Last Friday, I spent the day at a Metrolinx public consultation session, a meeting of “Stakeholders” who have more than a passing interest in transportation issues. This was the fourth of six gatherings around the GTAH.
Metrolinx has got to recognize a basic fact: Activists and community representatives are not consultants, they don’t represent companies for whom attendance at this type of function is part of their job. Metronauts had the sense to be a Saturday event, and, frankly, it was a lot more productive. If Metrolinx had to actually pay even half of the crowd who attended last Friday at reasonable consulting rates, they would have blown a bundle.
The moderator started off by thanking us all for taking time out of our busy schedules to provide “value added feedback”. Argghhh! Yes, we added value, and in many cases this represented a day taken off work (vacation, in my case). At least the food was good.
The day was structured in a way that made me feel we had all been transported back a few months in time. We started with a review of White Paper 1 on Goals and Objectives. A lot of this is motherhood and apple pie stuff, and it’s a bit late in the day to be validating the fundamentals.
With the second session, a review of White Paper 2 on Preliminary Directions for the Regional Transportation Plan, we started to get into the meat.
Those of you who have read the background documents will know that originally Metrolinx created three visions:
- “Trends” assumed a business as usual approach with limited additions to the network
- “Incremental” assumed a more substantive network largely based on MoveOntario2020
- “Bold” assumed all of the above and more
The language is clearly intended to push the reader to “Be Bold”. Who ever got elected saying “dare to be incremental”?
By the time the White Paper came out with its test case network (not plans, remember, only sample networks to see how the travel demand would map onto the model), the names had changed to:
- “Business as Usual”
Despite the impression that these are alternatives, they retain the hierarchical relationship that each case is built on the previous one. Also, there’s a fair similarity between these networks and the three originals in Green Paper 7. A rose by any other name …
These were presented to us, but with a significant omission. When the draft White Paper was before the Metrolinx Board back in April, additional test cases were requested by the Board (which was in a feisty mood about the limitations of what was up for debate) to address variants with more or less road expansion. These appear in the White Paper in Appendix E, but were not mentioned until I raised the issue. Although the results may be self-evident, it’s important that they have been quantified to show the projected impacts.
- A network from which planned road expansion projects are deleted will have more congestion, particularly in the 905 where most of the projects are planned, and some increase in transit usage.
- A network to which road expansions over and above the original test case are added will have less congestion (again mainly in the 905) but lower transit usage.
The important issue, now almost a Metrolinx Mantra, is that “we cannot build our way out of congestion”. This really deserves more heft in presentations to establish the limits of what even the best-funded and well-intentioned plan might achieve. This was the last time we heard anything about congestion even though it is a major issue in the GTAH and the impetus behind Metrolinx’ creation.
However, there’s a problem with political credibility. We also know that even with fairly aggressive transit networks, a large proportion of travel within the 905 will continue to be by car, and transit does not exactly warm the hearts of electors or politicians outside of Toronto (with the notable exception of routes designed to take their voters downtown).
The other major challenge is the Provincial green targets. Just as we cannot build enough roads and transit to eliminate congestion, we also cannot address green issues (energy, greenhouse gases, smog) with only the transportation network. Fundamental changes are needed in vehicle technology (smaller cars, lower emissions, better mileage) and in the driving habits of GTAH residents. This is discussed in Appendix F of White Paper 2.
The central problem is that all of the changes we can reasonably expect in technology and behaviour are completely offset by the impact of population growth, and new population tends to bring with it the dream of suburban living with the multi-car garage. The combined effect of the green targets and the added population will require massive changes in how people move around the region.
We were a downtown audience, and — surprise — we don’t like roads. To us, they are destructive forces that harm communities, but to the 905, they are a basic right. During a lunchtime “dotmocracy” exercise (where we used a supply of green and red sticky dots to indicate which of the Metrolinx proposals we liked or hated), one proposal received special attention. It suggests that we
Develop a long-range land protection and/or acquisition strategy to accommodate future needs for active transportation, transit, roads, highways and goods movement.
The words “roads and highways” were obliterated under a sea of red dots.
I came away from the meeting with a bunch of unanswered questions. Some came up in schmoozing with Metrolinx staff, and some came on reflection after the combined effect of good air conditioning and the Marriott’s food had worn off.
Where are the metrics?
Nowhere in the test case evaluations do we see metrics beyond the broad-brush values — how many trips are taken by transit in each region, what is the impact on GHGs — and there is no sense of what any element in a network might contribute to the overall success or failure of the scheme.
What are the changes in travel times for a variety of origin-destination pairs? What are the fine grained changes in market share, not, say, for York Region overall, but for individual parts of the region?
People cannot understand or evaluate the need for any new lines and investments without first knowing where the demands originate, where they are going, and which possible network elements do the best job of attracting those demands to transit at a reasonable cost.
Why only look at the AM peak?
The demand model is based on the AM peak period, and the trip numbers are generated from static population and employment data for the test year. For each subgroup of travel demands, the model estimates how these trips would behave and maps them to a proposed network.
However, trip diversion to transit, and transit demand in general, is not just about the peak period. A transit lifestyle is only possible when off-peak service is good enough (both in frequency and coverage) to render a personal vehicle unnecessary. For someone who lives downtown, this may be their only car. For someone in the suburbs, it may be their second or third car. Nothing in the model deals with the induced demand of a good transit system especially in an era of rapidly rising costs of car operation.
This is the converse of typical car-oriented behaviour — it’s sitting in the driveway, and I might was well use it. That’s how I view my transit pass. While I don’t expect to convert 905ers in droves to this outlook, significantly better transit can make travel easier especially for those family members for whom a car is either not an option, or a prohibitively expensive one.
What is the role of local transit?
This brings me to local transit systems without which any regional plan is doomed. Metrolinx is big on “Mobility Hubs”, a great buzzword for a confluence of transit, parking, pedestrian and bike access, together with residential and commercial development. As we already know, driving to a GO lot is pointless beyond the early part of the day, and building more parking just poisons bigger and bigger areas around stations. Moreover, it does nothing to aid reverse peak travel or travel by non-car users.
A comment of mine that wound up in the session notes was “A parking lot is not a mobility hub”. That was deliberately glib, and it aroused some challenges. But if all we do is to dress up, say, Warden Station’s parking and call it “Warden Mobility Hub”, nothing will have changed. Warden has lots of all day bus service, and will eventually have high density development practically on top of the station. That’s what will make it a true “hub”, not the parking lot.
Metrolinx has a regional focus and this misses the need for active improvements of local services throughout the GTAH. Without good local service, a regional network cannot access much of its potential ridership. Indeed, local improvements will be essential to making transit a credible alternative where this is possible.
What happens beyond the GTAH?
Notable by their absence from any Metrolinx papers are the regions beyond the GTAH. Somehow, Hamilton managed to get grafted onto the GTA, but Cambridge and Kitchener-Waterloo are still in the outer darkness. They contribute to the “GTA” commutershed, but get no mention.
GO has already talked about service to KW and this begs an obvious question: if GO goes there, and Metrolinx is going to take over GO, why isn’t KW (and the rest) included in Metrolinx planning?
Where does freight fit into the plan?
There was little discussion of freight, but it’s not hard to figure out that we can only make room for freight in many corridors by getting cars out of the way of trucks. Sadly, the problem is mainly outside of the core area where getting cars off of the roads won’t be an easy task.
Another omission here is the distinction between local and express roads. Is our goal to provide an express route through Toronto on which freight can whiz by (that’s what the 401 was for originally), or is the concern with access to local industry and customers? If the latter, then congestion on local roads is as much of the problem as capacity on expressways.
Metrolinx floats the concept of multimodal schemes including “short sea shipping”. This ignores a basic principle of freight operations: any change in mode requires terminals, potentially diverts freight from the shortest path between origin and destination, and adds handling time at each interchange point. This only makes sense when the mode changes bring savings such as a transfer to rail for long-haul trips with road transport for the “last mile” to the final destination.
Shipping “by sea” ignores the fact that the vast majority of industrial destinations are not on water. They were built first around rail corridors and later around highways. Moreover, we are not exactly flush with port space, and the last thing we need is for thousands of trucks to converge on the docklands. (I will restrain my urgings for a fleet of Swan barges.)
Looking further out, what will be the manufacturing of the future? What will be its freight requirements? Where will it be located?
How bad does congestion get?
As the flip side of transit demand modelling, we need to know the modelled congestion level on the road network. How successful (if at all) are new roads in reducing congestion and pollution? Do travel times improve or merely stay the same with larger traffic volumes?
When do we reach the upper bound on road expansion in existing, developed areas?
How can we meet the Provincial green targets?
In effect, the challenge to create a test case that would achieve the Provincial targets has been answered with the response “it can’t be done just by building a network”. That begs two questions:
What can we realistically achieve? What do we have to build (and operate) to get a noticeable change in environmental measures?
What happens if we don’t try? What if, ten years from now, we are still debating where to build our next subway line and wondering if Ottawa will ever give us a dedicated transit subsidy?
What is the role of GO Transit?
At some point, GO will be subsumed into Metrolinx. How should it be operated? Should the bus routes become a separate operation, more tightly linked with local transit systems?
Should rail operations remain a premium fare service or be integrated into the overall network, and if so, how?
What are riders whose trips happen to lie on “REX” (Regional EXpress) corridors supposed to think if they are asked to pay a premium fare as a side-effect of where they live and work? Isn’t this the same argument that some have applied to the subway system, just on a bigger scale?
What is the effect of different fare structures on modelled transit demand?
The modelled travel depends for its “decision making” on the attractiveness of transit or auto to a potential group of riders. Part of that formula includes the perceived cost of the trip.
What happens to transit demand if we change the fare structure including:
- full fare-by-distance the penalizes long trips and rewards short ones with lower fares
- time-based fares with one “fare” paying for, say, two hours of travel
- integration of the GO network into the local fare structure
This is hardly the time to say “we can’t afford it” or “GO can’t handle the demand”. That’s what test cases are for — to discover how the network might behave under different conditions.
What is the impact of GO expansion on the subway system?
GO transit plans considerable expansion of its network. If this feeds into Union Station and no additional connections of consequence are added, it will at least place all the demand at a “counterpeak” location in the network. However, what happens if GO feeds into Summerhill via the North Toronto Station with service on the CPR?
What happens to modelled demand on the rapid transit network if GO service improves in corridors such as Richmond Hill, Newmarket, Stouffville and Agincourt/Seaton
What is the role of the subway system in an expanded regional network?
Subway expansion to Vaughan Centre and to Richmond Hill is now on the drawing boards, and additional subways are part of some Metrolinx schemes. What is their role? Do they overwhelm the existing central system with suburban riders? What will the quality of service be in the afternoon peak when everyone tries to go home at once? How can we accommodate growth not just in train capacity but at interchanges such as Bloor-Yonge and St. George.
How do we stage network expansion?
What do intermediate networks look like? What is the appropriate staging? Which lines do we need yesterday, and which can be ignored forever?
How do we get from this collection of principles, goals and test cases to a draft regional plan?
This part really troubles me, and I have left it to the end. There is no sense in anything Metrolinx has produced that suggests there will be any debate about a “plan”. One of the test cases, likely the most aggressive of the lot, will get some tinkering from the Metrolinx board, find its way into the world as a draft plan, and not long thereafter become the GTAH’s transportation bible. This is woefully premature in light of all the things we don’t know about the options, how they might perform and how we will pay for them.
Public participation to date has massaged opinion into accepting large scale spending without a full understanding of what we are doing and without proper integration into local plans. The politics of the situation are, bluntly, that doing something, anything, is preferable to more study. What we need is a reasoned approach that gives a definitive short-term plan, a firm-but-pliable medium term plan and options for the more distant future.
(I almost used the word “balanced” there, but that’s a dirty word in my transportation lexicon as it usually translates to “everyone gets the highway they want”.)
Metrolinx has a lot of questions to answer, and it needs to address these issues as an integral part of the Regional Plan, not as an afterthought.