Transit in Toronto– a heretical counterpoint
Toronto’s 2014 civic election is in full swing and transit has become the main issue (well, after Rob Ford or RoFo, had to withdraw). And with good reason given what ocurred yesterday. Each candidate for mayor has an expensive, long-term proposal to address the problem but TDA founder Henry Gold wonders if they are really needed.
Is it possible that Toronto’s transit problems could be solved with just a bit more imagination and personal rectitude? That the current proposed solutions may be good politics but may not actually reduce the time spent in gridlock? Can we have a better transportation system, with an improved environment and better quality of life at a much cheaper cost? Is it possible that advances in technology already entering the market will mean that, with the funds we have available, we can obtain better results?
The GTA, and the city of Toronto in particular, are blessed with well-designed arteries, built primarily for the use of cars. Unfortunately, the private automobile is the most inefficient use of space and energy that has ever been designed, at least when it comes to moving large numbers of people.
In a world now obsessed with finding efficiencies and eliminating waste, this one area seems to be a sacred cow, the elephant in the room – not to be disturbed or acknowledged. However, if we can manage to put aside all the emotions invested in our private cars and decide that moving people is the only objective, a whole new set of possibilities is opened up. If we create a dedicated BRT system on each of the main arteries and run modern extended busses at frequent intervals, we would be able to transport the same number of people as any, much more expensive, subway could. This would take a fraction of the time to build and at a significantly lower cost than an LRT, not to mention a subway.
Critics will say that ‘door to door’, it will still be faster for an individual to use a car. Now, however, there are a wide array of “last mile mobility devices” such as small, collapsible, suitcase-size bikes, e-bikes, and e-scooters available, and can be carried onto the bus or a train and then used to complete the “last mile”. Better yet, have our city establish a bike/e-bike/e-scooter sharing system for last mile use. You get off the bus/train, use your smart phone to rent an e-bike and you are at your meeting in no time. Grenoble in Switzerland has just upped the ante by introducing a single seat vehicle sharing system.
Those people who still wish to use a personal transportation vehicle, a private car, within the GTA, can buy a small two-seater car or one of a half dozen other new transportation alternatives – like a three-wheeled motorcycle – that are now beginning to enter the market. Anyone choosing to use a larger vehicle should be heavily taxed through parking levies and road and congestion tolls. Effective solutions for moving people efficiently at a reasonable cost have been built in cities from Copenhagen to Curitiba. When done properly, even simple measures like lowering speed limits, limiting the access of delivery trucks to certain hours of the day, creating protected bike lanes, eliminating parking from all major roads and implementing an extensive network of one way streets have contributed to reducing gridlock, improving individual mobility and contributing to a better quality of life.
When discussing expensive transit solutions, an element that is not being properly considered is the rate of technological change and how eagerly it is adopted by younger people. Google has already developed a self-driven city car. I would venture to say someone is already writing a business plan for a fleet of self-driven taxis that will pick you up at home, drop you at the big-box store. When you need a bigger vehicle to get your monthly groceries home, you will order it on your smart phone and in minutes, a self-driven mini-van will be there to take you home. As these vehicles can continuously move from one client to another, there will a corresponding reduction in the number of vehicles and parking required and this will create even more space on the roads, more efficiency and less gridlock.
I would suggest that innovation will, within a decade, virtually eliminate the need for personal cars in the city, creating more space to move around and providing an opportunity to use major streets for a BRT system. Will it happen exactly the way I envision it? Probably not, but technology will change things and change them fast. As has often been stated about military commanders, our municipal leaders seem to be fighting the wars of the past, battling congestions with outdated and expensive solutions?
The last point and, perhaps the most important, is the need for all of us to show some honesty about our use of personal automobiles. Most of us love the thought of jumping to our roomy, comfortable, well designed cars, naturally parked right in front of our homes, and then driving them anywhere we want on well-maintained, traffic-free roads. Transit is for the ‘other’ and should be build with the ‘other’ people’s money. Reducing climate change, having a clean environment and getting to work faster? These are all wonderful ideas – as long as our own immediate comfort is not adversely affected.
Yet the facts stand for themselves. The costs of building and supporting a car-based infrastructure (think of the cost of simply repairing Gardener Expressway) are prohibitive. Over 75% of all vehicle trips are for distances of less than 10km and almost 75% of the time, the driver is alone in a vehicle built for five or more passengers. Talk about a serious waste of space, energy and time. Looking at ourselves candidly in the mirror however is not as much fun as criticizing politicians, looking for the elusive gravy train or whining endlessly about gridlock.
Henry Gold, though he can also be caught whining, is a relatively happy cycling commuter.