Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Much ado about a bridge 2

In my post "Much ado about a bridge" (which was published in the Toronto Sun best of blogs section) I talked about the showdown over the railway grade separation at Strachan Avenue, between East Liberty and Douro, just south of King. Biking Toronto is reporting that the City of Toronto's preferred option will be carried forward. Much more expensive than raising Strachan above the railway corridor, the new plan calls for the tracks to be lowered below their current alignment and pass under Strachan. This option is the optimal solution according to the planning matrix, but it does cost $100 million more. Carrying this option forward is a sign that citizens are willing to spend more on a project when the urban design benefits will be greater, but I still wonder what would have happened if this project was being paid for entirely from the City of Toronto's capital budget. Would they have pushed for this option with as much zeal, or is this just reckless speculation?

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Today, Metrolinx announced that they will be studying the costs and benefits of electrifying the GO Transit rail network, a move which could allow for faster and more frequent regional trains, as well as addressing the concerns of many people who live near rail lines which are expected to receive service expansions in the coming years. While most modern diesel electric locomotives max out at around 4000 horsepower, the most modern north american electric locomotives are pushing between 7000 and 8000 horsepower, allowing them to accelerate faster. This means faster trips or more stops in the same amount of time. In addition, electric locomotives have fewer moving parts and can last upwards of 75 years in service. The lowered local emissions are obvious.

When it comes to electrifying rail lines, my stance has always been to view tracks and wires as two separate projects that should not depend on each other. Of course I would prefer wires to be strung up sooner rather than later, but if there is an opportunity to expand service sooner using modern diesel equipment then we should seize that opportunity. Transport for London, one of the agencies everyone aspires for the TTC or Metrolinx to become, for example, will introduce new Bombardier Class 172 Turbostar diesel multiple unit (DMU) trains on the Gospel Oak - Barking Line (GOBLIN) next year. If they are doing it then I don't think it's a step backwards if we do so here. That being said, the start of this study is welcomed and the first step in better service across the region. You can't build a house without blueprints, just as you can't embark on a capital project without knowing the costs and benefits.

Since electrification and electric locomotives or electric multiple unit trains isn't exactly cheap in the initial investment, I anticipate that this study will set out the minimum number of trains per hour required to justify the cost. At the frequencies planned in the next 15 years I can only see the Georgetown and Lakeshore lines meeting this bar, but if there's no reason not to continue to add service to justify it on lines that don't quite make the cut. If four trains per hour is found to be the minimum but the Bradford line only warrants three then I doubt anyone will complain if the fourth train magically appears.

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Fuzzy logic

I sometimes listen to right-leaning talk radio. This morning the number one argument I heard against bike lanes on Jarvis Street (before I turned it off due to angered blood) was that four months out of the year it snows and cyclists pack it in for the winter. The logic was that an infrastructure project that cannot be used year round is a poor investment.

So, by that logic, snow removal is a poor investment because the plows sit idle for eight months. Cleaning up the beaches of trash and E. coli is a poor investment because June, July and August are the only swimming months. Public golf courses, landscaping services, tennis courts, splash pads... Most specific-use parks would be a bad investment because they can't be used year-round.

Cyclists do not seek to force motorists out of their cars - high gas prices, congestion and changing views on the environment and on urban land use will do that - they only seek to have some safety on our roads. I don't think it's an unreasonable request, as more cyclists means fewer cars clogging up the roads.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Error of omission

A Royson James column in today's star brings to light the reflections of Howard Levine, retired planner, city councillor and transit buff, on the St. Clair West streetcar project. Suffice to say, he is not very happy with the direction the city has gone with the project.

While many of his concerns are about design elements (which are inherently subjective), one point did catch my attention. When the line is done, travellers will save one minute on a complete trip from Jane to Yonge. While this is true, it ignores one fact - that the one minute saving is over the scheduled time. Since the delays due to traffic are habitual for any mixed traffic-streetcar, the community will benefit from reliable and predictable service. Also, since there is a limit to the level of practical service that mixed-traffic operation can provide, the right-of-way will allow for more frequent service.

$100 million for a minute saved is not a good investment, but such a conclusion can only be reached if one ignores most of the other benefits of the project. $100 million for reliable, higher capacity transit, streetscape improvements, jobs and general community investment is a pretty good investment if you ask me.

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Quality of service

Adam Giambrone's Facebook profile is always interesting to read. Like a great blog, it generates dozens of comments on almost every post. I'm not ashamed to say that I'm jealous. But, this post isn't about his profile - it's about one particular comment posted a while back.

When the TTC chair posted that he was working on a note to explain why the subway cannot run 24 hours per day (due to necessary maintenance being conducted overnight), someone commented saying "One train an hour during off hours doesn't sound unreasonable... no? Or at least a train right after the bars let out!" Likely this would not fly as the power to the tunnels has to be cut entirely to ensure worker safety, but it got me thinking:

What is better from the perspective of the quality of service provided to the rider - a single subway train once an hour or a frequent night bus service every 10 minutes or better? Subways are viewed as a higher quality transit service than buses and would probably encourage people to stay out and enjoy the city later - in theory - but an hour is a very long time to wait for a train at 3am. If the choice is between waiting for up to an hour to get home and getting home immediately then I suspect that most people would choose the latter and take a cap or slug it out on the night bus. People will be willing to wait longer for a subway train than they will for a bus, but there is a limit. People will not use a service if it doesn't provide convenient departure times, and an hour between trains is really pushing it.

The same line of thinking can be applied to the off-peak train service on the Georgetown line. Currently there is an inbound train departure every two hours or so between 9 am and 2 pm and until recently, a departure every three hours after that. While the GO train is much more attractive than a GO bus, a departure every two hours has caused me to choose between arriving an hour-and-a-half early or a half-hour late to my appointments. From a quality of service perspective, buses running every half hour would be more convenient for the average user of the service.

But, what do you think? If our objective is to provide high quality transit service that is convenient for people to use then is it better to provide an infrequent train service or a very frequent bus service? Our aim should be very frequent train service, but as an interim measure should we invest our money in creature comforts or in frequency?

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