Too Much Transit Priority?

The Public Works & Infrastructure Committee will consider a report on October 3 entitled Sustainable Transportation Initiatives:  Short-term Proposals.  This report includes a discussion of bike lanes and pedestrian improvements, but the parts that caught my eye deal with transit.

There is no question that we need to improve transit’s priority on our road system, but some of the recommendations show a mixed feeling toward this task.

  1. Extend peak period parking restrictions. 
  2. Introduce or extend left turn prohibitions, or create exclusive left turn phases, in the interest of clearing traffic in front of streetcars.
  3. Revise the transit priority signals so that they would only apply to transit vehicles that are behind schedule or to maintain headways.
  4. Implement queue jump lanes and far side bus bays where feasible.
  5. Implement shoulder bus lanes on the DVP from York Mills to Lawrence.
  6. Investigate automated camera technology to enforce stopping, turning and parking prohibitions.
  7. Ensure that all new light rail vehicles (streetcars) be equipped to handle some form of Proof of Payment (POP).

The report states that downtown peak parking and stopping restrictions are generally from 7:30 to 9:30 am, and 3:30 to 6:30 pm, and suggests that these hours be extended throughout the city where practical.  A good argument can be made that, for the downtown area, these hours need further extension, but the report is silent on this topic.

The proposal for transit priority signals depends on full integration with a GPS-based scheduling system that could decide whether a transit vehicle is early or not, or whether some sort of headway regulation is needed.  While this is technically possible, I can’t help thinking this is yet another example of technology overkill — a nice project for a consulting company, but not something that will have significant benefits for transit.

The underlying assumption is that there are actually times when transit priority is not needed, and that by providing it we are robbing hapless motorists of green time they would otherwise get on cross streets.  Somehow, the basic fact — that transit vehicles will tend to be early when there is no congestion — seems to have escaped the authors of this proposal.  Moreover, the many instances now in place where so-called priority signals either do not work, or actually impede transit movements, are not addressed at all.

As for automated camera technology, I am all for better enforcement but have to ask how we will possibly read licence plates in a row of parked cars.  What is missing is any discussion of enhanced powers for ticketing and towing by TTC itself.  Cameras can easily monitor illegal turns, but these are a minor problem compared with the loss of road space through illegal parking.  Towing is far more effective in discouraging commercial vehicles than fines which are treated as a business expense.

A vital observation is buried in the report, but omitted from the recommendations.  A section on the Ridership Growth Strategy states that failure to implement RGS “will result in lost opportunities to increase transit ridership in Toronto, and to promote sustainable transportation”.   We can nibble around the edges of traffic management all we want, but unless we substantially improve service (either with more vehicles or much better utilization of those we have), everything else is small change.