Sunday, July 27, 2008

Transit in Caledon

Returning home from a friend's house at around 2 am, I spotted two Brampton Transit Novas turning south onto Highway 10 from westbound King Side Road, both filled with passengers.

Sadly, they were signed "CHARTER".

I guess it's a start...

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Before the big box, a vision for Leslieville. So what went wrong? - Toronto Star

A Toronto Star article in this morning's paper suggests that the residents of Leslieville and the City of Toronto may be the architects of the controversial proposal to build a Wal-Mart on Eastern Avenue - a proposal which is before the Ontario Municipal Board.

It's an interesting read about just how elusive the goal of building mixed-use communities can be.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Little Schedule Tweaks

As I was waiting to pick up my brother from his summer job in Brampton, I noticed the 40 CENTRAL INDUSTRIAL bus pass at about the same time his shift was supposed to end. Since service at that time of day is every 30 minutes, someone who misses the bus would have to wait an awfully long time for the next trip. Pushing back the schedule by 10 minutes to catch the people getting off the morning shift would make transit a viable option for people at this particular business.

Did I mention that this company is the 3rd largest manufacturing employer in Brampton and the largest employer in that part of town?

This is a case where little schedule tweaks can improve the transit experience for hundreds of people without spending any additional money.

Going beyond, working with the transit agency to integrate the shift schedule with the bus schedule is something companies can do to help fight gridlock, save on parking facilities and leave their employees with more money in their pockets.

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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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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Adventures on a folding bicycle

Assuming that the cars my family owns are operating at peak performance (which is never the case for any car driven outside of the factory), I can expect to pay $15 per week in gas to drive from my home to Brampton GO station. This assumes, of course, that I can find parking (almost impossible after about 7:20 am). When I can't, I have to drive to Bramalea GO station, a $30 per week proposition.

Clearly, I could use an extra $15 in my pocket, but I suffer from a problem that so many residents of the GTHA face - living too far from the bus stop. From my area, there are three different options for getting to the GO station by transit. However, the 20 minute walk to the bus stop makes it unattractive - and that's just to reach the stop with minimal service. To reach a stop which offers frequent (for Brampton) service, I'm looking at a 2.3 km walk in the ditch along a former provincial highway.

Recently, I refurbished my fathers' trusty 10-speed and have been cycling a 10km route between my home and the heart lake area of Brampton every few days for exercise. It was during these rides that I realized that the 20 minute walk became a 5 minute bike ride. And, the stop with "frequent" service was less than 10 minutes away. Clearly, cycling was an option to make eliminating the car more attractive. However, there were some roadblocks. I wanted to ride my bike from my house to the bus stop, but also from Union Station to Ryerson in order to reduce the need to take the subway to complete my journey. But, while GO is in the process of installing bicycle racks on their buses, they currently do not allow bicycles into the luggage compartment, or on any train which called at Union Station during the peak hours. Since locking it up in Brampton would defeat half the purpose of buying it, I needed a solution that would come to me through a youtube video.

A folding bicycle was the solution to all of the roadblocks I came across. It was sturdy enough to carry me to the bus stop and through the streets of downtown Toronto, and light enough to be carried around during the day. GO Transit does allow folding bicycles in the luggage compartment of their buses, provided they are in their carrying case, and that very same case would allow me to bring it onto rush hour trains (as of the beginning of July, folding bicycles are officially exempt from the bicycle rule on trains as part of a pilot project). As for the TTC, staff prepared a report for me indicating that while folding bicycles did not require an official exemption, they felt that operators would be more lenient since it did not take up as much space. Of course, if it were placed in its bag, I think it would be even less likely to be refused.

After some shopping around, I found a bicycle store in Scone, Ontario called Wheelfast the Bicycle Shoppe, where Tim Green gave me an amazing deal on an Avenir aluminum 6-speed folding bicycle. I saved at least $100 off the average retail price in the GTA and made a day trip out of it, visiting quaint towns in Bruce, Grey and Dufferin counties. The Avenir aluminum weighs about 25 pounds, and folds to less than 1' x 2' x 3'. It's a Canadian re-badge of a 2004 Dahon Impulse D6, which makes it a product of one of the largest manufacturers of folding bicycles in the world.

After riding around the neighbourhood for a while and familiarizing myself with the way the bike folds, I tested my plan back in June by riding to the bus stop and taking the bicycle on Brampton Transit to get to work and back. I didn't experience any problems, and reception from other passengers was quite warm. The 15 minute drive to downtown Brampton became 60 minutes using the option with the most frequent service, but maximizing GO Transit will bring those times down quickly - possibly cutting it in half and brining it to within 5 minutes of a normal travel time.

On Thursday July 3rd, to get to a Metronauts community meetup, I decided to take the bicycle downtown for the first time. Starting on the Lakseshore line, I brought the bike in its bag to Exhibition station before unfolding it and going on a tour of the town. My first stop was at my aunt's house off Harbord near Ossington, where I raided her bottled water and showed her and my cousin the new bicycle. Upon seeing how the bicycle worked, my cousin turned to my aunt and said "grandma, I need a new bike." Next, I rode across Harbord and Wellesley to Church, then back across town to Bathurst and Dundas before doing laps around Chinatown to kill time. After the meeting, I again rode to Church and Wellesley before heading down to Front Street and into Union Station for the westbound train ride. It was a test of my own physical endurance, and a mental test to see if I could endure the stress of downtown cycling. While nothing can prepare your for the latter, I did prove the concept that spurred me to purchase the bike - it is practical to bring a folding bicycle on a GO train.

Since my trip will involve buses, I knew I had to examine the practicality of bringing the bike on a GO bus, and on using the TTC bike-rack equipped buses. Earlier today, starting at Bramalea City Centre, I boarded a bus bound for Yorkdale with the bike in the luggage compartment. The GO bus operator was very helpful, ensuring that he knew where I was getting off. As I stood up to get off, I observed him already putting on gloves to open the luggage compartment door. I walked over to the 47 LANSDOWNE stop, unfolded the bike, and put it on the rack of the next bus for my ride into the city. Eventually reaching College and Lansdowne with the bike still secure despite a bumpy road, I headed east on College through Little Italy and past U of T until I reached Church, where I met a friend for a meal. By the time we finished, night had fallen and a ride to Parliament and down to Queens Quay gave me a chance to enjoy the fresh air before heading to Union Station. Passing the Redpath Sugar plant, the unloading of a ship added a different aroma to the night air.

I caught the 10:30 bus back to Brampton, and as I sit here finishing a post that I have worked on infrequently for almost a month, I believe that I have found a tool for mobility that might be ideal for many people. Apartment dwellers will appreciate the little space it takes up, and car-dependent suburbanites will equally appreciate the fact that it can fit easily in the trunk of a car. It can do everything a normal sized bicycle can, but takes up half the space, and looks cool as "Japanese-speaking mice balls" while doing it.

There is a blog from Spain called Vida Plegable, which means "Folding Life". While I don't speak Spanish, I now know that this is a good life.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Etobicoke-Finch West LRT

The City of Toronto's webpage for the proposed Etobicoke-Finch West LRT has gone live, with more detailed documents and public meetings to follow in the coming months. The line is expected to follow the Transit City formula of light rail vehicles operating in reserved lanes, but like all transit projects, there are many options on the table. The method of connecting the line to Finch and future-Finch West station will come out in the EA, but are minor details in comparison to some critical "how far" questions:

How Far West?
The line is expected to terminate at Humber College in the Highway 27 and Finch area, but there are several options beyond that destination. Further west lies Westwood Mall, a major terminal for Mississauga Transit, while a southward extension could bring the line to support a redevelopment of Woodbine Centre and Woodbine Racetrack. These destinations are logical extensions, but are they logical enough to be considered in the current study?

How Far East?
The 39 FINCH EAST bus is bursting at the seams, so there is a market to extend the line eastward. Seneca college at Don Mills is a key source of this crowing, but higher densities along Finch don't start to dissipate until after you pass Kennedy. Should an LRT along Finch East be considered during this study, or should the project remain in separate, more manageable chunks?

How Far Away From Finch?
The hydro corridor gives us an opportunity to run the line out of traffic from Highway 400 to Highway 404. Faster travel times will result, but with the corridor about 300 metres away from Finch Avenue, will this support the growth management policies for Finch and replace the bus service with high-quality transit?

These are some key things to watch in the EA - and a close watch will be necessary, as this line doesn't have the controversy attached to its cousin on Sheppard East.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Draft RTP Delayed

One of the recurring issues I've heard about the Regional Transportation plan was the timeline. With the Premier strongly desiring a final plan in the fall, the resulting timeline meant holding public consultation during the summer months - a time usually avoided due to the fact that many have totally checked out when it comes to politics and planning.

Today, Metrolinx formally announced that the draft Regional Transportation Plan and Investment Strategy will be delayed until September. While this means that the public consultation for the plan will occur during the time when the public are most available and attentive, it also means that the plan might miss the cutoff for the 2009 Provincial Budget. Without a specific plan available to the Province, they will only be able to give funding to general service improvements, not for specific capital projects.

There has been a lot of speculation as to what has caused this delay. Some argue that the Premier was simply not ready to deal with some of the policies many people expected to see in the investment strategy. But, according to Metrolinx Chair Rob MacIsaac, the province has yet to see the investment strategy. I may be cynical, but I would expect the Province to be privy to a sneak peak at the plan before it is disclosed to the public. If that hasn't happened, then it suggests to me that it simply isn't finished - a theory that David Harrison shares. Metrolinx has a strong desire to ensure that the investment strategy and the RTP come out at the same time, in order to avoid derailments from the "how are we going to pay for this?" camp. If the funding plan isn't ready, then the transit plan isn't ready.

While I do subscribe to that theory, I'm certain there is a bit of truth to the other factors - either consciously or subconsciously. The plan needs to be approved by the public to stand the test of time, and it needs to be politically viable - there's no denying that, be you cynical or not. But, when the plan finally is released, we'll have a document that, for the first time, sets outs a roadmap for our future. And, that document will be politically acceptable and shaped by an attentive and engaged public.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Airport rail link may fly - Toronto Sun

The Toronto Sun is reporting that discussions are currently underway between the Province and SNC-Lavalin about moving forward on the controversial Union-Pearson Rail Link. Those in favour of the project believe that it will decrease the amount of traffic between the airport to the downtown core, and make Toronto a better place to do business. Some also contend that it will decrease the need to maintain the Toronto City Centre Airport. Those opposed to the project contend that it will bypass many of the under-served communities along the way, and even cause some existing railway crossings to close due to unsafe conditions caused by express trains.

I believe that there is a place for SNC-Lavalin to participate in the Union-Pearson Rail Link, but I do not believe it is as the operator of an exclusive express service. Further, I do not believe that a good solution for connecting Pearson to the city can be reached by looking at the narrow objective of moving people from Pearson to Toronto. We must look at the transportation needs of the entire corridor.

I believe we should operate a GO-branded regional rail line operating along the Weston Corridor. Trains would leave Union Station every 10 minutes and make all stops to Etobicoke North where the line would split. One branch would leave the main line to provide 20 minute frequencies to the airport, while the other branch would provide 20 minute frequencies to Brampton & Georgetown. With additional stops in Parkdale and Mount Dennis, the airport could be reached in 30 minutes for GO fare. Commuter & intercity trains would also use the corridor to reach Guelph, Kitchener and London, in addition to providing extra capacity during the peak hours, and express trains could also operate on the airport branch if needed. SNC-Lavalin could participate as a contract operator of this service.

Toronto needs a train service to connect Union Station and Peason Airport, but it should take a back seat to improvements that will benefit everyone. As for the island airport issue, eliminating the long drive is only one reason Pearson is something to be avoided. The swift, stress-free experience associated with the city centre airport will remain, and will likely only be toppled by high-speed rail in the Windsor to Quebec corridor.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

+1 for Guelph Transit

Transit Toronto is reporting that Guelph Transit will be improving frequencies on all routes to 20 minute headways this Monday, bringing an end to the insanity that has plagued the city for some time. As you might recall, Guelph Transit operates a network where all buses arrive and depart the downtown terminal at the same time, making it fairly easy to make connections. The city found that rush hour congestion was preventing buses from making the timed connection, and they decided to decrease frequencies during the peak hours to improve reliability - a move that won no applause form many in the transit community.

With 20 minute service, the community will see a more convenient transit service and higher frequencies without the loss of reliability that 40 minute service provided.

Kudos to Guleph Transit for ending this horrible experiment, and as I said to close the last post on the subject, I hope this is the last folly the citizens of Guelph ever embark upon.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The New Streetcars - don't act so surprised

Major news outlets are now reporting the story, but credit must be given to wil9402 on the Canadian Public Transportation Discussion Board for reporting that only two companies have submitted bids to build the next generation of Toronto's streetcars.

One is a company from UK called TRAM Power Ltd. They have built a prototype which operated in Blackpool for a few years, but haven't really made a name for themselves until now. The other is Bombardier.

Surprisingly, Siemens did not bid on this contract, citing technological and financial reasons - but this might actually be a good thing. CBC Radio reported earlier today that Bombardier was unaware of Siemens pulling out, hinting that Canada's favorite transportation company may have lowballed their bid If that is the case, and Bombardier is awarded the contract, then the citizens of Toronto stand to gain. Of course, the TTC could re-issue the tender, but I have a feeling that it was the unique requirements of Toronto's network (or maybe the Can-Con requirements) that kept the European manufacturers from bidding.

If Bombardier is awarded the contract, the new vehicles will likely resemble their FLEXITY family of European Trams, will be 100% low floor, and will feature all-door boarding with an alternate fare payment system. Hopefully, this will take the form of the Presto smart fare card, and not some stop-gap solution while the TTC crawls on its Presto implementation. They will be uni-directional, and will only have doors on one side. The first cars will be equipped with Trolley poles, but will be upgradeable to European-style pantographs when the network is ready.

As for the cars to be used on the Transit City network, there is some confusion. Initially, the TTC had indicated that these cars would be based on the downtown cars, but would be longer, have cabs at both ends and doors on both sides. Now, there are suggestions that the Transit City cars will be based on off-the-shelf designs, making them incompatible with the downtown network. I think that this would be shortsighted, as maximizing existing maintenance facilities at TTC carhouses will save us money in the long run.

The first vehicles should appear in Toronto around 2010, around the same time as the new subway cars arrive. It should be a very interesting year for transit in Toronto.

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