Today’s Globe & Mail includes an op ed article Rethinking the Need for Speed reporting on a recent study comparing the cost of transportation modes. The study and the article conclude that trams (streetcars) are the best choice, and that Skytrain (also known as the “RT” in Toronto) is a distant choice.
Those who know me well know that any chance to give the RT/ICTS/Skytrain advocates a black eye is more than welcome, but in this case I have to put a bit of context on the discussion.
The Skytrain vs LRT debate has consumed Vancouver transit advocates, planners and policitians for decades. The original Skytrain was a combined product of a premier who didn’t like streetcars and of lobbying by the Ontario government to get its then-new ICTS showcased for Expo in Vancouver. Certain characteristics of the original Skytrain route including the availability of a tunnel under downtown that could handle stacked Skytrains, but not LRT, an available right-of-way that kept down elevated construction costs, and the operational advantage of close headways of short trains tipped the balance in Skytrain’s favour.
Having said that, I must also observe that the technology was used to its maximum during Expo with a far more sophisticated operating model than anything the TTC has ever implemented on any line. This was automated transit really shining, but only for a brief moment. Probably the most important thing about the Vancouver system is that the people running it really wanted to make it work. From the day it opened, they analysed operations (including automatically produced charts such as those you see in my TTC route studies) looking for ways to handle demands and unusual events better. The idea of throwing up your hands in resignation, the TTC’s approach to line management, was totally foreign.
Skytrain works not just because of the technology, but because the people running the system care to make it run well.
All the same, the love affair with Skytrain wedded Vancouver to high-cost system expansion, and a route design skewed to handling commuters more than local trips. Indeed, most of the original Skytrain line does not follow city streets, and it depends on local redevelopment, walk-in trade and bus feeders for passengers.
The LRT vs Skytrain debate heated up recently with a proposed east-west line along Broadway, a major bus and trolleybus corridor. This is a street with much local development and Skytrain foes look to LRT as a way of achieving better local access and support for the community throiugh which the line will pass. Elevated construction is out of the question, and a Broadway Skytrain will almost certainly be underground adding considerably to its cost.
This is the political background to the Skytrain vs Trams study, and it’s important to read the study in context. The study itself does not address specific corridors, but simply looks at the operating and capital costs of each mode, as well as the environmental effects. When the numbers are combined, trams come out on top (or more accurately on the bottom with the lowest cost and carbon impact). Skytrain is much higher, primarily due to capital cost.
The basic debate in all of this is one of philosophy: should new transit lines be built to serve long trips where speed between stations is paramount, or should lines serve shorter trips and local demands with easily accessible stations? In the ongoing debate here, Transit City comes under fire because the lines won’t be fast enough for long trips. Should that be their purpose? What role does GO have as a regional carrier within the 416?
Some Transit City proposals call out for redesign, especially regarding the Sheppard/Finch transfer and the dubious nature of surface proposals for the south ends of the Don Mills and Jane routes. Work on new proposals is already underway as a spinoff of the Metrolinx studies, but the old plans still get lots of play including the TTC’s own Transit City campaign all over the system. The TTC needs to update the proposals to remove the less credible options and to indicate that they are not just drawing lines on maps.
Finally, I hope to see the Metrolinx study of options for the Scarborough RT published soon. This is an ideal chance to convert the line to LRT, and even the TTC’s own recommendation to upgrade with Mark II cars only, barely, made sense if the line would never be extended.
We now know that the “SRT” will run north into Malvern and possibly north of Steeles Avenue. The cost comparison between LRT and Skytrain should spell the end of the RT as we know it.