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Toronto Not Getting serious about adopting transit priority

Wednesday, June 12, 2002 - Print Edition, Page A16

Let’s say you’re cruising down Bay Street or up Don Mills Road and suddenly realize you’re illegal: driving in a lane temporarily restricted to buses and high-occupancy vehicles. What do you do?

Nothing, of course. Art Eggleton was a happily married alderman the last time any driver in Toronto got nicked for that. You cruise on.

But suppose the bus coming up from the rear was equipped with a digital camera designed to snap your licence plate and transmit the image, along with the exact time and location of the capture, to a central computer that would e-mail you a $100 ticket before you even made it home. You might act differently.

That vision is not so outlandish: By 2003, all the picturesque double-deckers in congested London will be so equipped, according to local transportation expert Richard Soberman, who highlighted the London system in a report prepared in support of Toronto’s new official plan.

Toronto had better get used to something similar: The need for adopting so-called transit-priority measures here is urgent, according to Dr. Soberman and many other informed observers.

Unnecessary delays, mainly due to “interference from automobile traffic,” increase TTC costs dramatically, he wrote, “basically leading to poorer service at higher cost.”

The Soberman report, as yet unpublished, echoes the views of senior TTC officials in concluding that transit priority “probably represents the single most cost-effective means of improving transit competitiveness and reducing automobile dependence.”

In fact, transit priority doesn’t cost much at all. As the TTC is proving with its expanding signal-priority system, which allows buses and streetcars to extend their own green lights, even the expensive technology pays for itself quickly in operational savings. If the goal is to get the most from the enormous investments the city makes in public transit every year, transit priority is the only (not just the better) way.

But as the Soberman report notes, there is a cost to these initiatives, and it is calculated in a currency far more precious than tax dollars: driver convenience. Virtually every measure that speeds riders up - new restrictions on parking and turning, bus lanes or transit malls - slows drivers down.

In Toronto, we valorize driver convenience to such an extent that nobody much questions why single-passenger cars are allowed to make left turns at every other intersection downtown, imposing significant delays on streetcars carrying as many as 70 passengers, each of whom has paid handsomely for the right to use the road. It’s crazy.

A year ago the TTC introduced an ambitious plan to rebalance downtown traffic by creating a series of “Red Routes” featuring heavy parking and turning restrictions and, for some streetcars, partially separated rights of way. That was the last anybody heard of it.

“What happened is, nothing happened,” comments Mitch Stambler, TTC manager of service planning.

That attitude can’t last. Even assuming that Torontonians are willing to continue spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on glaringly inefficient surface transit, somebody has to start practising what they preach. Considering all the current talk about the great goodness of public transit, it’s embarrassing we can’t even manage to cut back on left turns off streetcar tracks.

The first step, “something that should be implemented now,” according to Dr. Soberman, is the extension of rush-hour parking bans on main streets “well into the shoulder times of the historic peak periods.” That would mean no parking during actual rush hours: from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. in the morning and from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the evening.

There are many other pieces to the puzzle, including better police enforcement of lane restrictions, but I’d also like to see the TTC revive its ingenious plan for a King Street transit mall. Banning through-traffic in the financial core, thereby dramatically improving service on the TTC’s busiest surface route, would be worth doing for the symbolic value alone.