Stephen Rees's blog

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

Transit City full speed ahead

with 15 comments

I will probably not make myself popular with the sort of people who like to hate Toronto. But the fact is that they have made a much better decision about how to expand their transit system than we have. And the Toronto Star is now reporting that seven new light rail transit lines are planned with work starting on the first this fall.

As has been discussed endlessly on this blog you get a lot more transit system for your dollars when you decide to go with at grade low cost LRT. And the impact on traffic that we seem to be so scared of is actually beneficial. Road space taken from cars and used by transit is a much more efficiently used for people moving. No, drivers do not like it and will make fuss – but they are a special interest group. Their case is made from the point of view of what is good for a few individuals not what is good for society.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 4, 2009 at 6:10 pm

Posted in transit

15 Responses

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  1. As a Toronto ex-pat and transport engineering professional, I am well aware of the issues of public and institutional perception when it comes to picking transit modes (we’ve pretty much had them all, including ‘Sky-Train’ of sorts). Personally, I see an extremely high level of potential for Light Rail technology in Vancouver, probably even more potential than exists in Toronto (which is saying something).
    -Vancouver’s climate is well-suited to the technology as roadbeds are generally much easier to maintain here with sustained sub-zero temperatures largely absent
    -Also lack of major snow-ploughing requirements
    -The generally wide, suburban-style roads of this city leave much room for higher-order transit without unreasonably jeopardising other modes (this has been a big issue that Toronto has been able to overcome, so why not here?)
    -There is potential for off-street running in a number of locations, significantly increasing speed potential while allowing for street-centre running where necessary/desirable
    -Believe me there are others, alas I’m out of time…

    The View from Toronto

    March 4, 2009 at 7:31 pm

  2. Torontonians are hardly tickled pink by T/C. For starters, the last time the TTC was going on about “LRT” we got the St. Clair boondoggle. Before that? The Spadina LRT, which somehow became slower than the bus it replaced. There is the worry that we will just 120km of glorified streetcars along routes that buses serve quite adequately, if not better than LRT.

    Meanwhile, just about the entire transit community has been arguing for a new downtown subway to ease overcrowding. This has basically been ignored in favor of completely illogical LRTs into “priority neighborhoods.”


    March 4, 2009 at 8:47 pm

  3. From what I’ve read there is much public opposition to T/C. I think the existing TTC streetcars are mostly to blame. What I don’t know because I’ve only visited the city once is whether they’ve made any attempts at priority signaling for the trains. If they’re not being treated as priority vehicles and are stuck in traffic then streetcars are simply large buses that can’t change lanes to avoid problems.

    Trams, like all LRT vehicles, have to be treated properly or they can’t be fast or efficient.

    I’m rooting for T/C because if it’s done well it can be a blueprint for Vancouver. If T/C is done poorly it will guarantee that Vancouver has to wait another generation for sensible, affordable transit.


    March 4, 2009 at 11:17 pm

  4. The difference between a streetcar or tram and LRT is the quality of rights-of-way it uses.

    Streetcars/trams, operate mainly on street, with little or no signal priority at intersections. A streetcar/tram becomes LRT, when it operates on a ‘reserved rights-of-way’ or a route that is reserved for the tram. Combined with signal priority, the ‘reserved rights-of-way’ has enabled modern LRT to operate almost as fast as a metro and achieve capacities similar to light-metro (SkyTrain), making the more expensive light-metro almost obsolete.

    What I see in Toronto is many people are thinking that the LRT is just renamed streetcars, which I do not think they are but real LRT or streetcars/trams operating on reserved rights-of-ways, with signal priority at intersections.

    The last figures for subway construction in Toronto was over $160 million/km. and that was at least 5 years ago. Even if LRT cost $40 million/km. ($5 million over the North American average cost for new light-rail projects), the TTC could have 4 times the LRT per unit cost of a subway: 10 km. of new subway could fund 40 km. of LRT and if LRT was built cheaper, then more of it could be built.

    Also please note that Montreal is also jumping onto the light rail bandwagon with two new LRT lines.

    Malcolm J.

    March 4, 2009 at 11:36 pm

  5. If there is one thing that Malcolm knows very well, it is LRT. In 1995 I made a special trip to Strasbourg just to look at their -then revolutionary-LRT. The first thing that I noticed was its aerodynamic shape with huge windows, the second was the low dividers that separated the tracks from the other vehicles and the 3rd that the traffic lights turned to green as the LRT approached them. This was 13 years ago and one would think that it was long enough ago for transit experts in Toronto (Vancouver?) to learn something? Another point, demonstrated in every single town that has LRT, is that people prefer them to the buses by a wide margin because their ride is so much smoother than buses and they carry more passengers that articulated buses. Paris is extending its 4 LRT lines and 6 brand new lines are planed. As for price.. both the Jubilees line extension in London and the line 14 in Paris, both with high ceiling stations and safety platform doors separating the platform from the tracks (line 14 is totally automated) were said to cost $ Can. 250 millions PER KM. in 1999.

    Red frog

    March 5, 2009 at 1:02 am

  6. Malcoln J is correct. Toronto does not have real LRT yet. The TTC made the big mistake of selling the original Harbourfront streetcar as “LRT”, when in fact, it was simply a streetcar on a raised ROW. The St. Clair ROW debacle is more of an issue of terrible planning, and schedule conflicts with Toronto Hydro, who is also doing work on St. Clair. The project should have been done long ago. The completed section is quicker, and a much better ride.
    Contrary, to what Wil is saying, people are looking forward to Transit City. Some of the bus routes that TC will upgrade are the busiest, and most congested in the network. He is correct about the Downtown Radial Subway line, however no one is saying that it should be built before TC, especially since there hasn’t been any recent planning for the line, and Transit City is pretty much ready to go, once funding is secure. We need both TC, and the new radial line here.

    Justin Bernard

    March 5, 2009 at 5:36 am

  7. Strasbourg’s Euro trams were revolutionary, not only were they low-floor (350 mm above the rail), they were modular and could be built in various sizes, with smaller versions easily up-sized by adding a module. If their was a problem with the tram, the unhappy module could be taken out, keeping the tram in service, while affected module repaired.

    Strasbourg’s “Jumbo’s” have a capacity 350 persons! So what does Bombardier do when they bought the company – stop production and favour their somewhat inferior product!

    Malcolm J.

    March 5, 2009 at 6:17 am

  8. Toronto more or less proves that reserved ROWs don’t do much for travel speed. Both projects in recent memory, Spadina & St. Clair LRTs (both w/ reserved ROWs), have seen travel times either stay static or decline marginally. Not to mention the decreased reliability of having one broken down streetcar congesting the entire line.

    Transit staff are reluctant to implement real signal priority, and for understandable reasons. If it was implemented on a route like Spadina, it would disturb the King, Queen, Dundas & Carlton trams. If you started applying it to major arterials in the ‘burbs, like Finch or Don Mills, you would just screw all the roads that cross them. It works in some settings, like Calgary, because the LRVs run on near GO train frequencies. If you have trams popping up every 2 minutes though, as some busses run, there is no way you can ensure a reliable priority system. Europe is also not a good example. They don’t have a grid road system, so very few roads tend to bisect a given route and the network as a whole is less interconnected.

    LRT being relatively cheap to subway isn’t a meaningful argument, either. This is the same argument Wendell Cox types use to discredit public transit in general. “For one km of LRT, you could give out 3000 Priuses to low income residents.” Its bum logic. For one km of LRT, Toronto could add 70 new buses to it’s roster. That would give MUCH more coverage, technically speaking.

    Thats not the point though, ridership growth is. In one case, building a 750m dollar line along Jane Street will only see ridership increase by 12k people a day to 52k people/day (i.e. bus territory), by 2021!


    March 5, 2009 at 8:18 am

  9. Toronto is not proof that Reserved ROW’s do not work.
    The St. Clair ROW has in fact decreased the travel time between St. Clair West, and St. Clair Stations.

    The argument against signal priority on the downtown lines cannot be applied to Transit City. On Transit City lines, only the major intersection will be signalized, and with LRV’s arriving every 4-5 minutes, there is little chance that there will be conflict. Also, the stops will be far side stops, with little chance of trains being held up.

    LRT IS a cheaper alternative where subway is not justified, and buses have reached the maximum capacity in the corridor.
    Wil, where are you going put the 70 buses, when that road is already crowded with cars, and buses running on a 1 minute frequency? That 12k increase is on a street, that probably will be able to handle that increase in bus traffic. A 12k increase sounds like a lot of buses to me.

    Justin Bernard

    March 5, 2009 at 8:47 am

  10. I understand that one reason for slower service on ‘Spadina’ is due to the number of stops for passengers. In Europe, trams stop every 400 to 600 metres, but in Toronto there are more stops per km. More stops = slower service.

    Wendell Cox’s, America’s favorite anti-LRT hired gun, diatribes have been largely discounted.

    Don’t forget, if one accepts Wendell Cox’s anti-rail, pro highway stance, then one must discount SkyTrain as well!

    Buying new buses doesn’t equate into ridership, as buses are notoriously bad in attracting new ridership. I know the bus lobby grind their teeth on that, but if this were not so, then there would be little market for light-rail.

    Even the tram-like GLT and guided-bus have been poor in attracting new ridership, including the all important motorist from the car. Adelaide and Essen are cases in point.

    I do not know what all the fuss is about signal priority because most of our arterial roads in Metro Vancouver have signal priority (note the inductive loops at stop-lights), the real question is drivers obeying stop signals and why government is afraid to tackle that issue!

    Malcolm J.

    March 5, 2009 at 9:25 am

  11. All interesting points. Just a couple of responses:
    -The issue of a stopped tram blocking the line is valid, but we must remember that this is the case for ANY rail-based transport mode, be it subway, heavy rail, or skytrain. The infrequent nature of such breakdowns on a modern system makes this issue largely moot.
    -Let us be clear: as far as an engineer’s perspective goes, Toronto does not currently have Light Rail Transit, it has streetcars, some of which are on exclusive rights-of-way. The reason that the present system is not indicative of LRT’s potential is the lack of signal priority, the extremely close spacing of stops, and, importantly, the relatively small uni-directional vehicles operating (mostly) with single-door loading on very short headways. Most of these issues relate to Toronto’s legacy streetcar fleet/network’s constraints, and frankly poor route design on the part of the TTC. All indications are that Transit City will improve of most, if not all, of these deficiencies.
    -LRT is not right for every route, but it must be seriously considered when looking to expand rapid transit. The three main things that LRT has going for it are its cost relative to other modes of similar capacity, its potential for lower operating costs (when large vehicles are used on longer headways, unlike Toronto), and its flexibility to operate in everything from mixed traffic to reserved lanes to completely separate rights-of-way (in which case it is essentially as good as SkyTrain technology).
    Buses are an absolutely crucial part of any serious transit network, but every technology has its limits. A bus can only be so long before it becomes unwieldy, and at that point the only way to increase capacity is to add more buses, which brings in huge operating costs by way of need for more drivers. Similarly, LRT has its downfalls. Any properly trained engineer needs to examine all options and make mode decisions based on a rational decision-making model. If it disappoints some people that occasionally their least-favourite mode comes out on top, well that’s life isn’t it?

    The View from Toronto

    March 5, 2009 at 10:40 am

  12. An effective transit system needs a mixture of local services with closely spaced stops and faster regional services with wider spaced stops. Ideally you have a local bus on every arterial stopping every 150-200 m, LRT stopping every 600-800m in high density areas half as often in lower density areas, and high speed rail that only stops once per municipality.

    Metro Vancouver doesn’t have any of the above.

    In the ‘burbs our bus system is merely a patchwork and in the city itself there are some streets with too many bus stops placed too close together.

    In place of high capacity trams we have B-Line buses that carry a fraction of the number of passengers per driver as LRT.

    In place of an integrated LRT system that operates on street where it makes sense and on a dedicated RoW the rest of the time we have the aforementioned B-Line buses and SkyTrain that only carries a heavy passenger load because the entire bus system is set up to feed it. People are forced to transfer from bus to bus or bus to rail.

    The WCE is far too limited to be considered interurban rail. It doesn’t operate throughout the day or even in both directions. It could be classed as a high speed commuter service, but it operates at half the speed of Ontario GO trains using the same engines and carriages.

    Now we’re being told that we need yet another inefficient type of transit: Rapid Bus. Bus means low capacity and high labour cost per passenger. Rapid means a dedicated RoW, very few stops, or both. A dedicated RoW is much better used by rail than bus because it moves so many more people in the same amount of space with lower labour costs. Very few stops means it has to be fed by another system. Using one bus to feed another quite frankly makes no sense.

    I was born here and have traveled in the UK, continental Europe and East Asia. I liked Vancouver before it was a “world class city”, but even then blacktop politics ruled. I hope I live long enough to see the blacktop-first mentality disappear, but I’m not holding my breath.


    March 5, 2009 at 2:12 pm

  13. Regardings WCE speeds, this was posted by DKaz on Jan 29th , 2009 on the SSP forum:

    I was playing around with my GPS dongle and my laptop on the West Coast Express today…

    Leaving Mission Station, the train slowly (and I mean slooooooowly) accelerates to 115km/h, holds steady until it slows down to around 80km/h through Ruskin for a bit (speed restriction) then speeds back up to 115km/h, getting to 120km/h a few times, before slowing down to 80km/h around where the Haney By-Pass begins until it gets to Port Haney.

    Through to Pitt Meadows the train doesn’t really go over 85km/h much, but after Pitt Meadows it reaches 95km/h before slowing to 40km/h to cross Pitt River. It gets back up to 80km/h until Port Coquitlam, and cruises at that speed to Coquitlam as well. The train hits about 85km/h to Port Moody, then beyond Port Moody as follows…

    60km/h to where it turns up parallel to Burnaby Mountain, 70-75km/h to around Boundary, 60km/h through to Clark, 50km/h the rest of the way to Waterfront except 40km/h where the train travels up against Powell (like around the Chevron Gas Station). The train takes about 9 minutes to get from the Vancouver/Burnaby border to Waterfront Station so I really don’t think the speed of the Burrard Inlet (or lack thereof) is an issue. It makes sense, it’s only 7.2 km @ an average speed of 50km/h with absolutely no stops.

    I’m going to play with some GPS graphing software to create a line graph of speed vs. time, speed vs. distance, distance vs. time. I’d love to do the same thing with Skytrain as well.

    Ron C.

    March 5, 2009 at 2:42 pm

  14. Thanks for the accurate info Ron. I was told the GO trains run at speeds up to 130km/h and that WCE never gets above 80. Clearly my source only rides the section west of the Pitt River.


    March 5, 2009 at 5:33 pm

  15. I cant wait for the Seattle LRT to start running, sometimes in the late summer I think. As most of you likely know it will run in the famous Downtown Seattle transit tunnel, then at grade–including near Safeco Field– and finally on an elevated section towards the airport. Pretty much what was planned for the Evergreen line yet we were told that it was a bad idea. I am not too crazy about part of the route (it could have run right much closer to the stadium instead of making the spectators walk several blocks East) and I hope that it is a real success, if only to rub the nose of our Minister of roads and misinformation in the mud. Interesting isn’t it that quite a few USA towns have LRT yet it is not good enough for Vancouver. Sound Transit will also roll out their transit smart card at the same time, another feature we will have to take a very close look at. And yes I know that they spent way too much money compared to other LRT around the world but that’s another story..

    Red frog

    March 6, 2009 at 12:57 am

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