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Toronto transit plan makes more sense than Vancouver’s, says Matti Siemiatycki

As a Torontonian, I am a major proponent of subways. I have seen first-hand how subways provide efficient, reliable public transit in congested cities and also favourably shape land use patterns along their route.

In 2003, I moved to Vancouver to begin my PhD in urban planning at the University of British Columbia.

My intent was to write a dissertation about how a city less than half the size of Greater Toronto had galvanized funding contributions from municipal, provincial and federal governments as well as the airport authority for plans to build a new subway line between the southern municipality of Richmond, the airport and downtown Vancouver.

In other words, were there tricks that the chronically underfunded TTC could learn from Vancouver about how to attract money for major public transit investments?

Despite my intentions, my experience studying subway development in Vancouver in greater depth has changed my perspective entirely and given me a new respect for the scheme of surface level transit routes that planners in Toronto have designed. Let me explain.

In the context of growing road congestion, an environmentally conscious citizenry and the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in 2010, a proposal was made to build a new mass rapid transit line between the southern municipality of Richmond, the airport and downtown Vancouver.

The line is intended to provide congestion relief on one of the busiest transportation corridors in the region, ameliorate air pollution and provide greater mobility and comfort for those using public transit.

These goals seem similar to the aspirations that Torontonians have for their transit system.

Ironically, however, a closer inspection of Vancouver’s plan suggests the construction of a new subway line will largely fail to achieve all three of these goals.

With respect to congestion relief and environmental benefits, both of these are expected to accrue as commuters shift from cars to public transit.

However, official planning documents suggest that when the new line opens in 2009, it will remove fewer than 6 per cent of the daily car trips made on the corridor and achieve air quality improvements valued at just $16.5 million annually. These seem like pretty negligible benefits for a project that is expected to cost $1.74 billion in capital expenses alone.

The new line might also actually make travel around the city worse for those who depend on public transit. In order to ensure that the new transit line is well patronized, surrounding bus services are being rerouted to become feeders, even if this lengthens journey times or causes commuters to transfer from trips that are currently made on a single vehicle.

And, by contributing more than $300 million in capital costs, the local transit agency has been unable to expand the bus fleet as it had anticipated in earlier plans — even though 73 per cent of all transit trips in Greater Vancouver are made by bus.

Finally, the great attraction of having a direct rail connection to the airport seems overblown, when it is considered that fewer than 8,000 trips per day are predicted on the new line from the airport, accounting for fewer than 8 per cent of the line’s total ridership.

Thus, while the new subway line being conceived in Vancouver may certainly be a monument to progress and a symbol of visionary leadership, its potential as a mover of people is highly suspect.

The case of rapid transit in Vancouver provides important insight for Toronto, as it suggests that money and conventional wisdom alone will not alleviate our urban transit woes.

For Toronto to redress the depreciating quality of public transit service today, we must break with conventional thinking that says subways will be our sole salvation and instead focus on being progressive in our ends and radical in our means.

The new TTC plan for a network of surface-level, rapid-transit corridors has taken the first steps toward achieving this goal.

With lower capital costs, Toronto will be able to blanket the entire city with rapid transit for less than two-thirds of the cost of building a single subway line in Vancouver.

That means more rapid transit closer to more people’s front doors.

And using segregated transit-only lanes will ensure the reliability of service that commuters demand in order to make public transit a viable alternative to the automobile.

Contrary to the contention by some that Toronto has become “nothing more than an overgrown hick town,” the trasit commission’s plan for a network of surface-level, rapid-transit corridors is truly visionary.

For instead of dwelling on what we can’t do or clinging to an outdated model of development in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is no longer feasible, the current plan puts forward a vision of transit in Toronto that will be accessible to those throughout the entire city.

Now it is time for our elected officials at all levels of government to get on board and support public transit.

Matti Siemiatycki is a doctoral candidate in urban planning at the University of British Columbia.