Aug 11

Listening to Toronto: On Transit

One Toronto taxpayer has a bold idea to pay for transit in Toronto

Respondent 2-625 has ideas for public transit in Toronto. Big ideas. “We could hold the first North American Electric Motorcycle Race,” writes the Toronto taxpayer. “These bikes are fast.”

Pushing for a world class racetrack up at Downsview Park, the respondent indicates that a private sector partner — like “Apple or RIM” — would sponsor a subway station connected to the race track that would host “world events in our backyard” with fast bikes and cars and so on. This, it’s said, is a “potential goldmine.”

“I can see it now,” he or she concludes,  “no more boring expensive walkways to the train, I see a walkway that brings your senses alive before you watch million dollar cars race for the day.”

Out with the boring, bland walkways in our transit system — in with the racetrack-adjacent walkways that bring your senses alive.

Let’s hear from Toronto

Earlier this year, the City of Toronto embarked on an extensive public consultation process as a precursor to a planned Core Service Review. Over 13,000 people filled out an online survey while hundreds attended public meetings held across the city. Unfortunately, soon after the data gleaned from this process was released, high-ranking members of Mayor Rob Ford’s Executive Committee dismissed it as irrelevant. The sample was “self-selected,” said one councillor.

And, sure, okay, maybe it would be a stretch to call this data statistically sound, but it still represents the collective opinions of thousands of Torontonians. Isn’t that, by its very nature, something worth considering? Something worth exploring?

I think so, and that’s why I’m doing this: over the next few weeks, I will write brief summaries of all eleven of the Core Service Review qualitative reports. These reports contain thousands of comments written by the citizens of Toronto on a variety of topics. Today, we start with transit. (The numbers refer to the survey question, followed by the response number. All data is anonymous.)

Duh, Transit is important

Seems obvious, but let’s start here: Of the 13,000+ responses, 4,569 reported public transit (or something related to it) as one of the most important issues facing our city in 2011. Many were colourful with their description of the problem. Respondent 1-9’s major issue is listed as “Public transit sucking hard.” 1-306 writes “We need more public transit now!”  2-64 just writes “TRANSIT!!!!!!!” Respondent 1-509 despairs over “the rising price of TTC and the terrible service they provide,” while 1-621 is rather forceful with the belief that “the TTC is the worst transit system of any major metropolitan area in North America.”

The prevailing trend is that people are tremendously protective of the TTC and the role it plays in our urban lives, but, also, simultaneously, they despise it with the fire of a thousand suns. Customer service is noted as a major issue. Respondent 1-2404 lists, as a top issue facing the city, “seemingly deliberate, rude, ornery, poor service among TTC [and other] employees.” 3-20 points out “when you’re paying ever increasing fares on the TTC and dealing with service disruptions, filthy stations and (some) rude staff, the combination is really unappealing.”

Cost comes up a lot, with many decrying the service as already unaffordable.”The TTC relies too heavily on service fees,” says 3-79. “[It’s] to the point where the fares are completely unaffordable to those on a limited income.” 3-19 makes the case for young people in the city, writing that “$120 is a lot for a Metropass right out of university when you work part time at Indigo and have to pay $700 for a basement apartment.” 2-863 makes a strong point, and is one of many who links the cost of transit to the cost of car ownership, writing “I pay 80% of my bus trip, how much of a car trip is paid for by the user?” (The actual TTC fare box recovery ratio is closer to 70% than it is to 80%, but let’s not split hairs.)

Expansion? Yes! How? That’s up for debate!

The word “expansion” appears hundreds of times in the document, with most agreeing that more service to more places is a good idea. Less universal are opinions on where that expansion should occur, and what form it should take.

There are a ton of voices opposing the mayor’s transit ideas and calling for a return to a more David Miller-esque vision. “MORE TTC SERVICE – MORE LIGHT RAIL (EFFICIENT)…LESS SUBWAYS (COSTLY)” writes 1-355. 1-490 concurs, saying that the city shouldn’t be “building subways when LRT is much cheaper.” 1-591 worries about “borrowing 4 billion to build a useless subway” while 1-640 asks that we be “promoting realistic public transit – not the destruction of it as outlined by Ford.”

On the other side of the fence, there’s 1-469, calling for “Building subways, not high speed railways or light rapid transit.” 1-79 asks for “Decongestion of traffic, ie. via delivering promised TTC Subway extending past Morningside Ave. on Sheppard.”

All in all, responses tilt away from the Sheppard plan, with only a few mild supporters in the bunch. The fabled Downtown Relief Line gets a number of mentions, with 2-1172 calling for “Subway expansion, specifically the Downtown Relief Line NOT Sheppard!” Respondent 2-807 points out that “Downtown subway expansion such as the downtown relief line is essential prior to any extension of the Yonge line into York Region.” Otherwise, the response continues, “Torontonians will be waiting on platforms watching trains full of York Region residents pass them by.”

An overlooked piece of the transit expansion debate also emerges, as many call for better TTC service to Pearson airport. 2-509 sums it up best: “What kind of major city doesn’t have subway or above-ground train to its airport in the year 2011?”

The Ford Nation appears? Killing streetcars and privatizing transit

Response 1-509 lists their top issue facing the city in 2011 as “streetcars-replace with buses.” Similar calls are echoed throughout the report, though they are ultimately a minority voice. Response 2-3762 calls for a “move from streetcars to electric buses in downtown core.” Many indicate a belief that streetcars only make traffic worse (2-319). “Streetcars suck,” writes 2-1135, “I’m happy Ford is removing this stupid Light Rail idea and adding more subways…more! More!”

Another vocal minority calls for the contracting out of bus routes or the complete privatization of the TTC. 3-571 says “if you can find somewhere to contract out TTC services, somewhere that does not use a a bloated union and employees are earning outrages salaries for regular jobs, I say do it.” Much of this desire stems from a belief that TTC workers are overpaid. Respondent 3-96 believes the “salaries of TTC workers should be cut…all TTC workers have inflated salaries.”

Fighting traffic congestion with transit

The big takeaway, expressed by hundreds of people in this document, is the common belief that traffic congestion can be solved with more public transit. Response 4-505 proclaims that “Toronto is choking on traffic,” but adds that the “solution cannot be more roads.” 3-237 says that “we need to set up our city as a walkable, and transit-able city. We can’t support the traffic we have now and as the city grows it is only going to get worse.”

There is significant support amongst respondents for new revenue tools for transit, primarily road tolls and congestion charges, though many ask that they only apply to 905 residents who come into the city. Respondent 4-401 echoes a common sentiment: “Our services are used by thousands of 905ers every day who don’t necessarily contribute to paying for them.”

We’ll let 4-327 have the last word: “Congestion is ridiculous and the answer is not widening roads and providing more capacity. The answer is is providing higher order transit and alternatives to the single occupancy vehicle. Rethink your priorities please, Mayor Ford.”

Which is a fair enough point — especially considering at least one member of Ford’s Executive have gone on record with their belief that more roads will solve congestion issues –, but still, I’m thinking we should just circle back to the beginning and really work out a strategy for funding transit with electric motorcycle racing. Those bikes are fast.

Jul 11

Minnan-Wong planning “significant” downtown transportation study; believes more roads can solve traffic problems

I’ve been meaning to get to this for a while. Amidst a bunch of news cycles dominated by that thing where other councillors forced the removal of existing infrastructure in her ward — despite her objections, and those of local residents and business –, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam revealed a major plan for the renewal of the section of Yonge Street between Dundas and Gerrard. It calls for wider sidewalks, an improved public realm, “sharrows” for cyclists and, oh yeah, the removal of two car lanes. Pedestrians vastly outnumber vehicles on this stretch so this doesn’t seem like an overly crazy suggestion.

You can download the entire report here. I’ve compressed it from its original downtown-elite file size of nearly 140 megabytes, so the images are a bit grainy.

Response to the report was swift, of course. Councillor and Public Works Chair Denzil Minnan-Wong essentially smacked it down, citing the need to first do a “very significant transportation study” of the downtown before making any moves to revitalize streets.

The Sun’s Chris Reynolds:

While Public Works chairman Denzil Minnan-Wong said he had yet to see the report, he cautioned any rush to rip up Yonge St. traffic lanes.

“The city is planning a very significant transportation study of the downtown, all the major roads and thoroughfares,” Minnan-Wong said. “It is going to be proposed by staff, it is coming forward in September and we are going to be looking at gridlock and congestion in the downtown.

via Study says Yonge stretch should be narrowed | Toronto & GTA | News | Toronto Sun.

Oh good. We’re going to look at gridlock and congestion in the downtown.

Much of Toronto’s downtown ‘gridlock’ can be attributed to simple physics: there are too many cars coming into a relatively small space. You might be able to nominally increase some traffic metrics by improving signal timing and filling in some missing roadway links (as seen with the Dufferin underpass last year), but you’re not going to drastically increase overall capacity unless you start knocking down buildings to allow for wider streets.

Even then, adding roadway capacity only leads to the “induced demand” phenomenon, which says, basically, that new roads create new traffic. There isn’t a magical point at which roadspace is bountiful enough that congestion and gridlock stop happening. (The inverse is also true: contrary to logic, some traffic will simply disappear if road capacity is reduced.)

The principles behind induced demand are pretty widely accepted by planners and politicians these days. A notable exception would be the Councillor backing this downtown transportation study. He seemingly does not buy it, as he told Torontoist’s Hamutal Dotan last week that he thinks, “if you have more roads you will have traffic run better.”

And so, in an attempt to deal with downtown traffic, it looks like we’re going to try and dig our way out of this hole. Meanwhile, Yonge Street will probably be waiting a long time for its much-needed revitalization.

Somewhat Related: I wanted to throw a link out for Edward Keenan’s ambitious five-part series at The Grid, which stands as a remarkably thorough examination of the idea of road pricing in Toronto and the GTA. Recommended reading.

Jun 11

What we talk about when we talk about Jarvis

At yesterday’s meeting of the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee, while discussing Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong’s new bike plan, Councillor John Parker moved an amendment to kill the bike lanes on Jarvis Street.

Here’s the text of Parker’s amendment:

City Council rescind its decision related to the bicycle lanes on Jarvis Street.

via Agenda Item History – 2011.PW5.1.

Council will debate the item at the July council meeting. If approved by a majority of council, the lanes will be removed.

No Justifiable Reason

I’m going to have lots to say about this over the coming weeks, but let’s get some stuff out of the way. First, the big one: as far as city planning, traffic engineering and economics go, there is seemingly no justifiable reason for removing the bike lanes on Jarvis.

The city’s own numbers tell the story. Since the lanes were installed, traffic levels for cars has remained at the same level as previous. Travel times increased by about two minutes in the morning, and three to five minutes in the afternoon. If that latter figure seems a tad high, staff agree, and are taking steps to correct it:

Much of the increased travel time could be attributed to the delays and queues experienced at the Jarvis Street/Gerrard Street East intersection, particularly in the northbound direction during the p.m. peak period.

The introduction of an advanced left turn phase in the northbound direction at this intersection, scheduled this summer, will reduce the delays at this intersection and the overall travel times between Queen Street East and Charles Street East.

via Bikeway network — 2011 Update. (pg 17)

Most notable, however, is that the total number of vehicles (cars + bikes) using the road in both directions during daily peak eight hour periods increased from approximately 13,290 to 14,180 after the installation of the lanes. 100% of this increase comes from bikes.

In other words: a $63,000 one-time investment in infrastructure increased the daily utility of a Toronto roadway by about 7%. That’s an incredible value-to-dollar ratio.

This isn’t some hippie pinko gut-based opinion. This is black-and-white fact. The Jarvis Street bike lanes aren’t preventing people from moving through the city. They’re enabling people to move through the city.

Let’s ignore cyclists in this debate

But, on this issue, we might be best to ignore cyclists. I have a very real concern that if we let this debate spiral into the same tired car-versus-bike war we’ve seen a dozen times before, bikes will lose. And lose bad.

Rob Ford car-friendliness isn’t just a part of his character. It turns out it’s also what drives some of his most bedrock support. In a post at OpenFile yesterday, John Michael McGrath took a look at an academic paper by doctoral candidate Zack Taylor at UofT, which laid out the strong correlation between people who commute by automobile to work and those that supported the mayor:

The other strong predictor in Taylor’s paper was car ownership and use. No surprise, the man who ran against “the war on the car” picked up the support of Toronto’s most car-dependent areas. “Toronto isn’t the only place you’re seeing this happen. Once you own a car, once you experience the street as a car—a car driver—you experience anything that impedes you as an annoyance,” says Taylor.

via Why suburban motorists voted for Ford, and why this is news | OpenFile.

If the Jarvis lanes are simply held up as a key battleground in the ever-ongoing war between cars and bikes in the city, Rob Ford likely still has enough clout on council and enough popular support to kill the lanes. It’s as simple as that.

You bike guys had your way with the previous council, they’ll say, but things are different now. We have to give the people what they want.

What Jarvis Street means

Jarvis Street was, for much of Toronto’s history, a place for Toronto’s well-off. One of the richest thoroughfares in the city, it was lined with trees and huge mansion homes setback from the roadway. To illustrate, BlogTO’s Derek Flack compiled a beautiful-then-sad series of images that sets the scene.

Spacing’s Shawn Micallef described the old Jarvis in an Eye Weekly column as “once the most beautiful street in Toronto” that “has been reverse-gentrified and turned into a fat arterial traffic pipe between North Toronto and downtown.”

The widening of Jarvis street and the installation of a reversible centre lane — one that flowed south in the morning and north in the evening — immediately changed the character of the roadway.

During the first debate over what to do with Jarvis, a local resident told the National Post’s Allison Haines that “many consider Jarvis Street to be a freeway and it’s not – it’s a downtown city street.”

Yes, Jarvis is a downtown city street. It’s a street with numerous homes — and more coming, with a recent condo proposal for the once-thought-uninhabitale Dundas intersection — businesses and institutions. The National Ballet School calls the northern part of Jarvis Street home, as does a public high school and a large downtown Toronto park and conservatory.

The Jarvis bike lanes were not part of the original plan to revitalize Jarvis Street. The thought was to instead improve the pedestrian realm with wide sidewalks and landscaping. The idea was that the street would look like this:


via Jarvis Street Streetscape Improvements Class Environmental Assessment Study (2009) pg 13

That may have been a better option in the long-term than what we got — further improvements to the streetscape on Jarvis seem to have stalled out after the bike lanes were installed — but the two approaches carry one thing in common: both called for the removal of the reversible fifth lane.

Removing that lane under any context was a huge win for Jarvis Street.

It’s unclear at this point whether Parker’s motion means that the fifth lane will be reinstalled if council approves his amendment, but it is important that councillors understand that Jarvis Street about far more than just travel times. It is a downtown city street with all that entails: a place for people to live, learn and work.

Any further discussion about what to do with Jarvis must take that into account. It is not and should never be again thought of as a mere urban arterial, where speed is king, and nothing else matters. Not only does that sort of argument shortchange the growing number of people who call the area home, it also ignores the huge economic impact a revitalized Jarvis could have.