Monday, April 30, 2007

Commuters facing Steeles showdown - Toronto Star

Commuters facing Steeles showdown
As York Region favours wider HOV roads, Toronto opts for a light-rail plan
April 30, 2007
Tess Kalinowski
Transportation Reporter

Do HOV lanes ease traffic congestion or are they just enablers for automobile addicts?

The "official" answer depends on which side of Steeles Ave. you do your commuting.

The dividing line between York Region and Toronto is where car culture could smack straight into the city's ambitious public transit plan.

York has approved in principle widening about 95 kilometres of regional roads over the next decade to create high-occupancy vehicle and bus-only lanes. Several would end at the Toronto border at Steeles, including Jane, Keele, Dufferin, Bathurst, Bayview and Leslie.

It's part of what regional chair Bill Fisch calls a balanced transportation plan, which also includes investments in transit.

The lanes are designed to encourage carpooling and will also speed bus travel, so they're entirely compatible with the region's goal of getting more people on transit, said Fisch.

But just across the road, in transit-hungry Toronto, officials say York's plan is misguided. They have already told the region Toronto has no interest in creating HOV lanes to match up with York's wider roads.

Toronto's transportation investments will be focused on the "Transit City" plan, which would create a network of light rail across Toronto, says TTC chair Adam Giambrone.

"I think we would be receptive to hearing proposals around bus-only lanes, similar to what we're doing up at York University. That will be used by York Region Transit and the majority of users will be non-TTC transit. But adding more lanes of traffic – absolutely not," he said.

Fisch said Torontonians will decide for themselves if they like York's HOV lanes. For every 10 cars commuting south to Toronto each day, there are nine travelling north into his region, which has had some success getting its commuters out of cars.

York's modal split – the number of person trips taken on transit – is only 9 per cent, compared with about 35 per cent in Toronto. But the York number is up from 7.5 per cent five years ago, and the official plan calls for it to increase to between 20 and 25 per cent by 2026.

Getting there won't be easy.

"The culture is not public transit use, and we don't expect everybody to use public transit, but we do know we have to get that split up in order to make our congestion problem dissipate," said Fisch, adding that more commuters will move onto the subway system once it's extended into the region.

Balance is important, he said.

"We're going to put in transit and we're going to put in roads and encourage people to use their cars in a different way. I recognize Toronto has other issues. At the same time, our residents are going both ways and clearly they're going to want to get from one place to another more quickly, and that will require work on those roads."

But Toronto's director of transportation planning, Rod McPhail, worries that the bottleneck that starts at Steeles and goes into downtown Toronto will only get worse when new six-lane roads narrow to four.

He also wonders if York's HOV lanes will prove more successful than the diamond lanes Toronto flirted with years back, like those on Eglinton Ave. and Don Mills Rd. Those lanes are supposed to be reserved for vehicles with three or more riders. But only 10 to 15 per cent of cars travelling in them during peak hours abide by the rule, because it's not consistently enforced.

If and when light rail is built along those routes, McPhail suggests the diamond lanes could become transitways.

That's not to say all HOV lanes are bad, he said. The province has taken the right approach in building the lanes and requiring only two occupants per vehicle.

Sixteen months after they opened, HOV lanes on Highway 403 in both directions and southbound on Highway 404 have been declared a success. They shave up to 17 minutes off some trips and usage has steadily risen, suggesting more people are driving with passengers.

The Highway 404 HOV segment is in York Region between Beaver Creek and the 401. A northbound lane is due to open this summer. York has also designated about a kilometre of Yonge St. from Centre St. to Steeles as an HOV lane.

But what works on highways won't necessarily translate to city streets, McPhail said. In the 1970s, studies showed cars on Toronto roads carried an average of 1.25 people. Planners figured that if they could raise that to 1.5, they could declare success. Instead, the average has dropped to 1.1.

Toronto city councillor and TTC commissioner Anthony Perruzza's ward borders York Region at Steeles and Dufferin. He supports Giambrone's position that more transit, not more car lanes, is the right approach.

"I don't fully know the pressures up in York Region, but I know they've created these huge distances between the places where people live and where they shop, where they live and where they work.

"You live in these subdivisions with no transit, I don't know how you get out to an arterial road," said Perruzza. "They need to improve their transit, but the cost of that, given the distances they have to cover, will be so prohibitive I can understand why they're perhaps thinking of widening roads."
I've said it before, and I'll say it again:

The Greater Golden Horseshoe is an integrated region, and cannot be operated as a group of isolated islands. Steeles Avenue, the Rouge River, the Etobicoke Creek - these are all artificially drawn boundaries, and serve no real purpose to the average citizen. The development doesn't stop at Steeles, and we cannot act like it does. The GTA needs an integrated transit planning policy with consistent goals region-wide.

York Region's plan is doomed to fail because the traffic heading into Toronto will have no place to go once it gets to Steeles. It will only shift congestion to the southernmost areas of the region. Shifting more people to transit by making transit more attractive in the suburban areas is the way to go, in addition to streamlining the planning process and objectives across the GTA. Turning all our roads into freeways is not the road to success.

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