Suddenly Transit’s A Big Issue Again (3)

This is the third and final installment of a commentary on many articles that appeared in other media over the past months on transit subjects.  You can read part 1 here and part 2 here.

On July 23, the Star ran a long article by Paul Bedford, former Chief Planner of the City of Toronto, entitled We Want Change.  Bedford poured over hundreds of emails from Star readers and found that the electorate is far ahead of politicians in what they want and will accept to fix the problems of our city, including its transportation system.  One vital finding is that people don’t object to paying taxes provided that they actually see some return, some improvement in the services they use and depend on.  Politicians with a slavish devotion to lowering taxes, no matter what the cost, should take note.

Among the “first tier priorities” is transit.  “People are fed up with declining transit service” Bedford writes and this extends into the 905 where many commuters are forced to drive because there is no alternative.  Within the city of Toronto, people want better service, more streetcar lines and subway expansion in major corridors.  Why do other cities build miles of new lines while we have none?

The simple answer, of course, is that although Toronto talks a lot about being a “Transit City”, it’s really very car oriented.  Even planners charged with doing good things for transit are forced to defer to car priorities in space and in spending.  Politicians talk a good line about transit, but what they really want is the chance to have their name associated with a big project like a new subway line.  Just providing good service, the TTC’s long-ago slogan of “always a car in sight”, costs money they don’t want to spend.

With great irony, the previous day’s Globe saw Margaret Wente railing against “the war against the car”.  Her thesis, grounded in a lot of right-wing think tank anti-transit analysis, misses the point that we are not “at war” with the automobile, but that our economy and municipal infrastructure simply cannot continue to absorb the increasing demands for travel only with highways.  There is strong support for better transit if only we would provide it.

Claims that people don’t take transit even when you offer it are based on faulty analyses.  If your approach is to spend a billion dollars to run a line that sets new standards for underutilized infrastructure while cutting service and reliability almost everywhere else, it’s no surprise that transit use continues to fall.  If you build one line that serves only a fraction of the regional travel demand, most of the trips won’t move to transit.  It’s rather like widening Steeles Avenue and wondering why there is still a traffic jam on the QEW.

Wente outdoes both herself and the Globe’s reputation with the following statement:

As for lower-income people — supposedly the main beneficiaries of public transit — they have an alternative too.  It’s called used cars.

There is so much wrong with that short statement, it’s hard to decide where to start.  First off, the main beneficiaries of public transit are the middle class, the very people the Globe would like to sell more papers to.  Just look at any GO Train, or for that matter the Yonge Subway downtown in the rush hour.  We pay huge subsidies so that people don’t have to drive in to the city from Burlington, Oshawa or Richmond Hill because the alternative, more road space, simply isn’t physically or financially possible. 

Next, many cannot afford even a used car.  Just the cost of insurance will cover all of your transit fares with money left over for most people, never mind gas, parking and maintenance.  People forced to take transit pay a huge overhead in lengthy trips among infrequent and poorly co-ordinated suburban bus lines.

There is no question that the automobile, probably even the SUV, will always be with us, but that doesn’t mean that its needs should come first or should pre-empt improvements to transit systems.  We are far from having truly competitive transit service thanks to years of “it won’t hurt too much” cutbacks, and it will take years and lots of new spending just to get back to where we were in 1990.

Also in the Globe, we had a four-parter in the week of July 31st called The Suburbs.  Among other things, it documented the changing travel patterns where suburban communities have become destinations with daytime populations much larger than the residents.  Unlike central Toronto, however, all those jobs are smeared out in low-density industrial and office parks, and they are almost impossible to serve well with transit.  Vaughan has dreams of a corporate centre at Highway 7 at the terminus of the Spadina Subway extension.  Their big problem, however, is that this line goes nowhere near most of the jobs in Vaughan, let alone the origins of many of the workers.

Finally, Royson James in the Star wrote about the need for a “real transit plan” and for transit-oriented development outside of Toronto.  So far, so good, but he then falls into a subway sinkhole by embracing a scheme for a cross-town subway from Pickering to Mississauga via the 401, a brainchild of John Stillich of the Sustainable Urban Development Association.  (I’m not sure from the look of their rather tenuous website whether this group consists of much more than Mr. Stillich whose schemes for networks of subway lines have been around almost as long as my schemes for LRT.)

The basic problem here is that people don’t naturally want to travel along expressways, but use them because they are there.  If the 401 were at Finch Avenue, that’s where the cars would be, and there’s nothing magic about the existing corridor.  Far worse is the fact that there are almost no buildings, no demand, sitting on or close to the 401.  By “close” in transit terms, I means something you can walk to from a station.  Cloverleafs are not the most pedestrian-friendly areas, and the jobs and homes are a long trek away.  Bus feeder/distributor systems are a must, and I can only imagine the wet dreams of engineers contemplating the structures needed to integrate a transit station and bus interchange with an existing node on the 401.

Transit needs to go where the people are, not where the cars are.  The cars are only on the highway because we built it there, and they have a ready-made distribution system in the local and arterial roads.  Transit works the same way except that the sidewalk is the first and last leg of anyone’s journey.  The easier we make that part of the trip with good sidewaks, pedestrian-friendly intersections and minimized walks to transit, the more attractive transit will be.

Royson James writes:

Transit has its supporters, but the proposals are short-sighted, sporadic, underfunded and lacking innovation and foresight.

Try reading my Grand Plan, or even the Avenues scheme of the City of Toronto Official Plan.  Each has its flaws, and my plan is intended more as an illustration of what could be done rather than a prescription for what should be.  It’s easy to dismiss anyone else’s scheme while failing to apply the same yardsticks to your own preferences.  Yes, Toronto needs far-sighted, consistent, well-funded, forward-looking transit plans.  Just saying “transit plans” will by itself be innovative, let alone any choice of technology.

The TTC’s Building a Transit City has a great title (I gave it to them, gratis, when they couldn’t come up with something on their own).  But we need more than titles and vague policies, we need commitment, funding and leadership.  None of those is thick on the ground anywhere around the GTA.

I will leave off my review here as coming events include decisions, or at least recommendations, on new subway cars, the future of the Scarborough RT, the small question of service improvements and of course the 2007 budget.  Lots to keep us busy through the fall and winter.

7 thoughts on “Suddenly Transit’s A Big Issue Again (3)

  1. Hi Steve – I’m so glad you blasted Peggy Wente on that article.  What a complete load of sh*t!

    Now, can you please comment on the most recycled political promise in the world – the York Subway!

    All those pols and activists would be using their time and energy SO much more efficiently if they could just get LRT in their heads!!!!

    Steve:  I think that my opinion of the York U subway is quite clear in other posts, including the one about the Scarborough LRT network posted just today.  People might get tired of reading my posts if I spent too much time slagging subway proposals.


  2. Your love for a tram network is very evident to any reader of this site.  One question, shouldn’t we try to at least finish off the metro network? Downsview and Don Mills are not natural places for a terminal. Wouldn’t Toronto be better if the University line loops with the Yonge line?  The Sheppard line would be a lot more useful if it connected to Downsview and Scarborough Centre.

    Steve:  It is the whole concept that the metro/subway network is incomplete that so frustrates me.  Where is the end to this process?  When the Yonge line reaches Barrie and the Bloor line gets to Burlington?  A Yonge/Spadina loop does not make sense because it requires a lot of extra mileage to close that loop without generating much benefit in York Region.  The Sheppard subway should never have been built.

    If we take the premise that this is the place to start building suburban networks (regardless of the technology), we don’t prejudge any plan by imposing the need to “finish” the existing network.  Network designs cannot be entirely technology-neutral because the choice of mode determines the cost, available alignments, neighbourhood impacts and station designs.  If any proposal must be feasible, if only on paper, as the most restrictive and expensive mode, then we never get anything built. 

    That’s the advantage of taking a network view rather than a single corridor view.  We look at what is possible with a network of one or more modes in comparison with alternatives rather than simply picking which mode we will use on a subway-compatible corridor. 

    I am in complete agreement that trams are useful in places like the Finch hydro corridor.  Trams have a useful place in Toronto despite what Mel Lastman said.

    For any transit project to be successful, it has to span a large area.  Viva is successful because within a few years, it built a very large network.  A large network will convince motorists to give up their car.  Viva was also done in a short time which fits inside election cycles.

    Steve, don’t you think Toronto should start a large roll out of a Guilded Light Transit (GLT) network?  It is already in use in Nancy and Caen France.  It can be built very quickly since there is no track work.  Building a centre right of way with some power poles will cost very little.  Unlike Viva, it is powered by electricity which will be cleaner and lessen our dependence on Middle East oil.  GLT vehicles has the advantage over Viva in that it is 100% low floor.

    If a 100km GLT network is annouced today, it will be completed within a decade.  A network linking the entire city can be built within two elections.  If capacity is ever an issue, it can be easily upgraded to tram technology.  Since the right of way and power poles are there, building tracks will not appear as expensive.

    Steve:  GLT marries the worst of both the bus and LRT worlds.  Yes, it’s running in a few French cities, notably with much milder weather than Toronto.  As you are no doubt aware, France has embraced LRT technology in a big way.  If GLT were really an option, we wouldn’t be seeing so much LRT construction in that and other European countries.  There is no absolute requirement to have a 100% low floor design and that certainly doesn’t justify using a marginal technology. 


  3. Steve, if the Yonge line ever reaches Barrie, it will be a disaster.  The number of stops would make the trip unbearable for many.  Anyways, I can see where you are getting at. 

    Shouldn’t transit supporters like us be forward looking?  We can question the effectiveness of the Sheppard line all we want.  However, the fact is the metro line will always be there.  It is built.  We cannot fill up the tunnel and build a tram over it.

    Shouldn’t historians be given the task of judging whether it is wise to build it?  What if 30 years from now, the ridership level of the Sheppard line reaches the same level as the Bloor line?

    Steve:  The whole point about the Bloor line is that it served a dense, concentrated and growing downtown area, and it had more than double the demand on Sheppard the day it opened.  The further you get away from downtown, the harder it is to get enough demand concentrated anywhere to justify a subway line.

    The reason I am an advocate for a loop configuration for the Yonge and University line is that it is the most efficient.  Any metro requiring train to change direction will be slow down.  The busiest metro networks in the world are running in loop configuration: The Yamanote Line (Tokyo) and the Osaka loop line.  Every time I go to Kennedy Station, the ICTS operator has to fight his way through the crowded car before he is able to enter his cab.  This is not efficient.

    Steve:  That doesn’t justify a loop line.  After all, what would the RT loop with?  The problem at Kennedy is with the platform and stairway/escalator arrangement that constrains the speed with which unloading passengers can move out of the way.  I use it every day to and from work, and it’s a huge nuisance.  During peak times, drop-back crewing is used to avoid operators having to fight through the crowds, but when they are short operators, this practice is abandoned.

    As for benefiting York region, the TTC should not be in the business of hauling people from Richmod Hill to Toronto. We have a commuter rail service (GO Transit).  If people from York Region need to go to Toronto, they can always get off the GO Train at Sheppard West station and use the TTC metro network this way.  One more thing, if the TTC metro goes past Steeles, does that mean York Region will adopt the TTC rail guage.  They are smarter if they build their own network using standard rail guage.

    Steve, can you also briefly discuss why GLT is a marginal technology? I cannot find any articles online except the Bombardier website. Thanks.

    Steve:  The fact that you can only find articles on the Bombardier website should tell you something about the limited use and attractiveness of this technology around the world.


  4. I hadn’t heard of the GLT concept.  It’s perhaps fair that the GLT is proprietary/marginal.  However, since the planning assumption for the LRT option is to use highly-modified LRT equipment (i.e. includes extensive engineering changes to accomodate the ability to run on the downtown streetcar routes), the same applies to the LRT option as well.

    Steve:  A Toronto “streetcar” would not involve extensive engineering changes — that’s the whole point of current studies so that we avoid vehicles that won’t run on our track.  Toronto’s is not the only street railway in the world.  There is big leap from a street railway with demanding curves and gradients to a GLT technology that has almost no presence in the transit market.


  5. If so, that’s good – but that isn’t what the TTC is saying. This is from The Star – June 23 2005:

    “While TTC officials have looked at several new light-rail vehicles, the transit agency believes no existing “off-the-shelf” car will work on Toronto’s track system, with its tight turns and steep hills.

    TTC deputy general manager Bob Boutilier said this means the commission will be looking to find an existing streetcar that meets 70 to 75 per cent of the TTC’s needs, and then design major modifications, a process that could take five years.”

    If you have a vehicle that has ‘major’ (which I consider synonynous with ‘extensive’) modifications to motive power and traction systems – then you are in roughly the same position as with the GLT.  If we go by the experience with the custom streetcars we have now, we bound to get high maintenance costs, low reliability and be stuck fabricating some spare parts in house.

    Steve:  If you go to Bombardier’s site, you will see that there is precisely ONE GLT system they are operating in Nancy, France.  This system is an oddball hybrid where you have what is essentially a trolleybus that follows a “rail” embedded in the roadway.  If someone wanted trolleybuses (which Nancy already had), they should just buy trolleybuses.

    As for the CLRV, one big problem with those cars was that some subsystems were designed by people who did not have good transit experience.  What started out as an updated PCC car under the former Hawker-Siddeley folks at Thunder Bay morphed into a overbuilt car capable of 70 mph (110 kph) operation for a suburban network.  The UTDC engineers failed to understand the basic fact that no LRT line with stations 1 km or less apart can possibly run at that speed.  That high speed design led to those ridiculous heavy trucks.  The car bodies, on the other hand, are very well built. 

    The single biggest problem with the CLRV was that it was born of political desperation when the GO-Urban Maglev project fell apart, and Queen’s Park desperately needed a product for new suburban lines like Scarborough (which was originally going to run with CLRVs including the planned extension to Malvern).


  6. The point I am making is not about the design requirements – but the reliability.  These are separate considerations.  A product can have a great functional design – but be unreliable.  A standard product will have the benefit of a greater investment in reliability engineering.  It will benefit from broader experience in the field that allow engineers to improve parts and maintenance procedures.

    A manufacturer will have a greater stock of spare parts for a standard product, they will cost less, and will be available with shorter lead times.  They will last longer.

    This means that a standard product will be more reliable, more available and less cost costly than a highly modified one. (This is aside from the additional up front costs.)

    The 25-30% modification should be a huge red flag. (Car bodies are not moving parts.)

    Steve:  I have a fundamental problem with the 25-30% number.  First off, two large components of any vehicle are the electrical subsystem and the carbody.  These are not sensitive to things like track gauge, at least on the small scale level we are talking of in Toronto.  The main problems arise with the following:

    truck design — will the trucks track our system and especially our special work
    articulation design — what are the minimum curve radii acceptable both horizontal and vertical
    gradeability — what is the maximum grade a car can climb and descend

    Addressing these is a question of degree, not of complete redesign, at least for any car that could be a serious option for the Toronto system.  Obviously any new lines will be built to avoid these constraints, although we have a big problem at Union Loop where the TTC in their wisdom built one of the tightest curves on the entire system.  Probably the easiest way to deal with this problem is to move to double-end cars, but I don’t see that happening for a long time.


  7. I assume by double-end, you mean operator cabs at each end of the vehicle or set of vehicles.

    Steve:  Yes.

    The three areas you mention would be certainly be the prime concerns.  However, there could be ripple effects: e.g. changes to the truck could well require changes to the braking and suspension systems.

    Steve:  The primary braking system on all rail transit vehicles is the motor.  If a car is properly designed, moving the wheels a short distance further apart (2 3/8 inches) is not going to destroy the validity of the design, certainly not at a 30% level.

    With the low floor designs, there is more equipment packed into a smaller space, which means less room for design engineers to move stuff around to accomodate the unique requirements.

    Steve:  Much of the equipment for low-floor cars is on the roof where the track gauge is of little consequence.

    These systems (truck, braking, suspension and articulation) could easily account for 25-30% of the engineered parts.  Electric engines don’t have that many parts.  Here the problem may be lack of space to accomodate the larger HP needed for the grade requirements.

    Steve:  In this discussion, which I am going to close off here, the issue is that we need the details before we make decisions rather than prejudging the whole LRT versus RT costs on the basis of conjecture.  My objection to the TTC staff recommendations is that they do not establish the basis for them in the underlying study, and want the Commission to rubber stamp something that may prove to be quite different on closer examination.  If we don’t keep the option open, we may never have that chance.


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