Tuesday, June 23, 2009

VIVA Blue Night

In Toronto, there is demand to run the subway 24 hours per day - that's evident by the frequency of the 300 BLOOR-DANFORTH night and 320 YONGE night buses (every 7 minutes and every 3 minutes, respectively). The need for maintenance is the reason why it cannot be done until a new signaling system allows for the electrical power shutoff zones to be smaller and more targeted. Up in York Region, however, the situation isn't quite the same. YRT recently announced that they will be cutting service on their VIVA Blue bus rapid transit line after midnight due to low ridership. The 99 YONGE SOUTH and 98 YONGE NORTH buses will continue to operate along the same route, with the last northbound trip leaving Finch station at 2:15 am - but this route will make all local stops.

On the one hand, there isn't enough ridership to justify an express branch of a local route at that time of day, and the more frequent stops that the 99 offers what I think is a better quality of service in the context of it being 2 am - I'm not the kind to fear walking around after dark, but that doesn't mean I want to walk fifteen minutes when I can walk five. In addition, the time savings offered by VIVA's express nature aren't really an issue at that time due to fewer stop requests and almost no traffic. But, VIVA is York Region's flagship service and appears to have a better public perception than the regular YRT service. What weight should those facts carry in the decision making process?

Ideally both routes should continue to operate, but due to the odd way in which transit is funded in this province, the money just isn't there. Assuming that YRT local routes can provide a near identical service and if the region can clear up some of the lingering customer confusion over the relationship between YRT and VIVA then was the right decision made?

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rail Ontario

Once upon a time, railways crisscrossed Ontario and moved freight and passengers between almost every city, village and town. But, as roads were improved and automobiles and trucks became more popular, passengers and shippers migrated to other means of travel and railways were gradually abandoned and, in many cases, torn up. Today, passenger rail service in Ontario is limited to commuter trains in the Toronto area, VIA Rail Canada inter-city service, and rural services in the far north - a relatively small network. The freight railway network isn't much bigger, limited the potential to expand passenger rail service to additional communities. But, what if we hadn't abandoned those lines?

Using GIS technology to display data created by myself and by the Southern Ontario Railway Map project, this is one concept of what an Ontario passenger railway network could look like:

View Larger Map

This railway network, which I call Rail Ontario, could stretches to all corners of the province with connections to Detroit in the west, Buffalo in the south, Quebec City in the east and Winnipeg in the north. Many of these lines use could use existing fright railway lines, but the vast majority run in corridors which have been abandoned for decades. In some cases, these corridors have become trails, and a trust fund should be established to ensure that every kilometre of reconverted trail is replaced. In some cases, development has obscured the old rights-of-way. In these cases, street railway alignments should be used with tram-trains - vehicles that can operate safely on the street and at high-speed on the mainline. Electric rail infrastructure should be installed on high ridership routes with frequent departures, and other routes should use diesel-electric equipment which meets the most forward-looking emission standards. Stations should be built as close to the central business districts of the cities and towns that they serve, and local transit, taxis and bicycle rental stations should be available to for the last mile of the trip.

A Rail Ontario network would offer several different brands of service, depending on the line.

Regional service would be the evolution of the VIA Rail service we have today and would operate on the high-ridership routes passing through major cities in southern Ontario. Standard locomotive-and-coach trains would call at the larger centres similar in size to those that VIA Rail and Ontario Northland currently stop at. However, service will be much faster and more frequent than the service operated today.

Express service would use european-style high speed trains between Toronto and Quebec City. This service would be designed to compete with airlines, so trains should offer premium amenities, only make intermediate stops in Ottawa and Montreal, and be able to reach top speeds of 300 km/h.

Local service would call at all the towns and villages along the line to ensure that everyone has access to the railway network. The major transcontinental lines, mostly connecting northern and southern Ontario, would use more traditional train sets with baggage cars, coaches, sleepers, dining cars and observation coaches, while shorter lines would use multiple-unit trains which are more efficient to operate. At minimum, all lines will see service under the Local brand.

Suburban Metro service would only operate in built up areas, and would be the evolution of the current GO Transit network to provide both a peak-hour commuter service and a frequent regional rail service. Peak-hour equipment should include locomotive-hauled trains of bi-level coaches and european-style multiple-unit trains. Unlike the GO Transit network of today, Suburban Metro service would operate the multiple-unit trains every ten minutes or better to provide a quality of service similar to that of a subway line.

These distinct brands will serve different markets and travel patterns, but will complement each other to ensure seamless travel between many communities in Ontario. Today, the mainline between Toronto and London has 11 GO Transit stations and 6 VIA Rail stations. Under a Rail Ontario network, there could be 11 Suburban Metro stations, 16 Local stations, 6 Regional stations and 2 Express stations. In addition, numerous other lines could connect with the mainline to serve other communities that have gone without rail service for decades. Potentially, the service map could look like this:

Each brand would use its own method of calculating cost, as some services would be faster and offer more amenities. However, the pricing would be consistent within the brand (i.e, an express Metro train from Burlington to Toronto would cost the same as a stopping Metro train). An integrated ticketing system would allow each brand to complement each other for seamless travel across the province.

As the price of gasoline climbs ever higher, every community in Ontario will be affected. There will be pressures to relocate businesses closer to large markets as the cost of shipping increases, and potentially, the only employer in one-industry towns will close. As the businesses move, people will follow, leading to increased development pressure on cities. While we will always need to intensify our urban spaces, the large urban centres of the province cannot possibly accommodate the citizens of every town and village in the their hinterlands without resorting to allowing urban sprawl (even if it is better designed sprawl). By expanding railway service to these communities and providing convenient links between large urban centres we can reduce automobile dependency, build more sustainable cities and towns and prevent the sacking of Ontario's small towns. As an added bonus, these railway links will allow industries in the hinterland to survive by shifting goods movement from trucks to trains.

Once upon a time, the train was the only way to travel quickly between cities and towns in Ontario. A second renaissance is long overdue, and when it arrives, almost every community in the province could be just a convenient train ride away.


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sunken treasures - or, why it has to be Google Transit

There are two main reasons why municipalities resist policy direction from upper levels of government. The first is something that I call the Fiefdom Theory - that municipal leaders know what is best for their communities and others should butt out. In many areas they do know best, but issues like development and transportation need to be addressed from a regional perspective. We are all going to have to intensify and build sustainable transportation to accommodate future growth, so there are many cases where we will need provincial policy to override a desire to stay low-density or to "do their own thing."

The other theory is an economic one - that municipal policy is expensive to develop and, in an era where most municipalities don't have a lot of money, to override carefully drafted plans is an exercise in flushing municipal cash down the drain. But again, there are times when we have to look at the bigger picture. Case in point, there are rumours that Brampton is opposed to a light rail line on Hurontario (which Mississauga seems to support) because they have sunk so much into their Acceleride rapid bus initiative. While most insiders agree that LRT is justified south of Square One, it is true that ridership begins to drop off the further north one travels. A case could be made to creep the LRT north - first to Square One, then to the new 407 park-and-ride station, then to Shoppers World - but stopping it there because of the sunken costs of an alternate proposal is not good planning.

Perhaps real reason for this post has become lost, but it's actually about trip planners. There's no question that an inability to comprehend complex schedules and transfers is a barrier to transit use, and a computerized trip planner is a good way of putting schedule information in the hands of riders. Some agencies have chosen to built their own trip planner, others have registered with Google Transit (an application inside Google Maps), and others have done both. But, there is a very good reason why we should exclusively recommend with the upmost strength the use Google Transit - the rise of the mobile internet.

Many of the in-house trip planners make heavy use of javascript and other advanced web programming languages, and these are often incompatible with the mobile browsers on Blackberry, iPhone and Android devices. With smartphones finding their way into the hands of more and more consumers, a compatible trip planner could give riders on-demand schedules and give them the confidence to leave their cars at home and explore the city. Riding from Oakville to Hamilton yesterday (and having no idea where I ended up), I used Google Transit to find transit directions from Eastgate Square back to the GO station - all while standing at a random corner in Stoney Creek. Had the Hamilton Street Railway used a in-house planner (as they once did) then this might not have been possible.

With Metrolinx and the TTC working on their own trip planners, we have an opportunity to make them more convenient for the users. Regardless of how much has been sunken into in-house planners, exporting the data in a Google-friendly format will do just what a trip planner is supposed to do - make finding schedules more convenient for users everywhere.

Sent from my BlackBerry device on the Rogers Wireless Network

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Question of the Day - Late Night Parking Window

Living in 905 and being a student is very difficult, especially if you like to enjoy a night on the town every once in a while. The last GO buses of the night generally leave around 1:30, but this can be too early for many revelers. Driving to a TTC lot and taking the subway downtown gives you access to the blue night bus network for an extended evening, but what happens if you decide at the last minute to have a few drinks because your friend has a sofa for you to crash on?

According to GO Transit's by-laws, it is unlawful to leave a car parked at a GO station for more than 48 hours. Staying overnight and catching a morning departure back to your vehicle wouldn't put you anywhere near the limit, but what about on the TTC? The signs at commuter lots are very clear - no overnight parking is permitted at any lot between 2:00 am and 5:00 am. So, say I park at the Finch lot at 8 pm to meet my friends downtown for 9:00. If I stay at the bars until last call it would be approaching 3:00 before I returned to my vehicle. Am I parked illegally? What if I have had a bit too much to drink (and, knowing my body, fatigue alone may be "a bit too much") and decide to stay downtown for the evening? Will I get a ticket or be towed for trying to do the right thing?

No, I'm not planning to go on a bender in the future... I'm just looking for ways that we can encourage people to use transit during the times when the congestion deterrent turns in for the night.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Question of the day

Whereas our quality of life, the economy and the environment do not recognize municipal boundaries, should our transportation policies reflect local interests or regional interests? While there are situations where both needs can be accommodated through a single well-designed policy - like adding a few local stations to a long-distance rail line - there are situations where a the goals of a municipal government might run counter to the goals of a good regional transportation system. For example, a municipality may not want local buses, but getting them could be a regional goal. A unified fare system is a regional goal, but it's no surprise that support and opposition varies by municipality.

When the new legislation governing Metrolinx explicitly allows the province to issue transportation policy statements, there is a strong possibility that mandatory directives will come from Queens Park - be they welcomed or not. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Discuss with examples.