Burlington: A Transit Plan for a Toronto-Area City

By Scudder Wagg.  (Scudder is our firm’s new East Coast lead, based in Richmond, Virginia.)

One of the more exciting developments in the Greater Toronto Area is the conversion of historically infrequent commuter rail lines into all-day frequent services, so that you can travel, and make connections, at all times of day. This is creating new rewards for suburban cities who develop more frequent local bus networks. When local bus trips connect to a regional train with minimal waiting, they become useful for vastly more destinations and therefore will attract more riders.

Burlington Waterfront. Photo: László Varga

Burlington Waterfront. Photo: László Varga

We are now getting started working with the City of Burlington, in the western suburbs of Toronto, to help them rethink their transit system. The city has been shifting its focus in recent years from a suburban growth pattern to a city that wants to grow up instead of out. Combined with the region’s plans to improve the commuter rail line serving the city to 15-minute service all day, there is a fertile opportunity to rethink the role transit can play in Burlington.

As part of the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area, Burlington is growing fast but the style of that growth is shifting. For many years, the city sprawled northward from Lake Ontario in a typical suburban pattern. But in 2005, the provincial government instituted a greenbelt, putting a limit on the sprawl. Having hit the greenbelt limit, Burlington has responded by intentionally deciding to grow more intensely.

With so much sprawling growth over the last twenty years, the transit system has been stretched to try to cover as much of the newly developed area as possible. This has shifted the transit system toward a higher coverage focus. The city’s transit system has only a few routes with anything approaching high frequency.

But the city has a strong two-kilometer grid built around the old concession roads that could form the backbone of a grid transit network, although the spacing of parallel grid streets is too far for this to be the only service.

The City adopted a new strategic plan in April 2016 that calls for shifting more trips to walking, biking and transit. They are following this up with a new Official Plan, currently in the draft form, that calls for higher density development in key areas. The draft Official Plan also promotes expanded and improved transit system with a frequent transit network to connect key areas.

We are helping to translate these visions and goals into a concrete network that can be implemented by 2019. That network can then be expanded and improved over time as the city adds more hubs of density and more walkable areas. We look forward to lots of great conversations about transit in this fast-changing and growing city over the next nine months.


7 Responses to Burlington: A Transit Plan for a Toronto-Area City

  1. Alon Levy April 29, 2017 at 3:58 pm #


    Is it going to be possible to time the bus-rail connections? In other words, are the buses reliable enough that it’s worth aiming at connecting to a train station within a (say) 4-minute window out of every 15 minutes?

    • asdf2 May 6, 2017 at 9:45 pm #

      Even if they are, it’s tricky because different people will take different amounts of time to walk down the platform, and those without passes will need to allow several additional minutes for fiddling with the fare machines. At 15-minute frequency, a bus schedule that’s timed for the slow walkers who need to wait in line to buy train tickets would be equivalent to an untimed connection for fast walkers who don’t need to wait in line to buy train tickets. In other words, no matter what you do, there’s going to be one group of people who will be unhappy.

      And, getting a timed connection is tricky to begin with. Even ignoring the traffic on the roads, just the random uncertainty from dwell times at bus stops makes it difficult. It is not at all unusual to see buses get delayed by 10+ minutes, while operating on uncongested roads.

  2. Robert Wightman April 30, 2017 at 5:29 am #

    Brampton Ontario’s transit director, Susan Connor, is moving to Burlington at the end of May to take over its transit operations. She has directed a 33% growth in ridership over the past 4 years. Brampton also has a council that helped transit growth by funding it. One of the few things our beloved council did right.

  3. Long Branch Mike May 1, 2017 at 6:00 am #


    My cousin’s experience in Richmond Hill (a suburb north of Toronto with similar sprawl and street design) is that his local transit bus could not reliably get commuters to the GO commuter train on time, due to many many stop signs, and overloaded local and arterial streets. So he had to drive to ensure he got to work on time.

    Not all buses, not all routes suffer from this, but less than 98% reliability of local transit will greatly affect bus-train riders.

    I should add that my experience of local transit in Oakville (the suburb municipality next to Burlington) is that the Oakville buses were timed to leave 10 minutes after arrival of each GO Train, and the buses would wait if the train was delayed.

    • asdf2 May 6, 2017 at 9:49 pm #

      To put reliability into perspective, for a person commuting to work 5 times a week (10 one-way trips per day), seemingly high statistics are not nearly as good as they seem. For instance, 90% reliability means you miss your connection on average about once a week (terrible). 95%, once every other week, 98%, once or twice per month. Which is still a lot considering that you have absolutely no idea in advance when it’s going to happen.

  4. MB May 2, 2017 at 6:45 pm #

    Burlington’s transit system is already built around a grid network of routes on major roads. Plus some local routes.
    The only change they need is to improve frequency and span of service. But overall, it is a grid.

  5. Long Branch Mike May 11, 2017 at 6:12 am #

    MB, thanks for the clarification.