Feeling Congested Part 2: Setting Priorities

The City of Toronto’s Planning Department is consulting with the public for the development of an updated Official Plan.  The plan’s transportation component falls under the rubric of “Feeling Congested” with a website devoted mainly to transit issues.  In the first round of meetings, the focus was on “what is important”, what goals should the new plan try to achieve.  In the second round, the topic is the prioritization of goals and how these might drive out different choices in a future network.

This parallels work that Metrolinx is doing on their Big Move plan, but it includes additional options for study that are city initiatives such as transit to serve the waterfront.

A survey now in progress (until June 30) seeks feedback on the evaluation criteria for transit projects, and also for the goals of the cycling plans.  Some of this makes more sense if one first reads the toolkit, but even then the presentation will leave skeptics unhappy because there is no link to the detailed study explaining how the proposed criteria have been measured for each of proposals.  (A summary chart on page 14 does not include the subcategories within each of the eight criteria that generated the total scores .)

Even with this background, an exercise asking whether the methodology is sound seems to be an odd way to survey public attitudes without a stronger discussion of the implications for a preferred network.  This is rather like discussing the colour of a magician’s hat rather than the effect this might have on the rabbit he pulls out of it (or if there’s even a rabbit at all).

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OneCity Plan Reviewed

The OneCity plan has much to recommend it even though in the details it is far from perfect.

The funding scheme requires Queen’s Park to modify the handling of assessment value changes, and they are already cool to this scheme.  Why OneCity proponents could not simply and honestly say “we need a 1.9% tax hike every year for the next four years” (not unlike the ongoing 9% increases to pay for Toronto Water infrastructure upgrades) is baffling.  A discussion about transit is needlessly diverted into debates about arcane ways of implementing a tax increase without quite calling it what it is.

On the bright side, Toronto may leave behind the technology wars and the posturing of one neighbourhood against another to get their own projects built.  Talking about transit as a city-wide good is essential to break the logjam of decades where parochialism ruled.  Couple this with a revenue stream that could actually be depended on, and the plan has a fighting chance.  Ah, there’s the rub — actually finding funding at some level of government to pay for all of this.

Rob Ford’s subway plan depended on the supposed generosity of Metrolinx to redirect committed funding to the Ford Plan (complete with some faulty arithmetic).  Similarly, the OneCity plan depends for its first big project on money already earmarked by Metrolinx to the Scarborough RT to LRT conversion.  If this goes ahead, we would have a new subway funded roughly 80% by Queen’s Park and 20% by Toronto.  Not a bad deal, but not an arrangement we are likely to see for any other line.

On the eastern waterfront, there is already $90m on the table from Waterfront Toronto (itself funded by three levels of government), and OneCity proposes to spend another @200m or so to top up this project.  Whether all $200m would be City money, or would have to wait for other partners to buy in is unclear.

Toronto must make some hard decisions about a “Plan B” if the Ottawa refuses to play while the Tories remain in power.  Even if we saw an NDP (or an NDP/Liberal) government, I wouldn’t hold my breath for money flowing to Toronto (and other Canadian cities) overnight.  A federal presence is a long term strategy, and spending plans in Toronto must be framed with that in mind.

Sitting on our hands waiting for Premier McGuinty or would-be PM Mulcair to engineer two rainbows complete with pots of gold landing in Nathan Phillips Square would be a dead wrong strategy.  Bang the drum all we might for a “one cent solution” or a “National Transit Strategy”, Toronto needs to get on with debating our transit needs whether funding is already in place or not.  Knowing what we need and want makes for a much stronger argument to pull in funding partners.

In some cases, Toronto may be best to go it alone on some of the smaller projects, or be prepared to fund at a higher level than 1/3.  If transit is important, it should not be held hostage by waiting for a funding partner who will never show up.

The briefing package for OneCity is available online.

My comments on the political aspects of OneCity are over at the Torontoist site.

To start the ball rolling on the technical review of the OneCity network, here are my thoughts on each of the proposals in the network. Throughout the discussions that will inevitably follow, it is vital that politicians, advocates, gurus of all flavours not become wedded to the fine details. Many of these lines won’t be built for decades, if ever, and we can discuss the pros and cons without becoming mired in conversations about the colour of station tiles.

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“One City” To Serve Them All

Updated June 27 at 5:20pm:  I have written a political analysis of today’s announcement for the Torontoist website that will probably go live tomorrow morning.  A line-by-line review of the plan will go up here later the same day.

TTC Chair Karen Stintz and Vice-Chair Glen De Baeremaeker will formally announce a new plan called “One City” on June 27 at 10:30.

The plan already has coverage on the Star and Globe websites.  Maps:  Globe Star

I will comment in more detail after their press conference, but two points leap off the page at me:

  • The proposed funding scheme for the $30-billion plan presumes 1/3 shares from each of the Provincial and Federal governments.  This money is extremely unlikely to show up, especially Ottawa’s share.  From Queen’s Park, some of the funding is from presumed “commitments” to current projects such as the Scarborough RT/LRT conversion which would be replaced by a subway extension.  The rest is uncertain.
  • The “plan” is little more than a compendium of every scheme for transit within the 416 that has been floated recently in various quarters (including this blog).  What is notable is the fact that glitches in some of the existing ideas (notably the fact that the Waterfront East line ends at Parliament) are not addressed.  The whole package definitely needs some fine tuning lest it fall victim to the dreaded problem of all maps — once you draw them, it’s almost impossible to change them.

For those who keep an eye on political evolution, the brand “One City” surfaced in April 2012 in a speech made by Karen Stintz at the Economic Club of Canada.  This idea of a new, unifying transit brand appears to have been cooking for some time.

Where Should We Put the “Downtown Relief” Line?

The Downtown Relief Line has been in the news a lot lately, what with dreams of vast new revenues to pay for transit expansion and, at long last, a recognition that more people want to travel downtown than we have transit capacity to handle.

Back in the 1980s, the Network 2011 plan included a line from Union Station to Don Mills and Eglinton by way of the rail corridor, Eastern Avenue, Pape, a bridge across the Don Valley, and Don Mills Road.  This scheme was turned down in favour of the Sheppard Subway as part of a misguided idea that if we simply stopped building new lines into downtown, growth would stop.  In fact, GO Transit did a fine job of providing extra capacity, and more recently the new downtown condos have raised short commutes by streetcar, cycling and foot to levels nobody expected thirty years ago.

The Yonge subway filled up, for a time,but the pressure fell off thanks to the 1990s recession and the general drop in transit use.  That’s no longer the case, and suddenly everyone wants to “do something” about transit capacity downtown.  The TTC, shamefully, downplayed anything beyond its own mad scheme to stuff thousands more riders onto the Yonge line, a project requiring major changes in signalling, reconstruction of Bloor-Yonge station (and possibly others) for extra capacity, a much larger subway fleet (and yards to hold it) and possibly even the addition of platform doors at all stations.

Council asked the TTC to look at a DRL, and there is even supposed to be a study.  However, its web page is the only sign that anything is going on.

Meanwhile, every would-be transit planner in town is busy drawing maps, to the point where a credible plan can be found simply by dropping a piece of spaghetti on a map of the city and declaring this a route.  (Post-graduate degrees are available to those who can determine the ideal height from which to drop the pasta and cooking time needed to produce the best results.)  What’s missing in a lot of this discussion is a view of how a DRL might fit into a wider network, not to mention a few basics about how a new rapid transit line will, or will not, fit in some of the proposed alignments.

One of the better proposals is on Phil Orr’s DRL Now site.  It’s not perfect (no proposal is, including those I have floated from time to time), but at least this is a place to start with sufficient detail to understand what is going on.  Drawing a swoosh across a map is easy (politicians do it all the time), but designing something that might actually work is a lot harder.

A major challenge with some versions of this line is that proponents try to do too much.  Playing “connect the dots” with a transit route has its limitations, and trying to hit too many of them causes the line to wander out of its way.  This ties back to a fundamental question:  what is a DRL supposed to do?

If we believe some of the simpler plans (notably one in last week’s Star proposed by Councillor Pasternak), the DRL’s sole function is to get people from the Danforth subway to Union Station.  This is far too simplistic and guarantees the line will not be well used except as a peak period relief valve.

Other schemes take the route south of the rail corridor to serve the Port Lands and eastern waterfront.  Aside from the problems of building such a line in landfill beside Lake Ontario, the route would not provide the fine-grained transit access possible with a surface LRT, and would vastly overservice an area whose expected demand is lower than the existing Sheppard subway.  Connection to Union Station from the south would also be a big challenge.

From time to time, I am asked “what would you do”, but to start that discussion, a few first principles:

  • A”DRL” should not exist solely to relieve the Yonge line’s peak traffic problem, but should provide new links within the transit network giving rapid transit to areas of the city that do not have it today.  Indeed, the regional function within the network may well be as important as the “relief” function at Bloor-Yonge.
  • Any proposed route through downtown must respect the actual built form of the streets and buildings.  Diagonal routes through built-up areas should be avoided as they are difficult if not impossible to build.
  • Stations must be located where it is physically possible to build them.  Some routes use rail corridors without considering how either a surface or underground station might fit or be built.
  • A “DRL” is not the complete solution to capacity problems on the subway.  These problems originate north of Steeles Avenue, and a major role in trimming peak demand falls to GO Transit which has several north-south routes that could drain traffic otherwise headed for the Yonge line.

The proposed route on DRL Now (click on “Interactive Map” under the “Station Information” pulldown) includes four phases:

  • Don Mills and Eglinton to City Place
  • City Place to Dundas West
  • Don Mills from Eglinton to Sheppard
  • Dundas West to Pearson Airport

I have concerns with a few details of this plan, but the basics are good.  Another view of the route is available via Google Maps.  This has the advantage of showing the detailed alignment rather than a “route map” graphic.

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A Grand Plan: 2011 Edition

Back in the early days of this blog, I wrote a long paper about the role of transit and what a truly regional plan would look like.  To avoid extensively quoting myself, I suggest that any newcomers to this site read that as a starting point as it contains not just a list of routes, but a philosophy of how one should look at transit.

Since 2006, we have seen Transit City, MoveOntario2020 and The Big Move.  The GTA appeared well on its way to real progress in transit although problems, notably the question of local service funding, remained.

Now we have a new Mayor in Toronto, and plans that came from years of work and debate lie in pieces on the floor.  Metrolinx and Queen’s Park seem content to “plan” by carving up funding that’s already committed and redrawing their map to suit the whims of a new regime at City Hall.

The fundamental problem in this exercise is the phrase “funding that’s already committed”.  When you draw a map with a half empty pen, you make compromises, and you run out of ink leaving huge areas bereft of service.

If redraw we must, then let us do so with a view to a transit network and to a view beyond the end of next year.  What does Toronto and the GTA need?  How much will that cost?  How do we pay for it?  If we start with the premise that we cannot afford anything, we should stop wasting our time on planners, engineers and the myth that transit can actually transform travel for the next generation.

The discussion below is Toronto centric because this is a Toronto blog, and that’s where most of the GTA’s transit riders are.  All the same, the philosophy of what transit should be affects everyone, especially in those areas where so much transit growth is needed just to catch up with the population.

Some of the info here will be familiar to those who read my commentaries regularly, but I wanted to pull it all together as a starting point.  My comments are not intended as the one, definitive “solution”, but to show the need for debate on a large scale, integrating considerations from many parts of various schemes.

[While I was writing this article, the Pembina Institute published its own critique of the Ford transit plan.  I do not intend to comment on that document here because it addresses only one part of a much larger collection of transit issues.]

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A Response to “Save Our Subways”

For some time, I have stayed away from the “Save Our Subways” dialogue over on UrbanToronto in part because Transit City and related issues are presented as being “Steve Munro’s” plan (there’s even a poll that just went up on that subject), and because there are many comments in the SOS thread that are personal insults, not fair comment, well-informed or otherwise.

Such are the joys of an unmoderated forum.

Some have proposed a public debate, possibly televised, which I flatly reject.  First off, the issues are more complex than can be properly handled in that forum, and it certainly should not turn into a mayoral candidates’ debate on transit.  I do not know any candidate who could debate the details of either commentary.

Second, the lynch mob mentality of some writers on UrbanToronto is utterly inappropriate to “debate”, and this poisons many of the discussions on that site.

Recently I was asked by the authors of the Move Toronto proposal to respond, and this article is an attempt to start that dialogue in a forum where civility occasionally breaks through the diatribes.

To begin with, there are areas where SOS and I agree strongly, notably on the need for the Downtown Relief Line (at least the eastern side of it).  I’ve been advocating this for years at the very least as a high-end LRT line, more recently as a full subway as that technology fits its location in the network better and is well suited to the likely demand.

Where we part company is the premise that we have to give up big chunks of Transit City to pay for the DRL.  This sets up a false dialogue where TC lines are portrayed as overpriced and underperforming, denigrated at least in part to justify redirecting funding to the DRL.  That is an extremely short-sighted tactic and harms the cause of overall transit improvements.  It takes us back to the days of debating which kilometre of subway we will build this year.

I don’t intend to repeat my three long posts about Transit City here, but anyone who has read them knows that I do not slavishly support everything in that plan.  If anything, the lack of movement on some valid criticisms people have raised regarding TC sets up a confrontational dynamic.  Instead, the City/TTC could have been seen as responding to concerns.

Now, with the mayoralty campaign, attacking TC has become a surrogate for attacking the Miller program and the candidacy of Adam Giambrone.  These need to be disentangled if we are to have any sort of sensible debate.

My greatest concern is that whoever is the new mayor, the issues will be so clouded by electoral excess, by positions taken as debating points, as sound bites to attack an opponent, that we won’t be able to sort fact from fiction afterwards.  If, for example, George Smitherman winds up as Mayor, he will need a reasoned program, likely a mixture of some old, some new, not a “throw it all out and start over” policy.  People will have different ideas about what that new program might be, and that’s a valid debate.

Whether Steve Munro is an arch villain (SFX: maniacal laughter) plotting the end of civilized transportation is quite another matter.  To some, I have a vast reach through the political machinery of the GTA, while to others I am irrelevant.  I am not the issue.  Transit is.

These comments are organized roughly in the sequence of the Move Toronto paper (6mb download).  Although variations and alternatives have appeared in other locations, notably threads on the UrbanToronto website, I have not attempted to address these as they are (a) a moving target and (b) not necessarily the formal position of the Save Our Subways group.

I believe that Move Toronto contains many flaws arising from an underlying desire to justify a subway network just as critics of Transit City argue against its focus on LRT.  Among my major concerns are:

  • Subway lines are consistently underpriced.
  • LRT is dismissed as an inferior quality of service with statements more akin to streetcar lines than a true LRT implementation.
  • Having used every penny to build the subway network, Move Toronto proposes a network of BRT lines for the leftover routes. However, this “network” is in fact little more than the addition of traffic signal priority and queue jump lanes (“BRT Light”) on almost all of the BRT “network”.
  • Parts of the BRT network suggest that the authors lack familiarity with the affected neighbourhoods and travel patterns.
  • There is no financial analysis of the life-cycle cost of building and operating routes with subway technology even though demand is unlikely to reach subway levels within the lifetime of some of the infrastructure.

That’s the introductory section.  The full commentary is available as a pdf.

Transit City Revisited (Part III, Updated)

(Updated at 3:00 pm, February 1.  I omitted a section on the proposed Sheppard subway extensions to Downsview and to Scarborough Town Centre.  This has been added.)

In this, the final installment of my review of Transit City, I will look at the unfunded (or underfunded) TTC transit projects.  Some of these spur passionate debates and the occasional pitched battle between advocates of various alternatives.  There are two vital points to remember through all of this:

  • Having alternatives on the table for discussion is better than having nothing at all.  It’s very easy to spend nothing and pass the day on comparatively cheap debates.  The current environment sees many competing visions, but most of them are transit visions.  The greatest barrier lies in funding.  Governments love endless debate because they don’t have to spend anything on actual construction or operations.  Meanwhile, auto users point to the lack of transit progress and demand more and wider roads.
  • Transit networks contain a range of options.  They are not all subways or all buses or all LRT.  Some are regional express routes while others address local trips.  Most riders will have to transfer somewhere, even if it is from their car in a parking lot to a GO train.  The challenge is not to eliminate transfers, but to make them as simple and speedy as possible.

I will start with the unfunded Transit City lines, and then turn to a range of other schemes and related capital projects. Continue reading

Transit City Revisited (Part I)

Transit City and transit in general are much in the political news thanks to one mayoral candidate’s declaration that there would be a moratorium on additional routes among other changes at the TTC.  Christopher Hume’s column in the Star gives an overview of the landscape.

In the midst of TTC problems from lousy customer relations to service reliability, from Enbridge cutting into the subway tunnel to a maladroit handling of the recent fare increase, everyone needs to step back a moment and divorce the TTC from the politicians.

Transit City has many good points, and they need to be reinforced, not simply tossed aside as part of the anti-Miller rhetoric brewing in some campaign offices and newspapers.  Transit City isn’t perfect, but the map may as well be cut into stone tablets rather than being a living document to hear some of its supporters. Such inflexibility undermines the plan itself.

There’s an odd parallel to Metrolinx’ Big Move plan.  Metrolinx claims that their plan is a work in progress, but just try to criticize it, try to suggest changes, and their professed love of public input evaporates.  Transit City isn’t quite as bad, and we are at least having some public feedback through the Transit Project Assessments.  However, some fundamental changes are needed.

Before I talk about the plan, it’s useful to see where it came from. Continue reading

Once Upon A Time in Scarborough

Over the years, I’ve taken a lot of flak about LRT proposals for Toronto.  Some folks imply that I am personally responsible for leading one or more generations of politicians astray, and that LRT is an invention of my very own with which, like the Pied Piper, I have lured the city away from its true destiny, a network of subways and expressways.

That is an exaggeration, but there are times I wonder at the powers claimed for me, and wish I had taken up a career as a paid lobbyist.

In fact, there was a time when the TTC was considering a suburban LRT network of its own, one that bears some resemblance to plans we are still discussing today, four decades later.

To set the stage, here is an article from the Globe and Mail of September 18, 1969 about the new life Toronto’s streetcars would find in Scarborough.  Included with the article was a photo of a train of PCCs on Bloor Street at High Park, and a map of the proposed network.

The TTC’s hopes for streetcars on their own right-of-way are a bit optimistic, and it’s intriguing how the ranges seen as appropriate for various modes have all drifted down over the years.  All the same, it was clear that the TTC had an LRT network in mind and was looking eventually for new cars for that suburban network.  It didn’t happen, of course, because Queen’s Park intervened with its ill-fated high-tech transit scheme.

A few things on the map are worth noting.  North York and Scarborough Town Centres are still “proposed” as is the Zoo.  There is a proposed Eglinton subway from roughly Black Creek to Don Mills, and the proposed Queen Street subway turns north to link with the Eglinton line and serve Thorncliffe Park.  The network includes links to the airport from both the Eglinton and Finch routes.

I didn’t invent this plan, and Streetcars for Toronto was still three years in the future.  Somehow, the TTC and Toronto lost their way, and what might have been the start of a suburban transit network, years before the development we now live with, simply never happened.