What is transit for?

Public transit moves people. Isn’t that obvious?

But in 21st century Toronto, transit is expected to do a lot more, and competing goals can work against each other.

Transit can be very good in some places, tolerable in others. But in too much of Toronto and the GTA, transit is the last travel choice or not even an option. It all depends on where you live, where you want to go and when you want to travel.

The transit network is a patchwork of service levels, connections and fare policies that grew since the TTC was created in 1921.

Back then, transit was the only choice. The automobile was still in its infancy and the cost was high for those who wanted to use it. The city was compact and it was well-served by a network of streetcar lines that went everywhere. What are now suburbs with populations rivalling Toronto were then mostly farm land.

Today, transit is a poor second choice to a car in portions of Toronto and the GTA that grew from the 1950s onward. Roads were the way to get around, and they were, at first, mostly empty of competing traffic. Drivers avoided the inconvenience of waiting for buses that came infrequently and did not serve many areas.

Once-empty roads are now jammed with traffic all day long. Transit, particularly express routes like subways, are pitched as a way to relieve congestion.

The problem with that pipe dream is that demand for road space is high, and relief will disappear the moment it arrives. Even worse, for major projects like subways, that relief is years away in the future.

For example, the multi-billion dollar Big Move, Metrolinx’s regional transit plan, will only manage to hold the status quo, on average, by absorbing some future growth onto transit.

If transit is played as a congestion “solution”, it will fail at that task. Transit’s value should be seen in its own right, not just as a way to undo the ills of a half-century of bad planning and fix every driver’s daily commuting nightmare.

Transit was once used by everyone (and still is on premium commuting services such as GO trains), but there are calls for it to carry social responsibility.

That has two components: affordability and connectivity.

Should transit be cheaper – or even free – for everyone, or only for those with lower incomes? Should transit go to more places where people need to travel? Are better surface and rapid transit networks required to make more of the region easily accessible? These are not just issues for the poor but for everyone who must travel.

But there is strong competition from automobiles and highways.

Downtown Toronto exists because the subway and GO Transit bring thousands of workers into a dense hub of jobs and services.

But many areas get their workers and shoppers by road, and congestion on the 401, once called the Toronto bypass, is worse than on many downtown streets. What will carry people around the region as the population grows by millions in future decades?

Property developers love transit routes, and are happy to build around proposed stations, but this does not guarantee transit riders a network between these nodes.

“Transit-oriented development” is a great catchphrase, and even a potential source of construction funds, but land holdings can dictate where that development happens. The result is a patchwork, not a network, as existing neighbourhoods are left behind because there is no new development to pay for their transit improvements.

Transit could have environmental benefits by reducing the pressure for more roads, and provide travellers with a less stressful trip. Transit could be all these things and more.

But this is only possible if, as a city, we see transit as a vital service for all of us, and if service is reliable and convenient, not if routes have barely enough buses to carry those who have no other choice.

This column begins a weekly review by Steve Munro of issues affecting Toronto’s transit system and its riders. Steve won the Jane Jacobs Prize in 2005 in recognition of decades of work to improve transit in Toronto. Since 2006 he has written on transit at stevemunro.ca.


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