopment are our next target. It also means that the redevlopment must explicitly reduce the advantages for the car. Along with the medium rise you suggest, pedestrian permiability, building to the lot-line, and transit which takes lanes from cars are musts.

    Our task is to start building the case for these design features as avenue studies go forward.



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