SmartTrack Update: Many Reports, Many Unanswered Questions (Updated)

Updated October 21, 2015 at 9:30 am:

The Executive Committee spent a few hours discussing this report. As the morning wore on, it was clear that Mayor Tory was becoming unhappy with questions about his scheme. By the end of the debate when he spoke, he said:

I think a number of the questions raised by members of council today are perfectly legitimate questions which I’m sure our staff have taken note of and if they weren’t already being asked and answered, those questions, they will now be.  I just hope and I sense a generally positive sort of sense around here but I hope that we don’t get into being either sort of Douglas or Debbie Downer about these things. [Adapted from a quotation in the Toronto Sun]

Tory went on to say that he had “a mandate” from voters to build SmartTrack in a manner distressingly reminiscent of Rob Ford’s “mandate” to tear up Transit City. The problem with both claims is that voters did not elect Tory or Ford for those specific purposes, but in a reaction against the previous administrations, particularly in Tory’s case. Moreover, that “mandate” does not mean that the platform necessarily made sense as proposed, only that it was an attraction to voters that a candidate had concrete ambitions. We have already seen Tory backtrack on his claims that Toronto did not need more bus service (responding to Olivia Chow’s half-hearted support for transit), and there is no reason for SmartTrack to be treated as a divine plan on stone tablets.

As answers from staff to various questions made abundantly clear, there is a lot of work to do between now and first quarter 2016 when all of the details are supposed to return to Council. Staff went out of their way to avoid giving any indication of the way preliminary work might be headed lest they be drawn into a debate about “conclusions” before the supporting studies are in place.

The Executive Committee made a few amendments to the report’s recommendations:

1.  Requested the City Manager to forward the report (October 15, 2015) from the City Manager for information to the Toronto Transit Commission, the Ministry of Transportation, Metrolinx, the City of Mississauga and York Region.

2.  Requested the Chief Planner and Executive Director, City Planning to report to the Planning and Growth Management Committee on the results of the public consultations arising from the Preliminary Assessments of the Smart Track Stations, as set out in Appendix 2 to the report (October 15, 2015) from the City Manager, particularly with respect to the development potential of new stations.

3.  Requested the City Manager to work with Toronto Transit Commission, Metrolinx, and GO Transit, to develop a One Map Strategy where by major intersections and/routes of these transit operators are shown on future hard copy and electronic local and regional transit maps, once SmartTrack routes and stations are established.

The first recommendation is the original staff proposal simply to transmit the update report to other agencies. The second arose from a concern by Councillor Shiner, chair of the Planning & Growth Management Committee, that implications of and potential for redevelopment around SmartTrack stations be understood as soon as possible. During debate, he spoke about the success of development a long the Sheppard line, an ironic stance considering how strongly he had opposed development around Bayview Station when it was at the design stage.

The third recommendation arose from Councillor Pasternak, who never tires of advocating the “North York Relief Line” (otherwise known as the Sheppard West extension to Downsview). His desire is that maps show all of the projects that are in the pipeline during studies, not just the one that happens to be the subject of debate.

A notable absence in the staff presentation was any reference to the Scarborough Subway Extension as an alternative route for travel to downtown. That presentation covered substantially the same information as the background reports, but it included a few new charts about comparative travel times with SmartTrack in place.

STvsTTC_TravelTimes1

The important difference between this map [at p23] and the Tory SmartTracker website (which shows comparative travel times) is that the TTC includes the access and wait times for SmartTrack in its calculations. This reduces the proportionate saving over a trip. Another issue, of course, is that many riders do not work at Union Station, and taking SmartTrack there would be an out-of-the-way trip. This is not to downplay what SmartTrack might do, but to point out that if ST is to be part of a “network”, then advocacy for it must look at how it benefits all of the trips originating in some part of the city (say northeast Scarborough), not just those that conveniently lie on its route. This will be an issue in comparative ridership projections for ST and the Scarborough Subway Extension because those who are bound for midtown will almost certainly have a shorter trip simply by taking the subway rather than ST.

The original article follows below:

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Yonge Relief Network Study: June 2015 Update

At its board meeting on June 25, 2015, Metrolinx will consider an update on the study of capacity relief for the Yonge Street Corridor in Toronto.

The report states that projected demand on the Yonge line can be handled for the next 15 years:

1.a. Significant relief to the Yonge Subway will be achieved with currently committed transit improvements underway including:

i. TTC’s automatic train control and new subway trains;

ii. The Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension; and

iii. GO Regional Express Rail

1.b. Based on [the] above, more rapid transit service and capacity that is currently funded and being implemented will meet the future 15 year demand, assuming current forecasts on the growth rate of downtown employment and the implementation of TTC automatic train control on the Yonge Subway.

Continued work is recommended:

2. Direct the Metrolinx CEO to work with the City of Toronto City Manager and the TTC CEO to develop an integrated approach to advance the Relief Line project planning and development, incorporating further business case analysis and the findings of the Yonge Relief Network Study to:

  • further assess the extension north to Sheppard Avenue East to identify a preferred project concept,
  • inform the planning underway by the City of Toronto and TTC to identify stations and an alignment for the Relief Line from Danforth to the Downtown area
  • continue to engage the public in this work as it develops

3. Direct staff to work in consultation with York Region, City of Toronto and the TTC to advance the project development of the Yonge North Subway Extension to 15% preliminary design and engineering.

The emergence of a variation on the Relief Line that would operate north to Sheppard is quite a change from days when even getting discussion of a line north of Eglinton was a challenge. The context for this emerges by looking at the alternatives for “relief” that were considered and how they performed.

The next report to the Metrolinx Board will be in Spring 2016. The challenge will be to keep planning for a Relief Line “on track” in the face of the excitement and political pressures for GO RER, SmartTrack and a Richmond Hill Subway.

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Platform Edge Doors: Motherhood or a Vital Addition to the TTC Subway? (Updated)

At its meeting of February 11, 2015, Toronto Council debated a report from the Medical Officer of Health on Suicide Prevention. In response to this report, Council approved the following motion (which is a modified version of one of the MOH’s recommendations):

1. City Council request the Toronto Transit Commission to consider the following improvements to passenger safety and suicide prevention in future budget submissions as the automatic train control project is completed:

a. in the design of stations for all future extensions or new lines include Platform Edge Doors or other means for restricting unauthorized access to the subway tracks by members of the public;

b. retrofit existing stations with Platform Edge Doors or other means for restricting unauthorized access to the subway tracks by members of the public.

Please refer to the update at the end of this article for comment about the content of the debate which is now available online.

During the debate, various claims were made for the benefits of Platform Edge Doors (PEDs) on the advice of TTC staff, notably that it would not be possible to increase subway service from 28 trains/hour to 36/hour without the installation of PEDs.

28 trains/hour is equivalent to a headway of 128.6 seconds, somewhat shorter than the current scheduled level of 141 seconds, but within the capabilities of the existing signal system. 36 trains/hour is equivalent to a headway of 100 seconds which is well below the current infrastructure’s capacity.

This is the first time that the TTC has advanced PEDs not just as a “nice to have” option, but as a pre-requisite to improved subway service. The MOH cites a TTC report on the subject, but does not comment on its technical merit only regarding PEDs as a way to eliminate subway suicides, a noble goal.

The TTC received a presentation on this report in September 2010, but only a two-page covering report is online. (The TTC plans to post the longer version, but as I write this it is not yet online.)

According to this report:

In May 2010, SYSTRA Group (an affiliated company of Paris Metro) was retained to conduct a business case study for the installation of PEDS at TTC subway stations.

The SYSTRA report is not publicly available, but the presentation summary will be posted by the TTC soon. It is not yet on the TTC’s site as I write this article, but was provided to me by the TTC’s Brad Ross and is available here.

PEDs Business Case Presentation Sep 28, 2010

This presentation is misleading in that it combines benefits expected to flow from reduced headways through Automatic Train Control (ATC) and those specific to PEDs. A major benefit of the doors is to keep debris from falling onto the tracks where it creates a fire hazard. However, a separate review of TTC operations by an international consulting group noted that the TTC’s ability to operate its advertised service is compromised by several factors including equipment reliability and passenger illness (some of which is a result of overcrowding). Continue reading

Neptis Reviews Metrolinx: A Critique (I)

In December 2013, the Neptis Foundation published a review of the Metrolinx Big Move plan authored by Michael Schabas. This review received prominent attention in the Toronto Star and is regularly cited in their coverage of transportation issues. Some elements also appear in recent comments by Transportation Minister Glen Murray, and it is reasonable to assume that his view of Metrolinx priorities has been influenced by the Neptis paper.

Since its publication, I have resisted writing a detailed critique in part because of the sheer size of the document and my disappointment with many claims made in it, and a hope that it would quietly fade from view. Recent Ministerial musings suggest that this will not happen.

The stated goals of the report arose from four basic questions posed shortly after The Big Move was released in 2008:

  • What evidence suggests that the projects in the Big Move will double the number of transit riders and significantly reduce congestion in the region, as promised by Metrolinx?
  • Does each project offer good value for money?
  • Do all the projects add up to a substantial regional transit network or is the Big Move just an amalgam of projects put forward by diverse sponsors?
  • How do the projects in the Big Move relate to the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, its land use equivalent? [Page 2]

The report itself addresses a somewhat different set of questions and notably omits the land use component.

  • Will the Big Move projects achieve the Metrolinx objective of doubling transit ridership?
  • Are these projects consistent with Metrolinx’s own “guiding principles”?
  • Are they well-designed, consistent with international best practice, and integrated with other transport infrastructure?
  • Will they support a shift of inter-regional travel onto transit?
  • Are there alternative, more effective schemes that should be considered?
  • What changes would help Metrolinx produce better results? [Page 14]

Schabas’ work is frustrating because on some points he is cogent, right on the mark.

Metrolinx has bumbled through its existence protected from significant criticism, swaddled in a cocoon of “good news” and the presumed excellence of its work. To be fair, the agency operates in a political environment where independent thought, especially in public, is rare, and years of planning can be overturned by governmental whim and the need to win votes.

That said, Metrolinx is a frustrating, secretive organization conducting much of its business in private, and tightly scripting public events. Schabas rightly exposes inconsistencies in Metrolinx work, although his own analysis and alternatives are, in places, flawed and blinkered.

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Neptis Reviews Metrolinx: A Critique (III)

This article is the third section of my critique of the December 2013 review of the Metrolinx Big Move Plan written by Michael Schabas for the Neptis Foundation. It should be read in conjunction with Part I and Part II.

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Metrolinx Contemplates Relief (4)

Public meetings regarding the Metrolinx Yonge Corridor Relief Study and the City of Toronto/TTC Relief Line Project Assessment have been announced:

  • Saturday April 5, 9:00 am to 1:00 pm at the Sheraton Centre Dominion Ballroom (Queen Street opposite City Hall)
  • Tuesday April 8, 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm at Richmond Hill Presbyterian Church (10066 Yonge Street, north of Major MacKenzie) (Metrolinx study only)
  • Thursday April 10, 5:30 pm to 9:30 pm at Riverdale Collegiate (1094 Gerrard Street East at Jones Avenue)
  • Saturday April 12, 9:00 am to 12:00 noon at Holy Name Parish (71 Gough Avenue, Danforth one block west of Pape) (City/TTC study only)

A new website has been created under the name regionalrelief.ca with links to various aspects of these studies.  There are three main branches only one of which contains new content.

  • The Metrolinx branch takes readers to the Metrolinx Regional Relief Strategy project page which reflects the status as of the February 2014 board meeting.
  • The City of Toronto branch goes to a subsite dedicated specifically to the Project Assessment for the Relief Line.  This includes a mechanism for public participation in formulation of the Terms of Reference for this study.
  • The York Region branch goes to the VivaNext page for the Yonge subway Richmond Hill extension.

I will update this article if new material appears before the public meetings.

Metrolinx Contemplates Relief (3) (Meetings Postponed)

The meetings originally announced for the week of March 1st in Toronto and Richmond Hill have been postponed by joint agreement of the parties involved.  New dates later in March will be announced.

Metrolinx will hold three public meetings to discuss the Regional Relief Strategy on March 1st and 3rd in Toronto, and on March 5th in Richmond Hill.

Metrolinx Contemplates Relief (2)

This article is a continuation of a previous commentary on the Metrolinx Yonge Network Relief Strategy.

On February 14, 2014, the Metrolinx Board considered the presentation on the Yonge Network Relief Study, but little information was added in the debate.  One question, from Chair Robert Prichard, went roughly “shouldn’t this have been started two years ago”, but it was left hanging in the air without a response.  Two years, of course, has brought us a new Provincial Premier and a recognition that her predecessor’s timidity on the transit file wasted a great deal of time.

Moreover, there is a long overdue acknowledgement that Metrolinx cannot simply plan one line at a time without understanding network effects including those beyond its own services.

Originally, I planned to leave the next installment in this discussion until public consultation sessions began, but I have now decided to make some brief comments on the various options that will be on the table.  (See Yonge Network Relief Study, page 11.)

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Metrolinx Contemplates Relief

At its meeting on February 14, 2014, the Metrolinx Board will receive a presentation on the Yonge Network Relief Study. Despite the need for better regional transit links (and by that I mean links that do not take people to downtown Toronto), the elephant in the room has always been the unstoppable demand for more capacity into the core area. Planning for and debates about catching up with the backlog of transit infrastructure cannot avoid this issue, and it skews the entire discussion because the scale and cost of serving downtown is greater than any other single location in the GTHA.

Conflicting political and professional attitudes across the region colour the view of downtown.  Toronto suburbs, never mind the regions beyond the city boundary, are jealous of downtown’s growth, and for decades have wanted some of the shiny new buildings and jobs for themselves. But the development, such as it was, skipped over the “old” suburbs to new areas in the 905 that could offer lower taxes possible through booming development and the low short-term cost of “new” cities.

Strangling downtown is not a new idea, and politicians decades ago foretold of gleaming suburban centres to redirect growth together with its travel demand. The transit network would force-feed the new centres, and downtown would magically be constrained by not building any new transit capacity to the core.

Someone forgot to tell GO Transit where service and ridership grew over the decades. Downtown Toronto continued to build, and that is now compounded by the shift of residential construction into the older central city.

Thanks to the early 1990s recession, the subway capacity crisis that had built through the 1980s evaporated, and the TTC could talk as if more downtown capacity was unneeded. To the degree it might be required, the marvels of new technology would allow them to stuff more riders on existing lines. A less obvious motive was that this would avoid competition for funding and political support between new downtown capacity with a much-favoured suburban extension into York Region. Whenever they did talk about “downtown relief”, the TTC did so with disdain.

Times have changed. Long commutes are now a burden, not a fast escape to suburban paradise. Every debate starts with “congestion” and the vain hope that there is a simple, take-two-pills-and-call-me-in-the-morning solution. Top that off with an aversion for any taxes that might actually pay for improvements, or sacrifices in convenience until that blissful day when transit arrives at everyone’s doorstep.

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Will The TTC Board Ever Discuss Policy, or, Good News Is Not Enough (Updated)

Updated January 21, 2014 at 2:20 pm:  The description of the loading standards introduced with the Ridership Growth Strategy has been corrected.

The election season is upon us in Toronto, and transit made an early appearance on the campaign with mayoral candidate David Soknacki’s proposal that Toronto revert to the LRT plan for Scarborough.  I am not going to rehash that debate here, but there is a much larger issue at stake.

The Ford/Stintz era at Council and at the TTC has been notable for its absence of substantive debate on options and alternatives for our transit future.  Yes, we have had the subways*3 mantra, the palace coup to establish Karen Stintz and LRT, for a time, as a more progressive outlook on the TTC Board, and finally the Scarborough debate.

But that’s not all there is to talk about on the transit file.  Do we have a regular flow of policy papers at Board meetings to discuss what transit could be, should be?  No.  Ford’s stooges may have been deposed, but the conservative fiscal agenda remains.  Make do with less.  Make sacrifices for the greater good, whatever that may be.  Show how “efficiency” can protect taxpayer dollars even while riders freeze in the cold wondering when their bus will appear.

Every Board meeting starts with a little recitation by the Chair of good news, of stories about how TTC staffers helped people and the good will this brings to the organization.  There is ever so much pride in improved cleanliness and attractiveness of the system – a worthwhile achievement, but one that should become second nature to maintain.  It should also be a “canary in the coal mine”, a simple, obvious example of what happens when we make do with “good enough”, with year-by-year trimming to just get by.

If the bathrooms are filthy, imagine the condition of the trains, buses and streetcars you are riding.  I’m not talking about loose newspapers blowing around, but of basic maintenance.  From our experience in the 1990s, we know how a long slide can take a once-proud, almost cocky system to disaster, and how hard it is to rebuild.

In a previous article, I wrote about the threat to basic system maintenance posed by underfunding of the Capital Budget, an issue that has not received enough public debate.  Part of the problem is that the crucial maintenance work that must occur year over year is treated the same way as new projects.  Maintenance competes with the glamour projects for funding, and may be treated as something to be deferred, something we don’t need yet.  Couple that with starvation of funds for basics like a new and expanded fleet and garage space, and there’s a recipe for a TTC that will decline even while more and more is expected of public transit.

The budget isn’t the only issue that deserves more detailed examination, and many other  policies should be up for debate.  Within a month, the TTC will have a new Chair as Karen Stintz departs for the mayoralty campaign.  Within a year, Toronto should have a new Mayor, one whose view of transit is not framed by the window of his SUV.  At Queen’s Park we may have a Liberal government with a fresh, if shaky, mandate to raise new revenues for transit construction and operation, or we may have a populist alternative with a four-year supply of magic beans.

In the remaining months, the TTC Board has a duty to lay the ground for the governments to come, especially at City Hall.  The 2015 budget debates should be well informed about the options for transit, if only for planning where Toronto will need to spend and what services the TTC will offer in years to come.  Will the TTC rise to this challenge, or sit on its hands with a caretaker Board until the end of the current term?

Here is a selection of the major policy issues we should be hearing about, if only the TTC would engage in actual debate to inform itself, Council, the media and the voters.

  • Fare structure:  What is the appropriate way to charge fares for transit service?  By time, distance, week, month?  How does smart card technology change the way fares are collected and monitored?  What are the implications for regional travel and integration?
  • Service standards:  What loading standards should be used to drive service improvements?  Should the TTC build in elbow room to encourage riding and to reduce delays due to crowding?  Should there be a core network of routes with guaranteed frequent service?
  • Service management:  What goals should the TTC aim for in managing service?  Do the measures that are reported today accurately reflect the quality of service?  Are bad schedules to blame for erratic service, or does this stem from management indifference or from labour practices that work against reliable service?  What are the tradeoffs in the relative priority of transit and other traffic?  What are the budgetary effects of moves to improve service?
  • Budgets and Subsidies:  Both the Operating and Capital Budgets have been cut below the level recommended by TTC management.  These cuts will affect service and maintenance in the short and long term, but there has been no debate about the effect, especially if these are not quickly reversed in a post-Ford environment.  The Capital Budget faces a huge gap between available funding and requirements.  Over ten years, the shortfall is 30% in available financing versus requirements, and this is back-end loaded so that the shortfall rises to 50% in later years.  The proposed level of City subsidy is barely half what would be needed if Queen’s Park returned to its historical 50% capital funding formula.  Hoped-for money from Ottawa is more likely to finance major projects such as new subway lines, not the “base” budget for capital  maintenance.  The budget, especially capital, is not well understood by the TTC Board or Council in part because of the confusing way in which it is presented.  Toronto cannot begin to discuss subsidy policies if those responsible for decisions cannot understand their own budgets.
  • The Waterfront:  While battles rage over subway and LRT proposals for the suburbs, a major new development on the waterfront is starved for transit thanks to cost escalation, tepid interest by the TTC, and the perception that waterfront transit can be left for another time.  The pace of development may be threatened if good transit does not materialize on Queens Quay, and later to the Port Lands, but meanwhile this project sits on the back burner little understood by most members of the TTC Board and Council.
  • Rapid transit plans:  The artificial distinction between GO and the subway (or even higher-end LRT operations such as the proposed Scarborough line) will disappear as GO becomes a frequent all-day operation.  There will be one network regardless of the colours of the trains.  GO service to the outer parts of the 416 is particularly important as an alternative to subway construction serving long-haul trips to downtown.  Subways, LRT and BRT each has its place in the network, but electoral planning must not leave us with fragments of a network rather than an integrated whole.
  • Accessibility:  The need for accessibility extends all the way from the severely disabled who require door-to-door service, through a large and growing population who have some degree of independence, to those whose only problem may be bad knees or a weak heart.  Neither the TTC nor the City has taken the issues of accessibility particularly seriously in recent years.  There may be good words, but the budget and service policies clearly limit the growth of the parallel Wheel Trans system.  Meanwhile, retrofitting the system for full access is delayed thanks to funding limitations at both the City and Queen’s Park.  What we do not know is the true extent of the need for accessibility on the TTC and what this means for service and infrastructure.

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