Wednesday 14 February 2018

Subway Relief Lines and Bikes

I've been hearing a lot about downtown relief lines lately, and it frustrates me as I believe we are at a fork in the road, and we are about to make the wrong choice.

Make no mistake about it, a combination of population growth and urban development is pushing us away from cars, you can only fit so many on the road. Cars will likely never disappear, and we may eventually crack the nut of an environmentally benign automobile (at least approximately), but even if we solved the environmental problem of car emissions, our cities are already near capacity with cars.
We have nowhere to go and lots and lots of people on their way.

So the obvious other option here is mass transit. And I’m “for” mass transit. It is the most environmentally benign option to move around large amounts of people, you can’t transport everyone on bikes!

However, when told that cars are not an option, people default to subways, and I think this is a profound mistake. To demonstrate this I will address some of the arguments for subways, and then I will make the case that we need a shift in perspective to understand why there are better options.

Arguments for Subway Expansion
There are a few standard arguments used to support subway expansion:
1. Subways have the largest capacity
2. They “subvert” the traffic problem by going underneath it
3. “All world-class cities have them”
4. Toronto’s subway network is smaller than most, and needs expansion

All of these arguments are fallacious or misleading.
1. Capacity
Subways have the largest capacity of the mass transit options, e.g. a subway train carries more than an individual bus, streetcar or LRT. What matters, however, is the number of buses on a route, not individual bus (which carries 51) versus a whole subway train (which sits 1000). I can’t find stats for the number of buses or subway trains that run on various routes.

However, there are stats on overall use.

In 2016 here were the numbers for TTC passenger capacity by mode:
Buses - 252,899,561
Subway Trains - 221,620,993
Streetcars - 60,608,201


Subway trains are number two, after buses, which carry almost 253 million people per year. So while subways do have higher passenger density, they do not carry the majority of transit riders, buses do.

2. Subverting Traffic
Yes, subways get under existing traffic, so it makes sense if traffic is nearing capacity to build subways, as they don’t add to this traffic. However, all mass transit modes present challenges to throughput of traffic. Subways are in tunnels, if a subway breaks down it stops progress on the line until the problem is cleared. Although this can also happen for buses, it is usually possible to shunt around the bus, in the subway you have to wait.

And this is a non-trivial problem. When subway delays are added up they counted for 12 whole days worth of trains sitting idle on the tracks due to mechanical issues. Every time that happened, customers on the trains behind were also delayed.


“Getting under traffic” is only a good solution if you can operate efficiently, and when we opt for large scale expensive projects like subway expansions that takes away money from repair and maintenance, and means that what we do have works badly.

3. World Class Cities
World class cities like New York and London and Paris do have subways, but they also have bikes, and many world class cities have been increasing their bike infrastructure.

Here are some stats on increased daily cycle commuting in major US cities from 2000-2015, all of which have subways:

+80% New York, NY
+40% Los Angeles, CA
+27% Portland, OR
+44% Chicago, IL
+51% San Francisco, CA
+32% Seattle, WA
+90% Washington DC
+22% Philadelphia
+30% Minneapolis, MN
+24% Boston, MA


It just so happens that all of these cities have been adding bike infrastructure as well.


Paris is also expanding their cycling infrastructure, including building “bike highways”, wanting to become the world capital of cycling.



London committed 1 billion to development of bike infrastructure in 2013, and has seen some impressive results:

“In zone 1, during the morning rush hour, 32 per cent of all vehicles on the roads are now bicycles. On some main roads, up to 70 per cent of vehicles are bicycles. According to TfL, motorists entering central London during the morning peak in 2000 outnumbered cyclists by more than 11 to 1. By 2014, the ratio was 1.7 to 1.”

In short, all of the world class cities with subways are pushing cycling infrastructure. So what that means is that subway expansion has to be balanced against the need for other forms of transit expansion, and given the wildly high costs of subway expansion, it presents an all-or-nothing choice that is not in line with what “world class cities” are doing. You can’t spend 10 billion on subway expansion and aggressively expand light-rail and cycling infrastructure at the same time.

If we want to emulate “world class cities”, cycling is clearly part of that plan.

4. Size of Network
Toronto’s Subway system is smaller than the system in Paris, London or New York, so many believe we are underserved by our subways. But we need to keep in mind population and size, for each city, the population and size of the greater metropolitan area is:

Paris – 11 million - 105.4 km²
London – 8.7 million - 1,572 km²
New York – 8.5 million - 789 km²
Toronto – 6.2 million - 630.2 km²


We have the lowest population of these cities, and we are third largest in area. Also note that the largest cities do not necessarily have the largest subway systems. New York, London, Paris and Seoul have larger subway systems than the three largest cities with subways, Tokyo, Delhi and Mexico City.  So even if we are a large world class city, that does not push us inevitably towards a larger subway system.


A Change in Perspective – Scale and Novelty

None of these arguments gets at the central problems: a focus on scale and novelty. In short, we have historically favored increasing the scale of our technologies, and embracing new technologies over improving existing ones. These twin tendencies have been marked in the last 100 years.

There is a tendency amongst engineers and designers to try and maximize efficiency, particularly with respect to scale. In the power production industry, this led to the creation of larger and larger power plants in order to capture, “economies of scale”. Scale economies are real, there are fiscal benefits to building bigger, or higher capacity, technologies.

Also, we tend to favor novelty, building something new, rather than addressing the shortcomings of what we have. There are a lot of benefits to this, for example, it is easier to attract capital and investment when developing something new than it is to attract investment for the maintenance of something in existence.

However, large scale, new developments, also have costs, which we ignore as we are laser focused on profits.

The first cost is time. 8-10 years to build a relief line.

The second is money. An estimated 6-8 billion dollars to build it.

What if we took our focus away from large scale projects like this and switched over to look at other options?

I will argue for a different approach to our transit problem, namely taking that funding and directing it towards two things:
1.       Maintenance and repair of existing transit infrastructure
2.       Expansion of cycling infrastructure

The first problem we encounter is that we assume that there will be no investment in transit unless the projects are large scale, the private sector, we are told, is not going to be interested in anything short of mega-projects they can ride to the bank.

This is belied however by the fact that the recent subway extension was funded by $697 million from the Federal government, $974 million from the province, $904 million from the city of Toronto, and $604 million from York Region. In short, the private sector did not make this choice, it was made and funded by government. So it is within our reach to suggest that government could fund an alternate plan, one that didn’t put all of our eggs in one subway basket.

All or Nothing
In environmental activism it has been realized for a long time that single mode solutions are never enough, multi-modal solutions are the most flexible and adaptive. No one power production method will be sufficient due to varying environmental contexts, in this same vein, no one transit solution will work for all users.

We have to abandon this perspective and the binary choices of “bikes or cars” or “bikes or subways” and instead see these as simultaneously existing options that all need to be addressed. I would like to suggest that one way to address our public transit problems would be to take some of that infrastructure money and put it into maintenance and repair of the existing system, purchase of new stock to replace aging fleets, more flexible transit use options (e.g. pricing by zone), expansion of multi-modal transit infrastructure (e.g. bike share at all major transit hubs) to encourage partial use of other modes of transit, and innovative road use planning (e.g. the new King street restrictions on cars).

Maintenance, repair and replacement does not sound sexy, but lack of maintenance, repair and replacement is killing the TTC, as it is killing other mass transit systems around the world. We are slowly coming to understand that maintaining what we have is at least as important as expanding and creating something new, and this realization is leading to major cities advocating for reinvestment in what they have over expansion of the system.


Recall the delay statistics for the TTC, 12 days a year lost to maintenance related subway delays. One of the reasons the system is not addressing our needs is that we aren’t paying to keep it in shape. How many drivers take the car as they don’t want to deal with TTC delays?

How many people don’t take the bus as they have to wait for too long for the next one to show up? Increasing the number of busses available on busy routes would cost significantly less than building a subway, the recent York subway extension is a great example of that. When the busway was built between Dufferin and Keele it reduced the time from Downsview to York to about 5-8 minutes. But I have also waited 5-10 minutes at Downsview for a bus. I have taken the subway all the way to York and it shaved about 5 minutes off my commute. That’s great, but an additional few buses on the existing route would have likely been pretty close in timing, and cost significantly less.

So my first suggestion would be to take some of the money designated for a subway expansion and putting that money into:

1. Maintenance, repair and replacement of existing transit infrastructure to reduce delays that impact system capacity.

2. Making the system more amenable to multi-modal transport [e.g. bike share stations at every major transport hub, designated space for bikes on trains and subways, more “parking hubs” where out of the core drivers can drop their cars and switch to transit – as well as transit pass price incentives for drivers who park and drive] so travellers don’t have to directly replace cars with transit, but can do so piecemeal.


The other piece of the puzzle is cycling. There is a tendency amongst both cyclists and non-cyclists to see cycling as an activity that is quite challenging and beyond the capacity of many individuals. With the right cycling infrastructure, however, cycling is not as challenging as it is portrayed.

In all of the cities where more cycling infrastructure has been built, cycling participation has increased. What this suggests is that the issue is not the competency of cyclists, but the presence of safe cycling infrastructure. The good news is that new cycling infrastructure is wildly cheaper than building new subways or new highways, and that if you build protected infrastructure, many cyclists who are on the fence will start riding.



In short, if you build it, they will come.

As a bonus, increased cycling infrastructure also tends to increase safety for cyclists and pedestrians, even when adjusting for greater number of riders, it decreases the number of car on car accidents, overall traffic volume goes down, peak travel times decrease, and retail sales grow.


We have a tendency to be all or nothing about this. Take the Netherlands, the cycling mecca of the world where they experience terrific levels of cycling. Even there, only 27% of all trips and 25% of trips to work are made by bike.


What this suggests is that cycling is not going to replace the car or the subway, but it can supplement them instead.

In addition, cycling has two features that make it an excellent choice to supplement existing transit options: greater maneuverability and lesser environmental impact. Bikes are comparatively small, so they are least impacted by obstacles in the traffic dense urban environment. In addition, bikes have minimal environmental impact compared to subways, cars and even buses. If you are going to expand your transit options, bikes represent the least damaging choice. 

We need to stop thinking of the bike replacing subways and cars, and think about it being complementary to them.

This will also help with the other big stumbling block to cycling in Toronto: winter. We have a tendency to assume that winter cycling is beyond the capacity of most people However, this assumption is antiquated. For example, three of the top 20 ranked “most cycle friendly cities in the world” are Helsinki, Oslo and Montreal, cities with as least as aggressive a winter weather profile as Toronto, if not worse.


What matters most for winter cycling is snow clearance. Yes it is expensive, but it is clearly “doable”, what is lacking is the willingness to treat cycling as a serious, viable option. If the city can clear the roads every day despite large snowfalls, there is absolutely no reason why they couldn’t similarly prioritize cycle tracks. The city of Oulu, Finland has 613 km of cycling infrastructure to Toronto’s 579 km, yet 150 km of Oulu’s network is maintained 24 hours a day, the remainder is classified into class 1 and 2 routes (class 1 are cleared after 3 cm of snow, class 2 after 5 cm of snow) and class 1 routes must be cleared by 7am.


Minneapolis, another city with extreme winters, has seen a 78% increase in cycling, with about a third of that in the winter, between 2007 and 2013. They have also prioritized winter lane clearance, clearing the bike lanes when the roads are cleared.




In short, it can be done.

How to Prioritize Cycling

The good news is that cycling infrastructure is already densest where it is the most needed: downtown.  Take a look at the City of Toronto cyling map, downtown is a spiderweb of bike lanes. What is needed is a massive investment in cycling infrastructure to build on this. What would this look like?

A) Separated cycle tracks in more areas, in particular areas where the lanes are beside fast moving traffic and “high streets”

B) Regular bike lanes in more areas, particularly on secondary roads

C) Signage indicating road status (e.g. similar to what is done on the city of Toronto cycling map)

D) Bike share and bike repair facilities at all major transit hubs

E) Connection of cycling tracks to minimize points where cyclists have to leave infrastructure to reach their destination (“consistency”)

F) Incentives to businesses that provide lock-up facilities and shower/changing facilities

G) Educational initiatives to inform cyclists about routes and multi-modal transit options

H) More signage and educational initiatives to inform pedestrians and motorists about cycling infrastructure and the rules of the road associated with it

I) Improved winter clearance of bike lanes, optimally equal to road clearance

J) Development of railway line and power line bike trails

K) Aggressive ticketing of cars parked in bike lanes

L) Development of elevated “cycle highways” to bring bikes to and through the city

None of these are technically or practically impossible, they just require the political will to make them happen, and of course funding.


As I have pointed out, the government, at the federal, provincial and municipal level has demonstrated the willingness to spend on transit infrastructure. The problem isn’t money, it’s perspective.

We are married to the idea of high-capacity subway lines solving our most pressing transit problems. What we need to consider is the possibility of combining maintenance and repair along with multi-modal transit options and the expansion of bike infrastructure to deal with increased capacity.

This will require significant funding, but even if it does, it will be orders of magnitude less than building new subways, and it will be delivered years earlier. It is also important to remember that building new capacity increases overall maintenance costs in the future, maintenance and repair have to be addressed no matter what, so this represents a cost that is often discounted in our calculations.

What we are being given is a choice between a solution that will arrive in 8-10 years and cost us a considerable sum of money, and another that will take considerably less time and money. It’s time we recognized that the only real winners in all this are the construction companies and the subway, both of whom get massive windfalls of money from government (e.g. from the taxpayer). Perhaps the enthusiasm of politicians for this sort of thing can be best understood in this light.

The challenge here is that any subway extension project will be a funding monster, eating up government dollars that could otherwise be directed at improvements in existing infrastructure for bikes and for transit. These improvements to transit will have to come eventually, repair and maintenance can only be ignored for so long before the system won’t work well enough for anyone. Cycling infrastructure also needs to develop more rapidly in Toronto, we are notoriously slow at developing it.

A subway relief line megaproject will eat up much of the funding pie available for transit infrastructure, locking us into the existing system when we already know it’s not working, and delaying or starving out any other solutions 8-10 years. This is one of the ancillary costs of big megaprojects, you don’t just pay for them, you also pay in lost alternatives.

It’s time to have some vision about transit in Toronto.

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