Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Transit Planning Process in Toronto and the GTA

This article is shared with Urban Toronto.

The OneCity plan flamed out as suddenly as it emerged, but it leaves in its wake a renewed discussion about transit expansion in Toronto and how to pay for it. As a collection of routes, OneCity merely chose to compile virtually every unbuilt plan from the last three decades, among them the remaining lines of Transit City, subways downtown and on Sheppard West, and some form of regional rail on the Stouffville and Weston corridors. Like many transit plans in the GTA, it drew on the planning work of decades ago and then added a few more lines without real study. As OneCity was buried, however, the phoenix of a more serious transit planning process is emerging from its ashes. Toronto council has instructed its planners to prepare a new Toronto Public Transit Expansion Plan, to be partly derived from a series of public consultations that would ascertain what the public really wants in terms of transit expansion. Of course, this new process is not without its flaws, including an exclusive focus on the City of Toronto, reliance on the same city staff that prepared many of the existing plans, and a lack of funding sources. Nevertheless, it is a positive step that could lead to a new era of serious transit planning in Toronto.

Transit planning in Toronto over the past four decades has been marked by a steady decline from well-researched studies to a “lines on a map” approach. In the 1960s and 70s, volumes of studies were prepared as part of the creation of a comprehensive transit and expressway plan. Expressway construction was fortunately halted after the defeat of the Spadina Expressway plan, but subway construction continued. Symbolizing the victory of mass transit over the automobile, the subway line that was to have been built in the median of the half-built expressway was instead buried as it passed through the Annex.

These victories continued through the early 1980s, a period that could be considered the apex of transit planning in the GTA. In that fortunate era, the Ontario and Metro governments cooperated on plans that would have transformed the entire region. GO-ALRT was a rapid transit system using the Scarborough RT’s technology that would run alongside the lake from Hamilton to Oshawa and would also include a northern route through Square One, Pearson Airport, North York Centre, and Scarborough Centre. Sadly, this transformational plan was not to be, falling prey to cost anxieties and diminished enthusiasm after the less urban-focused Frank Miller replaced Bill Davis as Premier. Much more can be found on this plan in Transit Toronto's excellent article here.

GO ALRT Plan of the mid-1980s
GO ALRT Plan of the mid-1980s (Source: Transit Toronto)

Metro Toronto’s plan from that era was no less ambitious. Dubbed "Network 2011," it sought to greatly expand rapid transit in the city and resolve the severe congestion problems on the existing system. It included a subway along Sheppard connecting Scarborough Centre and North York Centre, the two main poles of growth in Metro’s decentralized growth plan, a bus rapid transit line along Eglinton West to Pearson Airport, and a Downtown Relief Line that would divert passengers from the overcrowded Yonge line and Bloor/Yonge station. These projects also fell prey to fierce infighting on Metro Council. Suburban councillors consistently fought for their own municipalities, with York and Etobicoke's representatives complaining that Eglinton was to see only a busway (it was by far the least busy corridor), and North York and Scarborough councillors eagerly favouring the subway on Sheppard. The Downtown Relief Line was left with few friends as a group of downtown councillors, led by Jack Layton, opposed its construction on the grounds that it would bring more development to the downtown core. The City of Toronto’s own official plan opposed any new rapid transit lines in the city, “as part of a policy to send new development, and its associated congestion, out to the suburbs.” The DRL plan unsurprisingly went nowhere.

The new Liberal government sought to accommodate Metro Council’s demands in its new “Let’s Move” transit plan. Instead of the DRL, it included a loop connecting the northern ends of the Spadina and Yonge lines that would permit higher frequencies on the existing route by eliminating the need to turn trains. By the time shovels hit the ground, a new NDP government was in power. It was particularly responsive to complaints about the unfairness of Eglinton West receiving a busway while Sheppard was to be home to a full subway given that the Premier’s riding was located in York. They promptly upgraded Eglinton to a subway while truncating both routes.

The election of Mike Harris as Premier brought a profoundly anti-transit government into power. While previous provincial governments had funded 75% of the capital cost of rapid transit projects, Harris cut that amount to zero. Only the able lobbying of Mel Lastman was able to salvage the Sheppard line. Few believed that the province could continue to abstain from any role in Toronto transit, so Lastman’s council commissioned a small study, the Rapid Transit Expansion Study, that sought to have a list of projects ready in case Harris’ government changed its mind. It examined the unbuilt routes of previous plans and determined that the most important were the completion of the Sheppard line and the extension of the Spadina subway to York University.

Rapid Transit Expansion Study of 2001/2002
Rapid Transit Expansion Study of 2001/2002

After the election of Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government in 2003, signs quickly emerged that the Province was back in the transit business. In response, Toronto’s new Mayor, David Miller, and TTC Chair, Adam Giambrone, developed a completely new transit expansion plan for Toronto. Transit City discarded all of the subway expansion plans of the past in favour of long light rail routes across the city’s suburbs. By the early 2000s, LRT was touted as not merely a transportation improvement, but as a city-building tool that could singlehandedly transform the neighbourhoods through which it passed. It was being built in cities across the United States in an effort to revive their moribund transit systems.
The Province soon announced an unprecedented infusion of funding into transit, prompting municipalities across the GTA to dust off their transit wish lists. Transit City became the centrepiece of “The Big Move,” the plan for transit expansion in the GTA created by Metrolinx, the Province's new regional transit planning agency. Though it was undoubtedly a great time for public transportation, nagging questions remained about whether the juggernaut of progress had paused long enough for consideration about whether these billions of dollars were going to the right places. Network 2011 encompassed volume after volume of studies that carefully looked at where the existing system was overcrowded and where expansion was needed. It compared different routes to see which was best suited; for example, it compared Sheppard, Finch, and Finch Hydro Corridor alignments to connect Scarborough and North York Centres, determining that Sheppard was optimal. Transit City, by contrast, was announced with virtually no preceding studies or public consultation. This may explain its often questionable route choices: a Jane line along a street that is clearly too narrow to accommodate it, a Scarborough line replacing a relatively minor bus route, and a Sheppard line that was to run through the middle of a forest at Twyn Rivers. On the other hand, it brought streetcars or LRT to every councillor’s ward.

Transit City LRT Lines Plan
Transit City LRT Lines Plan
The Province’s planning has been much the same. Though Metrolinx did undertake some studies in preparation for the development of its Big Move plan, most of the included projects were simply drawn from old municipal wish lists. Few routes were genuinely regional in scope, though they may have crossed a municipal boundary and were thus trumpeted as “regional.” Others, like the Mississauga Busway, are remnants of 1980s plans that may or may not actually serve existing needs. Where the plans were innovative and genuinely regional in scope, as with its plans for regional express rail, Metrolinx has thus far been unable to reorient existing agencies to pursue its goals; though regional rail was in The Big Move, the hundreds of millions dollars worth of track improvements at Union Station and in other rail corridors have not been designed with it in mind.

The Current Metrolinx/TTC Plan
The Current Metrolinx/TTC Toronto Plan

Unfortunately, Metrolinx's vague concept of regional rail has not captured the imaginations of the public, the media, or most politicians. That is the reason for the CityRail proposal, which seeks to clearly present the extraordinary, transformational potential of regional rail and how it differs from GO commuter service. Without popular support and political interest, plans for regional rail seem likely to be watered down into modestly upgraded GO trains.

The City of Toronto’s transit planning process this fall is a laudable beginning, but it does not go nearly far enough. The GTA needs both a secure funding source and a detailed, well-founded, and region-wide plan for transit investment. This can’t be accomplished by the City of Toronto alone. Metrolinx must be empowered to go beyond merely funding the wish lists of its municipal and agency partners and to force the relevant agencies to implement its plans. It needs to look at where congestion relief is required and where busy corridors need to be served, and this cannot be accomplished simply by connecting lines on a map as far too many municipalities appear to have done in the recent past. Toronto has the potential this fall to guide transit planning in the right direction by getting back to developing plans with serious background studies and public consultation, but it cannot be limited to one municipality. Hundreds of thousands of people cross municipal boundaries every day and the GTA is a single urban unit, so this process must be undertaken at a regional level. Once a plan has been developed, leaders can then seek popular support for developing the new funding sources needed to pay for it.

1 comment:

  1. The problem is that we have an administration that it anti-transit. The Mayor seems to think Toronto should not be involved in public transit. I am guessing he would think that the Town of Caledon, in Peel Region, is an utopia because it has no public transit (other than GO Transit and bordering transit agencies).