Through early 2013, Metrolinx conducted roundtables across the GTHA to sound out interested citizens on the transportation plan, “The Big Move”, and on possible ways that this might be funded. A summary report consolidating the input from each area makes interesting reading.
“Consistent, top-line themes” are identified right at the outset:
Participants across the region feel frustrated with the level of congestion they face on highways, roads and public transit. They feel the negative impact of gridlock on family life, work obligations and health. The inadequacy of existing public transit systems is a common concern for participants. GTHA participants agree that across the region – along its busiest routes – our roads, highways, subways, trains and buses are straining to meet demand.
The need for reliable and frequent service was heard consistently across the GTHA. Participants are looking for leadership among transit providers to collaborate and deliver improved levels of service that is better integrated across the region. Participants look forward to system improvements that will allow them to more easily coordinate their schedules, enjoy a wider range of transit options with less uncertainty and stress, and travel more efficiently and cost-effectively from A to B. [page 3]
A few points leap out here:
- “Public transit” is a generic problem, not a “GO” or “TTC” or “HSR” issue, and there is no call for a few “magic bullet” solutions.
- Frequency and reliability rank highly, and would-be riders want to see better co-ordination and service delivery.
- Efficient and cost-effective travel are important.
A subtle but important linking factor here is that delivering on these issues requires a network approach, and high quality operations are at least as important as building new infrastructure.
The 920 roundtable participants were generally supportive of new “revenue tools”, although to be fair this is a self-selected population. They have a strong interest in transit plans and were briefed on details of the options and experiences elsewhere in the world. If the same level of interest and information applied to a larger share of the population, we might see better polling numbers, but there is strong distrust even among participants that new money will go to new transit.
Congestion is a problem across the GTHA, and it affects people over wide areas and at many times of the day and week, not just traditional peak periods. The road network, once a relative ease to use, has filled and only small disturbances or constraints are needed to push it over the edge. What this bodes for future traffic from a growing population is not pretty.
Inadequate capacity or frequency on public transit systems is a common concern for participants across the GTHA. Some participants feel there is no motivation to get out of their cars and into transit, because it is overcrowded or underserviced. [page 10]
This is not just a downtown Toronto problem, but one affecting all of the GTHA. Wide gaps in off-peak service (if it exists at all) limit the trips people can take, and delays threaten reliability.
The question of local service comes up later in the report as an issue for mobility within parts of the region. Everyone isn’t trying to get to central Toronto, and travel within local municipalities is difficult or impossible for many.
Poorly co-ordinated schedules of various operators and the lack of service guarantees compound the problems of congestion. Some participants talked of avoiding local systems and driving directly to a GO station to avoid connection issues. Multiple fares also came in for criticism.
Across the GTHA, participants want a seamless transit system that enables people to travel easily, regardless of destination. [page 11]
Paying for the System
Participants supported GTHA-wide revenue tools (regardless of which were chosen), and some saw the potential for spending outside the GTHA of province-wide revenues. Benefits should also flow across the region, not just to commuter trips, to widen transit’s reach as a travel option.
Accountability is an important component. Any new funds must go “directly to construction and results”, and Metrolinx should “clearly define budgets and timelines” and “be accountable for those commitments”. [page 13]
Looking to the World
One observation was particularly striking:
Participants across the GTHA talked about their experiences in cities around the world with high-quality transportation systems. Communities in Europe and the US are touted for being modern, efficient and responsive. Many participants look forward to a transportation system that elicits a similar response from visitors to the GTHA. Some people expressed concern that the GTHA is trailing behind when it comes to transportation, particularly for tourists, seniors, students and businesses. [page 14]
This is a very different context from four decades ago when a transit plan could comprise a few subway lines and some commuter rail (most of which we didn’t build), and Toronto could claim to be a paragon among world transit systems. People travel. Over half of our population wasn’t born here and they know what other cities and countries are doing. Squabbling about small scale improvements and “watching out for the taxpayer” seem to be strangely absent in many world centres cited as examples Toronto should follow. As a Durham resident put it:
We need to think of transportation as a budget necessity, not a subsidy. [page 14]
Participants expressed reservations that political dynamics might impact long-term plans like The Big Move. They would like assurance that The Big Move is sustainable and has the staying power to surpass changing governments and funding priorities.
Across the GTHA, participants expressed a need for guarantees about the long-term viability of The Big Move. [page 19]
Over the comparatively short life of Metrolinx, we have already seen the role that politics, not to mention shifting economic climates, can do to large scale plans. What started as a bold move to show people what transit could achieve (the “first wave” of projects) now stretches out to 2021 simply to ensure that Queen’s Park can fit the spending into their constrained budgets. How this will fare under a new government does not bear contemplating.
The “Next Wave” is little more than a shopping list, and there is no sense from Metrolinx of project costs or staging, and how these will relate to the new revenue stream. Uncertainty makes for an easy political target when supporters can’t point to specifics, and critics can cite previous delays as counterexamples.
Many themes emerged from the regional meetings:
- The lack of integration between local transit systems, and with GO Transit, conflicting schedules and infrequent service work against people trying to get around their region.
- Links between systems should be seamless.
- Local service must be improved and it must expand with growing communities.
- Transit is important in keeping seniors active.
- Service to and from Toronto needs to be a bi-directional, all-day, 7-day operation to serve a wider variety of trip types.
- Frequency and reliability provide greater flexibility for riders to plan their schedules.
- Overcrowding makes transit unattractive and uncomfortable.
- Both quantity and quality of transit service need improvement to lure people out of their cars.
- Better transit can reduce dependence on auto travel.
- The lag between announcements and service should be reduced — improvements should be delivered faster.
- Improved capacity into the Toronto core is important both with additional rapid transit, and by improving the use of streets through parking restrictions.
What Lessons for Metrolinx and Queen’s Park?
A pervasive question for any Big Move advocate is whether this network will actually be built, when, and what, really, will it accomplish. Despite repeated invocation of the $16b worth of projects already underway, there’s not much to show in completed work.
The Big Gap between Metrolinx and many of the participants’ desires lies in the realm of local service. This is a subject which Metrolinx constantly and forcefully maintained was not part of its mandate ever since its inception. They were a regional planner, and local service was a municipal affair. That’s like saying we can plan 400-series highways without considering the local road network to which they will connect.
This position, of course, avoided the delicate problem of Queen’s Park resuming local transit funding, let alone priming the pump to encourage substantial service improvements. Local systems face continued funding and service cuts just at a time the whole region is talking about the need for more and better transit.
Belatedly, the “Investment Strategy” now includes 25% for a variety of local purposes with 15% going to local transit. This is a very late addition to the IS, and there is no supporting analysis to establish just how much spending (including local shares) would be required to provide that “last mile” part of regional travel, let alone improve journeys within the regions.
To put the number in context for Toronto, a $2b/yr stream would yield $300m for local transit of which Toronto would be lucky to see half, or $150m. This is less than half of the TTC’s operating subsidy for 2013. A further wrinkle is that the funding really shouldn’t just be used to offset an existing municipal expense because that will bring no improvement on the street. Moreover, it’s unclear whether the new $150m would be offset by an end to the existing $150m Toronto gets from provincial gas tax. Shell games like this are common in budgets, and Queen’s Park needs to be clear on its intentions.
Outside Toronto, the challenge of improving transit is greater because the 905 regions are starting from a lower established service level and market share. Getting to a “good” level of transit serving all-day travel will take a big jump in funding.
“Integration” is a term we heard a lot over past years, but in practice much of the effect was to justify the Presto card project. All that brings is a common payment mechanism, not a common, integrated fare nor a reduction in cross-border tariffs. As for integrated service, problems remain between local providers and with GO, especially in GO’s avoidance of integration within the 416.
Nowhere in The Big Move have we seen an attempt to address the needs for local travel and the cost of implementing complementary services to the Big Move network. For too long, the Metrolinx/GO mindset has been to run trains and let the local trips take care of themselves, especially in Toronto where a mature system sits on their doorstep.
This is not an acceptable “regional plan”, and Metrolinx should hasten to bring the supposed benefits of the new funding schemes into line with the type of improvements people identify as their needs. This will take a change in focus from capital construction to operations and service, not just for Metrolinx routes, but throughout the GTHA.
Will Metrolinx address this challenge, or will they simply announce a preferred list of new taxes and fees, and leave the rest to Queen’s Park?