Closing Remarks from the GTA Transit Summit

The following text is adapted from the notes of my closing remarks at the GTA Transit Summit on Saturday, November 4.

Think Big

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:

  1. In the inner 416, preserve and develop transit supportive neighbourhoods with new and improved services.
  2. In the outer 416, encourage transit supportive redevelopment replacing car-oriented built form and density with medium density neighbourhoods and good transit services.
  3. 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.

9 thoughts on “Closing Remarks from the GTA Transit Summit

  1. Ottawa, of course, has an extensive BRT system that works extremely well.  However, Ottawa does not, as yet, have the density, both in population and traffic, that Toronto has (by my estimation, Ottawa is about seventy years behind Toronto in population growth).  As wonderful as the Transitway is here in Ottawa, I fail to see how anything remotely similar could work in the GTA. 

    Besides, the Transitway was designed to be converted to LRT once a certain population base was achieved — a fact that the current city council and its O-Train promoters have conveniently forgotten.


  2. In today’s transit-strained environment, PPPs should not be dismissed as a partial answer to the dearth of new investment.  People often mistake PPP solutions as mainly about ownership/stewardship when in fact they are primarily used for the same reasons that people buy houses with mortgages – using someone elses capital allows you to “own” something much faster than otherwise would be the case. 

    Private investment capital is (today) more readily available than public capital.  Indeed Canada’a large pension funds (public and private) are practically crying out for opportunties to invest in infrastructure.  Ultimately the public still regulates and, at the end, owns the asset; they just pay for it over a longer period, paying interest to the lenders/investors along the way. To say that public sector financing is better because it is “free” (it’s not) is like saying it’s cheaper to buy a house with cash than with a mortgage – true but not relevant to 99% of the population.

    I’m not sure what the alternatives are, other than very little getting built; that will continue to be the case when certain interests (mainly public sector unions who perceive their well-paid jobs as being threatened…not really a sound basis for policy…) use specious arguments against sensible PPPs, the kind that are being used all over the world for roads, transit and all types of infrastructure.

    Steve:  The problem lies in the yawning gap between the theory you describe and what usually happens.  The best local example is highway 407, originally in the public realm, that was sold off in a sweetheart deal to paper over a cash flow problem at Queen’s Park.

    If I could really believe that PPPs would be developed on a lender/investor relationship rather than one where those in power hand over public assets to their friends for private profit, I might have a different view of things.

    Your statement about public investment being seen as “free” is faulty.  We have to pay for new infrastructure somehow either with cash-from-current revenue, borrowing, leasing, or some combination of these.  Borrowing, one way or another, leads as all good conservative thinkers know to a requirement to pay for the debt.  It does not matter whether this is public or private debt, the public pays for it as part of the cost of operating a transit system or government in general.  We can hold the debt directly in the public sector, or indirectly through the private partner.

    If our concern is that there is some private agency “out there” who can build subways for $60-million a mile, then go find them and let them bid on the construction work along with every other company in southern Ontario.


  3. Our governments need to spend significant money on public-sector public transit improvements.  The GTA is going to grow no matter what, but it would become a much more livable region if we improve mobility throughout the region.  Currently, both roads and public transit suffer from significant congestion at most times of day.  Road construction is not an efficient way to improve mobility in urban areas.  Roads consume much more land for a given amount of capacity than public transit, they are inherently environmentally unfriendly, and they are inaccessible to the lower classes.  Thus, public transit is the cheapest and most efficient way to transport people in cities the size of Toronto.  If we invest in our public transit infrastructure, we will greatly improve mobility in the GTA.  This will encourage development, shopping, culture, and tourism, which will improve our quality of life, our economy and our tax base.

    All three levels of government ought to fund our public transit infrastructure.  Funding sources could include tax increases or cuts in other government departments (such as the military), but they must not include debt or private corporations.  If the levels of government cannot cooperate, the remaining level(s) of government which support(s) the project should try to finance the project independently.  Debt is a huge waste of government money, while private corporations will make our public transit infrastructure unaffordable to the lower classes of society.  It is even worse to underfund public transit.

    Steve:  In addition, “senior” governments have to stop linking funding with specific projects.  Either they are giving us $X for transit or not.  What we spend it on is our business and if we waste it on useless subway construction, we have only ourselves to blame.


  4. Will the GTTA set a standarized fare for everyone no matter what age you are?  I think that this is a good idea since it will make people buy tickets and it probably would generate a lot of money. 

    My main question is why is the TTC so damn slow with figuring out this type of fare and going with time-based transfers on the whole system? while everyone else in the 905 regions uses standarized fares and has time-based transfers.

    Steve:  Time based transfers/fares present a problem for the subway system because of the way transfers are issued.  Only with a change to the system where the time of entry is recorded when you come through the turnstile, with transfers only available when you pay a fare, could this be modified.

    This is one advantage of a smart card — it can remember when you started your last trip — compared with a flash pass (like the Metropass) which stores no data.

    In proposing a flat fare, I am trying to stimulate discussion of transit as a service rather than as a revenue generator.  A great deal of effort in looking at new fare collection technology revolves around the current multi-zone scheme and the mixed use of time-based and distance-based fares.


  5. Why are subways, built above ground, so much more expensive than LRTs or GO trains?  If we build subways above ground, aren’t they just smaller versions of GO trains?  Is it neccessary for all subway stops to be underground or even cut and cover?

    Steve:  There are several factors here:

    Subways must be completely grade separated whereas LRT can cross streets at grade (or even run down the middle of one).  This forces us to build under- and over-passes wherever a subway meets a street or some other conflicting structure.
    The maximum design gradient for subways is 4 percent, and that’s a worst case (the hill south of Summerhill).  Lesser gradients of about 2 percent are preferred.  This makes the approach distance to a bridge or underpass quite long (20 feet of headroom takes 1000 feet at 2 percent).  With such long approaches, and with intersections close together, you spend almost no time “on the level” and it’s simpler just to stay elevated or below grade.  Taking the track down 20 feet is probably too shallow for many road crossings due to conflicts with utilities.  (At least 10 feet of the drop will be taken up with the height of the tunnel.)
    The alternative (taking the roads over or under the subway) only works in areas that don’t have existing building fronting on the street. Roads can have steeper grades than subways, and so the over/underpass is shorter, but there is still the problem of isolating adjacent buildings.
    Subway trains are (usually) longer than LRT and this requires longer stations.  This triggers a requirement under fire code for two separate exits.  With current accessibility requirements, this also drives up the number of escalators and elevators.
    Subways (and LRT) include electrification for power supply, whereas GO uses diesel-electric locomotives.  This is cost effective until you get frequent service and/or a requirement for fast acceleration and braking.
    Because subways have so much more frequent service (whether it is actually needed for ridership or not, e.g. Sheppard), the amount of rolling stock relative to the line is higher.  This drives up requirements for a carhouse as well as ongoing maintenance.

    The basic problem is that most rapid transit lines serve demand that is along a street, not in the middle of a field, and open cut or surface operation is not an option.  Indeed, if the Yonge line were proposed today, all of the demolition that happened to provide the open right-of-way would be strongly resisted, if not physically impossible.


  6. I agree that the problem that we have currently have (and the reason I support PPP solutions) is the notion that governments must pay for capital, including multi-billion dollar transit expansion plans, with current revenues.  We can’t make the distinction between running deficits for government operations (a bad thing, except maybe in a severe recession), and for capital investment (a necessary thing, especially for long lived assets). 

    The 407 is an unfortunate example, and was really a privatization/cash grab by the previous government (although I agree with the idea of urban expressway tolls at rates set by the market … so I have a tough time being too upset with it).  Better examples would be the Edmonton Ring Road, or the RAV line in Vancouver which is being partially financed with private money.  This is allowing these projects to go forward much sooner than would otherwise be the case.  If someone did offer to build a new $2 billion+ subway line in Toronto, for a fixed price, including a warranty and maintenance over 25-30 years, that the city could pay for over that time period at say $150 million per year.

    Levering some of the gas tax money, or maybe new liquor/tobacco taxes under the City of Toronto Act could achieve.  But I can just imagine the ATU going apoplectic if someone proposed this … so we’ll likely never find out whether it’s even possible … and never see any new subway lines (except maybe the Greg Sorbara Ego-way from an empty field in Downsview to an empty field in Vaughan).

    Steve:  One interesting thing about transit financing in Toronto (and many other cities) is that contributions from other governments are treated as revenue rather than as debt.  This is affected by the proportion of spending at each level that is funded by current revenues and by borrowing.

    The city finance department regularly reports on the capital debt it holds on behalf of TTC projects and argues that the city’s contribution to transit is much higher than usually reported.  If this debt went into a PPP, it would show up as an operating expense by way of the lease/payback arrangement.  The real question is whether we would be prepared to acknowledge that cost as an annual charge against the transit system, part of the cost of doing business, or prefer to hide it in an overall bucket of debt charges.


  7. I’ve just posted two articles on the Spacing Wire and Spacing Votes in the same spirit as Mr. Munro’s “Think Big” speech.

    Check them out:

    Sexy public transit, pt.1

    Sexy public transit, pt.2

    Steve:  These are a good overview of what might be done based on many plans now on the books.  As I have said many times in the past, we need to be careful not to take such plans “as is” because they have underlying assumptions that may be out of date.  However, the scale and coverage of these plans shows us what we could achieve if only we stopped trying to spend all of our money on one or two subway lines.


  8. I very much agree with the notion of a single-fare independent of time or distance spent on the various transit systems.  We do not live in distinct urban units, but a continuous urban conglomeration that we call the GTA. 

    What sense is there in asking someone who lives at Queensway and Kipling to pay a two zone fare to get Mississauga City Centre but one zone to get to Finch and McCowan?  Or any other short hops that cross an arbitrary line(s) on a map.

    Yes, those going from Brampton to Oshawa wouldn’t pay their ‘share’, but how many travellers would choose such a trip?  I cannot imagine the ‘lost’ revenue of such trips would outweigh the cost of implementing, mainitaining and explaining a zonal system to the vast bulk of users.  Not to mention the ‘lost’ revenue of potential transit users put off by the penalty of crossing a zone barrier.


  9. A new fare zone system to accomodate Martijn’s dilema needs to be enacted. This is similar to the zone system in London UK.

    Travel across a zone boundary from either zone requires a single fare, while travel through to a second zone requires a supplement (not a full second fare). Crossing 3 zones costs more, etc.

    For instance, Zone 1 could be the old City of Toronto. Zone 2 the outer 416 suburbs. Zone 3 Mississauga, Vaughn, Richmond Hill, Markham, Pickering. Zone 4 could be Oakville, Brampton, etc. Zone 5 Burlington, Milton …


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