Saturday, March 29, 2008

End of the road for the cul-de-sac? - Toronto Star

I don't think you could call this article fair and balanced, but I was very pleased to see this published in today's Toronto Star. We need to take a critical look at how we plan our road network, as it influences the transportation options we have and affects how sustainable our communities will be. The cul-de-sac may be a "suburban icon," but as the article states, a deeper look reveals that it isn't as great as we might think. 

To quote from it:
Cul-de-sac began as an old French hunting term: It translates, literally, as "bottom of the bag "– where snared rabbits were shoved, face down, to keep in the dark and restrict their motion.

The meaning soon morphed into impasse: a dead end. And that pretty much describes how progressive planners and environmentalists now view the cul-de-sac as a system for organizing residential subdivisions. They consider it a dead end of planning that immobilizes its inhabitants in suburban mindlessness.

Among the alleged sins:

Cul-de-sacs consume vast amounts of land.

They create car-dependent zones whose inhabitants spew four times as many greenhouse gas emissions as downtown dwellers. All that driving creates traffic congestion as all those vehicles pour on to a limited number of collector roads.

Since residents spend so much time behind the wheel, abdominal spare tires quickly replace six-packs. A widely quoted American study concluded that people on cul-de-sacs weigh nearly three kilograms more than those in traditional grid neighbourhoods of straight streets and right-angle intersections.

Isolated and insular, they become cesspools of self-absorption and pettiness that turn their backs on the wider world. "People who live in a cul-de-sac are out of touch with the rest of their community and most likely do not know much about the folks who live behind the fences of their blocked-off streets," complains a recent report from the American Planning Association.

They inspire crime: A British study says the burglary rate is 30 per cent higher.

They add to the difficulty and cost of firefighting, snow plowing and other municipal services.

This is a heavy burden to lay on a simple arrangement of roads and houses, but it's having an effect. The cul-de-sac is being restricted or banned in municipalities across North America. In Britain, the likes of Prince Charles and former prime minister Tony Blair have called for it to be dumped to the bottom of the bag, forever.
This is a good read, and might make you think twice about where you purchase your next house.


A message to Rogers

Those who know me well know that I have series problems with the telecommunications companies in this country. Well, now they have gone too far.

Rogers, we have a problem.

Firstly, you have ignored me, a faithful customer when I needed help. "Its not my problem," you said when my phone kept breaking. You stalled, bouncing back my emails and calls, and in the end wouldn't offer me any assistance, even though your logo is on the product. How can you say that you serve your customers when you'll only help them if all the stars align?

Next, you shortchanged my father when, and conveniently kept us on the lower-tier television plan when you had made the higher-tier plan standard for all customers. When you say that you're improving the experience for your customers, does this mean only those who hear rumours and file complaints get the improved experience?

And, you are guilty of manipulating the speed of the internet and you know it. We pay for a certain speed, but you interpret that to mean "whenever it suits us." You slow down the speed when we I hope the federal government doesn't take kindly to you infringing on the rights of all Canadians to access CBC content.

Now, you plan to cap our internet and charge overage fees, turning back the clock on the concept of unlimited internet. It has been 10 years since time-limited internet became unheard of. Didn't history teach you anything? Canadians don't want limited internet access! What's next? Are you going to come by my home and snatch my Grandmother's Chatelaine unless she pays you a second time to keep reading?

You have gone too far, and my family and I are not afraid to cancel every Rogers service we subscribe to. If voting with our wallets is what it takes, then prepare to see ballots cast.


Friday, March 28, 2008

When I grow up, I want to be a Metronaut

Metronauts is the successor to the hugely successful Transit Camp event held last year on Superbowl Sunday. Its an "un-conference", where the topic of discussion is generated by the participants. This time around, however, the events will take on a regional focus, and are an integral part of the Metrolinx Regional Transportation Plan process.

The first in a series of events will be held on April 5th at the MaRS centre, but the plan is to hold more events across the in the coming months. They are especially looking for 905 residents, as the future of the transit system requires attention to the 416 and the 905 (and even some of the 519).

I'll be there, so be sure to check out their website for more details and to see the online discussion boards.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Budget Roundup

The provincial budget was introduced yesterday, and contained some transit goodies for the GTAH.

n Hamilton, service on the B-Line will be improved to connect Eastgate Square with McMaster University, and the A-Line will be introduced to connect downtown with the mountain. In addition, there's funding for a new GO station in Hamilton at the foot of James Street. This station could serve as a jumping-off point to Niagara, and would be less expensive to expand all-day-service to (as CP demands the Hamilton tunnel essentially be rebuilt before service improvements to the station on Hunter Street).

Peel will see service improvements on Dundas and Hurontario, hopefully resulting in something better than an on-street connection between the two bus routes serving the latter street. Also, GO service to Bolton will be improved, but it won't be a substitute for a local transit system.

Halton will see BRT along Dundas, and hopefully a combination of development and feeder bus systems will improve ridership. Dundas is a very busy street, but with most of the homes backing onto it, I worry if there are other corridors which need attention in Halton.

In York Region, VIVA will be getting bus only lanes from Richmond Hill centre to Newmarket Terminal, and along the VIVA Purple route from Pine Valley Drive to Kennedy Road. Curious locations, but its a good first start and addresses the most congested portions of the route.

Durham will get funding to wean themselves off GO and build their own BRT route on Highway 2. This should help DRT finally find its own identity, and could lead to the "plate of spaghetti" in Pickering and Ajax being turned into a logical network. They also received funding to establish a route to Cornell Terminal. DRT routes are almost completely isolated, and this will bring the system into the warm embrace of the GTHA network.

Toronto will get funding to start work on Transit City, funding for automatic train control and funding for the Yonge Street busway - all projects which will build capacity and speed up service. It will be interesting to see the busway's final design, as it will have to accommodate express and local buses heading between Steeles Avenue and Finch Station.

In the broader picture, there will be funding for bike racks on vehicles and lockers at GO stations, 20 new coaches (for the Lakeshore Line, but not necessarily for the Lakeshore Line), 10 more double decker buses (the first was spotted on the road today running some tests), and passing tracks to bring all-day service to the Bradford and Stouffville lines by 2010.

In addition to all that, there's gas tax funding. It was a good budget for transit, but as always, I hope the province doesn't rest on it's laurels.

In other news, this round of collective bargaining between the TTC and the Union seems to be filled with conflicting reports. It's difficult to sort truth from fact, but the bottom line is that the Union will be in a legal strike position on April 1st... and that's no foolin'!

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U-Passion of the Bikes

Torontoist has a very interesting article at the unfortunate "no thanks" spoken by the UTSC students to the TTC about the U-Pass. It also dabbles in cycling. A good read, although the comments section is filled with the usual "everyone involved is miss-managing everything they are involved with" comments.

I'm confident that a referendum will be more successful at the downtown school with the proper marketing, but we cannot ignore the lessons learned here. If we want to ensure success at the schools in the suburbs, then we'll have to either introduce an opt-out clause, or we'll have to get the price down. But, that causes some problems.

I don't believe that we should allow students to opt-out, not only because it will increase the price of the pass back up to $90, but also because introducing them to transit and showing them that there is an alternative to driving everywhere is too important. My brother is at York, and its very hard to convince someone who's spent 20 years being driven everywhere that there is an alternative. If we don't convince him now, then we never will. 

As for the price, we face one problem. The TTC is strapped for cash. There is no getting around that, and I believe them when they say that $60 a month is the best they can offer. So, I propose that the universities dig into their vast budgets and endowments to contribute to bringing the monthly U-Pass down. Perhaps the province could come to the table, or even a private sponsor. I would gladly use my Rona U-Pass or the McTransit Pass to get around, but car companies need not apply.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

One last kick at the can, part 2

By no ways is this your final opportunity to comment, but the Regional Transportation Plan is going to have an injection of proposed policy soon, with the meeting to discuss Mobility Hubs, Active Transportation & Transportation Demand Management fast approaching.

Mobility hubs are simply high-density, mixed-use developments build around high-frequency transit terminal. Here's a few things to think about:
  • Is it better to have many small mobility hubs, or a few large mobility hubs.
  • What should those mobility hubs have? Should we strive to have a balance of land uses in each hub, or should different hubs specialize in one particular land use?
  • How do we best encourage this intensification?
  • Should we build transit first to encourage development, or should we wait until the development occurs to improve the transit connections?
  • How should we deal with parking? Should the developments be built with underground commuter parking lots, or should we strive to gradually eliminate the need for parking. If we choose the latter, how do we best eliminate the need for parking?
Active Transportation is modes of transportation which are self powered - namely walking and cycling. Here are some ideas to chew on:
  • What kinds of facilities are needed? Should employers be required to provide bicycle lockers and showers, or should the municipality take that responsibility?
  • Where is the best place to put sidewalks and bicycle paths? Should they be in the roads or in their own corridors?
Transportation Demand Management are policies which try to influence whether, when, why, where and how people travel. It is the hardest to explain on a conceptual level, but it ties together all of the transportation topics that we'll be discussing. So,
  • How should we encourage people to think about and choose sustainable means of travel?
  • Should we offer incentives to companies who offer flex-time to their employees in order to shift the time they are on the roads?
  • Should we offer incentives to people who carpool or use other means to reduce the number of cars on the road, or should we use obstacles to discourage people who don't?
  • The big one: Should we consider congestion pricing for drivers who don't take steps to improve their efficiency (for example, the SUV with a single occupant in rush hour might pay a few cents per kilometre, while the hybrid driver with four passengers at 9pm would pay nothing)?
You might have noticed that I use the term "we". That is because this plan belongs to every resident in Greater Toronto & Hamilton, and it needs everyone's help to shape it into a road map to guide us into the future. To read more about these concepts and to see what is on the table, visit the Metrolinx website and click Regional Transportation Plan - but hurry! Your next opportunity to comment on these three concepts in particular won't come until the summer.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

This is an awareness test

This is an awareness test... and its brilliant!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Where do freight trains belong?

Sometimes an idea isn't very well received, but when you feel very strongly about it, you cannot let it die.

On one of the online message boards I post on, one might see a thread of conversation where I asked two fundamental questions:
  • Is it wise to route non-stop freight trains through built up areas and downtowns, or is it better to send them through dedicated transportation corridors?
  • Is building a second or third track for passenger trains enough to prevent delays and facilitate expansion?
After some careful thought (although many believe that it was no more than a knee-jerk reaction to the derailment last week), I floated the idea of building a dedicated freight railway corridor which would remove freight trains from the Georgetown and Milton GO train lines and place them in the 407 corridor - far from residences and far from passenger trains. 

I was almost run out of town.

But, is it really such a bad idea? Cost is an obvious issue which cannot be ignored, and while I'm not qualified to estimate the cost, I can offer some benefits to such a proposal.
  1. We won't have to widen railway rights-of-ways to four or more tracks in order to run effective passenger rail service. This would create less of a physical barrier and prevent a "wrong side of the tracks" effect. This can be clearly seen in the Summerhill neighbourhood of Toronto, where the CP rail corridor effectively isolates the community from the next neighbourhood to the south.
  2. Freight trains would be able to take the most efficient route between the large train yards in Toronto and Vaughan and destinations in southwestern Ontario and the USA. This would save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly for CN Rail. Currently, their trains must travel west to Georgetown, south to Burlington, then west again towards Windsor or Niagara Falls. Using the 407 corridor would offer a beeline to Burlington.
  3. Freight trains would be able to move at their own speed, which is often very different than the speed of passenger rail. CN has often argued that the speed of VIA Rail trains on the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto route requires them to set aside a block of track-space equivalent to 3 freight trains. This would ease their burden on scheduling freight around passenger trains.
  4. The vast majority of freight trains wouldn't have to travel through the downtown areas of Brampton, Georgetown and Milton. This could help revitalize these growth centres and shift some of the development from sprawl to intensification. Removing the freight trains from downtown Toronto was caused by increasing value of the land the yards sat upon, but the result has been an improved urban environment. If this could be achieved in Toronto, why cant it be achieved in Brampton, Georgetown or Milton?
The Metrolinx green paper on Moving Goods & Services touches upon this concept, but I think it presents us with an opportunity to rationalize our land uses and improve the quality of life for people who brave urban-style living in incredibly suburban areas. 

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Streetcars and LRT: Streetcar-oriented development

Over at Spacing Toronto, Sean Marshall has an excellent article about the relationship between transit and development - light rail and suburban avenues in particular.

One thing we have to remember when building a transit line is that that ridership is only one of many factors, and the desired character of the streets is very important in making these choices. As Sean says, subways tend to result in clusters of very high density around the stations, with little in between (as we've seen on Sheppard). Bus rapid transit and light rail (and subways with very close station spacing) tend to cause the development to even out along the line, as we've seen on Queen. We have to be very careful about what changes we make, as they might forever change the character of the street.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Petition for better transit

By now, I'm sure you've heard the story of Patricia Eales. Frustrated with GO's on time performance, she organized a petition calling for GO to improve its on time performance, offer partial refunds when trains are more than 20 minutes late, and to better warn customers when delays are occurring. So far, she's received 8000 signatures.

While I think that petitions are a great way to get your wishes on the agenda of decision makers, this particular petition asks for things which are already coming, aren't practical, or will do more harm than good - aside from better warning people about delays. That's a no brainer, and all the transit agencies should adopt an email or an SMS messaging system to warn customers of delays of more than 20 minutes.

GO's on time performance can be summed up in three categories:

Equipment Problems
It's no surprise that GO's equipment is aging, but the first batch of a full fleet of new locomotives are currently being phased in. In addition, older coaches are constantly being refurbished. Since this is an already ongoing project, a petition would be a moot point here.

Staffing Problems
To address staffing problems, GO will begin replacing CN crews with Bombardier crews this summer. The new contract will have financial penalties if crews are unavailable, and while its impossible to tell how much of an improvement we'll see, remember this: Bombardier also holds the maintenance contract. If they screw this one up, they run the risk of losing both.

Track and Signal Problems
Infrastructure problems are where it gets a bit dicey. CN owns most of the rails and signals that GO uses, and in my opinion, as long as this continues, GO will never be in charge of its own destiny. Could GO purchase the infrastructure and lease them back to CN? I think its an idea worth looking at.

The refund proposed by the petition also concerns me, as the money will have to come from somewhere, and we all know it would come from the farebox.

I'm not suggesting that commuters have to sit back and take whatever is thrown at us. We have a right to expect a certain degree of reliability from our transit agency, but I think that GO is doing more than anyone else to expand, upgrade and improve (except for the Georgetown Line - the dropped ball of the network). Just like having to leave earlier in a snowstorm, we have to have a little bit more patience in the winter. It'll be summer soon, though at this rate there will be piles of snow left in July.


Wednesday, March 05, 2008

GO Service Suspended on Georgetown Line

It's 6:30 am, and due to a CN freight derailment near the Georgetown station, service on the Georgetown Line is suspended. Two emergency trips have been put together to leave Mount Pleasant at 700 and 727, but expect a mess.

Do not point the finger at GO this time. This is akin to and 18 wheeler stalling at the end of your driveway. As long as freight trains share corridors with passenger trains, even if they are on different tracks, derailments like this will continue to block passenger service.

The only solution is to build dedicated corridors for freight trains so that they don't come within miles of passenger trains, but that is a discussion for later in the day.