Thursday, 6 December 2007

Elephant in the Transit Debate

Listening to CBC Radio on Tuesday, the host was discussing transit solutions with some guy from the "Ontario Infrastructure Transit Commission that wants Ontarians to do what he wants" or something like that. (CBC website does not have the details and Google fails me, if anyone heard the program 6pm Tuesday night and remembers the names of the participants, please fill me in.)

Anyhow this official sounding dude was sounding off on how something needs to be done to solve congestion in Southern Ontario. He stated that "in a decade the GTA will be as big as London, England is now". He also pointed out that there was a plan of action presented to the David Peterson government in the 80s and nothing was done.

All very good points. The lack of transit development (and even highway development to be honest) in this province to accommodate the rapid population growth is proving to be a very costly problem. Instead of staying ahead, or even with the provinces transportation needs, we are instead woefully behind. This problem is going to need a massive infusion of cash to even start to catch up (if I remember the numbers from the program properly, he was talking $20 billion.)

Where this guy lost me was his argument we need to rapidly develop higher density urban centers in the outlying cities. He used the condominium projects in downtown Cambridge (old Galt) as his example of a start. He was adamant that we need to move away from a car based economy.

Sorry, but that is pie-in-the-sky thinking.

Here's the facts about living in Ontario.

1) 99% of citizens (outside of the downtown core in Toronto) drive to work.
2) Our neighborhoods are sprawling mazes of winding roads and low density detached homes.
3) The business parks are randomly scattered and sprinkled throughout the cities.
4) Other than Toronto, no other large community has a downtown core where citizens live, work and play all within blocks of each other

This mess is completely unsuitable for mass transit solutions. To do what this guest wanted, we would have to tear down many business parks and neighborhoods and rebuild them from the ground up. Not only is this completely impractical, it would also create a massive amount of pollution through the demolition and reconstruction phases.

Mass transit works in high density areas where block of people A are all going roughly to the same destination B. This doesn't exist in Southern Ontario. Where people live and work are completely and randomly distributed. From any neighborhood, individuals in block of people A are each going to destinations AA through ZZ.

The car as a personal mode of conveyance is a fact of life. Its not going away in 10, 20 or even 50 years. We have to accept this fact as part of our overall transportation strategy.

So what do we do? Give up? Build more highways and forget about mass transit?

No, absolutely not (though more roads is part of the solution).

We do have to build for the future, but we cannot ignore the last 50 years of development that has made Ontario what it is.

We need to identify those points where large number of people are all traveling together. We need clean, efficient mass transit solutions that connect all of our centers. We need these transit solutions to co-ordinate with existing solutions so that people are not standing around for half an hour waiting for their next ride.

We also have to help people through their whole journey, not just part of it. We have been talking about extending Go service to Waterloo region for many, many years now. I am enthusiastically supportive of it. Why? Because it will hopefully reduce the number of cars on the road (or slow the growth of traffic) so I myself can drive to work more effectively.

If Go trains start running, I won't be using them. They won't go where I need to go.

This is my frustration with the whole debate, we do not look at transportation holistically. We need to evaluate people's needs from doorstep to doorstep. In tandem with mass transit, we need to solve personal transit. Let me demonstrate a solution I would use.

7am: I kiss wife and kids goodbye and get into my Metrolinx provided ZEV.
7:15am: I arrive at the Cambridge transit station in time to catch my high speed train to Brampton. I park my ZEV, turn in the keys to the agent so arriving commuters can use it.
7:45am: Train stops in Brampton. I get off the train and check in for another ZEV that I use to get to work.
8:00am: I arrive at the office

5:00pm: I leave the office in my ZEV and turn it in at the Brampton station. Board train for Cambridge.
5:45pm: Arrive in Cambridge and pick up another ZEV. Go home.
6:00pm: Park the ZEV for the night and greet wife and kids.

What this solution gives me is the flexibility to move around the same way I do in my car currently. If one day I need to go to Toronto for a conference, I just board a different train, use the buses in Toronto or get another ZEV if necessary. Then I can go to the office afterwards on another train. If I wanted to do this under the current system we have, I have to memorize and manually co-ordinate 4 separate transit systems, and have enough cash on hand for cab fares. Its a lot of work, time and expense. It is anything but simple and easy to use.

In the late 1800's Ontario was crisscrossed with rail lines, we had effective mass transit that moved tons of freight and people. If we could do it then, we can do it now. But we have to accept the pattern of development in this province and start incorporating personal transportation into our plans. That's what killed the passenger railway in the past, and it will kill it now. Anything else will fall short of its intended goals.


Ken Breadner said...

One thing jumped out at me looking at that ZEV--"range: up to 35 miles."
Not good enough.
You know, it's ironic--in the Cold War years there was a serious proposal out there to decentralize cities--to spread the population base out much further than it is even now. The idea was to avoid concentrations that would serve as targets for MIRVs and ICBMs. Now, the bandwagon's in reverse: we're supposed to squish our cities. Good luck with that.
I agree with you--the car isn't going anywhere without a whole lot of fighting. I think some people would give up their house before they lose their car. (I've written a couple of times on just how much the one resembles the other these days.) And you're right: mass transit is simply not intended for the kind of city we have now. That said, I do think that by limiting the sprawl, starting now, a given city can be made more efficient over time. We're going to have to limit sprawl no matter what, even if the Peak Oil boogeyman is defeated. At some point we're going to run out of cropland...

Catelli said...

ZEV--"range: up to 35 miles."
That's why I suggested it be available for inter-city driving at the transit destinations. Its more of an example, other technology is out there available today.

I absolutely agree we need to start addressing sprawl. Its the one thing that annoys me most about my neighborhood. With the twisty roads that spider in random directions, its inefficient for cars, and downright unusable for buses.

I think you're agreeing with me though. We have to account for our current suburban sprawl in any future plans. We have to look at the whole picture, and not just focus on one aspect. Otherwise we will not accomplish anything in trying to reduce the number of cars on the road.