Yet Another Fantasy Map Clouds Regional Planning

On March 29, 2021, the Toronto Region Board of Trade released a proposal Getting on the Right Track – Connecting Communities With Regional Rail as the second of a planned series that will eventually include:

I reviewed the first report in The Siren Song of Regional Fare Integration and will not duplicate my comments on the Board of Trade’s fare proposals beyond the level needed to explain how the scheme in Getting on the Right Track dovetails with this.

From the title of the article, one can easily guess that I was not entranced with the Board’s proposal, and I should make clear why right at the outset.

First: Although the plan includes a very robust regional network with frequent service on all GO corridors, there is too much talk of how everything will work when it is finished, and not enough about how we actually get from here to there.

Second: As with so much regional planning that comes out of Metrolinx, there is no discussion of last mile costs and service, nor of the burden local municipalities would face in providing them. Yes, a “last mile” report is in the offing, but this could range anywhere from massive increases in publicly funded local transit to an embrace of ride sharing services. The report contains not even a hint of how the vastly improved service will get riders to and from its stations.

Third: The focus is very strongly on Toronto (the 416) where there is an established transit system that can provide frequent service at connection points, but less on how this would scale outward into the 905 and beyond.

Fourth: The Invisible Line report and its fare-by-distance proposal is assumed as a pre-requisite even though there is no agreement that this is how fares should and will be calculated. In particular, its gerrymandering of fare zone boundaries and the tariff has not been subject to critical review outside of venues such as this blog.

Many proposals in Getting on the Right Track are good and provide a level of background we have not seen from the nominal regional planner Metrolinx, an agency that prefers to save proposals for Ministerial photo ops and routinely hides details under confidentiality provisions.

To give Metrolinx their due, a key shortcoming in the Board of Trade’s report is that it does not clarify which parts of its proposal are works already in the Metrolinx pipeline, and which are net additions to the scheme. Indeed, maps purporting to show regional networks and travel times do not even acknowledge rapid transit lines planned and under construction that will open within the timeframe of the Board’s proposal.

An untutored reader might think that almost nothing is underway, that the Board has returned from the mountaintop with the one true word on regional transit.

Finally, and particularly toward the end of the report, elements creep in which feel like pet rail projects with only minimal evaluation. They are included either because the Board sought to curry favour with politicians in the affected areas, or because someone had too many crayons to play with. I leave it to the dedicated reader to peruse those parts of the report.

There is a sense throughout that what might have been a reasonable proposal for Metrolinx to aim higher in its plans evolved into a design exercise that substitutes detail and volume for practicality.

“Organization Before Technology Before Concrete”

On page 20, the Board makes a key observation, if only by implication, about how transit is planned in the GTHA by citing a practice elsewhere:

The German-speaking world has propounded the planning and engineering doctrine of “organization before technology before concrete.” The highest priority is to resolve issues of organization, which includes factors like fare and service integration between agencies. Then, technology, such as better signalling systems and rolling stock, should be improved. The last priority is the building of new infrastructure, like additional tracks and grade separations on corridors. This prioritization provides the most economically efficient means of improving service and capacity on a network.

Getting on the Right Track, p. 20

This is one of several cases where there is an implicit, if not explicit observation that the way “we” do business is out of step with good practices elsewhere, or even just common sense here. However, the Board has violated its own principle by driving through an entire network design exercise without clearly figuring out goals, not to mention the basic question of how much we might be prepared to spend on this transit network.

“We” is a tricky term here because there are three levels of government each of which prefers to fund only certain types of service and infrastructure, and each has significant blind spots in the financing and funding of public transit.

In this article, I will not attempt an exhaustive review because even my readers have limits to their patience. Moreover, there are points where one must peer very deeply into the crystal ball, make too many assumptions about actual future circumstances. If our current situation teaches anything, it is that the future will change.

Guiding Principles

This section is buried down on page 21, and yet it is absolutely key to the entire discussion. It is so important that I will include its text here.

Drawing from international best practices, it is possible to demonstrate five guiding principles that form part of successful implementations of regional rail. Based on these principles, it is possible to design a network and operations plan for the Toronto Region.

Two-way, All-day Service

The majority of trips in any region – even work trips – do not involve the downtown core and do not take place at rush hour. A service plan that provides service all day, every day is essential if a regional rail system is to become a core part of the regional transit network.

High Frequency (turn up and go)

Research by Transport for London indicates that riders on routes with a frequency of 12 minutes or less will not need to consult a schedule and can instead simply “turn up and go.”

This level of service has been demonstrated to drive major increases in ridership. Frequency is even more important when making connections because wait times can multiply when a trip involves several connecting segments, and a missed connection could result in an unacceptable delay.

Seamless Integration with Local Transit

On a busy commuter rail service like GO Transit, park-and-ride lots fill up early in the morning. That makes them effectively useless for mid-day travellers. For two-way, all-day service, there needs to be another way to access the station. Transit-oriented development can play a role – and provides a major opportunity for recovery of regional rail investment – but as the TTC subway demonstrates, the most effective way to deliver large numbers of riders is by seamlessly integrating rail with local bus and streetcar services. That means fully integrated fares – a transfer is an inconvenience, so you should not have to pay more for it. It also means having bus routes designed to connect with stations, additional rail stations to connect with busy surface corridors, and schedules with timed transfers where necessary. The objective is to create the equivalent of a subway backbone for the whole region, serving local trips as much as long-haul. By being a backbone of a broader transit network, regional rail does not just serve residents of neighbourhoods adjacent to stations – it serves everyone in the region.

Focus on Equity

Planning should intend to prioritize improved access to employment opportunities and services for equity-seeking communities. This means reducing travel times, locating additional stations where they would serve communities like the City of Toronto’s Neighbourhood Improvement Areas, and ensuring that fares are not prohibitively expensive. Transit must function as an integrated network, particularly for those who rely on it for all their trips so it is imperative that no transit mode be deemed “premium.”

Integration with Regional Planning

With its region-wide extent and high level of service, regional rail should become a centrepiece of regional planning. In Copenhagen, for example, all substantial office developments must be located within walking distance of a rail station. This would not be possible today in Toronto, given the limited size of the existing rapid transit network, but it could be possible with regional rail. Greenfield suburban developments could be designed around rail stations, creating “15-minute communities” oriented to walking and cycling, rather than following the traditional auto-oriented pattern centred on concession road blocks. Regional rail is the most feasible path to a truly transit-oriented region.

These are key principles not just for a regional rail network, but for transit in general. They run counter to so much of what would-be transit riders are fobbed off with.

“High frequency” really does mean frequent service, not a train now and then when it is convenient to run one. This requires a commitment to both capital and operating costs for the rail network.

“Seamless integration” means an end to assuming that parking will solve all access problems, and that the rail system’s revenue stream is sacrosanct. The concept of a “premium” service as a justification to charge higher fares on part of the network simply does not work if the rail lines are the key, backbone component of a whole. This is an example of how looking at only one aspect – fare revenue – distracts from the larger picture of the potential contribution and value of the rail network for mobility.

As for regional rail and planning, this is a fascinating position for the Board of Trade because it implies that we would dictate where development could and could not occur. Will we also consider network effects of overbuilding at selected “hot” development nodes, and the implications for road congestion and pollution of allowing growth away from transit stations?

The Trillium Network

Yes, it’s a branding exercise, and the Board makes no bones about this. It has a nice sound, and it uses the provincial flower. The name and logo might even survive a change of government. There is a spiffy map.

The key point in this design is that services are through-routed at Union Station and arranged in a manner to avoid conflict between four main corridors: Lake Shore, Kitchener-Don-Richmond Hill, Barrie-Don and Milton-Lincolnville. This is not new, and Metrolinx has talked about the need to reorganize its service in a similar way as part of its expansion program.

Services have route numbers all starting with “T” although the nomenclature could be confusing if a scheduler decides that trains will operate between some other pair of endpoints. The combined service through Union Station is impressive with the intent of a massive increase both in GO’s capacity and its usefulness as a regional and local carrier.

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