Monday, July 21, 2008

The Endless Waltz

As we turn the corner towards a more sustainable transportation plan for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, there is a fair bit of consensus on where lines should be drawn. But, there is bitter debate over what sort of trains we should run along those lines.

On heavy rail lines where GO Transit has a foothold, there is strong support for a concept called Regional Express (REX), similar to the London Overground / National Rail services or the Paris RER, REX brings the frequency of subway lines to the commuter rail network. Station spacing will remain generally the same, resulting in a fast, frequent suburban metro to connect the 905 at all hours of the day and turn the stations into true mobility hubs. On other GO lines, the familiar green bi-level trains will continue to operate, but at much higher frequencies. Most lines will see two trains per hour at the bare minimum. On the highways and off-road corridors, Ottawa-style transit-ways will be built to bring long-distance buses out of traffic. Higher quality stations and extensions will improve access to the network which is currently restricted to GO stations and wind-swept park-and-rides. On city streets, bus rapid transit, light rail transit and heavy rail subways will be the workhorses, but the pros and cons between these three technologies has turned friend into foe and neighbour into rival.

Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail Transit (of which I prefer the latter, as they both have identical applications but experiences in Hamilton and Ottawa have shown that residents are willing to spend more to have rail), as implemented in Toronto, will likely run in transit-only lanes in the median - much like a 510 SPADINA or a 509 HARBOURFRONT streetcar, only much faster. These lines are much less expensive to build than subways, and can be built much faster than subways. However, passenger capacity is lower and travel time is much longer. In addition, light rail tends to encourage a constant strip of medium-density development along the route due to the relatively close station spacing. Since property around the stations are most valuable, the close spacing results in a generally equal value from end to end. If we were to build light rail in Toronto and optimize the land use policies to reflect the transit service, then we can expect the built-form to resemble Queen Street or College Street.

On the other hand, subways, as implemented in Toronto, will likely run exclusively underground. These lines are much more expensive than light rail, and take much longer to build. However, subways can carry more people and move them much faster. As for development, subways tend to encourage very high densities around the stations due to the distance station spacing. Since property around the stations are most valuable, the areas in between stations won't attract the same level of investment. If we were to build subways in Toronto and optimize the land use policies to reflect the transit service, then we can expect the built-form to resemble.

So which approach is better for Toronto?

Check out any thread related to Transit City on the Urban Toronto Forum, and you'll quickly find that there is no shortage of opinion. But how do we resolve such conflicting views?

If travel times are the most important factor, then subways are the only way to go. But, will subways hurt businesses in between stations by speeding potential customers past?

Looking at Queen West, one of the reasons I believe it is so successful is the fact that someone can browse the stores just by riding the streetcar. If we were to build a subway, there is a possibility that this dynamic could be lost forever, as a Queen Street Subway would completely replace the streetcar - shifting travel patters would make surface ridership dwindle to the point where reconstruction of the line would not pass any business case. But, some neighbourhoods are strong enough to withstand this transition. Danforth was - as was North Yonge - but is the rapid gentrification of Queen West the instability needed to tip the balance?

If we're looking at ensuring that every point on the corridor has generally equal access to higher order transit, then light rail is a viable option. But, are the travel times enough to speed up the commute of the potential riders, and are the capacities high enough to carry us 30 years into the future? The relatively low cost is very attractive, but does it really help build the sort of complete communities that many advocates predict - and if so, is this type of development any better than subway-oriented development?

The City of Toronto has a plan to cover the city in modern light rail transit. Some have suggested that it is nothing more than a fetish for streetcars, and if there is money for light rail, there is money for subways. Yes, this is true, but the issue is far more complex. In the real world, we cannot afford to build subways instead of light rail. We will not make a dent in the issues of improving commutes for people if we trade 5 light rail lines for 2 subway lines. Also, in the real world, we cannot ignore the development that transit can encourage. It's not as simple as zoning for what we want and watching developers flock - there must be some incentive for them to invest in underused properties.

While there are certain corridors which could be upgraded to subway if the money is there to ensure that it doesn't come at the cost of rapid transit on other corridors, but we ultimately need to balance the need for improved travel times, the need to encourage the best use of land to build the communities which best support desired lifestyles, and the need to build in every corner of the city.

Building a transit city is not just about light rail, not just about subways, and not just about urban design. It is a mesh of all three topics, and while the endless waltz of debate will likely never die, we must do all we can to resolve different visions of what transit and neighbourhoods on controversial corridors like Sheppard and Eglinton can realistically become.

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At 7/24/2008 10:43 p.m. , Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the reasons I advocate LRT over subways is the unfortunate nature of politics.

Subway construction takes about a decade. That leaves plenty of time for a newly elected, lets say, premier, to come into office and pull the plug, leaving us with a stub.

Of course that is just one of the many reasons. I say build LRT now, and if demand grows beyond expectations, build a shallow, underground, express LRT under that.

Or just make more parallel LRT lines.

GO trains and REX (whatever that is) will always be the king of speed, our avenues aren't about speed, they're about communities.

Thanks for your blog I really enjoy it.

At 7/28/2008 9:32 p.m. , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really don't get this new obsession with Streetcars! Everywhere! Now! Nothing! Else!

To take Eglinton as an example, no one is going to take an Eglinton LRT across town if station spacings are 600 m (especially since the City doesn't want to activate signal priority to streetcars because of the car lobby). A subway on the other hand (as long as sections in Scarborough and Etobicoke are above ground) is attractive to cross-town commuters. If we can get our act together the subway can be fully completed in 4 years (before the next election).

If we had our current politicians in 1950 then Yonge would be built as LRT that goes above ground north of Dundas.

And I don't buy the "LRT promotes local development" argument entirely. Bloor and Danforth aren't lined with 30-story towers.

Perhaps the city would be better off if we rent City Hall to the Chinese.

At 7/28/2008 9:43 p.m. , Blogger Andrae Griffith said...

Now don't forget, Bloor and Danforth were built with the streetcar. As I said in my post, subways can change the fabric of unstable neighbourhoods, usually trendy areas where the creative class lives. Queen West fits that definition, as did Yorkville in the 1960s (where 30 storey towers are now the norm.

The question about local development is this:

Is Queen West stable enough to survive the transition like Bloor did, or is the gentrification a sign of pressures to demolish and build higher, like what happend in Yorkville?


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