Metrolinx Manages Public Participation

In today’s Globe and Mail, Jeff Gray has an article about the a Positioning and Communications Strategy dated July 10, 2008 from Metrolinx.  Gray had requested this document from Metrolinx via a Freedom of Information request, and what came back contained one deletion on its final page.

An uncensored copy of that page found its way to the Globe and Mail, and the missing text makes for interesting reading.  Under the heading “Consultation Process”, we find:

Our consultation period needs to be tightly structured and telescoped.  The last thing we need is for this to be highjacked by nimbies or local politicians on the make.  These should be mainly informational briefings.  We should salt the sessions with supporters.  An orgy of consultation will mire this in controversy and delay.

Metrolinx Chair Rob MacIsaac disavows this text saying “those are not my words” and that the paragraph in question was “something that I did not especially agree with”.

I will take MacIsaac at his word, but two critical points remain:

  • These may not be MacIsaac’s words, they are somebody’s or they wouldn’t have appeared in this paper.  They show a mindset bent not just on controlling and streamlining public participation, but of treating any criticism as a force to be neutralized rather than as constructive alternatives to the Gospel of Metrolinx.
  • The nature of the advice in this paragraph, although embarrassing, is no different in character from the sort of comments found throughout the document.  The text was severed on the ground that it was confidential advice to the government, an excuse that is transparently inappropriate.  The Privacy Commission has ruled on several occasions that embarrassment is not valid grounds for withholding information.  Who decided to sever this paragraph from the version sent to the Globe?  Did Rob MacIsaac participate in this decision?

Metrolinx public participation was, in fact, largely structured as information sessions with limited scope for meaningful input.  As the Regional Plan went through various drafts, some public, others private, there was a consistent sense that actually changing anything was almost impossible.

Critiques of demand projections and network structures were met with claims that it was too expensive and time consuming to look at alternatives even though (a) that’s what planning is all about and (b) more recently published Metrolinx studies show clearly that refinements continued to be made in the demand model and network layout.

Metrolinx professes a love of public participation, but their planning process is quite secretive and controlled.  Even the “public advisory committee” is subject to a gag agreement, and this group is expected to provide support for the RTP.  The last time I looked, “public advice” was public, and members of advisory bodies are free to dissent.  If Metrolinx wants trained seals, just hire more consultants.

The process of detailed benefits case analysis is conducted completely out of the public eye, and even when reports emerge, the data in them is too superficial to permit an analysis of how the results were calculated.

Quite recently, indeed, there has been a change in the methodology that causes the value of auto trips diverted to transit to be priced at a much higher level (compare the Scarborough RT and VIVA BCA reports) with the effect that the financial “benefit” of the transit investment appears greater than it might actually be.  This is the hallmark of an agency in a defensive mode trying to put the best possible face on its work.

Metrolinx could be doing a lot of good work, but this is undermined by its secrecy and its distrust of the very communities it serves.  If Metrolinx assumes that opponents are all nimbies or politicians “on the make” at Metrolinx’ expense, then it is short-changing the public.  Indeed, if the politicians on the Board are grandstanding when they don’t happen to agree with the Chair, this shows contempt for the foundations of the organization.

MacIsaac may not have written those words, but whoever did, and whoever approved hiding them from the Globe do not belong in the public service.

The TTC “Crime Wave”

Recently, the local media have run low on things to sensationalize.  No governments are falling, the budget debate at City Hall is boring everyone to tears and we’re all in “wait and see” mode until Queen’s Park tells us just how broke they are at the end of March.

Into these doldrums fell a few stories that have been blown out of proportion:

  • January 22:  A shooting at Osgoode Station brought chaos to the afternoon rush hour and the first round of “is the TTC safe to ride” publicity.  In time, we learned that the shooter and victim knew each other, and the wanted suspect has turned himself in to police.
  • February 12:  A man was stabbed at Wilson Station.  No further details are available.
  • February 13:  At Dufferin Station, three teenagers were pushed from the platform in front of an incoming train.  One managed not to fall, the others dropped to track level and, through quick thinking, wound up under the platform overhang.  One of them sustained foot injuries from the train.  The assailant was pursued and captured by various passengers and TTC staff, and is now known to have mental problems that could be the root of his actions.
  • February 23:  A youth boarded the Ossington bus and was recognized by two passengers.  The youth was shot, non-fatally, and the incident continued outside on the street.  A weapon has been recovered, and it is clear that the parties involved know each other. 

These are all serious incidents, but they must be seen in the larger context of the city as a whole.  Violent crime happens in many places — shopping malls, car parks, dance clubs both downtown and suburban, even in the 905, although the Toronto media tend not to report such things unless the story is just too juicy to leave alone.

In two of the cases above, the parties were known to each other, in one case we have no information, and one case is clearly a disturbed person.  These events could have just as easily happened on the street such as the Dundas Square Boxing Day shooting in 2005.

Somehow, this has become a TTC Crime Wave.  One reporter (from CBC Radio) actually dredged up an incident where a girl riding on a bus had been hit by a stray bullet from an incident on the street nearby.  That’s not TTC crime, that’s street crime, and it shows how desperate some in the media are to manufacture a story.

At Queen’s Park, MPP Mike Colle, formerly Chair of the TTC, has introduced a Private Member’s Bill to make crimes on transit property subject to special penalties.  Already, several legal beagles have pointed out that this would be ultra vires (beyond provincial jurisdiction) because such crimes are federal matters under the Criminal Code.  However, it got Colle a “sparsely attended press conference” according to the Globe, and one short news cycle.

Violent crime in Toronto should not be ignored, but we risk wasting a lot of time demonizing the TTC as if it were inherently unsafe.  The TTC is a place where lots of people travel, and by extension events of all kinds will happen there.  Some types of activity may be deterred by cameras, at least for those criminals who understand or care that their actions are recorded for posterity.

This may contribute to TTC safety by pushing the violent crime elsewhere.  The larger benefit of monitoring applies to typical onboard crimes such as pickpocketing and “stealth” sexual assaults that exploit the crowded conditions on vehicles.

Finally, I am appalled by the complete lack of attention to the issue of mental health and whether the Dufferin Station incident may have been preventable not by platform doors, but by treatment of an existing condition.

Platform doors, bluntly, are a make-work project for the TTC.  The politicians can’t very well say that they are against them as it’s a motherhood issue.  However, we’ve now seen a back-back-burner project leap to the forefront, partly as a reinforcement for “we need automatic train control now”.  The TTC needs to be more responsible in its capital planning than hoping for an increase in “crime on the subway” to generate funding for its projects.

To the TTC’s credit, various spokepeople, notably Chief General Manager Gary Webster, have been quite measured in their response.  The rest of the TTC and Toronto’s media need a similar, responsible approach.

Jeff Gray in the Globe has an article with an overview of recent events.

Is McGuinty Impatient With Metrolinx?

A story in last Sunday’s Toronto Sun claimed that Premier McGuinty is miffed at delays by municipal politicians that  get in the way of spending money on transit.  Reaction from sitting members of the Metrolinx board reads quite the opposite (both in that article and a followup piece), and my own take on the Board from personal observation is that they are getting on very well.  They would love to spend money if only Queen’s Park would actually let them.

The problem lies with the part-time chair, Rob MacIsaac, who doesn’t understand the difference between being a leader and being a dictator.  Some of the decisions have not gone his way, and major debates are still in progress on two large groups of projects:

  • Eglinton and Scarborough RT/LRT.  Before the draft regional plan even came out, MacIsaac plumped for an updated RT technology line along Eglinton in complete defiance of Toronto’s stated desire to build this route as LRT.  Moreover, Eglinton and Scarborough are pushed as one continuous route from Malvern to the airport.  MacIsaac was rightly criticised for jumping the gun on his own regional plan, but he wasn’t too happy about it.
  • Yonge Richmond Hill Subway.  This is a high priority project for many, but Toronto had the temerity to suggest that more was involved than just building more subway track.  There is the capacity of the existing line and its stations to take into account.

In both cases there are valid technical and planning arguments to be heard.  Some at Metrolinx seem to think the Regional Plan, which describes itself as a guideline, not as a cast-in-stone design, is inviolate and to question it is just about treasonous.  This is total hogwash.

Metrolinx screwed up badly in two ways.  First it conducted much of its planning in secret, despite a lot of pro forma public consultation, and changes to the general direction of the plan were not well received.  Second, Metrolinx has produced a network and associated demand model for 2031 that may work perfectly well provided that we built it all and the wheels don’t come off anywhere in the meantime.  What they did not look at is a “Plan B” in case we don’t have enough money, or even a staging exercise of how interim versions of the network will perform.

There are things to like and things deserving of valid, constructive criticism in the plan, but the word “NIMBY” is heard more and more these days as a catch-all epithet to drown out real debate.  This is unworthy of the plan and of the Premier’s goals with MoveOntario 2020.

The Sun reports:

But instead of a dragon slayer, there is growing concern that the Metrolinx board, dominated by municipal politicians, is enabling red tape, funding disputes, resident opposition and parochial decision-making.

Those who have expressed concern with the “consensus” goverance model include its chair and, sources tell Sun Media, Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Dalton McGuinty doesn’t sit in the meetings, and we have to assume that someone is whispering in his ear claiming all is not well in Metrolinxland.  Chair MacIsaac does, but his Board has a mind of its own.

Red tape?  Look no further than the byzantine approval process for projects that were already proposed by municipalities and annonced as part of MoveOntario. 

  • The TTC can study all it likes, but it’s on the City of Toronto’s dime unless Metrolinx feels the project is worthy of design funding.
  • Then we get a super-fast Transit EA, but it’s so fast that we have to do a lot of work before even officially starting it so that we have some idea of what we might be building.
  • Then we have to submit not only the EA, but also put up with the “Benefits Case Analysis”, a process that brings a bunch of dubious economic arguments to evaluating options for a line.  They sound good, but the intent is to wrap some quasi private sector value for money analysis around the project, and the methodology is open to question because so much underlying information is not published.  The BCA may completely overturn the results of the EA, or of other network plans, but there is no way to challenge it, much less review its content.
  • When the BCA doesn’t come out the way it is expected (see Scarborough RT BCA which actually supports conversion to LRT), we have to find some way to delay even further such as linking this with another project (the Eglinton line).
  • Construction is dependent on provincial budgetary decisions, even though MoveOntario was supposed to be financed with borrowed money and paid for after lines actually started to run.

Funding disputes?  Well, that’s no surprise given that the original $11.6-billion from MoveOntario assumed that Ottawa would kick in a 1/3 share and top up the pot to about $18-billion.  Fat chance, but it allowed McGuinty to announce a list of projects he couldn’t possibly pay for, never mind the inevitable inflation in projected costs for all of them.  When money is tight, politicians jockey for position in the queue.

Toronto isn’t trying to block the Richmond Hill subway, but there are many valid questions about the timing of various projects such as Richmond Hill GO improvements and alternative ways of adding to subway capacity.  The problem here is as much with TTC staff as with the politicians.  When Metrolinx own demand projections show that there may be a better set of projects that would accomplish all of the goals, and Toronto says “we think you should look at these options”, that’s not obstructionism, that’s trying to build the network in an optimal way.

Resident opposition?  That sounds like the Weston Corridor debate, something that has been largely outside of Metrolinx until the recent reassignment of the study from GO.

Parochial decision making?  The Metrolinx Board is a model of co-operation.  If anything, Metrolinx itself has failed to address funding concerns for local transit systems without which the regional plan is meaningless.  Local policians may be forgiven for wondering how they will pay for their share of the whole system.  That’s a policy problem from Queen’s Park, not the Board.

If the Premier’s has sleepless nights thanks to such a biased view of Metrolinx operation, it doesn’t say much for his ability to collect political intelligence.  On the other hand, if he has a private agenda requiring hands on management by his office, he should tell everyone what it is and stop pretending the regions have anything to do with transportation.  Wear the problems and the challenges, don’t just show up for the photo ops.

If the Sun article clearly reflects Rob MacIsaac’s view of his own Board, then he has some explaining to do.  “Leaders” don’t slag their own.  That part-time job at Mohawk College should become full time.

[For those who are just coming to this article, there is a long comment about the role of politicians and “professionals”.]

GO Kitchener-Waterloo & Guelph

Mark Dowling passed along a link to the presentation materials from the recent GO Transit EA meeting in Kitchener.

You can follow the story of GO service from a Kitchener-Waterloo perspective on the GOKW Blog.

One of the fascinating points about the proposal for this corridor is that it recognizes that this line has bidirectional demand, as well as local demand that isn’t going to downtown Toronto.  This has always been the case, although VIA has done the worst to discourage people from using their service.

Intriguingly the track plans in the display materials show a substantial increase in VIA service in the future.  Those of us who travel to Stratford will relish better service, but the real bread-and-butter on this line is the traffic to and from universities.  It’s always been a natural corridor for better service, and maybe, finally, we may actually see it.

Also worth noting is the idea of eventually moving Kitchener Station so that the line will make a good connection with the planned KW LRT line.

Urban Goddess: Jane Jacobs Reconsidered

[Originally published in early January 2009]

As many of my readers know, I was fortunate and honoured to win the Jane Jacobs Prize in 2005 for my long-standing advocacy of transit improvements in Toronto.  This was the last year the prize was awarded while Jane was still alive.

I remember, warmly, sitting beside her on the stage with other prizewinners, John Sewell and David Miller as Jane spoke so warmly of our “new Mayor” (Miller), but scathingly about the dysfunctional Planning Department so dominated by the suburban, North York mentality.  Paul Bedford, then recently-retired as Chief Planner, was in the audience nearby and in her sights.

A documentary on Jane Jacobs will appear on February 18 on TVO.  Here is their press release.

The View From Here:
Urban Goddess: Jane Jacobs Reconsidered – World premiere

Airs on TVO Wednesday February 18, 2009 at 10 pm.  (Repeats Sunday February 22 at 10:35 pm and Wednesday morning — i.e., late night Tuesday — February 25 at 1 am)
52 minutes

Produced by Bliss Pictures Inc. in association with TVO, Knowledge Network and SCN

When Jane Jacobs died in 2006, Canada lost one of its loudest and most persistent urban voices. What Jacobs advocated is well known: short blocks, mixed-use buildings and diverse neighbourhoods. Urban Goddess: Jane Jacobs Reconsidered considers the livable city: an issue that directly impacts the quality of life of the majority of the world’s population.

The documentary examines the champion of neighbourhood activism’s legacy, through two redevelopment disputes: one in New York and the other in Toronto. These disputes raise many of the same issues Jacobs encountered 50 years ago. It also looks at Vancouver, a city frequently put forward as a shining example of Jacobs’ livable city philosophy.

The documentary asks “Is Jane Jacobs’ legacy intact?” and, more to the point, “Is it still valid?”

Ontario Parks

This morning, Premier McGuinty announced that, with the generous assistance of our friends in Ottawa, we are about to see a boom in transit spending.  On parking lots.

About $175-million will go to expanded parking at 12 GO Transit sites, half of which will receive parking structures.  This marks a reversal from the “we won’t build structures because they’re too expensive” policy of many years.  Moreover, it does nothing to address capacity on trains nor on the local transit systems that many GO riders use to reach those trains.

Metrolinx may be working on a regional plan, but this announcement sounds like an echo of the days when commuting meant driving to a parking lot.  Yes, we can build it quickly, but is this what we should be doing with transit infrastructure dollars.

Lurking down at the end of the announcement, almost as an afterthought, is $75.5-million for the Hamilton Junction grade separation.

It appears that the cost of these projects will be shared 50/50 by both governments.

Trolley Buses? Not For Toronto (Update 2)

The TTC commissioned a report from Dr. Richard Soberman on the economics of trolley bus operation in Toronto.   Cutting to the chase, the conclusion is that creating a new system from scratch is uneconomic, and we should wait for coming improvements in electric vehicles.

Soberman’s report makes a strong case against trolley buses on its basic economic arguments, and that’s a debate worth having.  However, electric vehicles have yet to make a substantial dent in the personal car market, let alone for vehicles the size of a city bus.

I have one simple reply:  Remember CNG?  The saviour of the enviroment for the TTC?  We lost the old system through neglect and through belief in an unproven technology, not to mention political machinations.

For your reading pleasure:

Commission report and summary

Dr. Soberman’s report

Updated February 15:

A detailed review has been added to this post.  Some of the document is reasonably accurate, but there are enough outright mistakes and misdirections to cast the whole thing in an unsavoury light.  This is a report that tries to sound balanced while hoping we won’t notice what it gets wrong either by accident or by design.

Update 2, February 16: My long-time Vancouver friend Angus McIntyre pointed out two issues with the Soberman report.

  • Vancouver will order an additional 34 articulated trolley buses funded from the Federal gas tax.  This adds to the new fleet of 188 standard and 40 articulated buses.  These plans are not reflected in the TTC report even though the press release is over a month old.
  • The substation spacing of 1.5 to 2km is a measure used on “feederless” systems such as Seattle’s where small local stations feed directly into the contact wires rather than the Toronto or Vancouver model with large substations feeding a local network of services.  Has the report used Seattle’s close spacing, but Toronto’s costs for larger substations?

Continue reading

Where Are The Queen Car Riders Going? (Updated)

The coming TTC meeting includes a long report on the status of the Queen car and various strategies to improve its operation.  I will comment on that separately when I have a chance to digest the material.

The report contains a fascinating table in Appendix A, at physical page 7, showing origin-destintation data for the route broken into five segments:

  • Long Branch to Humber
  • Humber to Bathurst
  • Bathurst to Church
  • Church to Kingston Road
  • Kingston Road to Neville

We learn here that riders originating in the Beach travel overwhelmingly to the Church/Bathurst segment, and I suspect even they are concentrated toward the eastern end of that segment.

Riders from east of Yonge overwhelmingly are destined for stops east of Bathurst, and only a tiny number travels to Long Branch.

Conversely, of riders originating on Lake Shore, well over half (52% peak, 63% all day) are bound for another stop on Lake Shore, not for stops on the Queen line itself.  Those who do continue downtown don’t want to go past Yonge Street.

What is fascinating about the report is that it completely ignores these data although they have profound implications for route structure and service.

People do not want to ride from Neville to Long Branch, but to the central area.  Claims that split routes would foul up travel patterns don’t quite line up with the O-D information in this table, provided that an appropriate overlap of east and west end service exists for the busy central section.

The TTC has consistently ignored the fact that the “Long Branch” service has a strong local demand that is abused by the through operation with the Queen service to Neville.  It is worth noting that the all day boardings west of Humber are 5,500.

Just after the 501 and 507 were merged, the count stood at 7,700.  In previous years when Long Branch had its own service, daily boardings ranged from 11,000-14,000.  This is a textbook example of destroying a service and its demand, and refusing for almost two decades to acknowledge the mistake.

Even in its weakened state, the demand remains over half local for the rather obvious reason that anyone going downtown has much faster ways to get there.  Part of this lies with congestion problems, but a lot has to do with the unreliable service.

Much work has focussed on fixing service to the Beach where, intriguingly, the all day boardings are less than on Lake Shore even though it gets twice as much service (on paper anyhow).  To be fair, the Long Branch segment is roughly twice the length of the Beach segment and the density of demand on the west end is lower than the east, but the optics are poor.  Assuming that every boarding has a matching return trip (not exactly valid, but close enough for a rough estimate), we are moving mountains for the 7,500 trips to and from the Beach segment every day, but the 11,000 on Long Branch are another matter.

Updated February 15:

Some of the discussion in the comments thread took me back to the original data, and a desire to see numbers of riders, not just percentages.  This information is now available in a consolidated table.

The first part of this table is the data reproduced from the TTC report.  The second part converts the percentages back to passenger counts.  As a double-check, I summed these values, and you can see that some of these do not exactly match the boarding counts no doubt due to rounding errors.  However, this is good enough for discussion.

The third part gives percentages expressed by origin rather than by destination.  For example, 69% of the riders going to the Long Branch section of the route originate there, 14% originate from Bathurst to Humber, 15% originate from Church to Bathurst.

The vagaries of demand surveys show up in the fact that the number of people originating in each segment is not the same as the number of people arriving there.  For example, 5,500 people board on the Long Branch segment, but only 5,034 make it their destination.  Similarly, more people board the Humber-Bathurst segment, 8,750, than travel there, 8,291.  Although it is possible that the 501 is gradually depopulating southern Etobicoke and Parkdale, the more likely answers lie in variations in trip patterns (out one way, back another) and the inevitable inaccuracies of sampling.

Of the folks bound for the Beach, 3,889, only 88 originate west of Bathurst Street.  Conversely, only 101 of the 5,034 travellers west of Humber originate east of Church.  Those among us with long memories might observe that this could be partly due to the long decline in service quality that would drive anyone trying to make a long trip across Queen give up and find another route.  In any event, the O-D pattern is concentrated in the central part of the route from Kingston Road to Humber (and more likely Roncesvalles if the data were more finely divided).

Lost in the mists of time are O-D figures for the era when the Queen car had well over 60,000 boardings per day.  Where did those lost riders come from and where were they going?

Transit City Status Update

This month’s TTC agenda includes a long update on the status of the Transit City plans.  I will not attempt to précis this report, but will touch on points of particular interest.

Funding is in place to allow continued work on Environmental Assessments [sic] and other engineering work, but the real challenge comes later this year when construction is slated to begin on Sheppard.  The fog may clear a bit once the provincial budget is announced and we know just how much money will flow to Metrolinx and to transit in general.

A related problem, of course, is the question of new LRVs for the existing and future streetcar/LRT networks.  By the time the budget is out, the TTC should know what the bids for new cars look like, and Queen’s Park will have to decide whether they are serious about paying for them. Continue reading

Putting Green Power in Perspective (Updated)

[See the end for the update which discusses the bus fleet.]

Green Power comes up from time to time in the transit wars, especially when anti-LRT and anti-trolley bus factions trot out observations about “dirty” peak power.  Strangely, we never hear this sort of remark about subways, but some of those projects have enough hot air in them that Calgary’s “Ride The Wind” slogan has a whole new meaning.

Calgary is proud that its LRT network is entirely powered by wind energy, and I thought it would be worthwhile to compare the TTC’s power requirements with the capacity of the wind farm that Calgary uses.

TransAlta Wind supplies the power, and their current installed farm of 252 turbines generates 731,000 MWh (MegaWatt hours) per year.  They are planning to expand with higher-output turbines.

For comparison, the generator at the CNE, a comparatively small installation, produces 1,815 MWh per year.  Its generator is one quarter the capacity of the newest TransAlta installations.

The TTC’s annual power requirement is cited as 436,000 MWh in a December 2007 report on their environmental plan (at page 9).

Supplying the TTC would require a wind farm on the order of 50 of the new generators planned by TransAlta, presuming that we could obtain comparable all-year wind in Ontario matching Alberta’s climate.

This would not, strictly speaking, power the TTC but would feed into the grid to offset demand elsewhere.  The TTC’s demand has strong peaks, and wind just doesn’t work that way.  Some peak power will inevitably come from peak generation capacity, whatever technology that may be.

As the TTC moves to increase its use of electricity for propulsion, there will be a lot of debates about the power source.  In all of this it’s worthwhile to know the scale of what we are discussing.

Update:  In another thread, the enternal question of trolley buses and possible alternatives is churning again.  Supposing that the automotive industry actually manages to create an electric bus (remember that this is the same industry that is in danger of going bankrupt for lack of meaningful R&D).  What would an electric bus fleet’s power requirement be in Toronto?

As a starting point, I will use the trolley bus because it is a well-known, well-documented form of electric bus using modern propulsion equipment.  It is highly unlikely that any new vehicle will improve substantially on its power consumption.  The power consumption for trolley buses reported by APTA (American Public Transit Association) is .18 mile/kWh.  This is equivalent to 5.56 kWh/mile or 3.45 kWh/km.

In 2007, the TTC bus fleet operated 107,609,000 km, and if this had entirely been at the average consumption of the trolley bus fleets included in APTA’s numbers, this would require 371,251 MWh of power.  Note that this is not far below the existing electrical power requirements of the TTC.  If we add the numbers together, we get more than all of the wind power now generated by TransAlta Wind.

Alas, if we insist on using battery or fuel cell buses, we will suffer very considerable conversion losses within those systems, and the total power requirements will be even higher.