Saturday, May 31, 2008

Ottawa buildith, Toronto taketh away

After the light rail fiasco of 2006, the City of Ottawa went back to the drawing board and came up with a new rapid transit plan. Earlier this week, council approved a $4 Billion plan to convert the most heavily used parts of the Transitway to light rail, and to upgrade and extend the O-Train light rail line south to the airport and beyond.

Ottawa's rapid transit network consists of a very efficient system of bus-only roads and lanes radiating from the downtown core to all corners of the city. Routes 94, 95, 96 and 97 spend all of their time on the Transitway, providing frequent service. In addition, routes 101 and 102 use the Transitway in the outskirts, but use the crosstown expressway to bypass the downtown core during the peak hours. In addition, the O-Train light rail line connects Carlton University with the rest of the network. Built for a bargain price, it was always intended to be a pilot project.

In addition to these high-frequency services, the Transitway is also used by almost every bus route operated by OC Transpo. This allows a rider to get downtown from almost anywhere in the city without the need to transfer. But, the large number of buses have resulted in massive congestion during the peak hours, as the downtown section of the Transitway simply cannot handle the pressure.

The approved plan will see:
  • BRT from Baseline to St. Laurent converted to LRT
  • LRT from Bayview to Greenboro is upgraded and extended to Bowesville and the Airport
  • New BRT from Barrhaven Town Centre to Cambrian and to Bowesville
  • A downtown transit tunnel
  • Future higher order corridors identified
  • Objective criteria for upgrading further sections of the Transitway to LRT

Image Source: Public Transit in Ottawa

I suppose you can say that this project is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and there is no doubt that this will improve service, reduce crowing and bring downtown bus congestion to an end. However, Ottawa's system of one-bus-downtown will be disrupted. Riders on the 97 will have to transfer at Greenboro or Hurdman to continue further, as well as people comming from Barrhaven, Kanata, Stittsville, Blackburn and Orléans. It will be interesting to see how Ottawa residents take to the act of transferring - something that is second nature to most transit riders in the GTA. Either way, I'm happy Ottawa has an approved plan that is relatively inexpensive. Hopefully, the federal government will come to the table this time.

Meanwhile, WATERFRONToronto, the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation, has recommended that the Gardiner Expressway be removed between the DVP and Lower Jarvis Street to facilitate a better urban design of the area. It would be replaced with an at-grade avenue, similar in width to University. This street would have a landscaped median, pedestrian facilities. While it would add a few minutes (they claim 2, but my intuition suspects that is a low estimate) to the commute, it would allow for the kind of development that will make the area a place for people to live, work and play in. Here are some artists conceptions:

Image Source: WATERFONToronto

Many have claimed that the Gardiner is a barrier to the waterfront, but I disagree. The true barrier is the urban wasteland that lays beneath it and the lack of transit options to get through it. Yes, we can spruce it up, but this limits our options to improvements which can survive in such a hostile place. Plants are iffy, and public art would be difficult to appreciate if it were under a bridge. Realistically, no one wants to hang out under a bridge. I believe that this is a good plan, but it should not be done in the name of removing a barrier to the waterfront. It must be done in the name of transforming the area into a destination in itself. Without the highway hanging overhead, we can build a high-density, pedestrian oriented neighborhood from the ashes of the highway. It has been done in many cities, including Chicago, and has been very successful. Yes, it will be a wide street to cross, but like University Avenue (and almost every major artery in the 905), wide streets and heavy traffic are not something residents of the GTA are unfamiliar with.

The original preferred option was to remove the entire Gardiner Expressway from Spadina to the DVP, with the section between Simcoe Street and Jarvis Street to operate as a pair of five-lane one-way streets. From Jarvis east, there would be eight lanes with a median. The cost of this proposal was too high for the city to bear, so I suppose the mayor is endorsing this plan as a compromise. If the Jarvis to DVP successful though, I have a feeling that the full proposal may be resurrected. However, the Front Street Extension was always considered necessary for taking down the other half of the elevated Gardiner, and that project is DOA, according to the grapevine.

It could be eight years before this project is complete, due a full environmental assessment being required. The car lobby isn't happy, but I suppose that since this area is almost completely brownfield there won't be very many local residents to be opposed to this project. The waterfront may seem like an isolated area, but it is very clear that decisions we make have far reaching effects on other areas of the city. Perhaps that is why the original report was titled "Transforming Toronto" and not just "Transforming a Few Blocks Here and There."

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Council should take another look at whistle plans - Innisfil Scope

Here's an example of a letter to the editor which makes an eloquent argument for eliminating train whistles on the Barrie GO line through Innisfil. If the crossings are indeed up to Transport Canada requirements, then I fully support the writer's position. But, the letter goes off the rails (pardon the pun) in one paragraph towards the end.

"And finally, we must remember that train whistles are like police and fire sirens that cannot be heard at a distance because the sound is travelling either at the same speed, or slower, than the vehicle giving the warning blasts."

Never in my life have I ever seen a supersonic police car. Perhaps it was travelling so fast that I could not see it.

Make sure you check your letters for spelling, grammar and, of course, factual correctness.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Platform Screen Doors, I've still got your back

Torontoist had a recent post about the reason why Toronto won't be seeing platform screen doors - safety devices that prevent passengers from going onto track level when a train isn't at the station with doors open - anytime soon. While I agree that we won't be seeing them for a few years, I think this is an avenue the TTC should go down.

"It's too expensive..."
While they are expensive to install and operate, they bring about some very important efficiencies. "Passenger injury at track level" will be a thing of the past, and this will reduce costs associated with sending dozens of shuttle buses to deal with the delays. Also, this will virtually eliminate operators having to go on disability when they witness a horrible incident. They don't mean service improvements, but they will make the service we do have safer, more attractive and more efficient.

"They don't have the ability to stop in the same spot..."
Getting platform screen doors would require automatic train control, or service would be slowed down as trains would have to enter the station much slower in order to ensure the doors line up properly. However, the first phase of this system has already been funded by the provincial government. It will take some time to install, but moving to ATC will allow trains to run closer together. Higher frequencies will increase capacity and reduce crowding. It will also allow trains to use either track in either direction, opening the door to overnight service without needing to cancel maintenance.

"Everything mechanical at the TTC breaks down weekly..."
The Ford Pinto blew up when you rear ended it, but people still buy their cars today. Yes, the TTC has maintenance issues, but I think it's unfair to argue that they can't handle it. I'm sure everyone has a D or two on their transcript, but that doesn't mean they aren't qualified to do the job they are trained to do. Similarly, just because the Queen car has problems doesn't mean Transit City is an imminent failure.

"But what about ventilation..."
The TTC uses the subway trains to push fresh air into the station, and a full floor-to-ceiling platform screen would interfere with that. But, they don't have to be full height to provide the protection they are designed to protect. As long as they are tall enough to ensure someone doesn't fall over, or tall enough to give the authorities enough time to react if someone is deliberately trying to climb over it, they will be successful. If full sized screens are necessary, then an engineering solution that doesn't involve redoing the HVAC system could be implemented. Slats in the glass could potentially do the job.

Safety sells come budget time, but platform screens are a good investment regardless. They save lives, save money and create spinoff projects that improve service all around.

If you play the YouTube video above, you'll see a platform attendant on the London Underground. Presto might allow us to close collector booths at lightly used stations, and this could be one of the places where we re-deploy the collectors.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

It's where you live

I live in Caledon. I can say that with some form of authority because the homeowners pay their taxes to the Town of Caledon. When the fire department is called, the truck says "Town of Caledon" on the side. The Caledon detachment of the OPP is our local police force. 

Within the town of Caledon, I live in a neighbourhood called Valleywood, a relatively new creation. Historically, this area is just north of a place called Snelgrove. At one time, this place was a hamlet in the Chinguacousy Township, part of Peel County. Today, Snelgrove is a neighbourhood in the City of Brampton in the Regional Municipality of Peel, while Valleywood is a specific development in the Mayfield West planning area of the Town of Caledon, also a part of the Regional Municipality of Peel.

Historical, political and cultural forces have placed different layers on this relatively small geographic area, causing these many changes to take place over the 170-or-so-year European history in the area. All these names and places have different meanings to different people, but they can all be seen as accurate descriptions of the area... or can they?

A while ago, I had a debate with a friend of mine who works at the Canadian Tire at Rutherford Road and Jane Street. We could agree that the store was located in the City of Vaughan, but we could not agree on which historical hamlet it was located in. We narrowed it down to three best choices.
  • Maple - Canadian tire calls this store their Maple location, but I believe that this is incorrect. Historically, Maple grew around the railway station at Keele and Major Mackenzie. The location is simply too far from Maple to be considered a part of it.
  • Concord - The mailing address of the store is Concord, but this has traditionally referred to the industrial areas to the south and east surrounding the large CN Rail yards. While the railway did not arrive until the 1960s, the area existed as a farming community long before.
  • Edgeley - Centered around the intersection of Jane and Highway 7, all that remains is a street bearing its name. The area once had a post office and several mills, but like Maple, is still a fair distance from Rutherford Road.
Maybe all of these locations are correct, or maybe none of these are - but that's not the point. The point is that unless steps are taken to preserve the history of these unique villages, some (like Maple) will grow beyond their boundaries and the name will become diluted. Others (like Edgeley), will be swallowed up, forgotten or re-branded (into Vaughan Corporate Centre).

The Town of Oakville is at this crossroads right now. As it prepares its culture master plan, an issue concerning proposed programming changes at the civic museum has caught my attention. Oakville has grown exponentially in the past 25 years, and there is a need to incorporate the history of the new developments into the museum's programs. But, should this come at the cost of a diminished importance of the historic downtown?

If the town chooses to promote "One Oakville", then the boundaries of the downtown could grow as more developments claim to be located in this desirable neighbourhood. We've seen this in Vaughan, where the borders of Woodbridge and Maple have become almost impossible to define. On the other hand, a "Two Oakvilles" (three once the area north of Dundas develops) policy could result in an adversarial mentality, similar to what we've seen in Toronto after amalgamation. The matter is further complicated by the fact that the historic village and the greater municipality share the same name.

Residents have an opportunity to comment on the culture master plan at town halls and on the Oakville Town website, but I hope that the plan protects the heritage district and that the museum exhibits reflect its significance. New developments are important, but I believe that civic pride comes from an understanding of the your neighbourhood, its history, and an appreciation of the people who first ventured into the wilderness looking for adventure.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Mississauga Transit picks up its baseball in frustration and leaves the park after it strikes out

Mississauga Transit Operators to Announce All Bus Stop Locations

On June 1, 2008, Mississauga Transit operators will begin announcing all bus stop locations to help passengers of all ages and abilities.

In particular, starting on June 1, 2008, Mississauga Transit operators will be required to manually announce all bus stop locations on routes where the next stop, bus stop signs have been completely installed. The signage is being installed on our busiest routes first.

The route-by-route implementation schedule is outlined below:

Effective June 1, 2008: Routes 1 – Dundas and 19 – Hurontario.

Effective June 15, 2008: Routes 3 – Bloor and 26 Burnhamthorpe.

Effective June 29, 2008: Routes 5 – Dixie and 7 – Airport.

Effective July 13, 2008: Routes 13 – Glen Erin and 61 – Mavis.

Our web site will be updated regularly as next stop, bus stop sign installation is completed and additional routes are added to the list of routes where Mississauga Transit operators are required to manually announce all bus stop locations. On routes where the next stop, bus stop signs have not been completely installed, Operators are required to announce the bus stops located at major intersections and terminals, or at the passenger’s request.

By the late fall of 2008 next stop, bus stop sign installation is targeted to be completed on all of our routes, and Mississauga Transit operators will be required to manually announce bus stop locations, system wide.

For safety reasons, our valued customers are reminded not to speak to our transit operators while the bus in motion. As well, our customers are advised to please be patient since our buses may be making more frequent stops, to allow our transit operators to safely make the bus stop announcements.

“We recognize the diverse needs of our passengers, and this enhanced level of accessible service will help passengers enjoy travelling on our buses”, says Director of Mississauga Transit, Geoff Marinoff.
Essentially (as I understand it), if the operator doesn't know the name of the next stop then the bus will be comming to a full-and-complete stop for the street sign to be safely read.

This will not "help passengers enjoy travelling" on Mississauga buses. This reeks of classic tactics used to undermine an unpopular order. In my opinion, this is a work-to-rule aimed at having the province institute clear policy on calling stops, or (and more likely), getting them to fund next-stop information systems for all buses. Every other transit agency has complied with the Human Rights Commission ruling without this becoming an issue - with all due respect, Mississauga needs to suck it up.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Metronauts: Continuing the conversation (Part 3)

Metronauts (powered by Transit Camp) was a whirlwind of good ideas, interesting conversations and networking with industry professionals and transit advocates. Here, the second in a series of posts, I will try to continue some of the conversations started on that interesting day. In this post, I'll be taking about fares.

Right out of the gate, let me just say that if the province was in search of providing investment in two sectors at once, then they should consider offering subsidized transit passes to students attending post-secondary institutions. It will make transit more accessible to students (as they can save their money for books and/or food), and it will make post-secondary education more accessible to students (in a physical sense).

Fares are a fact of life, and unless we have a spare $800 million around to replace the revenue the TTC alone receives every year from the farebox, we won't be seeing free transit. So, how can we change the fare system to encourage people to use transit trips that cross borders and run into the dreaded double-fare?

Using the Metrolinx format, there are three scenarios for how we can change the fare system.

All local transit agencies adopts the GTA fare card (Presto) and a 2-hour unlimited transfer scheme. On local transit, you tap when you get on, giving you two hours of unlimited transfers for the group of systems you started with (either 416 group or 905 group). Transferring to the other group deducts full fare, but you get a fresh two hours (your privileges in the starting group remain). On GO, you tap-on and tap-off and your fare is deducted based on how far you've gone. How much you pay to transfer between GO and local is set by the local agency.

I am a firm believer that the status quo is unacceptable, and while I understand that reducing the fare collected at the border will reduce the revenue collected and lead to higher subsidies, fostering ridership in car dependent suburbs is a goal that is well worth the cost. I believe that someone who lives a concession north of Steeles in Markham or Vaughan should have to walk twenty minutes to the fare boundary to avoid paying a full second fare.

Consider my own case. I tend to walk from Ryerson to Union Station to avoid paying TTC fare, and would gladly take the subway more often if I could use my GO pass to get a discounted fare like I can on Brampton Transit. My walk isn't so bad because I have access to the PATH system, but consider my friend Jessica. A resident of Halton Hills, she would take GO Transit and the TTC to work at Dundas and Ossington. It's a long walk from Bloor Station, and there is no indoor alternative. I commend Jessica for even taking transit, but I understand her reservations about paying a second fare to get to work because she isn't employed within walking distance of a GO station.

Based on these and countless other cases of people who would use more transit more often if fare integration exists, I believe that the trends scenario is a barrier to ridership.

Transferring between a 416 service and a 905 service deducts a single dollar from your fare card, but you get a fresh two hours of unlimited transfers. Alternatively, a transfer between 416 and 905 is free, but your original two hours continue. If you ride to or from a GO transit service, your local transit trip only costs 50 cents, but GO fare remains distance-based as it is seen as a premium service.

This option has promise, as it better encourages riders to use two or more services to reach their destinations. If the first variant is used, then a rider from York Region (for example) would pay full fare on YRT and then be able to transfer onto the TTC for a single dollar. This could reduce the strain on commuter parking lots at the outermost systems as it becomes more cost effective to take transit from the start. Ridership in the suburbs would rise dramatically, but revenue collected by the TTC would drop. However this would be mitigated by something I call the "Finch Effect" - the percentage of car uses who believe that if they have to drive to Finch to avoid paying a second fare, then they might as well drive the full way to their destination. Introducing fare integration would attract these people to transit. 

The second variant of this scheme would likely be more successful, as the overall costs to the rider are lower. It also matches the average travel pattern, as very few people take a trip longer than two hours without a significant stopover.

The incremental options are simple to implement, but are not without problems. Firstly, it is unlikely that halving the fares will double the ridership, resulting in higher subsidies needed to sustain the system. Secondly, incremental options do not bring GO into the fold. GO Transit is much more efficient at moving people across long distances than local transit is - even the city of Toronto admits this. But, there is a psychological roadblock to diverting riders from local transit onto GO. If there is a cheaper option that gets you to your destination in a reasonable amount of time in reasonable comfort, people will take it. Essentially, the TTC isn't bad enough to force people onto GO, notwithstanding the fact that not everyone is headed for the central business district and may need a connecting service to get them to their destination.

We can easily double or triple the capacity of the Yonge, Bloor and Danforth corridors by increasing frequency on the GO trains lines that parallel the subway, but unless we harmonize the TTC and the GO fare system, we won't be using the existing infrastructure to its full potential.

Full fare-by-distance is used for both GO and local transit. You tap-on when you board and tap-off when you alight, and your fare is deducted based on the distance you travelled, no matter which combination of routes and service you used to make your trip.

On could argue that we already have fare-by-distance on local transit in the GTA. One could also argue that our system is the most user-friendly implementation of fare-by-distance. However, the model we use is a blunt instrument compared to the fine tools used by most cities in Europe and Asia. If we seek to integrate GO and local transit effectively, and we seek to increase the number of riders who use suburban systems to get to the city of Toronto, we'll need to adopt a system which ties very different fare systems together. There are several different models we could implement.

The Vancouver Model
One option is the Vancouver model, which is a three zone system. A single zone trip costs $2.50, a two-zone trip $3.75 and a three-zone trip $5.00. These zones are fairly broad in size, representing the City of Vancouver proper, the inner suburbs and the outer suburbs. In the evening and on weekends, the system operates as a single zone, with all trips priced at $2.50 regardless of distance travelled. Vancouver also has a commuter rail line which uses a more finely tuned fare-by-distance model, but train riders can use their pass as a three-zone ticket while it is still valid. Applied to Toronto, this would give GO riders the privilege of transferring onto local transit at not additional cost. It solves the problem of commuter who do not use GO because they do not work within walking distance of the GO station, but the problem of the TTC competing with GO still exists. A commuter from Long Branch has a choice between a $2.75 ride on the TTC or a $4.00 ride on GO. While some people will choose GO, most people in that situation would choose to tough it out on the 501.

The Classic Model
The classic interpretation of fare-by-distance consists of a rider tapping their fare card when they enter the system and tapping their fare card again when they leave the system. The system evaluates how far you travelled and charges you accordingly. Zone-based fares work nicely in cities where the activity is centralized (Ottawa is a great example), as everyone would know how many zones to cross in order to get to the central employment area. However, the spiderweb-like travel patters of commuters in the GTA means that zones would have to be based on the grid. In lieu of a massive fare matrix on the wall, computers would have to be installed at stations so that passengers without mobile internet access can calculate the projected costs of a trip. Charging fares by kilometre distance suffers from the fact that the average person, myself included, cannot judge distances accurately enough to predict how much we will pay with confidence. Fare-by-time would be easy to understand, project costs, and would encourage more people to use faster GO services - but, how do we account for service delays?

Regardless of the option we select, two things must occur. Firstly, we have to have a declining payment scale. Essentially, a trip that is twice as long as another must cost less than twice as much - the longer you travel, the less you pay per unit. Failure to do this will discourage long distance trips, and place us right back where we started. Secondly, we must ensure that fare-by-distance isn't used as an excuse to significantly raise fares. If a trip from one end of your city to the other doubles in price under any fare-by-distance model, then this change will be a political non-starter. Since all cities are not the same size, it means that all fare zones won't be the same size.

The London Model
The London model, aside from its ring-shaped zones, is one final fare-by-distance model worth considering. In London, most rail-based services (Underground, Overground, Heathrow trains, Docklands Light Railway and National Rail trains) are viewed as premium transit and are operated with a fare-by-distance plan. Buses and trams, which cater to local and feeder trips operate on a flat fare system. The Oyster Card, London's fare card sorts out the various combinations of services you used and charges you the cheapest fare it can find for your travels. Applied in Toronto, this would mean that all trips on the subway, on GO trains and GO buses would be charged based on the distance travelled. Buses, streetcars, and locally-oriented BRT and LRT lines would use a flat fare system. Your fare on premium transit would allow you to transfer to local transit for free, and a local transit fare could be used for credit to get onto a premium service. This solves the problem of people crossing the current fare boundary by bus, but might result in lower subway ridership as the demand for a cheaper alternative grows. Also, how will we define what is a premium service? Under the London Model, the proposed Eglinton-Crosstown line would fit in both categories.

I started writing this post on April 21st, and for a very long time, had no idea which direction I wanted to take it in. I suppose I have come to the conclusion that there is no single fare-by-distance model that will work in Toronto, and a home-build solution will likely be required. However, I can lay out some priorities that must be taken into account:
  • If we want to move people off the overcrowded TTC and onto GO, we have to blend the fare system or people will stick it out on the cheaper option.
  • If we want to transform GO into a regional rail system with trains running every 10 minutes stopping every 5 km (the REX concept), then we have to understand that this will transform GO into a subway-style line that people will use for local trips. We need to ask ourselves if local trips should equal local fare, or if premium service should equal premium fare.
  • Charging a second full fare at a zone boundary is a roadblock to ridership and should be reduced so that a longer trip cost less per unit. This will encourage long distance riders to make trips that cross borders.
  • Passengers are used to the flat-fare system, and asking someone to pay significant more for what used to be a flat-rate trip will not fly. Letting someone pay significantly less for short distance trips will fly, but may anger long distance riders as not everyone can afford to/wants to live where they work.
I think this may be the longest post I've ever written, and it may be the post which took me the longest time to finish without completely abandoning it. Either way, its an issue which needs to be looked at by all levels of government to insure that transit pricing is fair, equitable and generates the revenue we need to minimize the subsidy burden governments face at budget time.

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