Transit City?
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Transit City?

Transit experts gathered last night to discuss how Toronto gets around.

Anyone who claims they can eliminate congestion is either deluded or a liar.

So contended transit activist Steve Munro Tuesday night, at a public forum on transit hosted by U of T’s Cities Centre. “If we focus on congestion,” he said, “we’re taking a car-oriented approach to building transit, and that’s doomed to failure.”

Dr. Eric J. Miller, director of the Cities Centre and the second speaker of the evening, agreed. Congestion is not the problem, he said, but the symptom of a problem.

The evening was called Moving People: Responses to Congestion, the second in a six-instalment series discussing major issues the city is facing. Transit is certainly one of the biggies in Toronto—a complicated issue that everyone loves to talk about, and many think they can fix. Politicians love to draw lines on maps, usually more than they like to build those lines. Commuters grumble about wait times, crowded buses and trains, streetcars holding up cars, cars holding up streetcars—it’s a long list that, by now, we all know by heart.

Photo by {a href=""}Phil Marion{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Both Munro and Miller focused on the importance of asking the right question when it comes to transit planning. For starters: not “Where can we put a subway?” but “What do we need to accomplish, and where?” And both, but particularly Munro, spoke about what he called our technology hang-up, where we get so stuck in an endless cycle of debating technologies (subway vs. LRT vs. bus vs. streetcar vs. monorail) that we don’t actually end up building any of them. As Miller noted, there has been very little transit infrastructure developed over the last 20 years, while the region has grown considerably. “If congestion is to be reduced, transit and non-motorized modes need to do more than just keep up,” he said.

They haven’t even been doing that.

We also can’t look at transit in isolation, ignoring the land use context. The way that we build the city, and have built the city, greatly affects our ability to service any area of it. If we build sprawling, low-density, single-family housing suburbs, then that is going to affect our transit options differently than if we build dense, multi-family, mixed-use neighbourhoods. This is something that Miller pointed out when he threw up numerous charts and graphs, the gist of which were to show that transit use is heavy in Toronto’s downtown, while car use is heavy in its lower-density suburban areas. No surprise there. His point was, however, that if we want to talk congestion, we can’t just talk transit. We need to talk about the shape of the communities through which that transit runs.

Photo by {a href=""}Half my Dad's age{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

When Rob Ford put Transit City out to pasture on the first day of his mayoralty, many in the city decried the rejection of a plan that would have moved Toronto in the right direction on this issue. Miller acknowledged some debate about the merits of the Transit City proposal, but then added, “If not Transit City, what?”

What, indeed. Our current transit plan seems to be more about cutting services, burying LRT lines where burying them doesn’t make sense, and building expensive subway extensions into areas of the city that don’t need them. “If Ford finds the four billion to build the Sheppard Subway line, that’s four billion wasted,” Miller said. Ideology has trumped evidence, as it often does in transit, much to the detriment of Toronto.

What Transit City was attempting was exactly what both Munro and Miller highlighted as one of the backbones of a workable transit system: a hierarchy of different modes and feeder systems. The plan would have extended higher-order transit service to areas in the city that needed it, connecting them to the larger, more established network of the city. A subway is great, but if you can’t get to it then what’s the point? And then there are the buses. No one likes to talk about buses until someone suggests they be cut. But it’s buses that are the most important in low-density areas, ones without enough commuters to justify more intensive transit infrastructure. We’ve made our urban form bed, and now we have to lie in it.

So, how to encourage more people to take transit? According to Miller, the three things that influence people’s choice the most are: How long do I have to walk to get to a stop or station? How long do I have to wait while I’m there? And will it come on time?

All of which sounds a bit menacing when you remember that these are some of the things that will be affected when the TTC reduces service in response to budget constraints.

Of all the graphs that Miller put up, the most interesting was a probability curve that showed the likelihood of people taking transit. On one side of the curve were low-density, car-dependent areas where you have to spend a lot of money on transit improvements to get a very small boost in ridership. On the other side was high-density, already transit-dependent areas where you can similarly spend a lot of money on transit to get only get a small boost. What’s important is the stuff in the middle of the curve, the areas where smaller improvements in transit can go a long way.

If we are to move Toronto forward, it is clear that we need to put evidence before ideology, examine our urban form, and identify those areas where improvements in the system will go the furthest in encouraging transit use. If only we had a plan, funded and ready to go, that did those things.