Why Transit City is an LRT Plan (Part 2A)

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about the history of transit plans since the mid-1960s in Toronto and the evolution of planning goals into Toronto’s new Official Plan. That plan has a very different view of our city, and addresses the need to accommodate very large growth in population and transportation demands.

Much of that growth will come in the old suburbs where 50’s style developments are showing their age and opportunities for more effective land use are ripe.

Although the Official Plan didn’t exactly trumpet LRT as its mode of choice for a future transit network, the references are there for anyone who takes the time to find them. The vision for a new city includes:

  • vibrant neighbourhoods that are part of complete communuities;
  • attractive, tree-lined streets with shops and housing that are made for walking;
  • a comprehensive and high-quality transit system that lets people move around the city quickly and conveniently. [Toronto Official Plan, Page 2]

“Principles for a Successful Toronto” include:

  • public transit is universally accessible and buses and streetcars are an attractive choice for travel. [Ibid, Page 3]

In a background paper to the plan lies this key paragraph:

Increasing transit ridership within the City for trips originating in the City, as well as elsewhere in the GTA, can probably best be achieved by improving coverage in those areas not well served by transit (generally speaking, in the West, Northwest, and Northeast) and increasing connectivity of various elements of the system in ways that make it easier to use transit for more than just centrally oriented travel. Major areas designated for revitalization and new development, such as the waterfront and port lands, should also have improved transit coverage and better connectivity with the rest of the transit system. [A Transportation Vision for the City of Toronto Official Plan, April 2000, Page 43, italics are in the original text]

Moreover, in discussing rapid transit (subway) options then under study, we learn:

These proposals will undergo detailed evaluation, including benefit-cost analysis in which the benefits of more riders, travel time savings, and improved transit accessibility and connectivity will be balanced against the best available cost estimates. This evaluation may lead to the consideration of other rapid transit technology, such as exclusive busways and streetcar/LRT, which may prove more cost effective in certain travel corridors. Rapid transit expansion is a long-term, major capital investment that would have to justify the cost before being considered as an element of the new Official Plan. [Toronto at the Crossroads: Shaping Our Future, July 2000, Page 105]

A clear thread runs through the Official Plan of neighbourhoods with fine-grained, local services, a built form that encorages short pedestrian trips and developments that embrace the street rather than isolating their occupants in towers surrounded by parking. “Mixed use” means the co-existence of residential and commercial space as found in older cities, not alternating, kilometre-wide, single-use blocks isolated from each other. Trips within and among neighbourhoods need good surface transit that can be easily reached by a variety of riders — not just commuters to downtown, but people of all ages and interests moving around the city.

In this, the Official Plan has a fundamental break from much of what went before and from much work now in progress by Metrolinx. The emphasis is not on serving Oshawa to Oakville traffic as if this were the dominant purpose of the transportation network, but on serving small-to-medium scale travel within the city. This reflects the basic difference between a suburban, commuter-oriented planning mindset best shown by the GO Transit network and an outlook that reflects travel as an all day multipurpose activity.

Transit won’t replace all trips, but it should, it must be much better at handling many trips as we see in areas that actually have even moderately attractive and reliable service.  As I said in reply to a comment in the first of these posts, anyone who says that transit will reduce congestion is either badly informed or, in parliamentary language, misleading.

Demand for road capacity will always backfill any travel we divert to transit.  The Gardiner is not empty even though we are running frequent service on GO.  The whole idea of the commuter rail network was to avoid th need to build more highways and more capacity to store all those cars when they came downtown.  In that sense, GO is a huge success even if the roads are still full.

Similarly, Transit City does not attempt to reduce current traffic congestion, but to avoid even worse to come as the city’s population and travel demands grow.  The roads will still be full, and motorists will gripe that we have taken valuable space for transit lanes.

Transit City, The Avenues and the Surface Transit Priority Network

When the Official Plan was compiled, schemes for improved transit and neighbourhood redevelopment didn’t quite line up. If you compare the Urban Structure Map with the Surface Transit Priority Network, you will see that the Avenues (the brown stripes on the Urban Structure map) don’t always coincide with the transit priority streets. This is no surprise as the philosophies behind the two maps are completely different.



The Avenues are streets where intensification of land use may be possible either through replacement of a mixed collection of old buildings with newer, denser forms, or through redevelopment of sites where parking is a dominant feature. The transit priority network was designed mainly to emphasize streets where there is now frequent transit service.

Several years later, the Transit City plan focussed on major streets, on neighbourhoods where improved transit is important to better mobility and economic well-being, and on coverage of the city to produce a network rather than unlinked, one-of projects.


A sub-project of Transit City now underway will resolve the differences between these plans and, with luck, we can go forward as a city with a unified view of both transit and land-use. In the short term, this will benefit mainly the City of Toronto because it has so much land where major changes can occur and an established transit network. In the 905, the challenges are greater not least because much of the outer suburbs won’t revelop soon and they have little established transit ridership on which to build.

Even with the differences between the plans, the fact that all of them focus on local travel is quite obvious. The routes don’t go out of their way to avoid congested areas, nor do they try to provide fast, express corridors between remote corners of the city. Transit City evolved in this context.

The Principles Behind Transit City

The list below is not exhaustive, but it gives some sense of the rationale for route selection and how Transit City fits into the goals of the Official Plan.

  • Keep service on the surface wherever possible so that it is near people and destinations;
  • Encourage development along routes rather than at high-density nodes with moderately close station spacing accessible by walking from anywhere along the route;
  • Put transit where people are, not in empty fields;
  • Use available street rights-of-way where possible, but rebalance road space usage to reflect future transit demand requirements;
  • Grade-separate service only if surface space is so constrained that there is no other option;
  • Avoid constraints on future expansion, extension and interlining of services by using surface-friendly technologies that do not require grade-separation;
  • Provide for integration with future regional expansion and upgrading;
  • Improve transit’s attractiveness through gains in capacity, frequency and speed;
  • Avoid schemes that have long lead times for implementation;
  • Attract riding from the growing population in new developments rather than focussing on the most car-dependent existing trips as a potential market;
  • Build a network that provides options for trips around the city, not just to a handful of major centres or the core area.

Transit on the Surface

The Avenues designation within the Official Plan proposes medium density development along major streets.  Transit service must be close enough to such development to be attractive.  Surface routes can have stations basically wherever they are needed, although for Transit City lines some reasonable constraints must be placed on having a stop at every lamp post.

If stops are close enough to be walkable from all nearby residential and commercial buildings, then the need for a parallel supplementary service is avoided.  Experience on Yonge north of Eglinton and on Sheppard east of Yonge shows just the sort of fifth-rate transit provided for those who are so unfortunate as not to be at a subway station.

By contrast, routes that are totally grade separated (subway and ICTS/RT) tend to have stations further apart both due to cost and, in the case of elevated structures, the issues related to neighbourhood blight of large structures over streets.  Widely spaced stations encourage high-density developments nearby with large gaps in between.  While this may achieve the same total population as a medium-density model, it does not produce the same opportunities for neighbourhood creation.  Buildings tend to be set back from the street, and far less sidewalk-level space is created for stores and other local amenities.

Elevated guideways are often depicted as slender, unobtrusive structures, always seen in profile where their impact is minimized.  Stations are shown straddling roads (as they do in Vancouver, or as Midland Station does on the RT) where the impact is relatively light.  Transit City routes are in the middle of major streets, not in back lanes or railway corridors.

How Transit Can Affect and Support Development

Surface transit will not, by itself, convert existing neighbourhoods to model communities, but when a neighbourhood redevelops, surface transit can encourage the type of building favoured in the Official Plan.  Recently, I was speaking with folks from Metrolinx about how the subway failed to create high-rise concentrations along its length.  Much of the Bloor-Danforth subway, for example, runs through low-rise neighbourhoods.  These have not been redeveloped and, indeed, are likely to remain as they are due to the popularity of their existing form.

Until the mid 1960s, Toronto’s old low-rise residential areas were prey to apartment developments, and some high-rise clusters around subway stations date from an era when city policies actively encouraged destruction of older housing stock.  Examples include neighbourhoods around Eglinton and Davisville Stations on the Yonge line, and Broadview and Keele / High Park on Bloor-Danforth.  That orgy of neighbourhood destruction ended with Mayor Crombie and his development controls.  Indeed, I live in one such apartment, and these are examples of the disruptive effect major transit investments can have on neighbourhoods.

Redevelopments did occur around suburban BD stations like Islington and Victoria Park, but some sites, notably Kipling, laid empty for years.  Recent projects such as the Minto towers at Yonge and Eglinton and much of the building north of 401 east of Yonge came because office and industrial properties became available.

Development will occur, but the change won’t come overnight.  Transit must be in place to support the built form and the transit lifestyle we wish to encourage in Toronto’s future.

Using Road Space

Much debate on future transit plans for the GTA will turn on the question of road space.  Although there are different impacts by each mode, implementation of any large-scale transit surface transit improvement is impossible without affecting existing road traffic.  Subways are always an option, but they are a very expensive way to buy road capacity.

An interesting example can be found at Queen’s Quay Station, a section of the Harbourfront line originally intended to be on the surface.  The developers of 10 and 20 Bay Street (which houses Metrolinx, GO Transit and Waterfront Toronto among others) gave the city land to allow for a widened Bay Street with an LRT station.  The then Commissioner of Works at the City preferred to use the space for a left turn lane, and we spent over $20-million to put Queen’s Quay Station underground.  That’s an expensive left turn lane, especially considering that the coming redesign of Queen’s Quay will limit the volume of traffic needing to make that turn.

We must avoid situations where transit projects are used to camouflage road improvements that are, strictly speaking, not required.  Transit priority will require that transit can actually cut through road traffic with effective lane arrangements and signalling, something we have yet to see in Toronto.

The requirements for either BRT or LRT are similar in that both would create a centre median reserved for transit and would close off many existing places where traffic can cross the centre-line.  BRT brings the added requirement for passing lanes if high volumes will be carried and vehicles are expected to leap-frog at stations.

On older established roads, there is no room for widening the pavement and/or relocating sidewalks.  The typical standard street in Toronto is 66 feet wide (one surveyor’s chain for those who are wondering), and this will comfortably hold a four-lane street plus sidewalks.  These streets also tend to be built to the lot line at the sidewalk edge, and widening would require substantial building demolition.

Some streets, notably St. Clair and Spadina, were laid out to a wider design (Spadina, and the wide part of Queen just to the east were to be the grand boulevard to the Baldwin family property in the country).  These are rare exceptions in the old part of the city.  In suburban areas, rights-of-way are much wider and many streets have ample room for addition of a transit median.

Whatever mode is selected, access to property will be affected and, likely, some turns into side streets.  The more exceptions we make, the slower the operation will be.  It is important to remember that headways on either a BRT or LRT operation will be much more frequent than we see on many North American systems, and there will be considerable conflict between transit vehicles and other traffic.  For example, a one minute headway (60 vehicles/hour) means that there will be a vehicle every 30 seconds on average at each crossing.  Delays at any crossing will produce backlogs especially if the transit “window” is only a few seconds as at some so-called priority signals in Toronto.

Pedestrian activity must also be taken into account.  Any stop with a high passenger demand will attract much foot traffic both at the stop itself, for transfer movements to intersecting services and for any site that generates much traffic in its own right.

All of this sounds rather negative if viewed from the point of view of a motorist, but these are the kinds of design choices needed to make surface transit work.

One important design advantage of surface transit is that the transit median can visually divide the street and to make crossing the wider suburban arterials easier than it is today.  Nobody much cares what an arterial looks like when it is full of cars and surrounded by parking, but if the built form changes, then the look of the streets must change too.  Certainly this is possible without transit rights-of-way, but their construction provides the opportunity for redesigning the look of the Transit City streets.

Transit In A Field

Discussions of Transit City routes on this site have included a good deal of advocacy for existing rights-of-way, notably the Finch Hydro Corridor.  Other plans, notably the Metrolinx REX (Regional Express) scheme, use highway corridors.

These are seductive options because they don’t affect local road capacities, and they appear almost “free” for the taking.  Moreover, planners and politicians whose experience is coloured by driving down expressways map that drive onto a transit user’s trip — the “this is where I would want my bus to go” style of planning.

Alas, transit routes don’t work like that.  People have to get to them and there are really only three ways to do this:

  • The GO Rail parking lot model where passengers get to otherwise isolated train stations both by driving and by local bus feeders;
  • A network of local routes that become express services (the Ottawa model) for a line-haul journey to a common destination;
  • Off-highway interchanges where express services can interchange riders with local bus feeders (the expressway variant of the GO model).

Rarely are expressways built in a way that makes pedestrian access easy or even possible.  The very locations where stations would be ideal also correspond to major interchanges.  Not only are these far from any place a pedestrian would actual come from or walk to, they involve all manner of hazards for pedestrian access such as on and off ramps.

One exception in Toronto is the Allen Road, and this manages to provide pedestrians with access to the subway stations only because that road does not have full-blown interchanges, and traffic on its ramps is controlled by traffic signals.  Try to imagine a similar arrangement on the 401.

Hydro corridors are suitable for long trips where the goal is to get buses or LRVs over a considerable distance with few stops.  The York University busway now under construction is a good example.  However, these corridors are, by definition, in the middle of nowhere, and the opportunities for walk-in traffic are limited.  No condos or office towers will ever spring up on the Finch corridor, and a busway in that corridor will only ever be used for long-haul riders who must somehow access the corridor via feeder routes or via a through-routed express service if one is operated.

This design may have its uses, but it is completely contrary to the goals of the Official Plan.  It is much closer to the commuter rail model than to a network for local transit.  Far more importantly, however, there are very few available rights-of-way.  Nothing parallels Eglinton, Don Mills or Jane.  If the Finch Corridor were such a winner, why did we build a subway on Sheppard?  The answer, of course, is that the subway was intended to stimulate development, not just to funnel riders from Agincourt to Finch Station.

[Continued in next post]