Cities and Commutes

Oliver Moore published an interesting summary of the use of cycling and public transit in the November 30th edition of the Globe and Mail. He gleaned the information from a recent Statistics Canada report.

In 2016, he reports, 74.0% of workers in Canada commute to work by car, truck or van as the driver, 12.4% on public transit, 6.9% walking or riding a bicycle, 5.5% as a passenger of a car and 1.1% by other means. Almost 80% of all Canadians commute in private vehicles.

Bike riders on the Martin Goodman Trail in Toronto

In large cities “active” commuting is on the rise. In Toronto 6.7% commuted to work by cycling or walking, in Montreal the figure is 7.2%, and in Vancouver 9.1%. In the B.C. City of Victoria, the number is 16.9%, the highest in the country.

Moore points out that in the last 20 years “the number of people using bicycles as their main method of commuting nearly doubled, rising 87.9%.” At the same time “the number of people using public transit increased 31.5%.”

Large cities are seeing the most changes. Across the country almost 80% of workers commute by private vehicle, but in the three largest cities, it drops to less than 70%. In Toronto almost one in four commuters use transit, the highest in the country. Vancouver has seen a doubling of transit users in the last 15 years, since the SkyTrain rail network opened.

Despite the rise in the use of transit and cycling, gridlock of the streets continues to get worse in the large cities. In Toronto, the average one-way commuting duration in 2016 was 34 minutes, Montreal 30.0 minutes, and Vancouver 29.7 minutes. Not surprisingly, the general rule across the country is that, the larger the city, the longer the commute.

The question remains, how are we going to build more livable cities, if commuters continue to use private vehicles to get to work or school? There are a variety of answers.

  • Stop urban sprawl and increase the density of existing built up communities.
  • Build better transit, particularly high speed, rapid transit like subways, LRT and commuter trains.
  • Encourage cycling across the urban areas by building dedicated, safe bike lanes.
  • Make the pedestrian experience safer by widening sidewalks and improving crosswalks. At the same time improve and beautify the public domain by making walking on city streets more enjoyable.
  • Discourage the use of cars in the congested districts of our cities by narrowing streets, creating pedestrian only streets, and other traffic calming improvements.

Climate change is another very important issue when it comes to our use of cars and trucks. We will never reduce our greenhouse gas emissions until electric vehicles become the norm.

Tory’s transit troubles

There is a sense of desperation in the air about Toronto’s transit projects. They have been talked about endlessly, but still there is no agreement on what should be built, or where the money is going to come from to pay for them.

John Tory announcing Smart Track during the 2014 election

John Tory announcing Smart Track during the 2014 election

To understand Toronto’s transit mess we have to begin with the history. With the election of the provincial Liberals in 2003 the premier, Dalton McGuinty, promised funding for transit in the GTA, later the GTHA, Greater Toronto, Hamilton Area. In time the province published their plan, called “The Big Move.” It proposed that the province spend $50 billion over the next 25 years on rapid transit. In time the plan was adopted at both the provincial and municipal levels.

David Miller was the mayor of Toronto, and he and his team went to work to design the projects for the city. Miller was impressed with Light Rapid Transit (LRT) technology. It was less expensive than subways because the lines traveled on the surface, but they were still fast and could move a lot of people. Miller’s team designed seven new LRT lines for Toronto. These were later cut back to four projects by the province, over the objections of Miller. The four were the Eglinton Crosstown, Sheppard east, Finch, and the Scarborough Line. “Transit City” was the name given to the projects. All of the capital costs to build the projects was to be paid for by the province. City council and the province adopted the projects as Toronto’s contribution towards the Big Move.

In 2010 Rob Ford was elected major. On the day that he was inaugurated, the new mayor declared, “The war against the car is over!” and “Transit City is dead!” Later he explained his transit policy was, “Subways! Subways! Subways!”

Rob Ford is the real source of John Tory’s transit problems. By the 2014 election Ford had not only disgraced himself with allegations, and later the admission of drug abuse, but the transit file was a mess. Council supported his proposal to convert the Sheppard line into a subway, but when it was shown to be financially unfeasible, the council voted to convert the line back into a LRT. At Ford’s insistence, the Eglinton LRT line was to be entirely underground, but council later changed it back into the original proposal where the central 10 km would be underground and the rest would run on the surface.

The one transit success of Ford was to change the Scarborough LRT into a subway. It has proved to be the biggest headache of all. This was done with the support of the province and the federal governments. Originally the $1.48 billion cost of the LRT was to be paid for by the province, but by converting it into a subway the costs ballooned. All additional costs are to be paid for by the city. Today it is a one stop subway extension from Kennedy to the Scarborough Town Centre. The estimated cost is $3.2 billion, but some critics say it will cost $5 billion.

The Scarborough subway is a project that gives politics a bad name. The provincial Liberals and federal Conservatives supported it because subways were demanded by vote rich Scarborough. The reality is that there will not be enough riders to support a subway. Royson James, the Star columnist recently commented, “How can a city in such deep financial rut decide to spend more than $3 billion on a one stop subway that will deliver 4,300 new riders?”

That was the Toronto transit situation going into the 2014 election, and then it got worse thanks to John Tory. In the heat of the election Tory supported the Scarborough subway. He must have known that this would be a financial drain on the city, but he needed Scarborough votes and he knew that subways were popular.

Since he was elected mayor Tory has been doing cartwheels trying to justify his continued support of the subway. The latest effort was an op ed piece he wrote in the Star on June 28th. In it he argued that if council backtracked on the subway, maybe the LRT would not go ahead. Then he said we should worry about credibility, and concluded by saying Scarborough residents do not use transit as much as others in the city and should be encouraged to use transit with the building of a subway. None of these arguments hold water.

Finally he uses the article to attack his critics by saying they believe the cost of the Scarborough subway, “is too much to spend on this part of the city.” That is simply not true. Every critic I have read or talked to wants to see good transit in Scarborough, but it needs to be appropriate transit. John Tory of all people should know that we cannot waste tax dollars. Using the money that would be spent for the subway, the city could build excellent transit in Scarborough. But Tory will not support it because to change his mind would demonstrate that the subway was a foolish plan from the beginning and his support of the plan would make him look foolish.

Then there is the rest of the transit file. During the 2014 municipal election John Tory suddenly came forward with his plan for transit for Toronto that he called “Smart Track.” He described it as a “surface subway” running along existing rail lines that would provide 22 new stations.

Here was a candidate with no access to transit or financial experts making a promise that, if elected, he would create a transit system that would solve the problems of gridlock not only for Torontonians but for commuters living in the GTA. Other candidates, like Olivia Chow, criticized Smart Track, saying that the proposal for the west end of the city was unworkable. Others said it was just a campaign gimmick with a bunch of lines on a map.

But Tory persisted, and the voters anxious to support anything that would move transit forward, and doubly anxious to reject the other major candidate, Doug Ford, elected Tory by a wide margin, but since that time Smart Track has proven not so smart at all.

The critics turned out to be right. The projects in the west end have proven to be unworkable and have been largely abandoned. In the east end the Smart Track lines are duplicating existing Metrolinx projects called Regional Express Rail. What is left of Tory’s proposal is six new stations that will be run by Metrolinx, a far cry from the promise of 22 stations that he used to get elected.

What is perhaps most infuriating is that John Tory is still claiming that Smart Track is a success. That is like saying black is white and demanding people believe him. It was certainly a success for him. It got him elected mayor. But has it brought better transit? Perhaps marginally, but that’s a generous assessment.

The public is increasingly cynical about politics and politicians. In Britain millions, apparently, voted for Briexit to register their distrust of the political elites. In the U.S. the Republicans will nominate the Donald who mouths right wing slogans with simplistic solutions that provide no solutions at all. And in Toronto we elected Rob Ford who knew nothing about transit, and John Tory who got elected promising transit solutions that were developed on a back of an envelope.

If we can’t do better a taxpayer’s revolt awaits because we have not even begun to talk about how we are going to pay for all this.


SmartTrack and Smart Politics

I hate to say “I told you so,” but there, I said it, I told you that John Tory’s SmartTrack would become a fiasco and it is.

John Tory selling SmartTrack during the 2014 election

John Tory selling SmartTrack during the 2014 election

It was designed on the back of an envelope in the heat of the mayoral election in 2014. It was obvious even then, for those who cared to look, that Tory did not have the plan vetted by someone who might know something about transit. He was not an elected official before the election and did not have access to the transit experts in the TTC or Metrolinx. But it did one thing. It made a major contribution to his election. SmartTrack meant smart politics.

And now the chickens have come home to roost. The experts have said that his scheme for a west end is unworkable for heavy rail without a cost of $5 billion. In the northeast, near Unionville, new tracks would duplicate the nearby GO transit line. In the city that same line would draw passengers away from the Scarborough subway. It may be smart politics but as transit it was simply dumb.

John Tory is part of a long tradition of municipal leaders proposing transit to make it appear to the public that they have all of the solutions to urban problems. That’s what Rob Ford tried to do with his call for “subways, subways, subways.” Of course everyone wants a subway stop in their neighbourhood, but there must be enough density in that neighbourhood to gain the ridership to make the investment worthwhile. Rob never understood that, and now I wonder if John Tory understands much more about transit.

There is a long list of transit proposals that went wrong because politicians have played politics.

  • TTC planners recommended that the University subway line north of St Clair West station follow Bathurst Street, but Metro Council voted that it go up the centre of the Allen Expressway, where no one lives. Why? Because they were angry about cancellation of the Spadina Expressway. The University line has been underutilized since it was built.
  • The plan to build a subway line along Eglinton West was cancelled by the Mike Harris Conservatives. Why? Because it was proposed by the Bob Rae NDP government, and therefore, it must be bad.
  • At the same time Mel Lastman, then the Conservative Mayor of North York, got his Sheppard subway for the same reason. Politics. It has been a white elephant ever since. The subway to nowhere it is called.
  • Recently we lived through the Scarborough subway fiasco. Again low densities in the neighbourhoods will result in low ridership and wasted money. A “trophy subway” Ken Greenberg called it, and that is what it is. It will cost a lot of money and carry few passengers.

Meanwhile the Relief Line, the subway line that should have priority according to the transit planners, and those that ride the congested Yonge Street subway line, is nowhere. It does not appear to be on the priority list of any of the politicians.

Toronto politicians cast their votes on transit, not on evidence, or what we have learned about subways, but politics. In the case of the Scarborough subway the suburban politicians were upset that Toronto’s central core had subways and they wanted subways too. In the case of the Sheppard subway, Mel Lastman, a Conservative with links to the Premier, had enough influence to get a subway.

An incredible amount of money has been wasted as a result of stupid political decisions. The record shows that the way we are making transit decisions does not work. The question is, what can we do about it? We can’t turn decisions that involve billions of dollars of public money over to bureaucrats, but how do we get good decisions that meet the needs of the public?

There are two alternatives. One is to turn the decision on new transit over to the province. It is the province that is putting up most of the money for the new transit lines. Therefore, it can be argued, they should make the key decisions.

The other is to make the Metrolinx board truly representative and let them make the decisions. Both local politicians and the province then could react to the decisions and try and shape the ultimate outcome. Some would claim that this is undemocratic, but Metrolinx is a provincial government agency and accountable to the province.

SmartTrack might be smart politics for John Tory, because it helped to get him  elected, but it has proven to be a dumb plan. Let’s set up a political decision making process that delivers good transit to Toronto and the GTHA. We’re paying for it and we deserve it.

Future of the Car

CATCH (Citizens at City Hall) is a newsletter written and circulated by a group of Hamilton citizen activists. I am a subscriber and always find it interesting and informative. The main focus of CATCH is Hamilton city politics but this article on the Future of the Car has more general observations about transportation.

You can subscribe to CATCH at this address.

Bill Freeman

CATCH News – September 29, 2015
Self-driving cars were the focus of a conference this month on The Future of the Car, but a sharply different view questions the wisdom and viability of this technological path. Urban designer Kit McCullough suggested they could be a desperate response of the auto industry to declining sales, and argued an alternative direction would help cities deal with their growing social, economic and financial crises.
GO meets the Don Valley Parkway and illustrates the conflict between cars and transit

GO meets the Don Valley Parkway and illustrates the conflict between cars and transit

Her perspective appears timely for Hamiltonians embroiled in angry transportation debates about LRT, bus-only lanes, one-way streets and bike lanes while the city cobbles together a new 25-year vision. McCullough also suggests a different way to address the city’s three billion dollar backlog in the maintenance of roads and other municipal infrastructure – a problem shared by cities across the continent.

She starts with well-documented trends, particularly among younger people, to driving less and making more use of alternatives to vehicle ownership from Uber to car-sharing to cycling. This has the automobile industry worried and McCullough argues that’s why we are hearing so much about the future car.
“You don’t like driving? We’ll build cars that drive themselves. You’d rather be doing other things or be on-line? We’ll give you cars that function as boxes for entertainment systems.”
But that response is off the mark in McCullough’s view because it assumes “that mobility trumps everything” and ignores the real purpose of travel “to give us access to places that bring people together and provide us with the services and activities that we need in our lives.” Transportation is a means to an end, not an end in itself.
“So if you start to think about the user of transportation in terms of accessibility, now we’re talking about the user of the city,” explains McCullough. “And our true objective is to create user-friendly cities – cities that have rich destinations and services in close proximity, easy to get to and a quality public realm where you can access these destinations.”
Starting with the objective of providing for cars doesn’t create that kind of city and it is now recognized as actually creating unhealthy neighbourhoods. The US Surgeon General declared this month that such cities are hazardous to our health. Noting that “one out of every two U.S. adults is living with a chronic disease, such as heart disease, cancer, or diabetes,” his September 15 Call to Action stresses promotion and support for much more physical activity.
“Make walking a national priority; design communities that make it safe and easy to walk for people of all ages and abilities; promote programs and policies to support walking where people live, learn, work, and play; provide information to encourage walking and improve walkability; and fill surveillance, research, and evaluation gaps related to walking and walkability. Action by multiple sectors of society, as well as by families and individuals, will be needed to achieve these goals.”
McCullough agrees that building cities around the automobile has made them unsafe, uncomfortable and inaccessible, and argues we should move strongly to change that so we can have more city.
“All that space in our cities that’s currently occupied by cars driving and parking, some of that may be transformed to places, to destinations, activities that we want to get to – again in closer proximity, more accessible.”
This slashes spending on building and widening roads, and shifts portions of existing ones to uses that reduce major maintenance costs, as well as freeing up valuable real estate.
“All those parking lots and garages that currently deaden our downtowns, we can think about replacing them with things like exciting mixed-use development and places that create economic value – activities, destinations, and in closer proximity.”
McCullough notes that “the most beloved places” in cities were built before the automobile and we now have the opportunity to move back in that direction.
“This is a city that will give us more city, more homes, more shops, more restaurants, more workplaces, more bars, more destinations and activities in closer proximity and more accessible, but mostly more liveable.”