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

The Ford Factor

with 12 comments

The idea of posting this has been simmering in my mind all day. It started when I saw an op ed piece in today’s Globe – and this infographic which is somewhat older.

In an end-of-year interview, Mayor Rob Ford made it clear that his transit priority is extending the Sheppard subway line. It’s not a crazy idea. The question is whether it represents the best bang for the transit buck.

Given the amount of discussion here on a similar issue – the next rapid transit extension in this region and the choice of technology – I think this is a good comparison. Marcus Gee also makes the main point.

Subways are faster, carry more people and don’t interfere with traffic. [emphasis added]

The reason Ford wants subways, not surface LRT, is that it keeps the the transit away from the cars. Ford thinks that the existing streetcar system is the cause of congestion in Toronto.

What he doesn’t want to consider is that people in cars waste huge amounts of resources to get where they want to go: perhaps the most significant from the point of view of this debate is street space at peak periods. The most that a ~3m wide strip of road  (i.e. one lane) can move is 1,000 vehicles per hour (2,000 if its a freeway: it’s the intersections that cause the difference). At average 1.3 persons per vehicle occupancy that means 1,300 persons per hour per direction. Rapid transit can easily move ten times that number without any grade separation. And at the sort of densities that most North American urban regions are built to, that’s plenty for most applications. And far more than are currently being moved on the Sheppard subway.

It is also important to note that rapid transit is only part of the issue. It is more important that we build urban areas to reduce the need for motorised transportation. The Transit City plan was part of a much bigger idea – that land use density along transit corridors should be increased. This would have been a major change in Toronto. After the Yonge Street line was built, with towers popping up near the stations, the Bloor Street line only got built once the neighbourhoood activists were satisfied that no land use change would be permitted along the line. Again, almost the same outcome as seen in east Vancouver along the Expo line with the one exception of Joyce-Collingwood. “Denser development” did not mean high rises at widely spaced stations, but mid rise (four storeys or so) along the arterials – as we already see on parts of Broadway – and even 4th Avenue. This kind of area also means mixed land use (retail underneath apartments for instance) and produces a lot more walk and cycle trips.

Which brings me to the other reason I decided to get into this. Gordon Price on his blog takes a fair swing at Don Cherry

a sports jock in a florid pink jacket is the star of a mayoral inauguration in Canada’s largest city.

Thanks to Don Cherry’s boisterous performance, there’s now a new standard of civility at Toronto City Hall.

“I’m wearing pinko for all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles and everything.”

Why do some sports jocks hate cyclists?

Cherry’s bon mots not only branded the Rob Ford mayoralty but also doubtless gave licence to radio-ranters across this land looking to source civic politics for some testosterone-filled rhetoric. Sports talk is one of the permitted places in Canadian media where Fox-style hyperbole plays well. Since American role models from Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have refined the scripts on how to fight the culture wars (first, target something vulnerable – oh look, cyclists), these dudes are ready for their cue. The Cherry performance brought trash talk into city hall as the new rhetoric.

Characterizing an entire community as left-wing kooks polarizes the debate Fox-style.

The old left – right paradigm in politics is increasingly irrelevant. What matters now is the difference between the ‘business as usual’ crowd (which includes the large union dominated NDP as well as the business friendly parties) and those who see the need for our civilization to change direction, avoid imminent collapse, and start thinking about how to survive on a rapidly heating planet. We are past peak oil which means not only that we cannot afford to operate internal combustion engined vehicles for every trip, we will also have huge challenges in building replacement technologies. Even if switching to electric cars could be considered, we do not have the resources available to achieve that. Nor would it resolve any of the problems we are now facing. The choice of rapid transit technology is not just one of cost – though that ought to register even in a mind as befuddled as Ford’s. It is also very much about what sort of planet we can hope to inhabit in the future.

What worries me is that we keep on voting for people like Ford – and cheering on Don Cherry.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 23, 2010 at 6:16 pm

12 Responses

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  1. […] would like to recommend this blog post by local transit expert Stephen Rees. While not it’s main point, it does contain an insight […]

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stephen Rees, James Gemmill. James Gemmill said: On subways, streetcars, cyclists, urban design and Don Cherry: The Ford Factor « Stephen Rees's blog […]

  3. The problem for Ford is that it will take years, if not decades to replan for a new subway line and then there is the question about funding, who will pay and how it will be paid for. In Toronto, subway construction is around $250 million/km.

    On the question of congestion, take away the streetcars and Ford will have massive congestion, in fact gridlock as all those former tram users will reject the bus and return to their cars.

    The one positive thing about Ford is that voters in Toronto will think very hard who they will vote for in the next election. Ford’s election may also start a public push to fragment Metro Toronto, where the regional taxpayer is seen nothing more than a tax “milch-cow” to fund urban Toronto’s very expensive subway planning. The same sort of thing is now happening with Translink and Metro Vancouver.

    Contrary to the glib remarks made by Mr. Gee about Toronto’s LRT planning, much time, study and effort was put into the planning. This is not a debate about technology, but about what was best and most affordable way to move people in the city.

    As one Toronto commentator said to me in an email; “either we build LRT today to help ease tomorrow’s transit problems or plan for subways that will never be built.

    I think that is Mr. Fords goal, return the car as the main transit mode in Toronto……oh yes, gas was reported at $1.19 a litre today in Toronto!


    December 24, 2010 at 11:10 am

  4. In October, the price of a barrel of oil was around $81. Christmas time, it had gone up to $91 (London closed on Christmas Eave at $93). Economists say that triple digit oil will come in 2011, maybe reaching $149 by the end of 2011.

    Rob Ford, and his clique, seem to disregard all the warnings and seem to living in the 1950’s and 1960’s, where the car was the way of the future. He ignores the logic and continues to say that “war on the car is over”, when the path to the future is elsewhere.

    W. K. Lis

    December 24, 2010 at 11:21 am

  5. “Ford’s election may also start a public push to fragment Metro Toronto, where the regional taxpayer is seen nothing more than a tax “milch-cow” to fund urban Toronto’s very expensive subway planning.”

    Zwei, you are again taking your wish for a reality Santa Claus has not delivered to you.

    check a Toronto map, and see where Ford plans to build subways (and scrap streetcar) and check which wards has voted for him.

    …and concerning the Sheppard subway alignment vs LRT one (LRT planning):
    The reality is that the subway alignment is the one in the card for ages because it connects two important suburban centers (like could be Richmond and Surrey in metroVancouver), where the LRT alignment is mostly chosen due to constraint imposed by the technology…and
    doesn’t improve at all the connection between the suburban cores.
    It could make sense, but it is a departure of what people in the burbs has been long promised, and wrong or right they see little benefit to it, and that was eventually already expressed in this study : where you would like check the line “Qualitative User Benefit” what eventually the voter intimately and selfishly will consider first.


    December 26, 2010 at 7:58 pm

  6. Voony: You seem to assume people voted for Ford, because of Transit City. The election was NOT a referendum on transit. Ford ran a simple but effective campaign, and told voters what they wantd to hear.

    You, like the pro-subway folks here in Toronto seem to think Scarborough Centre is some important suburban growth node, that requires a subway. That cannot be further from the truth. Scarborough Centre is a mall, with some government offices, and a few condo towers. The majority of riders travel to SCC to transfer to other destinations.

    What made Transit City such an effective plan is that it will connect many major suburban neighbourhoods in Toronto, and not just two growth nodes with a much more expensive subway that projections show will be underused. Not only that, the planned LRT lines will replace heavily patronized buss line that are at capacity.

    Why is one subway line between 2 nodes better than a LRT network that connects many neighbourhoods? I never figured I would have to say this to someone from BC, but Scarborough, and North York are not the centre of the Toronto universe. The Sheppard Stubway is proof, the ridership is not there. To cancel a fully funded plan to build a subway that is much more expensive, and serves less residents is poor planning, and reeks of bull-headed ideology.

    Zwei is 100% correct, it’s not about technology. Toronto does not need subways in the suburbs. We need to replace bus routes that are nearing, or beyond capacity, and we need to connect neighborhoods. One subway will not achieve that. A LRT network will achieve much more effectively than one subway line in Scarborough.

    Justin Bernard

    December 27, 2010 at 3:39 pm

  7. Justin, I am not sure you get my point.

    I am not arguing for or against the TransitCity Plan, I just give some rational explaining why people from the suburb would like “stop the gravy train”.

    And regarding your question “Why is one subway line between 2 nodes better than a LRT network that connects many neighbourhoods?” It is exactly the paradigm Vancouver is facing, with on one side the P. Condon followers explaining that with the price of a single skytrain line, like the Evergreen Line, you could crisscross the whole region with streetcars “connecting neighbourhood”. So certainly like Vancouver prove, but other cities too, there is room for debate or argumentation on the topic.

    Now, I appreciate you mention that Zwei is 100% Correct when he states that Ford want built subway in “urban core” when your yourself you mention it want built it in Suburbs…I must admit I am a bit puzzled by this alliance…and if technology has nothing to do with alignment, why the Sheppard alignment with LRT is different than the one with subway (notice the map introducing this post is not for Ford, but was the TTC one up to 2003)?


    December 27, 2010 at 10:15 pm

  8. Nobody wants to look like an idiot for digging a subway to handle traffic volumes that a simple bus could so rather than admit they made a mistake they attempt to hide the problem by pushing more people onto it. Extending the subway would guarantee more passengers on the existing portion making it look less like a white elephant. At the same time the existing Sheppard ridership could be added to the new passengers to make the extension look like a decent return on investment. It’s all smoke and mirrors though.

    Converting bus passengers to rail doesn’t count unless the cost of moving them on the new system is significantly lower than moving them by bus: a near mathematical impossibility for a subway. LRT on Sheppard could potentially lower the cost of delivery while simultaneously attracting new transit passengers and improving service for the existing passengers (lower crowding, smoother ride, lower travel times).

    At one point it was suggested that Sheppard LRT take over the subway tunnels in order that the entire trip be completed by a single vehicle. Somehow that idea got shot down despite ample evidence that reducing transfers can greatly boost ridership.


    December 28, 2010 at 12:02 am

  9. Voony: You’re mixing up what happened here in Toronto, The “Gravy Train” had nothing to do with Transit City or the legacy streetcar network. Ford coined the term to described councilor’s spending budgets, and he vowed to reduce the spending.
    Ford won the suburban vote because he was able to conbvey the message that the suburbs were ignored by the previous administration.

    What we are facing here, is nothing like what Vancouver is facing. 4 lines of Transit City are fully funded, and ready to go. 1 line is already under construction, and another is going through preliminary engineering design. Contracts for the TBMs for the Eglinton Tunnel are signed, and the contracts for the vehicles are signed. Canceling signed contracts will incur hundreds of millions in cancellation fees, all to build one subway line that will serve much less people than four fully funded LRT lines. Ford went as far to say he will put everything else on hold to build this subway extension. In fact, the line will have LESS stations than planned, and will not even connect to the GO Transit commuter rail line it will pass under. It’s pretty hard to debate canceling contracts and incurring massive fees, just to build one subway extension with no regional connections.

    I think we have to ask is, why Ford thinks there is a “gravy train” at City Hall, yet seems hell-bent on cancelling projects the city is not even paying for, and is willing to stop all other projects just to build one subway extension.

    I was referring to Zwei’s comment on technology, and how it is important to determine the best and affordable way to move people in a city. If Ford gets his way, he is going curtail transit expansion in this city to build a subway line in an area that is mostly single family homes, with large driveways, and cul-de-sacs!

    Justin Bernard

    December 28, 2010 at 6:33 am

  10. It’s regrettable that some commentators on this blog, see the need to attack the man rather than the ball. The issues at stake are politicians arrogance, their dogmatic interpretation of what electors actually voted for and the future for our cities – residents, visitors, businesses, traders and commuters alike; not the individual or preferred public transport mode.
    David & Justin have grasped the issue, others have not and would prefer to continue the futile mêlée that has bedevilled the transit debate in BC for a decade or so.
    The issue that has to be addressed is; can we continue to allow the private car unrestricted access to town & city centres and if not how can people be persuded to use alternative modes (plural)


    December 28, 2010 at 11:36 am

  11. I find it a little dishearting to read the replies to Vooney`s post. My reading of his post suggests a raising of questions rather than a defense of Ford`s subway (or anti-transit plan). I have been `lurking` on a few transit blogs and find he often raises interesting (and often difficult) questions. B.J. Mann you should actually go to Vooney`s blog, he has an interesting post on bridge/congestionpricing.



    December 29, 2010 at 7:18 am

  12. If there ever was a war declared on the car in North America, the car won. Look at any metric: public subsidy, urban real estate, political donations, public health, environment….

    The car was and still is king.


    January 21, 2011 at 10:50 am

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