The Vision Thing
Photo by sarnya from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Yesterday, Metrolinx released their draft Regional Transportation Plan or RTP [PDF], their much-anticipated proposal for systematically tackling transit issues in the GTHA (the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area). Many of the key goals are ones we’ve heard before, though they’ve rarely been presented as part of a comprehensive package such as this: create an effective and efficient rapid transit system; build an integrated “active transportation” network for cyclists and pedestrians; make transit far more user-friendly by providing things like integrated fare systems, coordinated schedules, and easy-to-use, real-time information updates; establish “mobility hubs” which allow users to travel between and easily access major transit stations; and make the movement of goods more efficient. If the plan were to be implemented and do its job well, in twenty-five years we will have tripled the length of existing rapid transit routes, multiplied the length of bike routes by 6, increased the percentage of people living within 2 kilometres of rapid transit from 42% to 75%, and more than doubled the number of people using transit during the morning rush (which would still only be about one quarter of us). The price tag for all this: $50 billion in capital costs, plus $1.5 billion a year for operations once the entire system is built out.
The major theme of the report is that we need to start leaving a lighter footprint: take fewer trips, make the trips we do take more efficient, maximize our use of existing roads rather than building more of them, and use a full arsenal of management and regulatory tools to reward transit-friendly rather than car-friendly development. In short: favour public transit over individual vehicles, active transportation over public transit, and trip reduction over active transportation.
Here is a comprehensive look at what’s on the table.
The RTP advocates making do as much as possible with what we already have and focusing most of our energy on increasing efficiency in use. This includes establishing dedicated lanes for high-occupancy vehicles, providing dedicated parking for ride-sharing, and allowing third parties to offer so-called “vanpools” to designated high-traffic destinations like university campuses and tourist sites. Building at certain bottlenecks is allowed for in the plan, but for the most part the RTP doesn’t call for a significant expansion of our roadways.
The RTP includes maps and some preliminary details, outlining the network of rapid transit routes it envisions. The location of these routes and the modes of transit each route should get (subway, light rail, etc.) will inevitably be the subject of much political wrangling and countless public meetings—rapid transit on Eglinton has already become a flashpoint. This is the nuts-and-bolts plan for the big ticket items, and everyone will have opinions on implementation. The current draft leaves many of these issues open for future discussions, saying simply that the best type of transit for the individual components of the RTP will be decided upon separately.
Metrolinx has great ambitions in this area, calling for a massive increase and enhancement of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure. Sidewalks need to be wide, well-furnished, and well-lit. Intersections need to be pedestrian and cyclist-friendly: scrambled crossings, pedestrian-friendly signal priorities, and bridges to allow for the safe crossing of highways will all help with this. Bike paths need to be built, and they need to be adequate to support serious traffic, integrated to allow for contiguous trips, equipped with bike-sharing facilities, and supplied with secure bike storage. Buses need bike racks. Developers need to be encouraged to support active transportation by requiring them to include relevant support facilities, such as secure bike storage and showers in offices for commuters who want to cycle.
Ease of Use
Public transit needs to put customers first. Says Metrolinx: “It often appears as if the GTHA’s current transportation system is designed and operated with the needs of the transportation provider in mind, rather than the traveller… The comfort and convenience of the traveller must be the primary consideration in how the transportation system is planned, designed and operated.” This is, more or less, a call for genuine customer service. Measures include providing information in a clear, accessible format, including real-time route information and easy-to-use trip planners; integrating scheduling across different systems to reduce travel time; requiring frequent reporting by all transit agencies on service records, customer satisfaction, etc.; building customer service centres; and developing an integrated fare system (the GTHA has 10 separate transit agencies).
The RTP includes a call for a broadly-integrated approach to urban planning, one in which development is designed to reduce stress on the transit system. High-density, mixed-used development decreases the number of trips we need to take and maximizes the efficiency of public transit services. Not everybody thinks they’ve gone far enough in anticipating future growth, but this goal has, in general terms, become far more politically palatable over recent years. The RTP says we need to build by increasing density around existing transit routes rather than in low-density areas where little or no transportation infrastructure exists, and develop transportation infrastructure where there are a large number of potential users. In short, a continuous expansion of suburbia is no longer feasible. Additionally, we need to start (re)developing with pedestrians and cyclist in mind, instituting traffic calming zones near major destinations like schools and hospitals, and giving developers alternate ways of supporting transportation, like crediting them for offering carpooling services or transit passes rather than individual parking spaces.
A fully integrated and comprehensive transit network requires centres at which the various modes of transit converge, allowing us to move conveniently from one to another. This includes the development of rapid transit links to Pearson Airport, and an integration of the central bus station on Bay Street with Union Station. According to the RTP, mobility hubs ought to be more than high-use stations with large parking lots: they need to support pedestrian and cyclist access, and provide bike storage, designated carpool drop-off zones, transit information services, heated waiting areas, and food service facilities. They need, in other words, to make public transit attractive, something we use often because it is both easy and pleasant to do so.
As much of the commentary on the draft has already pointed out, the major lacuna in the RTP is a detailed plan for funding. The report includes, as one of its goals, the development of an “Investment Strategy,” but this functions more or less as a placeholder—an acknowledgment that the money must be found, but not a substantive roadmap for getting there. This is where the vision butts up against reality. Metrolinx has been called out for failing to have the courage of its convictions and proposing politically unpopular but financially necessary measures—such as road tolls and hiked parking fees—to pay for its ambitious plans. Whether politicians will step up to the plate and commit to specific funding mechanisms is the giant unanswered question right now. Quite likely, it will be one of the central issues over which the next provincial election is fought. Metrolinx is betting that the vision they’ve presented is not just inspired but inspirational, that the RTP is a mechanism of persuasion, and that in its wake money will follow. It’s too early in the debate to know if the odds are in their favour.