Why a $45 billion transportation plan fails to increase transit ridership

Metrolinx has recently released for comment its updated $45 billion transportation plan for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), which lays out the transit network to be built over the next 25 years.

If nothing else, the Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) must deliver a significant increase in the share of trips taken by transit in order to reduce current levels of congestion and ensure a functioning, livable and competitive region.

However, modelling results in the RTP suggest that in 2041, the projected share of transit trips taken at the busiest period of the day will be a mere 0.5 per cent higher than the current modest level of 14.2 per cent.

Under the proposed RTP, there will be 3 million more cars on the roads during this peak period every day -- almost 50 per cent more than today. Congested travel during the peak is expected to increase 122 per cent.

There are two key reasons why the $45 billion plan fails to deliver on the key issue of shifting people from automobiles to transit.

First, current land use plans do not strategically guide urban growth to support a significant shift to transit.

The province's newly updated Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, to which the RTP must conform, allocates growth of 3 million people and 1.4 million jobs across the GTHA. Under the Growth Plan and current municipal plans, much of the growth is slated to take place at the urban edge or beyond, in areas that are difficult to serve cost-effectively with transit.

As well, the allocation does not reflect the reality of how the GTHA is growing. For example, the Growth Plan assumes that in 2041 there will be about 575,000 jobs in downtown Toronto, about 75,000 more jobs than there are today. But the City of Toronto recently suggested that more than 400,000 jobs could be added downtown by 2041. Meanwhile, only a few of the 25 urban growth centres (UGCs) identified in the Growth Plan are seeing much new employment.

Land use planning under the Growth Plan must strategically prioritize growth in locations where the greatest numbers of new transit riders can be attracted, and ensure comprehensive efforts are made to direct growth there.

The second reason the plan fails to deliver a shift to transit is the RTP's own failure to focus investments on areas with the greatest potential to shift riders from cars to transit.

The RTP proposes many extensions and service improvements beyond the main urbanized area of the GTHA. On the Barrie line, two proposed stations -- Kirby in Vaughan and Innisfil -- are located in what are now farmers' fields. The Gormley and Bloomington stations on the extended Richmond Hill line are in the Greenbelt. Such extensions simply encourage low-density residential development in outlying rural areas.

While these extensions may be easier to execute than adding transit in densely populated locations, they have much lower new ridership potential than the urban areas of the GTHA, where the vast majority of population and jobs, and millions of potential new transit riders, are found.

The RTP could also prioritize investments in existing areas that are major sources of auto travel and congestion, such as auto-dependent suburban office concentrations.

For example, the Meadowvale employment area currently has more than 40,000 jobs, and a station on the GO Milton line. At present, fewer than 0.1 per cent of its workers arrive by GO train, because the one-way, peak-hour commuter service is focused on bringing workers to downtown jobs from outlying communities. As a result, 95 per cent of workers drive to jobs in Meadowvale. Yet the GO Milton line, which also serves the Mississauga City Centre (one of the only UGCs that is attracting jobs), is not prioritized for regional express rail service.

The Growth Plan, Regional Transportation Plan and municipal plans must all work together in a strategic, focused way to bring about the significant shift to transit that is needed to secure the region's future. Our already sprawling, congested region simply cannot sustain future growth of more than 3 million people without a substantial increase in the share of trips by transit.

Pamela Blais is a city planner and principal of Metropole Consultants. Marcy Burchfield is the executive director of the Neptis Foundation, a charitable foundation that funds and conducts research and education on growth and change in Canadian urban regions. This commentary was published in the Toronto Star on Tuesday, November 21, 2017