Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for July 31st, 2007

The TTC’s Past, Transit’s Future

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This is a really worthwhile article which looks at the history of the TTC to show how it arrived at the mess it is now in.

The TTC used to pay its own way – indeed the accumulated profits from the second world war paid for the first subway line. The financial rot started when Toronto was expanded to absorb the suburbs. Designed for cars, the transit routes there have always been money losers.

The contract to European and older North American cities is stark. The suburbs started to emerge with the electrification of the streetcars and the railways. This allowed the middle classes to travel much further in the same time. In London, the construction of the major London railway termini in the late nineteenth century, resulted in the destruction of the “rookeries” – huge multistorey slums where thousands of people lived close to their work in the City. The Great Eastern (the same company who later built what became BCRail), as part of the deal to pull down “The Jago”, an area to the east of Liverpool Street, was required to offer “workmen’s fares” on early morning trains to allow the displaced workers to move out to places like Hackney and Walthamstow.

The first underground railways in London lost money – especially the massively expensive deep level “tubes”. They were simply not long enough. The fare revenue was inadequate for the short trips being made to pay off their massive debts incurred by construction. What saved them was either building, or taking over, surface lines into what was then farm land which had provided fodder for the huge number of horses that had provided the motive power before the mechanisation of transport. In the general decline of agriculture in the interwar period, this land was incredibly cheap. Huge numbers of houses were thrown up quickly by companies set up to buy land and resell it as building lots to small builders. These companies were often owned by the same people who had invested in the railways. Not only were the transactions that converted agricultural land highly profitable, but they also provided a captive market of commuters, whose season tickets transformed the revenue profile of the Underground group of companies. It was an American entrepreneur who had pulled off the same trick in Chicago (and had been run out of town on a rail) that first saw the opportunity – Charles Tyson Yerkes.

The interwar houses did not, at first, have garages. And even when the commuters first started acquiring cars, they stayed parked for much of the week, and were mainly used for jaunts at weekends and holidays – because petrol has always been very expensive.

What has changed is that workplaces are no longer concentrated in the centre of cities. The pattern has become much more diffuse, which makes economic operation of mass transit much more difficult. And the density and layout of postwar development has been inimical to walking to the bus stop – let alone a train station. Suburbs are designed to keep out the through traffic (in cars) but the walkers and cyclists need straighter, shorter routes. Look at any field pattern and you will see that no matter how they are laid out, the people make their own paths – and they are nearly always (other things being equal) direct, straight lines.

Transit, under these circumstances, is not going to pay its way. And its quality of service will always be poorer than the single occupant car. So we have to find ways to make it work better, and make cars less attractive. That is called traffic management and it has been around for many years but is treated with deep suspicion here by engineers and city fathers alike. It means reallocating the most precious resource we have – street space – to people not cars. When you put people movement – passengers per hour per direction – into the formula instead of vehicles, streets begin to work much better and also start to look a lot more civilised. But is also means you can increase transit capacity incrementally, and economically, rather than blowing your entire wad on an underground railway line which then underperforms for years. Just like the Bloor and Sheppard subways in Toronto, and the Bakerloo and Central Lines in London and, yes, I am going to write a prediction, the Canada Line in Vancouver.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 31, 2007 at 8:02 pm

Follow up on free fares

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The Tyee

The Tyee publishes its summary of the responses to the Dave Olsen series. It pretty much repeats what I wrote here two weeks ago.  In general it has not worked well in larger cities that have tried it, and it is not appropriate for Vancouver which is both over loaded and strapped for cash, and unable to get its hands on other revenue sources.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 31, 2007 at 10:00 am

Posted in Economics, transit