Stephen Rees's blog

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

What if we took transit out of politics

with 6 comments

The article in the Globe and Mail (paywalled – sorry!) actually is entitled “What if we took transit out of the hands of politicians?” And looks at the sorry record of the Greater Toronto Area in the hands of Ontario politicians at both municipal and provincial level. It is hard to disagree that they have not covered themselves in glory and seem to be putting short term political advantage ahead of sensible planning. And actually the key event is not really “transit” as it is a proposal to build intercity high speed rail between Toronto and London, passing through Kitchener-Waterloo. Something already announced more than once.

I am not going to get into why this is indeed nonsense on stilts, but I am going to turn my attention to this bit down at the end of the article.

Public transit doesn’t have to be run by a private business. But it has to be run by an organization that operates like a business, responding to market demand – actual customers – not political demands.

And that is wrong on more than one ground too. It is only because the article is the usual right wing, business is best, mainstream media obsession that the quote starts as it does. Privatisation of public transport – urban transit and passenger bus and rail services – has been a dreadful failure in Britain. As has been pointed out here more than once, it actually now attracts much more subsidy than it did when publicly owned and operated. Complaints about service are legion, but the companies that run trains and buses for profits have generally made out like bandits. When those companies have failed, and the service taken back into public control, it has always improved

But in the case of urban transit in a rapidly growing region “responding to market demand” is also a recipe for certain failure. And that stems from the myopia that separates out building new transportation from planning urban growth. Land use and transportation are inextricably locked together – but Tony Keller doesn’t mention land use once. This lack of understanding is also why we should mistrust the federal Infrastructure Bank – if its ludicrously high interest rate costs were not enough reason already.

Transit expansion should not wait for market demand – it should lead it and shape it. Especially if the project requires large up front capital investments in buying new rights of way and building massive infrastructure. You have to build these things where people are thin on the ground, if you are to be allowed to start at all, because once they are opened you want to attract development. Building in already densely populated areas – like New York’s Second Avenue subway – is hideously expensive, and the cause of much complaint from the existing residents. The huge interstate freeway system was built between cities, on greenfields, first before tackling the much more contentious inner city areas. The result was, of course, urban sprawl and much disruption of established communities. Doing transit right in major cities requires expertise in “the art of insertion” as the Parisian tramway planners say.

If we had built the SkyTrain through the TriCities before they developed, the trains would have run empty for the first few years, but the style of  development would have been very different. Transit oriented development is actually not at all new and untried – it is what was built before car ownership was widespread. It is only because North American development defaults to the low density car-oriented urban pattern that transit struggles. Before Henry Ford, most streetcar and interurban service was privately owned – and its promoters were usually real estate developers.

Because everything about the suburbs depends on subsidies transit has to be subsidized, which is why some form of political control is essential. It also has to be recognised that most of the benefits of not being car oriented come from things that the private sector has a hard time monetising. Or the people suffer terribly when they succeed.  People who use transit, cycle or walk for most of their trips are both happier and healthier. People who feel forced to spend far too much of their day stuck in traffic in their cars are both unhealthier and frustrated. Drive until you qualify for a mortgage is actually a deal with the devil. The combined cost of living – travel plus accommodation – is actually higher for low density car oriented suburbs – but the lower house prices (and tax treatment of mortgages in places like the US and UK) seem to continue to attract buyers.

While we have done quite well in producing a greater variety of housing stock, we have not done nearly as well in providing the necessary mobility services. This is partly, once again, because we have relied on politicians. And sadly the supposedly “progressive” NDP wasn’t actually that much different to the evil BC Liberals. The Millennium Line for a long time wasn’t as useful as the whole T shaped arrangement we have now (due to the long overdue Evergreen extension)  but at least it was capable of expansion. Unlike the deliberately underbuilt Canada Line.

The next steps to be taken here – and in Greater Toronto – inevitably will involve politicians since huge amounts of money need to be spent. And they would be well advised to avoid the pitfalls of P3s and go with public sector investments, that are designed to support rather than confuse the necessary land use arrangements. In this region we once had such an integrated and use and transportation plan: it was deliberately scuttled by the BC Liberal Party as a way of paying off the people who provided them with the money to run successful elections. Obviously we need to get the big money out of provincial politics. Obviously we need a better way of electing politicians. We also need to have system of urban and regional planning that integrates development of land use and transportation systems. Their operation can indeed be left to the professionals BUT wherever public money is used there has to be accountability. That requires openness, honesty and a commitment to listening. Indirectly elected municipal politicians cannot be expected to do this well at a regional level.

UPDATE Toronto Star on a political boondoggle on GO Transit Sept 18, 2017

Written by Stephen Rees

May 29, 2017 at 11:32 am

6 Responses

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  1. People bash the Canada line as underbuilt and so on, but cast your mind back to those days. If I recal, there was a lot of scepticism of the project for being too ambitious, the ridership projections were too optimistic etc etc.
    At least they pushed on.


    May 29, 2017 at 2:47 pm

  2. Perhaps take a look through this blog at my posts on the Canada Line – and take careful note that the people who were sceptical about the demand forecasts were different from those underbuilding “bashers”

    Stephen Rees

    May 29, 2017 at 7:15 pm

  3. Still though – the line is capable of operating with more frequency than it does today and with longer trains. Yep, the single track part is always going to be constrained to a train every 3 minutes or so but that’s still far more frequent than today’s service.

    The trains can have another car added increasing capacity by 50% on each train. The stations were all built to allow longer trains with some modification… We’re nowhere near full capacity however the “underbuilt” comment gets thrown around again and again.

    There definitely were some lost opportunities – 16th and Cambie would have been a no-brainer for a station for instance – the entire shopping district in the area is really focused between 16th and 20th. It was also the center of the anti cut-and-cover movement back in the day; wonder if there’s any relation there…

    We can probably all agree that the process to get the Canada line built was a political mess; the bickering between levels of government definitely didn’t help. The current Translink structure is a direct result of that.


    May 30, 2017 at 9:54 am

  4. Bryn doesn’t mention the stations with the just a single entrance/exit. When a station is built underneath an intersection, there should be access to each corner. The Canada Line spokesperson justified this on the grounds of “security” which was manifest nonsense. It was simply to keep the costs down. There has to be an emergency exit which is always minimal. The single exit exposes passengers to needless waits to cross the road making transfers more difficult. Inevitably when you get off the train you will miss your bus because you are trying to get across the road – or roads! Also note that present capacity is inadequate but the expensive P3 contract makes the cost of just turning on more trains prohibitive.

    As with most promises made when the line was built, we have yet to see any of the additional planned stations opened.

    Stephen Rees

    May 30, 2017 at 10:57 am

  5. Even if decision-making is taken out of the hands of the politicians (which largely determines which project gets built first), the budget probably wouldn’t be – so you would still see a lot of design compromises.
    I would not expect politicians to be aware of the design details of rapid transit projects (they are the ones who publicize LRT renderings without overhead wires).

    A lot of the built form is the result of compromise with the municipalities as well.

    The single tracking in Richmond was spearheaded by the City of Richmond wanting to reduce shadowing (and of course a cheaper option would be jumped on by project management looking to reduce costs).

    I understand that single entrances were favoured because the City / TransLink (?) in general does not like underground connections from a Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design or “CPTED” perspective. No long dangerous underground passages.

    As a real world example, the circa-1986 underground passage from Stadium Station to the west side of Beatty St. was filled in with sand and closed off many years ago – it was considered unsafe. Maybe it will be reopened and extended to the new VAG complex if that is ever built.

    A number of the underground stations do have knock-out panels for future entrances when adjacent sites are redeveloped (Broadway-City Hall Station and Oakridge Station).

    WRT train frequency, additional trains have been added from the “spares” on hand and more cars are being purchased – more than likely to proceed with the new Provincial government. One train was added from spares a couple years ago and another in January 2017. It seems that 2 trains remain as spares in case of breakdowns.

    TransLink says 18 of the 20 two-car Hyundai Rotem trains will be running on the Canada Line during both the morning and evening peak hours beginning this week. This is an increase from the previous maximums of 17 trains, running exclusively between Waterfront and Richmond-Brighouse, during only the morning peak period and 16 trains during the evening peak period.

    The latest decision to increase the service frequency to what the current train fleet permits represents an 11% increase in capacity during peak periods, equivalent to 3,700 additional passengers per direction per weekday. This service increase was approved last November by the Mayors’ Council as part of the $2-billion in Phase One transit improvements.

    Potential ultimate capacity on the Canada Line will further increase in 2019 when 11 two-car trains are added to the system. This will push the operating capacity up by 55%.


    June 1, 2017 at 6:08 pm

  6. WRT the Broadway Subway – a planning decision (a budget or contractor hasn’t even been established yet) has eliminated the previously proposed entrance through an under-construction office building on the SE corner of Broadway & Oak:

    Future Broadway Subway station moved out of new office building

    February 5, 2016

    Plans for the building originally called for the inclusion of a station entrance for the Broadway Subway, the future underground extension of SkyTrain’s Millennium Line to Arbutus or as far as UBC. However, according to BlueSky Properties CEO Dale Bosa, those plans have been canceled.

    “It’s our understanding that the station has moved and won’t be here on the site, so we don’t know the exact location… we did have some communication with the City of Vancouver that the station will not be on the site now,” Bosa told Vancity Buzz.

    He adds that although a large entrance is no longer needed, the building will still provide space for an emergency access into the underground station structure. Some plans for the building are being reworked, mainly with a reconfiguration of the building’s permanent retail space and expansion of the office lobby. Under the originals plans, temporary retail space would have occupied the corner space designated for the station entrance.

    Vancity Buzz reached out to the City of Vancouver for comment on the precise station location. The following statement was received from a spokesperson: “The City, in partnership with TransLink, has been working with development projects along the Broadway corridor to secure provisional access to future stations. The primary entrance for the future station near Oak Street is still to be confirmed at a future stage of the project’s design.”


    June 1, 2017 at 6:30 pm

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