The Metrolinx Board considered its Draft Regional Transportation Plan for the GTHA on September 14, 2017 and approved its release for comment, subject to some last-minute editorial changes. This is an update of the original “Big Move” plan, and it takes the view of transportation needs and networks out to 2041.
The context for this is summarized in a covering report from Leslie Woo, Chief Planning Officer for Metrolinx:
By 2041, over 10 million people will live in the region. We need to plan for a future characterized not only by continued population and employment growth, but also by changing demographics (including an aging population), the changing nature of work, new transportation technologies and services, and the impacts of climate change. In short, we cannot stop. Our plan for moving forward – the Draft 2041 Regional Transportation Plan – calls for governments to move beyond The Big Move to put people’s needs at the core of planning and operations. This means:
- Completing delivery of current regional transit projects;
- Connecting more of the region with frequent rapid transit;
- Optimizing the transportation system to make the best possible use of existing and future transit and transportation assets;
- Integrating land use and transportation, and
- Preparing for an uncertain future.
As the transportation network in the GTHA becomes more extensive and complex, travellers’ expectations will rise and transit infrastructure alone will not be sufficient to meet the needs of a growing region. Transit providers need to broaden the focus to address not just the quantity, but the quality of transit service for travellers. That means making transit more accessible, frequent, reliable, comfortable and convenient. [p 3]
This is a fine, rousing opening statement, but I must say at the outset that for all its many components, the plan falls short in a key element: shifting more travel to public transit. That is not to say that over $40 billion worth of planned investment is without value, but at the end of the next quarter century, transit’s share of the travel market will not have budged much from current levels. Autos with their associated planning focus will remain the dominant mode, especially as one moves further out from major centres such as downtown Toronto.
Just as with the original Big Move, we are running very hard just to stay in the same place. This is a dangerous situation on two counts. First, the political constituency for transit depends on its being valued by a wide cross-section of GTHA citizens. People who don’t use transit regard spending on new construction or operations as something for “them”. They wonder when there will be more roads for “us”. Second, if much of the travel is still not on the transit network, this means that transit has failed to attract its audience. This could be either because one can’t get from “here” to “there”, or because doing so by transit is simply not an acceptable way to make the journey.
There is also a fundamental political and economic problem. Getting agreement that we need better transit, and just what that entails, is hard enough, but governments change, the economy waxes and wanes, and all it takes is one bozo politician with enough clout to bring the whole process to a stop.
This is not simply a case of a streetcar hating mayor, but could be the effect of a “tax fighting” premier who sees his role as making things better for motorists and to hell with transit. Not to mention politicians at all levels playing the electorate for votes by cherry picking transit plans, not by building a network and embracing the need for frequent service beyond their ward or riding. Seeing a proposed new 25-year plan in today’s climate is a real stretch. Should we laugh or cry?
The Evolution of Travel Patterns
Four maps show how travel patterns in the GTHA have changed over the decades, and where Metrolinx expects they will go in the future. [Click to view as a slideshow.]
In the 1970s, when GO Transit was a small-scale operation on the Lake Shore corridor, the focus of commuting was downtown Toronto with smaller nodes at Toronto International Airport (the name “Pearson” would come in the 1980s) and at Hamilton. Much of what we now call the GTHA was still farmland. By the new millenium, many jobs, but equally importantly many homes, were to be found in the outer part of Toronto and the regions beyond. This produced travel demands not just for commuting, but for all types of travel in areas poorly served by transit. Even within Toronto, the network design focused on moving riders to the subway and thence to the core area for work and school trips. Over the past two decades, suburban commuting demands have become more complex as more and more jobs spread over the area, and the many-to-many travel pattern is almost exclusively served by autos.
The charts above would be more informative if the thickness of the arrows were proportional to the volume of travel, and if separate maps broke down this information by transit and auto modes. This would show the degree to which the planned transit network does or does not actually address growth in demand across the region.
The “Future” map is, to me, more a case of wishful thinking than probability. It shows a simplified travel pattern concentrated on major nodes, but if the past decades have taught us anything, it is that the idea planners and politicians will dictate where development occurs is utter folly. Development goes where the money is despite the political rhetoric claiming that designated subcentres will be the happening places. It would be nice to think that building a base network to serve those future nodes will solve all problems but life isn’t that simple. One need only look at the centres within Toronto to see the utter failure of this approach. Those “centres” are monuments to a long-past political structure and to geographic accidents of land assemblies by developers. (One might say that Yorkdale is the real “centre” of North York, despite Mel Lastman’s attempt to build one on Yonge Street.)
A related problem is that the transportation network will continue to be dominated by its origins as a downtown-centric system. Moving hundreds of thousands of people to a small part of the GTHA is easy work compared to linking homes and jobs across the huge region. Moreover, there is no guarantee that populations will conveniently shift themselves in alignment with the new corridors. This is a classic problem of “transit oriented development” – we always build transit long after auto-based travel patterns are established. New development may spring up on a proposed corridor, but that corridor must compete with a backlog of transit needs.
The heart of the problem facing Metrolinx (and all of us) lies in directing land use and the disconnect between plans and actual development over long time periods.
Over the next 25 years, the population of the GTHA is expected to grow to 10.1 million people and the number of jobs is expected to rise to 4.8 million. The population and employment growth as forecasted in the Growth Plan for the GGH is shown for GTHA municipalities [below]. While most of the growth in people and jobs will continue to occur in GTHA municipalities outside of Toronto, recent trends indicate that significantly more growth is expected to take place in Toronto than was forecasted, particularly in the downtown area. Suburban centres outside of Toronto, including designated Urban Growth Centres, may not see the concentration of growth envisioned in the provincial Growth Plan. Outside of Toronto detached and semi-detached homes are expected to continue to dominate the housing market. Nonetheless, higher density housing forms are becoming increasingly common in these areas, and a few significant urban centres outside of Toronto are starting to emerge.
Office employment, which is a major driver of transit use, is becoming increasingly concentrated in downtown Toronto and in a few large suburban employment centers (see Figure 7). Importantly, significant employment is also occurring outside the designated Urban Growth Centres and away from existing and planned rapid transit services. Suburban employment areas continue to be designed around the car, and are difficult to serve by transit and to navigate on foot or by bicycle.
The concentration of growth in downtown Toronto, particularly office employment, is expected to continue, furthering the need for increased transit capacity and access to the downtown core from across the region. However, most growth in the region is forecasted to take place outside of Toronto, and this will result in a significant increase in total trips within and between these municipalities. Travel in these fast growing travel markets outside of the city of Toronto has traditionally been dominated by the automobile, with transit making up only about 4% of trips in the morning peak period. Overall, 25% of population growth and 20% of growth in transit trips to 2041 is projected to be in areas of the GTHA where the current transit mode share is less than 5%. [pp 32-34]
Notwithstanding the higher than anticipated growth in Toronto, most population and employment growth is forecasted to be in newly-urbanized areas. While travel to downtown Toronto is expected to increase, travel between suburban regions will grow even faster. Historically, this travel market has been dominated by single-occupant automobile, so in the face of increasing growth it is critical to reduce the share of people driving alone in this market. If this is not achieved, the result will be higher costs for travellers and taxpayers, and significantly more congestion and emissions region wide. [p 43]
The GTHA’s population is expected to grow by 49 per cent by 2041, and with it, so will the travel demand. Within the City of Toronto, the increase will be about 25 per cent, but the jump will be much greater for trips between the “416” and “905”, and even greater for trips entirely outside of the City.
The charts above show just how badly suburban travel has been served by transit in that by 2011 there were already more peak trips outside of the City than all of the travel forecast within the City for 2041. Almost none of this is served by transit as shown by the tiny green (transit) sliver of the 2011 mode share for these trips.
Transit trips are expected to grow by 55 per cent in the GTHA overall. This is only slightly more than the growth in population. In absolute terms, the greatest growth in trips will occur within the City of Toronto with lesser contributions from 905/416 cross-border trips and an even smaller growth in the number of outside-416 trips. Transit travel times will be marginally better, notably for cross-border trips, but this depends on the full implementation of the 2041 plan.
In the charts below, the “2041 Minimum” option would only add a few lines to those already under construction.
The present and future networks are summarized in the maps below. These maps contain subtle choices in the display of information that are quite misleading.
On the first map, the term “In-Delivery” implies that all of the lines on the first map will actually be built in the near future, but the status of projects varies from about-to-open (the Vaughan subway extension) to unfunded-and-unloved (the Sheppard East LRT/BRT). The new freight bypass south of Brampton will be an important component of unlocking capacity in the rail passenger corridors, but its construction could be as far off as the Downtown Relief subway which is not even on this map.
The Draft Plan claims that all of these will be implemented by 2024:
Sixteen more transit projects are In Delivery and are currently being planned or are under construction. These projects vary in scale and include GO RER, five LRTs, three BRTs, a Transitway, four GO Transit extensions and two subway extensions. These are all targeted for completion by 2024. [p 26]
However, two projects in Scarborough are listed as “less than 10 years” from opening and that takes us to at least 2027 if not beyond. The Scarborough Subway is known to be at least a 2026 project, and the Sheppard East LRT does not even have funding and faces an uphill battle against those for whom only subways are good enough.
On the second map, projects “In Development” include the DRL on which $150 million has been allocated for design work, but actual construction will present severe sticker shock. The only reason the DRL gets any attention is that York Region’s dream of a Yonge Subway extension cannot be built unless the capacity problems further south are resolved.
The Eglinton East and West LRT extensions occupy a dubious status with the former unfunded (thanks to massive escalation in the Scarborough Subway project), and the latter potentially victim to a similar problem with cost overruns on the SmartTrack project (of which Eglinton West is part). The Waterfront lines are not even Metrolinx projects, and although they are under study, a chronic lack of funding has delayed actual construction here for years even with demand and development visible to anyone who looks. (The Waterfront LRTs will be the subject of a separate article following a public meeting on September 18, 2017 that will review the current thinking on design options.)
Metrolinx projects that the jobs will be more accessible across the region, but the maps are misleading.
The biggest problem with these maps is the use of a 60-minute screen in a region where the average commute, especially by auto, is considerably smaller. Moreover, there is no indication of the starting location for these trips, and the maps will be very different depending on whether one begins at Yonge and Eglinton, Malvern, Central Mississauga, Hamilton, Richmond Hill or Oshawa.
The chart tells a very different story. Between 2011 and 2041 the number of people in the GTHA will rise from 7.2 to 10.1 million. Although a larger proportion of them will be in “walking distance” to frequent transit, the percentage will be under 40 per cent. This is four times the proportion in 2011, a value so low it is no surprise that the dominant form of travel is auto, but a majority of the population remains beyond an easy reach of transit. The situation for jobs is slightly better, but still over half of the region’s jobs will be beyond frequent transit. There is a disconnect here in that job locations will be proportionately better served than home locations making access to transit for many workers challenging, and reinforcing the notion that transit is not a reasonable alternative for many.
Moreover, the maps and charts say nothing about income distribution and the degree to which lower income residents who are more transit dependent are forced to live in areas with poorer transit and longer commutes to jobs. This is mentioned in the text, but not underscored in the presentation.
Despite some improvement since the recession of 2008, poverty is an increasing concern in the GTHA. In the Toronto region, for example, the percentage of seniors living in poverty increased from 10.5% in 2011 to 12.1% in 2014. As of 2011, more than one-third of all households and 43% of renters spent more than 30% of their income on housing, a commonly-used marker of affordability. Low income households tend to depend more on transit, but are more likely to live in areas with poor access to frequent rapid transit. This can limit access to employment opportunities, health care, education, and other services. [p 36]
Street Design and Land Use
A pair of diagrams is intended to show what transit-oriented street design should look like. This is nothing new to anyone who thinks of what actually getting to a rapid transit station entails. In “old” cities, a dense grid of streets places a large area within “walking distance” of a node, whereas in “modern” suburbs, large areas can be cut off from transit through inward-facing development patterns that turn their back on main streets.
However, there is are fundamental problems with these pictures, well-intentioned though they are.
- A great deal of the GTHA, certainly those areas around probable rapid transit nodes, is already developed. The opportunity to retrofit an “urban” grid on these areas is limited.
- The diagrams do not show the effect of that plague visited by GO Transit on the region – parking lots that sterilize large tracts of land closest to stations.
- An 800 metre circle implies a substantial trip from home to transit, especially in poor weather. To put this in context, 800m from Yonge and Eglinton reaches from Avenue Road to Mt. Pleasant, and most of the way from Davisville to Blythwood. It is simply not credible that this constitutes transit access attractive enough to lure motorists out of their cars, especially with transit service only four times per hour. (By contrast, the Growth Plan uses only 500m circles for the zone of influence of a station, and even then does not rule out concentration of density close to the node to minimize average access time.)
A Frequent Rapid Transit Network
Metrolinx proposes an overlay of various service types to build up a Frequent Rapid Transit Network. Right at the bottom of these layers is the local transit network, an essential part of making the entire thing work. However, this is a rare acknowledgement in the overview presentation, and it gets little more in the full Draft Plan.
The proposed 2041 Frequent Rapid Transit Network covers a great deal of ground, but the lion’s share of this is “Priority Bus”. Just how much “priority” those buses will get, let alone how frequently they operate, is a matter of some conjecture. “Frequent” is defined as service every 10 to 15 minutes, and this is on a fairly widely spaced grid of routes. When people think of transit in areas where it has a substantial market share, they think of much more frequent service.
We are nearly a century removed from the TTC’s early goal of “always a streetcar in sight”, but to be a credible alternative transit must not involve long wait times. The grid nature of the FRTN and its dependence on local feeder/distributor services will inevitably impose one or more transfers in a typical trip, transfers that could occur on windswept roadways, not in the relative convenience of subway terminals and junctions.
Getting from the near future map to 2041 will take some effort, and there are major problems ahead:
- Little of this has committed funding, and the amounts involved are routinely portrayed in some political circles as waste, not as investments in the region’s future.
- There is little guarantee that all of the network will be built, and there is certain to be a long interim period where there are many “missing links”.
- The level of service on the incomplete network, and especially on the local transit layer, is likely to be poor, operated at a level to just handle the demand that shows up, not as a real encouragement for auto users to switch to transit.
- The priority for spending on the many components will be influenced by political considerations, and the order of construction may have more to do with ego and influence than with real need.
Absent in the overview and in the larger Draft Plan is any definition of just what each component of the network will achieve. Are the lines needed today, or for future demand? How much effect will various components have on the auto/transit market split? How much more would be needed to improve that split? How much local service will be needed to make each part of the regional plan viable?
The Draft Plan contains five strategies, each with its own set of goals.
1. Complete Delivery of Current Regional Projects
- Complete building GO, LRT, BRT and Subway projects that are in delivery
- Advance rapid transit projects that are in development
- Strengthen Union Station’s capacity for GO expansion beyond 2025
- Co-ordinate with the province’s High Speed Rail Plan
Exactly what “advancing” projects in development entails is hard to determine. They occupy a position in the maps above implying some degree of priority following works already underway, but “advancing” them will not bring service to our local stops any time soon, if ever. As for HSR, that scheme has the flavour of yet another provincial boondoggle written all over it unless the focus is on providing service the region actually needs rather than building and operating a prestigious toy train. The memory of UPX and claims made for that service should warn of what can happen when politicians meet signature projects.
2. Connect More of the Region with Frequent Rapid Transit
- Implement a comprehensive frequent rapid transit network
- Develop complementary bus services (such as a regional 24 hour bus network)
- Improve access to airports by transit
This is an odd set of goals in that a 24 hour network requires an underlying set of connecting services at least as much as the daytime network to make it accessible. As for airports, they are nodes to be sure, but there is much more to the region than airports.
3. Optimize Our Transportation System
- Advance integration of fares and services
- Expand first and last mile choices
- Set consistent quality standards for the traveller experience
- Develop and implement mobility as a service strategy
- Plan and design for universal access
- Incorporate Vision Zero framework into regional transportation planning
- Make transportation demand management a priority
- Expand the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) network
- Integrate road and transit planning and operations
- Define and support a regional goods movement network
That is quite a shopping list and it has least two clear subsets, one of which is very road oriented. It is amusing to see transportation demand management here because this has been talked of for years. The problem, of course, is that travel demand grows faster than anyone’s attempt to “manage” it, and it is unclear just how this would be achieved beyond the basic aspect of throttling capacity.
Goods movement has been talked about since the dawn of Metrolinx, but almost nothing has been achieved, in part because the infrastructure involved is really not part of Metrolinx’ mandate. A fundamental conflict that the Ministry of Transportation must address is this: who are roads for? Are they for the ever-growing commuter demand, or are they to move goods? How much of the local street systems throughout the GTHA can be given over to freight as opposed, broadly speaking, to passengers? Is economic growth constrained by the capacity of the road network and the many-to-many demand patterns of freight movement, and what if anything can relieve this?
First and last mile choices are important, and they involve many modes: walking, cycling, auto parking, kiss-and-ride and local transit. As the network grows and stations proliferate, it is simply not practical to deliver everyone to and from the core network by car, let alone to store those cars all day long. Recently there has been talk of self-driving vehicles as a “solution” to this problem, but those vehicles (leaving aside technical issues) still require road space, and they have to be stored and maintained somewhere. Are they part of a future transit system, or something we leave to the “private sector” to finance with varying degrees of long-term commitment? Will there be road capacity for all of the trips to and from transit stations? How much of the access can be provided by conventional local transit service, and who will fund this service?
This chart implies a growth in parking spaces by about one third to 2031. Some of this construction is already underway, and there is no sign of Metrolinx shifting away from this tactic, notably in their designs for proposed new GO and SmartTrack stations. A vastly larger growth, twice the capacity of all existing parking in 2011, is foreseen for other modes of access. Metrolinx has yet to explain just how this would be achieved.
4. Integrate Land Use and Transportation
Much of this section draws on goals that have been heard commonly in planning circles going back to the dark ages well before the internet, a time when vast areas in the GTHA were farmland, or possibly aging industrial areas that might be repurposed. Although some new communities can be built in keeping with these principles, a great deal is already in place and as a proportion of the total area, development built to these goals will not move the averages very much.
Redevelopment of some areas around transit stations is possible, but this will be very ad hoc as large sites become available.
- Review legislative linkage between provincial and municipal planning framework
- Require transit supportive planning by municipalities for provincial funding
- Focus development on Mobility Hubs and major transit station areas, including joint development
- Evaluate incentives to support transit-oriented development
- Plan and design communities to promote shift in travel behaviour
- Complete a regional commuter cycling network
- Embed transportation demand management into land use planning
- Rethink the future of parking
- Encourage development of future generations of pedestrians and cyclists
5. Prepare For an Uncertain Future
This is an even more nebulous set of goals because they depend on technology changes that are still in play. I must return to the basic fact that the majority of regional travel will not be served by transit, and that the number of trips in this category will rise in coming decades. This is not a question of tagging an autonomous fleet onto the transit system for last-mile trips, but of well over half of all travel outside the City of Toronto. Moreover, autonomous vehicles will not do much to squeeze more capacity out of the road network.
- Develop regional framework for on demand and shared mobility
- Develop region-wide plan for autonomous mobility
- Address climate resiliency of the transportation system
- Prepare for a future with low-carbon mobility options
- Develop a regional transportation big data strategy
- Partner for innovation
Paying For Transit
Metrolinx flags the need for sustained funding, but with a noticeable omission.
The Province has made an unprecedented investment, more than $30 billion, in the region’s transit infrastructure. While this committed funding will cover the capital costs of building the 16 additional rapid transit projects that are targeted for completion by 2025, it does not include maintenance and replacement costs. Additional funding will be needed for new rapid transit projects after 2025, along with the complementary and supporting initiatives that are needed to optimize the transportation system, working collaboratively with other levels of government.
Financial resilience depends on having sufficient funding sources in place and having them tied directly to the RTP. Funding needs to address both capital and operating costs and include the costs of financing and asset management. It also needs to make provisions for maintaining infrastructure assets in a state of good repair. Sustainable and reliable funding is necessary to carry out planning that takes into account what is feasible and what is likely to occur year after year (i.e., to align planning with what can be reliably delivered). [p 47]
The question of funding the local transit network which is an essential underpinning to the rapid transit plan is only alluded to within “optimization” of the transportation system, and yet this will bring substantial costs that are now borne substantially by municipalities. Better local transit funding will be a hard sell in areas where the transit market share is projected to improve only slightly from minuscule.
In future articles I will turn to specific sections of the plan, but for now other issues and activities will draw my attention.
Responding to the Draft Plan is a challenge even for the merry band of transit advocates and critics, let alone for the wider population. Metrolinx wants to finalize this plan for its December 2017 Board meeting, and yet a considerable amount of background material has not yet been published. There is a strong sense that Metrolinx simply wants their map endorsed before the 2018 election, and will leave the details for another time.
The consultation plan is shown below.