Back in the early days of this blog, I wrote a long paper about the role of transit and what a truly regional plan would look like. To avoid extensively quoting myself, I suggest that any newcomers to this site read that as a starting point as it contains not just a list of routes, but a philosophy of how one should look at transit.
Since 2006, we have seen Transit City, MoveOntario2020 and The Big Move. The GTA appeared well on its way to real progress in transit although problems, notably the question of local service funding, remained.
Now we have a new Mayor in Toronto, and plans that came from years of work and debate lie in pieces on the floor. Metrolinx and Queen’s Park seem content to “plan” by carving up funding that’s already committed and redrawing their map to suit the whims of a new regime at City Hall.
The fundamental problem in this exercise is the phrase “funding that’s already committed”. When you draw a map with a half empty pen, you make compromises, and you run out of ink leaving huge areas bereft of service.
If redraw we must, then let us do so with a view to a transit network and to a view beyond the end of next year. What does Toronto and the GTA need? How much will that cost? How do we pay for it? If we start with the premise that we cannot afford anything, we should stop wasting our time on planners, engineers and the myth that transit can actually transform travel for the next generation.
The discussion below is Toronto centric because this is a Toronto blog, and that’s where most of the GTA’s transit riders are. All the same, the philosophy of what transit should be affects everyone, especially in those areas where so much transit growth is needed just to catch up with the population.
Some of the info here will be familiar to those who read my commentaries regularly, but I wanted to pull it all together as a starting point. My comments are not intended as the one, definitive “solution”, but to show the need for debate on a large scale, integrating considerations from many parts of various schemes.
[While I was writing this article, the Pembina Institute published its own critique of the Ford transit plan. I do not intend to comment on that document here because it addresses only one part of a much larger collection of transit issues.]
The two best-known maps of transit schemes are Transit City and The Big Move. The former is actually a subset of the latter, but Transit City is important for its role in establishing the importance of LRT as a choice among transit technologies. LRT lines are now proposed for Mississauga, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo and Ottawa. The concept is no longer the exclusive preserve of a small band of Toronto railfans.
However, Transit City itself isn’t perfect. Some of the lines were not well thought-out and owe their location to connect-the-dots planning and some naïve conceits about fitting LRT into narrow streets. This needs to be changed.
Transit City presumed that a large network would be quickly built, and that the city would grow into its new capacity. However, even without recent political changes, funding limits stretched the seven lines out to two decades before even the first of them started construction. Meanwhile “LRT” streets would languish without service improvements.
BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) was not considered for the lighter corridors on the basis that the infrastructure would have to be upgraded to LRT too soon to make a BRT scheme worthwhile. This might have been true for a quick rollout, but options change when the schedule extends into the 2030s and beyond.
The Big Move does not address the problems of local service or integration with the regional network. The map exists in an odd blank space where local service is “someone else’s problem”. Service and fare policies for GO remain in a never-never land pretending that these routes exist only as express services for commuters, not as part of a regional rapid transit network. Instead, GO may evolve into a mix of truly regional, express services overlaid on more frequent local operations, but the implications of such a change are not yet part of the GO culture.
If we must redraw the map, we must ignore the institutional barriers about each mode and element, and focus on how routes and services will fit together as a whole.
The Missing Pieces
Two major parts of a future network are rarely mentioned, but each is vital for its contribution — waterfront transit and the surface buses and streetcar routes.
On the waterfront, service to the planned growth areas in the East Bayfront, the Don Lands, and the Port Lands is threatened both by Waterfront Toronto’s funding problems and by Mayor Ford’s anti-surface transit rhetoric. These areas are designed around frequent surface transit with easy access to stops. The streets are close to Lake Ontario, many within former lake bed. Subway construction here would be difficult, and the fine-grained service proposed for the eastern waterfront would be impossible. Infrequent service on the Sherbourne bus will not do.
To the west, the new condo forests from the rail corridor south to the lake demand better service, but such plans as there are have the feel of leftovers in a car-oriented road system. Proposed development of the land at Exhibition Place and Ontario Place is completely remote from transit service. It is difficult to understand the rationale for building an LRT line all the way to southern Etobicoke while ignoring major development opportunities that are much closer to downtown and the existing streetcar network.
If Toronto plans to build the equivalent of new small towns on the waterfront, it must include good transit in those plans.
The Bus and Streetcar Network
In 2009, the TTC proposed the Transit City Bus Plan, a scheme to provide a core network of routes with frequent and express service. This fell victim to a turf war between Council’s Budget Committee and the TTC over who had the right to commit the City to changes in transit service and spending. This plan was intended to come back as part of the 2011 budget proposal, but the political players have changed and TCBP’s future is unclear.
Embracing TCBP presumes that the City and TTC actually want to improve transit service rather than looking only for funding cuts and blame-the-unions speechmaking. If we believe people deserve good, improved transit service, that issue is separate from how we pay for it. Partisan speeches do not warm people in bus shelters.
One big flaw in TCBP is the “B” of the title. For reasons best known to the TTC, they did not include the streetcar network even though it contains some of the best-used routes on the system. This has the odd side-effect that the only east-west route in the plan is 94 Wellesley which would get 10-minute all day service while patrons of other services, notably on Kingston Road and Lake Shore would get far worse.
In the technology debates, we hear a lot about bus rapid transit (BRT), not to mention “BRT-light” which is little more than express buses running in mixed traffic. I say “little more”, but even the express proposals in TCBP would be an improvement for those who now face long journeys on major transit routes.
On both the bus and streetcar networks, the service principles of the Ridership Growth Strategy are important. This plan is eight years old, but the basic ideas are sound. RGS brought better service to many routes with improved loading standards reducing the target for the average number of riders on a “full” bus or streetcar.
Off-peak headways were improved to 30 minutes maximum and service was extended to 1:00 am, seven days a week, on most of the system. Some routes will never be full even in the peak period, but they serve areas that otherwise would be far from transit. This is not just a matter of convenience, it is one of accessibility, and of ensuring that someone who works off hours will have a ride when they need it.
Finally, advertising good service is not enough. The TTC must actually operate good service. Some unevenness is inevitable on a transit network, but as I have shown in many analyses of operations on streetcar and bus routes, management is vital to providing the best service possible. Advertised 10 minute headways must not become pairs of buses every 20 minutes, and short turns should be rare. This is as much a part of “customer service” as a friendly greeting and accurate website info.
As originally proposed, the Transit City plan anticipated completion of seven routes by 2020, but this optimistic schedule didn’t last for long. Rejigging TC is possible in many ways, and my comments here only give some of the options. This is not intended as a definitive list.
My point in raising these is that there are bona fide concerns about some aspects of the TC designs, and these should be addressed. It is quite odd that we can redesign the entire network in a few weeks to suit a preference for subways, but we don’t look at what might be improved for the LRT options.
- Eglinton: Parts of this line require review to address issues raised during the project assessment.
- The section through Mt. Dennis, as currently designed, is quite intrusive. Considering the amount we will spend on the tunnel from Black Creek to Leaside, saying that an underground route at Weston Road is “too expensive” is hard to swallow.
- Treatments of left turns need detailed review, especially in light of actual service levels we will see on the outer ends of the line. If the full service does not run west of, say, Weston or east of Don Mills, then the dynamics of intersections will be quite different than what was presented in the studies.
- Side-of-road alignments should be revisited in the Richview corridor and east of Leaside to Don Mills.
- Sheppard: There is very strong pressure for the subway to be extended to Scarborough Town Centre, but such a move may foreclose any future rapid transit extension to the northeastern parts of Toronto. We need to understand how services in this area could interact to handle present and future demand including:
- Service to the UofT campus as a permanent goal, not just for the Pan Am Games
- Service to Malvern
- Improved GO service on the Stouffville line and new service on the line through Agincourt to north Pickering
- Scarborough RT: If this becomes a subway line, it will never reach Malvern. Indeed, without LRT lines on Sheppard and a rebuilt RT, it would be difficult to justify any sort of LRT network in Scarborough as there would be no critical mass of routes to support a carhouse.
- Finch LRT:
- The Metrolinx scheme to extend this route east and south to Don Mills Station was a triumph of “missing link” planning over common sense. If Finch East is to get improved service, Don Mills, the eastern reaches of a low density stretch of Finch, is not the place to stop.
- If neither Finch nor Jane will see LRT for a long time, bus improvements are needed. Whether taking road space for buses will be acceptable in Mayor Ford’s planning universe remains to be seen.
- Don Mills: This line, like Jane, was to be shoehorned into a street alignment at its southern end by a TTC unwilling to face the obvious — the street is too narrow. In the case of Don Mills, if a separate structure (tunnel, bridge across the Don) will be required, they may as well carry the Downtown Relief Line north to Eglinton and reduce the need for transfer facilities at Danforth.
- Jane: At its southern end, Jane does not have the road width to accommodate an LRT right-of-way. It may make more sense for this route to end at Eglinton and feed into the Eglinton line, possibly as a branch service.
- Waterfront West: This has always been the lowest priority of the TC routes, and its benefit for riders in southern Etobicoke is dubious given alternatives such as the BD subway and GO Transit. As I mentioned above, the real problems are closer to downtown and plans for the WWLRT should focus on these. As for Lake Shore, the TTC should invest in better service on the 501 before advocating a full-blown LRT right-of-way down this street.
Several subway proposals are on the table, some with more official standing than others. What they have in common is a requirement for a substantial capital investment as well as future operating dollars. Offsetting considerations include ridership benefits and network effects that could trigger additional costs.
- Sheppard west to Downsview: This is one of those “fill in the blanks” connections that looks nice on a map, but I remain unconvinced that it will attract much riding. Through routing to York U and beyond is unlikely given the TTC’s lack of appetite for interlining, not to mention the mix of four and six car trains north of Downsview (unless stations on the existing Sheppard line are expanded).
- Sheppard east to STC: Political pressure for this route is very strong, and I suspect it would be the hardest to dislodge from Mayor Ford’s plan even with the low projected ridership. The problem, coupled with the proposed extension of the Danforth subway north to STC, remains that northeastern Toronto will never see extension of “rapid transit” service beyond that point.
- Bloor-Danforth northeast to STC: See comments above.
- Yonge to Richmond Hill (and beyond): This line has strong political support in York Region, although Metrolinx and Queen’s Park have yet to tip their hands on funding. Only a preliminary and inconclusive “Benefits Case Analysis” for this line has appeared. The underlying question here is the interaction of many factors for which there has never been a public, consolidated study:
- The Yonge extension itself
- Demand effects on the existing route
- Options for additional capacity including closer headways, more trains, platform doors and a new subway yard
- Side-effects of increased YUS capacity on transfer moves to and from the BD line
- The reconstruction and expansion of Bloor-Yonge Station (and possibly other locations where volumes may outstrip station capacity)
- Much-improved service on Richmond Hill’s GO line as proposed by The Big Move
- The Downtown Relief line as an interceptor for inner city demand on the Danforth subway
Although the original Transit City saw a connection to Pearson Airport within this decade, the western part of the Eglinton LRT is now in a later phase of Metrolinx plans. It is claimed that the airport authority (the GTAA) won’t be ready with a final plan for airport transit until 2020 or so, and everything is on hold until then. Everything, of course, except the “Blue 22” link to Union Station (aka the “Air Rail Link”or whatever it’s called this week).
The ARL is now a Metrolinx project, but it is still projected to be a premium fare service for airport travellers, not for commuters to the airport or within the corridor. The handstands performed by Metrolinx to justify this approach is closely related to the project’s long life as a PPP and the need to charge higher fares to recoup the capital investment. (The situation is much more complex, but here is not the place for that debate.)
What is completely unclear at this point is the relationship between the ARL, the Eglinton and Finch LRTs (and possibly the Hurontario/Brampton LRT) and the Mississauga busway. Gradually many services may aim in the general direction of the airport, but whether and how they will actually serve it is a mystery.
In The Big Move, the airport is listed as one of the two major transit hubs on the GTA (the other is Union Station), but we have yet to see an overall study of how transit can link the GTA as a whole to the airport, or any sense that this has any importance in regional planning.
GO Transit has an uneasy relationship with the local transit services throughout the GTA. GO is happy to piggyback on other agencies to provide feeder/distributor capacity, but operates primarily as a peak period, peak direction service heavily dependent on parking lots. Parking has its place, but it cannot serve a more diverse trip pattern where destinations are poorly served by local transit or by walking, or where trips occur long after parking lots are full.
The Big Move foresees a considerable amount of counter-peak and all-day travel on GO corridors, and this will require a major rethink of how riders access the regional rail system.
Notable by its absence from long range funding announcement is any idea of how GO services will expand from their present level to even the early stages of The Big Move. This expansion will compete with other projects for capital and operating funding. Cost recovery will fall as service expands beyond cherry-picking the most profitable trips and moving to all-day operation.
Within the coming weeks, GO will release its Electrification Study for consideration at the Metrolinx board meeting of January 26. Although I have attended some of the community workshops for this study and commented at length on interim papers, I will hold off on a detailed review here until the final version is published.
This study presumes that rail service will increase substantially before any electrification is done, and the cost of these increases is considered to be separate from the conversion to electrification. This avoids charging the mode conversion for infrastructure and service that would be built regardless of the mode or timing of conversion, but it assumes that the money to reach this “reference case” will actually be spent. As things stand, we see little indication of major GO expansion plans on the scale contemplated by The Big Move.
Finally, Metrolinx must rethink GO Transit’s fare structure. During the electrification study, and a parallel study regarding capacity issues at Union Station, it became clear that GO contemplates shifting some of its demand onto the TTC as one option. Aside from the question of where such riders would actually fit, there is the matter of fare integration.
As GO evolves into an all-day, bidirectional service on many corridors, it will simply be one more part of a large network and premium fares with limited transfers will become harder to justify. I can’t help remembering how the TTC found itself in difficulty charging an extra fare to travel into “zone 2”, largely that part of its network outside of the old City of Toronto.
If GO’s capacity is assumed to be available as part of networked travel, then its fare structure must not artificially discourage riders. This is a difficult balancing act given the many transit systems in the GTA and the inevitable cross-subsidization that will occur (much as it does today within the TTC’s system between busier and lighter route).
Will the transit network, all of it, be able to provide attractive, competitive service for travel, or will it be starved for operating and capital funds? Will transit be a real alternative, will it actually limit need for growth in auto traffic, or will it remain, on a grand scale a distant second choice?
These are huge and complex questions. They are not being asked, let along addressed, by most of the agencies and “thinkers” of our region. The whole story, the entire debate, turns on a few subway lines. True regional planning lies somewhere in the dust.