Archive for the ‘ Transportation ’ Category

Complete Streets and Dutch Junction design

To most observers of Toronto politics, it was very surprising to see councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the Public Works committee, come out (apparently on his own initiative) to advocate for a road design concept called complete streets. The Toronto Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT) defines complete streets as:

Complete Streets provide safe access for all road users including pedestrians, cyclists, public transit users, and motorists of all ages and abilities.

Given the councillor’s many storied run-ins with cycling advocates, his “ally” status of Mayor Rob Ford, and the generally suburban, auto-oriented prism through which he views transportation, it was indeed a surprise. I am not yet sure of his motivation, but Minnan-Wong is one of those local politicians that doesn’t necessarily stick to one side of the political spectrum.

Regardless, the formulation of Toronto’s complete streets guidelines is a positive step. Whether it leads to any real changes in the way that engineers design our streets is another matter. We are still in the hopeful phase.

It was while this news was appearing that I stumbled upon the video below explaining what blog Bicycle Dutch calls “Dutch junction design”. It is something I noticed throughout the Netherlands when I visited the country last September. Even as a visitor, unfamiliar with the Dutch signal system, it was very intuitive to use. The most danger I felt through these junctions was the potential for a collision with an aggressive cyclist!

A frequent excuse of road designers in Canada regarding European cycling infrastructure is, “well yeah, but we can’t do that here– we don’t have space”. This may be true on some roads where we have decided that driving and parking lanes are crucial. But what is most attractive to me about this concept is this: if you have room for bike lanes, you have room for a Dutch junction.

Evidently, there are some other aspects of the design that would have to be implemented at the same time, in order to make it function properly. Most notably, the video below explains how the signals are timed appropriately to maximize cyclist safety and minimize auto-cyclist collisions. It also occurs to me that this only works at an intersection of two bike lanes– a pretty rare phenomenon in Toronto.

[Edit: OK, I thought of a few, that could at least be pilots for this approach: Gerrard & Sherbourne; Wellesley & Sherbourne; College & Beverely/St. George; Harbord/Hoskins & St. George. Tried to think of/ find some suburban bike lane intersections, but the only one I could think of is a T-intersection– Conlins & Sheppard. Help?]

I think it’s a pretty useful design to keep in mind as we move toward complete streets in Toronto.

Could hydro corridors be used as high speed rail corridors?

I am tempted to think so. As a supporter of a high-speed rail system for certain corridors in Canada, I am familiar with the usual arguments against such a project. Whether it is “too expensive”; “won’t work in our weather”; or “impossible to get a right-of-way”– most of them do not hold much water. The last argument– that right of way is unavailable or too difficult to acquire– to me is the strongest of the arguments. It got me thinking: what would be the easiest way to solve this problem?

Hydro transmission corridors are huge swaths of mostly clear land that slice through our cities and countryside, allowing electricity generated in one part of the province to be transferred great distances over high-voltage lines. Because they respond to demand for electricity, many of the corridors blaze a trail from major power producers to major power users (i.e. large urban centres). In fact, if you look at a map [PDF] of these corridors, the system looks quite similar to our other large infrastructure right-of-ways– highways, railways and the like. In some cases, the corridors are almost “as the crow flies” from city to city.

One of the major reasons they are so straight is that these corridors do not have to respond to variability in the terrain like highways and railways do. This obviously does not work for high speed rail, which requires mostly flat terrain. However, there’s no reason that surrounding land could not be acquired in order to avoid significant topographical features. Using existing hydro corridors would probably reduce expropriation by 90% (no evidence for this number, that’s just my opinion).

What if Ontario Hydro agreed to a lease of its property for such purposes? Would it actually work? Would the removal of such a significant barrier (right-of-way acquisition) change our governments’ current reticence to pursue such a project?

Note: I am definitely not the first person to think of this. I have found at least one example: the Maryland Department of Transportation studied the suitability of hydro rights-of-way [PDF report] for transportation infrastructure in 2002. If you know of any other examples, especially in the Canadian context, please let me know in the comments below.

Cambridge mayor blasts planners for alleged bias

Tensions are growing ever higher in the Region of Waterloo’s debate over the future of rapid transit in the region. The October municipal election, during which politicians got an earful from residents, triggered the anger over the apparently large portion of the cost of a rapid transit system that the Region will be on the hook for.

It was expected that the provincial and federal governments would foot the majority of the cost of the system. For whatever reason, expectations were raised to this level somewhere along the way. (The “norm”, if there is one, for funding large infrastructure investments, is commitments of one-third from each level of government.) To expect that the Region could get a state-of-the-art rapid transit system for almost no cost to the local taxpayer was unreasonable in the first place.

In many ways, it is this unmet expectation of federal and provincial funds that brought on the debate the Region’s councillors and residents are now having. Local cost burden for the Kitchener-Waterloo LRT & Cambridge BRT is now estimated to be $235M, with property taxes to be increased over six years to pay the difference.

Cambridge mayor Doug Craig has become the most outspoken regional critic of the LRT + BRT scheme, saying it would shortchange taxpayers in his city, who would have to ride buses while those in Kitchener-Waterloo ride on modern trains. He, and voters, convinced regional council to reconsider a system of consisting entirely of buses in January. Planners presented a list of 10 options to the Planning and Works Committee on February 15, a list that consisted of one train-only option and one bus-only option, with the others being combined options. This list will now be subject to public consultation before the question of technology is put to council one more time.

LRT's capacity is a huge advantage

It would seem that the list is a fair account of the options before council and the Region, given that almost two years ago, the same council nearly unanimously approved the LRT + BRT scheme (exception being Mr. Craig). Yet Doug Craig and some other councillors do not see it that way. Commenting on the list, Mr. Craig said, “I expected this to be biased. I didn’t expect it to be over the top.” Other Cambridge councillors complained that the list was titled too much toward trains. In response, a councillor from Waterloo accused councillors from Cambridge as being affected by “Cinderella syndrome”, a false sense of being overlooked and neglected. Clearly, a formerly unified council and Region has become fragmented by differing visions of the future.

What disturbed me most as a not-quite-professional planner was the allegations of bias Mr. Craig made towards Regional planning staff. In comments he made after the meeting (rather than in it), Mr. Craig said:

“The whole report is awful… It is a sell job for LRT (light rail transit), plain and simple. And it’s embarrassing. They haven’t done it properly or without bias.”

My guess is he did not allege bias in his comments during the meeting because it would be much more serious if he did so. However, the comments are still of concern to the planners, as they attempt to take a fair and balanced approach to the issue.

The "biased" slide

That being said, Mr. Craig wondered aloud why planners chose to show an over-capacity Ottawa BRT system instead of empty LRT trains in Buffalo during the presentation. Perhaps he is right: planners should have let the facts speak for themselves rather than making the apples-to-oranges comparison of a dying, rustbelt city like Buffalo to a recession-proof government capital.

I have read the presentation, and apart from the pictures, it is mostly full of facts. BRT is a system that would only last for 20 years for the fast-growing region before it is clogging the roads with trains of buses, like Ottawa’s system. LRT costs more than BRT. LRT has a greater positive effect on property values, attracts more riders and employers, and has more benefits to the user. And perhaps most importantly, the number of existing or projected riders “south of Fairview Park Mall” (read: Cambridge) is far below that of Kitchener and Waterloo.

One could fault planners for trying to gussy up a presentation with photos. But one can hardly blame the planners for submitting a report that lays out the facts pretty clearly. Another fact that was in the planner’s report: Mr. Craig’s all-BRT option would cost only 15% less. For a system that would only last 20 years, selecting the all-bus option clearly sacrifices future budgetary concerns for short-term political and budgetary concerns. While Mr. Craig rejects LRT on the basis that it is unfair to Cambridge, clearly what is best for the long-term health of the Region is the proposed LRT + BRT.

You can see the slides the Region’s planners presented to the Planning and Works Committee here and the full report document here [both PDF].

Make a judgement of your own: is the report biased in favour of LRT?

Fascinating transport of beer tanks

One of the more interesting stories I have come across recently is this about the planned transport of six giant beer fermenting tanks from Germany to Molson’s Toronto brewery near Pearson Airport. It is difficult to comprehend just how huge these stainless steel tanks are– 7 metres tall (lying horizontally) and weighing 43 500 kg or more.

Toronto Star graphic

While the way they got from Germany to Canada– by boat– is interesting enough, the part of the journey that really fascinates me is the final leg, from the Port of Hamilton to the brewery on Carlingview Drive. From the Star story:

“[The] plan, which will be put into action on Friday, is a feat that involves moving 250 traffic lights, manoeuvring around 1,614 service wires, and slowing down nighttime traffic for four nights as a 40-vehicle convoy crawls through a meticulously planned route through five municipalities. All this for beer.”

There are other numbers that illustrate just how difficult a task it is to plan a shipment like this. 75 people met in a boardroom in November and took all day to figure out the route; the route was surveyed 70 times; and 20 different service providers will have to help the convoy manoeuvre around 1 614 service wires along the route.

Frank DeVries, who has the job of co-ordinating all this, has to be admired for his commitment to the job. Surely at around 6:00 a.m., January 11th, when the shipment is due to arrive at the brewery, Mr DeVries and his crew will be able to feel a great sense of accomplishment.

You can follow the convoy’s progress via Mr DeVries’ Twitter account.

Gordon Chong’s Fantasy Transit Land

The Toronto Star published an editorial submission today from former chair of GO Transit and vice-chair of the TTC, Gordon Chong. You should also know to start that he was a prominent member of newly-minted mayor Rob Ford’s transition team.

In this editorial, Mr Chong attempts to outline how Mr Ford’s vision for transit in Toronto can and should be accomplished. He, like the mayor, declares that Transit City needs to be altered and that Toronto should aim higher (not those congestion-causing “streetcars”, but subways). For someone most would consider an expert on these sorts of issues, he makes some glaring logical leaps and avoids current political and fiscal realities.

One glaring logical error is the much-ballyhooed “one-seat ride” for Scarberians. This has been a common salvo of critics of Transit City, who like to call it “Transfer City” because of the switch a rider may have to make from LRT to subway and vice versa. However, while it’s not clear how a Sheppard subway would work for Scarborough (because it’s not been planned), it is reasonable to assume that the Sheppard line would function separately from the Yonge line and the Bloor-Danforth line (and the SRT, assuming it either remains something other than subway). Hence, unless a rider is going from Scarborough Town Centre to North York Centre or somewhere right along Sheppard, they will not have a one-seat ride. A ride from Scarborough Town Centre to Yonge and Finch, for example, will still require two seats.

Without presenting the numbers, Mr Chong also tells us that before the Yonge Subway was built, the ridership numbers were not there to support it, and yet here we are today. Perhaps Mr Chong is not as experienced in the field of urban planning as he is transportation, because Sheppard Avenue of 2011 is not Yonge Street of the 1950s. Yonge street was an is an urban street, full of shopping, residents and entertainment venues. The majority of Sheppard Avenue’s

Much of Sheppard Ave. looks like this

surroundings are low-density residential subdivisions, zoned as such, and protected from development by the City’s Official Plan. This is why the LRT was such a pragmatic choice for Toronto’s suburban streets: only some of Sheppard is available for more intense population growth. To project that Sheppard would equal Yonge would more than likely mean a paradigm shift in north Scarborough’s planning landscape.

“But what about the money” you say? Mr Chong has a solution for that too:

We should beg, borrow or steal to finish what was started instead of settling for second best simply because it was on sale.

Financial constraints have been cited ad nauseam by various levels of government… However, funding then miraculously appears for some other vote-getting initiative.

Worse still, an auditor general reports on the enormous sums that are wasted or mismanaged annually, leaving the mendacious politicians with egg on their collective faces.

We should “steal” from those latent pots of money identified by the auditor general to build the Sheppard subway to the future.

Mr Chong has come up with an idea so brilliant that no one has ever thought of it before. Take all that money being wasted at all levels of government, throw it into one pot, et voila, a Sheppard Subway with no pain to you! This is such a problematic proposal, it’s almost impossible to know where to start with it. If this money is so easily attainable, why hasn’t this method been used to build all sorts of other goodies for us? For one thing, I would be willing to bet that Mayor Ford will give a tax cut with those savings before he builds anything. It is also very interesting to see a key member of Mr Ford’s transition team declare that the City should increase its debt level in order to build a Sheppard subway (remember that thing about “stopping the gravy train”?)

Don’t fret, disadvantaged people at Jane and Finch, Mr Chong has a solution for you too. Instead of a quick, reliable LRT line along Finch, Mr Chong proposes that we “settle for second best” (Mr Chong’s own slanderous words) in a big way by building a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line through the Finch hydro corridor. It’ll be like a three-seat ride to get downtown, and it will be isolated from the street, but it will be dirt cheap and you get to ride on comfortable highway coach buses! (Now I’m getting snarky.)

While I can agree with some of Mr Chong’s sentiments (visionary subway building, helping captive riders, practical transit systems, and more for Scarborough), it is when his philosophies meet up with cold, hard reality that he loses me. One cannot simply ignore the fact that governments have chosen not to spend money on these types of projects. We all like to dream, but one also cannot flippantly make plans for transit without conducting studies to back it up (Mr Ford likes to do this, too). While Transit City has been studied to death, a Sheppard subway has been deemed unworkable before, and BRT lines have been built selectively due to the public’s distaste for buses of any kind.

Instead of dreaming up unrealistic financial schemes and dictating transit planning from the mayor’s office, Mr Ford and his team should be committing to the long-term vision that was (and is) Metrolinx’s Big Move. It is the only vision that has been put through its public paces and has met with political and fiscal realities.

We should beg, borrow or steal to finish what was started instead of settling for second best simply because it was on sale.

Joe Warmington is angry

In an article published today, September 1, Joe Warmington gets worked up about a 2.5 km bus bypass lane on the Don Valley Parkway. I mean really worked up.

Normally, I don’t mind a bit when a columnist has a strong opinion. Usually they are honest, fact-driven and more often than not, help me reflect on my own opinion of the issue. However, when the column is so full of falsities, needless slander and misrepresentations of facts, I have a huge problem.

First, some background. Back in May, the City’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee looked at the proposed GO bus bypass lane, which would run, north and south, from the Lawrence Ave. interchange to approximately 450 m north of the York Mills Rd. interchange. The lane, as proposed, would be on both sides of the road, and help make GO bus trips during rush hour a little faster.

I think it is a pretty widely accepted notion that transit systems should have priority over private automobiles where possible. Riders are decreasing the environmental cost their travel puts on the city’s air, and are also helping to decrease congestion by not using their own private automobile.

However, Mr Warmington seems to have missed this completely. Instead of a cost-effective way to decrease travel time and harmful emissions, he sees the lane as “another fishing hole” for Toronto’s police to exploit, and another battle in the fictitious “war on the car”. This is because there is an $85 fine for mis-use of the lane. What Mr Warmington ignores is the fact that previous to being a bus bypass lane, this piece of highway was a shoulder– not to be used by motorists except in emergency situations– which remains the case today. Even before the lanes were painted on, any motorist who decided to travel on the shoulder would have been subjected to a fine. Or is he suggesting that the shoulder should not exist?

Next, Mr Warmington attacks the cost of these lanes. $120 000, he infers, is just another example of council wasting your hard-earned money. He says that cost is paid by you–the Toronto taxpayer– and you should be outraged. However, he contradicts his own newspaper, which in a May article, says the cost will be “funded entirely by Metrolinx”. Now I suppose I am splitting hairs a little bit here, because Metrolinx is a provincial agency, and Torontonians pay tax to the provincial government. But the cost is ultimately borne by all of Ontario.

Mr Warmington goes on to say that “all this really does is make your life harder”. I assume when he is talking about “your life” it is about you, the motorist who so bravely and valiantly tackles the DVP every day. However, he is wrong again. This will make your life no harder. This lane didn’t exist before, so it’s not being taken away from motorists. Instead, you, the driver, won’t get stuck behind that slow, stinky GO bus. Not to mention the fact that it will make life easier for the people that take one of those buses (kudos to Mr Warmington, who actually makes this point).

Really, this article was an opportunity Mr Warmington saw to slay some of the demons that have been bothering him in recent months. First he refers to the “bicycle-socialists” that have dreamed this up “to help pay for some new environmentally-friendly bunny suits”, a reference to an incident of alleged misspending by a councillor on rabbit mascot suits. Then, he pities the poor, “ostracized motorist” that “no one seems to care about”, all the while having “20 minutes stolen from the north Toronto commuter on Jarvis St. thanks to the new bike lanes built for Councillor Kyle Rae’s 100 cycling friends”. Nevermind that those quotes are contained in one, run-on sentence, the supposed facts contained in the thought are just plain wrong. The City has not tested the traffic impact of the new bike lanes yet (because it’s summer) but they are projected to cause a maximum of 2 minutes to be added to an automobile commute. Meanwhile, bikes are not taking up an entire lane, and everyone is safer.

Is the motorist in Toronto really “ostracized”? In some parts of the city, it is more difficult to drive than it is to walk or cycle. In other parts, mostly the inner suburbs, it is downright dangerous to walk or cycle because the automobile so dominates. Sure, prices are going up for gas, for insurance, for cars themselves, and traffic is always getting worse, so I can see how Mr Warmington can get confused. But drivers are far from “ostracized”. If anything, the cyclist and transit rider are ostracized by Mr Warmington, who is suggesting that cyclists should only travel on routes that already have bike lanes, and bus passengers should have to suffer equally with single-driver automobiles stuck in traffic.

What really grinds my gears is when Mr Warmington refers to “regular people”– the mythical group of Canadian politics. The beauty of using this term is that it refers to anyone the reader wants it to– or anything the writer wants it to. In this case, “regular people” are hard-working, law-abiding, overtaxed motorists. Not hard-working, law-abiding, overtaxed transit riders. No, you see, they are being “protected and serviced by public sector service workers making close to or more than six figures”, surely another one of Mr Warmington’s City Demons.

He once again forgets that so-called “struggling families” (only those that drive cars, remember) can avoid this new $85 fine simply by not driving on the shoulder, just as they have been.

Really, there are so many generalizations, misrepresentations and undeserved slaggings in this article that I could have written three more posts about it. But Mr Warmington is right about one more thing: “The truth is there really is no war at all”. No war. No spending controversy. Just an efficient use of taxpayer dollars that will make a real difference for GO bus passengers.

Waterloo LRT more than justified

This weekend, I came upon an editorial written by the Globe and Mail for Monday’s Simcoe Day paper. I have read it a few times, and each time I am angered by the blissful ignorance and misrepresentation of facts contained within the editorial. Here is the editorial; below I aim to set the record straight.

This week it was Michael Ignatieff’s turn to drop by. In an effort to court local favour, the federal Liberal Leader threw his support behind the region’s $800-million light rail transit commuter proposal. “I am a passionate believer in light rail,” he said, promising to “make this happen.” For an area with such a reputation for intelligence and education, however, the region’s train plan is a surprisingly poor idea. And an issue of national significance.

This may be the paragraph that introduces us to the editorial’s true purpose: illustrating Mr Ignatieff’s perceived naivety and pandering. While I have not heard him speak of light rail before, there are numerous reasons for Mr Ignatieff to believe in LRT, such as increased mobility, increased transportation choice, and possible economic benefits. But the Globe manages to slander both Mr Ignatieff as well as the entire Region of Waterloo for being so smart, yet “surprisingly” so stupid.

While Mr. Ignatieff’s passion may be commendable in general, there’s little to recommend this plan in particular. Light rail transit makes great sense for large urban centres with dense commuter traffic travelling to a downtown employment core or other significant destination. This is not the case in Waterloo Region, which lacks a recognizable downtown and has a population of just 500,000. As it stands now, the train would run from a shopping mall in Waterloo to a shopping mall in Kitchener. Most area jobs are distributed throughout the suburbs, and few commuters use existing bus services. Building a train track will not change this reality.

Oh wait, so they’re not slandering Mr Ignatieff for taking a stand. The Globe is simply endeavouring to educate their readers on where LRT really should be. They tell us that it should be in large urban centres (like Toronto I guess?) and should travel to a “significant destination” or “downtown employment core”.  This would not be news to planners at the Region, who know this full well and planned accordingly. What will be news to them, however, is that the Region of Waterloo “lacks a recognisable downtown”. I spent a few minutes thinking about this statement and how it could be justified, but I cannot wrap my head around it. The Region has not one, but three recognisable downtowns, those being Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge. Certainly they are not the sort of Central Business Districts associated with slightly larger cities such as Hamilton or Quebec City, but they do contain some large offices (insurance companies in particular). The fact that this commercial activity is spread across three downtowns is an even greater cause to rope them together with an advanced LRT system.

The Globe also implies that at 500 000, the Region’s population is simply too small for LRT to be justified. They are conveniently ignoring the example of Edmonton, which had a mere 450 000 people when the city started building the currently successful LRT (for the 1978 Commonwealth Games). And population is the least scientific of measures that can be used to determine if LRT would be viable.

Given equivalent fiscal constraints at the federal level, the inappropriateness of Waterloo Region’s $800-million rail project assumes national importance. That money would be better applied to other, more pressing transportation needs. And for those wishing to dream big, high-speed rail among major urban centres, such as Toronto-Montreal or Calgary-Edmonton makes more sense in the long run. The Waterloo LRT is one train Ottawa would be wise to miss.

In the last three paragraphs of the editorial, the Globe attempts to make the Waterloo LRT a national issue by mixing transportation planning in politics. They tell us that numerous ridings in the Region were narrowly won by Conservatives, and so any MP wanting to hold on to his seat would presumably support and fight for funding for the LRT. That would seem to imply that residents are in favour of the project, suprising given that the Globe calls it a “surprisingly poor idea”.

Furthermore, the editorial ventures into the territory of creating dangerous misconceptions. In the final paragraph, it is called an $800M project, and that “…that money would be better applied to other, more pressing transportation needs.” But in the previous paragraph, it was mentioned that the Ontario government has already committed $300M, making it, at most, a $500M contribution by the federal government (and it won’t likely be that high). And by suggesting that the money could go to more pressing transportation needs, but not suggesting any such needs for consideration, the reader is left hanging.

Finally, while I am an advocate of high speed rail in this country, throwing the “dream” of HSR into this editorial makes no sense. $800M would likely get you from Waterloo to Guelph on a truly high-speed rail, but that is not what the Globe is advocating.

Seriously, this kind of paint-by-numbers and ignorant editorial has become more and more common amongst newspapers in this country. The Globe really hit one out of the park this time.