Thoughts From Down Under

Jarrett Walker has a few good articles on his website,, that should be required reading for our friends at Metrolinx, among other places.

In What Does Transit Do About Traffic Congestion, he argues that the last claim that should be made for transit is that it will reduce congestion.  Instead, the benefits of a transit-oriented city show up in economic activity, mobility and other benefits.

There is, however, a caveat lurking here.  Dense cities with good transit (or even cities with a good potential for better transit) don’t appear out of thin air.  Once we build sprawl, then the benefits and effects of transit seen in the older, denser cities will not appear overnight even if we run the most intensive BRT, LRT or subway network through auto-oriented suburbs.  Transit can make things better, but it will not reverse the damage and inevitable congestion of decades of bad planning.

By the way, be sure to read the comments.  If you think the threads on this site get out of hand, just try Walker’s blog.  You will see some very intelligent point-counterpoint discussion in some threads.

In If On-Time Performance is 96%, Why Am I Always Late?, Walker discusses the conundrum that transit agencies talk a great line for being on time, but the actual experience of users is much, much, much worse.  Both GO Transit and TTC have a love for patting themselves on the back (although rarely each other’s), and talking about their improvements in on-time performance.

So much of this is relative to the metrics used (how late can a train or streetcar be and still be “on time”) and the lack of weighting of the results to reflect the number of passengers affected by on time (or not) service.  Even in the off-peak, gaps of two scheduled headways or more are common on downtown routes and this drives riders away.  At least with NextBus, it is now possible to know with certainty that there is no car just around the bend out of sight, and if there is, it’s going in the opposite direction.

GO Transit now has schedules that reflect the real world in which they operate, but persists in reporting all-day on-time figures rather than breaking these out to show service quality when most people ride the system.

Finally, in Strasbourg:  You Can’t Take It Home With You, we get a loving overview of both the city and its tram system, part of the renaissance of LRT in France.  The real issues come at the end where we learn about the major changes in street space usage and restrictions on cars that accompanied the installation of tram lines in this very old city.  The moral, applicable to anyone comparing transit systems, is to look beyond just the technology and the scenery, and understand how and why the city streets work (or don’t) as they do.

Any moves to improve “congestion” in Toronto must start with a fundamental debate about what the streets are for, and which existing uses must be reduced (and how) in order to make room for what’s left over.  Ironically, we focus these debates on the heart of downtown, a comparatively small area, when the real problems of transit’s competitiveness and congestion lie out in the suburbs.