Moving People: Responses to Congestion (Updated)

Updated November 3, 2011:  Video, audio and the presentation materials from this event are now available.  I have added a few written comments to expand on my presentation deck.

On Tuesday evening, October 25, 2011, I gave a talk with Eric Miller as part of the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre series “Toronto In Question”.

Please visit the event page on the Cities Centre’s site for video, audio and powerpoints.

For those who want a smaller version, here is a pdf of my slide deck.

As a quick overview, and to expand on a few points that were left out of the talk, a quick runthrough of the slides follows the break below.

Page 1 (Slides 1-4):  This introduction gives two main themes of the talk.  Toronto likes to think of itself as a “transit oriented city”, but much of the planning during the period when other cities were destroying their transit systems was, in fact, highway oriented.  Toronto was lucky to have strong postwar immigration and remain a healthy city rather than disintegrating from the centre outward.  Coupled with a publicly-owned transit system strong suburban growth, the TTC retained its important, but dwindling role.

Much of the debate about transit today focuses on technology selection — subways vs LRT — and people ask why we cannot have a network of subways like New York, London or Paris.  This ignores the fact that these cities had populations over 10 times that of Toronto in 1900 when much of their rail transit networks were built.  With no competition, the urban railways were attractive even for private development.

Page 2 (Slides 5-8):  In 1912, suburban Toronto was what people now think of as downtown, and many neighbourhoods were only starting to develop.  The streetcar line on St. Clair was built by the City of Toronto to serve a new district beyond the original territory of the privately-owned Toronto Railway Company which refused to invest and expand beyond the 1891 boundaries.

A few suburban railways existed, notably the line to Sutton (now served by GO Transit on a schedule distressingly similar to the railway) as well as routes to Port Credit, West Hill, Woodbridge and Guelph.  One by one, these closed down with service to Sutton ending in 1930, and the remaining line to Richmond Hill closing in 1948.

The Prince Edward Viaduct crossing the Don River to link Bloor Street to Danforth Avenue was intended to carry a suburban streetcar line into a downtown subway.  Boston had already begun its streetcar subway in 1892 to deal with streetcar traffic congestion, and Toronto might have done something similar.  However, the lower deck was not actually used until the Bloor-Danforth subway opened in 1966.

Page 3 (Slides 9-12):  The Toronto Transportation Commission took over transit operations in 1921 when the TRC’s franchise expired.  They set about rebuilding a system that had fallen into disrepair and merging the TRC, the Toronto Civic Railway and the remaining suburban operations into one network.  The announcement of the Queen route (which then served Kingston Road) gives an example:  double-track line so that frequent services could operate in both directions, and an extension of the “city” network out to Birchmount.

Expansion halted with the Great Depression, and World War II was an era of just keeping the wheels turning.  By this time, planning included a few rapid transit lines, but on a regional level was overwhelmingly car-oriented.  The 1943 plan included five superhighways, one of which would have paralleled Bloor Street, that would have carved the city into an unrecognizable network of roads.  The small transit component of this plan (red lines on slide 11) is dwarfed by plans for the highways.  By 1954, this network had been pared back a bit, but still included the Spadina, 400-south, Richview, Don Valley, Gardiner, and Scarborough expressways.

Page 4 (Slides 13-16):  By 1964, the expressway plans remained intact, and rapid transit included the Spadina subway and a Yonge extension to Sheppard.  The as-yet unopened Bloor-Danforth line would run from Warden to Islington.

The TTC recognized the limitations on suburban subway growth and, by 1969, proposed that expansion into lower-density areas be done using “intermediate capacity” transit with streetcar-like vehicles operating on private rights-of-way.  This is the mode we now refer to as “LRT” or “Light Rapid Transit”.  The TTC was actively working with Hawker-Siddeley (owners of what is now Bombardier’s Thunder Bay plant) on a new streetcar design.

The TTC’s plan included a route looping northeast from Warden Station to Malvern, then west along the Finch Hydro corridor, southwest through Rexdale, and then down to Islington Station.  A branch serving Malton Airport is included and a connection south to the terminus of the Spadina Subway.

It’s intriguing that this plan also shows a Queen Subway ending at Don Mills and Eglinton, an alignment we now call the “DRL” or “Downtown Relief Line”.  This is not exactly a new proposal.  The GO network includes the CPR line through northern Scarborough which still does not have service, and omits the Newmarket and Uxbridge lines.

In 1971, Queen’s Park cancelled the Spadina Expressway project and announced that growth would focus on transit.  However, rather then simply building using well-established technology, Ontario fell into the “not invented here” trap of developing its own new system based on the magnetic levitation plans of Krauss-Maffei.  The myth that there was a missing link between buses and subways required that LRT be totally ignored as an option, or worse, downplayed as old-fashioned despite its world-wide resurgence.

Page 5 (Slides 17-20):  My role in this history begins in 1972 with the Streetcars for Toronto Committee’s push to save the streetcar system and to advocate for LRT expansion into the suburbs.  Edmonton and Calgary began their LRT systems not long after, although Vancouver eventually opted for Skytrain (an automated version of the Scarborough RT) in part for local political reasons and prejudices.  This brings us to the recent era in Toronto where advocates of subways, LRT and other modes fight over the best approach to transit expansion.

LRT is, at its root, an upgraded streetcar, not a downgraded subway.  This is an important distinction.  The term LRT is misused often to market something that is really not very “light” at all.  The essential characteristic is that an LRT does not require an exclusive, segregated right-of-way.  If the answer to “can people walk across the tracks” is “no”, then it’s not LRT.  This is not to say LRT vehicles would not operate on fenced rights-of-way, but this is not an absolute requirement of the mode.  This requirement precludes automation and demands overhead power supply.

Page 6 (Slides 21-24):  Transit planners must guard against prejudging what is appropriate and recognize that an agenda for a specific mode will colour the plans for a network.  An important factor often omitted in technology evaluations is the effect of stations which have widely varying costs depending on their design, and which can be a significant presence in their neighbourhoods.  Pedestrian circulation is another important consideration, and this is often missed especially when looking at elevated structures.

Over the past 40 years, we have seen some failed technologies in Toronto including buses powered by Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) that were touted as a “green” replacement for the electric trolleybus network.  Hybrid diesel-electric buses now in operation have proven far more expensive and less reliable than hoped, and once Ottawa’s artificial stimulus to purchase such vehicles expired, the TTC lost interest in buying more.

Fantasy technologies are good for discussions over a few too many beers, but they can also chew up a lot of planning time with little to show in real-world implementation.  I included my own Swan Boat scheme (itself a parody of provincial love for making new technology work no matter what the problems).  We’ve heard a lot recently about gondolas, but these have very specific implementations usually related to difficult terrain, and the technology is not about to replace something like the Eglinton LRT.  Monorails are low-capacity operations combining all the problems of an elevated structure with capacity constraints imposed by a guideway that is also the running structure.  I threw in Bi-Planes as an upgrade to Swan Boats because, at least in the 1940s, everyone knew that cities of the future would be based on aviation.

Page 7 (Slides 25-28):  The illustrations show Swan Boats in Toronto (early 1900s) and Boston (Public Garden).  Also shown are launch and landing options for this technology with trebuchets (a technology that needs to be scaled up from rocks and livestock) and amusement park flumes.

The Seattle monorail is now old enough that it may be designated as “historic”.  It’s a remnant of a World’s Fair, and is only 1.9km long.  Two trains (one on each track) provide service.  The Schwebebahn in Wuppertal, Germany, is over a century old.  It is an elevated railway running with cars suspended from the rails rather than riding on them.  The Portland gondala links a university campus to the central city, but it does not provide a huge capacity.  Its two 78-passenger cars provide a theoretical capacity of 1,760 per hour (assuming full loads on every trip), but daily ridership is actually a bit under 4,000.

Network plans are often driven by the constraints of the preferred technology.  Subways require large spaces for station structures, and their alignments are limited by gradients and curves.  A network designed by someone who really wants a subway (although they may be forced to settle for something else) will never include components that block a subway implementation.  Conversely, an LRT network plan may exploit the lesser constraints of this mode and, in the process, bring the wrath of subway advocates who see the route choices as blocking their preferred option.  In Toronto, we have actually had a case where a planned, but unbuilt subway (the Yonge Spadina loop) was cited as a “justification” for not building LRT on Sheppard.

Advocates of elevated modes are now sensitive to the problems of neighbourhood intrusion, especially at stations.  They tend to draw networks on wide roads or Hydro corridors to minimize this problem.  It’s worth noting that much of Vancouver’s Skytrain uses available rights-of-way and does not run down the middle of city streets.

All this talk of technology may seem out of place in discussions of congestion, but it is the selection (or blackballing) of technologies that affects the “solutions” we may consider and the perceived cost of using transit to replace or supplement auto-based travel.

In Toronto of the 1970s, just at the point when support for transit expansion was growing, Ontario wasted the momentum on pursuit of technology, on the idea that Ontario could lead the world as a transit product developer, rather than concentrating on actually building a network.

Page 8 (Slides 29-32):  People forget that suburban Toronto (and the GTA beyond) is a very recent phenomenon.  In the same timeframe as the expressway debates and the debacle of maglev transit, the corner of Finch and Woodbine (now the DVP/404) and much of the Toronto area was still farmland.  What was built throughout the area was car-oriented much as the plans decades earlier foresaw, and the idea of “transit-oriented development” was a pipedream.

Page 9 (Slides 33-36):  Suburban transit including development of the Metrolinx “Big Move” plan focuses on trunk routes such as GO rail services and express bus lines, but forgets that people have to get to and from the stations to their homes, schools or offices.  This is the “last mile” problem which, until now, has been handled by GO simply by building more and more parking.  In some ways, GO is a bigger operator of parking lots than of transit services.

Metrolinx plans, and those of Queen’s Park’s transit funding, have ignored the need for local transit systems to grow substantially in response to more frequent GO service and to all-day, bidirectional riding.  Riders of these services will not drive to and from the stations, and the collection/distribution function must be provided by local routes.

Toronto’s plans under Mayor Miller attempted to shift transit away from a core area, peak period focus in two ways.  The Ridership Growth Strategy sought to improve transit everywhere quickly and at modest cost with loading standards to provide more attractive service, hours of service that ensured transit was available from 0600 to 0100 on almost all routes, and changes to the fare structure such as a transferrable pass.  For rapid transit, attention shifted from subways to a network of LRT lines.  All of this is under attack by the Ford administration.

Metrolinx and Queen’s Park form an odd pairing in transit planning and operations.  Although The Big Move was produced by “Metrolinx I” with a political board, “Metrolinx II” has a board with no politicians, meets mostly in secret, and cedes major announcements to the Premier’s Office.  Local input to Metrolinx is entirely at the staff level and out of public view.  The most difficult challenge will be funding The Big Move (or its successor TBM 2.0), and debates over new revenue sources such as gas or sales taxes and tolls kept as far out of public view as possible.

Page 10 (Slides 37-40):  At the political level, most representatives do not come from transit-oriented ridings.  They think like motorists because that’s what most of their constituents are.  Spending, when it does occur, targets individual projects, not the transit network as whole.  Meanwhile, the rhetorical “war on the car” implies that transit must always come second.

Roads have many functions, and these differ in the older and newer parts of the city.  Some uses are obvious and legal, while others are merely tolerated (deliveries, for example).  Four lane streets in the old city are and will remain 66-feet (four rods or one surveyor’s chain) wide, and half of the road capacity will be consumed much of the time by parking and loading.  Suburban arterials are much wider and parking is often handled in off-street lots, not curb lanes, leaving room for six or more functioning road lanes and more at intersections.

Buildings downtown face onto sidewalks and are accessed from the front.  Buildings in the suburbs face onto parking lots turn their backs to the street.

This situation is great for cars, but not so wonderful for pedestrians who also happen to be transit riders.

The question “Can we eliminate congestion” must be answered with a resounding “no” for two reasons.  First, it’s a loser’s game that will always see new road capacity added at a rate far below the growth in overall demand.  We cannot expand all of the roads all of the time and are reduced to dealing with the worst of the problems.  Even that presumes we have the land available to relieve pressures, and some of the worst exist precisely because there is no more room for expansion.

Second, the real issue is mobility, the ability of people to get around.  We should not try to justify new rapid transit on the grounds that somehow, magically, our highways will suddenly be a free-flowing motorist’s paradise.  We built transit to move people, and if this benefits road users, so much the better, but that should not be our primary goal.  Even “The Big Move” acknowledges that congestion will, at best, be no worse after $50-billion worth of new transit.

Transit must be justified for its own sake with the recognition that the new demand caused by a growing population and increasing cost of car ownership requires much more transit than we have today.  Improvements must occur often enough that people can see what is happening, can see the benefit of the investment of new taxes they pay to support transit.

Essential to all of this is sustained political advocacy spanning provincial and municipal elections.

26 thoughts on “Moving People: Responses to Congestion (Updated)

  1. Is the event sold out? The RSVP page says to email the Cities Centre to get on a waiting list.

    Steve: It appears that Eric and I are very popular!


  2. It’s been sold out for a number of days now. I only found out about it since UofT emailed me about a different talk and had a note about yours at the bottom. I’m excited to see you speak irl!


  3. Such a narrow view your presentation has. Swans can waddle on surface routes, so they can pull wheeled or sledded conveyances.

    Oh, and it should also be noted that wheeled gondolas may have trouble with the tight radii in Toronto (but, without wheels, I admit that a gondola could turn in its own length; in the western gap, for example).

    Steve: A wheeled gondola! Multimodal transport! Rather like a trolley bus that can run off-wire.


  4. One other concern regarding swanboat transit is Swan-Fuel and good nesting garages or bird-barns. We must provide gourmet food and comfortable accommodations for our feathered friends to guarantee their reliability and happiness!


  5. Granted, keeping workers happy is a good thing, but times are tough. Shouldn’t someone first perform a pilot study to determine if, and at what level, gourmet food provides a better ROI?


  6. One potential revenue stream would be swan guano – they do create quite a bit. It could be sold, with neat little station monikers on the bags, so you can show your loyalty on the way home. Spacing could have great articles about which station creates the best stuff; while HGTV could do a special on which one to use for which types of plants.

    Actually, we could see revenue streams galore here…..


  7. My concern is the repeal of the gun registry. Wouldn’t the swans be in danger from gun toting hunters who might mistake the swans for a goose?

    Steve: The swan boats will be equipped with countermeasures, although other fast-moving vehicles thought to be a threat may come under fire. “The War on the Car” will take on a new meaning.


  8. Steve said: A wheeled gondola! Multimodal transport!

    Well, there is the “Hippo-Bus” – does that count? They even have names – Happy, Harry and Henrietta.


  9. Hi Steve

    In view of recent events, can Swan Boat services be guaranteed if they are either interviewed by Mary Walsh or if she rides on them in regular service? If the answer is no, then what 911 calling services will be offered?


  10. I can’t resist…

    Luc Mallet said, “Rumour is that the Fords want to outsource the swans to the elephants. I hear they work for peanuts.”

    Just watch out for barking dogs, or any other kind of Barker! 😉


  11. To relieve congestion try the following:

    A real handy home remedy for chest congestion is a simple Hot Toddy recipe. A good Hot Toddy will not only relieve that nasty cough, it will relax you and allow you to get that important rest.

    Squeeze the juice from 2 lemons and put into a saucepan (fresh lemons, not lemon juice from a bottle).
    Add ¼ cup of honey to saucepan, bring to a boil
    Set boiled honey and lemon aside and let cool for a few minutes.
    Add a generous shot of rum

    Avoid driving motor vehicles of all kinds after drinking this concoction.


  12. Not to derail this lovely, swannish discussion (or rather sink it, I suppose), but this event wasn’t recorded in any way, was it? The slides are a tremendous resource, but I’d love to see video or hear a recording.

    Steve: The Cities Centre will be posting a video of our presentation in due course. I will also add some notes here once the slides from Eric Miller’s presentation are up because there are some points to be made from his material as well as my own.


  13. OgtheDim,

    In the interest of efficiency, ink-saving and compactness of expression, I suggest that henceforth the byproducts of swan energy production be called “suano” – or, if you will, “swano”.


  14. Steve,

    Given that the Swan Boats idea has been discussed in so many posts, in so many different ways, may I suggest that you write a children’s book or cartoon book series about Swan Boats?

    I would buy it. I can already see the variety of adventures that the Swan Boats could take, the various swan boat characters (like the Stealth Swans – Black Swans from Australia), even the spin-off products (like Swano/Suano – a toy? a snack? breakfast cereal?).

    Cheers, Moaz


  15. Moaz Yusuf Ahmad suggested writing a children’s book or cartoon book series about Swan Boats.

    Every children’s story must have an evil villain, and there are so many to choose from! Perhaps a “league of villains” that must be defeated by the swans and their fans! 😉

    Steve: It’s called “Swan Lake”, and it’s a ballet. The evil Von Rothbart makes a guest appearance in “Swans on the Don” already.


  16. How about a smartphone/tablet video game? Angry Swanboats. You fire swanboats of various colours at the rickety structures built by the evil politicians in an attempt to “clear” them out of the level.

    Steve: Enough already! I am working on an article about provincial transit policy, and that will give you all something serious to chat about, probably by Wednesday midday.


  17. Interesting that the presentation claims that elevated can only work in very low density and undeveloped areas, yet the previous slide shows two examples of monorails working in medium and high density environments.

    With that out of the way, I never knew the city showed off a highway plan in the 40s, notably well before the period before suburbanization and the expectation that owning a car would be as common as having indoor plumbing. If people felt the 60s plan would have gutted the inner city, this plan would have literally disemboweled Toronto!

    Steve: Where does the presentation say that elevated can only work in very low density and underdeveloped areas? The statement is in the context that els running down the middle of established streets will generate strong resistance from neighbourhoods. Proponents tend to avoid such locations if possible. Both the Seattle and Wuppertal systems have been around for awhile, and they predate the era of public consultation about such projects.

    Seattle’s opened in 1962 as part of a World’s Fair, and before the point where Seattle fought back a plan to build elevated expressways through its core. It’s worth noting that the Seattle system has limited capacity with one train on each of its two tracks, and it is only 1.9km long.

    Wuppertal’s line began construction in 1898.

    We know that there are els in Chicago and New York, for example, but they date from an era long before the public fought against such intrusions. The Skytrain in Vancouver tends to stay off of streets, except in industrial areas, crossing over them (often with a station structure much in the form of Midland Station on the RT) without blacking out everything below. Els in Boston (the Orange Line) were buried or relocated in a bid to remove the blight caused on streets under the structures.

    If you want to build an el and can actually convince people it’s a good thing, say, on Eglinton or Sheppard, go right ahead, but don’t expect people to like the idea. There was considerable opposition to the idea of an “RT” on Eglinton when this was first proposed 40 years ago, and stations designs (which require platforms, stairways and elevators in addition to the running tracks) were never revealed to the public for fear of hostile reactions. Imagine Eglinton and Yonge vanishing under a station and its platforms.


  18. On the other hand, Vancouver did manage to run the Canada Line elevated through Vancouver and Richmond in the centre and to the side of a major road. And they are planning to build the Evergreen line as an elevated line and extend the Millenium line west … again along a major road.

    But then, what might work in Vancouver might not work here.

    Cheers, Moaz

    Steve: At the south end of Cambie where the Canada line emerges from its tunnel (from Marine Drive south to the river), the elevated structure runs through an industrial area. Through Richmond, the line runs alongside an arterial road that is lined with parking lots and commercial uses. The closest thing I can think of to this in the context of the Eglinton line is the stretch around Victoria Park in the old “Golden Mile”. That elevated “fits in” to the street in Vancouver because there was already room on the side of the road to build it, and it is not exactly dominating the streetscape that would be filled with pedestrians trying to appreciate the architecture.

    The same cannot be said of extending the Millenium line along Broadway.


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