Measuring The Big Move

At it’s September Board meeting, Metrolinx received a report on a strategy for tracking the benefits of their regional plan, The Big Move.  At the time, this and other business was overtaken by their slavish support for Transportation Minister Murray’s alternative to the Scarborough Subway.  Now that the panel reviewing the Transit Investment Strategy has begun its public meetings and will soon report with recommendations on how we will all pay for The Big Move, a look at the measurement tools is in order.

Regular readers here will know that I deeply distrust “Key Performance Indicators” from my own days in public sector management.  They can be an exercise in so compressing information to a single-dimensional value that meaningful oversight is impossible.  Even worse, they may be constructed to validate what management is already doing in an uncritical way.  I have approached the new Big Move KPIs with the same skeptical outlook.

The Baseline Monitoring Report and its appendices are linked from the main Big Move page on the Metrolinx site (not to be confused with the Big Move’s own website).  By looking at the proposed KPIs, we can learn what Metrolinx considers to be a mark of “success” and, conversely, what they don’t bother to measure.

The Full Report gives an overview of the scheme and how it was developed, but the details of the KPIs are found in Appendix A: Monitoring Handbook.

The report notes that circumstances have changed since The Big Move was first published with shifting demographics, population growth, and economic effects that alter how people make choices (if options are available) about travel.  This provides a context for the current set of KPIs, although there is no discussion of how sensitive these might be to major shifts in the economic and transportation context.

The table below shows the questions Metrolinx seeks to answer and, broadly, the types of measurements they would use.  [Page 7]

BaselineKPIOverview

Having set out to define metrics, the Full Report then turns to the more general area of “progress” and poses these questions:

The Big Move sets out ten strategies with 92 Priority Actions and Supporting Policies to achieve its vision, goals, and objectives. Are we making progress towards each of the Priority Actions? Are we implementing the Supporting Policies? [Page 10]

What follows are many pages listing all of the projects in various stages of planning, execution and completion throughout the GTHA.  What is absent, however, is any quantification of the contribution each of these has made to achieving the overall goals (or will contribute when long-promised projects actually start providing service rather than photo-ops).  While all this has been going on, the progress, as measured by some of the KPIs, of actually improving transportation has been less than stellar.

A major challenge to any planner, operator or politician is that our environment is not static.  Every year, the regional population grows by about 100K, and much of that growth occurs in areas poorly served by transit.  Moreover, the travel demands from this growing population are many-to-many and do not lie conveniently along a handful of corridors where a few strategic upgrades could solve all of our problems.

If the population were static, we could talk about new lines providing real benefits.  However, when the population grows by 1-million in the decade needed to deliver major transit projects, any benefits are swamped in the losses to inaction in those parts of the region where no transit upgrades worth mentioning have occurred.

The past decade’s history is a classic cycle — a boom leading to grand announcements (including The Big Move itself), a bust in which the dreams are shattered and most plans go into limbo, and a tentative recovery where announcements of a bright future collide with “we’ve heard it all before”.  What did not stop was the population growth, and our collective timidity to invest in better transit has left the region ever more dependent, overall, on auto-based transportation.  This is not the work of evil, car-loving maniacs bent on environmental destruction; it is the simple choice of millions of people for whom the car is the only viable option.

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The Transit Investment Panel: The Transit We Need

The provincial Transit Investment Panel has published the second of three discussion papers in advance of public meetings slated to start next week.  The paper is entitled “The Transit We Need” and it addresses filtering criteria by which possible transit projects should be judged.

This paper is odd on a few counts.  First off, it covers similar territory to the first “Hard Truths” paper by talking about meaningful criteria for inclusion of projects in competition for funding.  Second, it does not include specific proposals for alternatives to The Big Move, even though such a proposal was mooted by the panel’s Vice Chair Paul Bedford at a recent public presentation at UofT and obliquely mentioned in a Globe and Mail commentary (only available online).

The idea of a regional relief line that would connect several of the existing and proposed Metrolinx projects in a single line linking municipalities from Mississauga to Markham via downtown Toronto is worthy of exploration. Indeed, Metrolinx is in the midst of studying regional relief strategies right now. This would not constitute a re-mapping of the Big Move, but rather a strategic modification to better accommodate current and anticipated growth.

There is a fascination recently with advocacy for anything that might remove the need to build the Downtown Relief Line (or Don Mills Subway, or whatever we might call it), and the “Big U”, as Bedford calls it, is politically attractive because it goes out into the 905.  There is even a possibility at some distant future date that counter-peak flow to job centres in the 905 would add to the value of such a line provided that there is any local transit service to act as a distributor.

This does not eliminate the need for more local capacity into the core area especially if fare structures leave 905 residents clamouring for a subway to give them a cheap, frequent ride into downtown and riders from the 416 be damned.

The panel proposes a number of filters by which new lines would be evaluated, but gives no indication of the relative priority of these filters, or any relationship between the capital (and future operating) cost of a line versus the effect it might have (or not have) under these criteria.  This is rather like someone saying that we will cut taxes through “elimination of waste” without bothering to define the term or explaining how to find it.

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