Today, the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario (RCCAO) released a study called “Transportation Opportunities in the Greater Toronto Area — Building on Transit City and Move Ontario 2020”.
Dr. Richard Soberman, author of the study, is the grand old man of transportation planning in these parts. I first met him at the offices of the Metro Toronto Transportation Plan Review up under the rafters of Old City Hall in the early 1970s. We go back a long way. Richard gives humourous public presentations, but more than jokes are needed in planning something as complex as the GTA’s future transit network.
As I read through the RCCAO Report making copious notes, I couldn’t help seeing many places where Soberman advocates what is already happening, or can easily be melded into current plans. However, he writes with a tone suggesting that his 99 pages are miraculous pearls, revelations dropped from the heavens for the adoration of we poor mortals. Soberman sets up a field full of straw men: short-sighted fools, politicians dominated by boundaries rather than embracing regions, advocates, planners and even fellow engineers with vested interests in the status quo.
As I started to write this post, my thought was “where can I begin”? Let’s start with the basic premises. My apologies if I misrepresent something, and for definitive info I refer you to the website.
- All plans should originate with professionals and experts based on careful study rather than from politicians based on electioneering
- Transit City is LRT centric and ignores alternative technologies that might better suit its corridors, and some of these corridors are misplaced
- Regional plans should make greater use of BRT
- Some existing and planned subways would be better as LRT lines (I am not making this up)
- Eglinton should probably be a full subway or an “extension” of the Scarborough RT
- Some alternative delivery models for infrastructure (private sector design/build) might work
Only Trust The Experts
Dr. Soberman urges that we return to those wonderful days when politicians signed cheques for big fat contracts and left the serious thinking to the professionals. That era brought us such wonders as the unbuilt expressway network for Toronto. This outlook presumes that Soberman and his colleagues are “professionals” in the most altruistic sense of the word.
They would never skew a study or make recommendations to curry favour (and future work) from their patrons, would they? They would never design routes that support private development interests rather than the overall good of the transportation network, would they?
Let us pause a moment to remember Soberman’s performance in Scarborough Council Chamber talking about the future of the RT less than two years ago. Clearly, he was headed to a recommendation for replacement with LRT technology because it would be cheaper to extend the line that way. He joked about having sold us the RT in his former guise within the Urban Transportation Development Corporation, and one could almost hear a ghostly cry of “suckers” on the wind.
Something happened to Soberman’s pro-LRT sentiment, and suddenly we found that the RT should be retained and upgraded, never mind that the financial comparison only worked if we didn’t extend it. Now he wants to run the line all the way along Eglinton to Keele. But I am getting ahead of myself.
We have politicians for a reason. Fallible though they may be, they actually listen to voters some of the time. We have a politician to thank for the absence of an expressway network and for the support, for a time, of transit expansion in Toronto. We have another politician to thank for the rebirth of interest in transit, for the concept that “Transit City” isn’t just an election promise.
Leave the decisions to the professionals, and you will get more of the same, a vision ending at the tips of their noses, and an arrogance challenging anyone who isn’t one of the brotherhood.
Those Pesky LRT Lines
Soberman’s biggest problem with Transit City is that it doesn’t seem to be well thought out. In fact, some of Soberman’s arguments were part of the Transit City discussions, but those who worked on the scheme didn’t call him for advice.
He dislikes the emphasis on LRT, but sets up straw arguments to “prove” that it is inappropriate in situations for which the lines are not intended. This is hardly the work of a dispassionate, seasoned observer.
The biggest problem seems to be that Transit City dispenses with a detailed alternative analysis and sets the Environmental Assessments the task of merely looking at how LRT would be used in each corridor. For shame! As if we have never had BRT or RT or subway proposals so loaded against LRT alternatives that these don’t even make the short list for detailed review!
LRT’s biggest problem has always been that it has no sponsor, no patron. The civil works are comparatively simple, and this hurts both the engineering and construction firms whose profits depend on the biggest, most complex boondoggles available. Anyone who watched the construction of Sheppard-Yonge Station, a vastly overblown structure, must ask how much transit service, how many vehicles, how many kilometres of LRT might have been built for the same price.
LRT requires an incursion into the roadway and introduces limitations on existing users. Nobody wants to fight the car lobby, although BRT schemes, taken to their logical conclusion with a separate right-of-way, have the same impact. I suspect their advocates hope that those routes never get past “phase one”, the road widening that was their original and only agenda.
Early in the report, Soberman hints that LRT is bad because it makes incursions into road space and, by implication BRT is good. However, later (on page 67) he admits that both LRT and BRT require changes to the use of road space. He acknowledges that this is a political decision.
Soberman really goes off base with a quote:
Perhaps the main argument for LRT is based on the pervasive idea that buses are a ‘second-class’ mode, compared with rail, that neither attracts the same level of ridership nor serves as well as a catalyst for ‘transit friendly’ development.
This quote is from a 1992 Transportation Research Board paper from Washington, DC. What this has to do with the rationale for Transit City is hard to fathom. LRT was chosen to give the Transit City network a unity and capacity on its major lines that BRT could not. Yes, some lines have lower future demand than others, but by proposing only LRT, we have something to unify support around a single entity, an LRT network. Indeed, if Transit CIty had used BRT, many route segments would have been impossible because of limited surface road capacity and the network would have been criticised as wildly impractical.
There will be plenty of chance during the detailed examination of each route to see whether LRT really is overkill for each corridor. Dr. Soberman could see this process first hand as he has already submitted a proposal to the TTC to perform just such a comparative analysis. However, based the material in the RCCAO paper, he cannot bring an unbiased view to this task and his proposal should be rejected.
When Is A Subway Not A Subway?
Soberman argues that having a broken line aross the city — Sheppard LRT to Don Mills, subway to Yonge with a transfer up to Finch, then LRT west on Finch — will hurt regional travel. He proposes instead an LRT line that would run through the existing Sheppard Subway tunnel (converted for LRT operation) all the way to Dufferin, then north to the Finch Hydro corridor and west into northern Etobicoke.
He also clearly states that the Spadina subway extension should be an LRT line, but that things are too far gone politically to make this change. If I were a real cynic, I might take this as Soberman’s attempt to gain credibility with activists like me by advocating something he knows can never, ever happen.
On Eglinton, Soberman plumps for either a full subway or an extension (that’s some extension) of the Scarborough RT from Kennedy across to somewhere in Weston. This is based on the claim that LRT can never handle the demand that this subway will eventually face. Oddly, Soberman appears not to have consulted the professional staff at the TTC whose estimates of demand in this corridor are easily handled by LRT operations.
Soberman misses a great strength of LRT. We could run frequent service in the “subway” part of the line where demand will be greatest, but turn back some trains so that the “surface” operation is at a headway that fits with that environment.
Finally, Soberman urges that we extend the Yonge Subway to Langstaff, a proposal already on the books, but goes on at some length about signalling and terminal issues. Readers here will be familiar with this debate, but they will also know that work is already underway on increasing the Yonge line’s capacity.
What Might The Private Sector Do?
This section is vintage Soberman. He begins with wry observations about the political impetus for P3 schemes calling them almost “the mantra” of both Queen’s Park and Ottawa. The nub of the problem is on page 73:
Since all Canadian transit operations presently fail to recover the full costs of operation from revenues, let alone make any contribution to capital, the likelihood of private investment in expansion of the existing GTA transit system is very low.
After some remarks about “cherry picking” by private interests, Soberman goes on to say that there is a place for the private sector and that the resistance to this will come from:
… the conservative, risk aversion, and ‘not invented here’ cultures that eventually come to characterize any long established organization.
If that isn’t pure political oratory, I don’t know what is. After taking a swipe at right-thinking politicos, Soberman dismisses opposition to P3’s with blanket contempt for existing organizations that include many of his colleagues. Is he making fun of politicians here, or getting on the P3 bandwagon? His cynicism comforts those on both sides of the argument, but adds nothing to the debate.
The Proposals (quoting from the report at pp 75-76) are:
1) A continuous LRT service between eastern Scarborough and the Downsview subway station in the Sheppard Avenue corridor, including conversion of the Sheppard subway to LRT, and a possible extension of LRT service from the Downsview subway station to the City boundary via Dufferin Street and the Finch Hydro corridor.
Is Soberman serious? Even I, in my wildest nights of champagne-induced fantasies about Swan Boats know that the Sheppard line isn’t going to change technologies. He wants an “independent review” of the work involved. This is a gratuitous slur on the TTC’s staff. Maybe Soberman would like another consulting contract.
The Finch Hydro corridor has been discussed elsewhere on this site. Its major problem is that it is empty. The people and the traffic generators are on Finch Avenue.
Finch itself has extremely frequent bus service and, next month, Finch East’s headway will move from 90 to an astounding 79 seconds. This operation is possible only because some of the buses run express. A very strong argument can be made for a Finch East LRT line.
2) A continuous higher-order transit route linking Scarborough and Mississauga within the Eglinton Avenue corridor based on:
- a combination of RT, LRT, and BRT technologies that would require numerous transfers, or
- an extension of the RT technology from Kennedy in the Eglinton corridor, or
- subway construction from Kennedy in the Eglinton corridor.
For each of these alternatives shortening the rail transit portion and extending the Mississauga Transitway BRT technology to a bus/rail transit transfer point in the general vicinity of Keele Street is an important variant to be considered.
Soberman assumes first of all that the majority of trips would travel the full width of the line and be subject to transfers. He should know perfectly well that this is not true. The question in any network is always where the transfers should occur.
Even in his scheme, someone bound for Eglinton east of Kennedy Station or west of Keele would be forced to transfer, and notably there would not be a direct ride from Eglinton West Station to Etobicoke and the airport.
If Eglinton actually has high demand in its central section, this can be provided by extra trains that never get out to the surface where frequent service is impractical.
The RT technology is already known to be at least twice the cost of LRT, and this proposal is nothing less than a flagrant plug for the long-dead Eglinton RT line that the UTDC would have foisted on us years ago.
In describing demand, Soberman describes Eglinton as one of the most heavily used corridors in the system. In fact, the 32 Eglinton West service runs every 2’12” in the AM peak including various short turns and branches. On Eglinton East, the combined headway of the two frequent services (34 and 54) is comparable. The implication that the existing corridor has demand well into rapid transit territory is false and self-serving.
3) A network of higher order transit that integrates the Brampton AcceleRide project, higher order transit in the Hurontario corridor, and the Mississauga Transitway, preferably using technology that minimizes the need to transfer and provides a high level of connectivity throughout this rapidly growing area of the GTA.
Sounds great, although even Soberman recognizes that some of this network might be LRT and some might be BRT. Oddly, he points out that LRT won’t fit down the main street of Brampton, but doesn’t explain how a high capacity BRT would fit there either.
4) Extension of the Yonge subway north to Langstaff, including modifications to a number of existing stations and replacement of the block signal system now used on the entire Yonge-University- Spadina subway by a modern, moving block, system of train control. Even without a subway extension, modernization of the Yonge train control system to increase frequency of service and capacity for existing users is long overdue.
I am beginning to think that Rip Van Winkel has awakened to the news that the wheel is a recent technology innovation. All of Soberman’s proposal is already in the works in the TTC’s plans.
5) Protection of a right-of-way in the Finch Hydro corridor for potential use as a busway both for public and privately operated buses.
The main threat to the Hydro corridors is the fee that Hydro wants to charge transit systems to use public property.
6) Relocation of the existing inter-city bus terminal to permit better access to Union Station for all services offered by public and private operators.
Studies of new bus terminal sites are already underway as reported by Metrolinx last week.
7) Improved transit between Pearson International Airport and Union Station.
Blue 22 is dying a slow death, and only Dr. Soberman appears to be unaware of this. The proposal, with a 15-minute peak service, would make a miniscule contribution to regional transit capacity, and its premium fare would doom it to be a service for the well-off business travellers to the airport.
Soberman claims that LRT into the airport is unlikely because of the GTAA’s people mover. In fact, the GTAA recognizes that this has capacity limitations and wants the LRT service to come right into Terminal One!
Meanwhile In Other Parts of the Forest
The Queen Streetcar Subway
Soberman cannot resist a shot at the central city and proposes a streetcar subway on Queen to soak up all that demand in the King and Queen corridors. He bemoans the fact that the TTC’s scheme for King Street transit priority is ignored by politicians even though the heart of the problem — the use of curb lanes for cabstands — has never been addressed.
He implies that we waste a valuable resource with the statement “some underground structures [are] already in place”. Yes, a few hundred feet of tunnel at Queen and Yonge barely large enough to hold part of a new station. To exploit this treasure, we would build three km of streetcar tunnel and lose the fine-grained surface stop arrangements.
There is some discussion of additional commuter rail capacity including much hand-wringing over the CPR North Toronto line. Obviously, plans to use this corridor are ill-conceived having come from those thoughtless folks at GO Transit who don’t fit the bill as transit professionals.
There is a long discussion about funding as well as thoughts about road tolls. Nothing is new here.
Soberman argues that potential labour savings might be thwarted by union work practices. This is political grandstanding, not professional judgement. How can a report that is co-sponsored by many labour unions include such bilge?
Improvements in labour productivity also afford opportunities for reducing subsidy requirements. Labour is the largest single component of transit operating costs. Since the nature of transit demand is highly peaked during the morning and afternoon ‘rush’ hours, transit is a service that is ideally suited to greater use of part-time labour. Moreover, the nature of LRT service that is so predominant in Toronto Transit City speaks to the need for more flexible work rules for surface operation involving multiple unit trains.
It comes as no surprise, of course, that the use of part time labour and reductions in crew size are very contentious matters, politically, and from the standpoint of labour-management strife. However, at the risk of repeating what has already been noted in the RCCAO Transportation Challenges report, “when all is said and done, transit is subsidized in order to provide a needed public service that is not commercially viable; it is not subsidized as a means of employment creation.”
Potential improvements in labour productivity through greater use of part-time drivers (even when viewed as a labour benefit if part time drivers are restricted to the pool of former, retired employees), as well as changes in work rules, however, are generally viewed very sceptically by transit officials. The prospect of labour action and service disruptions are simply the cause of too much public concern.
Under these conditions, if improved labour productivity and corresponding reductions in operating subsidy requirements are the real goals, the solution is obvious. It involves provincial legislation that limits, in any one of a variety if ways, the extent to which the failure of management and labour to reach satisfactory agreement is a price paid by the entire community. Court orders or back-to-work legislation already almost always end up being the mechanisms for ending service disruptions that are the cause of tremendous community costs and frustration.
The actual nature of demand in Toronto is that off-peak labour requirements are growing and the concept of “part timers” is a relic of the suburban systems whose only function was to handle commuting traffic.
On LRT trains, there will be a question of crews for the second or third cars. Frankly, even though no driver is needed, a move to self-service fare collection and ongoing issues of security will increase the labour requirements.
The Grand Tour
The website for this report includes photo tours of three lines — the Sheppard, Eglinton and Hurontario corridors. Aside from providing a nice tour (and begging the question of what happened to other routes like Don Mills), the tours contain a few intriguing remarks that are not reflected in the main study. Several of the comments have been duplicated from page to page, and a few are inappropriate for the page on which they appear.
From Morningside westward, we see a street that can easily accommodate an LRT operation as proposed both by Transit City and by Dr. Soberman. The need for an underpass at the GO Agincourt Station is noted, although the photo of the crossing is rather distant. The transition to an underground operation at Don Mills Station obviously requires careful design, but no photos or plans actually show the complexity this might involve.
The photos at Sheppard and Yonge show clearly that it is too narrow to handle an LRT line, something, of course, Transit City never proposed. Soberman proposes to keep his LRT line underground to near Bathurst at the crossing of the Don River.
West of Bathurst, there is some room on Sheppard to take the centre left-turn land, but road widening will be needed to accommodate an LRT and its platforms. This may bring the roadway quite close to houses in some areas.
For the Dufferin segment, the comments include an observation:
The route could extend to the Finch hydro corridor or turn west along Finch Avenue. Though not shown, Finch Avenue obviously offers better redevelopment and ridership potential than the hydro corridor but the hydro corridor does offer better access to the large ridership potential at York University without the need to transfer at Keele Street for a one stop trip.
Oddly, this does not appear in the main report. The trade off essentially is between a line that would serve primarily the York U campus and one which could serve the community and stimulate its growth. Oddly, Soberman chose to omit this option from his comparative analysis.
Soberman describes the section from Kingston Road to Brentcliffe (west of Leslie) either as having “ample room for LRT” or of being able to accommodate LRT with acceptable changes to the road layout. He does not reject the possibility of LRT. From Brentcliffe west to Keele, the line would be underground in both the Transit City and RCCAO schemes
How exactly this fits in with an RT extension west from Kennedy Station is unclear.
West from Keele or possibly the Jane Street flats, Soberman prefers a BRT solution. This would provide an unbroken link through to the Mississauga network, but would impose a transfer that otherwise would be avoided for riders on a continuous LRT line.
At no point in the tour does Soberman explain how an RT extension, and especially its station structures, would be incorporated into the streetscape.
Hurontario is proposed as an LRT corridor by Mississauga, although Soberman dismisses this by saying that “It is difficult to rationalize a higher order transit operation other than BRT” in some sections.
Probably the most telling photo is in the set on Queen Street in Brampton (the last shot in the Steeles to Queen set). This is a four-lane street with parking and loading in the curb lanes, not much different from Queen Street in Toronto. Somehow, BRT will magically fit on this street when in downtown Toronto we need a streetcar subway.
I think that it’s time to call it quits on this. Sadly, the RCCAO has produced a needlessly contentious report, a gripe session that ignores much of what is already happening, an author’s rant in the guise of professional advice.