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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Choking on Congestion Talk

Incredulous bemusement is the most generous manner by which I might describe my reaction to comments by Council members according to the Toronto Sun article Our highways to hell

According to the article, Councillor Gord Perks is quoted as saying "I don't view congestion as a problem." 

Hang on to your hat, because it is a problem. A big one.

This 2008 study, entitled, Cost of Road Congestion in the Greater Toronto and HamiltonArea: Impact and Cost Benefit Analysis of the Metrolinx Draft RTP suggests congestion cost the GTA-Hamilton region somewhere on the order of $6 billion in 2006, with $3.3 billion born directly on the shoulders of the commuters, and $2.7 billion in lost economic productivity. Per capita, we're costing more to our citizens than either New York City or Chicago are costing theirs.

The following year, citing budget shortfalls, city council in 2007 considered peddling more vice in the form of a casino at Woodbine entertainment area to generate perhaps $600 million...yet, we're losing billions to congestion, and the best we can be told is "congestion is not a problem"?

With all due respect, I'm compelled to take this comment as glib dismissal that should, in light of the fiscal reality, be considered derelict and unacceptable. Or, I can suggest what he meant to say was "Congestion isn't a problem, it's a symptom of broader problems." If that is the context of the statement, I wholly agree.

Wait, there's more. He continues, "Access, not speed, creates a community. We have services and people don't need to drive. In the suburbs people have good access to services."

To which suburb is he referring? I'd love to take him for a comparative walking tour of services in the core of the city vs. services in the suburbs I know. In January. With bags of groceries in hand. And children to pick up after work. Without a car. It so happens that I lived in his ward in 08-09, and I could reasonably get off the subway and walk to my choice of three different grocery stores, as well as all kinds of other shops and services, on my way home. I currently live in Scarborough, and there is absolutely no comparison, in terms of access. I'd hate to consider living anywhere in the local 905 without a car (frankly, I'm not interested in living in the local 905 even if I had a car, but that's for another discussion entirely).

Councillor Norm Kelly's comments about the city doing its part in investing in public transit, the costs of owning a car and allowing the market to work itself out as people seek alternate transportation options requires a rebuttal at length, which I'll be writing over time. At this point, I'll just quickly say that public transit has little opportunity to help matters if the regional socio-economic trends stretch the insufficient infrastructure even thinner. What we need is planned infrastructure leading the direction of trends. Public transit alone can't make a lot of difference if sprawl dilutes the critical mass of city living.

And then Councillor Peter Milczyn says he "hasn't seen more congestion in the city. I live in Etobicoke. If you go to the suburbs there is more congestion. Public transit needs to play a role so we can free up road space for commercial vehicles."

I partially agree with this statement, and for good reason. City dwellers have more transportation choice. Public transit is much more reasonable in terms of service, comfort and convenience. You'll always see more bicycles used as a means of transportation in the city than in the suburbs. You'll see people rollerblading to work, walking to work, riding a subway to work, hailing a cab a short distance... Suburbanites, who do not have the access to services within reasonable walking or public transit distance, of course will continue to depend on a car for the majority of their transportation needs. They will pollute more, use public transit less, and put more traffic on our roads.

How many Tim Horton's drive-throughs can you picture in the city? Not many indeed, because Tim Horton's has done its homework and knows the drive-throughs are for the car communities which are outside the city. What's in the city? Shops and services you can walk up to. That's why, at Yonge and Eglinton, I know of four Starbuck's locations within a few minutes walking distance of each other. The city is built for walking (getting exercise, having convenient access to a plethora of services, not being forced to drive a car to get anywhere, and thus polluting less and creating less traffic).

And, yes, public transit needs to play a role, but it's got to be reasonable. We live in a climate that has a winter. Human beings should be allowed a shred of dignity, and standing room only as though riding in a cattle car, after a long days' work, is hardly the recipe for quality of living that support a person coming home for a pleasant evening, or getting in to work in the morning ready to put good effort into productivity. Standing in the cold for 30, 40, 50 minutes waiting for a bus in the dead of winter is absurd. This pushes people to scrape together what they can to spend money on a car. It's just not practical to have to depend on public transit anywhere north of Eglinton, west of Bathurst, or east of the DVP (except for neighbourhoods along the subway lines. As I said, I enjoyed living in the Junction).

Here's a typical example of the stark failure of our transit system to keep up with what other cities are doing. I was in Boston a few years ago, and their subway extends beyond their city limits (hello, Finch Stn short of Steeles and Kennedy Stn light years away from the Rouge). At one of the outlaying stations, there was a parking lot: It was five (5) elevated levels of covered parking, which included spaces with outlets for electric vehicles to plug in - this was ten years ago. Five levels, welcoming suburbanites to park their vehicles in winter and come back after work to find them unburied in snow. Five levels, ensuring parking was not a country mile walk into the station, but a short walk and an elevator ride down.

Have you seen the single level, outdoor, uncovered parking lot at Finch Station or at Kennedy Station? In summertime, it can be a 5-10 minute walk (depending on your level of health/fitness) just to get to the station. And in winter, when its capacity is a 3rd less because spots are lost to mountains of plowed snow? How do we say "park your cars and take the TTC?" with this? (Oh, and pay for it now, even if you already sprung for a Metropass). After a long day's work, you get to the station, in darkness, only to find your car completely covered in snow you now must brush off. Day after day, that adds up to wasted time, frustration, stress, lowered quality of life, and that affects personal lives and productivity in the workplace. The costs add up exponentially. 

Boston is a city of 600,000, and Boston Transit has over 43,000 parking spaces . TTC? 13,718 spaces to serve 2.5 million people. We do not stack up. Boston's land area covers approximately 232 square miles, roughly the same as Toronto's 243 square miles. Boston has over 400 miles of rail tracks in its system. Toronto? 43. Boston has some 119 stations to Toronto's 69. Boston has 8 rail lines to Toronto's 3 (well, two, honestly. Does anyone take the Sheppard subway seriously? Does anyone take the Sheppard subway at all? Maybe we might have, had it been built out to the Zoo as it should have been, but I digress).

I'll conclude by revisiting Councillor Perks' comments. He also had apparently mentioned that "congestion is a measure of success." I can appreciate the effort to spin the matter as a positive. Yes, the glass is half full. But, consider this - the busiest highway in North America is not in the Boston-New York City-Washington/Baltimore corridor, serving over 20 million people. It's not even in the Los Angeles, and they have no subway. Nope, the busiest highway in North American is the 401. Why is that? It certainly isn't because it serves more people. It is simply because we do not have enough roads to distribute the burden. Manhattan is an island with two limited access highways on it (FDR Drive on the east side, and the Henry Hudson Parkway on the west side, from mid-town up the upper west side). This is in addition to one way streets lining the island offering up to six lanes for traffic to move.

Toronto, as I will demonstrate in that writing project I mentioned previously, is woefully under-served by our roads, which results in, per capita, more use per each road, accelerated road damage, escalating maintenance costs in pure dollars as well as per capita, as more and more middle-class families are taxed out of the city for the 905.
And, lest anyone bother to attempt to foist the argument that "NYC has roads, but we in Toronto have transit," please be advised that, in addition to the road system New York offers, their transit also offers its 8 million citizens subway access throughout all five boroughs through over 400 subway stations and 24 rail lines running on over 600 miles of track. Toronto has 69 stations connecting to three rail lines serving 3 millions citizens on 43 miles of track. Do the math - pound for pound, we do not stack up.

I would suggest, quite on the contrary with all due respect, that Toronto congestion is a reflection of incredible, abject, dismal and deplorable failure, and it’s costing us billions. The Jedi mind trick is not good enough. Telling people "we're fine" when we're not is unacceptable.

The most frustrating thing about all this is, there are solutions, there are workable ideas that can reverse the high taxation, rampant development sprawl and for-profit-oriented planning, and increased per capita living costs that are ruining Toronto.


z said...

You are either uneducated or are being dishonest about your numbers here.

The Boston rail network of 400 mi includes the Green Line (Streetcar LRT) and the Commuter Rail (Like GO Transit), and you compare it to Toronto by only including Toronto's subway? Who are you trying to fool?

In Toronto, more than 95% of transit riders do NOT park-and-ride, yet we have no problem filling our trains to capacity. We need more trains, and capacity, especially on GO transit, before we need another parking spot built, that's for certain.

D said...

Well, it's gotta be uneducated, but only because it's not easy to interpret from the various transit authorities' comparative statistics.

I would invite you to offer any fair apples to apples comparison of how much bang for our buck we are getting vs other authorities, from a "city transit" perspective. For example, the cost of a Metropass and how much rail is accessible by it vs the cost of a monthly pass in any subway transit city and how much rail is available there?

I'd also suggest that adding train capacity without increasing parking will not get people out of their cars. Yes, 95% of transit riders do not park and ride, but more would if it was practical, which it isn't with our lack of parking. Have you ever driven to a lot, wound your way around in it until you were positive it was full, and then had to decide find out where the next nearest parking lot was? At some point you have to decide "try to find a spot or just drive in to the office..." It's ridiculous.

And finally, even if Boston's rail network includes a regional equivalent to our Go Transit, we STILL don't have anywhere near the parking capacity they do, Go Transit includes. As such, we are still not doing much to encourage people to park their cars and ride public transit.

z said...

Personally, I wish the TTC would get out of the parking business entirely. Their success should not be measured in number of parking spots. They're a transit system, not a parking lot operator.

Having said that, there is currently a parking expansion happening at 12 GO Stations, with 6 of them getting multi-level structures.

D said...

Try and understand the demographics. People who live in 905 yet still work in the city will leave their homes in the morning in a car. The question is whether they will drive all the way to work, or park and ride. To ease congestion, we've got to make it easier for them to park and ride. If TTC makes it easier to decide to park and ride, they will drive less, pollute less, congest less, raise ridership, raise transit revenues.

What in the world is wrong with that?

And as for Go, I hope that through Metrolinx we finally have a merge of Go and TTC so that the system is one and riders can transfer from one to the other seamlessly - that would thus allow our "rail system" to be inclusive and begin to hint at an approximation of the rail service offered by other transit systems for one fare.

z said...

Oh, absolutely those people should be able to park their cars at a subway station, but I can't think of a single reason why TTC (an agency funded by The City of Toronto) should be subsidizing and running those parking lots, which are used by people from outside the city.

We should let any number of private companies buy land near a subway, and build 20 story tall parking garages (if they wish), and let them compete with each other for best value and convenience to attract parkers.

D said...

"An agency funded by the city of Toronto"

- the city of Toronto runs the Green P parking lots. Why not build them in conjunction with subway stations?

- TTC also gets funds from the province, and rightly should. So those folks who live outside Toronto but are commuting into Toronto are still contributing, such as it is.

Leaving it to private enterprise is not the worst idea in the world, but private enterprise would be operating with different priorities that could create a conflict with patrons caught in the middle.

But it's not impossible. A restaurant wants patrons, but doesn't have to own parking lots nearby. I get that. I just think that, for a transit system, making it easier to get out of the car on the way to work and get into the car on the way home supports the most fundamental measure of a transit's penetration - ridership. As long as we see congestion an increasing problem, then what we're seeing is public transit not keeping up with transit demands. We want less cars on the road and more people using transit - investing in parking lots cultivate demand.

DA said...

Toronto commuting worst of 19 major cities


The report mentions a number of key indicators of how poorly this city functions. It's worth an article at some point, but connecting the info to this post and the ensuing comment conversation is worthwhile even if just to note that 29% of Torontonians leave their vehicle for other modes of transit vs 74% in Paris and 90% in Hong Kong which, together with Toronto's low performance in attracting investment, productivity and productivity growth, demonstrates the cluelessness of any politician who dismisses congestion as a non-issue.