Toronto-Hamilton: See You in Burlington Monday Night!

On Monday night, November 14, urbanist luminary Brent Toderian and I will be sharing the stage as part of Burlington Mayor Rick Goldring’s “Inspire Burlington” series.  The conversation will probably focus on retrofitting transit into a car-based suburban city, but you and your questions are welcome from all over the Toronto-Hamilton region.

It’s free, but you must reserve tickets here.






Keys to Great Airport Transit

Toronto’s new high-fare, elite train between downtown and the airport is a failure in ridership terms, so it’s a good moment to talk about transit to the airport in general.

This critique by Cherise Burda of Ryerson University, one of the Toronto line’s few regular riders, pretty much sums up why the Toronto Union Pearson Express is doing so poorly:  Fares too high (CAD $27.50 one way) for a line that just doesn’t connect the airport to enough places.  She also shares this very useful table from the recent Pearson Connects study, a transport plan for Toronto’s main airport by Urban Strategies, Inc.  Focus on the four columns at the right.

YYZ mode sharesDo you think that specialized airport express trains are the key to high transit mode share to an airport?  Think again.   What matters is not just the train to downtown, but the whole transit network and the airport’s position in it.  Where can you get to on that network, and how soon?  (A true assessment of this issue would have included bus services too, of course.)  London’s Heathrow, for example, has a high-fare express train very much like Toronto’s, but it also has a slower train that makes more stops for a lower fare, and a subway line that makes even more stops and serves even more places.  Those lines connect to more services, and are therefore more useful to far more people.

Basic math:  1000 airport employees using an airport service every day are more ridership than 100,000 air travelers using it, on average, maybe a couple of times a year.

This is the simple reason that airport transit politics are so frustrating.  Everyone wants to believe in transit to the airport, because they might ride it a few times a year.  But to create a great airport train (or bus) for air travelers, you have to make it useful to airport employees too  That generally means a service that’s an integral part of the regional transit network, not a specialized airport train.

The other key issue is that most airports are cul-de-sacs.  It’s hard for a line to continue beyond the airport unless it’s underground, and this is another huge limitation on an airport service’s ability to serve a sufficiently diverse market.  If you can afford it, aspire to be like Sydney, whose rapid transit system tunnels under the airport so that it can continue beyond it without branching. And if you’re a rare airport like Seattle’s, where surface transit can stop at the terminal but continue onward, so much the better.

So again, here are the keys to great transit to the airport, for travelers and employees:

  • Total travel time matters, not just in-vehicle time.  Airports are citadels of impatience.  Travel time matters hugely, but travel time is not just in-vehicle time (the time you’ll see advertised) but total time including waiting.  That’s why the advantage of making few stops is wildly exaggerated. To accurately measure real travel time, add the in-vehicle travel time to half the waiting time, where the latter is governed by frequency.  You’ll find that a more frequent train that stops more often (and is therefore useful to more people) comes out ahead even for the downtown-to-airport traveler.
  • Combine air travelers and airport employees on the same train/bus, and appeal to an economically diverse range of air travelers, not just the elite.  This is a case of the general principle that transit thrives on the diversity of trips for which it’s useful, not on specialization.  If elites want a nicer train, give them first class cars at higher fares, but not a separate train just for them.  (And as always, elite services are a good role for the for-profit sector.)  As always, the more people of all kinds you can get on a train or bus, the more frequently you can afford to run it, which means less waiting, and the lower the fare you need to charge.
  • Connect the airport to lots of places, not just downtown, by providing a total network.  It’s the total transit system at the airport, not just the sexy airport line, that determines who can get there, and how quickly.  And the total network requires connections — another reason to care about frequency.
  • Don’t interfere with the growth of other services.  Airport terminals are still not huge destinations by citywide standards, so don’t sacrifice other major markets to serve them.  Toronto’s airport train, for example, not only carries few people but creates issues for higher-ridership services with which it shares track. Another common problem is the branch into the airport that cuts frequency and capacity on a mainline, even though the mainline’s demand is much higher (San Francisco, Vancouver),
  • If you can afford it, go via the airport instead of terminating there.   Most airports are large-scale cul-de-sacs, and like every cul-de-sac, they say: “I want only as much transit service as I can justify all by myself.”  So if you can tunnel under the airport and serve it on the way to other places, as in Sydney, you will often end up with much better service for all your airport users, employees and travelers alike.



If a carpenter can’t be a hammer opponent, then I can’t be a streetcar opponent

I’ll be leery of Toronto Star interviews in the future, because I explained my view carefully and that’s not how it came out:

Jarrett Walker and Rob Ford (see Rob Ford’s policard) don’t have much in common. One is an Oregon-based transit consultant, the other Toronto’s chief magistrate. One blogs avidly, the other disdains the media. Whereas Ford rails against the “war on the car,” Walker touts the virtues of buses.

But on one issue, at least, the policy wonk and the conservative politician agree: streetcars are overrated. Walker is decisively on one side of a new debate in the U.S., over whether the trendy form of rail transport springing up in American cities makes practical sense.

My actual view is too long for a soundbite but should not have been too long for an article.  My view is that streetcars mixed with private car traffic are overrated. I was very clear with the reporter that all of my critiques of the US streetcar revival movement are about streetcars in mixed traffic.  In the Toronto context, I specifically distinguished between the old downtown Toronto mixed traffic streetcars, which are nearly inoperable due to traffic impacts, and Toronto’s exclusive-lane light rail segments such as Spadina and St. Clair.  None of my concerns about streetcars apply to the latter.

Here’s the bottom line.  Streetcars are just a tool.  They can be used in smart ways and in stupid ways.  Asking a transit planner for an opinion about a transit technology is like asking a carpenter what his favorite tool is.  A good carpenter sees his tools as tools and chooses the right one for the task at hand.  He doesn’t use his screwdriver to pound nails just because he is a “screwdriver advocate” or “hammer opponent”.  Yet the Toronto Star  assumes that nobody involved in transit debates is as smart as your average competent carpenter.

To call me a streetcar advocate or opponent, you are imposing on me your own assumption that the bus-rail debate is the most important conversation about transit.  This is the Toronto Star’s assumption, but it’s not mine.  In fact, my work is about blowing up that assumption, and suggesting that instead of falling in love with vehicles, wires, and propulsion systems, we might consider falling in love with the freedom to get where you’re going.

email of the week: from a 10th grader, on streetcars

From Henry Mulvey, of Massachusetts:

Hello, my name is Henry Mulvey, I am a tenth grader. I am a huge streetcar fan and I love the old Boston Elevated Railway. I hope to attend M.I.T. for urban planning then work the M.B.T.A. or the state on a big replica streetcar plan for the city of Boston. I just read your article saying streetcar aren't what they seem and I have some rebuttal points.  I'm going try my hardest to be civil because I am a die-hard streetcar fan.  The two things I see that you either underestimate or don't mention are the aesthetic appeal of streetcars and the environmental costs of buses.  Streetcars look very different than buses and people like that.  In the case of replica streetcars, they might not carry as many passengers as modern types but they make people think "ooh, that's cool! I want to ride!".  Streetcars are more attractive than standard old buses, even an updated bus!  Streetcars are also more environmental friendly than buses.  Ideally streetcars do not omit any pollutants and are much more efficient than buses.  I also think the connection between streetcars and economic development is well documented and you don't provide any evidence to the contrary, can you give me evidence?  It's my belief that a streetcar line that uses replica streetcars does both provide great transit and showcases history.  Boston is a city that loves history and has a need for streetcars so I think a streetcar would work incredibly there.  Thank you for listening to me, Henry Mulvey

My reply:


Thanks so much for your note.  I love streetcars too, for all the reasons you mention.  
But all that beauty is expensive, and when we choose something more expensive, that means we can't afford as much of it.  That's a big problem for transit, because transit needs to be abundant.  It needs to go lots of places, so people can rely on it for lots of purposes.  That's why buses have to be respected, and have to be improved, because they're the only form of transit that we can afford to extend to all the parts of the city that need and justify good service.  Buses generate lots of real estate development too, although they're usually not given credit for it.
Yes, streetcars are driving some development right now, but that's also because lots of people are saying that streetcars drive development.  Streetcars are cool, in the same way that certain clothes are cool among people your age.  The real estate market is like your friends at school:  It wants to do what the "cool" people are doing. 
Fifty years ago streetcars weren't cool at all.  A decade from now they may not be so cool either,  My hometown, Portland, built streetcars mixed with traffic so that they run 6 mph and can't maintain a schedule.  Many of us find them useless if we're just trying to get where we're going on time.  [Because being late isn't cool, either.]    
And cities that have lived with streetcars for a while have mixed feelings about them.  For example, in Toronto they've kept their old streetcars and run them in mixed traffic, and you'll hear lots of frustration with them.  In fact, the mayor there is trying to kill light rail projects, and he does this by calling them "streetcars."  That's a dishonest description of light rail, but think about why he would say it:  He says it because knows that many people in his city hate their slow and unreliable downtown streetcars and don't want any more of them.  
As more new streetcars get built in mixed traffic, more and more people are going to figure out that if you're stuck in traffic, you'd rather be on a bus, because a bus can maneuver and often get through where a streetcar is stuck.  
I have very different feelings about "streetcars" that have their own lane, but I don't think of those as streetcars at all.  That's light rail, like the surface parts of your city's Green Line. 
Anyway, I've thought and written a great deal about this.  The piece that you probably read, because it gets the most attention, is this one, but these two are also important.
Thanks so much for writing to me.  It's great to hear about your interest in transit and your ambitions. When I was in 10th grade I knew my city's bus system by heart and hung around the transit agency's planning department after school. I was mostly a nuisance, probably, but I had just enough good ideas that they kept me around.  Don't be afraid to be so audacious, at the right time and place.
All the best, Jarrett 

video! my presentation in toronto

Two weeks ago I was the guest of the City of Toronto Planning Department, part of its Feeling Congested program to explore transit options for the city.  While there I did a series of meetings and workshops, including the following public address at St. Paul's Church.  Only about 1/3 of it is specific to Toronto, and at this stage it's probably the best video of me so far.  Thanks to everyone involved, as credited below!


Jarrett Walker Presentation "Abundant Access" from DeepCITY Project on Vimeo.

solidarity with frozen transit staffs

A deep cold snap is affecting North America east of the Rockies today and/or tomorrow, with many cities plunging toward near-historic lows.  It's been an unusual winter all around, including an epic ice storm in Toronto.  

As a gesture of solidarity and appreciation toward all the heroic work that's going into keeping transit running today, I thought I'd pass on this photo taken last week by Twitter user @madhava.  It's a view from Toronto's CN Tower out over the harbor to Toronto Island.  


The narrow sliver of clear water is where the hard-working Toronto Island Ferry is carefully clearing a channel so that it can resume service.  This photo has everything: The molecular stillness that is the definition of cold, the hugeness of the city, and the tiny but heroic the acts of diligence and problem solving by people who's job is to restore your freedom to get around.

Stay warm everyone, and if you see a transit staffer working hard against the elements, thank them.

toronto: communicating transit’s hard truths to the public

The Ontario Transit Panel, convened by the province's Premier in September, released its first 'discussion paper' this week entitled "Hard Truths About Transit in the Toronto Region". This group exists to advise the Province on whether or not to support the agenda of the regional transit agency, Metrolinx.

While specific points will be familiar to readers of this blog, the document is notable as a good example of how to educate local people in a local context. This paper asks people to consider the real consequences of choices based on the facts of how transit works, rather than reproducing stereotypes or promising impossible outcomes. As the report says:

These are hard truths, but until we accept them, we will not be able to have a mature discussion. Decisions will not be based on reason and evidence, but will be one-off decisions aimed at short term political gain.

Have a look for yourself here:


using development charges as a transit funding mechanism

Travis Allan and Cherise Burda over at the Pembina Insitute, a Toronto-based energy think tank, have an interesting post up on the prospects of using real estate development charges as a funding mechanism for transit. Development charges are fees developers pay to municipalities meant to offset the capital costs of extending or improving services like water or sewage systems that are imposed by new construction. However, the manner in which these fees are calculated is not always conducive to the type of development a city may be trying to encourage. Moreover, transit is rarely a serious consideration in assessing the charge. This is particularly important when development occurs in a place or a pattern that is difficult or impossible to provide good transit service to, such as those that violate the "Be on the way" rule. The original post explains some of the problems the authors observe in Ontario's development charge:

The development charge, as currently implemented in most Ontario municipalities, is crudely designed. There is a strong chance that it is subsidizing less-dense, single family homes while making compact, transit-friendly development more expensive. Development charges also likely overcharge some commercial development, and this could be contributing to the flight of office space to the suburbs, in locations underserviced by transit.

In many Ontario municipalities, including Toronto, new development is charged based on who will use it. For example, many municipalities have a per-unit rate for apartment building units, and another rate for detached single-family homes, regardless of where the buildings are located within the municipality, how much land area they occupy and the cost necessary to service them.

No matter the amount of new road or sewer needed to adequately serve a place, the development charge is assessed based on the number of residents or users.  This is obviously perverse.  Actual development impacts on the public purse vary based on location and density than by the number of residents or users.  

If a city like Toronto wants to make it easier to developers to build a certain type of development, changing the fee structure is one way to create an incentive. But what does this mean for transit?

The authors propose to use a portion of this revenue to pay for infrastructure investments needed to provide transit service to new developments. At the same time, the city could make changes to the structure of the development charge to incentivize the construction of transit-supportive development. If it worked, and there were no unforeseen consequences, the effect could be self-reinforcing: development charges encourage the type of development that transit needs to work well, and pay for some of the cost of providing that service. The supply of housing and commercial buildings that are accessible and designed to work with transit increases, more people are able to live and work in them:

 Developers continue to build in sprawling greenfields because it is often cheaper and easier than building developments in walkable, transit-oriented neighbourhoods. Lack of supply means homebuyers are priced out of these locations and are literally “driven” to the urban and suburban fringes, where long and stressful auto commutes are required — and this only leads to more congestion.

Since the vast horizontal distances of greenfields require much more infrastructure person, why should this be as cheap, in development charges, as building compactly??

toronto and sydney: triumphs for network planning, not just light rail

Breakthrough news on rail battles in both Toronto and Sydney, both of which I posted on recently (Toronto, Sydney).  

  • Sydney's state government has made it official.  The one-way loop of the Sydney Monorail, designed to decorate the tourism-convention playground of Darling Harbour without being very useful to anyone, is to be torn down.  While the decision is being described as a move toward light rail — plans for which are definitely moving forward — it's really just a decision to invest in transit lines that do useful things — such as running in both directions, running efficiently enough to justify reasonable fares, and connecting with many other services so that people can go where they want to go, not just where you want to take them. 
  • Toronto City Council has definitely scrapped Mayor Rob Ford's plans to spend all of the city's transit resources on a few expensive outer-suburban subway segments designed to serve small parts of the region.  The move opens the way to move forward on more cost-effective light rail projects that will enrich mobility across the entire city.

Toronto transit commentator Steve Munro makes an important point, which could also be said of Sydney:

This is an important day for Toronto.  We are on track for a [light rail]-based plan and for a more detailed evaluation of our transit future than we have seen for decades.  Talking about one line at once, about fundraising for one project at once, is no longer an accepted way of building the city.  

That's the key.  The Sydney Monorail failed because it was "one line at once" — a project conceived in isolation with no interest in being part of a complete network.  And in Toronto, a city with numerous desperate rapid-transit needs, planning will no longer pit neighborhoods against each other to the degree that Mayor Ford wanted to do.  Instead, Toronto can move forward on projects that fit together into a more complete rapid-transit grid — serving "anywhere to anywhere" trips.

Finally, a warning to technophiles!!  Technophile commenters will doubtless chalk this up the Sydney decision as a defeat for monorails in general.  I disagree.  It's a defeat for one-way loops, poor connectivity, and symbolic as opposed to actual mobility.  The monorail didn't fail just because it was a monorail, but because it was a poorly designed line.  Likewise, the Toronto outcome isn't a victory for light rail or a defeat for subways, but merely a commitment to better network design.

toronto: earth to mayor: subways are expensive!

Toronto readers, today's Globe & Mail everything you need to know about Mayor Rob Ford's dream of building expensive subways under low-density suburbia, thereby spending billions that could be spent expanding actual mobility (and access) where it's most needed and demand is highest.  The article is about the crucial Eglinton corridor, an obvious grid-element that could help thousands of travellers get where they're going without having to go through downtown, thus adding to capacity problems there.  But the same logic applies to an underground extension of the Sheppard East line toward Scarborough, which the mayor has also mooted.  Reporter Adrian Morrow has done his homework (not just by talking to me) and he carefully sets aside all the main talking points of the suburban-subway advocates.

Bottom line:  Going underground is expensive, so we do it only when we really need to!  Responsible planning fights hard for space on the surface — especially in space-rich low-density suburbs — before sacrificing millions just to get transit "out of the way" of cars.