Designing Transit Cities — 37 Years Later

Recently, a day-and-a-half symposium took place under the sponsorship of the Canadian Urban Institute, the TTC, and several other agencies.  The title for this event was Designing Transit Cities.

The timing was very ironic and the irony unknown to the event organizers.  37 years ago this month, the City of Toronto and the TTC adopted a policy of streetcar retention at the urging of the Streetcars for Toronto Committee (SFTC) and other advocates, notably two members of City Council, the late William Kilbourn and (now Judge, retired) Paul Pickett, Q.C.

Our intent in SFTC was that Toronto would emulate other cities, mainly in Europe, and expand transit into the then-developing suburbs as a lower cost mode than subways so that Toronto would have a robust network that could compete with automotive travel.  Needless to say, this did not happen.

Among the many comments heard through the symposium, there was a common thread, picking up from the title “Transit Cities”.  Not “Transit for Cities” nor “Transit Oriented Cities”, but cities where transit is an integral and primary part of city design and planning.  (I take modest credit for inventing the term, as described in another article.)

There was a lot of talk about the need to properly design the public realm, to establish a sense of place to which people will travel, where they will linger, where they want to be.  A beautiful transit station surrounded by a parking lot is not a “Transit City”, it’s auto-oriented transit.  If autos remain an inherent part of travel, the transit system is doomed to serve only a subset of its market, and the cost of auto ownership will remain an integral part of many people’s lives.

Too much transit, especially in Toronto, is still designed with the auto as its primary concern.  Road space is dedicated to parking and turns, traffic signal timings may allegedly favour transit, but actually deter its operation.  A review of the Zurich system began with the anecdote that the city started by firing all of its traffic engineers and replacing them with operational planners whose goal was to move transit and people, with auto traffic much lower in the pecking order.

In San Francisco, BART approaches design and development at its stations (which are surrounded by large tracts of parking) as a “ridership replacement policy”, not “parking replacement”.  They are not interested in building a parking structure to replace a lot, but to develop their land in a way that will generate and increase ridership in its own right.

We heard a lot about “putting roads on a diet” and “taming the car”.  All of this is very noble, but it must be seen in the context of each city and route where this was done.  Toronto, idle in transit expansion for so long, does not have much in alternatives to offer to existing motorists.

For me, the saddest part of the whole symposium was how dated it all seemed.  Many of the photographs, the principles of the case studies, the benefits shown, not just claimed, for LRT were almost identical to the position advocated by SFTC almost four decades ago.

For our troubles, we were vilified by the professionals both at the TTC and at Queen’s Park where investment in high-tech boondoggles, the search for the “missing link” between buses and subways, drove the agenda.  The TTC was never an advocate for LRT, and there remain strongly anti-LRT sentiments in some areas within the staff.  Metrolinx, as this decade’s incarnation of Queen’s Park’s influence, has only recently come to see LRT as a worthwhile part of its network after a long attempt to foist alternative technologies onto the Transit City proposal.

Our 1973 proposal for LRT on Spadina waited until 1997 for service to begin.  We opposed the ICTS system on the SRT, itself originally planned as an LRT line, and only now see TTC and Metrolinx recognizing that LRT is a more appropriate technology for extension and integration of the SRT into a wider network.

While Toronto dallied with ICTS and a few vanity subway extensions (think of the Sheppard and Vaughan lines like personalized license plates, but much more expensive), the rest of the world turned to LRT.  One presentation from Paris’ RATP noted that from 1977 to 2013, the number of “tramways” in France will have grown from 3 systems with 3 lines to 25 systems with 60 lines.

The idea, to quote former Mayor Lastman, that “real cities don’t use streetcars” shows how the rest of the world has passed Toronto by.  Yes, they are impressed by what we are now attempting (even though a great deal is as yet unfunded), but they are also aware that Toronto stopped leading North American transit systems years ago.

Catching up with the world also means that social and political arrangements, the balance of power between motorists and transit, the culture that truly puts transit first, must evolve in Toronto at a rate unlike that seen elsewhere.  Despite recent funding announcements, we are still in a project-based model, not a transit model where money flows to an overall transit plan automatically, and each project does not have to justify itself as a political entity.  Transit has been underfunded for so long, the jump to a proper level means a big shift in government priorities or the imposition of new fees, tolls, taxes, levies, whatever name you wish to use.  We can’t have a bigger transit system without paying for it.

Transit must exist to serve the City and the Region, not simply as a make-work project rewarding deeper and longer holes with bigger budgets.  Transit must not be a dumping ground for the technology of a well-connected vendor, but should embrace world standards and experience.  No longer can we claim that Ontario has a better way of doing everything, assuming it ever did.  Transit must not be held hostage to so-called partnerships with the private sector, sweetheart deals with details shrouded in commercial secrecy.  If there is a profit to be made at public expense, then let the public enjoy the benefits.

Expanding transit’s role will be difficult and it will meet much opposition given Toronto’s record, but there is no alternative.  That new role requires a new way of thinking about the city.  We will not be car-free, but we must be a city where a car isn’t a necessity for every trip outside of downtown, where trips on the dense inner part of the system are taken as a preferred choice, not on sufferance.  People should not be able to walk to their destination as a reasonable, if resented, alternative to the TTC.

Designing for Transit Cities means a fundamental change in how we think about city building and transit’s role.  With the coming Mayoral election, some may be tempted to ask, yet again, for a pause, for a rethink.  We have paused for decades, a convenient way of giving lip service to transit while building nothing.  Any candidate with such a “plan” is worthy of little but contempt.

Some may not like “Mayor Miller’s” plan, but that doesn’t mean the plan is invalid.  There are parts of Transit City even I think should change, and parts of the Metrolinx Big Move as well.  Stopping to twiddle our thumbs, to draw an “anti-Miller map”, would be a huge waste.  Toronto needs to build and to operate a much more robust transit system.  That will take money and time, but the choice, the direction is unavoidable.