Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Canada’s Largest City Among the Least Public Transit-Friendly Worldwide

Major urban centers always have traffic problems – that is just part of life in a big city. Traffic jams are regular fixtures in the urban landscape in New York City, Los Angeles, London, Montreal, and Toronto.

Though the last city mentioned is the worst when it comes to doing anything to reduce the strain traffic jams have on our environment, our transportation networks, or the economy. According to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the loss in productivity in Canada due to traffic costs the country $3.3 billion every year.

The OECD says Toronto’s public transit system has failed to keep up with the constant increases in the city’s population, resulting in 70 percent of the city’s residents depending on their personal vehicles to get to work – that is the highest rate among the OECD’s member nations.

The Dundas subway stop in Toronto, Ontario.Image via Wikipedia

The OECD is composed of 30 countries from across the globe -- with an additional 25-non-member countries which participate in OECD activities and initiatives. Member countries including Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Spain, Sweden, Japan, Germany, Iceland, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and The United States.

Who’s to blame for all of this?

Politicians which decide the fate of bike lanes, toll-highways, traffic calming devices, public transit fares and expansion, the location of new neighborhoods and commercial developments, and pretty much everything else making up urban sprawl are the primary culprits.

They have failed to plan, and in turn have planned to fail.

By not thinking through the locations of major attractions, and the way traffic will come and go from those major attractions, politicians have created more traffic headaches.

A Wheel-Trans Overland ELF 9777 on a scheduled...Image via Wikipedia

Sure, it is great having the Air Canada Centre, The Rogers Centre (formerly The SkyDome), The CNTower, the Hockey Hall of Fame, and pretty much any other major sporting center and tourist attraction within walking distance of the downtown core. But most are sold out with events, and everyone is sitting in traffic to get to those events, we tend to think differently. Although these buildings attract thousands of people (the Rogers Centre can hold upwards of 60,000 people), no new major thoroughfares were built for the added vehicular traffic in these areas.

Local radio and television stations always encourage people to take public transit when there are crowd drawing events in the downtown core – but have you taken public transit recently?

The city’s public transit system – the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) – does an adequate job of moving people around the city. Remember, it hasn’t kept pace with the demands of the growing population, so allow yourself at least twice as long as you would normally take if you were driving, and don’t be surprised if you have to wait for an empty bus, streetcar or subway to get on – especially during the rush hour.

Toronto Transit CommissionImage via Wikipedia

During the rush hours in the morning and the afternoon it is pretty much standing room only, unless you happen to get on at the very first stop. In the afternoon rush, coming up from the downtown, people are literally squished right against the sides, frozen in place because even the slightest movement will put you nose-to-nose with a complete stranger.

There have been many plans to expand Toronto’s subway system, and in the past twenty-years, a whole new subway line did open up. It cost a billion dollars, has only five stops, and the one-way trip from start to finish is less than 15-minutes, but at least it shows effort.

Toronto’s politicians have been too wimpy to really create policies which encourage public transit use, which is where the real problems are. If more people took the city’s antiquated and underfunded TTC, then there would be a greater pool of funds to maintain it, expand it, and keep it in line with population increases.

This is typical of most urban centers around the world – the best ones are in the cities where taking public transit isn’t seen as being cheap, poor, or an inconvenience, as it is in Toronto. In other places, such as New York City, Chicago, even Vancouver, taking public transit is more socially acceptable, and as such, more people take it, so there is a greater amount of available funds to maintain and constantly improve it. And as it is socially acceptable to take transit in these cities, politicians feel compelled to fund these systems better.

But in Canada’s largest city, the politicians talk a lot about public transit, but because 70 percent of the city’s population don’t use it (including quite a few of those very same city politicians), funding is always taken from transit, and funneled into other projects.

What happens when you have a city with a constantly growing population, but little to no growth in terms of public transit?

More traffic – lots more. Current studies say it takes the average Toronto resident an hour-and-half to get to work during the morning commute. Taking growth models and the other estimates, within the next five to ten-years that morning commute will more than double, having Torontonians sitting in traffic for over three-hours just to get to work from the suburbs to the downtown core. And then there is the afternoon commute back home later in the day to look forward too.

Toronto’s city politicians are masters of making the transit system look good on the outside, while hiding the decaying rot on the inside. They have invested in new buses, streetcars, and subway cars over the past 20-years – new streetcars and subway cars are expected to hit current transit routes in next couple of years.

Though they don’t plan these transit purchases well. Back in the 1990s, they spent millions on natural gas powered buses. These buses turned out to c

From top left: Manhattan south of Rockefeller ...Image via Wikipedia

ost more to maintain, and so the project got the axe, but what a waste of funds.
Around the same time, they also spent millions on double-length buses, which turned out to be dangerous – studies found they could split apart, crunch passengers in the center as they turned, or even flip right over and crush nearby cars. Although some are still in use, they don’t purchase these anymore.

Most recently, the TTC has invested in gas-electric hybrid buses, which although safe, have had battery issues early on. The TTC has complained to the manufacturers that the batteries don’t last as long as the manufacturer claims, meaning they have to be replaced sooner. The manufacturer says it isn’t the batteries, it is the long routes which the TTC has which are to blame.

More money wasted, while our traffic jams continue to grow.

The new transit vehicles coming onboard the TTC system in the next few years will cost less to maintain, are more fuel efficient, and have nice and shinny seats. Too bad most won’t get to enjoy them much – thanks to the standing room only of today’s and tomorrow’s TTC system.

Most of these new transit vehicles will replace older ones which are becoming too costly to keep repairing. They should have been purchased years ago, to build the fleet, instead of just maintaining it at current levels forever.

But hey, if you visit Canada’s largest city, at least you know you better get yourself a car – then you’ll be able to get around without standing, poking and pushing your way through the city’s faltering public transit system.

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