Thoughts From Down Under

Jarrett Walker has a few good articles on his website, humantransit.org, 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.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts From Down Under

  1. 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.

    Yes, but downtown cannot afford to be ignored, for if downtown’s transit needs are not sufficiently met, a dangerous domino effect can ensue… that’s why the DRL is so important.

    Steve: Ah yes, but sadly the people at whom the arguments for reduced congestion thanks to The Big Move are directed live and drive in the 905. Many of them don’t care about downtown traffic one bit. The hardest place to serve with transit is also the place where the smallest dent in auto demand will happen, especially when population growth is factored in.

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  2. In Toronto’s case, the opening of the Yonge and Bloor-Danforth subways significantly reduced congestion on the roads those subway routes travelled under almost overnight. I was too young to remember Yonge, but I remember that the jams on viaduct disappeared almost overnight. I haven’t seen any modern streetcar or light rail line do this.

    When the Gardiner opened, congestion on King and Queen went down by close to 50% shortly afterward. When the 407 opened in 1997 and was free for the trial period, rush-hour congestion on Hwy 7 completely disappeared overnight. When the tolls kicked in, the traffic jams on Hwy 7 returned.

    Well planned transit and road expansion does reduce congestion — maybe not permanently, but that’s because of population growth. The increased capacity attracts the growth, and eventually, we get back to square 1.

    Steve: One other important consideration is the degree to which a new line or road addresses an existing travel demand, and what proportion of this demand can and will choose to use the new route. In the case of the Yonge and Bloor-Danforth subways, there was a built-in demand of the surface route network including not just the cars running on those streets, but on parallel services acting as overflows (Bay and Church, for example, in the case of Yonge Street). In the case of new roads, motorists will go some distance out of their way to reach a new road that is perceived to be less congested because their total trip time may still improve. This option is usually less available to transit users. If the north-south subway had been built on, say, Spadina or Bathurst, passengers would not have migrated to it as easily as from the Yonge/Bay/Church streetcar lines to the Yonge subway.

    Too often, transit lines are planned by people who think like motorists (often because they are motorists), and they forget the importance of putting service and capacity right where it is needed and will be used.

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  3. Steve said: “Ah yes, but sadly the people at whom the arguments for reduced congestion thanks to The Big Move are directed live and drive in the 905. Many of them don’t care about downtown traffic one bit.”

    To be blunt, they don’t care because they get on the subway first in the morning.

    And just to illustrate the issue of congestion in the suburbs, an article from the National Post.

    Why do some people think that the solution to reducing congestion in suburbia is to ultimately extend the Yonge line to Sutton and the Spadina line to Wiarton rather than pushing for their own local subway networks?

    Steve: Even if the demand existed to justify a subway, the 905 municipalities would never pony up the money to pay their share for it. The Spadina extension has 905 money in it, but all of the additional operating cost will be borne by Toronto. The TTC gets the new fare revenue too, but it won’t be anywhere near enough to cover the cost and this will drive up the subsidy requirement for the City of Toronto.

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  4. [i]The TTC gets the new fare revenue too, but it won’t be anywhere near enough to cover the cost and this will drive up the subsidy requirement for the City of Toronto.[/i]

    I’d assume that either TTC will simply charge those entering the subway in the 2 Vaughan stations an appropriate extra charge to cover the extra operating costs (like Montreal does for Laval stations) or will ask the Region of York to pay.

    Steve: No, the agreement that has already been signed for the subway’s operation is that Toronto gets the revenue and pays all of the added costs.

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  5. I don’t think there’s anything in that agreement that defines how TTC sets it fares; just that it gets the revenue. I don’t think there is anything in that that precludes TTC operating a zone system … or even having different fares for different modes of transport. So what is stopping TTC putting any stations north of Steeles into a different zone.

    Steve: If you can point me to the written agreement, I may agree with you. However, TTC has stated that the whole subway will be one fare zone. Frankly, as we found when the BD line pushed into “Zone 2”, it is not practical to have a zone boundary on the subway system.

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  6. GO does produce trip specific figures, although they’re for a 12-month period. Please see this GO page.

    Steve: That page makes interesting reading when one sees figures down at the 80% level on some services. Now all we need is a weighted average based on ridership.

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  7. Wait, I thought all of our congestion problems could be solved by subways? At least, that is what many of the mayoral candidates are claiming…

    Steve: Many of our mayoral candidates don’t have the first understanding of the way that the design and provision of transit service may or may not affect congestion. In particular, they talk about congestion relief as if the problems of the region will be solved by, comparatively speaking, a few lines in corridors, some of which are nowhere near the congestion most people complain about.

    What’s even more disheartening is that the candidates have not shifted their positions based on critiques of their proposals, probably for fear of showing weakness. The last five mornings’ interviews with the candidates on Metro Morning have not been inspiring.

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