GTA Summit transportation notes: Radical McCallion, “Toronto’s Mohawk” and more

Figures are for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. From GTA Summit backgrounder, Keeping on Track (PDF)

I was fortunate to be invited to take part in the Greater Toronto Summit organized by CivicAction (formerly the Toronto City Summit Alliance) last week.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the discussion at the summit focused on transportation issues. As a backgrounder prepared for the Summit laid out (PDF; disclosure – I was part of the discussions leading to this document), Toronto is facing something of a transportation crisis — demand for roads and transit is increasing much faster than supply, meaning that commuting times are increasing and average speed of travel is plummeting. The cost in wasted time and productivity (not to mention increased pollution) is estimated in the billions, and it’s likely to get worse rapidly.

Sometimes the strongest apostles are the recently converted, and at a mayors’ panel Hazel McCallion, Mayor of once-sprawling, now-intensifying Mississauga, highlighted the need to coordinate investment in transit with the dense development that provides new lines with ridership. She suggested the fairly radical idea that Metrolinx, the provincial agency that now oversees regional transit, should also be given power over development in the GTA. In a similar vein, planner Ken Greenberg cited “Toronto’s Mohawk”, the spurts of high-rise development along Toronto’s Yonge subway line from Front to Steeles, as the exemplar of how to make a subway line viable.

At the breakout session on transportation, the table I sat at agreed that, if the City of Toronto’s new administration remained uninterested in transit projects whose cost was reasonably proportional to the expected ridership, it made sense for the Province to put Toronto on hold and direct its immediate effort and money into cities that are keen on new rail transit projects that are affordable, such as Hamilton and Mississauga.

At the same breakout session, there was also a lot of talk about the way that Toronto’s recent election had revealed the helplessness of Metrolinx. What’s the point of creating a 25-year transit plan (The Big Move), if significant parts of it can be tossed out at any time by an election in one of the regional municipalities? At the same time, however, any long-term plan needs to have the capacity to change over time as circumstances change.

One of the tables came up with an interesting idea for a solution — give The Big Move legal status, like the Province’s Places to Grow regional growth plan, which requires municipalities to conform to it. At the same time, establish a fully-defined change process so that, if a City wants to change the plan, there are guidelines in place for how to assess the proposed changes and decide on how to proceed, rather than the ad hoc negotiations that are apparently taking place now.

While Toronto’s new administration may be causing consternation in terms of planning new transit lines, however, it was evidently much more welcome in terms of integrating transit fare payment across the region. At a discussion by regional mayors, McCallion was scathing about Toronto’s lack of cooperation in all kinds of regional initiatives under previous administrations, including the introduction of a unified regional transit fare card. The non-Toronto mayors (and Metrolinx) were relieved that the new mayor of Toronto and the new TTC commission are favourable to introducing the Presto card across the full TTC. The card could also, for example, make it more viable to use GO transit to travel within Toronto in conjunction with the TTC, which has the potential make extended travel across this large city much faster. It could be that the regional fare card will be the most useful transit achievement of the Ford era. (Metrolinx included a Presto card in every delegate’s package to publicize it).

The elephant in the room, when it comes to regional transit, is long-term funding. The Provincial government has provided billions of dollars to get The Big Move started, but these funds will only pay for the first few years of building. After that, Metrolinx needs to raise its own money. The Summit backgrounder includes a list of possible funding mechanisms, with tolls on the 400-series highways at the top.

From GTA Summit backgrounder, Keeping on Track (PDF). See the roundtable report “Time to Get Serious” (PDF) for full analysis of these options.

Tolls are appealing because they also have the potential to reduce congestion by diverting some car trips to other modes. But, as someone in our roundtable discussion pointed out, there’s a “chicken-and-egg” problem. Many of the GO lines, along with the Yonge Subway, are already used at capacity during commuting hours. If there is no viable transit capacity to move to, people in cars are still going to have to use their cars if tolls are in place, so it will not reduce congestion much. While the Province’s up-front money will expand some transit options, it’s not going to cover every route where people would have to pay tolls. On the other hand, without tolls or some other major source of funding, no additional transit routes will get built once the initial funding runs out. It’s both a practical problem, and also a political problem, given that the vast majority of commuters in the GTA drive to work and are not likely to take kindly to tolls, especially if they don’t result in a visible benefit by reducing congestion.


  1. “the new mayor of Toronto and the new TTC commission are favourable to introducing the Presto card across the full TTC. The card could also, for example, make it more viable to use GO transit to travel within Toronto in conjunction with the TTC, which has the potential make extended travel across this large city much faster. ”

    Regional transit integration isn’t a question of technology, Presto or otherwise. It’s a question of funding. We could easily set up policies to let people ride GO or TTC within the city for one flat fare, but who is going to pay for this?

    GO subsidizes some outlying transit services, so that you can ride the bus from the station for sixty cents (and the one time I took advantage of this, no Presto card was required), but GO does not want to look at the financial loss of doing this for people taking the TTC.

    This issue has been hashed out plenty before on Steve Munro’s blog.

    Implementing Presto system-wide may force these issues to the foreground, but funding is an issue. It’s not exactly a big advantage to be able to use a Presto card for multi-system trips if you pay exactly as much as the individual fares are now–there’s a slight convenience of not having to carry about multiple fare media, but that’s about it. What people expect with “one card” or “one fare” is cheaper travel. In a subsidized system as we have, if there’s less farebox revenue, then what source of funding replaces it?

    (Finally, I would not want to use Presto until the bugs are worked out. It has problems with even the simple riding patterns typical of GO transit commuters. TTC trips all by themselves can be vastly more complex. My regular commute from Long Branch to Seneca College had a number of plausible routings. I usually took streetcar-subway-bus, with bus1/bus2-subway-subway-bus as a fairly frequent alternate, and the fastest trip I ever made was bus-bus-subway-subway-subway-bus. Put that in your Presto pipe and smoke it, technology fans.)

  2. This is really a poor document. Troublesome is the fact that it was primarily created by those whom benefit directly in transit expansion. In all aspects Richard Soberman’s “The Track Ahead” shows how it should be done.

  3. One issue with giving the Big Move legal status (provincial), is that it takes much of the decision and change making power away from the municipality and gives it to the province. This might be good in the short term with the new administration as it would provide some certainty to the plan, but in the long term is it worth giving up municipal autonomy over transit planning?

  4. Ed is bang on about fares being the real issue — though I wish there was more discussion of how peer cities handle this rather than reinventing the wheel all the time. In this way Torontonians could see what worked in other cities and then choose a funding model to push politicians on.

    For example:

    FULL INTEGRATION: Boston has integrated commuter passes where all commuter rail pass holders can use all local subways and buses with their rail pass.

    RUSH HOUR INTEGRATION: Chicago has an option for commuters where for $39 they can ride the local buses and subway but only during rush hours.

    OFF PEAK INTEGRATION: A transit pass in Philly costs $83 a month. For only $8 more you can get the version that also allows for offpeak travel on commuter trains within the city limits (and unlimited travel anywhere on the commuter network on weekends).

    SEPARATE BUT CHEAPER: New York is not unlike Toronto in that there is very poor integration of services between commuter and subway systems, despite common ownership. But they did come up with one useful trick, which is to have a flat fare on weekends for travel within the city on the commuter rail, knocking the price down from $6 to $9 to just $3.75.

    I personally think the Philly option is the way to go. In general Toronto should aim to be a lot more like SEPTA – there is an incredible amount of transit similarity there if anyone ever bothered to get past the stereotypes and look.

  5. Adrian, other than San Fran, I can’t really think of another major city where the local transit system is controlled by the municipality. And even in SF they have BART as the powerhouse authority running the show for the region. Ergo, no harm in shunting TTC control over to a regional group.

  6. SEPTA’s policy sounds pretty good for Toronto residents who would primarily use TTC, but are able to add GO to their mix if it was at a reasonable price.

    There’s a completely separate demographic who are primarily GO commuters, but who occasionally use the TTC at the Toronto end, and maybe a local transit system at the other end. That sounds like Chicago’s rush hour integration. Some premium could be added to the GO pass to allow use on the TTC as well.

    Now personally, some days I take the TTC, some days the GO train. In this case, neither a Metropass nor a GO monthly pass makes sense for me unless the amount is not much more than a Metropass, and certainly less than the cost of a monthly GO pass itself (Metropass is $121, GO pass is $142.) Unlimited rides are much more useful on the TTC than on GO for me.

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