In a recent Metrolinx Blog article (Phil Verster explains the network effect and how it will create new transit possibilities for generations of customers), the CEO discusses how the presence of a frequent, well-connected network of transit will change the way people move around the Toronto area.
This is little surprise to those who long advocated for a view of transit that addresses not just core area commuter traffic, but the wider need for travel around the region without using a private vehicle. GO Transit was conceived as an alternative to highway building in the 1960s, but expansion beyond relief for core-bound highway traffic is minimal. One need only look at traffic on Highway 401 (among others) to see the scale of travel markets that have not been addressed by transit in the past half-century.
Verster’s focus is the GO Expansion program. Important though that is, GO is hobbled by the geography of Toronto’s historical, radial railway network. There is only one cross-city line within Toronto (CPR) and one crossing the southern part of York Region (CNR). Both of these are busy freight routes where insertion of passenger services would be challenging, assuming that the railways even agreed to such a scheme, and their locations do not coincide with major population and job centres.
The railway network was created primarily to serve freight, and the early industrial districts of the region lie along rail corridors. The node at Union served not just passenger traffic, but also as an interchange with the harbour. That was very much the case until trucks took over much of the shipping market and highways became the focus for development. GO Transit inherited railway corridors whose locations fit a century-old industrial pattern. Modal interchange shifted to rail and truck terminals in the suburbs, and railways shifted much more to a line-haul role with trucks handling local distribution.
GO’s first half-century was a comparatively easy one taking the low-hanging fruit of existing rail corridors, building massive parking facilities along these lines, and basking in the arrival of thousands of commuters. That model does not work any more because the web of travel demands is much more complex than the legacy railway network. Parking garages are expensive and they occupy valuable real estate at stations.
Parking lots are a quick and relatively cheap way to address the “last mile problem” of linking stations to their customers, and GO is one of the largest operators of parking facilities in North America. As of April 2019, GO transit had 85,055 parking spaces while the rail network carried 219,000 daily boardings (the equivalent of 109,500 round trips). That is almost four parking spaces for every five commuters. (I have ignored the GO bus network here because it is much less dependent on park-and-ride demand.)
That model simply does not scale up, nor does it provide a “network effect” because it is highly dependent on personal vehicles. The system is capacity-constrained by would-be riders’ ability to get to the trains.
Canada’s most dynamic transit system must expand with new routes and more frequent service to meet demand that is bound to increase with a growing population. And it must deliver new opportunities to travel quickly across the region – helping people get to work as well as their entertainment, dining and leisure choices.
From new subway projects and light rail transit routes in, around and even under Canada’s largest city, to a massive expansion of the iconic GO Transit network, the work is big and bold.From the introduction to Phil Verster Explains …
There has always been a problem with Metrolinx’ world view of the region’s transit system. It is not simply GO Transit, but also a myriad of local bus routes and a few rapid transit lines. In talking of the “most dynamic transit system”, does Metrolinx mean GO itself, or have they adopted various subway, LRT and BRT projects because they now have carriage of their construction?
Until Queen’s Park decided to usurp local controls and hand many projects to Metrolinx, the provincial agency was content to sit back and watch municipalities put these projects together on their own. There is no sense here that Metrolinx acknowledges that many of the projects now under its umbrella were inherited, not started, by that agency.
Verster – Customer choices. The big benefit of a network effect is that having different modes gives customers real choices on how they travel. If people have to make difficult and inconvenient choices – whether it’s about finding a parking spot at the station, makings connections, or using a bicycle for the last part of the trip – then we have to find ways of making it easier. But when we have easy transfers between buses, the subway and GO trains – and even bike sharing at our stations – we are creating more of a network effect.
This focus on easy transfers assumes that a local service actually exists. Parking is wonderful for an early morning inbound commute, but useless to trips later in the day or for trips that begin in transit territory and end at a parking garage storing other people’s cars. Bike share addresses only part of the market, and has limitations for trip length, weather, and the physical capabilities of the transit user. It is a boutique response to a much more general problem.
Thanks to provincial funding policies and the priorities of municipal governments, bus service is not uniformly available as a feeder/distributor service for GO’s rail network. Local network design can be complicated when a GO station sits in splendid isolation rather than in the centre of a developed neighbourhood that has transit demands beyond the occasional passing train.
Verster – We have it already. We have a network. GO trains move along seven routes, including the Lakeshore West and Lakeshore East, with parallel bus routes that run similarly east to west and run further to the north. With Bike Share Toronto you can pick up a bicycle at many of our stations. And our future plans include new links to partner services like the TTC, MiWay, Viva and DRT.
Future plans? New links to partner services? This tells us just how dedicated GO has been to recognizing those partnerships for the past 54 years. There are two big issues here:
- Since its inception, GO existed to move people regionally and actively worked against proposals to use its services for local travel, especially within the City of Toronto. They have changed their tune, sort of, but decades of the former attitude are baked into how the network is designed and operated.
- Nowhere within the article does Verster address fare structure as an enabler of networking, or a deterrent to travel.
To be fair, this is the result of provincial policy and years of Metrolinx fighting to preserve its revenue stream. However, the job of a regional planning agency is to plan, not to ignore the implications of existing policies. There is much talk of regional integration and Presto-card enabled travel across boundaries between service providers, but silence on enabling travel by reducing fares and increasing operating subsidies.
Short trips on GO now enjoy a reduced fare, but this was an ad hoc political fix, not a unified review of the network, and there is still no discount for a GO+TTC trip.
Metrolinx continues to think of its services as “premium” to the point where the fares on new lines like the Crosstown or Ontario are still speculative. They will be “TTC” fares, but what will the TTC be forced to charge to absorb the costs of these new routes?
The current network is tenuous because, like many cities, we have radial lines going into downtown, but we need more connections across Toronto and the whole region. This is why our current projects, like the Eglinton Crosstown LRT and the Ontario Line are being designed to create a lot of networking and interconnectedness to new and existing GO, subway and LRT lines. That’s how we deliver the network effect.
The Crosstown and Ontario lines go nowhere near the borders of the City of Toronto. In a decade or so, Eglinton will reach west toward Pearson Airport, the Yonge subway will push north to Richmond Hill, and the Scarborough subway will jump across the 401, but no further. This is not a regional network but rather filling in some of the long-overdue gaps in the TTC.
We know that municipal agencies do a tremendous job of helping riders criss-cross cities. Metrolinx is connecting everything we build to those existing systems as we double the size of Toronto’s subway network, quadruple the size and reach of the LRT network and double the intensity of the GO system. All of this expansion is being designed to connect and give riders more options.
That statement is something of an exaggeration. Some municipalities do a good job, but the quality of service is far from uniform across the region, and the pressures of lost ridership since March 2020 coupled with limited provincial funding do not bode well for coming years.
Verster – We are building a frequent rapid transit network that consist of subways, LRTs, buses and on-demand mini transit solutions. As we move forward, rail will always be important, and we need more rapid bus services, too. The idea is to expand the network by adding main arteries.
How to build that network is going to be an interesting challenge in the years to come. The arteries may connect to autonomous, self-driving vehicles or smaller buses that allow for Uber-type, or on-demand service. But that step will follow the phase we are in now, which is to build the network’s arteries.
“Build” is the operative word here. Metrolinx and its partner at Infrastructure Ontario have become a construction companies for whom the goal is to both create and expand transit corridors and develop land where possible around existing and future stations. Beyond the already-announced goals for GO Transit service, there is no mention of operations.
“Rapid bus service” deserves a special mention because, for Metrolinx, this is a very small-scale stuff. The chart below shows how Metrolinx views the evolving network. There remains a local component that would connect with regional services at widely-spaced stations. This is part of the Metrolinx mantra: stations should not be close together because stopping too often will deter riders. That attitude ignores the fact that riders much first reach a station. For a bus route (and probably for BRT, LRT and subway) that will not be with a last mile ride in an auto, but probably on foot.
Having reached a station, would-be riders could face a long wait if they have just missed a bus. The combined effect is not conducive to building ridership except among those who have no other choice. Metrolinx crows about having a large percentage of would-be riders within a short distance of “rapid transit”, but that is a very elastic term that includes services most riders would see as little more than a bus with a new colour scheme, and maybe even a higher fare.
Verster has the good sense of recognizing that building the network’s arteries takes precedence over “autonomous, self-driving vehicles or smaller buses that allow for Uber-type, or on-demand service”. There is a role for on-demand service in areas of low population, but they will not solve regional problems let alone provide a network solution. As to the technical capabilities of autonomous vehicles or the financial viability of Uber, those belong more in the realm of politicians who are desperate to avoid spending money on transit, and particularly on labour.
Verster – We’ve become much more of a business rather than an agency. Being a business in transit is crucially important. You don’t make right decisions simply because you’re an agency. You make the right decisions because you are thinking as a business. That’s how we’ve strengthened our commercial resources and our project delivery resources.
That statement would be at home in a political campaign ad, but it is badly misplaced as a transit philosophy. Metrolinx might have “commercial” and “project delivery resources”, but that does not make a transit system. Moreover, “business” decisions depend on how you define the “business” you’re in.
Enabling travel has an economic benefit to riders, to employers, to operators of entertainment facilities, and to governments who depend on all of these to keep the economic wheels turning. Metrolinx has created a cottage industry in “business case analyses” that attempt to justify their projects in pseudo-economic terms, but no business could stay alive with a combination of very long term financial plans (60+ years) and benefits that accrue not to their own bottom line, but to society as a whole.
Politicization of project routes, scope and technologies have shown that what really counts is the guy sitting in the Premier’s office and the benefits, be they in votes or in balm to his ego, that the projects represent. Cost effectiveness and “business” have nothing to do with it.
Verster – It’s about ease of transfer and ease of movement. With the narrow platforms we have at Union today there is a bottleneck as it takes time for to passengers get off the train and across the platform. But once you get down to the concourse it flows easily. When the platform is full you can’t bring the next train in, because there is nowhere for the people to go.
To improve pedestrian flow, we need wider platforms so people will be able to move off of the platform easily. Whether they are walking out to an office or connecting to the TTC we want people to move easily through the station. This will prepare us for GO Expansion, when we anticipate we’ll have 43 train trips per hour moving through Union Station in peak period, compared to 23 before COVID.
To be fair to Phil Verster, he inherited the design at Union Station and the operating plan it supports. That said, Metrolinx as an organization and the Ontario government should have addressed this in the renovation work that is only now finishing.
A related problem is that even with a rework of Union Station, Metrolinx seeks to divert many trips away from it on the Ontario Line through transfer connections at East Harbour and Exhibition Stations. This will add substantially to traffic on the OL’s central section and could eventually compromise its capacity especially if further outward extensions such as north on Don Mills were contemplated.
Metrolinx has not produced a consolidated ridership model of its future network and of related TTC lines which new facilities like the OL are supposed to offload.
Verster – Transit makes growth happen. It’s a requirement for many businesses. So, we don’t just bring transit to where it already exists. Look at East Harbour, it has a very real access problem. It’s close to downtown, just over the Don River, but it’s difficult to get there by car. With the Ontario Line, it will be easy to get to work or a home there, and it’s going to be a superb Transit Oriented Development with space for new housing and jobs.
There is a fundamental difference between a site like East Harbour where there is no existing travel demand or pattern, and one where past decades have established how people move around. The combination of GO and the Ontario Line (not to mention TTC improvements in the eastern waterfront) will definitely make East Harbour a viable plan, but the same is not necessarily true in other locales with an entrenched pattern of auto-based commuting.
Verster – There are two really important levers we have in making the network effect possible. First, there is the opportunity to put plans together that look to the future and bring our region’s long-term transit requirements to life for today’s decision makers. Because we are putting those plans together now, we can create networks for the future. The second way we influence is through delivery. That’s how we make it happen. Whether it’s delivery of our capital plan or GO services, we are getting that network set-up.
Decision makers need to see not just the shovels-in-the-ground effect of capital construction, but the ongoing implications for operating and funding a transit network at every scale from regional down to hyper-local. We hear a lot about GO expansion and a few rapid transit corridors, but nothing about what the goals for a network of transit services would look like especially at the local level.
Metrolinx has not helped that discussion with openly musing about how it could take over the TTC and, by implication, run it “better”.
Verster – Our role relative to transit authorities, transit agencies and the TTC specifically is one of partner. And I would say it is to be a supporter. We need to help our partners to be successful. That’s one of the reasons we’ve made such substantial changes to PRESTO. We must listen to the other agencies, understand their needs and support their operations to be effective and successful.
Where we are delivering capital programs we are supporting agencies for the future.
This is an unusual tone for Metrolinx considering the widely-known constraints and cost of the Presto fare collection system. Until quite recently, Metrolinx openly dismissed the need to live up to their contract with the TTC. Functionality that is in that contract is still not available, and likely will not be seen until some new version of Presto (or a replacement) rolls out over the coming decade.
Too much of Presto’s design was driven by a combination of GO Transit’s fare model and the technical constraints of the original system. Other cities might have more flexible, modern products or simply buy off-the-shelf what they needed, but in the best Ontario tradition we have our own second-rate system.
Metrolinx is moving toward an account-based system and an end to proprietary cards, changes that will greatly improve the flexibility of what Presto can offer. Getting to this point has been extremely painful, and Presto’s limitations have affected the options for new fare tariffs. We are now at the point where new fare products can be bought through the Presto website, but only loaded onto a smartphone, not onto one’s card. This fractures the delivery of fares, and limits their availability to people who own the necessary technology.
A new system is intimately bound up in regional fare structures, a topic notably absent from Verster’s view of a network.
Fares, however they are calculated and charged, affect how people will use transit. Higher fares will divert riders to alternate routes or away from transit completely. Tariffs must encourage use not just for core trips, but at the margins through schemes such as fare capping, time-sensitive discounts, and a lack of barriers to transfers between modes and operators.
Auto users do not see each trip as an added cost and indeed the model of auto ownership encourages getting the most use possible out of a substantial investment. On transit, bulk discounts are not a giveaway, but rather a basic tool to encourage use. If, however, the “business” of Metrolinx is to minimize cost to the public purse, that will produce a very different fare system from one where public service takes precedence.
Not only fare structures escape notice in the Metrolinx article, but also the delicate matter of charging for parking. In years past, free parking was seen as a way to avoid local transit subsidies to move people to and from GO stations. This is a deep-seated entitlement for GO users. Any proposal to charge at GO lots would bring howls of outrage that would drown out complaints about construction effects on Metrolinx corridors. And yet Metrolinx shows no sign of slowing its parking-as-growth model.
Also absent is any reference to electrification of the GO network. Yes, there is physical expansion and more service coming, but not a word on electric trains. In our days of environmental crisis this is an odd oversight, and one cannot help being suspicious of how long it will take to see actual conversion of services across the GO network.
Yes, a network view is essential, but that network must be more than what it is convenient for Metrolinx and the Ontario government to build and operate today. Shifting travel away from automobiles will be very difficult. We cannot yet see all future effects such as the relative costs of travel modes and the constraints of environmental changes. These will dictate the goals of a transit network much more loudly than any pompous political announcement in front of yet another new map.