Sexy public transit, part II

Sexy public transit? Beauty (and sexiness) is in the eye of the beholder, but rapid transit lines spread out all over the GTA in the next 10 years gets me hot.

I’ll say it again. Rapid transit lines spread out all over the GTA in the next 10 years, baby. Just look at the map above. It’s called a regional approach to public transit in the GTA.

The map is an amalgamation of recent BRT/LRT proposals from the:

TTC’s Ridership Growth Strategy (BRT/LRT network = thick red lines on above map)

The City of Toronto’s Transit City plan (BRT/LRT network = thick red lines)

York region’s VIVA Phase 2 plan (BRT network = royal blue lines)

Mississauga’s Transitway plan (BRT line = orange line)

Brampton’s Acceleride plan (BRT lines = light blue lines)

GO Transit’s BRT plan (BRT line = thick dark green line. Potential new GO rail lines = thin light green lines)

and Toronto’s current rapid transit infrastructure (TTC subway/RT = thin red lines. GO rail lines = thin dark green lines)

The GTA needs a regional approach to public transit that addresses moving large numbers of people inter-regionally and intra-regionally. Public transit in the GTA has to be dramatically improved and expanded so that it becomes a viable alternative to the car. The transportation problems facing the GTA know no political boundaries, so the solutions should reflect that.

What can we do?

– substantial GO Transit improvements and investments

GO Transit’s commuter rail service is the transit mode best suited to the inner and outer suburban commuters who travel to Toronto’s city core. Extending service times, with an eventual goal of all day, two way service is essential to better public transit in the GTA. The expansion of GO rail further into the GTA is also warranted, as is the new use of the 3 rail corridors that travel through Vaughn/north-western Etobicoke and Pickering/Markham/north-eastern Scarborough. Negotiations with CPR and CN rail, expansion of Union station to handle additional commuters as well as new fare initiatives are also required.

– creation of a comprehensive BRT/LRT network throughout the GTA

The map at the beginning of this article is an amalgamation of ambitious plans to provide rapid transit service quickly, affordably and efficiently to the major municipalities of the GTA. BRT and LRT make sense in our inner and outer suburbs because they lack the appropriate densities to facilitate expensive and time-consuming subways. It will dramatically improve local, as well as interregional travel. The implementation of a regional BRT/LRT network is the biggest step towards making public transit “the smart choice” for travel in the GTA (for an outline of the benefits of a BRT/LRT network, please see Sexy public transit pt.1)

– significant expansion of every bus and streetcar fleet in the GTA

Unfortunately, our lax land use policies have allowed developers to run unchecked in their creation of car-oriented subdivisions, which makes effective transit service difficult. Because of this difficultly, transit authorities justify weak off-peak service in these areas because of a perceived lack of ridership. If local bus/streetcar routes (at all points in the day) were buffeted by more vehicles, transit would become as attractive and viable as the car

– rapid transit lines to the airport

The airport and its surrounding area has one of the highest degrees of employment density in the GTA. Rapid transit in this area is essential, however, this requires further study because the feasibility of the “Blue 22” proposal is questionable.

– a regional authority to identify, study, fund and implement a regional approach to public transit in the GTA

The Greater Toronto Transportation Authority (GTTA) is a good idea, however, in order to effectively facilitate transportation improvements in the GTA it must:

  • – be able to raise its own funds, otherwise its just another government agency begging for money
  • – in addition to transit, it must also oversee all major roads and highways because transit and traffic are interrelated
  • – it must always recognize and support the City of Toronto’s and the TTC’s major role in the GTA transportation system
  • – it must hold off on its pursuit of a regional “smart card” until we have a truly regional public transit system. This is an expensive ($250 million) project that does little to improve actual transit. Why would you create what basically amounts to a new fare collection scheme when the scheduling of bus routes between the different transit systems are not even coordinated themselves?

Transportation problems? What transportation problems?

– the map above displays our current rapid transit infrastructure in the GTA. Clearly, our system is inadequate given our current population and economy. It is also directly related to the massive congestion of our roads and highways.

– the population of the GTA is growing more and more each year, and faster then we think. The Neptis Foundation estimates that the population of the GTA will grow from 7.4 million in 2000 to 10.5 million in 2031. A population increase of that magnitude will seriously exacerbate our current transportation problems

– there are too many cars on the road. Our roads and highways are a system, and like any system it has a certain capacity it can effectively handle. For instance, the Gardiner Expressway was built to handle approximately 70,000 cars a day. Today, it handles 200,000.

– our public transit systems are grossly underfunded and underserviced. 82% of the TTC’s operating budget comes from its riders. The next closest North American city with a comparable transit system is New York at 54%.

– the State of Maryland gives Baltimore’s transit system 68% of its operating funds. The Province of Ontario used to pay 75%, but since the mid 90’s, it gives the TTC nothing in terms of stable funding

– our lax land use policies, particularly in the inner and outer suburbs, give property developers free reign to build subdivisions that are not conducive to public transit, walking or cycling. Everything in the suburbs: the roads, sidewalks, homes, work places, shopping areas and recreation facilities are built to serve the car.

– many of the lowest-income neighbourhoods in Toronto are in the inner suburbs, where public transit service is worst

– there aren’t enough buses or streetcars to serve local routes. Which means the wait time for buses in the suburbs are too long, frustrating and unpredictable. The vehicles that do come are often caught in traffic or crowded, making the journey long, uncomfortable and draining. This makes travelling from place to place within your own area unreliable, time-consuming and slow. (An ugly cycle that invariably drives people to their cars)

– Downtown Toronto’s important streetcar routes are hit with a double whammy: not enough streetcars and operating in mixed traffic. Hard political decisions are needed to improve transit within the highest density area in the GTA

– travelling from city to city is mainly facilitated by GO Transit (with long waiting times between its vehicles) or infrequent and uncoordinated bus service between the different public transit systems

– gridlock is killing our economy. The Toronto Board of Trade estimates that we lose $1.8 billion a year because of gridlock

– our air quality is worsening year by year. Toronto had 3 smog days in 2000. It had 48 in 2005

– many solutions to the regional problems of public transit invariably involve some type of subway proposal. The type of which take 10-15 years to build, serve a relatively small area of the GTA, cost taxpayers billions and in reality only help a small # of people. (see the Sheppard subway line and the proposed albatross that is the Spadina subway extension). Continued planning of this sort only serves to exacerbate our transit problems because they do not address them effectively, cost wise or in the appropriate timeframe

Vision and visionaries

In the context of current GTA transit systems, I realize that “sexy public transit” isn’t an easy concept to grasp. It’s almost an oxymoron, but that’s part of the reason why I called it sexy. We need a paradigm shift in our outlook towards public transit. We need to get the ideas about public transit out of the minds of advocates, professors and urban planning students into the lexicon of everyday conversation. Everyone knows about Waterfront revitalization or has an opinion about taking down the Gardiner, but how many people can even start to think about a BRT/LRT network? Urban writers and politicians have to start educating people and engage them in discussion, galvanizing them about sexy public transit and the vital role that it plays in unlocking the potential of the GTA.

For far too long, our three levels of government have treated each other as though we are not part of the same team. If the GTA succeeds, Ontario succeeds. If Ontario is prospering, does Canada not benefit as well? We as Canadians deride our lack of identity and our lack of a defining quality. What if Canada strived to be the most progressive country in the world? I would say that is a defining quality if there ever was one.

True, the ideas presented in this article are expensive, perhaps even controversial. That’s where vision and visionaries come in. But who is willing to embrace that role?

David Miller has shown some promise with his BRT/LRT network plan and with his work on a National Transit Strategy (which calls for the Federal government to provide substantial and continuous funding for public transit in Canadian cities). Unfortunately, his support of the Spadina subway extension threatens to undermine all of his good work.

Perhaps, this discussion is better suited to the next election?

If Dalton McGuinty won’t properly address the transit issues facing the GTA, I wonder if John Tory will?

Cartography by Graeme Parry. To view or download more detailed maps, please click on the following:

For a brief primer on different transit technologies, click here


  1. One tiny correction:

    The old 75% subsidy from Queen’s Park was for capital (new vehicles, subway lines, major repairs).

    The operating subsidy was about 17% with a matching contribution from the City, and the riders picked up the remainder.

  2. A regional rail network is exactly what we need. For the cost of a York U/Vaughan subway, we can have frequent 2-way service on most of the GO corridors, just by building additional tracks and bridges and stations on existing rights of way. Plus parts of Toronto that are underserved (Rexdale, Weston, eastern Scarborough) could get proper rapid transit service. What we need though are smaller, more frequent trains rather than the gigantic GO trains. Then GO would be more than the suburban parking lot-to-downtown service it largely is now.

    Finally, having frequent two way service would promote more intensification in places like the downtowns of Markham, Richmond Hill, Brampton, as well as Long Branch, Port Credit, Streetsville and maybe even Woodbridge.

    That, combined with TTC ROWs, the Viva, Brampton and Mississauga projects would go a long way (though I feel there are places were a subway is or may be needed, like Eglinton, or the legendary Downtown Relief Line).

  3. For better or worse I think Blue 22 is dead. Like the waterfront, the airport link has had study after study going back to the 70’s and still nothing has really happened.

    I really like all of the ideas presented here but because its so simple, so cost effective, and logical, I am not holding my breath. Sad.

  4. I love the idea of this xRT network. But, well, forgive an enthusiastic but still skeptical layman for asking whether this won’t be a recipe for gridlock, everywhere… I know that improving transit will obviously lead to less car use in these newly- and better-served areas, but the loss of a lane for normal traffic might cause problems too, no? Are there any studies on the impact on traffic of, say, the Spadina and Queens Quay ROWs, or other cities that have undertaken similar retrofits of streets?

  5. Andrew –

    I’m not sure of exact numbers or of specific studies (would have to check Eric Miller, transportation Prof. at UofT)

    I would gather that traffic would be primarily affected by:

    – car circulation will go through significant changes
    – left turns being restriced to only major, signalised intersections
    – loss of on-street parking on narrow streets with a ROW
    – loss of roadspace for cars

    To be honest, I don’t know if there is anyway around this issue. As an urban planning student, I understand the need to address everyone’s concerns, unfortunately, the urgent need to dramatically improve transit makes it difficult to maintain the status quo in regards to cars.

    That’s why implementing a network on this magnitude takes tremendous political will, as well as the need to be honest to people in the GTA in regards to what this will mean to their driving routines.

    We know what our city is like when we give cars priority over transit, what would it be like if the roles were reversed? Which is the path to a better future?

  6. thanks for your reply. I agree that we’ve never really made transit a priority, and that we really need to. however, even having given cars priority, we have tons of gridlock around the city (which might be a testament to the losing proposition they pose in general). I just hope that this sort of plan won’t be DOA due to concerns about already congested traffic getting worse.

  7. I would love to see the GO train service integrated much tightly with the subway, sort of like the Paris RER. Apart from more frequent service — including trains outside of rush hour, preferably every ten minutes — the two priorities I believe most pressing for integrating subway and GO train service are:

    – better interconnection between GO train and TTC subway stations. Every GO train station should be colocated with a TTC station, under one roof, giving the feel of one station and an easy transfer. THat this is not done on Sheppard is crazy.

    – Stop at Bloor. The train that runs north from Union to Sheppard, Finch, and Langstaff, does not stop at Bloor. That is a big mistake. If commuters could take a Bloor train east or west, and transfer north for a quick hop up to Langstaff, that would make a huge difference.

    Going south to Union to get north to Langstaff feels weird — better to just head to Finch and get on a bus, which is what most do. We want to get those people off the Yonge line and into GO trains: faster, and better load balancing.

    – third area, which is prehaps less pressing: the transit systems north of Steeles are equally unintegrated, if not more. VIVA and YRT simply do not feed GO stations. The VIVA superstop stations are not at GO stations. Why the heck not? What is going on there?

  8. Andrew, traffic congestion shouldn’t be taken as a sign that transit isn’t the right solution — it’s by far the most promising solution to that congestion. There are few new transportation corridors available to build massive new roads, and it would be either too disruptive (for neighbourhoods or green space) or too expensive to create new rights-of-way on what today is private land. So for me the key question is how you get the most transportation capacity out of the space you have available.

    On that front transit is the clear winner. The massive Gardiner/Lakeshore highway system has a capacity of only about 7500 people per direction per hour. A surface LRT has about the same capacity, yet squeezes that into a much smaller space.

    Some people will always want to drive, but I think there are plenty of drivers today who would take transit if it was faster, more convenient, and more comfortable. Build that, and you’ll easily take enough cars off the road to compensate for a reduction in lanes.

  9. Disparishun,

    I agree with you that GO needs better frequencies but you need to realize that their schedules need to fit around those of CN and CP who own the tracks and are in the freight business. GO is in some places building private tracks for itself but it cannot do so along all of its corridors for lack of money and or space. Booting the freight off of the tracks would mean more trucks carrying it on the roads.

    Station integration between TTC and GO works to varying degrees depending on the current station locations. Kipling, Kennedy and Union are all close together that a single complex can be built for them. Danforth and Main St. stations really can’t be built next to one another. While Oriole was built at the 401, so unless GO is willing to relocate this station to Sheppard to tie in with the Leslie station we may have to put up with the hike to get between the two stations. The relocation may eventually occur with all the development going on in the area. The only other station with subway proximity is Bloor and Dundas West. From what I’ve heard the land owner is dragging his feet over building a tunnel to connect the two stations over fears that he’ll lose pedestrian traffic.

    As for building a station on the Richmond Hill line at Bloor, you realize the GO station would lie underneath the viaduct in an area prone to flooding? How would the people get up to the Castle Frank or Broadview station? Steve Munro addresses some of these issues at his blog. Future subway extensions do tie in with the existing (or in some cases proposed) GO stations.

    Throughout 905 GO Stations are major hubs for a lot of routes. In places like Oakville, Pickering, Ajax, Whitby and Milton most if not ALL the routes start and stop at the GO Station. Many agencies actually have shuttle routes dedicated to getting people from the surrouding neighbourhoods into the station in time to catch the train and back home in the evening.

    VIVA stops at two GO stations (3 if you count the orphaned York University station) and have huge stations there (Langstaff and Unionville). Again it’s just the alginment of VIVA doesn’t really allow for connections, but where it does they’re BIG. If a station were built along the line running to Bradford in Concord I’m sure there’d be another superstation there.

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