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Whose Transit is it?

By James Bow.

(Originally published February 1, 2000)

There was a debate on the Transit Toronto mailing list recently that bares repeating here. A suggestion came forward that GO service be revised, and that a number of intermediate stations be closed, so that service could be expanded further east and west without additional cost. To determine which stations should stay open and which should be closed, the poster suggested a benchmark of one station per line per city.

I criticized this idea, saying that there were benefits for keeping all intermediate stations open, and the debate widened. We debated the balance of inconveniences between a traveller from an outlying station waiting on board a train in intermediate station, versus the traveller of that intermediate station who would end up deprived of service through this plan. We argued over whether or not GO Transit should be a strictly regional carrier, and whether all inner-city traffic should be carried by the local transit agencies. For instance, when I pointed out that a number of people preferred to take GO Transit from Long Branch to Union Station instead of the slower TTC, the poster suggested that it was the TTC's responsibility to provide this service. Why should GTA-wide taxpayers pay for something that duplicates a service that only Toronto city taxpayers benefit from?

All of this was a lot of food for thought for me. On the matter of having the TTC provide the service that GO does within Toronto's boundaries, I respond by agreeing that there are some services which the TTC can provide as efficiently as GO, and should be responsible for. It makes little sense for me for GO Buses to pick up and drop off passengers between points within the City of Toronto, as the TTC can do just as good a job, and having GO do the same would be a waste of time and money. However, unless the TTC itself sets up train service on the Lakeshore line between Long Branch and Rouge Hill, there is no way that the TTC can offer service as good as the GO trains do. To try to do so would duplicate a service that GO can provide more efficiently, and is just as bad a waste of money.

A more borderline case is the situation that existed in the City of Brampton in the middle part of this decade. During this time, Brampton eliminated all Sunday service on its transit system. GO Transit continued to run buses from the Brampton bus terminal, along Queen Street (Highway 7) and through Malton, to its Yorkdale and York Mills terminal. During Sundays, this "express inter-city" service picked up a number of passengers along Queen Street who paid the minimum fare ($2.10 at the time) for a trip of a few blocks, making GO's run the de facto Brampton Transit sunday service.

Arguably, Brampton Transit aborggated its responsibility in not providing Sunday service, leaving GO Transit and the GTA taxpayers to pick up the pieces. However, it can be argued that GO benefitted from this arrangement. The service they were providing was going to be offered anyway, Brampton Sunday service or no, as the inter-city route is a major GO corridor. Those extra passengers who had been shunned by Brampton Transit were gravy to GO's revenues, and probably reduced the tax burden on the GTA resulting from this service. As a passenger on this service, I can not say that my travel time was unduly lengthened by this operation. The service, before Brampton Transit abandoned Sunday service, was already designed to pick up passengers en route, so that York Mills or Yorkdale travellers didn't have to worry about walking or travelling all the way to the Brampton or Bramalea bus terminals in order to access this service.

The intermediate stations offer GO passengers more convenient access to the system. For instance, the Milton line's primary purpose is to move commuters from Mississauga to jobs in downtown Toronto. Having them all gather and embark from a single station within Mississauga may be more efficient operationally, but would be less convenient for most of the passengers who use the line. There are limits to convenience, of course, but I believe that the transit agencies already have that issue well in hand.

The Toronto Transit Commission has done a lot of studies in optimizing its transit service, and the TTC's high farebox recovery ratio would suggest that these studies have been successful. The TTC notes that commuting in general is a chore, but there are a number of elements within a commute which are more of a nuisance to passengers than others. The least annoying factor, it would seem, is travel time. So long as the passenger is in the transit vehicle, and that passenger knows when that vehicle is due to arrive, that passenger remains reasonably happy. The time travelling to and from a transit stop is more of an inconvenience, however, to a factor of 1.5. Waiting at a transit stop is an even larger inconvenience, to a factor of 2.5. Transferring between vehicles is the greatest inconvenience of all, to a factor of 10. By this, the TTC means that they have witnessed passengers willingly adding ten minutes to their travel time in order to avoid a transfer. Each change the TTC proposes affects commuters in different ways, benefitting some and inconveniencing others. Multiplying these weights against the number of people affected, the TTC is able to determine whether a proposed change improves overall transit performance or not.

This same ratio applies to GO Transit. Removing intermediate stations may improve travel time for some users, but it makes the commuting journey worse for a number of riders, who have farther to travel to get to their stations, or who have less service. They may find it more convenient just to take the car downtown, and that is precisely the thing that GO Transit was created to avoid. There is a balance to be struck, of course. Although travelling to a stop, waiting and transferring are greater inconveniences than travel time, there will be situations where travel time will decreased enough, and the number of passengers benefitted enough, to justify the closure of certain stops, or the rerouting of certain lines. However, I suspect that GO is already on the ball in most cases. Witness how Exhibition GO Station is closed during rush hours, while stations such as Danforth and Mimico remain open. Clearly the numbers have told GO that there are too few people using Exhibition Station at these times to justify the mild inconvenience to the sheer number of passengers travelling past. The presence of express trains during rush hour also speak to this. And I'm sure the search for such efficiencies continue.

There was also the argument raised that taxpayers of GO Transit should not pay for services that taxpayers of local transit avoided, through bad planning or other circumstances. I don't follow this argument at all. GO Transit is being paid for by the same taxpayers who are paying for local transit. There is no reason why these same taxpayers should benefit from GO Transit's "local" services, if those services are most efficient when provided by GO Transit.

Searching for efficiencies is something that should happen as a matter of course, regardless of who is footing the bill. And such efficiencies will likely defy our attempts to compartmentalize transit agencies into "local" and "express" services.

A Response to Futurists

Toronto Life ran an interesting series of articles on Toronto's past, present and possible future in their most recent issue. I was particularly intrigued by their predictions for the city in the year 2021. Everything was backed up with demographic data and seemed well reasoned and well argued. I also appreciated the fairly optimistic nature of the piece. Sure, there are challenges ahead, but the writer neatly avoided painting things with the utopian or distopian brush that many speculators do.

One section that was covered was transportation. Intrestingly, the writer predicted that 2010-2020 would be a good decade for public transit, especially when our aging population starts to abandon their cars. He also predicted improvments once the new leadership (paraphrased) "arrived, untainted from the disasterous effects of the Sheppard debacle". The article is not kind to the Sheppard Subway, categorizing it as a "line from nowhere to nowhere" and going as far to predict that the line will be closed down two years after being opened.

As you have gleaned from other pages on Transit Toronto, I have been critical of the Sheppard Subway before. I agree that the stub under construction barely justifies its existence. However, I don't go as far as Toronto Life does. The presence of heavy express traffic and the rerouting of several bus routes into this subway, not to mention the new park 'n' ride facilities will make sure the line meets its ridership quotas. I doubt that it will be a disaster. And I certainly don't see it tarnishing the civic leadership to such an extent that it would prevent construction of new transit infrastructure for the next ten years. Indeed, I predict that, as money slowly comes available, the Sheppard line will be extended out to Downsview and the Scarborough Town Centre (likely piece by piece). Once it reaches its fullest extent, it will have a number of benefits to offer.

I also see investment in public transit infrastructure occurring in this upcoming decade. Toronto may not see most of it, for I expect it to be regional in nature. The bulk of the growth that the GTA will have to manage in the next two decades will come in the outer suburbs and it is there that attention must be paid. I say, expect full service to be reestablished between Burlington and Oshawa in the next two years. In the next five years, expect full GO service to be extended to Hamilton. In ten years, expect major movements to take place extending full service to the rest of GO's commuter rail network. It makes a lot of sense: it provides new infrastructure where it is needed, and it is less expensive to build than new subways. Toronto already has plenty of transit infrastructure and good transit coverage. The outer regions have a lot of growing to do, and it is likely that the bulk of that growth will come out of GO Transit.

I look into the next decade with guarded optimism. There are challenges to be faced, true, but it appears as though I'm not the only one who is seeing these challenges on the horizon. This understanding allows me to hope that these challenges will be met, and that the region will be better for it. You didn't see such an understanding of the challenges ahead when the 1990s or the 1980 were just beginning and, in terms of transit development, it would be very easy to do better in growing our infrastructure over the next ten years than we have in the past twenty.

Peter Drost rebuts:

Toronto suffers from milk runs. No, this has nothing to do with the recent rash of restaurant closures by the health department. This is about the length of routes, or more specifically how much they have come to resemble the milkman's delivery route - seemingly endless stops every few minutes. In fact, there is a tendency towards milk runs all across the GTA.

And it is the milk run mentality that James Bow stands behind in his February editorial, "Whose Transit Is It?". Bow argues that there really would be no point for the TTC to take over rail service on inner-city stations, such as Main Street or Long Branch as this would amount to a duplication of service and would be a waste of money.

I disagree. The sooner the TTC can take over these lines the better.

My observation is that GO trains are packed to the roof in the morning and evening rush hour. It's fine when you can take a seat in Burlington, but try to find a seat by the time the train rolls into Long Branch. Sure, there are some express trains, but not enough.

My argument here is that at a certain point the level of comfort for those who live close to the point of destination completely diminishes. Bow also argues that time is less of a factor when it comes to people taking transit than, say, transfers. That implies that someone coming from Burlington to Toronto would have no problem spending more time on a train that is standing room only from Port Credit, on.

That brings up the whole issue of comfort. Anyone who has taken the Bloor/Danforth subway from Kennedy station at rush hour knows the true grind of the milk run. Often every seat in the subway is taken by the time the train rolls into Warden station. By Coxwell station, dozens are standing. Anyone planning to go downtown after Coxwell is going to stand for the whole ride on packed subway trains. And it's no better when you travel east from Kipling station. Then try to transfer southbound on Bloor - it's not pretty.

Most transit lines in Toronto are like this: long, packed not to mention slow. This is why I don't think it would be a waste if the TTC were to take over GO Transit service within the city and, possibly, close to its borders. Such a turn of events could create a number of rapid transit lines - mini subways, in essence. Just think of the potential for integration with the TTC's system of buses, streetcars and existing subways.

Whose transit is it anyway? That's a good question, especially when you consider that GO Transit is paid for not only by people in cities that have it, but also by people in cities that don't have it.

It's a bizarre situation when you consider that GO Transit excludes centres like, Kitchener, Waterloo, St. Catharines and Peterborough, while places such as Ajax get regular service simply because they happen to be on the milk run.

[James' note: Neither Kitchener, Waterloo, St. Catharines and Peterborough taxpayers pay a penny towards GO Transit now that the service has been completely downloaded by the province]

Toronto is a big city and when you include the GTA its an even bigger city. Big, long transit lines might get the job done, but they are not going to win the hearts of the public, or the real race against the automobile. Traveling between the outer points within this region is no joy. But it can be improved dramatically is we drop the milk run mentality.

Picture a system like this:

  • Rapid light rail on all the lines currently serviced by GO within, and just outside Toronto's boundaries with 10 minute (or less) headways. This would include stations like Port Credit, Pickering and Markham.
  • Bypasses built into the Bloor/Danforth subway from Donlands station to Union station and from Dundas West station to Union station
  • GO Transit reaching farther afield and including Niagara Falls, Peterborough, Orillia, and Kitchener in its regular service.
  • An express bypass built into the 501 streetcar line, possibly from the Queensway to Coxwell via the lakeshore.
  • There are all kinds of bus routes that could be split, or at least offer express service during the peak hours.

On an engineering point of view, express service and bypasses do not make sense; it costs more and can appear to be redundant. In fact, it may even look like a kind of favoritism. Expressing may also cause the TTC to rethink its flat rate fair system. I don't know.

What I do know is that the benefits to the user in terms of time savings and level comfort would be fantastic. Just because large numbers of people are going to retire soon - as Bow notes in the editorial - doesn't mean that they'll all be clamoring to hop on nearest bus that is crawling along down the street. However, a system that offers a short series of stops followed by an uninterrupted run to the final stop, or transfer point, is far more appealing.

Any milkman will tell you, the longer the milk stays on the truck the more chance it will turn sour. I think the same can be said about the passengers on Toronto's transit lines. The milk run mentality has to go.