Saturday, January 30, 2010

Visions for the GTTA: Rapid Transit, Part I

When it comes to rapid transit, one thing is clear: Torontonians want subways. If anything less than a subway is constructed then the system is somehow inadequate - too slow and too crowded. But, a transportation planner once told me that congestion can be defined as the result of a justified rationing of a scarce resource. Many years ago, society decided that our forests were a scarce resource and that it was not acceptable to cut down all the trees in the world to make paper. As a result, we began rationing new trees and encouraging the use of recycled materials. The transportation network is similar. Capacity is a limited resource, and constructing enough capacity to match all demand may placing our society in an unwanted position.

Imagine if we added enough capacity to Highway 401 through Toronto to ensure that every car could travel at the speed limit at all times of the day. In order to provide this level of capacity the highway would have to be at least 50 lanes wide. To accomplish this, we would have to bulldoze the communities adjacent to the highway and displace all of the residents and businesses. This would cost billions of dollars that could not be spent on other things that could benefit our society. Such a highway would be grossly underused at all times other than the peak hour and leave us with wasted capacity. In short, constructing enough capacity to provide the highest quality of service imaginable is not a good idea. I am not saying that we should never build another subway line in the GTHA, as some that feel light rail advocates believe. What I am saying is that the transit technology choice is a complex decision and needs to involve demand, expected development, and cost. Not every line can or should get a subway, but here is where I think we should upgrade our transit facilities to deliver a higher quality transit service.

[More after the jump...]

Recommendation #1 - Expand the subway system

Notwithstanding everything I just said, there are some corridors where subway line construction is appropriate. In general, these fall into two categories - extensions of existing lines and new lines where the projected demand are far above what other modes can handle. These projects should, when completed, resemble the existing TTC network, but carefully designed mini-metro systems (such as the Docklands Light Railway or the Vancouver Skytrain) may be appropriate. At grade alignments are appropriate as a cost saving measure, but if elevated alignments are to be used they must be carefully designed so as not to create unwelcoming spaces below the tracks. New stations, as they tend to become the focal points of the community, should be architecturally attractive and feature public art.


The Yonge-University-Spadina subway line should be extended as planned to Vaughan Metropolitan Centre and Richmond Hill centre, but I do not recommend any further extensions in the interim. There will always be another destination "just a few blocks away" that could support subway service, but these destinations are urban growth centres designated under the Places to Grow Act, and both are locations where other Metrolinx priority transit projects will intersect the subway. However, I do recommend that two infill stations be constructed on the Yonge line at Glen Echo Road and at Blythwood Road to improve the quality of transit service for local residents. Currently, these residents must take the 97 YONGE bus or walk 1 kilometre to the nearest station.


The Bloor-Danforth subway line should be extended at both ends to support development and serve new destinations in Scarborough and Etobicoke. In the west, the line should be extended to Sherway Gardens by roughly paralleling the railway corridor until North Queen Street before turning south towards the mall. This extension will complement the Dundas line in serving the western portion of the Etobicoke Centre urban growth centre, and will support the planned redevelopment of the Honeydale Mall property on Dundas between Shornecliffe and The East Mall. A station at Fairview Mall will serve the mall itself, encourage higher uses of the parking lot, and reduce the feeder bus ride for the residents of Alderwood and Long Branch. In the east, the line should be extended to Scaborough Town Centre along the Canadian Northern Railway right-of-way. Like the western extension, this will serve a key urban growth centre. In addition, this will eliminate a transfer of modes at Kennedy station. I am not recommending that this subway expansion replace Scarborough RT corridor. Rather, the subway should complement the RT and allow it to become less of a point-to-point shuttle and more of a locally oriented transit line.


The Sheppard subway line should undergo a technological conversion to increase its usefulness and to better intregrate the line with the Sheppard East LRT. The Sheppard subway was built at a time when light rail transit, for many reasons, was not considered as a viable transit option. Were it proposed today, it is quite possible that LRT would have been the preferred technology choice. A technological conversion will allow for a one-seat ride across both Sheppard Avenue East and Sheppard Avenue West, while still maintaining the existing capacity of the subway network in busiest section of the line. This is not a "downgrade", as the overall quality of service will increase. Rather, it is an investment to improve the quality of service on the Sheppard corridor as a whole. This will be detailed further in part II of this post.

Downtown Core

The Downtown Core subway line, also known as the Downtown Relief Line, is designed to offer east- and west-end travellers an alternate route into the city and relieve pressure off of the Bloor-Yonge interchange. However, this is secondary to serving the dense neighbourhoods of the downtown. The line should replace a portion of the Don Mills LRT line and operate through Flemingdon Park and Thorncliffe Park before following Pape Avenue to Gerrard Square. Initially running along the Grand Trunk railway corridor, the line should pass through downtown along the Front Street East and Wellington Street corridors. This will serve the West Don Lands, the financial district and Trinity-Niagara. In addition, this alignment will preserve Toronto's streetcar network - which is to Toronto as cable cars are to San Francisco. The line should leave the downtown core following the Grand Trunk / Credit Valley railway corridor and terminate at Dundas West subway station on the Bloor-Danforth line. This will serve several west end communities, including Parkdale and Brockton Village.

Other Upgrades

In addition to building new lines and extensions, existing lines should receive new several capital upgrades to improve capacity. All lines should receive Toronto Rocket subway cars, which can increase passenger capacity by 10% per train. State-of-the-art signalling systems should be installed which will allow for computer controlled trains that can operate more frequently. In addition, automated train control will allow trains to stop more precisely. This will allow for a seventh car to be added to each train (resulting in a train slightly longer than the platform), and will allow for the use of platform edge doors.

These screens will improve passenger safety and prevent trackside fires caused by debris igniting on the electrified rail - a common cause of service delays.

Recommendation #2 - Build a regional transitway network

In the Greater Toronto Area, there is only one rapid transit line that offers upwards of 20 trips per hour towards the city during the morning rush, and can reach average speeds of 65 km/h or higher - the 407 GO bus network. While rail's ability to carry more passengers per vehicle will always be superior to buses, the 407 network has proven itself as an excellent compliment to the GO rail service. In order to improve the network, regional transitways should be constructed to give highway buses an edge over ever increasing traffic congestion.


Most regional transitways in heavily congested areas should take the form of transit-only roads running parallel to major highways. These roads should be two lanes wide, but should widen to four lanes at stations to accomodate express routes. These roads should be constructed in fully segregated rights-of-way to ensure that buses can bypass congestion. In areas where constructing a parallel roadway is not practical, bus bypass shoulder lanes should be designated on the highway. Buses should use the normal driving lanes when traffic is light and use the shoulders to drive around heavy congestion. These lanes can also be used in areas that do not normally experience heavy congestion.

The Ottawa Transitway, which connects the downtown core with all corners of the city, could serve as a model for these transit-only roads. While most Ottawa's system consists of fully-segregated roadways, bus lanes on highways are used along Highway 417 through Kanata.


Three types of stations should be constructed on regional transitway routes:

On-line stations should be located wherever major roads cross above or below, and should generally resemble trackless subway stations. Side platforms should serve the stopping lanes at the station, while express lanes should be provided for non-stop routes to bypass the station. Waiting rooms and other passenger amenities should be located at street level to increase passenger safety, and additional connections to the neighbourhood should be provided.

Ottawa Transitway stations like Westboro (pictured) and Lees, and the "Street" and "Expressway" stations as proposed under the Mississauga BRT project should serve as conceptual models for these stations.

Off-line stations are, today, the most common method of serving stops on the highway bus network. While some stations can be replaced by on-line stations (such as the Trafalgar Road and Bronte Road carpool lots), destinations like Square One, Scarborough Town Centre and Bramalea GO station are best served by allowing vehicles to leave the transitway and stop as close to the destination as possible. In general, off-line stations should be build as transit terminals and should be strategically placed to improve connections between all routes in the area. All the passenger amenities normally found at major transit terminals should be included.

In addition to serving existing terminals as off-line stations, new terminals should be constructed at transitway termini and at junctions between transitway branches. Hurdman (pictured) and Lincoln Fields in Ottawa are locations where local routes and transitway branches connect to ensure seamless travel across the city.

Ramp stations should be installed at locations where the local conditions have led to the use of bus bypass shoulder lanes. These stations are typically stops and shelters located on the highway ramps, and are served by buses exiting the highway, stopping, then quickly re-entering the highway. Currently, GO buses on route 34 Brampton Local serve the Keele and Highway 401 stop in the manner. In some cases, highway ramps will have to be modified to permit this type of operation - expressway-to-arteial interchanges in the GTA will not support ramp stations unless a vehicle on the off-ramp can continue straight ahead to access the on-ramp. At such an interchange, the ramp station could be located on either the end of the off-ramp or the start of the on-ramp.


One of the criticisms of the Mississauga BRT project is that it is a route from nowhere (Highway 403 and Winston Churchill) to nowhere (Renforth Gateway). However, one must understand transitways are not routes - they are pieces of infrastructure upon which routes are laid. In Mississauga there will be a small number of routes that never leave the transitway, but the true value of the project stems from the ability to route local buses onto the corridor for a faster trip to City Centre Terminal. Currently, a bus from Meadowvale Town Centre to Mississauga City Centre snakes its way through northwestern Mississauga. Once the BRT project is complete, the route could run in mixed traffic to the nearest transitway entrance, then head straight to the terminal - saving 15 minutes in the process. This type of operation is used extensively in Ottawa, where it is possible to reach the downtown core from nearly anywhere in the city on a single bus. Though there are only 9 full-time Transitway routes, Lees station, for example, serves 63 routes.

Potential routings for the proposed GTHA transitway network contain too many combinations of origins and destinations to list, but should include several transitway-only routes and countless local routes that use the transitway for a part of the journey.

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