Saturday, January 24, 2009

Intensification in unlikely places

Usually when we think of intensification we think of condo towers going up on former parking lots in the downtown core or derelict plazas being redeveloped into mixed-use residential-commercial buildings in uptown neighbourhoods. But, according to a Toronto Star article, there is one intensification project in Oakville that seems pretty unique to me.

The Edgemere Estate is a 15-year-old, 32,000 square foot mansion on 5.7 hectares on the lake in Oakville. It has 17 bathrooms, a 20-seat theatre, a spa, a baseball diamond and 300 metres of shoreline. Once the residence of the head of Mattamy Homes, the mansion is slated to be demolished to make way for 30 luxury condominium units on the site. They will be between 2700 and 5500 square feet, While this development probably isn't going to make a dent in the suburbia that Oakville has become, this is an example of the kinds of little developments things that cities can welcome to increase the overall density of the area. When density increases the tax base goes up and the financial burden placed on each resident for infrastructure maintenance goes down as more people share sewers and roads (which might not even need to be upgraded if the development is small). It makes transit more cost effective as it puts more potential riders in the catchment area, and it can lead to stronger communities as the residents are less isolated from their neighbours.

Intensification doesn't have to mean 60-storey towers. It can be stacked townhouses, or in this case, mini-mansions where one large estate once was. Either way, it's a step in the right direction towards a more sustainable urban future.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

New Airport Rail Link Proposal

Metrolinx, which took over the Union-Pearson Air Link file from GO Transit a few weeks ago, has made a new proposal to improve service in the Weston corridor between Union Station, Brampton and points west. As you might recall, the residents of Weston were generally opposed to this project because the original proposal would see a massive increase in rail traffic but no benefit to the community, as the trains would not stop in Weston, In addition, the rail traffic increase would have resulted in the closure of several key roads which connect the main residential areas with the business district on Weston Road. Also, the community was opposed to the use of diesel trains, which was the only part of their platform which I didn't agree with. The new proposal addresses most of the concerns, and will pave the way for frequent GO service to Brampton and beyond, and a fast airport link layered on top of that.

The details of the proposal include:

  • Adding 3 new tracks from the airport spur to Dundas Street and 4 new tracks to east of Strachan Avenue in the 25 kilometre rail corridor [between] Malton and Union Station
  • Widening of 14 bridges and eliminating all level road crossings on the CN line in the Georgetown South Corridor, including new grade separations at Strachan Avenue, Denison Road and Carlingview Drive
  • A covered depressed rail corridor through Weston that maintains Church and King streets at their present grade and a pedestrian overpass at John Street
  • Relocating the GO Weston Stop from John Street to Lawrence Avenue and the construction of a Weston Station to accommodate GO trains and Union-Pearson rail link trains
  • Modifications to the Bloor GO/Dundas TTC station to accommodate GO and Union-Pearson rail link trains
  • Consideration for the Gateway Hub proposed in the Metrolinx Regional Transportation at the proposed Eglinton Light Rail Transit crossing line for GO trains
  • Designing for a potential future GO/Union-Pearson rail link station at Woodbine
  • Adding a new 3.3 kilometre rail spur from the GO Georgetown Line to Terminal 1 at the Pearson Airport with 7 grade separations
  • Opening a new passenger station at Terminal 1 at Pearson Airport with additional stops in Weston, the Bloor GO/Dundas TTC station and at Union Station
  • Introducing fully modernized clean-diesel rail passenger cars with stringent emission controls
  • A potential new Union-Pearson rail link train repair and maintenance yard
From my perspective, this seems to be the best possible outcome, but a few things must be said. Firstly, a depressed corridor through Weston, and the potential for the same at Strachan Avenue will make this proposal significantly more expensive than the previous one. Of course, this is an example of more inclusive planning. The effects on how governments respond to community groups may be well worth the cost. Secondly, if the trains must go onto airport property, then a VIA-GO-Express-Finch LRT hub must be built at Woodbine Racetrack to connect passengers with the airport. Finally, we should think very carefully about where to put the Express stop in Weston. A stop Eglinton (though not technically in Weston) would connect to higher order transit and serve more people, but a stop at Lawrence may preclude a future stop at Eglinton.

All in all I'm happy to see this proposal move forward in a much better way. It will leave to better transit not only between the core and the airport, but for VIA Rail, the entire Georgetown corridor, the Barrie corridor and the future Bolton corridor.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Maybe it's me that doesn't get it...

John Barber talks about the fare integration issue in his column today, and while he points out that the agency seems to have failed in achieving seamless transit that the RTP promised, he seems to ignores the number key issue.

Isn't the real question if we should have fare integration at all?

Maybe I'm biased towards Metrolinx, or maybe I don't understand John Barber's style because I don't read his column very often, but I think it's easy to pick on Metrolinx because acting against the status quo will mean missteps. We can always sit on our laurels, but what good will that bring us? If we want to make progress towards a transit-oriented culture then we're going to have to take chances. Sometimes we'll fail and sometimes we'll succeed. Sometimes it will be a quick win and sometimes it will be sent back to the drawing board. Sometimes it will be consensus and sometimes it will be a political mess. But, in the end, all of it will be worth it.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fair Integration?

Apparently the report I've cited for this post has been removed from the agenda of this friday's Metrolinx board meeting. As a result, I hereby base my comments on the popular opinion of the TTC held by many pro-regional transit advocates and not on the report. That's my story and I'm sticking to it...

I have long believed that an integrated fare system will be a great tool to increase transit ridership across the 905 and help alleviate congestion. Eliminating the Steeles penalty will help people like my good friend who walks to Steeles despite a YRT stop being much closer to her door. Many in this situation drive to parking lots at Finch Station to avoid this second fare. Eliminating the "too far" penalty will benefit those who are bound for locations just beyond walking distance of the GO stations within the 416. It will also allow people to use GO for inter-416 trips, reducing the peak hour demand on the subways.

Unfortunately, a report from Metrolinx on the subject of fare integration [PDF] doesn't leave me with much confidence that progress can be made towards this goal:

At the January 25, 2008 Board meeting, a resolution was referred to staff for consideration, which directed staff to develop opportunities for fare integration and service coordination (referred to as “FISC”) on cross boundary routes operating between the 905 area and the City of Toronto. Subsequent to this direction, an earlier progress report was made to the Board, which can be summarized as follows:

• A review of the cross boundary travel market between the 905 municipalities and the City of Toronto indicates that, between 1996 and 2006, transit trips to downtown Toronto increased and auto trips decreased.

• There are several successful existing fare integration agreements among 905 transit systems that operate “open doors” across municipal boundaries without transit customers having to pay an additional fare through the acceptance of transfers between transit systems. “Open door” operation means that the out-of-jurisdiction carrier is free to pick up and drop off passengers as required. Waiting customers can board the first bus that comes along and no one is by-passed.

• Two key opportunities to improve transit service and reduce duplication are being considered. These are in the Burnhamthorpe Road corridor (refer to Appendix A, Figure 1), in Toronto, through having Mississauga Transit buses operate “open doors” in Toronto to Islington Subway Station and for VIVA (York Region Transit) Orange Route buses to operate “open doors” in Toronto between the Downsview Subway Station and York University (refer to Appendix A, Figure 2).

• The project study participants, comprised of two working groups, identified operational issues associated with fare validation, cost sharing agreements between the TTC and Mississauga Transit and York Region Transit and labour issues. Further work was required to evaluate and address these issues which would be part of a further Board report in the Fall of 2008.

It was not possible to make meaningful progress on these initiatives and report back to the Board in the Fall of 2008 because of labour relations issues which had to be resolved over the past few months.

With regard to the Burnhamthorpe corridor, an internal “discussion paper” has been prepared in close consultation with staff from Mississauga Transit and the TTC. It outlines the opportunity in much greater detail, such as, the potential benefits and costs, the proposed fare collection process and other operational issues to be addressed (summarized later in this report). For the Downsview Subway Station -York University corridor, most operational issues have been addressed by the TTC and York Region Transit staff. A cost sharing agreement between both of the latter parties was being discussed, but has yet to be finalized.

However, in December 2008, Metrolinx staff was advised that TTC senior management is not in favour of progressing any further, with the proposals related to “open door” service integration with Mississauga Transit and the YRT/VIVA Orange Route. This has essentially stopped any progress that can be made towards changing the current “closed door” policy (i.e. preventing transit vehicles from one municipality, from operating “open door” within a neighbouring “cross-boundary” municipality).

From the beginning of our discussions almost one year ago, Metrolinx has emphasized to working group participants that a basic principle to achieve integrated services is to design, schedule and operate transit services based on the needs of the customers regardless of municipal boundaries. During the current economic slowdown it becomes even more important to rationalize services and avoid duplication in the interest of the universal taxpayer.

Metrolinx staff was directed to develop opportunities for specific cross-boundary operations between Toronto and the 905, and the research, analysis and due diligence has resulted in recommendations that address system-wide barriers to improved cross boundary operations to the benefit of the traveller. In this report, Metrolinx staff are making several recommendations to the Metrolinx Board, to advance the objectives outlined in Big Move #6 (“region-wide integrated transit fare system”.) These proposals, “Implement a Metrolinx Integrated-Fares Pass for Cross-Boundary Services” and “Obtaining Provincial Legislative and Regulatory Authority,” outlined in section 6 of this report, are the preferred directions towards achieving fare integration and service coordination across the GTHA.

I have always believed that if the various transit agencies could cooperate and move towards regional goals then we would not need to address the governance issue. What did it matter if we had a dozen transit providers if the customer saw it and used it as one system? I have always believed that the economy, the environment and our society does not end at Steeles and that we need a regionally integrated system to ensure that the massive population increase we are expecting over the next 25 years can move around the region with relative ease. When one provider is not willing to hold a meaningful discussion about achieving these aims then perhaps it is time to address the governance issue.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Metrolinx RTP: Considerations for subway construction

There's no question that Toronto is at a junction when it comes to the preferred technology for rapid transit construction in the region. Subways have traditionally been the preferred technology, but the undeniable truth is that many corridors outside of the downtown core do not have the necessary ridership projects to warrant that kind of capacity in the short, medium and probably even the long term. Modern light rail has been used successfully around the world as an alternative in these cases, but this suffers from many criticisms in a city where many view them as replicating less-than-stellar streetcars lines uptown. This has been particularly controversial on Sheppard Avenue East, where the recently completed Environmental Assessment is recommending a modern light rail line be constructed instead of the long standing plan to extend the Sheppard subway.

There are many arguments to be made that the Sheppard subway should have been built as a light rail line to begin with, and that the current proposal is appropriate given the projected ridership. There are also many arguments to be made that since the subway was partially built, it is only appropriate to finish it, and that projections do not take into effect the extra draw that a faster subway would have. The way I see it, about 500 years ago we knew that the Earth was at the centre of the universe. About 100 years ago we knew that the Titanic was an unsinkable ship. About 50 years ago we knew that the garden city-style plan proposed for Regent Park would be one of the greatest social housing developments in Canada. Opinions and priorities change over time, and that means that as the city evolves light rail proposals will transform to higher capacity lines, while subway proposals will transform to more cost effective technologies. It's ebb and flow, and one of the things that makes living in the city all the more exciting.

Even through there has been a shift in priorities over the last few years, we can still expect significant subway construction to occur over the next 25 years, and each one comes with challenges that will have to be overcome as we move forward.

Yonge-University-Spadina Subway
The detailed engineering design of the Spadina subway extension is pretty much done, and while pre-construction utility relocation has been going on for quite some time, actual construction should begin this year. Currently, the plan is to run every third train to the terminus, which suggests a 15 minute off-peak frequency to Vaughan Corporate Centre. I would strongly prefer that this frequency be shortened to every ten minutes at most. Otherwise, the level of service will be only marginally better than the VIVA line it replaces. The Steeles West station is planned to have a large bus terminal, but the RTP calls for Jane and Steeles to become rapid transit routes. Hopefully the terminal is designed in such a way that the unused space can be used for other purposes once routes are consolidated.

On Yonge Street, those same two issues exist. More frequent subway service to Richmond Hill Centre will mean a higher level of service improvement over VIVA, and a plan is needed to deal with large bus terminals that could become surplus as more and more lines are consolidated into rapid transit lines. The main issue, however, is how to ensure that passengers boarding north of Finch do not overwhelm the line and prevent those boarding at the southern stations from getting a seat. There are a few tools which can help improve the capacity of the line, and many of them are already well underway.
  • The Spadina Subway extension - Currently the Yonge subway is the only rapid transit destination for users of the Finch West, Steeles West and the Highway 7 buses. The Spadina subway will add a second connection with all of these routes, and I suspect most who currently ride all the way to Yonge will switch to the new route.
  • New subway trains - The next generation subway train will be able to carry more passengers per car, and passengers will also be able to walk from from one end of the train to the other while the train is in motion. This will help increase capacity by eliminating uneven crowding at stations where the most popular exit is at one end of the platform.
  • Automatic train control - A computerized signaling and control system will allow trains to run closer together than they can safely do when humans are in control. More frequent trains means more capacity.
  • Bottleneck redesign - On the existing system there are two bottlenecks which limit the minimum frequency of the trains. With extensions the bottlenecks turning trains around at the terminals should be eliminated, but the delays caused by extreme passenger turnover at Bloor will remain. The station itself may have to be re-designed, and potential configurations could include a new island platform between the trains, or it could include a double length station with an unload-move forward-load protocol. Either way, it will be a very complex project.

Downtown Core Line
One of the solutions to the Yonge capacity issues is to divert the passengers elsewhere, and the Downtown Core Line, also known as the Downtown Relief Line, is one of those solutions. The original DRL and enduring proposal saw a subway from Pape station south to Eastern Avenue, then westward parallel to the railway corridor to the CNE grounds, then north along the railway corridor to Dundas West station. The current DCL proposal would likely follow Queen Street instead of the more southerly route, and I support this option for a few reasons. Firstly, my vision for GO service along the railway corridor would provide a subway-like service within the built-up area of Toronto, so a subway along this corridor would be a needless duplication of service. In addition, a northerly route would provide a massive service improvement along the Queen / King corridor - lines which have reached their practical capacity. Of course, since I believe that streetcars are to Toronto as double-decker buses are to London, we may need to come up with creative ways to ensure an east-west subway line doesn't lead to an abandonment of streetcar lines.

At the west end of the DCL I prefer a Roncesvalles alignment rather than a railway corridor alignment, mainly for the reasons outlined above. In London, surface railways, as opposed to Underground lines, form the backbone of the heavy rapid transit service south of the Thames. My vision for GO rail involves something similar, so building a subway would be a duplication. At the east end of the line, the originally proposed extension to Eglinton following the Don Mills bus route would connect to the Eglinton-Crosstown line could divert passengers away from the Yonge subway. Above Eglinton the character of Don Mills changes drastically, making it a logical terminus. On the west end, however, there is no logical path for northern extension besides the railway corridor.

There is no question that the projected ridership justifies a heavy rail subway, but an underground light rail line will allow the Don Mills line, the Waterfront West line, Queen East, King and possible even a Junction/Dundas West line to use the tunnel to reach the downtown core. If this can handle the capacity then it's my preferred solution, but some projections indicate that the line might carry more people then the entire Bloor-Danforth line.

Bloor-Danforth Line
Under the RTP, the Bloor-Danforth line remains relatively static, but limited expansions may be useful to connect emerging growth centres. A westward expansion would serve Sherway Gardens, where a few towers have been constructed and room for many more exists. In addition, this expansion would serve the Honeydale Mall property, which is in desperate need for redevelopment. A line to Mississauga, in my opinion, would be best handled along the GO line. At the east end, while I believe that a refurbished Scarborough RT line interlined with the Eglinton-Crosstown will prove to be a great improvement over the current line, a subway extension to Scarborough Town Centre may be necessary if it becomes overwhelmed.

Sheppard Line
I suspect that if modern light rail were seen as a viable transportation option in 1995 when the Sheppard subway proposal began to move forward there would have been no controversy attached to this line. Of course, hindsight is 20/20.

At the eastern end of the line, I have long supported the current proposal to build a light rail line to far Scarborough, as I believe it to be the most cost effective solution, and will be a great improvement over the Sheppard East bus. I also believe that a branch to Scarborough Town Centre would be a well-used link. From an official standpoint, the only outstanding issue is the connection between the existing subway line and the LRT. One option is to extend the subway eastward to Consumers Road where a dedicated transfer station could be made. The other option is to make the connection at Don Mills station, possibly along a double-length platform. If the former is chosen, then perhaps Victoria Park would be a better place for the connection, as this would serve the #24 bus. Either way, the tunnels will be build to accommodate a subway, opening the door to unique opportunities.

At the western end of the line there have always been calls to extend the line to Downsview, and according to the TTC, this is necessary - but not for the reasons you might think. According to the TTC, a western extension of the Sheppard subway might be necessary to allow trains from Wilson Yard to reach Richmond Hill centre quickly at the daily start of service. But, this could also be accomplished by storing those trains overnight at Davisville, according to Steve Munro. In my opinion, it could go either way. I don't think that Sheppard West warrants the capacity of a subway, but having a subway line between two light rail lines would be an awkward arrangement indeed.

Most proposals for east west connectivity across Yonge involved Finch West trams running east to Don Mills, south to Sheppard and continuing eastward, serving Seneca College along the way. If an underground transfer between the subway and the LRT is made at Don Mills, it might be wise to reconfigure the tunnels to accommodate light rail vehicles. This will result in a one-seat east-west ride along Sheppard from far-Scarborough to Downsview at a capacity that matches the demand, at a speed far faster than buses and at a cost far less than a subway. As for Finch East, I believe an extension of the Finch West LRT eastward into Scaborough is justified by the number of buses that currently serve the avenue.

Like Bloor-Danforth line, there may come a time when the Sheppard LRT becomes overwhelmed. If the subway remains then extensions will be more than appropriate. If the line is converted to light rail, then a buried light rail line could be used very effectively here - a concept called Pre-metro used in Belgium.

Subways have not died in Toronto, but an era when the choice was only between local buses and subways has been replaced with an era where the technology choice can be tailored to the desired speed and necessary capacity of the line. There will be some adjusting to this new era as celebrated mega projects of the past give way to more practical solutions, I think that in ten years we'll wonder why this paradigm shift didn't occur sooner.

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