As someone whose blog on transit affairs approaches its fifteenth birthday, I am often asked “so what would you do”. Usually the context is limited – how to improve bus service, which technology should be used for what line, and of course the perennial request to “draw a map”.
All of these are valid up to a point, but a common problem I and anyone else attempting to plan for the GTHA run into headlong is the accumulation of fixed plans that cannot be changed. They are like boulders on the landscape left by retreating glaciers, and they are almost immovable. It does not matter that many of them are invisible — they exist only as promises and dreams, not as actual built and operating systems.
With something tangible, we can at least debate how things might be improved, how they might be better used as part of a regional network. With dreams, we are dealing with egos, often large political ones held tightly, like security blankets, to the chests of politicians who would otherwise be intellectually naked.
A recent article by the Toronto Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro traces the history of the Scarborough LRT and subway projects through many political twists and turns. This is required reading both as a refresher for long-time followers of the debate and as an essential primer for newcomers on how we got to this sorry point. A summary of the article also appears as a Twitter thread with branches off to other work, notably John Lorinc’ series for Spacing Magazine.
In 2006, I wrote about A Grand Plan, my then-answer to what our network should look like, and I revisited that in various articles over the years. Metrolinx did not yet exist, and the context was the pending creation a regional transit plan that would set the stage for transit expansion in coming decades. We are now in the last days of 2020. The co-ordinated, prioritized, considered plans of Metrolinx’ early days have been replaced by the interventions for political, not planning, reasons. The only questions that matter now are “where are the votes” closely, but more surreptitiously by “where do my friends own property”.
A selection of comments from these articles appears at the end of this post. It is disheartening to think how long we have all been debating these issues and how little has been achieved.
Late in 2004, TTC staff prepared a plan to argue what could be done to improve Toronto’s transit. The then head of planning, Mitch Stambler, bounced ideas off me asking what they might call this plan. I wrote:
“Better Late Than Never” would be a good description for some TTC services, not to mention for a plan that we could actually achieve rather than endlessly debating.
As I said when we chatted last week, it is important that we somehow emphasize that this is something we really can do, and can do in a reasonable timeframe at a cost we might be able to afford. Also, we have to tie this in with the idea that Toronto is growing through transit to support the OP [Official Plan].
As a sidebar, somewhere the plan has to acknowledge that the TTC is NOT the only game in town, and that some of the growth will be handled by other systems, notably GO Transit. What is vital is that we do not repeat the errors of “Network 2001” which planned for lots of growth but ignored the potential contribution of commuter rail. That’s where the so-called justifications came from for the Sheppard Subway and for the scheme to massively expand Bloor-Yonge station.
Somewhere, we have to say that we should not try to handle all of the regional demand on the subway, and that this approach will leave resources (and subway capacity) free to handle comparatively-speaking local demand.
The LRT (or whatever) study needs to acknowledge this context — that it is NOT trying to be a mega solution to all transportation problems of the 416 and 905, but that it is trying to address the growth of population on The Avenues, and more generally in a built form that is not suitable for a network of subway lines.
“Toronto, A Transit City” is generic and it shows the focus we want for overall growth using transit (be it on the Avenues or elsewhere). It’s also broad enough to embrace a larger scheme of studies … “Toronto: Building a Transit City” … which would probably come to be shortened in general parlance as the “Transit City” plan or something like that.Email to Mitch Stambler, December 29, 2004. Note that the Bloor-Yonge scheme mentioned here was much more heroic, complex and probably impossible to build than the recently-approved version that will add a new eastbound platform to Yonge Station.
That was 16 years ago.
The Short Version
I know perfectly well that some readers want a quick hit, a cut to the chase, and their eyes glaze over when they see that a long epistle awaits. Here are the high points:
- The Scarborough debate has been entirely about new capital projects and spending, but not about state of good repair and service quality which leads directly to operating subsidies. We need not just one pot of gold to address new builds, but two more to keep and improve the existing systems especially where transit is less competitive and many trips are poorly served.
- We need to decide what we should achieve with transit. Is it a fundamental investment in mobility for everyone and in the region’s economy, or is it a service for “them”, the people who cannot drive?
- Are transit promises just to buy votes, and are proposed new lines only to serve well-connected landowners, or is their intent to make lasting, valuable changes for the region?
- How much are we prepared to spend on transit building, operations and maintenance, and how will this fit with competing demands from other sectors such as health care?
- Transit should not exist as a mechanism to underwrite an industrial strategy or to develop new technologies, beneficial though they might become. Even “green” technology should not be viewed as inherently good without a commitment to carrying more people by transit and diverting trips from autos. We should not let spending on green transit detract from spending for more and better transit.
- There is much unmet need for transit in the region, and this should not be held hostage to redevelopment schemes as a pre-requisite to improving the network. People need to travel between many locations, and they should not have to wait for every point in between to sprout towers around new transit stations.
- Transit construction is often touted for job creation, but could all that work could be distributed among more, less expensive projects rather than one or two megaprojects? Just because we spend billions of dollars and create many short-term jobs in the process, we have not necessarily spent well.
- The 905/416 border is cited as an obstacle to “regional integration” when the problems it brings are largely questions of revenue allocation and jurisdiction for carrying passengers. These are not difficult problems by contrast to the very different service level found on routes in the 416 versus the 905. Much better funding of transit at the local level is needed to overcome this, especially with buses as the likely way that travel between areas outside of Toronto’s core will be handled for the foreseeable future.
- Getting around the region is an everywhere-to-everywhere problem, but much transit (even within Toronto itself) is focused on the core to the detriment of travel between outer parts of the city and region. If we are serious about transit as a regional entity, then the ability to travel across the region and between its many parts is as vital as expanding the existing core-oriented rapid transit network.
- Road space is shared to varying degrees between different groups of users – motorists, transit, freight, pedestrians, cyclists. The most difficult areas to change this balance are typically the most congested because space is at a premium. Improved transit priority is not achieved just by drawing lines on a map, but by detailed review of how streets work and how their use can be rebalanced. Access to transit is as important as service – if riders cannot easily access service, transit cannot serve its purpose.
- “Governance” is touted as a solution to problems, but it is really code for centralization of power and decision-making. The agency that might have at least provided central coordination, Metrolinx, is a direct tool of government policy with little accountability, cherry picking which services it delivers and leaving local transit systems to muddle through.
- The question must be asked: has the region already passed beyond a point where transit can become the choice of travel for many, if not most, journeys? Have we delayed or compromised transit improvements for so long that transit can never catch up as a competitive service? Stripped of all political posturing, what is really possible in our transit future? Without honest and transparent planning, we cannot answer any of these questions.
New Projects, State of Good Repair and Operations
The sad history of Scarborough’s transit focuses on the technology choice for what would become the SRT and of routing details for various schemes to add components to the network. Big dollars are involved, but they are only the tip of the iceberg.
Two other funding black holes pose grave threats not just to Scarborough, but to the entire concept of transit as an essential part of Toronto’s mobility.
First is the “state of good repair”. This phrase goes back to the David Gunn era at the TTC and the August 1995 Russell Hill subway crash that claimed three lives. That disaster shattered the TTC’s long-held belief in its own invincible place at the top of transit systems and opened a debate about the spending needed just to keep the system running safely.
The early 1990s were a time of deep recession, and yet the TTC steadfastly maintained that it could make do with diminished financial support by tightening its belt and finding “efficiencies” under the reign of Chief General Manager Al Leach. He left in early 1995 to enter provincial politics eventually in the Harris government. David Gunn succeeded Leach and inherited his legacy including deferred maintenance that led straight to Russell Hill.
Fixing the existing system so that it would not collapse became a fundamental part of TTC planning, but you would never know this from the political fixation on announcing new lines. The scale of this problem was hidden from public view until the TTC published a capital plan with everything on the table whether it had “committed” funding or not. For years it suited Toronto to pretend that its transit capital deficit (planned versus needed spending) was only a few billion dollars, but the TTC report was an eye-opener at over $30 billion.
The second long-ignored area is the need for operating subsidies to run the trains, streetcars and buses. TTC may hold a pride-of-place with a very high farebox recovery of operating costs, sometimes over 70 percent, but that still leaves 30 per cent of what is now a $2 billion annual budget to come from the public purse. That gap has, of course, widened to a cavern thanks to the pandemic and lost revenue while the TTC continues to operate at 85 per cent of full service.
The operating budget does not just pay for service, but for routine inspection and maintenance to ensure that the system remains safe, and that small costs do not turn into big ones thanks to deferred repairs.
The subsidy challenge has another dimension particularly outside of Toronto. Not only is the farebox recovery lower than the TTC’s, the overall level of service in route coverage and frequency does not match levels Toronto riders take for granted. Making the Toronto Region a “transit city” is a daunting task where the transit market share is low and much travel does not lend itself to focused improvements in one or two corridors.
Any plans for the future of transit must contemplate all three major spending areas. Anyone who touts their project – whether it is called the Ontario Line, or SmartTrack, or Transit City, or RapidTO, or Regional Express Rail, or self-driving minibuses – as the single, magic solution is selling snake oil.
What Is Transit Really For?
Before we launch into a discussion of what any transit plan might look like, we must ask ourselves what we are trying to accomplish.
Is it a development tool, an investment in regional and local growth?
Are the primary clients really employers who need to get their workers to job sites, stores who need to get customers browsing in their aisles, theatres and stadiums who need bums in seats, schools who need students in classrooms?
Is it a social tool bringing mobility to would-be riders for whom car travel is impractical or impossible?
Is transit something we will build for “us”, or for “them”?
The answers will be very different depending on where you live, what transportation modes you grew up with and how you see the future evolution of travel in the GTHA.
In a political context, is your goal to build mobility options or simply to make promises to voters? Is the goal to move people whose travel is constrained today, or to increase the value of land around new services to the middle of various fields?
How Much Are We Really Willing To Spend On Transit?
“There is only one pot” as critics of public sector spending often chorus. The real debate, of course, is just how wide and deep the well is, and who gets to draw from it first and often. Transit is not alone in clamouring for higher spending. Education, health care, housing and more crowd the field with claims at least as valid as the transit sector.
The fiscal situation in the GTHA for transit was not exemplary even before the pandemic. Yes, billions were announced for new transit lines, and there was hope for a renewal and expansion of GO Transit’s mandate beyond a commuter rail and parking service. However, money to substantively improve transit was thin on the ground with little support from either the provincial or federal governments, particularly for operating subsidies.
Municipalities were on the hook for the lion’s share of costs and big spending on transit was not high on their priority list except, possibly, in Toronto. Even there, the TTC has been forced to make do with limited subsidy growth, barely at inflationary levels.
There are parallels in other sectors. Spending on building something new is seen as an economic stimulant, a way to create construction jobs and the hope for improved services. However, actually operating these services whether in a new hospital, school, public housing project or transit system, that is quite another matter. Toronto absorbed the $30 million annual cost of opening the Spadina Subway Extension into its budget with no support from other governments, and future new lines will likely carve their own operating funds out of money that might otherwise be spent on system-wide improvements.
There is no detailed projection of future transit spending in part because nobody knows how much money will be available under any of the three key areas. Moreover, the creative accounting of privatized transit development and financing under P3s (or “AFP”, alternative finance and procurement) only addresses new builds, not ongoing state of good repair and operations. Even at that, the bloom is off of the P3 rose as the private sector appears less than enthusiastic about taking future spending risk off of the province’s hands.
Just how much money reasonably could be expected for the transit portfolio in coming years? Will we continue to get dribs and drabs with one-time funding announcements, or will we see a sustained revenue stream from something like a dedicated share of sales tax?
The problem has political complexities because spending priorities for major cities vary across the country, and for large chunks of Ontario and Canada, “public transit” is an utterly foreign concept. Add to this the shifting priorities of governments depending on their party stripe after each election, and “stability” is not a word one would associate with transit funding.
Technology Is Not Transit
Transit spending often comes with claims for environmental benefits. The greatest of these is simply to shift motorists out of their cars and onto modes that produce lower emissions for their travel. However, the monetary value of this shift is fairly small, at least as calculated in current analyses. More often, the benefit is stated in the supposed value of time saved by commuters who now have better travel options.
That value cannot be captured or monetized to help pay for new projects, and business cases that depend on it are amusingly socialist in an otherwise capitalist framework seeking “value for money”. We will spend billions because it will save commuting costs for individuals.
Yes, there are other savings such as reduced accidents and their effect on health care costs, as well as the green benefit of carrying riders in something other than private autos. These pale, however, in magnitude to the value of “time saved” and in turn that skews analyses to projects where travel speed is a high priority.
That both downplays the role of local transit service, and places the focus on moving people quickly and, if possible, cheaply.
A well-known technology boondoggle was the development of the “Intermediate Capacity Transit System” (ICTS) by the Davis government. This was to be the transit system of the future providing a network of routes across Toronto and beyond at a cost much below conventional subway construction. Things did not work out as planned, and the development was scrapped after the German government withdrew support from the project. The idea lived on, however, driven by the premise that there must be something cheaper than subways. There was, but nobody wanted to look at it: Light Rapid Transit or LRT, a more digestible term in the political realm than “streetcars on private rights-of-way”.
There is a huge debate about just what “LRT” is and of how bastardized versions (including some in the Transit City plan) have devalued the term, but I will leave that for pitched battles in other forums. The fundamental problem was that all of the hopes for better and more extensive rapid transit in Toronto rested on a new technology that, in the end, did not deliver on its promises of lower cost and reliable service. In the process, an era when spending on transit had political support and was affordable was wasted with little real progress in transit expansion.
At the risk of offending my friends in the environmental movement, I must also turn to “green” technologies including hybrid and battery buses. Both of these draw interest because they promise to reduce transit-related emissions. However, there is a strong risk that money that could have gone to transit improvements will instead be siphoned off for technology development. Green technology has a cost, but spending millions extra to outfit a fleet and charging infrastructure does not necessarily translate to more transit service.
Toronto once had a small network of electric buses serving mainly old industrial districts. Many of these routes were remnants of a once-large streetcar network where conversion from one electric mode to another was quite straightforward. The Lansdowne, Ossington, Weston and Junction routes were all former streetcar lines, while Annette acted as a connector and served the industrial corridor parallel to the CPR North Toronto line. The Yonge and Nortown routes partly covered old streetcar lines, but also might have been part of a larger network including Eglinton West that was never built. The Bay trolley bus was added much later, but had the advantage of being in streetcar territory where electrical infrastructure already existed.
Toronto recycled the electrical equipment from its late 1940s generation of trolley buses into new bus bodies in the early 1970s, a transition made possible by the simple and robust nature of the original technology. Such a scheme is no longer practical because electronic controls evolve by generations within the lifespan of a bus, but this was a tactic that kept trolley buses running in Toronto until the early 1990s.
At that point, there was a proposal to expand the network and buy new vehicles, but it was sabotaged by a combination of forces inside the TTC, at the Ministry of Transportation and in the private sector who embraced natural gas buses as a “green” replacement for the trolley buses. Look! A new way to have the benefits of low pollution without the expense of electrical infrastructure! And so the trolley bus network ended. The natural gas buses did not perform as well as hoped, and they are long-gone from the transit system. To see modern trolley buses in Canada, one must visit Vancouver which has a much larger fleet, including articulated TBs, than Toronto ever operated.
The next technology iteration was the “hybrid” bus that ran with a diesel engine but also included a battery to store energy from braking and to assist during acceleration. These vehicles reduced pollution from engines, but their specs were often compared with older diesels to give a worst-best case view of their benefits. Toronto embraced hybrids thanks to available subsidies. This drove up the average cost per bus, but contributed little to actual fleet and service growth.
In recent years, the TTC reverted to buying “clean diesel” buses because of technical problems with the hybrids, but now hopes are pinned on electric “battery” buses. A small fleet (60) of these is in its trial period with a key winter-weather test in the near future.
All of this spending on green bus technology is nice, as a goal, but it has not expanded the amount of service the TTC operates. Indeed, buying green appears to be more important than either expanding the fleet or making greater use of the fleet the TTC already has. More service would, needless to say, add to subsidy requirements because more buses translate to more drivers and mechanics. Restraining, not expanding, subsidies is the order of the day. We will have green buses, but not enough of them.
Meanwhile on the rail front, Metrolinx claims to going full steam ahead, so to speak, with electrification of its major corridors. This faces several challenges:
- There are up-front costs for electrification that are required just to launch the first train into service.
- Corridors that Metrolinx does not own are beyond the scope of the project because CN and CP refuse to allow electrification in their parts of the network.
- There are performance issues with electric locomotive-hauled trains compared to electric multiple units (the same technology as a subway train). However, GO Transit has a large existing fleet, and a transition to electric operation must include plans to add new equipment and to keep existing equipment running during a long transitional phase.
- The provincial government has a fascination with hydrogen technology and at one point in the McGuinty era appeared poised to foist this on GO as an alternative to electrification. However, hydrogen is more appropriate for small trains on little-used lines where the cost of an electric distribution system is not warranted, not on main lines running long trains on frequent service. Hydrogen appears to have fallen off of the table as a currently-touted option, but played a role in muddying the technology debate.
- The level of service GO Transit might actually operate could be in a gray area for investment payback depending on future demand and on the growth, if any, of Metrolinx operating subsidies. Metrolinx’ characteristic silence on details of their plans further complicates any public evaluation.
All of this may sound like a mind-numbing debate for transit technology nerds, and yet too often transit plans are held hostage because somebody has a new technology they want to sell. There are willing ears in government, and much time can be wasted talking about technology rather than about actually building and operating transit service. This is not just a “tail wagging the dog” situation, but one where we risk starving the poor dog by spending all our time and money grooming its hind quarters.
Development and Job Creation Are Not Transit
The value of much proposed transit spending is couched in its “value” either for stimulus of commercial and residential construction, and/or jobs created by construction of new transit lines. There are places where transit and development go hand-in-hand with profits from new buildings and the trips they generate underwriting the transit system.
However, the Toronto region has a huge unmet need for transit which in many locations will be nothing more than better bus service. That will not translate into Honk Kong-like towers and shopping malls. We cannot hold transit expansion and improvement hostage to redevelopment schemes. Where higher order transit is built, there should be reasonable expectation of development that fits with the overall network. We do not need to spend millions making friends of the government rich or gerrymander the transit maps to suit the location of their holdings.
The region contains many built areas that will not redevelop soon, but there is much travel through them on roads today. We should not mistake demand on a line with development immediately adjacent to it. One need only look at the bus-fed subway system in Toronto, or GO Transit’s rail network dependent as it is on parking. Even if all of those lots were replaced by condo towers, this would not improve commuting prospects for those who do not live in walking distance of stations.
This is not to argue against intensification, but to break the assumption that only with intensification can we have transit. Existing demand must be addressed, and that demand is where the buildings and people are today, not where we might wish them to be.
As for construction jobs, the idea of paying people to dig holes long predates subway construction. There is nothing wrong with make-work projects in times of need, but the challenge is what kind of work, and what is the product. If you have a billion dollars or two in your pocket, how might it best be spent to good, lasting effect? If you are evaluating project options, do you automatically reward the most expensive simply because it generates the most work?
We need to understand what transit and transportation needs are, and find how to serve them all, something that does not always involve digging the largest, deepest, longest hole possible.
Falling Off the Edge of the Map
“Regional integration” has been a buzz phrase in transit circles since at least the time of Metrolinx’ creation, but it has an odd ring considering the huge difference in transit’s role within Toronto and outside of it. What this usually translates to is:
- Getting rid of the fare boundary at the city border. The resentment about paying a second fare is reminiscent of arguments fifty years ago about the elimination of “Zone 2” within what was then Metropolitan Toronto, but with a key difference that residents of the outer zone actually paid taxes that supported the transit system.
- Integration of services running across the border. This is, in part, a question of jurisdiction and how the 905 agencies choose to organize their routes. The TTC operates some buses outside of city borders on contract, although grumbling about the price they charge has been heard. Cross-border carriage is allowed, but the City of Toronto Act forbids anyone but the TTC from handling local travel within Toronto. This is partly a concern about revenue, and partly one of jurisdiction. With Presto, figuring out who rode where should be comparatively easy. As for jurisdiction that can be settled between municipalities without opening up the whole question of private carriers poaching on the TTC’s turf.
- A desire for centralization. Metrolinx never tires of lusting after their much larger cousin, the TTC, and will use any excuse no matter how trivial to justify consolidation of local services. The irony, of course, is that Metrolinx has never been interested in local operations. A unified, single agency is not needed to “solve” what are basically trivial problems at the 416-905 boundary. There are far more substantive issues with Metrolinx (and Ontario’s) refusal to integrate its fares and discounts with the TTC.
The biggest problem with “integration” is that service levels and an ongoing commitment to transit expansion vary immensely from one municipality to another with Toronto being well ahead of its 905 neighbours. The lack of provincial support for operating dollars forces municipalities to prioritize transit among competing demands, and in many cases it does not fare well. If Toronto cannot bring itself to aggressively expand and improve transit service, imagine the uphill battle in areas where transit’s market share is much below the TTC’s.
Until there is good quality transit service on the 905 side of the border, integration is a hollow promise.
Does the Network Serve the Region?
The most recent iteration of the Metrolinx regional plan includes a coarse network of rapid bus services. The routes would be widely spaced and would not operate on frequencies that would attract, or indeed could carry, substantial demand. They would be a transit network in name only. Moreover, it is unclear whether these would be truly integrated as part of local transit systems, or would charge separate GO Transit fares as part of a regional network.
A great deal of travel across the region cannot use services whose primary objective is to get people to central Toronto. Metrolinx has no plans for long-haul rapid transit service except on its rail corridors that are radially oriented to Union Station, and yet the unmet travel needs lie elsewhere.
Although there is a handful of regional centres that might become transit hubs, these account for a tiny fraction of potential destinations. Within Toronto, the Planning department dutifully reports on development in various parts of the city, and so-called centres typically show low growth while other parts of suburban Toronto (and of course the core) thrive. Marking a few spots on the map as “centres” may please politicians who think that these may become mini-downtowns, but the actual development, and hence the need for transit, is elsewhere.
This brings us to the “last mile” problem where a combination of poor local transit and a parking-obsessed commuter rail system make transit a difficult option. Trips that begin after the parking lot is full, or after local bus service timed for the inbound peak, are not well served. Neither are counter-peak trips where a rider can have difficulty getting beyond the “regional” network. Again, local transit must exist at a level able to complement the regional trains just as Toronto’s subway depends on a network of bus routes for its passengers. The challenge of providing this service will grow as GO Transit evolves to an all-day frequent service because this cannot work without local networks.
We hear a lot about ride sharing and automated vehicle technology. One depends on small vehicles and a willing operator, rain or shine, and the other on a technology whose promise fades as the complexities of real-world operation emerge. There is a place for demand-responsive service where demand is comparatively light, but this will not address network-wide travel.
Finally there is a difficult question: can transit really compete in all markets? Is there an upper bound of the market share it can reasonably serve? By extension, will large-scale development push the density of demand beyond what cities designed around a mid-20th century view of automobile access can handle?
We already see places in suburban Toronto where the roads are clogged and employers fear they cannot attract riders on the limited available transit. The scheme that became SmartTrack was intended to link workers within Toronto to jobs in Markham and the district south of Pearson Airport making land there ripe for development.
But people who might work in Markham do not just originate to the south, nor do those who might work near Pearson only come from the east. The challenge for regional “centres” like this is to provide service from many origins to serve as many workers as possible, not just those lucky enough to live along a convenient rail corridor.
A huge challenge for transit planning is the everywhere-to-everywhere nature of travel that has developed on the road network, but which is not served by a transit network that focuses on the core of Toronto.
What Are Roads For?
Plans to improve transit inevitably reach a point where we ask for transit-positive choices such as reserved lanes and even segregation for bus rapid transit (BRT). But where do existing road users go? What service level should trigger an entitlement to dedicated road space as opposed to red paint and the hope motorists will stay in their lanes? Are there others such as pedestrians and cyclists whose needs are ignored in the rush for transit priority?
The issues are very different on narrow old streets of Toronto oriented to pedestrian traffic with shop fronts, off peak parking, and cycling, versus wide suburban roads and buildings that invite little pedestrian traffic. A one-size-fits-all solution cannot simply be dropped on every street. Even within Toronto, conditions vary between neighbourhoods. In the 905, BRT and LRT schemes run aground in comparable “old town” areas.
Transit priority is hardest in the areas where it is most needed, where space and capacity are at a premium. Building dedicated lanes is a snap where a wide right-of-way exists or can be created, but lanes alone do not provide service. More lanes can make roads more dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians with wider intersections and fast traffic in curbside transit priority lanes. Purpose built roads can move buses, but how do their stations relate to pedestrian traffic and access?
Access to transit is as important as service. What are the walking distances and routes to stops? Can pedestrians navigate these routes or are they there on sufferance, unwanted intruders in an auto-oriented realm? Are stops located where they are useful for riders or for transit operators?
Roads do not just serve transit and motorists. Freight traffic is fundamentally different in its behaviour and access needs to buildings along streets. Much freight cannot “walk” to its destination. Should or can deliveries be shifted off street or to off-peak times? What are the implications for all-day priority schemes if the curb lane cannot be reserved 7×24?
A great deal of planning the use of road space is, or should be, at a micro level. This was essential to the King Street pilot in Toronto, and even that had its rough edges after a detailed, block-by-block review. By contrast, the Eglinton-Kingston-Morningside RapidTO project suffered from poor consultation and an arbitrary assumption that fewer stops meant better service. So out-of-touch was the process that the media event launching the red lanes was held at a stop that the project eliminated in the name of efficiency.
Regional planners are used to drawing lines on maps and letting the details work themselves out, but changing the allocation of road space requires much greater attention to how the road works for all of its would-be users.
“Governance” Is Not The Problem
Whenever I hear someone say that if only the “governance” of transit were changed, if only we could centralize decisions all would be well, or so the story goes. This inevitably is followed by a pitch for a scheme that puts the speaker, or the speaker’s close friends, in control.
Centralization will not cure political interference nor will it make a more responsive mega-agency. We have already seen with Metrolinx what happens when a master agency becomes a tool of government policy with all of the power and secrecy this brings.
Without an overall goal for what transit might achieve, any centralized structure left to its own devices will not necessarily produce desired results because nobody knows what the goals are. Indeed, we cannot begin to talk about funding transit and the complex issues of ownership, privatization and alternative service if we cannot or will not first decide what transit should achieve.
For example, Metrolinx would love regional integration of fares, but on their terms – travel further, pay more. That scheme that could work counter to transit equity and would encourage continued auto use for longer commutes even within Toronto where service is comparatively good. Metrolinx is happy to talk about the need for “integration” but without a concrete discussion of its implications for all riders.
Continued on its current path, Metrolinx will continue to expand GO Transit provided they can find someone to pay for this, but they have little interest in the difficult problem of serving trips that do not lie on their rail corridor.
Metrolinx GO expansion plans took various guises for years, but we still do not have a definitive service plan, nor do we have any idea of the upper bound to GO’s capacity? There is a hint of future trouble in Metrolinx’ desire to offload core-bound traffic onto the Ontario Line at Exhibition and East Harbour, but how severe is this problem? Should there be more local service (aka SmartTrack) or a mix of local and express? How critical is electrification to more finely-grained stopping patterns? How can urban stations be part of a local network if trains stop there infrequently?
There is a big issue with service standards even in Toronto, let alone the region. Who gets to decide how often the Queen car shows up and what constitutes “reasonable” service? Is “efficiency” seen as minimizing cost and packing in riders serving only the strongest of demands, or is the goal to provide good service across the region and build transit demand?
Complete decentralization can have its problems too – lack of coordination, inconsistent fare and transfer policies, service level mismatches, and the perennial question of local versus central funding.
What is needed is a way for agencies to work together without starting from “what will it cost me” that works against cooperation. Municipalities that want and need higher quality of service should be able to get it without being held back by others, including the province, who don’t think that they deserve it.
Can We Get There From Here?
Toronto is a car-centric region.
The only regional network we have is GO Transit and that is strongly focused on the core. The almost total collapse of GO’s demand during the pandemic is a testimonial to how little it serves riders going anywhere else. GO’s service model depends on park-and-ride access that serves car owning commuters while leaving everyone else to fend for themselves.
How can we serve demand that is not going downtown or along major corridors? Can we, should we build subways, skytrains, LRT, BRT everywhere? Should we concentrate on local or regional service? Where does the humble bus fit in the transit technology wars?
Which of the competing visions for GO should prevail between regional and local travel and fares? Should riders pay for what they use or should GO, like the subway, be priced for convenience and attractiveness? How much service is physically possible on the GO network?
All of these questions presume that a transit solution is possible and viable physically, financially and politically.
For decades, planners have fretted about the growth in population and travel demand. Congestion that was once laughingly seen as a “city” problem now strangles the suburbs. Car-oriented planning assumed that there was road space to travel and that all travelers could afford cars. This failed as demand grew and demographics shifted away from the traditional view of suburbs.
Do we simply give up on certain types of trips and leave them to autos? When does inattention to transit lock in a future where transit cannot gain a larger share of the travel market? Have we passed that point already?
We need to understand what we have today and what we can build with it stripped of political posturing and agency turf wars.
What are the physical and operational constraints to better transit of all kinds from buses right up to subways and frequent regional rail service? How wide is the gap between “today” and “tomorrow”? How much will it cost to close that gap? While we spend on expansion, how do we keep existing systems running and improve them? Does every existing plan still work?
This should not require a ten-year study that will report after nobody remembers why we started, or worse provide yet another excuse for inaction.
Factors too often absent from transit planning – technical and political honesty and transparency – are essential.
Past articles included observations that ring true today. I offer this not as an “I told you so” but to avoid having to revisit all of this history with new text. What passes for transit planning in Toronto has been a sorry mess dating back to the oft-sainted Bill Davis who set us on a course of bold promises and little delivery.
March 2006: For too long, we have wrangled over where the next kilometer or two of subway will be built while the region becomes more and more car oriented by default, and the existing transit system dwindles around us. This is no way to build a city.
We need to know what we can do if only we have the political will to really commit to transit and to break from decades-old models of a future transit system.
September 2006: Current planning remains project-oriented rather than system-oriented with schemes advanced by separate agencies and governments that take little account of alternatives in other jurisdictions. Funding constraints compound this problem because people talk only about “their” problem, not the region as a whole.
We have just gone through the exercise of building a new Official Plan where development and transportation fundamentally differ from our old thinking. However, decades-old “approved” transit plans are still alive and will go ahead whether they make sense today or not. This is nonsensical, and the TTC’s reliance on old plans is counterproductive.
April 2008: [Many transit proposals] … have been around one way or another for some time, but inter-agency rivalry, intergovernmental sloth, and the inability to let go of old, worn-out plans prevented a lot of this from being discussed.
October 2008: Any budgetary cutback discussion must first consider whether to make the “death of 1000 cuts” or to look hard at big ticket items.
A major problem lies in the dearth of information Metrolinx has published about the detailed performance projections and roles of each component in the plan. … There is no way to understand which links are cost-effective, and there is no data for intermediate states (such as after the “first 15” are built) to show whether they are an appropriate use of whatever resources might be available.
February 2010: [Proposing a recipe for a new transit system is difficult] … without first knowing just how much any government, future mayor or council might want to commit to transit, it’s very hard to pick a “solution”.
Indeed, we have seen exactly this conundrum with Metrolinx, a body formed to sort out the details and priorities of MoveOntario2020. With much effort, they whittled a $90bn plan down to $50bn and change, only to find themselves in a recession and a desire by Queen’s Park to limit spending. All the same, having a network view of things is absolutely essential.
January 2011: Now we have a new Mayor in Toronto, and plans that came from years of work and debate lie in pieces on the floor. Metrolinx and Queen’s Park seem content to “plan” by carving up funding that’s already committed and redrawing their map to suit the whims of a new regime at City Hall. The fundamental problem in this exercise is the phrase “funding that’s already committed”. When you draw a map with a half empty pen, you make compromises, and you run out of ink leaving huge areas bereft of service.
If we start with the premise that we cannot afford anything, we should stop wasting our time on planners, engineers and the myth that transit can actually transform travel for the next generation.
November 2011: By now, we could have had a network of LRT lines plus frequent GO service in two or three corridors serving Scarborough. What we got was the Toonerville Trolley to STC.
December 2014: The Big Move is … largely based on locations of existing or likely transportation corridors such as the railway network. As already noted, this was the force behind industrial, goods-oriented, transportation and land use, not commuting. New rapid transit lines, wherever we may build them, inevitably suffer from limitations in the connectivity they can provide between a dispersed workforce and development nodes, to the degree that these exist throughout the region.
The core area is served by a combination of GO Transit commuter rail lines and a subway network that stretches out as a funnel bringing workers into a high-density office district. Because it lies on Lake Ontario, the “core” is actually at an “edge” and only requires capacity from three, not four, sides. This is a mixed blessing because of the historical importance of Yonge Street and development patterns that concentrate demand north of the core. For a suburban node with four “sides”, no single rapid transit line can possibly address access patterns that have grown up around road networks that bring workers from all directions.
The problem we now face is that development, rather like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, continued unchecked to a level that the transportation infrastructure cannot sustain. No developer wants to be told that they cannot build because there is no capacity left in the road system, and politicians are unlikely to stand in their way.
[…] we have the premise that simply making areas “transit oriented” will magically transform them with amenities taken for granted elsewhere like cafés. Second, there is the implication that having planned and built poorly, we must compound the error with transit investments. This outlook completely misses the fact that there are “transit deserts” and areas of low amenity beyond the stranded suburban office parks, namely the large, underserved residential districts far from good transit.
[…] we have the development beyond Toronto in the 905 which is totally dependent on travel by car. Even with promised future transit, developers are concerned about the lack of parking imposed through controls on parking-to-employee ratios.
We cannot build subways everywhere. Lower taxes will not fix the ills of what has already been built. A neighbourhood is more than a Starbucks in a mall. People do not live and work conveniently along existing or potential transit corridors, but in a wide (and widening) range of developments with complex origin-destination patterns.
Market forces are already shifting demand back to the core area, although suburban growth has not stopped. Will the auto-dependent areas of the 905 be the next area of stagnation like the outer parts of the 416 are today? Reasonably, how much can we “fix” with transit alone, and are we willing to pay the price? Who is “we”, and does the definition recognize that transportation investments should be funded not just by the direct users (commuters, shippers, tourists, students) but by the business community that thrives on their existence?
April 2019: Completely absent from [Premier Ford’s] announcement was any mention of the Eglinton East or Waterfront LRT projects, and these appear doomed unless Toronto, possibly with help from Ottawa, takes them on.
Eglinton East was part of the grand deal sold to Council when it backed the Scarborough Subway option, but we now know that it was never going to be built within the funding earmarked for the subway. The Waterfront has very strong growth rivaling anything in the suburbs, but very little transit. Toronto talks a good line on “transit first”, but never quite gets around to building lines to serve major developments.
May 2020: [In 1972] Premier Bill Davis announced “An Urban Transportation Policy for Ontario”. This was to be the transit answer to his cancellation of the Spadina Expressway, a new transit network that would bring rapid transit to outlying areas in Toronto, as well as to Hamilton and Ottawa. …
Within a few years, Davis’ dreams would be dust. The government would resurrect the work on a new TTC streetcar design that was underway in the late 1960s, but [this] was stopped when the focus shifted to Davis’ Intermediate Capacity Transit System (ICTS). Eventually, a less technically complex system that we now know as the SRT in Toronto and Skytrain in Vancouver came along, but the plans were never resurrected on quite so grand a scale. …
This was the grand plan of almost fifty years ago. Imagine where Toronto would be if the focus had been on building with technology the world already had rather than pursuing a boondoggle that cost momentum at a key time when new transit lines could have shaped suburban growth.