Metrolinx Green Paper 7: What to do about Transit? (Part 1)

The Metrolinx consultation process leading to a new Regional Transportation Plan is in full swing complete with online feedbacks and a series of public meetings. Probably the most important of the seven “Green Papers” (documents for discussion) is the last, the one concerning transit.

You can read all 60+ pages or a very high level overview at Metrolinx site.

I am not going to attempt to boil all of this material (or the other 6 papers) down into posts here and leave it to readers to explore the Metrolinx site on their own. However, some aspects of the transit paper deserve comment as well as the process by which the new plan appears to be taking shape.

The Need For Radical Change

Ever since the late 1960s when the expressway-dominated view of transportation solutions first came under attack, plans and announcements have trumpeted the need to improve transit, to make it the preferred option. Funding, development patterns and political decisions failed to support this, and over the decades one plan after another has urged us to make bold new steps. Alas, the plans tended to be very focussed on transit to the core and on high-cost, high capacity technologies. Meanwhile, the suburbs continued to grow and they are now strangling in congestion that no plan has ever seriously addressed.

This is not news to anyone. The difference today is that ths suburbs are no longer some vague future where we might lead and form demand patterns with the transportation system, they are here. We did form demand, not by actively building transit-oriented land-use and supporting growth with strong transit systems, but by sitting back and letting cars and roads do all of the work.

Getting back the lost ground will take much effort not least because we are trying to retrofit transit services to cities whose travel demands are built on the diffuse origin/destination pattern of low-to-medium density development and anywhere-to-anywhere travel.

On first page of the Executive Summary, Metrolinx puts it simply:

Modest changes will not enable transit to compete effectively with the automobile. Nor will it be enough to provide more frequent transit service or to build a few more subway or commuter rail lines.

Achieving sustainable mobility will mean developing significantly stronger cross-regional transit that serves inter-municipal trips and long-distance trips within each municipality, local transit services within municipalities, and for transit-supportive land use.

Of these, the hardest nut to crack will be land use. Given sufficient capital, transit systems can be expanded in very short order even with the byzantine approval processes at both the technical and political levels. All that is needed is the will to spend money (or at least to borrow it). Land use does not change overnight, and much of the GTA’s anti-transit neighbourhoods will not be redeveloped for decades. Transit will make some impact, but the land use changes are much further off.

This problem is accentuated by the well-entrenched development industry’s preference to keep building more of what they’ve been selling for decades, and market forces that appear to work against urban forms in suburban cities. (That topic deserves a column all of its own, but not here.)

I can’t help noting the irony that although the Metrolinx plan is for the entire Greater Toronto and Hamilton region (GTAH), the greatest laboratory for land use change lies within the City of Toronto and its older suburbs. Here there is much opportunity for revelopment, and some has already begun. The Official Plan encourages major changes in land use with “The Avenues” coming in for special treatment. Strip malls and barren industrial parks will give way to street-facing medium rise residential and mixed-use development supported by street-level retail, good transit and a pedestrian-friendly environment. At least that’s what the pretty pictures look like.

There is a danger that in the rush to push transit into the 905, we may lose sight of the huge possibilities within the 416 and of the chance to develop core examples of what the “new city” would look like in areas where change can happen in the medium rather than long term. I will come back to this issue later.

A fundamental issue for any plan, a constraint that everyone contributing to it must recognize, is the inability of transit to replace a majority of travel demand. Even the most aggressive of the network proposals yields a transit modal split in 2031 of just over 30% in the AM peak. This is averaged over the GTAH, and obviously the numbers will be higher for the dense core areas and much lower in the diffuse suburbs. All day travel will have a lower modal split because many off peak trips are poorly served by transit due to service levels, route patterns and the fact that many trips involve some form of “cartage” or “taxi” services (shopping, taking children to activities, evenings out with friends).

The goal, then, is not to replace all travel with transit, but to make a sizeable dent in car-oriented travel where this is possible.

It’s All About the Customer

A recent Ipsos Reid poll conducted for Metrolinx tells us that 79 per cent of transit users and 50 per cent of drivers in the GTHA would, or likely would, take transit more often if service were improved. Service improvements must, however, be made hand-in-hand with efforts to attract riders by providing greater comfort and safety, enhanced speed and reliability, reduced crowding, and accurate, real-time information services. Transit must focus on improved service, reliability, and frequency while making other improvements to provide a seamless experience for passengers, through policy, design and technology. [Executive Summary, page ii]

One of the most significant revolutions in global transit delivery has been its transformation from a lowest-cost
“public good” into a high-quality consumer service. While transit is the mode of necessity for some, it is a choice for those with other options. Building the market among this group is vital for transit to succeed, particularly in suburban areas. The elements of an attractive consumer package include a safe, secure and comfortable ride, real-time information, weather protection, passenger
amenities and conveniences, as well as long-standing demands around service frequency and affordability. [Page 4]

Service and reliability are important! This is no surprise to those of use who actually try to use transit and who rail against the “there’s more room on the roof” school of service planning. It’s a big change from the view that a bus every half hour (or worse) twirling through a subdivision constitutes “service”. Transit is not something we provide, grudgingly, for the “have-nots” of society who can’t afford a car for every family member or for the cranks like me who refuse to buy one. It is an integral part of making a city work. Running barely enough service is nowhere near what is required. Increasing funding barely in line with inflation won’t begin to address the problem.

Access to service is also important, but there are special challenges for trips outside concentrated areas. At the origin of a trip, a transit user can walk, cycle, roller-blade, ski or (if parking is available) drive to the transit service. At the destination, options involving a private vehicle disappear because the car or bike is sitting back at the home station, and all transit users become pedestrians. All the parking in the world won’t make a trek from a bus stop or rapid transit station across the frozen, windswept wastes of a parking lot to a typical surburban office park or factory an attractive part of someone’s commute. The experience of a GO Rail user whose link from Union Station to the office is likely completely indoors is very different from someone getting off a bus or rapid transit line in Scarborough or Mississauga.

The Goals for Transit

A table on pages 3 and 4 summarizes the goals Metrolinx sets for itself. Much of this is familiar from decades of “why we need better transit” studies, but it is refreshing to see economic arguments looking at the broader picture:

Reduce the percentage of GDP and household budgets spent on transportation by increasing transit’s share of the travel market …

This is an important change in outlook. Rather than seeing transit simply as an expense, it can be viewed as a benefit to the GTAH as a whole. Whether there will be absolute reductions in costs remains to be seen, and in the short term the cost to build up transit infrastructure and service will greatly outweigh individual savings. Not until there is a viable network, a transit system that is a first choice for many, and a strong second choice for most, will we see changes in the level of car ownership. As for demand on the road network, the ability of car traffic to fill any available space is well-known, and the best we can hope for is that better transit will slow the need for more road space and the indirect cost of car-oriented land use.

People who want solutions “tomorrow” are bound for disappointment, and our inability to make overnight changes may drag transit options down into the mud of political squabbling about what gets built first, whether the transit schemes meet the political smell test of the day and the inevitable problems of the political swings from left to right and back. A cynic might say that the left claims to love transit, but doesn’t put its money where its mouth is, while the right is honest enough to regard transit as a plot to drain the public purse.

Long-term funding is the holy grail of transit planners, but more important is the recognition that building a transit network is not something to be turned on and off by political whim. Today, we suffer from project-based funding. After years of debate, three governments (or more) actually agree that they will all collectively fund a project. This is not transit funding.

While Toronto, York, Queen’s Park and Ottawa dithered over agreements for the Toronto-York subway extension ensuring that everyone’s logo is the appropriate size and that nobody is wasting precious taxpayer dollars, far more important projects languish. The scope of Metrolinx’ regional plan demands that such huge wastes of time are swept away.

In my next post, I will turn to issues of process and the rush to transform planning in the GTAH.

6 thoughts on “Metrolinx Green Paper 7: What to do about Transit? (Part 1)

  1. “All the parking in the world won’t make a trek from a bus stop or rapid transit station across the frozen, windswept wastes of a parking lot to a typical surburban office park or factory an attractive part of someone’s commute.”

    Ah, I see you’ve visited Ellesmere Station! Perhaps it’s no co-incidence that the most unfortunately situated and hardest to get to station, is the least used.


  2. Steve writes:

    “At the destination, options involving a private vehicle disappear because the car or bike is sitting back at the home station, and all transit users become pedestrians.”

    That’s not necessarily the case. In fact the absolute formulation “all transit users become pedestrians” is wrong.

    Today, I rode my bicycle to the GO station, took the bike on the train to Union, rode to St. Lawrence Market, did some shopping, and was back on the GO train home in less than an hour. The pedestrian option would have taken too long, and it makes no financial sense to catch a taxi: I might as well drive.

    During the week, I was talking with a friend at work who is carless and visits his friends somewhere in Burlington some weekends, taking the GO Lakeshore line. When he said that he wouldn’t want to leave his bicycle at Exhibition Station for fear of it being stolen (and so takes the 511), I said, “why not take it on the train?” “Hmm, yes, it’s only a five-minute bicycle ride, and I wouldn’t have to depend on someone picking me up at the station!”

    Granted, if everyone tried to take their bicycle on the train….well, that just won’t work with facilities as they are. And winter is unpleasant for cycling. But for distances of a few kilometres, bicycles can work very well. A mix of bicycle-share programs as they have in Paris, and more bicycle-carrying facilities on transit vehicles, could make a fair dent here.

    Steve: Bikes on trains are not an option for peak period travel on GO or TTC, and despite claims of the bicycle loving community, you are not going to convert hordes of suburban commuters into cyclists in the dead of winter. We are supposed to be making transit more attractive to current auto users. Those who choose to bike and whose trips are suited to bike+transit+bike are welcome to do this, but it’s not the greatest marketing scheme for people who drive.


  3. For a while, GO was announcing on Lakeshore West trains arriving at Union in the afternoon that bicycles were not permitted in Union Station between 3 and 6 pm (or something like that). It’s somewhat limiting for most commuters.


  4. I’m really glad you commented on “density and design” although it is mentioned in the report it’s only fleetingly. London and Paris (Madrid as well) have significantly higher land use densities than the GTHA. Also owning and operating an automobile in Europe is prohibitively expensive when compared to North America. Most of the cities of the southern UK and western Europe are also well suited to bicycles as their winters don’t compare to ours.

    I believe (as it appears you do) that all these great plans for the low density suburbs will only attract a small number of additional users. With free roads and free parking at work why would you take transit?

    The report comments on “from nowhere to nowhere” and that really sums up a significant amount of the suburbs local transit (you’ve commented on the empty VIVA buses at Don Mills). I like to describe it as “mall to mall”.

    After I read the report and your comments it’s clear that the dollars have to be spent where there is a high probability of transit use. That being right here in the good old City of Toronto!

    To sum it up the comment in the report there’s an entry on separating “public good” from “private good”, but it forgot to mention that transit is not for the “political good”.


  5. All credibility vanished when I read:

    “Even the most aggressive of the network proposals yields a transit modal split in 2031 of just over 30% in the AM peak.”

    The reality is that we’ll be over peak oil in 2-3 years, with serious reductions in oil production in 5 years. By 2031 the only way that car use will not be a fringe hobby of the ultra-rich will be if there is some new “Star Trek” technology to fuel them. So far, fuel cells are not working out.

    Forget 2031. Any report grounded in reality will be trying to deal with 5 years from now when car use is being widely abandoned because ordinary people can no longer afford the gasoline to fuel them.

    Steve: The sad fact is that people have been hearing doom and gloom stories about oil for decades, and it has never really happened, or happened long enough to make a big difference. In the short term, the rising cost of oil will simply drive people to more fuel efficient cars. We are nowhere near the price of gas in Europe and people will pay a lot to continue to drive.

    If Metrolinx produced a plan based on a no-oil scenario, it would have no credibility with the politicians who run that agency, let alone Queen’s Park. Moreover, such a plan would have to address some very serious issues such as the death of suburbia as we know it. The challenges are much more serious than the modal split of the transit network.


  6. You said: “The goal, then, is not to replace all travel with transit, but to make a sizeable dent in car-oriented travel where this is possible.”

    I’m actually glad that you said this, as this is the core of the argument that I’ve ben trying to make. Cars will always be here, and if we are to build a successful transportation (not just transit, but transportation) network, we need to accept that.

    One of the key ways we can get people out of cars and on to transit is speed. I took a ‘working’ vacation to Ottawa and Montreal to examine the transit systems in these cities. Ottawa’s transitway is a great example of a successful BRT. Buses fly along at 80kph and travel times can be competitive with highways, especailly once you factor in the reality that the transitway goes to the core of downtown, while the highway does not. Along with buses coming more often, we need buses that go faster. Leaning on the gas pedal won’t acheive this, we need forward thinking and unique thinking to allow this to happen.

    Here’s my example for today: in Brampton they have many right-turn lanes that take away the right-most lane from the road. Rather then fill in the area between the end of that lane and the intersection, this is made into a “bus only” area, that allows any bus to jump the queue at a red light and be first off the mark, and all without the use of a St. Clair style right of way.


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