With the Draft Regional Transportation Plan due out in September and a brief consultation period thereafter, I’ve decided to stake out some basic positions in advance. Will Metrolinx give us a plan, or merely a warmed-over rehash of MoveOntario 2020? Will they propose realistic financing both for capital projects and the increased scope of transit operations, or will they assume money will somehow be made available in budgets they don’t control? Will the plan recognize the importance of local services, or fixate on regional, commuter-oriented lines? Will the plan meaningfully address issues of congestion and the environment?
These questions and more should provide yardsticks to measure the draft RTP and the associated financing strategy.
What Is the Metrolinx Mandate?
Metrolinx operates under a legislative requirement to produce a Regional Transportation Plan including:
- all modes of transportation,
- intelligent transportation systems and other innovative technologies,
- compliance with provincial and local policies, strategies and Official Plans,
- the integration of local transit systems with each other and with GO Transit,
- reduced congestion, commute times, and emissions,
- development that supports transit and optimization of transit infrastructure,
- a rolling five-year capital plan and associated investment strategy.
[Greater Toronto Transportation Authority Act, 2006, Section 6 (2)]
Notably, sections of the legislation involving the takeover of GO Transit by Metrolinx (43 to 45) and the creation of a consolidated fare card (7) have not yet been proclaimed.
The question of compliance with local plans is quite intriguing. Many of the strategies for handling transportation demand will require changes in the way the GTA is developed. Densities and land use patterns in place for decades will not achieve transit supportive development, and yet the imposition of new rules will almost certainly require that local plans be brought into line with Metrolinx goals.
I hesitate to say “provincial goals” because we never quite know how serious Queen’s Park is about changing the built form of the GTAH. A further problem is that the provincial goals change with the political weather, and all we need is one term of a laissez-faire, pro-development government, and all the controls will vanish in an instant. Once the rules give developers the right to build, taking away that right is contentious and expensive. We’ve seen this strategy in Toronto itself (complain when the left wing is in power, grab all you can when the right wing takes command), and there’s no reason to believe Queen’s Park would be any different.
We can get a sense of where Metrolinx is headed from the Green and White papers published earlier this year. The length of time between their release and the completion of the draft regional plan was quite short, and I would be astounded to see major philosophical changes.
Although Metrolinx conducted extensive public participation, the clear preference is for cheerleading, not for substantive criticism. I didn’t get any sense that the meetings were salted with Metrolinx boosters, but I wouldn’t put it past them do to this in the very short time for consultation on the overall plan. The last thing Metrolinx needs is to go to Queen’s Park with a plan under attack on all sides, and they may try to portray any opposition as short-sighted, parochial nimbyism.
That would be a huge shame. If the plan is a good one, then it deserves support. If it is a bad one, we will be saddled with its faults for decades (as we have with the gaping holes in plans that preceded it). Criticism leads to inaction and gridlock only when a scheme’s proponents believe that it is carved on stone tablets and is beyond debate. “Thou shalt not criticise my plan” saith the words of, well, not quite a diety.
The Mobility Hubs White Paper has a lot of very nice pictures of transit stations major and minor. Some of the really impressive ones are major rail/subway complexes at main nodes, typically downtown, in various networks. Some are much simpler: a collection of bus bays at a regional commuter rail transfer.
The basic purpose of hubs, as the name implies, is to act as collection points where many trips can transfer between routes and modes. If these are simply barren parking lots beside a rail corridor in an industrial subdivision, they are hubs in name only. People certainly don’t treat them as places to visit or pass through for any purpose other than a transfer point on their journey.
If the hub is to be an attractive centre, as many illustrated in the white paper are, there has to be something “there” to generate interest and demand, and not just for a few hours a day when the station is full of commuters. Indeed, a transit system geared only to effect a quick transfer between bus and train will work against the success of a commercial hub because passengers will be too busy rushing to make their connections to shop or lounge in a cafe. The local feeder services must be changed to recognize that the hub is a destination in its own right, not just a transfer point.
It is unclear exactly how Metrolinx fits into the creation of such hubs. Often the land around the transit stations is not in public hands and the neighbouring land use may be inappropriate for a centre. Hubs need to be walkable in the sense that people don’t need to use their cars or transit to reach them. Many will arrive by transit, but many more will live or work close enough to the hub to animate it with their presence all day long.
Unfortunately, the existing transportation network constrains where such hubs might be created. Decades ago, a developer could assemble suburban farmland, build a Yorkdale or a Scarborough Town Centre, and have the politicians build roads and transit to support their creations. This model no longer applies in much of the inner GTAH, although we are seeing an example with the Toronto/York subway extension. Major corridors are generally where they are going to be for the next fifty years already, and they dictate the locations of mobility hubs.
The success or failure of these hubs is as much a question of land use planning and the luck of the draw of existing station locations as anything else. New services can make new hubs viable, and the single largest example is the CPR North Toronto Station (the LCBO’s flagship outlet at Summerhill). An important point about this node and the existing Union Station is that they are already in well-established neighbourhoods that will support whatever appears at those locations. They are not in the middle of a field or behind stacks of rusting castoffs from nearby factories.
Mobility hubs can make transit more attractive by adding convenience and recreation to one’s journey, and they can emphasize the importance of transit by showcasing a transit node as a major part of a community. However, only service will bring people through the hub on a sustained basis. They are valuable additions, but not “the solution” by themselves.
For those of you who don’t know the buzzwords, “Active Transportation” means any mode where you do some of the work — walking and cycling being the most common although rollerblading certainly fits in there too.
Both types of trip are constrained by several basic factors:
- the physical condition of the traveller
- the distance
- the weather
- the terrain
- the availability of protected pathways
Some discussions of Active Transportation include walking to a transit stop, and by this measure, we already have a hugely successful program at least on the pedestrian side of things. That’s a bit of a cheat, and it ignores the fact that transit presents many problems for pedestrians including:
- availability of sidewalks
- intersection design and barrier effects at arterials
- snow handling techniques
- weather and weather protection (shelters and building designs that protect from wind tunnel effects)
- personal security
- service frequency and reliability
The distance someone will walk is strongly affected by the ambient conditions. A pleasant morning stroll on a cool, clear spring day is quite difference from a walk facing into a storm through calf-deep snow dumped on the sidewalk by a passing plough. These are extremes, and everyone has their personal cutoff point beyond which the walk becomes intolerable.
Urban design can create traps for pedestrians as those who work near Scarborough Centre Station can attest. The space immediately south of the station is a wind tunnel where it is possible to be physically blown off your feet. This makes the transit station both dangerous and inaccessible.
Service quality also affects decisions about walking. It may be a simple five-minute walk to the bus stop, but if the bus runs every half hour and rarely on time, the walker will wonder why they didn’t drive or get a ride to a transit hub.
Cycling has its own collection of problems including the need for protection from traffic via at least a bike lane if not a separate bike route, the need to store and secure the bike either at an intermediate hub or at the destination, conflicting demands on clothing for cycling versus work and the need for changing/washup facilities.
Some but not all of these can be provided as part of a transportation system.
All forms of active transportation are highly sensitive to the weather and use of each active mode will vary over the year. Two things are quite certain — the middle of winter is a bad time for everyone, and summer is no picnic for pedestrians. Transit systems must be able to handle the extra demand weather puts on them when customers switch from their regular modes (active or otherwise) to the transit network.
Transportation Demand Management
The mantra of many demand management advocates is simple: the cheapest trip to serve is the one that is not taken. Failing this, if the trip is shared rather than alone, the transportation infrastructure (including personal vehicles) is better utilized than for solo drivers.
The White Paper contains a wide variety of measures under the heading of Transportation Demand Management. This can be confusing because some of these exist quite outside the “TDM” rubric, but have been brought in possibly to flesh out the topic. Broadly speaking, there are various classes of “TDM” initiatives.
- Schemes to avoid trips completely including teleworking, shortened work week, land use changes to improve the likelihood someone works close to home.
- Schemes to convert solo car trips to pooled trips.
- Schemes to convert car trips to some other mode be it transit or cycling by actively encouraging the alternate modes and/or discouraging car trips through pricing or other controls.
A thread common to many of these is that the cost lies mainly with the broader public and with employers, not with the transit system itself. This begs the question of tax offsets to encourage the desired behaviours and the hidden cost this represents. The cost may be quite legitimate — the tax break on Metropasses reduces the effective cost of a regular transit trip to a level where a pass is perceived as cheaper than tokens. However, the same effect can be achieved either through the income tax system or simply by making passes cheaper through higher local subsidy.
The real issue with the tax system is that I get a credit for buying Metropasses, but if my employer were to give out passes to reduce the demand on parking lots, this would be a taxable benefit. Moreover, my employer would now bear the cost of buying the passes. This could be offset if parking demand reduced to a level that relieved capacity problems (in turn affecting the attractiveness of the workplace to prospective employees who would drive to work) or even to a level that would allow the parking lot to be sold and its capital value recovered.
Teleworking is popular in industries with the infrastructure to support it, typically the IT sector, but not so much elsewhere. Many factors affect this including:
- the technology overhead of providing teleworking capability in an organization without a strong IT shop
- the social and managerial transition from staff working as a group, face-to-face, to one working at least part of the time in dispersed locations
- the degree to which an organization needs to exist at its primary location to serve its customers
Teleworking is possible, but it is only suited to certain types of work and organizations. Even if people can work on their own, their productivity may fail through lack of interaction and simply sending someone home with a laptop is not the answer to our transportation problems.
Shortened work weeks are beginning to appear in some sectors, notably manufacturing. Converting from a 5-by-40 hour week to 4-by-40 reduces the number of commuting trips by 20% with both a social benefit and a saving in time and commuting costs for the employees. However, there are offsets:
- a 10-hour workday requires different family arrangements including hours of meals, child-care and free time on workdays
- monthly transit pricing may no longer be attractive to someone who commutes only 16 rather than 20 days
- some employees may physically not be able to sustain the longer work hours
- the hours of business of the organization may not be suited to longer hours
Where it is practical, this type of arrangement is worth pursuing, but as the most likely application is to manufacturing, the benefits for the transportation network will be limited to those areas with a strong presence by that sector.
Land use changes are long term issues. Planners have been talking for much of the last sixty years about clustering homes and jobs close to each other. It’s a nice idea when it works, but the built form of the GTAH is already there. Moreover, many families have multiple jobs and it may not be practical for all of them to be “local”. People live where they do because they like the neighbourhood, and only a major change in commuting requirements will uproot them.
Converting Solo Trips to Pooled Trips
Some movement in this area is already underway thanks to high fuel costs. However, there are limitations on the trips that can be pooled given variations in the origin/destination pattern, the hours of work, and the ancilliary activities for which someone uses their car as part of the commute.
Typically large groups of employees with similar commuting patterns are needed to make this sort of thing work, and ironically moves to more flexible work arrangements that have become quite common actually get in the way of pooling schemes.
Dispersion of origins and destinations interferes with pooling which is most easily practiced when people live near each other and are going to a common destination. The ability to re-organize the reverse commute is essential for this to work, and in a pinch alternative routes are required. As with reliability of transit service, if the commuting arrangements need to be torn apart on a regular basis because of unreliable schedules of some group members, the pool will quickly disintegrate.
Car pooling has some benefits, but it should be encouraged primarily as a way to get people to transit, not as a way to bring more people by car into major centres.
Converting Car Trips to Other Modes
The major way in which people are attracted onto transit is the quality of the service measured as a combination of cost, convenience, reliability and speed. Speed and cheap fares are worthless to someone who cannot get to a transit line easily, or who cannot count on the service to deliver them to and from work almost all of the time.
Often, transit systems crow about 90% achievements. The problem with this is that if they mess up 10% of the time, there’s a good chance this will affect a typical rider once a week (10 events each with a 90% probability of success gives a value of about 35% for the entire group). If the proportion of problem trips rises above 10%, the likelihood of a transit “bad trip” once a week quickly becomes a sure thing. It’s that one bad trip people remember and tell their friends about. After all, when was the last time people stood around at work talking about the fast drive they had on the 401? When that happens, it’s a non-event.
Getting people on foot or cycle depends on a combination of facilities, infrastructure and most importantly weather. Some trips can be diverted, but not permanently. The question here is which mode a cyclist will fall back on — their car or the transit system?
The other way to move people out of their cars, of course, is to make this a more expensive mode by any or all of:
- higher fuel prices
- road tolls
- parking surcharges
None of these is at all popular as discussions on this and other blogs has shown. Just asking that people pay the cost of operating a parking space, let alone a surcharge that would benefit other parts of the transit system, arouses the wrath of those who feel that free parking is an essential right. I am not going to repeat that debate here. The issue simply is that making driving more expensive without offering much better transit service in return is counterproductive. It makes transit inevitably look bad because the product is so inferior in the driver’s mind.
This is a challenge for Metrolinx’ funding strategy. There has to be a visible improvement in transit quality and quantity soon after, preferably before new costs are placed on motorists. This is, so to speak, an investment. Make transit look good now, show people what it can do, then change the relative pricing to encourage a move from cars to transit.
Another group of incentives to change from cars to transit involve pricing strategies on the transit side. Free passes (paid for by one’s employer, and thus indirectly as a tax expenditure, or in the case of students by who knows what funding source) could encourage system use. Such a scheme will drive up demand, but at this point we run headlong into problems with service quality and capacity. The shop window may say “free food today”, but if the display case is empty, it’s a hollow promise.
Strangely, some proposals involve moving to paid parking at work locations and reduction or elimination of free parking provisions in union contracts. Exactly how Metrolinx or any other government would actually implement this is hard to say. Moreover, you can charge all you want for the parking, but if transit does not provide an acceptable alternative, then this is only a revenue grab. Indeed, the savings (or revenue) accrue to the employer, while the cost of providing better transit service lands on the public purse.
Yet another scheme involves information systems telling travellers when their bus will show up. The operative issue here is “show up”. All the IT systems in the world won’t make up for a service that runs infrequently and erratically, and doesn’t serve the demand pattern of existing drivers.
There’s more, but the other options are variations on the same theme.
Building the Transit Network
The most important of the discussion papers is the transportation plan itself. I will leave this to the second part of this post.
By now, you may have noticed a theme running through my comments about the importance of transit service quality. This is not just whether the GO train runs on time, but how people get to GO and to other local destinations near their homes and workplaces.
Metrolinx is utterly silent on local transportation, and this is the fundamental flaw in their network proposals.
(To be continued in Part 2.)