The following text is adapted from the notes of my closing remarks at the GTA Transit Summit on Saturday, November 4.
If there was one vital thread running through the weekend’s presentations, it is this: population growth vastly exceeds our plans for providing more and better transportation services, and the public is getting fed up with excuses for what we cannot do. Politicians need to recognize the true scope of the problem and stop using unworkable shared funding schemes as their excuse for inaction.
The GTA population is growing at a rate of 100,000 per year. Over half of this will locate outside of the 416, and growth within the 416 is substantially higher in the outer suburbs where transit service is the worst. The TTC does a tolerable job (it could do much better) at providing support for a car-free lifestyle in the central area, but everywhere else a car is an absolute necessity.
Where are we in the face of this growth? Mississauga has plans for a busway/BRT with a capacity of up to 10,000 passengers per hour. This is a good start, but it doesn’t mean high quality service for the entire region. Moreover, that capacity is only practical for line-haul operations. If you want the buses to actually stop now and then for passengers, you need very large stations. That’s one advantage of a future LRT upgrade — fewer, but longer trains can handle higher capacities without stations resembling toll plazas.
Meanwhile over in Durham, there are plans for a BRT, but they are hung up on the tripartite funding formula. Until recently, we heard of the inconvenience suffered by Durham transit users — all 30,000 of them — during the recent strike. Durham needs to carry far, far more passengers to be a serious contender.
GO Transit has a ten-year plan that could, to be charitable, be called “modest”. In a decade, GO plans to have 20,000 more daily riders than today. That’s a whole 2,000 per year, not exactly a stunning contribution to regional capacity.
Both GO and VIVA operate “first class” services designed to attract the business commuter. Fares on GO are high, and their cost recovery is better than even the TTC’s. This model is unworkable for a large-scale regional service that must cater not just to the discretionary business traveller, but to the day-to-day rider. There is a myth that everyone in the 905 has anywhere from two to four cars in their garage, but that is changing fast if indeed it ever was true. A transit service designed only for the posh business rider cannot scale up, and its cost is untenable for the GTA as a whole.
Oh yes, GO’s other big goal for 2016 is to have 10,000 more parking spaces. You can do the math. 10,000 more cars with one person each who makes a round trip somewhere. That’s 20,000 new riders per day. Not very impressive.
Meanwhile, the TTC at its current 6% growth rate will carry 90,000 more passengers per day next year. That’s in a comparatively transit-friendly area with an established infrastructure. Imagine what systems in the 905 would have to do just to reach that level.
A Grand Plan
Earlier this year, I wrote a proposal, partly in jest, called A Grand Plan. Its intent was not to be prescriptive, to say “you must build here”, but descriptive, to say “this is what could be”. People often ask me where and what we should build, and I am loathe to get into map-drawing.
I get lots of feedback on this site with schemes for various lines. The problem is that the moment you draw a line on map, especially an official map, it gains status and the debate changes to why the line is, or isn’t, in some location rather than the fundamental issue of how big and complex our transit network should be.
Vital to any GTA planning will be that we look at one network, not a single agency’s territory or pet technology. This is not the same as amalgamation of the operating agencies or their political boards. What is needed is an end to interagency rivalry and planning that ignores the contributions of each member in the GTA.
For example, various proposals exist for east-west services in the corridor between Finch and Highway 7. Some look at a rail service in the CN York Subdivision right-of-way, others look at a BRT operation on the 407, still others at a BRT or LRT service in the Finch Hydro corridor. Each proposal is strongly coloured by the desires of its sponsor agency.
Similarly, the TTC has long made plans for rapid transit networks serving core-oriented demand while ignoring the role of GO in serving the growing demand from the 905 and outer 416. GO dismisses the 416 as not their territory even though magically someone can morph into a valued customer just by walking across Steeles Avenue. Projected demands on the full Sheppard Subway and the Spadina/York U line are strongly driven by regional travel that could partly be served by commuter rail if only there were enough of it. Planning in isolation prevents us from even considering such options.
The public needs to see a large-scale view of transit solutions, but there is little advocacy from governments or agencies especially for technologies like LRT that are poorly understood. We get a vague idea that LRT is not the same thing as a streetcar, but that’s about as far as it goes. The TTC did us no favour by caving into pressure to retain the Scarborough RT technology rather than converting to LRT. That decision only makes financial sense if we never extend the line, but the costs won’t come out so much in favour of RT when the extension north to Malvern is included in the calculations.
Governments love to talk about projects — they are easy to package into budgets and announcements, they limit financial exposure and public expectations to one specific line. The public, however, needs to see a network view, an overall scheme and, dare I say it, a vision of what transit could do for everyone. This requires a serious, long-term commitment and a lot of money to both capital construction and ongoing operations.
The very process of discussing major transit services stifles debate. Single, predefined projects are floated past a suspicious public. There is much work for facilitators and designers, and much frustration with prejudged outcomes. Decades-old schemes are treated as gospel even when the circumstances under which they were proposed have changed.
Challenging the Model
The 1960s saw the great urban expressway battles. Assumptions about road networks rooted in the 50s, 40s and 30s simply did not hold up to the changing role of cities as places people lived, not as huge networks of expressway ramps. Last summer, I attended a celebration of the Spadina Expressway’s cancellation on the grounds of Casa Loma, on a spot that would, in an alternate universe, have become part of the expressway. One huge and bitter irony is the growth of population in the core, possible only because its rebirth as a place to live thanks to the expressway’s absence. This roughly equals the number of commuters the expressway would have delivered from the burbs to gleaming office towers in an otherwise empty city.
Queen’s Park discovered transit, and the era of suburban subway construction started. Sadly, people did not understand that serving an existing built-up area is very different from the requirements in the sparsely-populated suburbs. The TTC’s myth that subways bring development lived on even though the Bloor-Danforth line has survived for decades without a forest of high-rise at every stop. The reason? The BD line is fed at many locations by frequent surface routes, and it has a good solid band of medium-density city all along the route and its closely-spaced stations.
Now we need another change, we need to embrace a model of more major transit lines, but with a less intrusive and costly technology be it buses or LRT. Sadly, we hear mainly about BRT because it suits GO Transit and Queen’s Park to talk about the cheapest option, and the public never sees a tentative design for an LRT network.
One GTA, One Network
If we are to address the growth in transit demand, incremental, small-scale changes won’t do it. We must move from the language of “subsidy” to one of “investment”. Why is a new road “an investment”, but a new bus (let alone a new streetcar) always a drain, a demand for greater “subsidy”?
I do not advocate PPP “solutions” whose primary purpose is to move debt off the books of government agencies while offering lucrative risk-free returns to the private sector. The question of whether the public sector is competent to build at reasonable cost is completely separate from where ownership should reside when a project is completed.
I have severe doubts about the usefulness of “smart card” systems whose raison d’etre has more to do with artificial lines on maps than with what would be best for transit riders. The questions of service quality and cost need to be decoupled from the revenue stream. Premium quality services such as an express ride on a commuter train should command an extra fare, but otherwise I have a radical proposal: a flat fare for the entire GTA provided through a monthly pass good on any regular-fare service.
The reaction this usually brings is that I have lost my senses, that the central network will be bled dry as we build up services in the 905 with nothing to show for it in revenue, a direct analogy to the abolition of “Zone 2” in 1972. That happened when suburban Councils in Metro Toronto, as it then was, said “if we’re going to subsidize the transit system, we’re going to ride on it for the same fare as everyone else”. Yes, being able to ride from Oshawa to Hamilton on my GTAPass may seem absurb, but if really wanted to take the hours needed to do this on local service, who cares?
A vital issue for transit is that we must not discourage medium-to-long haul riders by raising their fares. If a smart card means that someone travelling from Scarborough to Downtown must pay more, the “fair” fare for their trip, they will not be happy. The cheaper ride north to Markham won’t make up the difference. Moreover, a flat fare will eliminate the need for hundreds of millions’ worth of card handling technology. No benefit for the technology vendors, their lobbyists or the transit professionals who would rather do anything but actually run decent service, but a lot better for transit systems and their customers.
The soon-to-form GTTA has three fundamental challenges:
- In the inner 416, preserve and develop transit supportive neighbourhoods with new and improved services.
- In the outer 416, encourage transit supportive redevelopment replacing car-oriented built form and density with medium density neighbourhoods and good transit services.
- In the 905, design transit service to improve mobility throughout the region and design new neighbourhoods to support this service. The 905 is changing into a city from a loose collection of suburbs, and it needs “city” services to survive.
Good transit service is essential to the entire region. Transit must be the first choice, not the last choice, for the GTA.