When Is A Plan Not A Plan? When It’s A Test Case!

Today’s Metrolinx board meeting actually produced some interesting debate about the draft white papers for the Regional Transportation Plan.  There was little discussion of the Goals & Objectives paper, but the Preliminary Directions & Concepts really got people going.

Two items attracted particular interest.

First, how are we going to pay for everything?  The options listed in the White Paper do not include some rather obvious options such as a higher gas tax and or a regional sales tax.  The boldest of the bold plans will cost close to $4-billion annually in capital costs and a comparable amount in operating costs.  At that level, I think we can reasonably assume that naming rights will not raise the money we need.

There is a separate Investment Strategy paper that will be published concurrently with the Draft Regional Transportation Plan in early July, and it will address the financial issues.

Second, David Miller led off a critique of the White Papers noting that the option of not building more roads was completely absent.  Indeed, the authors assume that since all of the road projects for the forseeable future are funded, one way or another, these should be assumed as part of the base plan.  This is a strange state of affairs for an organization that recognizes, quite strongly, that the problems of the GTAH will not be solved by road building.

The converse argument came from Bill Fisch of York Region who wanted to see a network with more roads as he felt the growth planned in the regions will require additional road capacity.

Several board members noted that recent reports show the cost of fuel rising much faster than expected, and the use of a two-times factor for auto costs relative to transit by 2031 may be rather optimistic.  We are likely to reach a 2X level much sooner, let alone what it will be by 2031.

David Miller also pointed out that none of the White Paper proposals achieves a reduction in environmental impact matching the Provincial targets and that even as we were sitting at the meeting, the Premier was at another event touting Queen’s Park’s green objectives.

In the middle of this, we had a visit from Jim Bradley, Minister of Transportation.  Everyone was on their best behaviour and didn’t ask embarrassing questions.  Bradley spoke from prepared notes, and emphasized that Metrolinx had strong support from the Government (without saying anything about how much that support might translate into dollars).  To his credit, Bradley spoke of “investments” in transit and recognized that transit has a lasting public value. 

The intriguing aspect of the speech was that Bradley spoke repeatedly about “public transit”.  He only turned to roads on reaching the obligatory part about how we are helping to strengthen industry by aiding their shipping needs.

The debate turned on whether enough variations in network design, let along other parameters, had been modelled, and on whether there had been enough time for proper input from municipal staff.  As this developed, it was clear that Rob MacIsaac, who is wedded to a hard timetable for the entire RTP process, was about to be outvoted by a majority of his board.  They were unhappy with the unseemly haste for approving the White Papers and with the lack of input from the very planners who know the details that could inform the plan.

Ooops!  It’s not a plan.  These are “Test Cases” — sample networks intended as trial runs of the demand model so that we can see how they behave.  There are four cases (you can read the details in the White Paper):

  • “Business as Usual” including only committed projects such as the subway extension to Vaughan plus three BRT facilities (Brampton, North Yonge and Mississauga)
  • A “Linear” network that provides growth outward with increased commuter rail service and the first part of the REX (regional express) network on the GO Lakeshore line, and a small list of other additions.
  • A “Radial” network adds some new “metro” lines (subway or RT) including Eglinton and Sheppard and a number of other BRT/LRT proposals throughout the region.
  • A “Web” network that includes even more rapid transit as well as a larger REX system.

These are supposed to be independent views of how a network might be built as their names imply, but in fact each scheme is built on the one before it.  In effect, we are back to the “bold, bolder, boldest” way of looking at things no matter what we call each test case.

After some arm-twising, partly during the lunch break, the Board directed that additional “test cases” be constructed and run to address the following scenarios:

  • A “Web” network that removes the road improvements, but adds any missing pieces that are already identifity in the City of Toronto Official Plan.  (This has some problems because the OP itself is not yet in sync with Transit City and other proposals.)
  • A “Radial” network that includes even more road improvements than the existing scheme.
  • A network that attracts enough traffic to transit so that the Provincial environmental goals will be met.

Some Board members raised concerns about the test cases.  They worry, as do I, that the moment a map is printed, people address the map, not the concepts behind the map.  Given the pressure for a draft, and then a final RTP “now”, what may be a “test case” today may become a “plan” tomorrow without the level of detailed review a project of this complexity demands.  More test cases with more detail about their individual behaviour are essential to understand what works and what doesn’t work in these proposals.  There are advocates for subways, LRT, BRT and roads, but none of them can speak authoritatively about any of the network schemes without comparative modelling data from several scenarios.

From my own point of view, the White Paper proposals have three fundamental flaws:

  • No demand figures have been published for individual network components or links.  Therefore, we have no way of knowing which components are actually attracting users sufficient to justify the technology proposed.  Just because you build a subway does not mean that you need a subway, or that it will contribute meaningfully to environmental goals.
  • The modelling needs to be multi-dimensional in the sense that the same network needs to be run with different assumptions about external factors such as the price of auto travel relative to transit or alternative job and population distributions.  We need to know whether the inability to reach the target is caused by pricing , by service, by land use or by some combination of these.
  • The model needs to be available for frequent re-execution with altered assumptions.  There will be many schemes mooted by everyone from politicians down to mere transit advocates, not to mention companies who may have a vested interest in technology choices.  We need to understand how changes in the network at the level of individual lines affect the overall behaviour, modal splits and the ability to meet targets.

I have been advised by Metrolinx staff that the demand data will be available concurrently with the draft RTP.  This is too late in the process as we need that demand data to understand how the test cases actually behave in attracting and serving travel in the region.  This data must be published concurrently with the amended White Papers.

Alternative test cases are essential so that we can understand what works, what doesn’t work and what the effects of various changes would be.  For example, I am quite interested to see a network that is road oriented if only to see what sort of congestion and constraints show up in the projected demand on new and expanded links.  Equally, in a network with few or no road improvements, does the demand actually migrate to transit, or is the real problem that origin-destination pairs don’t line up with the network structure even in a very “bold” plan?

As a result of the Board’s request for additional material, the White Papers will come back again to the May 9 meeting with amendments.  The versions now on the Metrolinx site that I have linked above should be read only as drafts.

A round of stakeholder consultations that was to start on May 12 will now be pushed back two weeks, and other planned public meetings are also delayed. 

3 thoughts on “When Is A Plan Not A Plan? When It’s A Test Case!

  1. The assumption of a 100% gas price increase by 2031 is, if anything, a very large understatement, considering that just yesterday the chief economist at CIBC predicted that gas prices will reach $2.25 per litre by 2012 (prompting front-page treatment in the National Post as well as the Financial Post section, if anything because his oil price predictions to date have all been correct).

    I think the most neglected aspect of these models is just how much the cost of gas is going to affect the average person’s travel decisions, not to mention the decisions about where to live and where to locate your business. In this sense, investments in new roads to serve suburban growth are very unlikely to pay off, whereas investments in transit and rail-freight infrastructure will likely give more and more return on investment as they more and more people shift into the “captive” market.


  2. Thanks for the detailed recap. In retrospect there’s another benefit to pushing back their consultation process — all the fuss over the strike may not fully die down for a few weeks yet.

    Potentially there’s a lot to like in the plan, but I think they’ve done a poor job of making the test concepts look like works in progress. Sure, there’s a fine-print disclaimer on the map, but in general they’ve combined two steps into one: the purpose of each service is omitted, and instead it’s described only by its exact location in the model.

    Two examples: instead of a downtown relief line we get a “new metro line along Queen Street” (“metro” being some sort of branding spasm that seems more or less synonymous with “subway”). And instead of a crosstown express line to the airport area, we get a “Regional Express…east/west line along highway 401”. In that case, I like the goal, but not the solution: it will be hard to link rail in the 401 corridor to local transit or urbanized “hubs”. It’s fine to use the 401 for the test case, but will they still do the study to compare a 401 service to e.g. one running through the Finch Hydro Corridor or an express tunnel under Eglinton? Or is it too early to have that discussion now, but too late to have it later?


  3. It’s a shame that focus on this very important Metrolinx RTP summary and commentary was hijacked by the ATU strike and didn’t get the attention it deserved.

    Having attended the same Metrolinx meeting (when I wasn’t stuffing my face with free sandwiches) Steve did an admirable job summarizing the meeting and adding his astute commentary, no doubt why senior Metrolinx staffers also read his blog.

    Fortunately, this Saturdays’s Globe & Mail Toronto section featured a front-page interview with Steve refocusing attention on Metrolinx’s upcoming RTP-Regional Transportation Plan.

    Steve’s blog commentary and discussion above is more substantive, but there was one funny zinger of a quote Steve gave the G&M that made me laugh… see the last line about when York Region will stop building low-density residential development! 😛


    Next stop: Toronto’s transportation future

    It’ll take more than tinkering to unclog the GTA’s roads and rails. This summer, Metrolinx is set to unveil a sweeping game plan for rescuing the 416 and the 905 from traffic hell. Can it work? Plus, we asked you what should be done, and you told us.

    May 10, 2008

    Attention drivers and transit riders: Metrolinx, the Greater Toronto Area’s new transportation planning authority, is gearing up for the July release of the first draft of its grand vision for commuting in Toronto and its suburbs. Globe T.O. deputy editor Kelly Grant spoke to transit guru Steve Munro about which ideas the long-awaited blueprint should embrace (time-based fares, anyone?) and which it should reject.

    Should they even be thinking about expanding roads as part of this plan?
    Broadly, I’ll say no. There’s no question that there are areas in the 905 where the issue of whether you build more roads is intimately tied up in what’s happening with additional development.

    And, frankly, I don’t think the 905 is up to making a change in its philosophy about development.
    It’s going to keep building low-density residential until they hit, you know, Hudson Bay.”

    Steve: In the article, when I was asked about how we would pay for transit improvements, I am quoted as saying “raise the gas tax”. In the interview, I also argued strongly for a regional sales tax, something used in many other cities to spread the cost of transportation improvements over the entire region.

    A vital part of either approach is that such taxes can be implemented without a mega-project to install new technology such as that needed for road tolls, and we don’t waste what little transit funding we do have making those who supply, install and operate such systems rich.

    Moreover, even though the Premier may dislike new taxes, he has already allowed the City of Toronto to levy several of them. Policy papers must show all the options, palatable or otherwise, so that the public can decide on which path will be taken. Reject a regional sales tax if you must on political grounds, but know at least what you might be able to raise through such a mechanism.


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