One year ago, with much fanfare, the TTC launched the Transit City plan. Those who have followed the debates on my site will know we had a lot of discussions about whether lines were in the right place, what demands would be placed on the system, whether the cost estimates were reasonable and many fine details of individual route designs. As I said here, it felt as if I was running a one-man Environmental Assessment for the whole plan.
The official EAs are now starting for some routes (Sheppard, Finch West and Eglinton), and Waterfront West is already underway. Although not officially part of Transit City, we also have studies for the eastern waterfront and Kingston Road.
Notable by its absence in Transit City is one common part of every EA that has gone before: an alternatives analysis. Many here have debated the LRT-only premise, and even some of the professional planners are miffed that Transit City came out as a single-mode proposal.
I have little sympathy for this view. In years past, studies for a variety of transit projects have gone through the motions of looking at alternatives, but the fix was in from the beginning. Some current resentment is at least partly a question of sour grapes among those who have a brief for other schemes sidelined by the Transit City announcement.
This post will appear in several segments as I get a chance to write them, and I may do some polishing along the way, possibly even pulling the whole thing into a single paper in a few weeks. I will open the posts to comments, but will concentrate on getting all of the material written and up first. I’ve found that moderating the comments can take a lot of time, so please bear with me.
My current plans for this series are:
- The origins of Transit City (this post)
- Why LRT?
- A comparative review of technologies
- Expansion and extension options for Transit City
Public agencies wishing to pillage my work should feel free to do so provided credit is given. This material is produced pro bono.
The Origins of Transit City
In the mid 1960s, the TTC foresaw the need for two types of routes serving the growing suburbs — some subway extensions, and a group of lines operated with updated streetcar technology that we now call Light Rail Transit (LRT).
Intermediate capacity rapid transit lines are conceived as operating on private or exclusive grade-separated surface rights-of-way but with lighter equipment, minimal station facilities and on-board ticket collection wherever possible. Initially, service on such lines might be provided by PCC car type vehicles. It is believed that the capacity of such lines should be in the order of ten to twenty thousand passengers per hour and the TTC is undertaking a study to arrive at a possible design of a suitable lightweight vehicle for this type of high speed service.
“A Concept for Integrated Rapid Transit and Commuter Rail Systems in Metropolitan Toronto”, TTC, February 1969
The complete network included:
- The Yonge line extended north from Eglinton to the Finch Hydro Corridor
- The existing Bloor-Danforth line from Islington to Warden
- The University line extended north from St. George Station to Wilson (the Spadina subway)
- The Downtown Relief line from Flemingdon Park to Queen, and then via the Queen Subway to the Humber Bay
- A northeast line from Warden Station to Malvern
- A line across the Finch Hydro Corridor swinging southwest through Etobicoke to meet …
- A line from Islington Station via a Hydro Corridor meeting the Finch line with …
- A branch west to the airport
- A line from Wilson Station north to the Finch Hydro corridor
GO Commuter Rail:
- Service added to the CN Weston corridor including an airport spur
- The CPR North Toronto corridor with service from Milton to Malvern and beyond, and
- The CN Richmond Hill corridor
This is a very different network from what we got, but it established the pattern of concentrating on long-haul trips via commuter rail, LRT and subway. The surface network was assumed to fill in itself around whatever rapid transit lines were built and this certainly happened during the rapid system expansion of the 1960s and 70s.
GO transit has expanded, although on different alignments at least partly due to the relative intransigence of CPR (as against CNR) as a host for commuter rail services. The LRT plans were overtaken by Queen’s Park’s high technology transit schemes. Eventually, they brought forth the Scarborough RT and little else. Indeed, the whole idea that there was anything between buses at the low end and subways at the high end was actively ignored by Queen’s Park as a threat to the viability of its technology.
By the 1980s, this left us with two expensive options for rapid transit — conventional subways, or the Intermediate Capacity Transit System (ICTS) which we now know as the “RT”. Rapid transit was not so much planned, as announced and fought over. Limited funds constrained what could be built, and politics rather than planning took precedence culminating in the Sheppard line.
During the period when every good planning text would have us building transit to lead and shape suburban development, instead we built small subway extensions and ran minimally acceptable bus service primarily to feed the rapid transit network. This pattern was accentuated when growth spilled into the “905” and these communities had little or no transit service.
Meanwhile, the original suburbs (the ring of the 416 around the old city) aged, the planning mix of housing and industry that looked so good on paper grew tired as industrial needs changed and companies moved, and the populations housed in suburbs evolved from the classic middle-class 50s ex-pats from “the city”.
We now come to the late 90s, an amalgamated City, and its new Official Plan. This plan recognizes that the city as we have built it needs to change on two counts. First, parts of it need rejuvenation, new neighbourhoods and land uses to reflect current and future populations and economic activity. Second, the suburban, car-oriented model simply doesn’t work on many counts: cost, environmental effects, land requirements, and the isolating design of streets and neighbourhoods where pedestrians are foreigners. The population growth expected in the next few decades cannot be managed with the current suburban model.
This problem exists in the 905 too, but the Official Plan is for Toronto, the 416, and for many suburbs decades older than their new cousins beyond the City boundaries. If the 905 is ever going to deal with its developments, the 416 must show the way with “new”, reimagined suburbs. This won’t be easy as developers prefer to build what they know. If the City doesn’t support change through planning policies and through changes in the transportation services, then all we will get is more car-oriented buildings and sterile car-dominated main streets.
Anywhere distant from subway lines, transit is a distant second choice because service is dolled out like gruel to Dickensian orphans — be happy with what you’ve got and don’t ask for more. Even where transit should be competitive, cutbacks in TTC operations and a loss of pride in running truly first-class service expose the core “city” system as a poor example to our suburban cousins of what transit might be.
The TTC’s Ridership Growth Strategy aims for some small-scale improvements, but even this has been repeatedly thwarted by Council’s refusal to fund better transit service.
In spite of this, the Official Plan looks to vastly improve transit generally, and particularly to improve operations on major streets, “The Avenues”. Here redevelopment would be encouraged at a density and in a form that could bring the sort of street traffic — pedestrians and transit users — at a level more commonly seen in older neighbourhoods.
Alas, the Official Plan doesn’t actually have a transit plan in it thanks to jurisdictional disputes between City and TTC planners. There’s a network of transit priority routes that sort of, but not quite, mirrors the Avenues, but there is no sense of a real network where roads would be changed to provide space for transit, priority for transit vehicles and riders, and reliable service that would make the TTC a valued service outside of downtown Toronto.
In a way, we were lucky. Instead of an Official Plan that reproduced the subway plans of decades past, we had a vacuum waiting for something better. That something was Transit City.
Transit City was not the product of the usual bureaucratic inter-agency haggling with all sparks of creativity snuffed out by decisions the public and politicians never get to see. That’s no secret. The plan’s launch was very much the work of Mayor Miller and TTC Chair Councillor Giambrone, together with their staff and a lot of fast work by the TTC to fill in the technical details. The project website isn’t part of the City’s or the TTC’s standard offerings, and the graphics have a style all their own.
Most important about Transit City is that Torontonians could think about transit in a new way, could see that someone cared about transit as a network, not as a handful of political vanity projects. That’s the optics, but there are good ideas under the covers. Transit City is not just a collection of lines on a map, a “subway in every borough” plan like so many that have come before.
Unfortunately, the momentum of the Transit City launch was badly stalled last summer when the expected new tax revenues from land transfers and vehicle registrations were deferred by Council. That’s on track now, but vital months were wasted with political haggling and transit went onto the back burner.
In my next installment, I will look at the reasons for basing Transit City on LRT technology. This choice surprised many and annoyed more than a few. I will also look at what Transit City is supposed to accomplish and how this differs from planning both of past decades and even work now underway at Metrolinx.
As a public service, I will try to put aside my bias in favour of LRT and examine the network and the alternatives we might otherwise have. Yes, I know it will be a stretch, but no more a stretch than expecting people whose solutions to every problem involve either busways, road widenings or subway tunnels to look at LRT fairly.