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.

8 thoughts on “Too Much Transit Priority?

  1. I was in Zurich this summer, and Istanbul the summer before, both of which have outstanding LRT systems. Though I’m no expert in the field, I saw that the system in these cities worked as well as it did for three reasons: proof-of-payment fares everywhere (dramatically shortening the time required for stops); few traffic lights in the city (eliminating points where the car could get stuck), and generally light car traffic to compete with streetcars.

    Toronto is not likely to rip out traffic lights or junk every second car. So of the list I see above, I would most like to see POP fares throughout the system. Of course there will be fare evasion, but I like to think that the vast majority of people in this city are honest enough to pay their fare, even with a minimal level of enforcement. Besides, several times I’ve seen streetcar drivers let passengers on without paying (including me, one morning when I forgot my metropass at home).

    However, if it would ever be politically feasible, “real” signal priority for streetcars would be a close second (“real” meaning cross traffic is stopped when a streetcar approaches”). This is feasible in a North American city, as Salt Lake City’s TRAX system attests. But I think it would be a tough sell in Toronto.

    Failing that, it would be fun if one or more of the major downtown lines (like the Queen line) could be buried … but now I’m just dreaming.


  2. The report is encouraging on many fronts… but it’s so discouraging to think that the transit modal split (or transit’s share of daily transportation trips) is declining not only from 1996 to 2001: from ≈23.5 to 21.0, when the TTC grew +50M rides; but apparently yet again in the as yet unreleased 2006 MTO “Transportation Tomorrow” study, scheduled for release next month.

    Transit needs ALL the help it can get just to halt the erosion of transit’s share of trips… let alone start rebuilding it to 25% or 30%. The magnitude of the investment in operating expense has yet to be realized by anyone at the TTC or its Commission… let alone at the MTO, GTTA or Queen’s Park.

    They’re talking the talk.. but not walking the walk in a disciplined, systematic, strategic planning way. It’s month-to-month crisis planning or a LRT or subway project du jour… no way to run a railway or decide on a fare increase that will further hasten transit’s modal shift decline–with a punitive Metropass fare increase of $9!

    They’re talking out of both sides of their mouth… we need MORE transit and MORE service then choke it off with a contradictory, punitive fare increase with no promise of extra service to just MEET demand, let alone exceed it (just a vague paragraph to meet technical “loading standards” beginning Feb 2008!

    The TTC and GTTA need to be much more disciplined in budgeting operating funds for transit… without fare increases driving the R/C ratio over 80% again, as the November 2007 fare increase will surely do, a harsh stick without the carrot of increased service.

    The operating funding consequences are staggering… and will require real transit signal PRIORITY over cars… damn them! and buckets of cash from gas taxes, from Provincial uploading, new “revenue tool” taxes and higher than inflation Toronto property tax increases (as Toronto tax rates lag 905 municipalities in both absolute $ & %. Source: G&M Jennifer Lewington ≈July 2007))

    The TTC really needs to plan ahead strategically to implement it’s Transit City vision… and prepare Toronto for the funding required… with or without federal or provincial operating subsidies. The Toronto public is onside.. understands and desperately wants more transit in the GTA… it’s time for the TTC & GTTA to start planning and delivering it with contingency funding models.


  3. Aren’t most of the parking restrictions 7:00-9:00 and 4:00-6:00 currently?

    I would think a 7:00-10:00 and 3:30-6:30 would be a minimum level.

    And Mark has it hit the nail right on the head, actual enforcement of the existing restrictions would be a start. I certainly wouldn’t be put out if a few courier trucks got towed away on King Street, a few more drivers got ticketed for illegal turns and blocking intersections!

    Steve: Yes, most of the restrictions are at the times you state even though conflicting info appears in the report.


  4. Has thought been given to 3 way signalization at intersections on streetcar routes?

    Example: Queen and Dufferin

    Phase 1: Dufferin N and Dufferin S = green; Queen W and Queen E = red.
    Phase 2: Dufferin N, Dufferin S, and Queen W = red; Queen E = green.
    Phase 3: Dufferin N, Dufferin S, and Queen E = red; Queen W = green.

    Now I realize that Queen and Dufferin make a T intersection, but you get the idea. With the 3 way signal the streetcar will never be behind a car waiting to turn left, and since the stops are nearside anyway the extra red time shouldn’t matter too much.

    Steve: I don’t know if this has been considered, but the issue will be moot in a few years once the Dufferin jog elimination makes this a conventional intersection. At that point, Gladstone will be a “sidestreet” coming into Queen.


  5. Why do I think that this Public Works & Infrastructure Committee is nothing more than an extension of the car happy Roads department? It is this single department that has caused problems for the TTC network. From the cancelling of the Mount Pleasant Streetcar many years ago to the refusal to turn on Transit priority on the Spadina Corridor. I’ve even heard that they have set up “roadblocks” to block the proposed Transit City project.

    If there are to be budget cuts as defined by the city, whoever is running the roads department should get the ax and be replaced with someone more transit friendly.


  6. I can’t speak to the current views of staff but anecdotally, the General Manager of the Transportation Services department, Gary Welsh, told me a few months ago he had become a recent enthusiastic convert to the GO train (from driving).

    Also, these are the councillors who currently sit on the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee committee.

    * Glenn De Baeremaeker, Chair
    * Shelley Carroll
    * Adam Giambrone, Vice-Chair
    * Mark Grimes
    * Chin Lee
    * John Parker


  7. So that’s yet another senior City official who doesn’t live in the 416, presumably? [Gary Webster is also a GO-Trainer]

    I’m a big believer in “eating your own dogfood” to use the computing term – if senior city officials were obligated to live in the 416 as a condition of employment (and pay taxes here), maybe life would get a little better in Toronto.

    I’m not saying every city employee, but let’s start with every head of department/General Manager of ABCs, from the signing of their next contract, and see how it goes – and eliminate their reserved parking if they’ve got it too.


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