Philadelphia Looks to Toronto

The Philadelphia Inquirer had an article last Friday about a tour of GTA transit systems by transit officials and planners from their city.

The article is rosier about Toronto than we locals who see its warts up close every day might be, but they were very impressed with what they saw, especially the amount of service and demand. The most important observation comes right at the end:

One of the Toronto priorities that the Philadelphia-area visitors envied was the determination to build higher-density or “intensified” housing and commercial developments around transit hubs to reduce dependence on cars.

One thing “that really impacted me was the sheer size of development within a quarter to half a mile of the Toronto subway stations,” said Andrew Levecchia, senior planner for the Camden County Improvement Authority.

“Thirty thousand to 40,000 people at a transit node. This is what we need. . . . They seem to be more willing to intensify density” than suburban Philadelphia residents, he said.

Shawn McCaney of the William Penn Foundation said the trip was valuable for providing members of the group something to compare SEPTA to.

“SEPTA matches up fairly well against Toronto’s transit system,” McCaney said. “In my opinion, the real dramatic difference is not between the transit systems themselves, but rather how Toronto and the greater Toronto region seems to have much more effectively exploited its transit system as an economic development asset.”

This is a vital message both for the well-established TTC and the would-be transit megasystem, Metrolinx. The TTC is part of Toronto’s success and thrives because Toronto, structurally, is such a different city in its population base. However, the dense, thriving downtown and some of the newer development nodes in suburbia mask fields of low-density development that will always be very hard to serve with transit.

Transit folks in Toronto love hosting visitors because they are so impressed with what we have, but many of their problems with sprawl and the difficulty of attracting riders are our problems too.