[This post continues a thread started last week on the re-emergence of transit as a major political issue. For part 1 of this item, click here.]
What To Do About Sprawl?
The Province of Ontario intends in its Places to Grow report that suburbs will develop in a form that can better sustain public transit and reduce our dependence on the automobile. This idea is hardly new, and people have been talking about transit-oriented development for decades. One major problem is that all that talk had no effect on what was actually built.
Queen’s Park made sprawl possible for decades by funding the expansion of sewer, water and road networks without which sprawl would have been difficult because local municipalities couldn’t afford these services on their own. Good funding for transit was seen as a way to divert resources cost-effectively in the early 1970s, but in practice what we got was modest expansion of the TTC and GO networks serving downtown Toronto. All suburban-based travel was left more or less to the automobile.
Transit systems have grown slowly in the 905, but proportionately to the population and volume of travel, they are small players. However, employment and population levels are such that we have volumes appropriate to medium-size cities with neither the road nor the transit infrastructure to handle them. This demand will continue to grow with no end in sight.
Recently I drove through Kitchener-Waterloo and the seemingly interminable project to widen the trunk highways. It will be finished someday, but when it is, there is no room for more roads. The right-of-way is full of expressway lanes. (Fans of the Spadina Expressway might contemplate what this structure would have looked like in downtown Toronto.) KW at least has an expressway, and most of the 905 has to make do with local and arterial streets. Expansion is already difficult in some locations and impossible in others.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the policies in Places to Grow will actually be enforced, and that over the next few decades we will see more 905 communities with densities that are transit supportive. This will be lovely to see, but it won’t deal with several major problems.
- Traffic is a problem today. We can’t wait twenty years for all of that transit supportive growth to occur before we run good transit service.
- Running good transit service means, at a minimum, larger transit operations and an investment in service well before the demand may actually materialize.
- Running good transit service means that buses and, maybe, LRT be given the road space needed to maintain frequent, reliable operations. “Rapid Transit” should not be a smokescreen for road widening projects wherever these are still possible.
- We must be prepared to take road space away from automobiles where the right-of-way is already fully used. Typically such roads will also be the most congested and have the greatest potential transit demand.
- Transit routes must run on established demand corridors, the road system, not on whatever rights-of-way under Hydro towers or down expressways we might find. Local transit has to serve local demands, and this cannot be done if the service doesn’t go where local people want to travel. Individual cases may provide useful links, but express rights-of-way must be recognized for what they are, not as a panacea for all transit problems.
A few weeks ago, I had a fascinating conversation on the subject of Provincial goals for Transit Supportive Development. These goals were articulated in the early 1990s during the Rae administration, but the document is still online here.
Things haven’t changed much in 16 years because the basics are so simple. Transit needs to be close to where people live and work. Service has to be frequent enough to attract riders. The built form of neighbourhoods, shopping and office blocks must be pedestrian-friendly. One thing really stands out: the guidelines suggest a target of 250 metres maximum walking distance to a transit stop for the vast majority of customers.
This gets very tricky with stations 2 km apart as we have on some parts of the system including Sheppard. Only with intensification at stations do you get the averages up and even then you are left with a long space in between that is far from a rapid transit station and must make do with an infrequent bus service.
Another flaw in the guidelines is the idea that there is a density of development that “justifies” a subway. This is a fallacy as one can see by a simple example: much of the Bloor-Danforth line passes through neighbourhoods that don’t meet this criteron, even though they are much more dense than the suburbs (The Annex, for example). The thing that justifies a subway is the cumulative demand in a corridor from many neighbourhoods and with common destinations. Plunking a bit of high density in the middle of York Region is not, of itself, going to justify a subway even if you could force every resident to work in the same place.
Many years will be needed to accumulate a lot of “city” density development in the suburbs and there is no way that we can address the diverse transportation demands in these areas with one or two subway lines. Lots of surface operations are needed as well.
Returning to Madrid, the subject of Part 1 in this series, we have an example of a new suburban line, the Metrosur (“sur” is “south” in Spanish and refers to the location south of the main city). Metrosur is a ring route about 40km long with 28 stations, connections to one of the Metro lines and four branches of the commuter rail network. There is a map of the line showing the population layout here.
The service area has about 1 million inhabitants, but notice how much white space there is on the map. The population is concentrated in major centres, and in these locations the stations are closer together than the overall stats for the line would imply. Although there is no scale on the map, the area covered by the ring is roughly 14 x 8 km. This is approximately the same as an area bounded by Lake Ontario, Dixie Road, Derry and Creditview. If there’s room in that space for a million people with lots of empty land in between centres, they are living at densities well above that found in Mississauga.
Our problem is that Mississauga and its 905 cousins already exists and it will not be converted to higher density overnight. Do we wait decades for the density and do little with transit meanwhile, or do we examine alternative network and technology strategies including more intense bus and LRT services?
This brings me to Royson James’ article How to Cut Commute Times in which he quotes City Planner Rod McPhail at length. I must admit a certain distrust of McPhail even though he’s a pleasant fellow and we’ve chatted at length about transit. All the same, I’m not sure his heart is in for any major battles, and he’s not willing to take the fight for surface transit to the lengths we would have seen if Paul Bedford were still running the Planning Department. McPhail is also a little too quick for my taste in his accommodation of the Works Department and road widenings as we saw on the St. Clair project. I say all this to put his outlook in context.
He starts off by saying that “the biggest challenge is non-downtown trips”, no secret to anyone following this thread. He talks about increased population and job densities, he argues for better transit service with a network of subways and other non-specific rapid transit. “My solution is to blanket the city with streetcars, but … Toronto’s not ready for it.” Here McPhail hits a dead end: If we’re not going to give transit vehicles priority, then build subways, he says.
No, if we take that approach we will get very little and will spend billions while most people go without good transit service. Building more subways just continues down the path that assume all roadspace forever will be only for cars, and we already know where that path leads.
By the end of James’ piece, it is unclear whether the voice is his own or still McPhail’s. There is a suggestion that unprofitable bus routes and services be given to the private sector if the TTC won’t run them. This is totally off the rails — no transit route in this city is profitable and the only question is how much we are prepared to lose on any service.
Privatization is touted as a solution to our problems far too often because it diverts our attention from the real problem, underfunding. In the short term, the private sector is happy to take whatever subsidies or tax credits come its way, often to operate assets that are paid for by the public. But when time comes for asset renewal, look out. The revenue stream from public transit can’t pay for day-to-day operations never mind major renewal, and suddenly the private sector is there with palm outstretched. Just look at England to see what the bizarre marriage of Thatcher’s war on trade unions and Blair’s “third way” have wrought with transit investment.
If we want better transit service in the suburbs (and the city for that matter), then it’s going to cost money to provide it one way or another, and the sooner we get on with improving transit funding throughout the GTA, including the beleaguered TTC, the sooner we will convincingly show that transit really is an alternative to the automobile.