No, We’re Not There Yet

Many recent reports and proposals talk about the problems of long commuting trips, of the futility of attempting to move quickly around our increasingly congested city.

Back on August 24, Statistics Canada published their commuting study based on 2010 data.  The study reviews not only comparative commuting times by mode, but also the attitudes of motorists to the transit alternative.

The average commuting time for all of Canada was 26 minutes, but this rises to 30 minutes for CMAs (“Census Metropolitan Areas” which are generally larger than actual municipalities) of 1-million or more population.  Toronto and Montreal average 33 and 31 minutes, but this doesn’t tell the entire story as any Toronto commuter will tell.  27% of Toronto commutes take over 45 minutes, and 29% are caught in traffic jams.

When the data are subdivided by car and transit, the transit trips take longer, and this difference is heightened in lower density areas.  That’s no surprise because low density areas tend to have poor transit service as a direct result of lower demand.  Waiting times are an important part of transit trips when service is poor, and this is compounded by any need to change between routes that may not directly serve all travel patterns.  The average transit commute in large CMAs is 44 minutes while the average car trip is 27 minutes.  The figures are even worse for Toronto.  Missing from this is any discussion of the length of the trip or the differences caused by trip location and density of demand.

Neither transit nor car users like traffic congestion, but the presence of rapid transit  networks means that some trips are congestion-free (even though they may be subject to transit delays that were not part of this study).  The proportion of commuters who were satisfied with their commute times is understandably high where these times are short and congestion is comparatively rare.  Transit riders put up with longer commute times better than car drivers, but those with short trips tended to be less happy with transit than motorists were with their cars.  This is easy to understand when one considers that a short transit trip is more likely to have a relatively large proportion of wait time, while at least some of the longer trips (notably commuter rail) allow the commuter to relax enroute.

The vast majority of motorists view public transit unfavourably, but this statistic is not broken down by region, let alone by sub-region where variations might be seen due to the availability and quality of the public transit option.

Media reaction to this report was quite predictable with stories about how bad Toronto’s commuting times are.  Less clear is the question of what, if anything, can be done about the situation.  Indeed, the most simplistic analysis might suggest that car trips are inherently faster and “better” than transit trips based on their average length.  This would completely mask the effect of averaging together trips over a wide variety of roads and transit lines and the cost, broadly speaking, of increasing capacity for either mode.

The Star reported that Toronto has the slowest rush hour in Canada.  One sample family living in Aurora has a 75-minute commute (5 minute drive to GO, 55 minute train ride, 15 minute walk).  Just the train ride is well above the average commuting time for the GTA, and the 15 minute walk tells us something about the convenience and/or cost of adding a TTC trip onto the end of the journeys.  Driving was half an hour faster.  GO’s longer trip traded the stress of driving for the problems inherent with infrequent rail service.  This is a serious problem for commuters whose travel is dictated by a handful of scheduled trips.

As long as GO Transit stays oriented to peak period, peak direction travel, and local bus systems focus on serving those GO trains, transit really isn’t an option for most commuters.  Better off-peak service will address some of the stress problems by giving commuters more options, but the chance that one might add close to an hour’s waiting time to a trip won’t do wonders for average commute times.

The Star quotes the Board of Trade’s call for a massive investment in transportation, but there is little indication we will see this at either the Federal or Provincial level.  Meanwhile, Toronto is obsessed with something-for-nothing schemes that address pet projects (the Sheppard subway, the monorail to the Port Lands), but not the overall need for much more and better transit.

Another Star article looked at commuting times for a reverse commute from downtown to Markham, and then back.  On the outbound trip, from the Star building at 1 Yonge Street to McNabb & Birchmount, 1.6km north of Steeles, the writer had fairly smooth sailing with little congestion, and made the trip in 27 minutes.  The reverse trip took 49 minutes thanks in part to a “fender-bender”.

This trip, of course, is not particularly well-served by transit.  The closest GO stations, Milliken or Unionville, are some distance to the east, and the destination lies half-way between them.  Trains leave Unionville southbound between 5:50 and 8:15 (5 trips), and there is no northbound service until the PM peak.  The TTC’s 17A Birchmount bus serves this location during peak periods on roughly a 20-minute headway.

Google’s trip planner calculates that the trip would take almost 90 minutes by transit (subway, Steeles East and Birchmount buses).  Oddly enough, it suggests our commuter walk from the Star Building at 1 Yonge to Union Station rather than walking to Bay for a one-stop ride on the Harbourfront streetcar.  Probably a good choice, if not ideal in bad weather.

In a separate article, the Star looked at cycling and walking.  Two factors leap out of this story.  First, the trips tend to be short.  People do not walk from the waterfront to Markham, and cycling would be only for the hardy.  Also, for those with short trips, there’s a good chance that the transit alternative will be crowded or won’t even show up thanks to irregular service.  These are short hops in the centre of the city where transit should rule, but it is not always a viable option.  Indeed, even with reliable service, the access time — walk, wait, then walk again — is a big chunk of the trip.  A cyclist sees transit as a poor option in much the same way as a long-distance motorist, only the scale is different.

The Sun’s take on the story focuses on growing transit riding.  Their article lists many improvements in the pipeline at the TTC, but notably absent is much talk of better service.  Indeed budget problems will constrain what the TTC can actually deliver.

The C.D. Howe Institute weighs in with a proposal that HOV lanes (a “High Occupancy Vehicle” has at least two if not more occupants) be tolled, and that in some cases, multiple lanes be dedicated for this purpose.  Lone drivers could opt to use the toll lane(s), but they would pay for the privilege while multi-occupant vehicles would drive free.

That’s something of a stretch.  Not only does this ask the notoriously lone auto commuter to share the vehicle, but also to pay for the privilege of using the road if he does not.

Motoring commuters travel alone not just for some deep-seated psychological need, but because this frees them to travel when and where they like, including all those errands that are tacked onto the start and end of the workday.  Add one or more carpool buddies, and the trip becomes constrained to the schedules and preferences of the passengers, not unlike the problem faced by a traveller using an infrequent, peak-only GO service.

The big assumption is that there is actually road capacity for this to occur, that the HOV lanes will be less congested, and that drivers would pay for the privilege of using them.  The revenue would go to support construction of more infrastructure.  While this scheme might be possible on the expressway network, there remains the issue of the local streets which form a good chunk of a typical commuter’s trip.

Finally, the City of Toronto is about to embark on a study of congestion downtown with the Downtown Transportation Options Study.  This will look at the area bounded by Lake Shore, Queen, Jarvis and Bathurst with a view to finding ways to improve traffic flow in the core and the interaction of many transportation projects with road capacity.

I will be amused to see how much attention is paid to the degree to which roads are used for purposes other than moving transit vehicles, trucks and cars.  Notable among these are curb lane occupancy for construction projects, parking restrictions that generously dedicate road space to storage rather than movement, and the absence of restricted parking/stopping on streets near a major obstruction that causes spillover traffic demand.

A common thread in all of this is the issue of the ultimate capacity of the transportation network, especially the road system.  Admitting that there just isn’t any more room is an option few are willing to face, but gradually even a breezy reverse commute such as the Star described will only be a memory.  Congestion is growing throughout the GTA, especially the outer 416 and the 905, and the challenge for transit to make a dent in this is considerable.  Indeed, even Metrolinx’ “Big Move” if fully funded would only stem the growth of congestion, not eliminate it.

We have built a sprawling region, and it will be a decade at best before many current proposals and projects show any benefits.  Meanwhile, traffic will continue to grow and congestion will be an even greater concern.

The “war on the car” was lost years ago with the GTA’s growth unmatched by good transit service.  Planners talked about “transit oriented development”, but politicians built very little of it.  Now we face a political class that views transit as a cost, possibly even a waste, rather than an investment.  Today’s mantra is to get transit off of the public books, to reduce taxes, to avoid responsibility for the larger regional issues.

Enjoy your commute.  It’s going to get a lot longer.

42 thoughts on “No, We’re Not There Yet

  1. Thanks for the reply Steve.

    That first problem is very real, but I think it’s surmountable. It’s just that no one’s made any effort at all. My station at Kennedy is probably the exception to the poor feeder route access rule (although the connecting tunnel isn’t an ideal design) but Kennedy GO station is a ridiculously overlooked transit point. I’ve encountered GO employees who were surprised that there was a station there. Bloor GO and Danforth GO aren’t horrible (they’re only 200-300 metres from subway stations) but (IIRC) there isn’t even signage pointing the way.

    Steve: There are proposals to link Bloor GO into Dundas West Station already, although the idea has been around as long as the subway. The impetus now is to provide an easy connection for the Air Rail Link, but the all-day service on the Georgetown and Milton lines will benefit from this too. Danforth Station is another matter, and Main is a fair hike away with no cover. Don’t forget that to be competitive for travel, a change of route must be easy to make. A walk from Main Station to Danforth Station would probably outdo any travel time benefit.

    Don’t we have some sort of regional body that’s supposed to address issues like co-operation between separate transit systems? Add in some fare programs like GO has with non-TTC transit agencies, and introduce it with some fanfare/promotion and there you go. The further out stations are more problematic, but they also all have fair sized parking lots that could be modified for TTC connectivity.

    Steve: Metrolinx. However, funding truly integrated fares between GO and TTC is a political policy issue, and it also gets into problems with committing GO capacity to handle inside-416 riders. I believe that is much more important for the outer corners of the 416 (eg Rexdale and northern Scarborough) rather than on the Lake Shore corridor.

    The second problem is the difficult one, but it just seems to me that it is much less difficult than a net new line. Although I certainly concede that a new line can provide a whole lot more capacity and can be designed to address actual traffic flows much better. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that existing current assets which could address the problem are severely under-utilized. In fact, that they are being used at all seems coincidental to Toronto transit planning.

    I’m calling for a little bit of creative thinking about how to use commuter rail lines for local transport purposes. Here’s an example, the Stouffville line is only one track, so adding trains, especially counter-current ones, it’s not obvious. But what if you just add a layover somewhere north of Agincourt station? Say in the industrial area around McNichol? Maybe add in a short section of twinned track somewhere along the route so that trains can pass each other – for example using some of the parking lot at Kennedy subway station. Adding in half a dozen runs from Agincourt to Union cuts the headway to about 10 minutes at peak.

    Steve: GO already has plans to add tracks and grade separations on all of its lines to allow all day, bidirectional service. However, there is a point at which we run out of capacity at Union to handle all of the trains, never mind the passengers.

    The Downtown Express buses are extra fare required or five bucks. A ten-ride from Agincourt to Union is $47.75. It’s 26 minutes from Agincourt to Union on the GO, or a bit less than 2/3 the time from Don Mills station on the Sheppard line – all subway. 26 minutes is faster than you could drive it even if you started timing at the 401 Brimley on-ramp and had a place to park at the other end. Other than the long lead times and the fact that almost no one knows about the route, there’s no reason why there aren’t hundreds if not thousands of people commuting this way.

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  2. Ka-Ming said:

    Clarkson has about 10 acres of parking lot, which is smaller than a lot of GO stations. That’s 10 acres of land use which is by definition within walking distance to a rail station. If you can get more people using local transit to get to the station, you’d free up lots of prime real estate, the type that would be really useful for a decentralized node model of a city.

    Moaz; Ka-Ming … it’s interesting that you mentioned Clarkson GO station. I was recently reading a local magazine called Mississauga Life, and one of the articles was about the land-use issues on the east side of Southdown Road, near the Clarkson GO station.

    Basically, residents of the area objected to the condominium buildings built there and preferred more low rise development. The project was rejected by council but accepted by the Ontario Municipal Board. (the Clarkson issue is described at the end of this article, and also discussed in this commentary which appeared one month later.

    Now, the GO station is 10 acres of parking with no nearby residential neighbours but the same objections and arguments will probably be raised. Until and unless the city council & residents are comfortable with exchanging parking for mixed residential & commercial spaces, and comfortable providing the public transport to help people get to the stations, we’re just not going to see the change that we need to see to get people using GO Transit and local transit.

    By the way, I’m living in Mississauga and my commute is 12-15 minutes by car (3 of those waiting at the intersection of Erin Mills & Dundas), or 40 minutes by bus. There are three ways to get to the school I work at by bus – all of them inconvenient. It takes less time to bicycle all the way than it would to go by bus itself, or bus & bike – and that includes going down into the Credit Valley & back up again – a long & painful hill to deal with, both ways.

    Regards, Moaz

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