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The commuter blues

THE QUESTION: Can public transit ever truly compete with the car? JEFF GRAY investigates how the city can keep traffic moving — and persuade more drivers to leave their wheels at home

JEFF GRAY

WHY IT MATTERS

Traffic congestion costs commuters time, businesses money, and hurts the environment. And if you think it’s bad now, the city’s traffic problems are set to dramatically worsen.

In the 416 area code alone, the city expects at least half a million new residents by 2021; hundreds of thousands more are expected to settle in the 905. If most of them drive to work, the road network — already at capacity, for the most part — could grind to a halt. Meanwhile, widening roads attracts more cars, city traffic planners say, merely creating a wider traffic jam.

And it’s not just a headache for drivers.

A recent study suggested traffic jams cost the city’s economy close to $1.8-billion a year in lost productivity. And a survey for the Board of Trade of 100 Toronto-area chief executive officers said they were more likely to cite public transit and transportation as a top priority for municipal politicians — even more pressing than lowering taxes or fighting crime.

THE CHALLENGE

Downsview subway station, where Mayor David Miller chose to tell the media about his public-transit policies this past week, has almost no workplaces or homes within walking distance. It is, for now, a subway to nowhere.

“We’re standing at the end of the subway line,” Mr. Miller told a dozen shivering reporters, as cars whizzed by on Sheppard Avenue West. “But this isn’t where Toronto ends.”

His point: The province has pegged the Spadina subway line for a $2-billion expansion north to York University and beyond, but vast swaths of the Toronto suburbs and the 905 belt will still remain lengthy bus rides away from anything resembling rapid transit.

Toronto’s official plan calls for an end to “car dependency” and says the expected new growth in population must be accommodated on public transit, with higher-density land-use planning.

But that would require massive amounts of new money for the Toronto Transit Commission — money the city doesn’t have. Excluding the proposed Spadina extension, the cash now coming from the federal and provincial governments, the transit agency says, is only enough to maintain the current system for the next few years — not expand it.

“You can do that [add population], but if you don’t add more transit, you’re going to make our riders feel like sardines,” said Michael Roche, the TTC’s chief financial officer. “Many already do.”

The recession and the funding cuts of the 1990s, which forced the transit agency to hike fares faster than inflation, sent ridership into a downward spiral. But now, with the economy growing, ridership is shooting up well ahead of TTC predictions. The last three years have seen the TTC raise fares twice. But it has also frozen its monthly passes, effectively making them cheaper, and begun allowing multiple people to use the same pass.

In addition to replacing hundreds of aging buses, the TTC has ordered 100 extra new ones in an effort to attract riders. The new buses are meant to make service more frequent on forlorn suburban routes outside of rush hour. But attracting more riders also means more demands on the service.

Transit systems in the sprawling 905 belt around Toronto, which are dwarfed by the TTC, have started modest expansions, such as York Region’s Viva rapid bus system. GO Transit continues to grow each year, its new parking lots filling up almost as soon as they are paved. It remains to be seen what effect the province’s new regional transportation authority will have. It’s meant to co-ordinate transit systems and establish a common high-tech fare-collection system.

WHAT THE CITY SHOULD DO

Mr. Miller’s proposed plan for public transit assumes that senior levels of government won’t shower Toronto with billions more in cash for public transit, on top of the hundreds of millions in gas-tax funds. So he wants to do something much cheaper than billion-dollar subways, with the potential to give far more people, especially those who live far from the subway line, the option of leaving their cars its home.

Based on existing TTC plans, his scheme involves building special lanes, separated from traffic, for buses and streetcars or newer, larger light-rail vehicles, on Yonge Street north of Finch, Kingston Road, Don Mills Road, on the waterfront and elsewhere. (The savings are attractive: Light-rail can cost as little as one-tenth the price of a subway line, and is enjoying a boom in cities across North America.)

The mayor’s projects would resemble the right-of-way lanes now being built on St. Clair Avenue, where the idea has proven controversial; some businesses and residents fought it tooth and nail, arguing that it would put a chokehold on traffic flow.

Both of Mr. Miller’s main mayoral opponents, Jane Pitfield and Stephen LeDrew, insist subways are still the answer. Ms. Pitfield, who announced her transportation platform amid the construction on St. Clair, wants the city to build two kilometres every year, which she says would cost $100-million a kilometre — way below most projections, which put the price at more than $200-million a kilometre. She argues she would be better able than Mr. Miller to persuade other governments to help pay for it.

Ideally, says long-time transit consultant Edward Levy, a senior partner at the BA Consulting Group, the city should be building both light-rail systems and new subways, if it somehow found the money.

In some places, he says, going underground is necessary. Along Eglinton Avenue, for example, a light-rail line wouldn’t work; the street crosses the centre of the city, where the street is narrower but densities are higher. “You have to go underground [for a distance of] about six kilometres, at least,” Mr. Levy says. “And it ain’t cheap.”

But in suburban areas like Vaughan, he argues, the promised high-density development is unlikely to materialize in the quantity required to justify an expensive underground train.

On other streets, light-rail or buses in their own rights-of-way are smart ways to spread rapid transit around the city, Mr. Levy says, agreeing with Mr. Miller’s plan. But subways needn’t be so expensive either, he said. He blames TTC inefficiencies and a molasses-like environmental assessment process, as well as bickering between levels of government, for the sluggishness of Toronto’s ability to build new transit lines.

And he agrees with an idea put forward by Ms. Pitfield: The TTC should have citizen representatives — preferably with some business expertise — on the commission, which is now made up solely of city councillors. Or better yet, he argues, empower a regional agency with its own sources of revenue to build transit across the greater Toronto area. This would amount to a souped-up version of the province’s new Greater Toronto Transportation Authority, which Mr. Levy says is for now “just a shell” with little power.

Meanwhile, no politician — and certainly no leading mayoral contender — is going so far as to suggest looking at the other side of the transportation ledger, and consider measures aimed directly at drivers, such as tolls. Mr. Miller, who was roundly criticized for musing about tolls in the 2003 election, now routinely dismisses any suggestion of charging drivers.

Mr. Levy believes drivers are going to have to accept some changes in order to keep the streets moving as the city grows. But at the end of the day, he says, public transit will always have to co-exist with the car: “Let’s face it, auto culture is not going to go away.”

CASE STUDY

Blood on the tracks: The battle over St. Clair

If Mayor David Miller wants a firsthand look at how neighbourhoods across the city might respond to his public transit plans, he only has to head to Ward 21, St. Paul’s, where the furor over dedicated streetcar lanes is the No. 1 election issue.

There, St. Clair Avenue has been turned into a giant, traffic-snarling ditch as crews build two right-of-way lanes, separated from traffic, in a controversial project that is still opposed by a vocal group of residents and businesses and was even delayed by a court challenge.

Championing the project is incumbent councillor Joe Mihevc, a TTC commissioner and key ally of Mr. Miller. Mr. Mihevc’s most prominent challenger, former Toronto mayor John Sewell, opposes the lanes, saying the new street will be hostile to pedestrians and arguing there are better ways to boost public transit.

A main street torn up by construction is clearly not what Mr. Mihevc wants to be talking about on doorsteps in the middle of an election campaign. “I foresaw this, right, that this was going to be construction hell, and that I was going to wear it,” Mr. Mihevc says. “My counterparts, colleagues in this campaign are basically making hay of it.”

He says the new system, which he describes as “almost an above-ground subway,” will dramatically increase the reliability of streetcars, since they will no longer get stuck in traffic. That will mean fewer long waits and a time savings, on average, of 15 per cent of a rider’s trip, he said.

The new lanes, Mr. Mihevc asserted, are needed to keep pace with higher-density development along St. Clair, which he says would otherwise mean gridlock.

Mr. Sewell couldn’t disagree more. His campaign is getting a lift from members of Save Our St. Clair, an anti-right-of-way group that fought the project in court. He says the current plan reduces the size of sidewalks and reduces parking (things Mr. Mihevc disputes). Mr. Sewell instead proposes that cars should only be banned from the streetcar lanes, and prevented from making left turns, during rush hour.

“You can’t cross the street,” he says of the new St. Clair. To build the dedicated lanes, “you have to widen the road space, narrow the sidewalk, get rid of the parking.”

In Mr. Mihevc’s view, nothing short of the future of public transit in Toronto is at stake in his ward. If he loses the election over the St. Clair battle, he thinks councillors in other wards where the lanes are proposed — many of which are in the suburbs — may lose their nerve.

“I think I’m going to win,” he said recently. “But if I lose, then you tell me: Who’s going to have the guts? Politicians by nature are not gutsy people.”

TWO CITIES, TWO SOLUTIONS

London: In 2003, Mayor Ken Livingstone brought in a controversial £8 ($17) “congestion charge” for motorists entering the central city in an effort to clear up traffic paralysis in the British capital. The government credits the move with reducing congestion by 30 per cent. At the same time, London brought in hundreds of new buses that could now actually move on its streets. A public-private partnership is also overhauling some of the city’s subway lines.

Madrid: The Spanish capital, with a population of 3 million, at the centre of a region with 5.8 million people, has become the wonder of the public-transit world for building 120 kilometres of subway — or almost twice the length of Toronto’s current total tracks — in just 10 years, at a fraction of the cost estimated for subways here. TTC officials and transit experts on this side of the Atlantic have been scratching their heads and are studying how the Spaniards did it.




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