The waning fortunes of the Ford regime and its defeat on planning for the eastern waterfront have emboldened many to focus on the resurrection of the Transit City LRT plan. Advocates despaired as the newly-minted Mayor Ford so unceremoniously and undemocratically cancelled the plan. We watched as Queen’s Park, terrified of a “Ford Nation” juggernaut decimating Liberal ranks in the 2011 election, caved in with a “Memorandum of Understanding” completely undoing the principles of their own “Big Move” transit scheme.
Now we’re in 2012, rumour has the Liberals wanting a return to the original plan, but fearing a unilateral move without a request from Toronto Council. Oddly enough, the absence of any Council approval for Ford’s actions, a requirement of the MOU, is never mentioned. The economics of the all-underground Eglinton “LRT” and the private sector Sheppard subway don’t look encouraging, and Queen’s Park faces widespread constraint in public sector spending. This is hardly the time to be blowing billions to gold plate projects, to cover them with “gravy” that would invite ridicule in other circumstances.
The left may engineer a vote at Council once the 2012 budget debates are out of the way seeking to resurrect Transit City as it was originally proposed and agreed to. CodeRedTO has formed with the intent of seeking a way, preferably through compromise, to a revised transportation plan that will keep the best of competing views of our future. They hope to copy the success of the waterfront’s CodeBlueTO.
Whether this will be possible given the bluster and intransigence shown by the Mayor whenever surface transit is mentioned remains to be seen. Unlike the Portlands fiasco, a scheme hatched and promoted by the Mayor’s brother Doug, the transportation file is firmly part of Rob Ford’s agenda. It was in his campaign platform, and the Mayor has often repeated his loathing for “streetcars” and his mantra that the war on the car is over.
Unlike Waterfront Toronto, transit agencies don’t have a string of projects to show off as a mark of their expertise.
The TTC still hasn’t lived down the St. Clair project even though many of its problems were not of the TTC’s making, and “St. Clair” is as much a conjuration of urban myth than today’s experience. Local transit is more a collection of horror stories, of fights between the system and its customers, rather than of day-to-day triumphs. Right at the top, the TTC is infected with the premise that transit is for somebody else, for the folks who can’t afford to drive, rather than an essential part of the region’s network for everyone.
Metrolinx does well as far as it goes, but has the comparatively easy job of serving a small, concentrated and select market. It’s easy to do well when you deliberately ignore millions of potential customers and see high farebox returns as a mark of success without seeing all those trips not taken (because service isn’t provided) as a cost to travellers and to the region.
However the politics works out, a vital challenge for advocates is to avoid an endless debate on thirty years worth of future transit plans, pitched battles between various transit schemes, technologies and alignments. Taxpayers who must fund whatever we build, and politicians who must get re-elected, need a focussed, clear objective.
The waterfront file was an easy fight in this regard: a widely-praised, detailed plan already exists that was demonstrably better than what was proposed. The rivalry between agencies (Waterfront Toronto vs Toronto Port Lands Corporation) and the desire to get quick sales to fund property tax breaks in Toronto exposed the shallow goals and cronyism of the Ford alternative. The situation with Transit City is much different.
What is a Transit City?
Transit City is not just a map with a few LRT lines. It is an attitude, a philosophy about what the city and the region could be: a city where people have the option to choose a “transit first” lifestyle. This is not anti car, but pro transit, ensuring that transit is an option everywhere and that transit gets the priority in space and funding. That may seem “anti car” in a context where the network has been designed to serve auto trips for as long as anyone can remember.
The presumption by motoring advocates that transit will never compete and that, by default, planning must concentrate on serving cars is quite understandable. One need only attempt to travel across the suburbs, or counterpeak from downtown, or especially beyond the 416 boundary to see how inadequate transit is as an alternative. This is a powerful incentive for motorists to dismiss claims that transit can be their mode of choice.
When transit does get attention, the inevitable request is for express services — commuter rail and subways. Everyone knows what these are and the type of service they are likely to find. If a scheme for alternatives like LRT is to succeed, advocates and transit professionals must convince their target audiences that the plan will work and is worth supporting. There is no room for a sense that we are “making do” with anything less than a subway network.
The term “Transit City” predates the LRT plan by two years. Back in 2004, the Commission asked TTC and City staff to report on how transit would support the then-new Official Plan, and specifically to develop an LRT network plan. The first response appeared at the January 2005 Commission meeting under the name Building a Transit City.
The objectives, quoted from the Official Plan, were:
Link land use and transportation planning policies to create an effective strategy for accommodating the City’s future trip growth in a way that reduces auto-dependency by making transit, cycling and walking more attractive alternatives.
“No one should be disadvantaged getting around Toronto if they don’t own a car”
The Official Plan has Council’s blessing, and unless there are moves afoot in the new plan to rescind this outlook, it remains the policy today. Those who decry the “war on the car” would do well to remember that this is City policy approved and never revoked by Council.
Map 4 from the Official Plan (included in the staff presentation) shows a network of “higher order transit corridors for both the GO and TTC networks. The TTC proposals are quite different from what we would eventually see in “Transit City” and they include a mix of subway, LRT and BRT on Finch (hydro corridor), Sheppard, Eglinton, Kingston Road and the Waterfront. The Spadina and Yonge subway extensions are also shown along with an extension of the SRT taking it north across the 401.
Equally important is Map 5 showing a network of surface priority corridors for bus and streetcar operations. A more dense version of this would appear in August 2009 in the Transit City Bus Plan.
The TTC’s priorities for subway expansion were little more than a rehash of plans from the early 1990s, and they reflected the constraints of planning for an expensive mode. Only the Spadina extension to Steeles and the Sheppard extension to the STC were shown as “TTC Priorities”.
In a review of travellers’ reasons for not taking transit, service related problems such as speed and reliability ranked top by a wide margin while the cost of fares ranked right at the bottom. Service issues were of particular concern for those who travelled by transit only.
Many of the proposals in “Building a Transit City” were for improvements to the bus network through provision of exclusive access and signal priority. An LRT network was not proposed at this time, although one can see the beginnings of what would become the Transit City map in 2007. The most important change by 2007 was that the LRT network started from a clean slate without the many vestiges of older plans that were still present in the 2005 report. Moreover, it addressed the design concern of putting transit where people actually were and wanted to travel, not just where there was an available off-street corridor (e.g. Finch hydro lands).
An underlying premise throughout the report is that transit be improved, and that this continue with visible results year to year to sustain support for further work. The same idea was a foundation of the provincial Move Ontario 2020 plan with initial investments to show people what could be achieved before asking for new taxes or other revenue tools. This too is an important part of a “Transit City” campaign — development of political support for spending on transit through demonstrable improvements.
The Scope of a New Plan
If Transit City is to be revived, it is vital that advocates not overreach by redoing planning work of the past decade and attempting to solve every transit problem with one proposal. Large scale planning is not really Council’s mandate anyhow, but rather lies with Metrolinx and Queen’s Park. Parallel to anything that might happen in Toronto itself, there is a separate battle to get the planning and funding in place for an entire region’s services, and to integrate them in a more meaningful way than simply using one fare card.
A few principles must be settled at the outset:
- Where will a Sheppard east line go — Scarborough Town Centre, Meadowvale, University of Toronto Scarborough Campus — and what technology will be used for the most expensive part, the crossing of the DVP?
- How does Malvern fit in and what is the future of service on the SRT beyond STC?
- Is a surface alignment for Eglinton east of Leaside and west of Black Creek (with some exceptions such as Don Mills and Weston) the preferred option?
- Can the Finch LRT be revived from Keele to Humber College as a short-term project to open with or soon after the Spadina subway extension?
- Can Waterfront transit be integrated with the plan so that a major development area isn’t left behind in our “transit city”?
Further out, many issues remain for debate including the Don Mills, Jane and Eglinton/Morningside LRT proposals, service to the Airport, the Downtown Relief Line, and the future role of GO Transit in serving inside-416 travel. These will not be solved in the next few months, and a debate on “Transit City” needs to focus on work already in the pipeline.
Transit City is More Than a Handful of LRT Lines
A fundamental premise of pre-Ford transit planning is that “just enough” isn’t acceptable across the entire network. We already know that people prefer subways because, relative to other modes, they are built and operated at a level of service generally exceeding demand except during peak periods. They are fast and truly “all day” services for which timetables or concerns about frequencies are unknown.
If the subway lines were subjected to the same service planning criteria as surface routes, off-peak service would suffer and some might even close early for the greater good of releasing money to provide service elsewhere. This doesn’t happen because the capital investment in subways is high, and running less than frequent service is seen as counter-productive. Imagine, for example, opening a new line to Vaughan but providing trains only every 10 minutes or so.
On the surface network, the standards are completely different and the concept of good, frequent service is under attack. Crowding standards will be relaxed in mid-February unless Council provides more TTC funding, and routes that cannot scare up 15 riders per vehicle hour are dropped with no regard to the network gaps this might create. Express buses are a nice idea, but unless they can be operated at no marginal cost, they are unlikely to show up on TTC routes.
Recently the concept of “Transit Oriented Development” resurfaced in a report prepared for Councillor Peter Milczyn, chair of Toronto’s Planning and Growth Management Committee. This report considers various options that could be incorporated in an updated Official Plan. Few of the ideas regarding transit are new. After all, the TOD concept has been around for decades. Sadly, it’s a concept that fails in Toronto on two important counts:
- Development occurs more or less where land has been assembled, not on a strategic basis to support the transit system. Most lands are privately held, and publicly financed imposed land assemblies are illegal in Ontario.
- Actual transit construction occurs so infrequently and on so small a scale that the idea of “orienting” development to it is meaningless. Where transit is built, the surrounding land use may not be compatible with intensification. Indeed, a forced change in land use following rapid transit construction could work against acceptance of a project.
Two views of a future “Transit City” compete with each other, and these mirror the debate over rapid transit technologies.
- Nodal development plans tend to produce clusters of towers separated by open spaces and to focus on a few widely-space rapid transit stations.
- Corridor development produces smaller buildings, but with redevelopment spread along a route whose stations/stops are close enough together that being right at at station is not essential to the attractiveness of a site.
Both of these will play a role in Toronto’s future, and we should not attempt to impose one view on all streets and sites. Moreover, the built form debate turns on more than transit access and includes walkability, availability of local services and a wide variety of concerns about building neighbourhoods that serve a wide range of people (the 8-to-80 premise).
Paying for Transit
An overwhelming challenge for any transit plan will be how we will pay for more and better transit, and how we will convince voters that new revenue sources (whatever they be called) are justified and worthwhile, not the work of fiscal devils and incompetents.
Political leadership and a credible plan are essential, and half measures, the muddling-through so common in our politics, will not do. At a time when government spending generally is under attack, when costs and expectations continue to rise, and the economy is, at best, wobbly, everyone needs to know what the options might be, what they will cost, what benefits they will bring (and when), and how they might be paid for in the short and long term.
The value of transit must be shown for its mobility, for its economic benefits, not just for the dollar value of construction projects or future development. We hear often about how poor transportation systems hobble the GTA, but inevitably return only to the spending side of debates on new transit lines, not on their benefits. Everyone understands that schools and hospitals have a value in delivering educated and healthy citizens, not just consuming tax dollars, but a comparable view is not extended to transit infrastructure and service.
Where to find the money is not a new discussion. Back on June 13, 2008, the Metrolinx Board saw a presentation on the Investment Strategy. Many public consultations have been organized or sponsored by Metrolinx since then, and they cover the same ground over and over. What would the support be for new funding schemes? Which are the least unattractive? Unfortunately, the audience for such discussions tends to the the “usual suspects”, and those who advocate new revenue tools are mainly preaching to the converted.
Meetings like this do not bring leadership for difficult debates and choices.
Many options are available to generate the billions needed to build, expand and operate the GTA’s transit networks including higher fuel taxes, road tolls, parking lot taxes, regional sales tax, vehicle registration fees, payroll taxes and development benefit or worth capture. Each has its advocates and detractors, and only a few offer revenue on the scale needed to fund plans such as the Metrolinx Big Move.
There is a philosophical problem here right at the heart of liberal/conservative debates about individual versus community benefits and costs. Do we tie revenue streams to specific user costs and benefits, or examine the larger societal level? For example, making motorists pay for everything ignores the wider benefits of transit and demonizes a major political group who feel they have no alternative way to travel.
We know Queen’s Park has no money in current revenue streams and has competing demands much bigger than the transportation and transit file. How will new transit revenue tools fit into larger scheme of public revenues and programs? Are new/increased taxes politically saleable? Should some potential revenue streams be reserved for other types of programs rather than going just to transit?
There is much hand-wringing over a long term decline in the quality of transportation, the cost of doing business, the attractiveness of region, but we don’t want to engage in discussion of how to pay for projects. Even worse, a cost effective transit plan is discarded for political expediency. This is leadership?
Where Should We Go From Here?
In the short term, advocacy should focus on getting existing, committed funding re-deployed to a more sensible network. This will include issues such as tradeoffs between a limited Sheppard subway extension to Victoria Park, the design and choice of LRT routes in eastern Scarborough, implementation of the Finch LRT and proper funding for the eastern Waterfront transit lines. These are matters for open, public information, not for backroom decisions at City Hall, Metrolinx or Queen’s Park.
Longer term issues should not be bundled into this debate even though many are important: the role of GO and its future frequent all day service including electrification, a Downtown Relief line (or lines) east and west of the core, regional planning for good, widespread service that is more than a fare card.
Selling new revenue tools will require that we make what we have and what we build short term a clear benefit, not a distant second choice. The momentum of Move Ontario and of Transit City must be recaptured.
The integrity and attractiveness of what we have now — service quality, facilities and vehicle maintenance — must be maintained and improved. Winning billions for a transit future is pointless if transit present is starved and forced into decline.