Metrolinx Fast Tracks Environmental Assessments

I received the following note from Tony Turritin that fits in with earlier threads about streamlining the Environmental Assessment process:

Just a note to mention that Metrolinx published Statutory Notices in the Toronto Star on January 7 and 9, 2008 regarding their Regional Transportation Plan study.

By my reading of the notice, transit advocates better get on the stick, because if it ain’t in the plan in just the right way, there is no or little hope for any alternative. The Notice states that the RTP will constitute Phases I and II of any future EA that flows from any element of the RTP as it is implemented.

The Notice states:

“Once completed, the RTP will provide the background for any required future Environmental Assessment (EA) studies. It is intended that the recommended RTP will have fulfilled the requirements of Phases 1 and 2 (i.e. problems/
opportunities and evaluation of alternatives to the undertaking/ selection of the preferred transportation system) of all applicable Class EAs and individual EAs that may be required for projects identified in the RTP. The selection of the preferred transportation system will identify the need for the facilities, the recommended network corridors, and possibly the preferred technology for each corridor.”

This is right out of the traditional way that MTO used to do, and still does, highway EAs. First they would do a “needs” study, those straight-line projects that always show increasing traffic, particularly truck traffic. Then when an EA came along, and people objected saying, where was the comparison with the rail alternative (say trucks on trains), the reply always was, the needs study has already been done, and the road is needed. And Oh, by the way, in a needs study there is no obligation to look at other alternatives.

In perspective, it is clear that an EA is a very very poor tool to attempt to rectify any bad road, transit, rail infrastructure adventure that the transport bureaucracy decision-makers come up with.

Metrolinx’ Regional Transportation Plan is more than a plan — it legally constrains future environmental assessments too.

We are on the verge of a situation where a master transportation plan that will affect the GTA for decades to come may act as the de facto planning process for dozens of lines. The MoveOntario2020 plan was itself a grab-bag of every plan that was sitting on a shelf when it was announced, but at least there was a clear statement that the announcement was a first cut, and fine tuning would follow.

We may find that the “fine tuning” comes by way of the Regional Transportation Plan from Metrolinx that could occur without the sort of fine-grained local input people, at least in the 416, are accustomed to.

All the more reason to stay in touch with what is brewing at Metrolinx.

Major Service Improvements Start February 17, 2008 (Update 2)

On Sunday, February 17, the TTC will introduce new schedules with improved services on many, many routes throughout the city. I have boiled a long TTC document describing them in detail down to a mere 8 pages for easy reference.

Please note that I have not proof read every single line, and for definitive information, you should go to the TTC’s site.

Update: For the detailed TTC service summary, go to the February service summary.

Update 2: My consolidated table of service changes has been corrected to include the list of routes that still await added service. This was placed temporarily in a reply to a comment, but has now been moved where it belongs.

These changes are long overdue, but many of them bring routes only just within loading standards. We must hope that this trend will continue into 2009 as the bus fleet builds up with new deliveries, as riding continues to grow, and as the city’s revenues are strong enough to support more transit improvements.

A few notes about reading my chart:

  • The column “vehicles added” gives the number of new vehicles on the route at the time shown. You will notice that the effect of “n” new buses varies with time of day because the relative changes are different.
  • The old and new headways are shown. In some cases these are for blended services, and if you are interested in one branch, please refer to the TTC’s details.
  • The load factors shown are for recent riding counts “old” and projected loads after the change. The values are for the peak hour within the period, and loads on individual vehicles will vary.
  • The loading standards are shown for peak and offpeak services. Due to the variations between capacities on different types of vehicles, the standards are not identical for all routes. The off-peak standard is based on a seated load.

The last page of my summary shows those service improvements which have still not been implemented due to budget constraints. In effect, we’ve got what we’re getting for now, and for the rest, come back later. This shows that the TTC is still constrained in its ability to handle growing riding by the money it is given from Council to subsidize operations.

I fervently hope that this list will drop to and stay at “Nil” over 2008, and that we won’t be back worrying about service shortfalls in two years’ time.

Some points are particularly worth noting.

Bloor 300 and Yonge 320 Night Buses

Service improvements on these routes will reduce overcrowding especially on the popular 320 where the recorded average load is 82 passengers per bus! The headway on Yonge south of York Mills will be more than halved from 7’30” to 3’30” on the weekday schedule (which operates Tuesday through Saturday mornings). Sunday morning service is also improved, although not as dramatically.

At this rate, we may need to put streetcars back on Yonge to handle the demand on the night service!

Finch East 39

Service on this busy route will improve during most operating periods. The AM Peak headway will drop from 90 seconds to 79, with half of this service running express, and half local. Finch Station has severe bus congestion problems, and it will be interesting to see how the TTC fares with even more service on the 39.

Midday, early evening and Saturday services will now include express operation on half of the trips. The arrangement of express stops will change considerably. Fourteen little-used stops between Brimley and Warden will be dropped from express service, and they will be replaced by twelve busy stops from Warden to Bayview

Longer term, obviously, something will have to be done to increase capacity without flooding the street with buses. Artics might be nice in the short term, but an easterly extension of the Finch LRT is really what this street needs. (I’m getting carried away with myself, and will stop these fantasies immediately!)

Other Miscellaneous Changes

54 Lawrence East is now officially an accessible route.

139 Finch East is renamed Finch — Don Mills to clarify where it goes.

53 Steeles East will include mixed express and local operation on weekday evenings.

Analysis of Route 510 Spadina — Part I: Introduction

The Spadina Streetcar has operated now for just over a decade. For all the problems of getting the project approved and built, there is no question that it has transformed travel on Spadina. With such intensive scheduled service and a complete right-of-way, we should have the best possible quality. This series of posts will examine the actual service in December 2006.

As usual, I will start with Christmas Day to introduce the analysis under the best-behaved conditions, and then I will move on to regular weekdays, and to the month as a whole. Among the major points I have found are:

  • The presence of a right of way greatly reduces the sort of variation seen over the course of the day on mixed-traffic routes, but does not eliminate it completely. As demand rises and falls, stop service times vary and this affects trip times.
  • Although the averages are well-behaved, the degree of variation is quite substantial. Indeed, given the short distances travelled, the amount of variation is comparable to that seen on the much longer mixed-traffic Queen route. This variation undermines the benefit of the right-of-way.
  • Some delays due to traffic signals are visible in the data, but the resolution of the TTC’s monitoring system (CIS) is such that I cannot report on this in detail.
  • Short-turning is a chronic problem at Queen’s Quay, and much of the service destined for Union Station never actually gets there. At first sight, I was reminded of Queen Street in the Beach when I reviewed the charts. This is no recommendation for the benefits of exclusive right-of-way.
  • Spadina is a route that demands management by headway, not by schedule. With extremely frequent service, the concept of being “on time” is meaningless to riders.

For those awaiting a review of a suburban bus route, please have patience. With all the discussions of service reliability on Queen, I thought it important to look at a route operating completely on reserved lanes to see just how it behaved.

For those who are new to this blog, I recommend reviewing the early posts about the King car in the Service Analysis category. The techniques used to distill the TTC’s data and present it for analysis are explained there in detail.

Continue reading

Metrolinx Wants to Hear From You

I received a note from Braz Menezes, a member of the Metrolinx Advisory Committee. Braz and I both sit on the community panels for the waterfront east transit EA studies.

As you know Metrolinx is putting quite a lot of emphasis on public consultation. Can you please ask your readers how easy it has been to access information and make comments to the website for Metrolinx. It would be good to iron out any technical glitches early in the process.

Sincere thanks,

I will start off by noting that the page asking for consultation contains a link only to the first of the Green Papers, even though drafts of these have appeared in the Board Agendas. However, if you go into the detailed consultation page, options for papers 2 and 3 also appear.

You can find Green Papers 4 and 5 in the February 2008 agenda.

Please put your comments about this site here so that everyone else can read what you think. I will moderate the comments only to the point of taking out flagrant insults to other writers (but not to the designers of the Metrolinx site itself), and tidying up your layout and spelling. Also, please don’t give Braz a hard time, he is just passing on the request to my fine readers.

I am particularly looking forward to Joe Clark’s contribution.

What Are Environmental Assessments For?

In the process of replying to the thread about streamlined Environmental Assessments, I made remarks that deserve a post of their own.

My concern is that a lot of bilge has flowed recently about what the EA process is supposed to protect, and the strong implication is that if we don’t hurt any plants or wildlife, the EA has done its job. Moreover, public input is seen as a nuisance holding up much-needed works.

My criticism lies with the underlying assumption that somehow the professionals present perfect transit schemes that, but for rabblerousers like me, would have made Toronto a paragon among transit cities worldwide years ago. This is complete nonsense, and many of the fights that have entangled EAs have turned on the absence of good planning and design, not to mention, until recently, complete ignorance about alternatives in transit technology.

Wearing a Transit City hat, yes, it would be wonderful to see these lines built as fast as possible, but wearing my advocate’s hat I look at the fact that there was virtually no consultation before the network was announced. This time, it happens to be a scheme I support, but who knows what a new political crew might bring?

The centre poles on St. Clair are a prime example. Clearly, the decision on that design had been taken long before the first public consultation, and the staff were absolutely immovable on the subject. This design has been repeated on Fleet Street.

I understand that the new street lights for St. Clair had already been purchased, or at least selected, even though the project didn’t have official approval. The fact that they have had to be replaced at least once, possibly twice because the designs were unsuitable, tells me all I need to know about the expertise that went into that choice. The politicians who are loathe to criticize staff realized only after the line was up and running that the design could have been better, and even this was not enough to change the style for the phase now underway.

Why should we care about street lights? Well, these lights were the underlying reason for the centre poles because originally there would be far fewer side poles much further apart with much more powerful, but fewer lamps. That scheme didn’t work out, and the side poles are in fact at the same spacing as the centre ones. This is but one example of the stupidity that can occur even when the technical folks are challenged, and much worse design flaws may fly through under the guise of an expedited review.

Those centre poles, in turn, limit the ability of buses and emergency vehicles to use the right-of-way. Word on the street is that the emergency services were told to shut up and accept the design even though they didn’t like it.

If we actually had a meaningful planning process in this city, we would discuss design issues and neighbourhood impacts. I’m not saying we should stop projects in their tracks, but that often the pros get it wrong, and there needs to be a mechanism for review and fine tuning.

There are specific provisions about the content of an EA, from the Environmental Assessment Act (RSO 1990, Chapter E18):

(2) […] the environmental assessment must consist of,

(a) a description of the purpose of the undertaking;

(b) a description of and a statement of the rationale for,

(i) the undertaking,

(ii) the alternative methods of carrying out the undertaking, and

(iii) the alternatives to the undertaking;

(c) a description of,

(i) the environment that will be affected or that might reasonably be expected to be affected, directly or indirectly,

(ii) the effects that will be caused or that might reasonably be expected to be caused to the environment, and

(iii) the actions necessary or that may reasonably be expected to be necessary to prevent, change, mitigate or remedy the effects upon or the effects that might reasonably be expected upon the environment, by the undertaking, the alternative methods of carrying out the undertaking and the alternatives to the undertaking;

(d) an evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages to the environment of the undertaking, the alternative methods of carrying out the undertaking and the alternatives to the undertaking; and

(e) a description of any consultation about the undertaking by the proponent and the results of the consultation.

Just because you want to build something doesn’t absolve you of the need to review alternatives and consult with people.

If we build infrastructure that harms neighbourhoods, this will have an impact on quality of life, on economic activity, even on the attractiveness of the transit system. As I have said before, “the environment” includes neighbourhoods.

It is worth quoting the definition of “environment” from the Environmental Assessment Act:

1. (1) In this Act,
“environment” means,

(a) air, land or water,
(b) plant and animal life, including human life,
(c) the social, economic and cultural conditions that influence the life of humans or a community,
(d) any building, structure, machine or other device or thing made by humans,
(e) any solid, liquid, gas, odour, heat, sound, vibration or radiation resulting directly or indirectly from human activities, or
(f) any part or combination of the foregoing and the interrelationships between any two or more of them,

in or of Ontario;

Quite clearly, the Act is intended to protect not only the flora and fauna, but also the communities affected by a project. Anyone taking the narrow view hasn’t read the legislation.

I’m all for moving transit projects forward quickly, but we must get past the idea that just because it’s a transit project, it must be ideal and we cannot criticize it. If the new timelines are to be enforced, then the TTC, GO Transit, Metrolinx and their armies of consultants will have to be much, much more responsive when issues are raised. Today, we can wait months for feedback on proposals even from “friendly” EAs where the staff actively try to engage the community. The new timelines invite staff to run the clock and say “sorry, that may be a great idea, but we had to file our documents last week”.

This is a recipe for exactly the sort of contention that led to the Environmental Assessment Act in the first place, and it will give transit projects an unjustified bad name in the very communities they seek to serve.

Environmental Assessments — Why Bother?

In yesterday’s Star, we learned that Queen’s Park has gutted the Environmental Assessment process by imposing a six-month cap on the period an EA can be under development. The claim is that transit’s opponents, those who would delay projects to no good end, have tied EAs in knots preventing much needed, environmentally friendly transit development.

I beg to differ.

What has caused the most grief to every recent transit proposal has been questions of detailed design and implementation. Time and again, we have seen schemes that trample over neighbourhoods for the simple reason that the “professionals” don’t understand what they are doing. There are two ways to handle this type of problem: work with local communities to improve the plan, or fight them to the wall. As recent examples:

  • The West Donlands LRT EA produced a completely new scheme for running the Cherry Street right-of-way along the side of the road rather than in the middle. This only happened because the EA took the time to work with the community.
  • The East Bayfront EA is mired in questions about a second portal to the Bay Street tunnel. With the accelerated EA, what will quite likely happen is that a new portal on Queen’s Quay itself will be rammed through over local objections despite much work in good faith to find an alternative.
  • The Waterfront West EA is a procedural nightmare with many overlapping studies producing, at best, second rate results. The presence of an already-approved EA nearly two decades old for part of the line further limits discussion because an analysis done years ago under different circumstances cannot be challenged.
  • The St. Clair right-of-way project ran into serious problems because of neighbourhood impacts and a design that left much to be desired. A major delay arose from a legal battle, not from the EA process itself. The credibility of the project has been further undermined by the chaos with which it has been managed, using that term rather loosely.

Dalton McGuinty may think that he’s doing transit a big favour, but what has really happened is that the EA process is reduced to little more than a quick review. If the proponents of various schemes expect co-operation from the public, their professionals (staff and consultants) must learn how to be more inclusive, how to integrate community concerns in the process.

Only last year, a new streamlined “Class EA” was defined for most transit projects that eliminated the hugely wasteful “terms of reference” stage in which an army of consultants, engineers, facilitators and other hangers-on went through the charade of deciding that, yes, this project we want to build is the project we want to build. The next year was spent in actually looking at the options in detail. This farce, thankfully, is over, and EAs were expected to drop to about a year.

Now, McGuinty wants it down to six months. The single biggest problem with the old process was a “Catch 22”. You couldn’t talk about detailed design (the thing most people actually care about) until you had an approved EA, but by the time that happened, mysteriously the design had progressed to the point where significant changes were difficult or impossible, and all a neighbourhood could do was choose the colour of paint on the transit shelters.

Time and again, the professionals have shown that they don’t look at all the options, in some cases because external influences cause filtering of what is considered. No better example exists than the WWLRT. The ghostly presence of the Front Street Extension prevented potentially superior options from getting on the table until the community and local politicians demanded it. Under the new rules, such options would likely never be seen because it would take too long to analyze them.

The Environmental Assessment process does not exist simply to protect the odd spotted newt that may live in the path of a new transit line. “Assessment” includes looking at the impact on communities, and “Alternative Assessment” means considering ideas other than the one the planners cooked up over lunch.

The dedicated lane for Toronto’s St. Clair streetcar, for example, was held up for months at the assessment stage with fights over curb heights, which had nothing to do with the environment. In the end it took two years to get through the assessment.

I don’t know where the Star got this blinkered view of the St. Clair debacle, but a lot more was going on than debates about curb heights. The big issues were sidewalk cuts, intersection design, lane widths, parking and host of other matters affecting how the project would affect the neighbourhood. That’s “environment” the last time I looked.

Under existing rules, if someone objects to a streetcar, the transit authority has to come back with a study showing the implications of a bus, train, or even a hot-air balloon servicing the corridor instead.

“If someone wanted to talk about a new idea using cable cars or catapults you would have to evaluate them,” TTC chair Adam Giambrone said.

Giambrone forgets that Transit City, a network of LRT lines, only exists because for years advocates like me objected to subway schemes saying “there’s a better way”. Indeed, even though the Sheppard Subway was already on the books east from Don Mills to Scarborough Town Centre, the TTC now plans an LRT line along Sheppard itself.

There’s a reason we take a second look at official proposals. Even I, a supporter of Transit City, worry that the momentum of LRT could be lost if, suddenly, we wake up to find a completely new proposal on the table and plans to ram it through without debate. Transit City may benefit from streamlined approvals, but the same process could be used to change it beyond recognition.

Are we headed back to the bad old days when governments simply built whatever they wanted and the public be damned? How many decades has it taken just to get some reasonable understanding of what transit can be, other than ruinously expensive subway projects?

The key to all this lies in the Star’s sidebar:

The scope is limited to environmental concerns. Right now, everything that was argued over during the municipal planning process, including how wide a dedicated bus lane should be or whether a streetcar project is even needed, is rehashed at the environmental assessment.

This presumes that we have a municipal planning process that actually works and involves communities rather than fighting them. I don’t remember much communuity consultation, much “municipal planning process” around a lot of the projects on the table, in part because everyone assumed that the Environmental Assessments would be the venue to sort all of that out.

The entire process needs an overhaul right from the overall policy framework, the early stages when proposals are little more than doodles on a napkin, through the formal EA, and into detailed design. If all we actually get is planning-by-election-announcement, followed by perfunctory EAs and superficial design consultation, transit projects risk needless alienation of the very people they are meant to serve.

GO Transit’s 15-Cent Solution

Sean Marshall wrote in with the following comment in another thread. I’m putting it in its own post so that replies can be kept in the appropriate area.

… at GO Transit, they’re planning to increase fares again by the flat $0.15 rate. Of course, this is a disproportionate fare increase for those who make shorter trips (say within the 416 or from, for example, Georgetown to Brampton) yet almost insignificant for someone coming in from Barrie. And GO also has to fix the problems with its fare structure, where, for example, a bus trip from Square One to York U is the same price as from Bramalea to York U, about half the distance.

Anyway, my sense is that GO will always take the easiest route (requiring the least thought) to fix a “problem”. Service crowded? Tack on more cars. Issues with parking? Build more spaces. Crowding at platforms? Remove the escalators. Raise fare revenue? Make it a flat fare increase so we don’t have to work out what the new fares should really be.

This is not the first time GO has done this, and I can’t help worrying just a bit in anticipation of a smart card system that can do everything but make passengers’ breakfast, lunch and dinner, but might wind up supporting a fare structure more appropriate for conductors and ticket agents. Will GO continue to penalize short-haul riders with disproportionate fare increases?

Low Technology Has Its Place

This morning I had the dubious pleasure of riding the SRT from Kennedy to STC in what was clearly a manual dispatch mode. Trains were not always at full speed, and each station-to-station move was made after clearance from SRT control.

Much grumbling was heard from passengers around me as this sort of thing is not uncommon in bad weather.

I couldn’t help thinking how the SRT was supposed to be an LRT line originally, and how the capabilities of its ATO system have never been exploited or needed on a line with such infrequent service. As an LRT line, it would have had limited signals at the terminals and for the underpass at Ellesmere, and operation would be “on sight” for most of the route.

I have seen the train control system do wonders with interlined services on the Vancouver SkyTrain where, also, the operation is completely automatic. In Toronto, the signal system just gets in the way, an example of technological overkill.

Elevation or Escalation?

In the past, I have discussed the issue of non-working escalators, and Ed Drass devoted a column to this yesterday in Metro.

GO is moving away from escalators according to Ed’s column:

Why not replace the units with new ones? Replies Boyle, “The escalators do not perform well in the rather harsh environment that we have subjected them to.” He says the salt and sand that is used on platforms gets into the machinery and causes “premature failure.”

There is also an issue with escalators feeding into crowded platforms and pushing more people out into a space where there is no room. This is an issue at Union Station, and GO is planning to eliminate escalators as they wear out (or sooner if the reconstruction plans go ahead).

At Bloor-Yonge and St. George, the TTC monitors crowding conditions and stops escalators if they have to.

This brings me to a question about the role of such devices on transit systems. Nobody likes climbing up stairs, especially when it’s more than one flight, and escalators contribute to the convenience of moving around in stations. Unlike elevators that are fitted in one per vertical rise wherever they will fit, there are often many escalators to serve demands right where the demand exists.

Imagine if you were on the lower level at Bloor-Yonge and wanted to get to the surface. First you must go all the way down to the east end of the platform, ride the elevator up to the Yonge line level, then come back onto the northbound platform to take an elevator up to the mezzanine, then make your way out into the Bay’s concourse.

For someone who has trouble with stairs, that’s a lot of walking just to get to the elevators, and in many ways it defeats the purpose.

There’s an analogy with vehicle design and the range of options for those with mobility problems. At one end is the Wheel Trans bus fleet, then accessible taxis, then accessible surface transit and subway stations. A major reason for making the base system accessible is that this removes some demand from Wheeltrans and allows those who can get around more or less on their own to use the same system as everyone else.

If we start to treat escalators as things we can do without, this will have a profound effect on accessibility of the system to those with a moderate impairment, not to mention on station design where walking distances to elevators will become an important consideration.

As for GO Transit, this system will evolve from one whose primary mission is to carry hale and hearty folk who sprint up and down stairways, to one with more off-peak travel and customers for whom stairways are a major impediment. Making elevators convenient to get to and reliable will be a vital part of their service.

Keeping escalators running is a major headache for transit systems, but those escalators are just as much a part of “the network” as the buses and trains people ride on.

Union Station Tours (Updated)

Derek Boles, the Vice-Chair of the Union Station Revitalization Public Advisory Group (USRPAG), conducts walking tours of Union Station on the last Saturday of every month beginning at 11 a.m.

Tickets are $10. These tours are conducted under the auspices of the Toronto Railway Historical Association and Toronto Terminals Railway.

Contact Derek at 416-917-8220, or to reserve.