Suddenly, Transit’s A Big Issue Again (1)

Over the past month or so, we have seen many articles in the Star and Globe about transit, transportation and planning especially for the suburbs.  This is the first of a series of posts on these topics.

For part 2, click here.

First, a recap:

  • In the Star on August 9, Royson James, writing in Forget auto pilot, get [a] real transit plan, starts off well by recognizing the pitfalls of auto-oriented development and the lack of real pressure for transit-oriented development outside of Toronto.  However, James steps in a pothole when he embraces John Stillich’s scheme for a Sheppard-401 cross-Metro subway line.  The Toronto region has immensely complex transit problems, and they won’t be solved by one ruinously expensive subway line, especially not one that tries to duplicate the expressway network.
  • The Globe ran a four-part series The Suburbs starting on Monday, July 31.  One segment by Jill Mahoney covered Vaughan completre with its booming population of affulent residents.  Most intriguing in this article was the scatter diagrams showing the residential and work population densities.  Vaughan has a lot of inward commuting almost all of which is done by car.  The Spadina subway extension is (a) years away and (b) will not serve a lot of this commuting traffic.
  • Sunday, July 23 saw Paul Bedford’s front page feature We Want Change! detailing the findings from over 400 emails received by the Star’s What If? that asked readers to comment on what would make Toronto better.  Transportation and especially transit featured strongly in the emails.
  • Margaret Wente weighed in with The war against the car will never succeed in the Globe on Saturday July 22.  Her solution to the transportation problems of the poor is simple:  buy a used car.  She is apparently unaware that buying it is only the first step — owning it is far worse with insurance, gas, parking and ongoing repairs.  Moreover, this approach does nothing to relieve road congestion, but rather makes it worse.
  • On July 21, Royson James extensively quoted Rod McPhail of the City’s Planning Department on the need for a network of LRT, or, if that is politically untenable due to the road lobby, more subways especially to the northeast and northwest.
  • In response to Ontario’s Places to Grow report, The Star ran a front page story on Friday, June 16 called 4 Million More People, But Without the Sprawl by Kelly Gillespie.
  • Jeff Gray, aka Dr. Gridlock, wrote about the Madrid Miracle and the huge, ongoing transit expansion program in that city in the Globe back on March 27. 

All of this has been piling up in my bundle of clippings, and it’s time to offer comments of my own.

The Madrid Miracle

Every so often, Toronto gets to hear about some marvellous foreign city from a visiting dignitary or transit official, and people rightly ask “why can’t we do that here”.  The most recent example is Madrid with its large and growing network of subway lines.  I can almost hear the subway advocates saying “See! We told you!” and going back to their maps of subways criss-crossing Toronto.

The problem whenever people compare cities and systems is that they only look at selected information.  Here are a few major differences between Madrid and Toronto:

  • Madrid built 56.3 km of Metro routes including stations and vehicles between 1995 and 1999 at a cost of only $2.25-billion.  Another 54.6 km was built between 1999 and 2003 at a cost of $3.9-billion.  Even allowing for inflation, the cost/km is much, much lower than the cost of subways in Toronto — roughly 100 km for $6-billion and change, or $60-million/km including vehicles.  The Sheppard Subway cost us close to $200-million/km. 
  • The 2003-2007 plan includes another 47.4 km of subway and 45 km of “Metro Ligero” or Light Rail at a cost of about $6-billion.
  • There is no distinction between transit modes in Madrid’s fare system — the Metro, the buses and the commuter rail system are all one network.  Fares are overwhelmingly based on passes which are priced depending on the number of zones through which you will travel.
  • Madrid is a much older city, and a compact form is the norm there even though there has been huge population growth in “the suburbs”.  The Madrid “GTA” has roughly doubled in population in the past 30 years to about 5.5-million. 
  • Transit was losing its market share to cars, and there was concern with suburban development until governments decided to reverse the trend and invest heavily in public transit construction and service.  Total ridership in this region is about 1.6-billion rides per year.

The International Union of Public Transport has an overview of Madrid at this link.

There is a very large report (6MB) here describing the expansion of the Madrid transit system (in Spanish).

Information about the Metro is available here.

Information about the City is available here.

Having a system like this in Toronto would be a delight, but (a) you don’t build anything overnight, and (b) the dispersed suburban form of the GTA already exists.  The demands do not fit easily with a network of Metros even if we could build them.  Indeed, the demands are much more in keeping with a widespread bus and LRT network, the very type of network nobody wants to build.

If we had built our suburbs to give transit at least a chance of being attractive, we might have a hope that just running a lot more service and building some trunk lines could make up for lost time.  Sadly, that’s not what we have, and we cannot undo decades of bad planning with a few new buses.

One thought on “Suddenly, Transit’s A Big Issue Again (1)

  1. Steve, you are right that comparing cities to Toronto do not work.  Toronto is not Tokyo, London or Hong Kong.  Emulating other cities will only incur large cost without the corresponding benefits.  Even with Toyko’s extensive commuter rail (JR), metro and Shinkasen, yet many people still commute more than two hours to work.  People still have to cycle 2 km to a station or take a bus.  A made in Toronto solution is needed, which is fine by me.

    Toronto need to set a realistic goal with transit.  Do we want a transit system so that no one needs a car?  Or do we simply want to remove a certain percentage of cars and give Torontonians a viable choice in how they travel?  We also need to ask ourselves, how much money are we willing to spend?  How many houses are we going to bulldoze in the process?

    I personally want transit to reduce car use and not replace car use.  A car will always be useful when I need to haul groceries from the supermarket.  A bike, metro or bus will not do.  If I can use the TTC to go for a hair cut or visit the museum and go to work, it is fine.

    It must be pointed out that Toronto’s metro system is extremely wide.  A T1 metro car is over 10ft in width.  Most metro cars around the world are less than that.  This explains the high cost in building metros in Toronto.  Why are the metro cars in Toronto wider than the Bombardier CRJ900 jetliner (7.5 ft width) is beyond me?  Toronto seems to love tunneling to build a metro network.  If new metro lines are built using guideways, the cost will be significantly lower.  Besides, guideways are symbol of modernity.

    Steve:  Looking at the information on Madrid, we can see that the typical width of cars is around 2.4 m.  Their tunnel boring machines are about 9 m in diameter and this produces a double-track tunnel.  Madrid is lucky to have so much rock through which tunnel construction is fairly simple.  As for guideways, I know you are a big fan, but I’m not because they only work when they’re not directly above streets, especally at stations.

    Toronto also needs a way of lowering the cost of delivering quality transit service.  As former President Eisenhower put it, man must triumph over nature with science.  Technology should be extensively use to reduce the cost and bring real innovations.  Technologies like driverless system will reduce cost.  Weight saving technologies like composite materials will reduce the foot print of a given transit project.  For example, Bombardier’s monorail system are light weight.  The guideways can be pre-constructed.  This reduces the impact on local communities.  It is also driverless, which reduce the cost to operate it.  ICTS can also fall in the same category.

    To end off, here is my dream.  A metro network spanning the 401 from Square One to Pickering Town Center.  A north south metro from Union to Davis Drive.  Several ICTS lines will be constructed on arteries like Eglinton, Finch and Steeles.  ICTS should also go north south on routes like Don Mills and Keele.  Monorails can branch off to the suburbs.  In order to bring transit closer to people’s door step, a Guided Light Transit system will run into residential areas.

    Steve:  This fantasyland of ICTS lines will probably bring groans from some readers.  I have left it in because it illustrates what happens when a basically good premise — providing better transit service — is highjacked by a specific implementation.  I may be an advocate for LRT, but mainly to get proposals on the table where we can evaluate them clearly against other schemes.

    On the subject of automation, the majority of the cost of running trains is not the drivers.  It’s the folks who maintain the infrastructure, run th stations and provide security.  Yes, you can run frequent service at 1 am with nearly empty trains, but to do that you must have a completely dedicated infrastructure and the more complex stations that will bring.


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