From Mars to Hamilton?

Saturday, April 5th was a beautiful, warm, sunny day, but over one hundred dedicated souls spent it in the basement of the MaRS Centre on College Street talking about transit. To my great delight, the crowd was not just the “usual suspects”, the transit afficionados who can be counted on to show up at every event, but a much broader group of people with strong interests in what can make the city and its transportation system work.

This was the second “Transit Camp” (last year’s dealt with the TTC’s website), and the first in a series of “un-conferences” about the Metrolinx Regional Transit Plan. Many folks from Metrolinx as well as the TTC and other agencies attended, but it was not a gathering of professionals where the general public sat meekly through hours of powerpoints. Indeed, this event generated far more wide-ranging discussions and feedback than we would normally see at a “formal” public participation event.

When this scheme first surfaced, I worried that the leap from a single topic Transit Camp to something as broad as a regional plan might founder through lack of focus and from the huge learning curve anyone new to the topic would have in absorbing work already done by Metrolinx. To my great delight, the event self-organized into roughly fifty discussions not one of which took the form of “let’s argue about Metrolinx Green Paper number 42”. Indeed, many of the topics lay in areas that Metrolinx studies only glance at.

This can be an opportunity for Metrolinx, but it can also be a dangerous rift between what matters to people about transportation and what Metrolinx is actually doing. Much of the official focus is on the maps, the proposals for various network options, and I expect we will see the usual tugs-of-war between regions each of which want at least three new subway lines to serve their town centres. But that’s not what a transportation network is all about, and many issues from the quality of space in which people travel to service and fare structures to the challenge of providing viable alternatives to auto trips fill the agenda.

Transit Camp was a useful reminder of this, and it underscores the need to look at the whole picture of transportation and travel experience, not just lines on a map.

The next event will be in early May, possibly somewhere to the west, maybe in Hamilton, with a third event somewhere in the east to follow. In the best tradition of unstructured events, things are still a bit vague.

By June, when the draft Regional Transportation Plan comes out, the discussions will inevitably change (printed maps always cause people to argue over the lines rather than the issues), and the tone of future Transit Camps may adjust accordingly.

Watch the Metronauts and Metrolinx pages for information on future events.

15 thoughts on “From Mars to Hamilton?

  1. I was at the event, but unexpectedly had to leave early. Then I found out Rob McIsaac was at the session I proposed and I’ve been kicking myself about it ever since.


  2. I’m quoting from the “Toronto’s LRT Plans” discussion:

    “The big question is whether Transit City is fast enough … new streetcars would apparently be 20 to 25 km/h. Is that fast enough? Many skeptical.”

    I’m also skeptical (not to mention surprised), as 20 km/h is not rapid transit as far as I am concerned. I did a quick search and I can’t find anywhere that gives these numbers; do you know?

    Steve: It’s worth looking at the actual scheduled speed of existing bus, streetcar and subway lines to get a sense of what is possible and likely on any new lines. The overwhelming constraints on speed are:

    stop spacing
    stop service time
    acceleration rate
    interference by traffic signals, if any

    On the subway, the average speeds at peak times are about 31 km/h on Bloor-Danforth, 30 on Sheppard and about 31 on Yonge-University. The speed on the Downsview-Finch service is slightly higher than on the St. Clair West short turn because more time is spent on a relatively fast part of the line. The SRT operates at close to 37 km/h because it has short dwell times at stations, a very wide average station spacing and short terminal layovers.

    In 1974, the scheduled speed for the Finch-St. George service was 30 km/h, but the Eglinton-St. George service ran at 25 km/h. At the same time, the Islington-Warden service ran at 35 km/h. Yes, that’s right, the BD line used to be much faster. When the line was extended to Kipling and Kennedy, the round trip grew by 7.84 km while the trip time went up by 20 minutes. One major difference was the conversion of the BD line to “low rate” operation due to design flaws in the early H-series cars that damaged the motors at “high rate”. The faster acceleration (in Imperial measure: 2.5mphps to 25mph versus 1.9mphps to 20mph) of high rate was dropped and never revived by the TTC even though it increases the number of trains and slows the overall trip time on both lines.

    On the bus system, we can look at 85 Sheppard East. The peak period services vary from a low of 15.4 km/h for the Yonge-Don Mills service to a high of 21.0 on Don Mills-Rouge Hill.

    The 190 Scarborough Rocket (so-called) is a limited stop service, but its AM peak speed is only 19.8 km/h.

    In general, the closer one gets into the core of the city and the old neighbourhoods with closely spaced traffic lights and narrow streets, the slower the service gets even for buses.

    On the streetcar system, we all know that existing routes, even with exclusive lanes, are quite slow because of stop spacing, traffic signal issues and long stop dwell times. The Spadina car is scheduled at 12.6 km/h for the Bloor-King service, 14.1 km/h for the Union Station branch. The Harbourfront car is scheduled for 17.4 km/h.

    My point in all of this is that the actual speed any route will achieve depends on many factors. Can the stops (the ones the vehicles actually stop at most of the time) be moved further apart? What will be the benefit of all-door loading and better passenger distribution through the vehicles? Will the vehicles actually have a less-congested trip, will they be able to accelerate faster and to a higher speed? Will savings from an exclusive lane be negated by auto-friendly signal timing?

    Given the speeds now achieved on existing bus routes, I think 20-25 km/h isn’t much of a jump for Transit City lines. The greater benefit will come from regular service (assuming the TTC ever learns how to provide it) and freedom from unexpected delays due to congestion.

    Sorry to make such a long reply to your comment, but I felt that this sort of info was worth pulling together.


  3. Just to throw in one more scheduled speed number: GO trains seem to manage about 55-60 km/h.

    It’d be interesting to know what the average speed is for someone driving to work on busy city streets or major highways. It sure isn’t the 50-100 km/h posted on the sign.


  4. Matt, most people don’t care what their average driving speed is. All they care about is that driving their car to work is much, much faster than taking public transit (in my case, it takes me 45-55 minutes by TTC and only 20 by car).

    If these new Transit City lines are not perceived as ‘rapid transit’, people won’t get out of their cars to use them, and the only thing we’ll be accomplishing is having slightly enhanced service for existing bus riders.

    Steve: I think that people often miss the point of Transit City. We already know from the Metrolinx studies (among others) that even a massive investment in transit will not dislodge the majority of drivers from their cars. Trying to do that is a fool’s game where we spend billions on a handful of very fast routes that don’t serve most of the demand.

    The real target market is the travellers who are not there yet, the people who have not moved into neighbourhoods that will grow in coming decades and who may be able to avoid a second, third, etc car if some trips can be taken via transit. As for speed, future road congestion and fuel prices will balance some of that out, but transit can never replace the garage-to-destination convenience (or perceived convenience) of auto travel for many trips.


  5. Steve, with respect, your response to Leo doesn’t make much sense to me.

    You are suggesting that the purpose of Transit City is not to dislodge people from their cars, but then you say

    “The real target market is … [the people] who may be able to avoid a second, third, etc car if some trips can be taken via transit.”

    So, according to you, the purpose is indeed to dislodge people from their cars, but only sometimes. It’s not clear to me that there is a distinction, other than semantic, between what you said and what Leo said.

    And to serve this target market, Transit City offers a service that is slightly faster and possibly more reliable (though possibly not, given current operating practices) than what they already have. So it’s not clear that they will be leaving their cars behind in droves, even sometimes, if they are not already. Further, in exchange for slightly better transit, you are asking these people — who are still expected to continue driving — to give up a lane of their already busy road.

    To me, Transit City is making a less than compelling case for an $8-billion investment. Again with respect, I think it’s odd that you would be criticizing rapid transit advocates for playing “a fool’s game where we spend billions on a handful of very fast routes that don’t serve most of the demand”. Because I could describe Transit City in exactly the same terms.

    Steve: People take different types of trips in different neighbourhoods at various times of the day. We can’t get all of those trips, but we can get some of them. My feeling is that there are more trips to be gained with a widespread improvement of transit on many routes than on a handful of very fast lines serving a minority of destinations. That’s the distinction.


  6. It’s also worth noting that there are a number of ways to shorten commutes, and we’re focused on just one. Too many people look at transit improvements in terms of speeding up trips between the outer suburbs and the downtown, or between two far flung outer suburbs.

    However, rather than shortening travel time by increasing speed, we can also shorten travel time by decreasing distance. The Transit City lines aren’t just designed to get people from the Humberwood community to downtown faster (though it will improve the reliability and to some extent the speed of service between Humberwood and Finch station), it’s designed to anchor more mixed-use, higher density development along Finch Avenue that’s currently seen along St. Clair, or along College Street, et cetera.

    I lived in downtown Toronto, but I didn’t limit my travel just to the subway. Streetcars were perfectly acceptable in getting myself to schools and shops, because the schools and shops weren’t so far away that they required a car or a subway train. Indeed, a car would have been more trouble than it’s worth due to road congestion and a lack of parking.

    I picture a Transit City version of Finch Avenue where it is possible to live close to Finch Avenue and use the LRT to access shops, services, even schools and work, without needing to take the subway to places halfway across the GTA.


  7. In response to the post above from James Bow. I’m not sure if he’s thought it out from the point of view of the people who live on Finch West.

    Today, the peak (am) service is provided at intervals at about 2’40”.

    ==> with LRT, this will be less frequent

    Today, speed ranges from 18.3 – 21.1 km / hr

    ==> with LRT, it will be very slightly higher at best if the stop spacing is 500 metres

    Today riders have stops every couple of blocks.

    ==> with LRT, they are going to to walking further to and from the stop.

    Today riders wait on the curb – where there is plenty of space and separation from traffic.

    ==> with LRT, riders will need to cross over and back from the middle of the road.

    Today, the TTC provides different routings to serve high demand locations off Finch.

    ==> with LRT, the riders wont have this. They’ll have to walk or take a bus and transfer

    Riders will lose – hardly a recipe for success.

    Steve: What you are missing in all this is that the projected ridership is more than double what Finch carries today. On this and other Transit City corridors, buses will not be able to handle this increase in demand and a different approach to handling large passenger volumes is needed.


  8. James: We appear to have established that Transit City will provide basically the same level of service as exists currently, repackaged as light rail rather than as a bus. Some things will be slightly better, other things slightly worse.

    So it’s not at all clear to me why you think that, in a part of the city already optimized for car use, providing basically the same level of transit service in a different form will suddenly make people want to move within walking distance of Finch Avenue, rather than continuing to use their cars.

    The example of downtown doesn’t apply, because St. Clair, College, etc. have never been as strip mall and parking lot intensive as, say, Finch. There’s no reason to expect that, as one Spacing Wire commenter rather beautifully put it, “once we’ve got streetcars in the centre of a half-dozen grim suburban arterials a thousand flowers will bloom and strip malls will give way to sensitive, medium scale development”.


  9. “So it’s not at all clear to me why you think that, in a part of the city already optimized for car use, providing basically the same level of transit service in a different form will suddenly make people want to move within walking distance of Finch Avenue, rather than continuing to use their cars.”

    As Steve notes, the expected ridership along Finch West is planned to be double what is currently carried by buses, so there will probably be no reduction in transit service. Indeed, transit service could increase.

    Of course, transit alone won’t transform Finch West into a mixed-use, pedestrian friendly strip. That’s what the official plan is for. As the street is redeveloped, with higher densities, LRTs would help transit absorb the increase in population.

    It can be done. Here in Waterloo, the “uptown” along King Street used to have open space equivalent to the width of the 401, but thanks to municipal attention, the parking lots have been moved off King Street, and the sidewalks are lined with four storey commercial buildings. Something similar for Finch would be a good thing.


  10. James says: Of course, transit alone won’t transform Finch West into a mixed-use, pedestrian friendly strip. That’s what the official plan is for.

    You’ll get no argument from me that Finch could use some improvement. I was speaking to the highly questionable assumption, common among LRT advocates, that streetcars are needed for, or automatically lead to, pleasant neighborhoods.

    I haven’t visited Waterloo in many years, I’m presuming that King Street was transformed without the need for a multi-billion-dollar LRT system.

    Steve: I believe one of the great travesties of LRT “advocacy” is spending too much time talking about the transformative powers of any mode. In many cases, LRT (or busways, or anything else) has replaced transit service far inferior to what they provided and it is impossible to separate the benefits of much improved transit from the mode providing the service. The TTC is wedded to the idea of transformation through specific technology through their long-time claims that the subway caused regeneration of the city. This is demonstrably untrue as a visit to most subway stations in established neighbourhoods will show you.

    Sadly, in our “value for money” planning context, we spend a lot of time concocting stories about how transit will benefit what we have now rather than looking at its impact in the future. This is not to say we shouldn’t spend wisely, but we need a broader definition of “value” than the impact on next year’s operating budget.

    The argument for LRT should be founded on the level of service that will be required to handle future demand and, in some cases, the benefits of interlining and of private right-of-way operation where necessary. I will address these in a future post.


  11. Actually, that’s exactly the point I’m making. Transit City will provide roughly equivalent quality of service than today in some ways worse. So why would ridership double? The Transit City routes are pretty fully developed. Is population or level of business activity going to all of a sudden start rising?

    Looking back over the TTC service summary since 1991, the routes that have grown significantly in service provided (I assume to serve demand) are:

    Finch E – growth in express services (Am peak 17 buses in 1991, 30 in 2008 + some on the 139E for part of the route)
    York Rocket – an express service (5 as 106 Wilson, Now 23)
    Hwy 27 Rocket – an express service (5 in 1991, 12 today)
    Steeles W Express (None in 1991, 30 in 2008)
    Sheppard E express (190) (none in 1991, 7 in 2008)

    The Transit City proposed routes are not the growth routes – for many no express service exists. Growth has been in providing faster service.

    Steve: Two important points here. 1990 is the reference year when service was at its peak. Thereafter, it declined with big cuts in the Harris years. Some of this was economic downturn, and some was transit underfunding.

    The routes you list have one thing in common — they all serve areas of growing demand where, in most cases, there was new population to be served. As I have said before, the intent of Transit City is to serve populations who are not yet there in buildings that have not yet been built.


  12. Your seem to want to have your cake and eat it too. (And the riders are left eating cake when perhaps they want bread.)

    1. You have earlier stated that using underused rail lines and other open space for LRT is not justified because the population isn’t their. Now you say that the LRT on a street is justified because of vary large increases in residents/businesses that will spring up on the mostly developed Transit City routes.

    Steve: Apples and oranges. Nothing will ever spring up on rail corridors or hydro rights-of-way. However, there is a lot of older property waiting for redevelopment in the TC corridors. This is the premise of the Official Plan.

    2. In the previous answer, you discount the magical ‘transformative’ powers of LRT – yet somehow streets like Sheppard E are now going to attract massive teardowns and rebuilds.

    Steve: See comment above. The “teardowns” will come with strip malls surrounded by parking lots and in abandoned or underutilized industrial areas that can be put to better use as residential/commercial space.

    3. You have often commented that Transit City is intended to increase all-day, intra-neighbourhood, bi-directional traffic far more so than pumping more riders into our already burdened subways. If that is the case, there should be no problem handling this demand on most routes with buses.

    Steve: I will turn to projected demands in a future post. There will be an increase in peak demand (justifying LRT), but a greater proportional increase is hoped for in off-peak travel. Yes, buses might handle some of that, but not as well. It’s like saying that buses work fine on Yonge Street at 3 am so we should close the subway — an extreme example, but the logical end of the argument you’re presenting.


  13. “I haven’t visited Waterloo in many years, I’m presuming that King Street was transformed without the need for a multi-billion-dollar LRT system.”

    A couple of points:

    The job isn’t done yet. While Uptown Waterloo has significantly improved thanks to the care and attention of Waterloo City Council and the Region, there’s still work to be done in downtown Kitchener, and all along the King Street spine. The Region of Waterloo is expected to grow from 500,000 to 750,000 by 2031. Indeed, I think we’re already ahead of projections. In order to avoid all of that growth going at the fringe with car-oriented sprawl, intensification is required along the King Street spine, and the LRT is seen as the anchor of that.

    Secondly, it’s not a multi-billion LRT. Two years ago, the cost of the LRT from Fairview Mall to Conestoga Mall was estimated at $256 million. There are some places where rail rights of way and hydro rights of way can be used by this line and still be useful. We’re not planning to tunnel beneath downtown Kitchener. And, frankly, I think the regional council is keeping an eye on Toronto in the hopes of possibly piggybacking their order for new vehicles, thus obtaining a volume discount.


  14. re: teardowns

    No doubt there are some areas of strip malls that might be economical to redevelop. But what % of the Transit City mileage are we talking about?

    Don Mills – practically none.
    Finch W – pure residential for a long stretch and then gets into the industrial/commercial area toward airport – some
    Sheppard E – not sure – have never travelled over
    Jane – some – but a lot of green space which could well be protected
    WWLRT – route doesn’t go by many strip malls as far as I can tell – and there are only limited spaces for new construction. (In fact – this leverages rail rights of way – is that an orange amongst the apples? )
    Malvern – I have no idea (maybe I’ll head up this one evening this week)
    Eglinton – some in far West (west of Kipling) – likely more in East

    So perhaps 10% has some POTENTIAL for tear down. This doesn’t square wwith a doubling of demand. Let’s leave aside the question as to whether an LRT lined street will attract business or residential. On St. Clair W, it seems that the move is from commercial to residential (I understand one office building is already being converted – not sure what the status of the IOL building is.)

    Commercial establishments are much ‘denser’ traffic generators than residential – so simply knocking down a few old strip malls and building mid-rises is not going to give ridership so much of an inherent boost.


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