The biggest transit need in southern Ontario is local, not regional
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The biggest transit need in southern Ontario is local, not regional

Local commuters aren't getting their fair share of transit attention in the province.

Photo by Patrick in the Torontoist Flickr pool.

For reasons that are slightly mysterious, there is talk of big changes to transit governance in Ontario. One idea floating about is to upload all transit systems to the province because there are 11 separate transit systems in the GTHA. Which is supposed to sound like chaos, or something.

There have been some good critiques of this proposal: I recommend reading Cherise Burda and Jennifer Keesmaat on this.

But one big problem with this governance talk is that regional cooperation and coordination are not the biggest transit problems in the GTHA.

I’m in favour of better regional transit. Where it isn’t entirely absent, what we have is, in many areas, pretty terrible, uneven, and unresponsive. I would like to see service expanded and improved.

But the biggest transit problem we have in the GTHA is inadequate local transit.

I went to the recently published census data and looked at counts of commuters and their destinations, as well as mode share. The Census Brief on mode of transportation that the media picked up was based on data for the Census Metropolitan Area of Toronto, which includes a large surrounding area including Oakville, Mississauga, Brampton, Pickering, Ajax, all of York Region, and up to Lake Simcoe.

I looked at more refined data for individual municipalities within that CMA. It turns out the details of the geography of those trips tell an interesting story.

If we pay attention to those details, it will give us a good idea of how we should spend transit dollars to help the most people get to work and of how we can get the most cars off the road.

First, I pulled out the details of the commuting journeys for Toronto and several cities in the GTHA: Hamilton, Burlington, Mississauga, Brampton, Markham, Oshawa, and Pickering, plus Kitchener-Waterloo. Then I sorted the data to see which journeys had the most travellers, and I calculated the percentage each route carried of total journeys from that place.

It is important to emphasize that these are just figures for daily commuters going to a regular place of work, so they don’t tell the whole story. There are many other travellers, with many other purposes. Keeping that in mind, there are nevertheless some interesting patterns.

80 per cent of Toronto commuters go to work in Toronto.
72 per cent of Kitchener-Waterloo commuters go to work in Kitchener-Waterloo.
71 per cent of Oshawa commuters go to work in Oshawa, Ajax, Whitby, Pickering, or Clarington.
69 per cent of Burlington commuters go to work in Burlington, Oakville, or Mississauga.
67 per cent of Hamilton commuters go to work in Hamilton.
65 per cent of Brampton commuters go to work in Brampton or Mississauga.
61 per cent of Mississauga commuters go to work in Mississauga or Brampton.

What I hope is obvious here is that most commuting is relatively local. Most commuters work close to where they live. The majority need to get places that are within 30 minutes travel. And they are not all coming to Toronto.

The next table I looked at broke down what mode of transit these commuters were using. Again, these statistics count just those travelling to work (although this table includes those with no fixed workplace address).

50 per cent of Toronto residents drive; 37 per cent take transit
78 per cent of Mississauga residents drive; 18 per cent take transit
83 per cent of Waterloo residents drive; 7.6 per cent take transit
83 per cent of Hamilton residents drive; 10.5 per cent take transit
83 per cent of Brampton residents drive; 14 per cent take transit
85 per cent of Oshawa residents drive; 9.75 per cent take transit
86 per cent of Burlington residents drive; 9 per cent take transit

Kitchener is the most car dependent of all the municipalities I examined, with almost 88 per cent of residents using a car to get to work and only 7.3 per cent taking transit. Hopefully, the new ION LRT system will help improve those numbers when it opens next year.

Outside of Toronto, municipalities have much lower rates of taking transit. Why? Because their local transit systems are inadequate for their residents’ travel needs. It’s a pretty direct cause-and-effect relationship. To give one small example, as Burlington cut back its bus service, ridership recently fell an incredible 16.5 per cent. (The city has hired Jarrett Walker to help them rethink its transit network.) On the flipside, as Brampton and Mississauga have invested in improved service, their ridership numbers and transit mode share have gone up.

If we want to move more people faster and more efficiently (we do), and if we want to give people good options to get out of their cars (we do), and if a large majority of commuters work locally (they do), then what we need is better local transit.

Oh, I know the highways seem so crowded. Almost like they are a perfect illustration of how inefficient it is to move individuals in huge steel boxes.

The highways look like they are full of so many people. But in the grand scheme, they are not. Drivers are a minority. Loud, perhaps, but small. At the recent Metrolinx consultation I attended, I was told of commuters who use two or three transit systems every day. Again, they are a minority of commuters.

But those cross-regional commuters are driving transit policy. They are a collective tail wagging the dog. They are driving an unfair and unnecessary push for fare-by-distance on local transit. They are driving a conflation of regional and local transit, weakening both. They are driving a proposal to spend tens of billions of dollars on high-speed rail for a very small number of riders.

If you live outside the city you work in, you might have to change from regional to a local transit system. That’s perfectly reasonable. A minority of commuters change transit systems, but Metrolinx is working overtime to give them special fare deals for taking more than one.

Metrolinx runs GO Transit. It’s the biggest instrument they’ve got, so it’s their focus. But that can turn into “I have a hammer so everything is a nail” kind of thinking. The GO Transit network, both bus and (especially) train, is centred on downtown Toronto.

We’re so preoccupied with getting everyone to Toronto that we didn’t stop to ask if that’s where they are going. We’re just as guilty of this within Toronto itself, pouring billions into a subway from Scarborough towards the downtown, when a large majority of Scarborough travellers have destinations in Scarborough.

Interestingly, Markham and Pickering are exceptions. The largest group of commuters in each city (46 per cent and 52 per cent respectively) are headed to Toronto. The cities have better rates of transit than some municipalities, but they are still dominated by drivers. Just over 80 per cent of each city’s residents drive to work. In Pickering, 15.7 per cent of residents take transit, and 16.3 per cent of Markham residents take transit to work.

This does not only mean we should build more transit between Markham or Pickering and Toronto. It means we should build more housing in Toronto so that more people who work in Toronto can live there. It means Pickering and Markham need more local economic development so that more people who live there can work there. These are land-use problems, not transit problems. They are therefore best solved by land-use solutions, not by more transit—and certainly not by more highways.

The province used to take a stronger interest in local transit. They used to cover or contribute to operating costs for municipal systems. Support declined in the 1990s, and in 1998, Mike Harris eliminated the 50/50 share with the city for the TTC’s operating budget. We haven’t had reliable, predictable support for operating costs since.
And the choices the province supports for capital projects are hugely expensive but don’t represent a good return on investment in terms of ridership and economic development, from high-speed rail to unnecessary subway extensions. (Not to mention that the province won’t stop widening highways.)

Regional transit can and should be improved, but it is not the singular priority it appears to be. Intercity transit won’t meet its potential anyway if it isn’t supported by strong local transit feeder service.

Local transit needs more investment, inside Toronto and, most especially, outside Toronto. Most commuters in the GTHA are local, and most of them are driving because their transit options are inadequate. The province needs to focus on the nuts and bolts of evidence-based transit policy and support the capital and operating budgets of local transit.