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Thinking small may help solve city gridlock

Joseph Hall

Small buses may be solution to suburban transit woes.

Subway lines, commuter rail, streetcars and even intensive bus routes can do little more than put a dent in the suburban household’s reliance on automobiles for the bulk of its local travel needs.

While building subways and light rail lines can help mould new developments - attracting pockets of high density to their vicinity - the existing suburbs within the city and beyond are largely lost to big transit.

Providing too few people in too large an area to support rapid, frequent and expensive transit alternatives, the suburbs will always remain bastions of highly congestive car dependency.

Or will they?

New proposals coming out of Toronto’s planning department are suggesting a potential strategy to win over suburbia to public transit.

If the big guns can’t move the lines, planners say, you might try some small, lightning raids.

“The thing is, it’s not easy to get from the middle of some of those large (suburban) neighbourhoods to rapid transit,” says Toronto transportation planning chief Rod McPhail.

“The first thing you have to do is walk to an arterial road, then wait for a bus, get on the bus and go to a subway.”

Many or most suburbanites, McPhail says, are simply unwilling to expend that much time and effort when there’s a car sitting in their driveway.

The trick, then, is to offer them something resembling door to subway or door to GO Train service.

“But you don’t want to use big TTC buses. There’s not the demand for big TTC buses running around neighbourhoods and subdivisions,” McPhail says.

“What you need is an easier way for residents to get from their houses to a subway, and what we’d be looking at is smaller vehicles to go in there.”

Known as jitneys, these small buses could closely resemble the vehicles employed now by many city hotels to shuttle their guests back and forth to Pearson International.

Running regular routes on more or less flexible schedules, the jitneys would invade suburban neighbourhoods, picking up passengers at the middle or end of their own streets.

The first and most important problem these jitneys would address, of course, is the expense of regular transit service.

A typical transit bus today can cost half a million dollars and must take on massive numbers of riders to justify those capital costs.

These riders won’t be found in any suburban neighbourhood.

The smaller buses would also be able to dart in and out of neighbourhoods without causing the window-rattling rumblings that might make their larger cousins unpopular on residential streets.

The idea, however, is not without its problems.

While certainly less expensive than bigger transit options, a jitney fleet large enough to run frequent forays into suburban neighbourhoods is well beyond the current capital capacities of the TTC, GO Transit or any of the smaller regional agencies.

As with any new capital initiative, transit would need the renewed financial help of the province to make a jitney plan work.

As well, the jitney could only partially loosen the tenacious grip the car holds on suburbia.

With so few work, shopping, recreational or entertainment venues within their suburban settings, residents must use their cars almost any time they venture away from home.

To fight the growing road congestion caused by urban sprawl, you must simply slow its spread. And that’s a function of political will and planning.

In the meantime, however, jitney service - widely used for decades in Europe and Asia - may well be an idea whose time has come here.

“The goal is really to develop a city where people can exist without needing their cars,” says McPhail, whose transportation proposals may form part of a new official plan now being formulated for the city.

“The goal for Toronto is to make it possible to get around without using a car.”

Readers can contact Joseph Hall by telephone at (416) 869-4390 or e-mail at