Gil Penalosa Embraces Bus Rapid Transit

Updated Sept 29/22 at 7pm: A link to and short commentary on the TTCRiders mayoral candidate poll has been added at the end of the article.

Gil Penalosa, the primary challenger to Mayor John Tory’s re-election bid, released a transit platform this week. In place of Light Rapid Transit such as the Finch West line now under construction, Penalosa advocates a network of Bus Rapid Transit under the moniker FastLane.

My reaction, quite simply, was “is that all there is?”

This map ignores large parts of Toronto, and the platform is silent on Penalosa’s view on what might happen with the transit system as a whole. There is an unhappy echo of John Tory’s SmartTrack scheme eight years ago in the amount of empty space on that map.

Notable by their absence are several projects in various states of planning and engineering including many RapidTO corridors, both bus and streetcar, and the Waterfront LRT extensions. These may not figure in Penalosa’s transit view, but any candidate should at least explain where they stand on current planning proposals. Are they deferred? Replaced by an alternative? Dropped? Also missing are planned BRT corridors on Ellesmere and on Dundas West.

By contrast with RapidTO’s red lanes, Penalosa would implement full BRT akin to York Region’s VIVA lanes with covered stations on:

  • Eglinton East to UTSC and Malvern (replacing the proposed LRT line)
  • Finch from Finch West Station to Malvern
  • Jane from Jane Station to Finch
  • Sheppard West from Sheppard West Station to Yonge
  • Sheppard East from Don Mills Station to Malvern (replacing the proposed subway)

In addition, “curbside transit corridors separated by bollards and marked with paint” would be implemented on:

  • Dufferin from the CNE to Steeles (with mixed traffic on the Allen Road portion)
  • Bathurst from Bathurst Station to Steeles

Two issues are immediately obvious here:

  • Dufferin is not a continuous street in Downsview, but jogs around Downsview Park. It is not clear how the route would navigate the portion on and north of Wilson Avenue including a link to WIlson Station, although there is a reference to “mixed traffic on the Allen Road portion”.
  • Jane is narrow south of Eglinton, a problem which beset planning for an LRT line there. This should really be a hybrid route with full BRT where possible, but at a lesser scale where not.

More generally, the idea of curb lanes with bollards is simply not credible on four-lane roads where both businesses and residences depend on curb lane access to their property. I am all for transit priority, but there are limits to what can be done to some existing streets.

Operationally there is also the question of how local service would fit into this scheme. If the BRT lanes are used only by the express branches of services, then they will only benefit those whose trips lie between express stops. Although the TTC maps an “express bus network”, many of those lines actually run local on the outer part of the routes. Moreover there is a substantial demand at the stops express buses do not serve.

The local service would be shoehorned into the space remaining for general traffic and would almost certainly be degraded as a result. Alternately, if the plans for LRT lines on Eglinton and Finch are any indication, all that would remain of local service is an occasional bus for people who will not or cannot walk to an express stop. This is an important design issue affecting the acceptability of such an infrastructure change.

As for the BRT lanes, implementation would face the same challenges at LRT at stations where an extra lane (or two) would be needed for platforms.

Penalosa’s campaign advises that they have not done any detailed design for this plan, and it shows. Just as SmartTrack ran aground on a planner who did not know the lay of the land, FastLane shows the effect of too little attention to details.

The estimated cost of the five full FastLane routes is $3.2 billion based on 62km at $52 million/km. That unit cost is the actual York Viva Rapidway cost of $39m/km inflated to 2022 dollars. While the Viva infrastructure may be more heroic than Penalosa’s plan actually contemplates, an offsetting factor is that inflation in the construction sector is running well ahead of general inflation levels. There is no cost estimate for the two curb lane implementations.

This would be funded by repurposing the $1 billion City reserve for the Eglinton East LRT (originally the Rob Ford era’s Scarborough Subway Levy) and $500 million to be saved by cancellation of the Gardiner-DVP elevated interchange project.

As far as I can tell, the idea of cancelling that road project appears only in the FastLane announcement, not as part of a wider policy on roads. Obviously, this would be a contentious position regardless of one’s feeling on the subject. The amount of savings from this cancellation can be debated over a wide range thanks to (a) how much would be short term capital vs long term maintenance in that $500m total, and (b) how much revenue from land sales possible in the “hybrid” scheme were foregone with the elevated expressway.

In any event, the plan assumes half of the total cost would be borne by other governments whose enthusiasm might be constrained by existing commitments to the Ford megaprojects particularly in the short term.

Infrastructure is useless without service, and Penalosa plans that buses will come “as frequently as subway service”. Depending on the point of comparison, this would mean about 25 buses/hour peak and 15 per hour off-peak (pre-covid subway service levels). That is an increase above current service in most cases. Even with the benefit of reserved lanes, this would mean the purchase of more buses and construction of a new garage. No provision for this is included in Penalosa’s costing.

There is also the small matter of operating costs which just about everyone who draws lines on maps seems to forget.

Penalosa cites other cities’ BRT networks as examples of what can be done: Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Bogota and Seoul. What is missing from the analysis is a comparison of implementations and rights-of-way between these cities and the proposed routes in Toronto. Of particular note is the scale of rights-of-way used in some of these systems including substantial stations and passing lanes so that frequent services can leap-frog each other. Again, the lack of any detailed planning to determine what a Toronto implementation might look like is telling.

If this review appears negative in tone, that is because I had hoped for much more. Many issues deserved to be discussed including overall service quality, subsidy levels, fare structure and integration with systems from the 905, the role of GO Transit within Toronto, and the future of “accessibility” which means very different things to the TTC and many activists within the WheelTrans community.

The elephant in the room is the TTC’s overall budget position both for operations and for capital maintenance and expansion. The money needed for these dwarfs the cost of a BRT network.

I hope that Penalosa will turn a wider view to transit than a few lines on a map.

TTCRiders Mayoral Candidate Poll

Although Gil Penalosa has not published positions on many aspects of transit, he did respond to the poll from TTCRiders. Given that many people will not see this poll in their normal feeds, I include a link to it here. Readers can browse the questions and responses at their leisure.

Rather troubling is the fact that Penalosa answered an unqualified “yes” to every question, including one that directly contradicts his own platform:

23. Will you champion the expansion of Scarborough’s rapid transit network, including the Eglinton East LRT from Kennedy Station to Malvern, connecting to Sheppard East and McCowan?

Penalosa’s plan replaces the EELRT with a BRT service.

15 thoughts on “Gil Penalosa Embraces Bus Rapid Transit

  1. I would also be hesitant to these north-south drawn lines on maps right now as the lines under construction will likely change some travel patterns significantly. The Eglinton line next year (sigh) will make quite a difference to many trips. Some routes will have greatly increased demand in sections and others will have significantly less. Do we alter roads for buses now? This is a project for the election in 2026.

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  2. Thanks Steve; and glad to have your insights, including how inflation in the construction is ahead of other inflation. Presumably this includes big transit works too, so how many extra billion may be required for some of those very deep holes that may be completed once the ice caps are melted? (Sigh!).

    Also worth noting that Dufferin is a nasty tight street in the old City, and to lose two lanes for BRT and nada for bikes may be a death sentence (again) for some cyclists, who are vehicles with a legal right to exist on carterials/cities. So – has there ever been any case for a Dufferin subway, as ridership seems very robust and we could have connectivity between malls too, most important in how we do transit. Plus maybe a new mall somewhere at the Ex, not just that big e-casinoplex that Adam Vaughan swiped at in something in the West End Phoenix that isn’t on line it seems.

    And yes, it does seem thin, for such a huge mess., including how we could be maybe squeezing the billions in transit follies for housing and other transit, though of course it’s often a Queen’s Park-related cause.

    Steve: One big issue with a Dufferin Subway would be station spacing. There is a lot of fine-grained demand along that route, to the extent that the 29 Dufferin local runs as often or more frequently than the 929 express. A subway might serve longer trips between major transfer points and a few significant demand generators like Yorkdale, but it would leave many riders out in the cold. I cannot see any justification for building a full-scale subway to the CNE on Dufferin especially considering that it will be served by the Ontario Line in the 2030s. Ridership between malls? Well Yorkdale/Wilson is an obvious stop especially with the planned development there, but Dufferin Mall, for example, is far enough south of Bloor that it would not be served directly by a Bloor/Dufferin station unless that station were deliberately built south of Bloor. What other malls are there? And, btw, malls are hardly a justification for a subway line unless you’re a property developer with some land like Trizec and Yorkdale back in the day.

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  3. Etobicoke seems to be left out. Ford Nation country? So no bus service improvements for you.

    Would assume that the 927 Highway 27 Express should see some improvement. Maybe an express from the Humber College Station (Line 6) to Pearson Airport? But with actual stops/surface stations along Highway 27?

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  4. There are two sorts of transit plans that a political candidate can put forth. The first type of plan sets the goals and objectives to be achieved. It does NOT involve a detailed plan and map of which transit lines and technologies will be used. For example, Anne Hildage, the Mayor of Paris (France, not Ontario) has set a goal for Paris to be a “15 minute city” whose residents can access all of their needs within 15 minutes by walking or cycling.

    I had thought that Mr. Penalosa would build upon his experience leading the “8-80 Cities” organization to talk about “Open Streets” and other ways of making Toronto accessible for everyone from the ages of 8 to 80.

    A very reasonable goal is “Stop killing people.” Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health with the other GTHA MOH’s has produced a report entitled “Improving Health by Design” with detailed recommendations about how to design a city and its transportation system to stop killing and injuring people. Hint: Stop driving cars.

    And Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health produced a subsequent report with detailed recommendations entitled “Reducing Health Risks from Traffic-Related Air Pollution (TRAP) in Toronto.” Hint: Stop driving cars.

    It is easily possible to set goals for progressively eliminating car use, eliminating cancer deaths from people being poisoned by car drivers’ fine particle lethal cancer-causing poisons and eliminating deaths and injuries from people being crushed by car drivers. Or to introduce a real “Vision Zero” safety plan based upon the Dutch “Sustainable Safety” principles of traffic safety.

    That is the first type of transit plan: To set forth the goals and objectives to be achieved and the timelines in which to achieve them. For example, according to the 2016 census, “In Toronto, 41 per cent of workers drive their car to work without any passengers, while 37 per cent use public transit.” It would be a reasonable political commitment to reduce that car driving to 20 per cent by the 2026 census. And easy to determine if that goal was achieved. Census source.

    The second type of transit plan involves a detailed map and plan of exactly which transit lines and technologies will be used to achieve these goals. Politicians tend to do a bad job of this. This is something that really should be done by transit professionals. The politicians should say, “This is what must be done.” And the transit professionals should reply, “Here is how to achieve those goals.”

    Steve: If you go to Penalosa’s website, you will find other announcements some of which address wider issues like pedestrian safety and cycling. I was only reviewing his transit platform.

    As for plans generally, yes, too often a plan is prescriptive rather than descriptive of overall goals. Saying “I will make the Dufferin bus better” might play well to riders of that route, although they may well say “we’ve heard this all before”, but it gives no sense of a philosophy of what the transit system should aim for across the city and beyond.

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  5. “Saying ‘I will make the Dufferin bus better’ might play well to riders of that route.”

    That is legitimate for the candidate for local councillor. For example, Shaker Jamal is standing for election for Ward 9 councillor and does indeed have a plan for the “Sufferin’ Dufferin” bus.

    But if one is standing for election as mayor of Toronto, then that person really should have a plan for all of Toronto.

    Having said that, I am of the opinion that I will wind up voting for Mr. Penalosa. The criteria for earning my vote is not to be perfect, just better than Mr. Tory.

    Steve: I concur.

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  6. Steve’s Endorsement: Jim Penelosa embraces Bus Rapid Transit

    I never heard of this guy before. Which ward is he running for and why should I vote for him?

    Steve: Well, first off, it’s “Gil” not “Jim”, and “Penalosa” not “Penelosa”.

    Second, I have not endorsed him, although I have voted for him. He is running for Mayor, not as a Councillor in a specific ward.

    You really should learn to read better.

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  7. FAST LANE is far superior to what was Smart Track. The last was a ridiculous plan that has gone nowhere in all these years. Fast Lane is doable and will get results in a fraction of the time. It will be easy to duplicate elsewhere in multiple areas which will gain overall improvements at minimal cost and time.

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  8. I’ve got an unrelated question Steve, wanted to hear your input on it.

    How come the 95/995 York Mills doesn’t have a branch that goes to Scarborough Centre Station?

    I’m wondering how a such a major route does not have a connection to the largest transit hub in Scarborough.

    Maybe a “95D” or “995A/B?”

    Steve: There is already service from Ellesmere to STC provided by the 38/938 Highland Creek and 133 Neilson buses.

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  9. I don’t know why Kevin Love is complaining that mayoral candidate Gil Penalosa has a plan to improve service on the Dufferin bus. According to Kevin Love, this is an issue for the local councillor and not the mayor. I disagree. The Dufferin bus travels through more than one ward which is why this is a mayoral issue. Kevin Love is wrong. Steve Munro concurs with Kevin. Therefore, Steve Munro is wrong.

    Steve: Penalosa’s plan for Dufferin offers little more than what is already proposed by RapidTO. Moreover, the plan ignores huge chunks of Toronto that a Mayoral plan should include.

    As for being “wrong” I know that I can do no “right” in your eyes, but the logic of your assertion is off.

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  10. Thanks Steve.

    One thing that is ignored is the large mess of the proposed OL through the core, and how it will not just gobble billions (though we needed to spend big and more wisely through the last few decades), but be another big bungle beyond the Eglinton mess for the core.

    Because of how fixed the plan was to what the Premier wanted – with a side effect of harming Toronto maybe just fine whilst passing through the development area of the Ex – we couldn’t have open discussion nor analysis of what a straight-line route might be. Straight line under Adelaide or King I think would let any tunnelling come up 10 to 20 meters (as a guesstimate) towards the surface because going in to the bedrock to avoid building foundations is likely far less needed, though it may be the case that angled shoring supports from private building need to be removed (and charge them please).

    By having a much less-deep tunnel, we could avoid much more excavations, concrete usage, operating costs, and the truck traffic, and save some years perhaps, not just a billion or three or ?. So sure, it’s a can of worms that points to how much of a sham the ‘election’ now is as Mr. Ford yanks strings, and fuss fuss goes Mr. Tory, but reactively. Too bad we seem pretty doomed to another multi-billion boondoggle, though it’s far worse out in the lower-density parts of TO, where busways and LRTs do usually make sense.

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  11. Kevin Love said,

    The second type of transit plan involves a detailed map and plan of exactly which transit lines and technologies will be used to achieve these goals. Politicians tend to do a bad job of this. This is something that really should be done by transit professionals. The politicians should say, “This is what must be done.” And the transit professionals should reply, “Here is how to achieve those goals.”

    I basically agree.

    The reason why public transit sucks in Toronto is the lack of a core department of professional transit experts, like Mary Ann George, who understand the city. In Toronto, voters think they know what is best solution for public transit, and they choose the candidate offering the shiniest toy for mayor. (Lastman Sheppard subway instead of Eglinton subway, Ford Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE) instead LRT, Tory SmartTrack, he promised a TTC SmartTrack but delivered a GO SmartTrack).

    Prior to Covid, Line 1 was truly over-crowded Finch to King and Line 2 was crowded. The Bloor/Yonge interchange was dangerously overcrowded. This problem was predicted 20 years ago (the TTC called for a “relief line”) but it was not sexy and politicians let the problem fester until it becomes a crisis.

    Every 5 years the City must revise its transit plan as part of the Official Plan. This should be the strategic transit plan for the city. Mayor Miller took the strategic planning function away from the TTC but never defined where strategic planning should occur in city. There is no strategic transit plan.

    In the past 30 years, Montreal has built an entire subway network and fleshed out a surface rapid transit network because it worked to a plan. The city and province worked together.

    The Ford’s government Bill 107 has added chaos to transit planning in Toronto. None of the four priority transit projects make sense. Extending Line 1 to Richmond Hill worsens the over-crowding and spending $6 billion on the SSE to move 109,000 passengers (4 bus routes) daily is an expensive memorial to Ford’s brother.

    I learn a lot from reading Steve’s blog. I learned about “demand flow” and “latent demand”. He seldom discusses these concepts nowadays. Transit planning must address bottlenecks in demand flow. While it is justified to argue that demand flows change, it is no reason to ignore them. Because transit projects take so long, there needs to be planning to address future needs and “latent demand”.

    Neither Metrolinx nor Toronto City government have planning departments who understand the City. We need a list of the top ten bottlenecks and top ten routes needed for the next 25 years.

    We need professional proposals, rapid transit route alternatives to Line 1, north/south alternatives in the Dufferin/Bathurst corridor, alternatives to Victoria Park. Then politicians pick the solution among the alternatives presented.

    Tory’s biggest mistake has been to make planning a political job without sufficient understanding of the technical requirements. SmartTrack was a good concept but should not have used GO equipment. I have mentioned EMU with raised platforms to Steve’s disapprobation.

    Ford has Metrolinx building all major transit projects in Toronto but no planning.

    The citizens of Toronto are always mistaken to think they are picking the person to solve public transit. The problems and possible solutions have never been properly laid out. There is no silver bullet, only expensive rusty nails.

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  12. The Ontario RT line is clearly aiming at development goals first with customer stakeholders further down the priority queue. Future generations of Torontonians will of course be the ones who suffer from the present follies of Ford, Verster, Schabas, and friends. It will be a rare case of a boondoggle from not spending enough.

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  13. Kevin Love and Steve Munro report that Gil Penalosa is a mayoral candidate with no citywide plan. Well then, don’t vote for Gil Penalosa. Instead, you should vote for a mayoral candidate who does have a citywide plan.

    Steve: John Tory does not have a citywide plan either. What he has is a collection of provincially sponsored subway and GO projects, but no vision for how transit overall will be improved during his coming term.

    In particular he has no plan for dealing with the huge operating and capital funding shortfalls facing the TTC (and the City as a whole) in the near future.

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  14. More generally, the idea of curb lanes with bollards is simply not credible on four-lane roads where both businesses and residences depend on curb lane access to their property. I am all for transit priority, but there are limits to what can be done to some existing streets.

    I’m not as familiar with Dufferin north of Bloor, but the southern end of it seems fairly amenable to bollard-ed lanes. There are a couple dozen detached homes on the street with driveways, but what makes you suggest that the presence of a handful of residents losing access to their driveways makes the proposal uncreditable? Is it just that the optics are too ‘war on the car’ centric for politicians to be willing to make those changes, or is there some more concrete reason why the city couldn’t just declare a few dozen driveways inoperable?

    Steve: Access to property is a basic right that cannot be eliminated without compensation. Access, by the way, is not just driveways, but in cases where residents park on the street, the curb lane as well.

    You have a rather cavalier attitude about changing the street’s function in the name of better transit.

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  15. “Access to property is a basic right that cannot be eliminated without compensation.”

    That may be true, but access to property BY MOTOR VEHICLE is not a right of any sort and it is removed all the time without compensation. For example, some business owners and local politicians have asked for compensation for business that have lost such access during the construction of the Eglinton Crosstown. The answer was a big fat “NO.”

    Similar demands were made during the construction of the Waterloo LRT and the St. Clair streetcar construction project.

    Steve: I disagree that this is what the article says as it deals far more with business interruption and construction interference, with loss of property access only mentioned in passing. That could probably be a matter for the courts but the businesses cannot afford to take on Metrolinx.

    Of course, temporary or permanently car-free streets have been part of our past and undoubtedly will be part of our future. These include Open Streets TO this year.

    Steve: The Open Streets TO project does not result in permanent loss of property access.

    And, of course, Yonge Street went car-free during the 1970’s.

    Steve: The businesses in question had alternate means of access for deliveries.

    The Toronto Islands have always been permanently car-free, constituting North America’s largest car-free urban residential zone.

    Steve: No right of access was revoked. This is a totally inappropriate analogy.

    I myself advocate for all of downtown Toronto to be permanently car-free, with the model being the downtown car-free zones of Utrecht and other major Dutch cities.

    Steve: In designing the King Street project as well as Queens Quay, great effort was made to accommodate property access. If you want to be the Phil Verster of car free advocacy, you have picked a bad model.

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