Two months ago, I wrote about the Regional Transportation Plan that Metrolinx had put out for public comment, and that period for online feedback has now closed. In the interim, I had hoped to see more details in the new plan, more analysis that could inform debate and feedback, but very little has appeared on the website where one might expect to see a wealth of background. Instead, there are three studies:
The last of these drew my attention first both because of its size and because this would be the place one would expect to learn how the draft network came to be, and what the benefits are expected from its components. Alas, that information is not just missing, it is not even hinted at as if it might exist in some deeper background study. Metrolinx provides a very general overview of the anticipated effect of their network, but little sense of the relative value of its components.
The purpose of the regional network study is quite clear:
This will serve as one of several technical background reports that will provide a foundation for the RTP Update.
The purpose of this Phase 1 report is to describe the preliminary recommendations for a 2041 strategic transit network for the RTP Update. This includes the identification, analysis and evaluation of potential transit projects and the development of a regional transit network to effectively meet existing and future transit needs across the region. Together, these activities comprise Phase 1 of the Regional Transit Network Planning Study.
Phase 2 of the study will support the RTP implementation plan, and will include the preparation of refined alternatives, specific recommendations, potential roles for various service providers, and a preliminary phasing strategy for the proposed strategic transit network. [p. 1]
In other words, don’t look for specifics here because they’re still working on the details.
Only one paragraph later comes a vital comment under the heading of “Regionally Significant Transit”:
While the provision of effective transit is dependent upon a fully integrated system with local transit supporting regional routes, this study focuses on transit projects
that are considered regionally significant. The resulting regional network is intended to link seamlessly with municipal transit services that are planned and operated
by GTHA municipalities. [p. 2]
Local municipally-provided services are an integral part of any network, but they are assumed to “be there” and are not the focus of this study. However, the funding and expansion of local transit is essential to the “last mile” problem where most regional network users access it via park-and-ride lots, a mode that is not sustainable for an expanded system. This is particularly important for trips that are not anchored at one end by a major destination node, or very good local transit. There is no point in making a trip through a “regional” station if there is no “local” service to complete the journey.
The plan was developed first from a “long list” of transit proposals, effectively any scheme that anyone might have thought of in recent years with much coming from various municipal plans. That list was filtered down to a shorter version that led to the proposed network which actually contains two components as described in the report. (The process is reminiscent of the first Big Move plan that was almost entirely a compendium of then-existing work by the regional municipalities and GO.)
The Frequent Rapid Transit Network – a high-frequency network of rapid transit services providing effective coverage throughout the region, serving the highest density areas and major centres, and enhancing overall regional mobility.
The Regional Express Transit Network – a high-speed network of services to serve long distance travel between GTHA municipalities utilizing regional rail corridors and the GTHA highway system. It provides coverage to and connects areas of the region not well served by the Frequent Rapid Transit Network, including less-populated areas. Regional Express Buses play a significant role in this network, enabling longer-distance travel across the GTHA for trips not destined to downtown Toronto, and connecting municipalities that are not served by the Regional Rail Network. [pp. 3-4]
This sounds nice in theory, but the proposals are undermined by three basic issues:
- “Frequent” in this context usually means a bus or train every 15 minutes. That is not a lot of capacity in a bus corridor. Although large scale park-and-ride may work for a train service with capacity measured in thousands/hour, significant park-and-ride throughout the bus network is impractical except at major nodes.
- Riders of rail corridors to downtown Toronto will tolerate a 15 minute wait because it is so much better than they have been used to, and the travel time saving is substantial. A regional bus network must serve many-to-many trip patterns and will depend on last-mile local services and connections enroute.
- Park-and-ride simply does not work as a “last mile” solution, and more generally, planners cannot assume that all transit riders are drivers.
A Hierarchy of Services
The study brings out a standard part of any transportation plan, the hierarchy of services. One size simply will not fit all problems, and a range of options is needed. These are summarized in a table:
I cannot help noting that this table still omits “Light Rapid Transit” from the Grade Separated category even though it could be built this way. Instead, we have “Automated Guideway Transit” (AGT), a stand-in for whatever piece of SRT-like technology Queen’s Park is pushing today. An important distinction for LRT and BRT is that there is a range of implementations to suit the circumstances, and a line need not be a uniform style from end to end. That is the constraint faced by technologies that demand complete segregation from traffic such as AGT, subways and frequent commuter rail services, and it is the tradeoff needed to provide frequent, high-capacity service. It is not a requirement across the entire region for every potential corridor, but conversely, segments of “lighter” technologies can operate with complete separation from traffic.
The table is recast in visual form:
A problem with these sort of distinctions is that some corridors do not fit easily into one category. On Eglinton Crosstown, for example, there will be a mixture of subway operation (with LRT trains) and at grade operation in reserved lanes with grade crossings at most intersections. A local bus can turn into BRT simply by moving to a purpose-built road such as the former link to York University in the Hydro corridor, or the new bus roadways in the 905. Conversely, GO train services, which have been designed with widely-spaced stations, are moving into rapid transit territory where GO will do double-duty as an inside-416 rapid transit service. The ability to shift from one category to another varies by technology with those requiring the most segregation being the least amenable to change.
[W]ithin the transit network hierarchy, routes have a primary purpose but may also serve other secondary roles and one route may serve two or more travel markets or operate with characteristics of different tiers. For instance, a bus route could begin in and circulate through a lower-density, residential neighborhood as a base transit service but then turn into a dedicated transit lane in a higher-density corridor as a BRT service. Similarly, a subway primarily serves medium-to-long distance trips, but also serves shorter-distance local trips for downtown residents. [p. 9]
A long-standing problem with Metrolinx’ world view is that they are a regional agency, and regional travel is their mandate. They do not operate local services and appear to have no interest in doing so. This showed up some years ago in an attempt to pervert the Eglinton Crosstown line, a route with a local purpose much like the Bloor-Danforth subway, into a “regional” service with infrequent stops. The result would have required the TTC to maintain considerable local bus service while the Crosstown served only medium-to-long distance travel that could conveniently link with the remaining stations.
The idea that the subway only provides local trips for downtowners is misleading, and implies that once one leaves downtown, “local” trips are less important. “Downtown” means different things depending on one’s point of view, and as Toronto’s density builds out, “downtown” will easily embrace much of the old City of Toronto and some points beyond. There are also local demands within the suburbs that are not well-served by a commuter-oriented network.
As of 2011, nearly all of the existing rapid transit services in the GTHA were within the City of Toronto, and the focus of the regional and rapid transit networks focussed on Downtown Toronto with its high density and limited parking. The more suburban, auto-oriented development in areas outside of the central parts of Toronto have not yet developed the densities or the major centres to support higher levels of transit service. The result is a lack of quality transit service for medium-distance trips, particularly in the municipalities outside of the City of Toronto, leading to low transit mode split and high traffic congestion in these fast-growing areas.
A stronger middle tier of transit services would allow transit to compete with the auto in this market, with a grid of frequent and travel-time-competitive transit services developed over time able to provide coverage in these municipalities. The middle-tier services would also connect with the regional and rapid transit and local bus tiers to form an integrated transit network, able to effectively serve downtown and non-downtown oriented travel throughout the region.
At present, the only option for transit for medium-distance trip lengths is usually local bus, and often with one or more transfers. The result is transit that is uncompetitive with car travel and leads to low transit mode share for trips within and between the municipalities in the GTHA outside of Toronto. [pp. 9-10]
The Distribution of Transit Trips by Mode
Trip length distributions show up in Metrolinx reports from time to time, although they can be misleading. It is self-evident that many trips involve more than one mode such as bus+subway or drive+GO+subway, but the chart below is based on the primary part of the trip. A few things are evident in this chart:
- Faster modes have longer trips. This is not surprising considering that time is a major factor in the decision to use transit. The faster one can travel, the more likely one will take a longer trip.
- There is a noticeable break between trips of 15km and less and those above this line where local modes (including rapid transit) fall off and regional modes kick in.
What is missing as a comparison is information on auto-based trips, and equally importantly, a subdivision of trip types by place of origin. Toronto accounts for the lion’s share of transit demand, and it is no surprise that modes used by the TTC have lots of riders and many short trips. This begs the question of how much the network structure affects the distribution of trip lengths by transit.
Future Growth in Travel Demand
There may have been growth in jobs and population outside of Toronto, but transit has not expanded to serve these potential riders at anywhere near the service levels found on the TTC. GO moves people to downtown on its growing network, but far fewer people between cities in the 905. Municipalities have many plans for new and improved services, primarily BRT, but these are aimed at years (or decades) to come. The long history of car-oriented development and travel will be difficult to overcome, and the region may already be beyond the point where transit can be much more than a niche in the transportation market.
The growth in demand predicted out to 2041 gives a sense of the scope of the problems facing planners. The table below has a lot of data, but the boxes worth noting lie along the diagonal from top left to bottom right. These boxes show the number of trips that are local to each area within the region in 2041 and the proportion by which they will rise from 2011.
Although Toronto will have 686k “internal trips” within its boundaries, the regional municipalities will have internal travel demand in six figures with, in some cases, more than double the current demand for such trips. Looked at another way, without even considering “regional” travel, there will be more trips internal to the various 905 municipalities than within the City of Toronto by 2041. To this must be added the very large number of inter-regional trips. Because the 905 covers far more territory than the 416, the trip density will be lower, but that is still a lot of travel to leave to the mercy of infrequent local transit which now has only a 5% share of the market.
What Does Success Look Like?
At this point, the analysis makes assumptions that are not entirely credible, but which will affect some of the measures of “success” by which any proposed network would be evaluated. The report looks at populations and jobs that are within 400m of a priority bus, BRT or LRT station, or within 800m of a subway or frequent regional rail service. (“Frequent” is defined as every 10 minutes or better.) With the current network, the numbers are 9% of the population and 21% of jobs, rising to 17% and 29% respectively if all projects now in progress are completed.
In other words, both today and in the future, a minority of both population and jobs will be close to a frequent rapid transit service (as defined here), and even worse, access for people will be considerably worse than for jobs. This underlines the “last mile” problem by showing how poorly the future transit network will serve people at the “home” end of their journey.
A further consideration is that “accessible” jobs are considered to lie up to 90 minutes away from “home”. When politicians talk about giving people more time away from commuting, I do not think they have a 90 minute one-way commute in mind. The reach of the transit network shown in the report exaggerates what most would-be riders would consider to be acceptable as a target, let alone an inducement to change from driving.
The analysis would be more meaningful if the relative size of “accessible” destinations were shown for various cutofff levels such as 30 or 60 minute trips, and if the benefit of interim network configurations were included to show the degree of change with subsets of the full plan, not a complete build-out that nobody believes we will ever see.
The “Regional Opportunities”
Of the twelve core strategies Metrolinx developed in their Needs & Opportunities report, six are examined in more detail by this study.
- Expand the frequent transit network.
- Improve first-mile and last-mile connections.
- Demand-responsive transit.
- Improving and extending regional transit services.
- Expanding express services.
- Transportation systems management. [pp. 21-22]
[In the study they are numbered 1 to 7, but 5 is missing.]
The need for a frequent network, as opposed to a few major corridors handling peak period, peak direction commuters, is an obvious need. However, the network proposed by Metrolinx is quite coarse and the “last mile” to access it will be, for some trips, quite considerable. Moreover, a “frequent” service of rail modes even at 10′ headways yields a much higher capacity route than with buses. Maps in the report do not distinguish between corridor capacities, but simply show “rapid” services of all flavours.
On the last mile problem, the report speaks of :
… emerging technologies including ridesharing, demand-responsive transit and, in the foreseeable future, autonomous vehicles … [p. 21]
but makes no mention of the role of local transit. There is no analysis of the upper bound at which the attempt to handle “last miles” with small vehicles (regardless of the technology) will prove impractical if only for congestion problems at stations and the difficulty riders would have in finding “their” vehicle.
What is troubling for a “transit” plan is the degree to which a reliance on some form of “automobile” be it personal or part of a fleet remains in the mix. Recent technology advances (some more fanciful than others) imply that this small form factor for a “transit” vehicle can actually work. The mechanics of ownership, operation, fares and the logistics of converting what are now private trips to quasi-public ones have yet to be worked out. In effect, we make the problem of the suburban built form and the difficulty of serving it with conventional transit vanish by assuming a complete change in how people move around. I may sound like a Luddite, but basing a plan on such a change is wishful thinking and avoids the need to plan for technology we have today rather than what we might have tomorrow.
Where Will Demand Be?
There is a large set of maps on pages 27-33 showing the evolution of travel demand from 2011 to 2041. These are somewhat misleading in that they are the product of a road model that assigns trips to the shortest path in the road network. This may not be the appropriate path for the transit network, but it does show where roads would be overtaxed absent a transit service. This is not the most meaningful way to look at travel, but that is what the Metrolinx consultants, IBI, have given us.
The trips are subdivided into those under 15km (short-to-medium) and over (long) echoing the pattern in the trip distribution chart above. I will not reproduce all of the charts here, but a few are worth highlighting.
The growth in trips under 15km is quite naturally concentrated in existing and developing centres. This is not all of the trips these centres will attract, but the map shows the degree to which the local residential populations will support the growth in jobs.
Conversely, the growth in long trips is considerably higher (more thick lines) and covers much of the developed area in the region. The problem is particularly acute in suburban nodes to the west and north of Toronto, and the map implies that the problem of people living far away from their jobs is not about to disappear. This leads to a focus on longer-haul transit journeys as a target to fight growth of demand on roads. It is worth noting that the routes to which trips are assigned are a function of the road network and the expressways as the shortest path trip between points.
It is ironic that there is no map of the transit demand, nor of the net demand on the road network after transit trips on a future GTHA network are removed.
The situation is particularly grim if one assumes all travel is by road given the capacity constraints of the network. Virtually every road in the region of any consequence would operate close to or above its capacity, something that is clearly not possible. As with previous maps, a “net demand” map showing the results of subtracting the transit demand would show the degree to which planned transit improvements would reduce, if at all, the capacity issues on the road network.
Density, Need and Worst-Case Transit Times
Much has been written about the need to integrate land use planning with transit networks, but the basic fact is that the GTHA has developed over the past century with little consideration for transit. The built form as we know it is a problem, and future attempts to direct higher density to transit corridors will take decades to substantially shift the pattern inherent in the base conditions. To put it another way, a few condos or an office tower at a suburban centre do little to offset the diffuse origin-destination matrix of existing development.
Density and transit go hand-in-hand even when the planning is more ad hoc than carefully directed:
However, density is not the only determinant of transit ridership. Toronto neighbourhoods, on average, tend to have higher transit mode shares than neighbourhoods in the GTHA municipalities outside of Toronto with similar densities. Toronto has elements of all the tiers of the transit hierarchy, which in some areas form an integrated network of services that make the overall transit system more attractive and competitive with the car. This combination of density, different transit service types, and interconnectedness is missing from many parts of the GTHA. [p. 34]
However, a larger problem today is that areas within Toronto are generally much more dense than in the 905, and their transit mode shares are correspondingly higher.
There are few data points above the “50” line above belonging to the 905 municipalities, and these have much lower shares than corresponding points within the 416. An important distinction is that one must look at the density and transit service levels at both the origin and destination of trips. Even with higher population density, if the jobs these people go to are scattered across the region, transit cannot compete. Within Toronto, there is a greater likelihood that both ends of a trip will be served, although this dwindles the further one gets from the core.
A very difficult question faces planners and politicians: is it even possible to “pull” the 905 (all of those blue triangles) into the territory of 416 (green circles), and how much change would be required to achieve this? Have we already passed the point of no return for parts of the 905, and what are the implications for its future?
The relationship between density and “deserved” transit service levels is set out in the following table:
Yes, you read that correctly – until one gets above 80, this table claims that you deserve only a bus every 30 minutes. This is simply not a service that will attract any rider who has an alternative, especially if transfers that could be missed enroute are factored into the mix. The problem with this cutoff shows up when one looks at anticipated densities.
Much of Toronto achieves 50+ with some notable gaps, but large parts of the 905 do not reach this level even after a quarter-century of growth.
The map of areas cresting the 80+ cutoff (where better transit service is warranted, according to the table) is even more telling. One might wonder how the TTC survives when so much of its service territory is lower than this target density.
Two maps offer a particularly chilling view of the problem. If one considers the upper bound where transit has a hope of competing with autos as being a 2:1 ratio of transit to auto travel time, the map of areas beyond this cutoff looks like this:
There is an even worse set of areas where the ration is greater than 3:
Several points should be noted here
- These maps show the effect of a “do little” approach in which only the transit improvements now in the works have been implemented.
- As previously noted, there are no maps showing how the situation will evolve with the addition or improvement of transit service (both local and regional, and of varying speeds and stopping patterns).
- If commuting times really were to grow to the point that transit could not compete, one must also ask what happens to auto-based trips and decisions about where one can reasonably have jobs and residences with the limitations of the transportation network.
A related issue is the question of whether transit should even try to compete for very long trips, or should spend more effort on attaining a greater share of the short-to-medium market. Even within Toronto, the most transit-supportive environment, there is a huge volume of trips that transit does not carry. To what extent does transit even try to tap this market?
Finally, there is the social issue of “areas of need”. These are low-income areas which are more transit dependent because they cannot afford to travel by auto. These areas, as they existed in the 2011 census, are shown in the map below. They are concentrated in, but not limited to, the City of Toronto, and we can reasonably expect that they will grow in the 905 over coming decades if only because they are forced out of the 416 by the high cost of housing.
This is a group for which the last mile problem is particularly acute, as is the question of fare levels and integration. If rapid transit services, including GO, are priced up as “premium” services, they cannot reasonably be counted as part of the network that is economically available to the poor any more than they might be able to sustain a three-car family. This is a fundamental hole in the network analysis in general – the fact that all services are considered to be equal from the point of view of network access without regard to the cost they might place on would-be travellers.
Evaluating the Options
The maps for this section are extremely messy and contribute little to an evaluation [see pp. 47-50]. If anything, they show that there are areas of demand and corridors of travel all over the GTHA, although the latter are somewhat constrained by existing infrastructure and rights-of-way.
A long list of potential projects [pp. 51-61] is evaluated against several criteria:
- Regional significance
- Corridor needs
- Serves areas with high demand
- Improves reliability
- Provides network connectivity
- Area needs
- Serves major and secondary centres
- Serves areas with high density
- Serves areas of social need
- Reduces transit:auto travel time ratio
Notable by its absence is “political sensitivity and support”, a hidden but hard-to-ignore factor in any evaluation.
The “scores” are shown as check marks, not as values within each bullet, and the “in or out” decision results four possible outcomes:
- In development: Projects that are “in development” have entered some level of design work but are not yet necessarily funded for construction. Examples include the Richmond Hill Subway, the Relief Line east to Sheppard and the Eglinton East LRT.
- Include: Recommended for inclusion in the plan.
- Consider beyond 2041: These projects are a mixed bag of rail, bus and LRT/streetcar, but it is notable that the absence of a “tick mark” for “Regional significance” dooms a proposal to this category. If they are built sooner, it will be thanks to local funding and pressure, not Metrolinx.
- Further study: These projects are borderline cases that might be shifted to a higher or lower status depending on future review. They include the BD subway western extension to Sherway, the Relief Line West, and a few of the highway-based express bus proposals.
I leave it to readers to peruse the full set of projects and the rationale for their inclusion or exclusion.
The Network Proposals
The analysis leading to this point is notable for the absence of demand projections, cost estimates or any sense of intermediate stages the network might take during a build-out reaching over two decades in the future. There is no sense of “bang for the buck” or of situations where some projects are essential to avoiding collapse of the existing network, or to enable expansion of other components.
Now that Metrolinx is committed to producing a paper addressing these points and the general problem of how we get “from here to there” by February 2018, some of the missing details might begin to appear. Meanwhile, we have a set of maps of the end state assuming all recommended lines are built or upgraded.
The first of these shows the “Frequent Rapid Transit Network” where service would be every 15 minutes or better. What is quite striking about this map (and the detailed maps to follow) is how far apart the lines on the grid are, and the fact that this is mainly a grid, not a radial system. That implies both the need for transfers between services, and good last mile access from home/work to these routes.
The subset map for Toronto and immediate area below includes a few anomalies such as the priority buses (yellow) on St. Clair and King streets. The Sheppard West subway from Downsview to Yonge (aka the “Pasternak Relief Line” after its long-time council promoter) is included although how it would interoperate with the existing subway, or why it is included when the Sheppard East LRT remains on the books is a mystery. It is claimed that this would “… better distribute ridership on the subway network with connections to the University-Spadina Line … [p. 72]” even though the Relief Line East might do a better job in that regard for riders who now come to the Yonge line at Sheppard-Yonge Station.
New lines to the east of Toronto are shown below:
And to the north:
And to the west including Hamilton:
Finally, a map of the Regional Rail and Express Bus network which overlays all of this:
A Few Concluding Words
All of this has the feeling of those all-too-common fantasy maps that regularly appear with everyone’s favourite routes. The absence of detailed evaluation and prioritization of individual routes, or of bundles that would make sense delivered together, is a major failing in this study. It is easy to draw an end state map, but much harder to determine how we would get “from here to there”.
Demand projections obviously depend on what is built and when, but such projections are also vital for the existing network to show how it will be stressed or relieved as components are added.
Sticker shock is certain to greet cost estimates for all of this, and of course there will be not just construction but also future operating and maintenance bills to deal with. If Ontario runs true to form, they will attempt to download as much of the operating cost onto local municipalities as they can, and that will definitely affect the plan’s reception throughout the region.
The delicate matter of fare integration and structure is not addressed in this analysis, and yet from other studies we know that demand projections are very sensitive to cost. There is a separate Metrolinx Business Case dealing with Fare Integration, and I will review it in a coming article.
The hardest part of transit planning at the political level is saying “no”. Even with all of this analysis, it is doubtful that all of the network will be built, and the detailed review of priorities will show which of the “included” projects really will fall off of the map.
The biggest missing link in the entire process is the question of local service improvements not just for “last mile” trips to the regional network, but for the huge increase in travel within what we now think of as car-oriented suburbs. The road system cannot handle the projected growth and is badly crowded today, but there is little sign that transit will see major improvements for suburb-to-suburb travel.
Little wonder that transit’s share of the travel market is projected to decline, not grow, outside of Toronto in the decades to come.
Toronto Star: Why a $45 billion transportation plan fails to increase transit ridership, By Pamela Blais & Marcy Burchfield
The Pembina Foundation: Draft Regional Transportation Plan Comments: Pembina Institute’s submission to Metrolinx