Last Chance for the GTTA?

On Friday, January 26, the Canadian Urban Institute presented a panel discussion entitled The GTA’s New Transportation Authority:  Last Chance to Get It Right?  Events like this tend to have a lot of talking heads rambling on to a room full of their professional cohorts, but I attended on the off chance the collection of speakers and the political dynamics would provoke some interest.  The session certainly provoked a standing room only crowd, unusual, I heard, for CUI events.

First up was Donna Cansfield, the Minister of Transportation who emphasized that transportation must precede development, and development can only occur where governments choose to provide services.  A noble goal indeed, but a century of politicians has come and gone staking out that turf.  Developers build where they want to, often with the active support of local councils regardless of Provincial policy. 

Developers are also smart enough to play both sides of the political street.  If the government of the day opposes what they want, they cry gloom and doom, economic disaster, the flight of jobs and population, and the end of life as we know it.  Eventually, a sympathetic government gains control and while they’re in power, developers make sure to push through a decade or more worth of approvals that will tide them over the next dry spell.

All the same, Minister Cansfield appeared to be sincere, and to her credit, she stayed for the entire morning’s discussion rather than fleeing back to her office a block away.

Next up was Rob MacIsaac, the newly minted Chair of the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority.  I should be writing “authority” in teensy tiny type, because the GTTA at this point is five people.  [MacIsaac joked that one of them is the receptionist, and that tells me how much he values his future staff.]  MacIsacc has a nice set of visuals that he’s trotting around the region, and he sounds very sincere about doing something about the transportation mess.  

Quite clearly, the “business as usual” approach is not on his agenda, but it’s unclear what the alternative will be.  We get the usual bits about co-ordination and farecards, and he’s hoping to conduct a full review with the goal of having something concrete to propose in about a year’s time.  That review will be critical.  If all the GTTA does is to dust off stacks of reports sitting in offices from Hamilton to Oshawa, it will miss the fundamental issue — the old plans didn’t work because they were too timid, they didn’t really make the shift from a highways plus transit mindset to one that really put transit first. 

I’m not saying that transit can do everything, but for decades the money outside of the 416 was spent on roads, while GO limps along unable to make substantial improvements.  Moreover, transit doesn’t exist simply to generate billion-dollar subway construction projects, but to move people over a complex web of travel patterns.  Huge capital subsidies are meaningless if they are concentrated in a few, politically motivated showcase projects.

MacIsaac displayed maps of subway systems in London, New York, Tokyo and Madrid — lovely spiderwebs of grahic design — then ended with the Toronto map.  [No TTC lawyers rose to challenge his use of their precious map.]  The implication was clear — Toronto and the GTA could be great like those other cities if only we built more subways.  The problem with his comparison was that his reference cities have totally different population densities, histories and travel patterns. You don’t create a London just by building ten subway lines.

MacIsaac wants the GTTA to prioritize infrastructure requirements across the region.  Sounds great, very businesslike, very evenhanded to all concerned.  The problem is that the requirements vary hugely from one place to another.  If by “prioritize” we mean “spend the same per capita” or some such formula, the GTTA will be useless from the outset.  The 905’s population is spread over a much larger area, and distance translates to cost when you’re building infrastructure. 

The presentation was notable for one other thing:  the total absence of LRT from any of the imagery.  Lots of busways, highways, commuter rail and subway, but no LRT.  I challenged him on this during the Q&A, and he replied that LRT is definitely something he is interested in and it’s on the table.  We shall see.

Other interesting questions included one from a Council member whose ward is afflicted with traffic jams to and from the GO station.  This brings us to the inevitable problem that GO is very much dependent on cars and parking lots as feeder services rather than on local bus networks.

Someone asked whether the GTTA would go the same forgotten and unlamented way as its predecessor, the Greater Toronto Services Board.  MacIsaac hopes not, but my take on this is that any agency must actually accomplish something and develop a strong constituency among voters to survive changes of government.  What will the GTTA do for its next trick once we have a regional farecard?  Will anyone care?

Richard Soberman, whose history in Toronto’s transportation planning and politics goes back beyond my own, spoke next in his usual acerbic and humourous way about the huge amount that we plan, but never actually build anything.  He used the Mississauga busway as an example of a project that’s been on the books for 35 years and is now touted as the great new thing that will transform the GTA.  He spoke also of the difficulties of public participation and I had trouble figuring out where he really stands on this.

Soberman’s big concern is that the present mechanism of getting public feedback with meetings and studies and reports leads to highjacking by “special interest groups” who subvert the process.  That label is handy — it allows someone to dismiss questions and opposition selectively, but definitions are hard to come by.  Save Our St. Clair (SOS) is a special interest group, but York University is a good member of the civic community.  Both of them have screwed up transit planning in these parts, but only one is consigned to the outer darkness.

Soberman went on to suggest that new models of participation via the Internet can revive the participation process.  Certainly the amount of activity we see today on transit issues and city planning in general show the power of this medium.  However, there’s another side that such open debate brings:  the proponents of a scheme cannot hide behind process, they cannot duck questions or facilitate their way through public meetings that are all show and no substance.  Internet based discussions will generate reams of comments, some valid, some drivel, and a lot of ads for sundry life-enhancing drugs.  The debate could escalate out of control in sheer volume and turn off the very audience it’s meant to involve.  At the end of the day, will the participants be any more representative of “the community” than those who pack a local church hall?

The fundamental problem with studies and public participation is that people cannot debate what they don’t know about.  For decades, all we have heard about in Toronto is subways.  LRT proposals appear now and then, but never with the gung-ho comparisons of other major LRT cities and what Toronto could aspire to be.  One simple example is the Croydon Tramlink operation in London which carries substantially more people than the Queen car.  I’m not holding out this as a necessary model for Toronto, but why do we only hear about London’s subways, and not its plans for an expanding LRT network?

Adam Giambrone, the TTC’s new Chair, brought some much-needed perspective to the meeting.  There was an air of “I have a real transit system to run” about his remarks.  Responding to earlier comments about the need for balance between roads and transit, his response is that in Toronto we are building transit, period.  Giambrone emphasized the need to provide better service where we have riders today and only then to expand into areas of lower demand.  The best means of handling all those riders?  Buses and streetcars.  Somehow, Giambrone said, we need to reconcile the $200-million/km cost of subways with the much lower cost of LRT.  If someone would put $10-billion on the table, then the TTC might think in terms of a major subway network, but what’s more likely is that we will see $1-billion, and we have to make very different choices.

The TTC faces the challenge of a 2.5% growth rate in demand.  That’s the equivalent of adding one “Mississauga Transit” to the system every two years.  That rate, however, isn’t enough to keep up with growth and with the latent demand for better transit service in the region where we are still losing modal split from transit to cars.

Giambrone spoke of crowding problems on the King car, and said that right now, today, the TTC needs 23 more streetcars just to provide adequate service.  This is an astounding statement from the head of an organization where the party line has been “don’t worry, there’s really no backlog of demand, and more service would only disappear in traffic congestion”.

Building is not enough, said Giambrone, and we need funding for maintenance and operating costs.  Every new rider costs the system money, but failure to provide service is costly too.  The GTTA needs to be about expansion of transit spending, not merely reallocating existing resources among the systems.

Mary-Frances Turner, Vice-President of the York Region Rapid Transit Corporation (aka VIVA), spoke about linking ridership growth to land use.  That’s a topic planners were debating back before my early days in Streetcars for Toronto, when sheep grazed in the fields along Finch Avenue.  VIVA has great hopes to evolve from simply a bus company to a network of dedicated bus lanes and eventually LRT.  [This presentation was the only one to have an LRT vehicle in a picture, although you had to know what you were looking for.]

Turner spoke about the plans for Markham Centre and the need to stay with a long-range vision for city growth and form.  Those are noble sentiments, and if she and her Council bring it off, I will be truly impressed.  If the drawings are anything to go by, we will have a suburb up in the 905 unlike anything we’ve seen before, but I can’t help having nagging doubts.

A moderatly dense urban Markham would be nice, but there are miles and miles and miles of boring Highway 7 (and other roads like it) outside of Markham.  One town plan does not rejuvenate the entire GTA.

More to the point, the goal that a compact Markham will encourage people to live and work locally thereby supporting transit and reducing the need for road capacity sounds nice, but we have seen in the growing 416 and 905 that people live and work all over the place.  Don Mills, the prototypical planned community, is full of people who work everywhere but in Don Mills.  Yes, the creation of dense nodes throughout the 905 will make a difference, especially if they are lively communities, not just clusters of offices and condo towers, but they won’t eliminate the need for travel between these nodes and the comparatively empty spaces in between.  For that you need a network, and you will probably have to take road space away from cars to make room for some of it.

Finally, we had a long, dull and rather self-serving presentation by David Livingston who is the President and CEO of Infrsatructure Ontario.  This entity is dedicated to the idea that we can build public assets better and faster with the help of the private sector.  I will spare you my thoughts on PPPs, but the real issue here is that building and operating a transit network is very different from building a hospital or a jail.  Indeed, from Livingston’s talk, you would think that’s all his company ever did.

The basic point, as Adam Giambrone stressed during the Q&A, is that one way or another we have to pay for public infrastructure.  We can debate all we like about whether it will be better or more cost-effective to do this with private rather than public capital and which model should be used for ownership.  At the end of the day, the issue is not to shave pennies off a construction contract, but to spend much, much more on transit if we really believe in this as the future of our transportation system.

After four hours, a few cups of coffee, a croissant and a fruit salad, I made my way back into the real world.  My sense of the meeting is that with the exception of Adam Giambrone, and by extension Toronto Council, there is little real sign that a GTTA will rise to the challenges we face.  Conveniently, the agency won’t even present a “state of the union” report for a year, well after the fall 2007 Provincial election.

The GTTA by itself cannot make the changes needed to build the long-overdue transit network the Toronto region deserves.  It has no power, no money and no political constituency beyond a few block radius of Queen’s Park.  We don’t even know whether it will meet in public so that we can assess the outlook of its Board and determine its direction.

Is this our last chance to get it right as the session’s title asks?  Is it too late already?  The answer really lies at Queen’s Park and its penny-pinching treasury.  If there’s money for baubles like the Spadina subway with no discussion of real alternatives, if funding GO Transit depends on local municipalities coughing up millions, if transit improvement consists mainly of an integrated fare card for access to infrequent and overcrowded services, then the GTTA is doomed.  Business as usual is not an option, and that should be Rob MacIsaac’s message, loud and clear.

10 thoughts on “Last Chance for the GTTA?

  1. The London trams run primarily on converted rail lines.  If Toronto had a bank of unused old rail lines, we could have a debate about whether to run heavy or light equipment on them.  The trouble is that Toronto’s rail lines are still used to haul freight – which on balance is a good thing.  The closet things we have available are the hydro corridors.

    Steve:  Actually some proposed expansion of the LRT network in London involve street running, but in any event the main reason I posted the link was to show what a transit system puts out when it really wants to generate public support a proposal.  By contrast, the TTC still includes remarks about noisy and vibration-generating streetcars as a negative in bus versus LRT comparisons.


  2. I have my interest here in the east and GO is big on my brain and yes the parking lots are huge and in most of Durham with 30 min service there is no incentive to use the local bus to get to the terminal.  I hang around the station sometimes and I notice the buses that come from the area where I propose a Transit hub are full, a full bus along with a lot of cars are going in that direction – North from the Lakeshore Go station in Ajax.

    GTTA really has to get good people at that table.  I would like to have a vote on who represents Durham on this committee but I know that will not happen.

    I went to the Town hall meeting that Mark Holland had and at least I left with the feeling that he really shared the vision.  It was an excellent flow of conversation.  There is one coming up soon with a double bill of Jim Flaherty and Christine Elliot (They are married) in Whitby.  I will be going to that one but I am not sure I am going to be leaving with warm fuzzies in regards to Transit questions I ask.

    I have a small question, is it “buses” or “busses”?  I have seen it writen both ways and neither is said to be wrong. Which it is it in your opinion?

    Steve:  Common usage in Toronto, certainly by the TTC, is “buses”, and that’s the style I use here.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives “busses” as a variant form, and it shows up in some of the citations.  The compound forms with “bus-” all seem to use one “s”, although they are also part of other meanings of “bus”. 

    The word “buss” has meanings that have nothing to do with transit, while “bus” is derived from “omnibus” which has only one “s”.  I hope that this will not spark a debate such as the infamous Globe & Mail letters regarding the plural of “hippopotamus”


  3. I work just outside the planned Markham Centre and take Viva to work.  They are really building high density stuff.  Next to the Viva stop, two office buildings and two condos are being built.  They are at near-downtown densities — no ridiculous lawns or enormous parking lots.  It’s amazing me that someone in suburbia has a brain.

    There’s another bundle of condos and townhouses at Highway 7 and Bayview.

    Is the big Vaughan project supposed to be anything like this?

    Steve:  Generally speaking, yes.  The sad part in all this is that the provincial government is so fixated on a subway link that they miss the opportunity for a much larger network of LRT lines knitting together all of the developing communities along major east-west corridors.  Those links between the development nodes will be vital to making the whole thing work.


  4. I find it interesting that while a local councillor complains about GO Transit’s traffic jams from its parking lots (is GO Transit a transit system or a parking lot shuttle?), Soberman touts the Mississauga Busway.

    The Mississauga Busway, as he points out, is 35 years old.  It is a crying shame that we never got past that type of thinking from the 1970s.  As GO Transit, the busway will rely on park-and-ride lots to feed its system.  This is because it will pass through a pedestrian unfriendly area (Highway 403 and a hydro corridor) and will not link areas of even moderate residential density.  Meanwhile, the busway is useless for Mississauga’s busiest routes, Hurontario and Dundas, whose overcrowded buses and closed-doors rival those of the TTC’s busiest routes.

    It is sad that the Mississauga Transit way and other BRT projects are still thought of as the way to go, and we have not learned the lessons from GO Transit.


  5. Does Mr. McIssac Have an email address?  You should email your posting to him!

    You’re absolutely correct in that what we need is dedicated permanent funding but Queen’s Park has always been wedded to the idea of one big pot of money that it controls unconditonally.  This doesn’t suit long-term capital planning very well (in any sector) and of course there is the notion that giving municipalities anything other than the property tax would cause the country to go insolvent in a week.  It’s unfortunate, but this mentality will take a long time to change.


  6. While J Albert is correct that most of Toronto’s rail lines still carry freight, there is not a much of it and there is a lot of unused space on a number of those rights of way. 

    The SRT was built along side of the Uxbridge Sub. 
    The CN/CP lines through Parkdale have spare width as there are many industries left on them that use rail. 
    I am not sure about the width on the Newmarket Sub south of the York Sub but I believe that it has some spare width. 
    The CN/CP through Weston has excess width but I doubt that CP would let anything interfere with the MacTier sub as it is their transcontinental main line.  The CN Weston sub has the huge bridge over the Humber River and there is also the need to bridge the Black Creek. 

    Except possibly for the lines through Weston I am not sure how useful any of these would be for LRT or any transit use.  The Weston lines have the advantage of being within a block or two of Weston Road which is a major transportation corridor.  It may also be filled with whatever gets built to the airport.  

    One thing that has not been mentioned in any of this is the use of electrified GO transit style equipment on the existing rail line to form a high speed net in the 416 area to connect transit nodes together.  No one wants to ride subway cars at high speed for these distances.  The electrification should be at 1500 to 3000 VDC to save the higher costs of AC and the weight of transformers on the cars and to reduce the number of sub stations required.  The headway should be at least every 30 minutes base and 10 rush.

    It would probably make more sense and be cheaper to run this up to Vaughan rather than build the Spadina subway.  It would certainly be faster.  It could make a transfer stop with the LRT from the Spadina subway to York U.

    Sydney Australia has City Rail which is like a combination of GO transit and TTC HRT that runs at 1600 VDC and covers most of Sydney and surrounding areas to quiet a distance out from the core.  LRT has a place a more local transit use but to carry people the greater distances that are becoming the norm in the GTA I believe that we need a form of transit that is of a higher capacity than the current GO and of a greater speed and more comfortable than the TTC’s HRT.

    If it went up the Weston Sub it could provide a better airport link to downtown than that thing that THEY are looking at.  Electrification would allow for closer station spacing than diesel hauled trains and the line would need ATC or cab signalling for better headways.  Well that is my $0.02 worth. I still believe that LRT is needed but not any more subways.


  7. Having lived in London for the last 5 years, I can affirm that the trams, both in place and indeed the new lines being proposed, are not to my knowledge even primarily on existing track. I am not an expert on the issue, mind you. But one line close to fruition (the Brixton – Camden Town line) not only involves street running but new track through Central London road conditions that even by London standards are extremely tricky (and will probably be very expensive).

    As a Torontonian abroad, it is sad to see so little political enthusiam for streetcars, even when they are branded ‘LRT’ and imagined as travelling at a bonkers speed through unpopulated hydro corridors.


  8. I’m glad to hear that they’re building high-density stuff in Markham Centre and maybe in Vaughan, but building a little node of high density surrounded by miles of residential, industrial and commercial sprawl strikes me as being just like building a subway fed by a few meagre lines with half-hour headways.

    Having fairly recently gone house-hunting (and finding) in east Toronto, I’ve noticed that the perception of density is at least one level lower outside the original Toronto – that is, the typical Toronto semi-detached house that comprises most of the housing stock west of Vic Park and south of Danforth would be considered medium-density in the 905, maybe even medium-high density, and we’d better strategically align a row of it along our Transit Corridors to encourage ridership.

    I half expected your post to deal with funding, maybe because that’s what all the media coverage seemed to focus on, particularly the recurring concept of a London-type downtown congestion tax.  I’d like to know whether MacIsaac was willing to entertain a gas tax across the GTTA service area.  A downtown-only toll will do nothing to address traffic congestion and mediocre transit in much of 905 (not to mention the concerns about more businesses leaving downtown).  It seems to me that over the long term a dedicated gas tax would encourage a reduction in driving across the GTA, plus would also encourage a shift to more fuel-efficient (and greener) vehicles.  I’ve read that a cent per litre would amount to roughly $50M across the GTA.  Depending on the level of gas taxation, and the proceeds being invested into meaningful transit increases across the GTA, this could be both an effective stick and carrot.  And the GTTA would be the perfect body to implement it: it’s not a direct political agency (what politician would touch a gas tax?); it can implement policy across a broad area (if Toronto implemented it, drivers would just fill up on the north side of Steeles, for example); etc.

    Steve:  I stayed away from revenue issues because it’s the easy, common pitfall of a lot of these discussions — just give us more money and the problems will all vanish.  MacIsacc mused on tolls within the 416, but Mayor Miller shot that one down within the day.

    There is one fundamental problem:  we don’t have the transit infrastructure, not even the bus routes, to absorb all of the demand that, in theory, we might displace from cars to transit.  Moreover, the people most affected by any form of tax or toll will be those who are already on the borderline of car affordability.  Those who can afford to take the hit will continue to do so.  After all, people were paying 25 cents a litre more for gas only months ago, and they didn’t all swing over to transit.

    When we talk about a penny a litre or $50-million, that’s only a drop in the bucket.  It’s barely enough to cover the annual inflation in transit operating costs across the GTA let alone provide new service or infrastructure.  Anything less than a dime isn’t worth debating — if we spend all of our political capital for a paltry $50-million, it’s not worth the fight.

    As you say, a congestion charge downtown does nothing for the region as a whole and moreover has the false premise that downtown is the problem.  The problem is in the suburbs where there’s lots of congestion and you can’t get from one place to another by transit.

    People keep hoping for some sort of magical “user pay” scheme without recognizing that the “user” is all of us, and the sooner we start funding transit out of general tax revenues, the way we used to, the sooner we will stop wasting time talking about penny-ante “solutions”.


  9. The new Markham town centre area is one VIVA stop away from Unionville GO station, which connects both north/south and east/west. So while it isn’t perfect, it’s progress.

    Maybe Rob MacIsaac is using the Madrid example as a general wake-up call, but I cringe to see investing in transit equated to subway expansion. I find it interesting that whenever Madrid pops up, it’s described in terms of methods (the length of new subway lines built), not results (whether the increase in ridership made it worthwhile). The same sort of logic would allow mid-sized suburbs elsewhere in North America to point to Toronto and say they should build their own Sheppard subway lines!

    I still think the far better example is London, where bus ridership is up 40% since 2000. (But I agree that since the TTC is already running at capacity, the last thing it needs right now is a London-style congestion charge to create demand it can’t handle.)


  10. London’s congestion charge was mainly intended to ensure schedule reliability on the many, many bus lines which ran through downtown in one end and out the other, which were getting their schedules screwed up by traffic. It has indeed managed to accomplish this.

    If you have a part of town which is causing this exact problem, and the roads are too narrow for bus lanes (many of the important roads in the older parts of London are insanely narrow, the bigger ones often being two lanes wide including parking) then a congestion charge for it will probably work.

    If you have a road which is wide enough for three lanes in each direction, and it’s packed, put two exclusive bus or streetcar lanes in, and you can still have one parking and one traffic lane in each direction. You’ll get better results than you would from a congestion charge. London didn’t do this mainly because there was no room on the streets: preserving the possibility of local access was considered necessary.


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