The latest fad in north american public transit planning is embracing the car.
You can spot the symptoms wherever governments shovel cash into flashy regional transit projects surrounded by free parking – leaving the less glamorous local routes that serve the (less well-off) majority of riders reeling from cuts. Sound familiar?
Driving the trend locally is GO Transit. Eighty-six per cent of its rail passengers arrive at stations by car. And future plans have written off non-motorists altogether.
The 10-year growth strategy calls for 20,000 new peak rides and 10,000 new parking spots.
The kicker: because GTA municipalities are mandated to cover a third of GO’s expansion costs, Toronto is forced to fork over cash for sprawl-inducing frills like free GO parking instead of addressing basic TTC needs like more buses and drivers.
The frills don’t come cheap. At the November Greater Toronto Transportation Authority (now Metrolinx) meeting, GO announced plans to spend $323 million to add up to 12,250 new parking spaces by constructing multi-storey garages at existing stations, expanding bus commuter lots and adding two new drive-in stations.
GO says parking garages will free up land for offices at suburban stations. But rather than wait decades for GO to create what I’m sure would be lovely corporate centres, why not serve existing centres?
GO’s auto-focus should come as no surprise, considering that its strategy and policies are set by the Ministry of Transportation, the folks who build Ontario’s highways.
Michael Wolczyk, GO’s manager of marketing and planning, views highways and public transit as “complementary.” He sees GO filling in wherever highways can’t handle the load, as in downtown Toronto. By serving drivers on part of their trip, public transit keeps the highways flowing.
The one area where GO makes a genuine effort to serve non-motorists has always been its bus fleet. Unfortunately, that’s about to change.
GO’s bus rapid transit project proposes to add bus lanes along GTA highways, with most stations predictably located at highway park-and-rides. The estimated costs of initial phases, beginning with the 403 and 407, are more than $1.6 billion.Yes, GO is betting that folks will drive to the bus just as they now drive to the train.
This concept worries public transit advocate Steve Munro, who wonders how those without cars will access isolated stations along roaring highways.
“The single biggest problem with both politicians and professional planners is that they think in road/auto terms even when talking about public transit.”
GO’s return to Barrie on December 17 illustrates the consequences of designing around automobiles.
Taking its cue from the box stores, GO abandoned the centrally located Allandale Station, to which access by foot and public transit is practical, and relocated to empty fields 5 kilometres south of downtown, where there was plenty of cheap land for parking.
Why the province won’t permit even a secondary station downtown is puzzling – the city spent years planning a revitalized downtown waterfront, with Allandale Station as a focal point. Barrie even purchased the rail right-of-way and station, which was erected in 1853 and rebuilt in 1905.
Wolczyk counters that “the [old] station was in the wrong place for the market.”
Yes, stations like South Barrie’s, with its 480-space commuter lot, will encourage development, but it tends to be gas stations, car lots, drive-through restaurants and low-density subdivisions.
To serve communities without paving them over for parking lots, GO will need to confront its auto habit, moving beyond cynical gestures like green paint and sponsoring Car-Free Day.
But GO’s embrace of the auto may be tough to shake, considering how nicely current provincial public transit policy lines up with key political objectives – like pleasing Ontario’s automotive industry, suburban developers who fund campaigns and well-off commuters in T.O.’s vote-rich suburbs.
By repositioning public transit to serve drivers, the province is able to satisfy supporters and gain enviro cred, all while building parking lots and widening highways.
When it comes to GO, it’s not easy being green.
GO takes T.O. cash but refuses to make stops within city limits. Three sites that could help take the heat off the TTC are (1) the old Parkdale station (just steps now); (2) the historic Sutton station (which could be moved a few hundred metres from its site at Todmorden Mills to serve the Brick Works); and (3) the Summerhill station. (It wasn’t always a liquor store.)