RapidTO: Real Transit Improvement, Or Smoke and Mirrors?

The City and TTC have launched phase 1 of consultations on expansion of RapidTO Transit Priority to bus and streetcar lines. Both a video and a presentation deck are available on the City’s page for this project.

The premise of this round is to determine priorities for the types of improvement people want to see and the locations where they might be implemented.

  • Phase 1: Understanding Your Priorities to commence in Fall 2021
  • Phase 2: Identifying Top Roadways throughout early 2022
  • Phase 3: Roadway-Specific Studies between 2022 and 2031.

There is not much new here, and regular followers of the TTC will know that they have been talking about this sort of thing for years.

The problem is well-known: slow and unreliable service, and the primary solution on offer is transit priority.

We have all known that traffic congestion is a problem for transit pretty much since the first time we rode a bus or a streetcar. Although there was some respite during the pandemic era because fewer cars were on the road, this trend quickly reversed, and on some corridors the travel times in mid-2021 are longer than they were before March 2020, and they are growing.

For details, please see the series of article on the behaviour of RapidTO candidate corridors:

A generic statement that “22% of buses and 34% of streetcars experienced delays” does not address the detailed picture including the time and location of delays. Most routes have problems in certain places, directions and times, even by day of the week, and priority treatments will have limited benefit if used where there are no delays today.

Conversely, if priority is given only where it is easy to implement, key problems may go unsolved. Even worse, if the “priority” actually slows transit (as has happened with signalling on some reserved lane implementations) then we are not giving transit its due.

With streetcars and buses carrying 70 per cent of TTC riders, they deserve priority treatment. The subway may carry a lot of people because it consolidates demand in a few corridors, but without the surface routes, the subway would be starved for passengers

… it is essential to make bus and streetcar service a practical and reliable travel option for the most people.

RapidTO Presentation, Slide 3

The argument continues by claiming that transit priority can:

… make bus and streetcar service more reliable, reduce delays and shorten travel times on congested roadways … [and] also provide relief on overcrowded bus and streetcar routes.

RapidTO Presentation, Slide 4

The presentation then wanders off through a set of slides about how better transit will assist the City to achieve various goals including environmental improvements. Eventually we get to the statement:

When buses and streetcars are given priority, they will operate more efficiently and reliably. Ultimately, the hope is that we can provide people with a practical travel option other than driving personal motor vehicles.

RapidTO Presentation, Slide 7

That “ultimately” is a key word. At the rate any road use changes are implemented in Toronto, most riders will not see much if any improvement to their routes. The idea that transit will improve is a mirage, something that happens elsewhere, if at all. Riders travel on a network and only with network-wide improvements will the majority of riders see progress.

This has political implications because only with widespread support will continued and increased spending be popular, not to mention any moves to shift road capacity in favour of transit riders. Benefits that always appear to go to someone else do not endear transit to voters.

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