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Canada Transit Special: Why Toronto’s streetcars are NOT Light Rail (Toronto)

Video: Adam Giambrone (City of Toronto councillor and former TTC Chair) in the City of Toronto council chambers talking about the extreme political difficulties in getting any sort of prioritisation to speed up streetcars on St. Clair Avenue.  (prdaoust, Youtube)

Before this blog features the TTC’s former Transit City LRT plan, a word about Toronto’s streetcars and the problems they face due to system design and lack of prioritised right of ways (ROW) Toronto’s streetcar system, like Melbourne’s, is a ‘legacy’ system designed well before car ownership took off.  Stops are spaced very close together (a stop about every 250 m) which means the service once you get to the stop is going to be slow. Operation in mixed traffic without dedicated lanes (Class C ROW) interferes with service reliability and limits streetcars speeds to be no faster than the congested traffic in front of it.

It’s obvious that such problems stem from the stop spacing, features of operation (such as front door only boarding) and level of priority given by the class of ROW and not so much because the vehicle has a trolley pole, steel wheels, makes chiming sounds, and is called a streetcar. Simply swapping a unprioritised streetcar stuck in congestion stopping everywhere for a unprioritised bus stuck in congestion stopping everywhere may well cost extra money, but is unlikely to improve service a great deal.

Graham Currie (Department of Civil Enginnering, Monash University) and Amer Shalaby (Department of Civil Enginnering, University of Toronto) in 2006 published a paper titled ‘Success and Challenges in Modernizing Streetcar Systems: Experiences in Melbourne, Australia, and Toronto, Canada‘ [paywall] comparing Melbourne’s Yarra Trams to the TTC’s Streetcar system and looking at the challenges that these ‘legacy’ systems face such as keeping reliability and speed at acceptable levels in the face of growing car congestion.

Indeed, one of the reasons why Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and Light Rail Transit (LRT) modes were created was to get faster speed and more separation from car congestion by giving vehicles their own dedicated lanes, wider stop spacing, and prioritisation at intersections. So in this sense, BRT and LRT are an intrinsically different style of service to the local stop-everywhere bus and streetcar.

Removing stops to increase speed and giving transit vehicles their own lanes to increase speed, cut the number of vehicles used, and increase reliability is politically charged and difficult because a conscious, public decision to spend money on explicitly prioritising public transport over the car must be made. But if you don’t do it you can expect a much compromised quality of public transport service.


Canada Transit Special: A chat with former Toronto Mayor David Miller (Toronto) reporter Madeline Stephenson interviewed the then City of Toronto Mayor, David Miller about his vision for public transport in Toronto and the next four years. The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is owned and operated by the City of Toronto.

The Transit City transit plan caused controversy in Toronto; the BrisUrbane blog will cover the particulars of Transit City in another post for historical purposes. However for this post, former City of Toronto Mayor talks about how he felt that public transport really was not just a tool to get people around, but something really important in good city-building. The ability to guide development into particular corridors and draw or discourage development away from established single-family home neighborhoods was one of the benefits he cites.

If you build rapid transit in a city like Toronto, you encourage development, but you encourage it in the right way. So you get development building along the rapid transit lines instead of development pressure in neighborhoods in single family homes.

To David Miller, good public transport makes a good city

If you have a city built around public transit … … you have a city that’s livable, affordable
and meets high environmental standards.

Toronto’s recent mayoral elections resulted in the election of a new Mayor, Rob Ford, who has different ideas centred around subways, subway expansion and getting public transport out of the way of cars.

Note: This YouTube video is embedded consistent with the the YouTube terms of service (here)

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May 8, 2011 at 8:49 am

Is density destiny? Transport for Suburbia (book review)

Dr Paul Mees latest book, Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile age. Image credit: Earthscan.

My central argument is that the public transport problem is easier to solve than people think. We don’t need to demolish our suburbs and rebuild them at many times their current densities; nor do we need a fundamental transformation of human consciousness …

-Preface, Transport for Suburbia, P. Mees

Is density destiny? Dr Paul Mees latest book Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile age explores this question. It’s a very readable book, written for the ordinary person to understand. It walks the reader through the rise of car dominance ‘autopia’ and the decline of private rail, tram and bus operations. It argues that citywide density figures have been used for arguing against public transport improvements. For those who wonder just how all-pervasive this density-population-transit mode share idea is,  there is a ‘density’ comparison table in the Northern Link EIS documents on page 2-39 (italic emphasis added, link here). To be fair, it was written before the release of Transport for Suburbia.

The convenience and flexibility provided by private motor vehicle travel appears to override other
considerations, such as personal finances, for the majority of suburban residents in Australian capital cities. The demand for this mode of travel can be expected to continue in the future.

Furthermore, the form and density of most Australian cities, including Brisbane and the other major centres in South East Queensland, demand a degree of reliance on private motor vehicle travel, at least to a public transport node.

Table 2-7 illustrates the low density of settlement in the Brisbane urban area compared with other Australian cities and international cities with arguably better public transport systems and a lower reliance on private motor vehicle travel.

– Northern Link Environmental Impact Statement,

Volume 1, Chapter 2 “project rationale” page 2-39, by SKM Connell Wagner.

The table from the NorthernLink EIS shows Brisbane with the lowest density and lowest population out of the cities of London, Paris, San Francisco, Vancouver, Sydney and Melbourne. The BrisUrbane Blog intends to revisit this issue in later posts.

The book has a detailed look at ‘greener cars’ and accompanying claims that electric cars or more fuel efficient cars will make ‘autopia’ sustainable.  Mees argues that the fuel efficiency of the Australian car fleet from 1963-2006 has remained virtually the same over that period and thus fuel efficient cars won’t overall do much and also, depending on how clean the power plants are, electric cars are likely to simply transfer emissions from the exhaust pipe to the power station.

A detailed table of citywide densities are provided on pages 60-61; Los Angeles, the poster child of freeways and sprawl turns out to be one of the most dense and highly populated cities in the list (out of a set of US, Canadian and Australian cities). It also shows that LA has terrible transport mode share of just 4.7%. In contrast, Brisbane with a density far below that of LA and a far lower population has a much better transport mode share of 13.8%.

The thorny issue of private versus public is dealt with in chapter 5, with the book recommending that strategic functions such as network planning and ticketing should rest with a public authority, rather than just be left to individual operators. Chapter six examines the case of public transport in Melbourne and Toronto, and why, despite their similarities, public transport patronage collapsed in Melbourne but held up in Toronto, despite Toronto having far less train infrastructure than Melbourne.

Usefully, it takes all of these examples and proposes a general working model of what a successful public transport system looks like. It proposes a public agency in control of network planning, fares and ticketing, and a focus on network planning rather than huge density increases to improve public transport, so things like getting the different modes connecting with each other through interchanges, simple line structures, pulse timing and decent frequency.

The BrisUrbane blog feels that some parts of the book perhaps overstated some things like the timing of SmartBus at Huntingdale station (if the bus connects multiple railway lines, which train do you time for?), it is all in all a valuable book for transit and community advocates who might want something easier to read than very technical engineering textbooks. This isn’t likely to be the only transit book review for this year- The BrisUrbane blog looks forward to reviewing another transit advocacy book, Human Transit, by Jarrett Walker of the Human Transit Blog when it is released.

Acknowledgment: EarthScan publishers for allowing copyright permission to republish the book’s cover image for the purposes of this blog post. Transport for Suburbia may be purchased here. The BrisUrbane blog is not associated with EarthScan and receives no benefit or inducement for the publication of this book review.

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March 19, 2011 at 7:41 pm

Perth’s Rail Revolution: Peter Newman on why Perth chose rail (Part 2)

In 1979, the WA state government closed down the Fremantle railway line as a first step to closing down Perth’s rail system. In this second part, Professor Peter Newman talks about the urban development impacts the presence of the railway is having on land use around its stations.

Professor Newman explains how Transit Oriented Development (TOD) is a market-oriented process, and points out the number of TODs at Subiaco, The Esplanade and Wellard. The Property Council of Australia has some documentation on the Subiaco Central development.

Getting the rail project on its feet was difficult- the local newspaper capitialised on the perception that ‘rail is expensive’, which is of course is what this blog terms ‘cost-only analysis’, a type of pseudo-analysis where the benefits that arise from the expenditure on higher quality are completely ignored (see newspaper excerpt below, cf. cost-benefit analysis).

This Blog has sourced a slide presentation by the Public Transport Authority of WA. Titled New Metro Rail Project- Lessons Learnt [sic].*

The Public Transport Authority of WA’s challenge? (slide 19):

  • Pre existing,very low density urbanisation
  • Among highest per capita world car ownership
  • Entrenched culture of car usage for most trips
  • Disregard for Public Transport
  • A long, urban corridor
  • Maximise access along the route to major centres including Kwinana and Thomsons Lake

Of course that was only the engineering challenges! There were political ones too, with the leading newspaper publishing unfavorable articles. The high total cost (never mind the low per-km unit cost) and the exceedingly small population of Mandurah formed focal points around which a storm of criticism swirled:

Mandurah is home to 45,000 people, of whom roughly 350 commute to Perth by bus each weekday.
The government hopes that by reducing the 68 minute bus journey to a 48 minute train ride, 1,350 more Mandurah residents will choose to spend $75 each week travelling to Perth.

How many people want to spend 10% of their weekly salary and 96 minutes travelling to work in Perth each day?

Source: “ The West Australian” Friday 23/1/2004;
Special Advertisement – open letter to all West Australians

– slide 42, ibid.

It seems that the increased comfort, the performance of park and ride and bus feeders and the faster journey time as well as induced demand and the improved access to these suburbs for those thinking about living there didn’t factor in the criticism. This blog intends to argue, in the future, that the widening of the catchment area by using buses also appears to be a key reason behind the patronage on Brisbane’s South East Busway, rather than the technological choice of mode.

The success of the Perth-Mandurah line itself raises questions about “theoretical” best fit of transport to land use planning. Theories are there to help predict outcomes in the real world- when the theory no longer properly describes what is going on in the real world, the theory must be modified. Perhaps it is time to do just that.

Traditional mass transit railway achieves its “mass” through penetration of high urban densities.
In low urban densities the “masses” must be brought, or come to the railway in their own way – the stations become the concentration points of population density

– slide 20, New Metro Rail Project- Lessons Learnt

Dr Paul Mees has argued in Transport for Suburbia that integration, particularly with frequent buses running to rail stations, can get patronage up to levels that will support rail, despite low densities, and illustrates this by using many examples, the most prominent being Toronto. Of course it previously has been easy to argue and explain away that idea using classical “it won’t work here” arguments: Canada is a country overseas, Toronto is much higher density, Australians don’t do interchange, and it snows there.

The Perth-Mandurah line shows that it does work, and there is now a nice model right here in Australia to demonstrate that. By extension, one would expect the feeder model in low density areas to also work for light rail as as well, after all, to put it crudely, LRT is a rail vehicle with just lower capacity, and with the added flexibility of being able to run on streets.

The Transport Textbook places the unit cost for the Perth-Mandurah rail project at just $14.5 million/km (2009) which is amazing value for money. For comparison, the Gold Coast Light rail project is somewhere in the range of 20-35 million/km.


* Proper grammar would have this as ‘lessons learned‘.

Perth’s Rail Revolution: Peter Newman on why Perth chose rail

In 1979, the WA state government closed down the Fremantle railway line as a first step to closing down Perth’s rail system. A report by The Bureau of Transport Economics investigated electrification or replacing the rail line with a busway, and it was the busway which had the higher benefit-cost ratio.

This report presents the evaluations of alternative public transport improvements in the urban corridor between Perth and Fremantle, The alternatives considered are a continuation of existing services, electrification of the existing rail service, and replacement of the railway with a busway.

Perth-Fremantle corridor study, Bureau of Transport Economics, January 1973

Community outrage at the line’s closure and replacement with a bus service led to the formation of Perth’s Friends of the Railways, which included then Fremantle councillor, Peter Newman, who is now a world-renowned expert and professor of sustainability at Curtin University.

In 1983, the incumbent government was voted out of office and rail services were re-instated on the Fremantle line. In 1985 the line was electrified (many of the diesel trains would ultimately end up being sold to Auckland, NZ). The electrification of the Fremantle line led to a patronage increase of 20% (compared to when the line was closed). Rail extensions to the north, and later to the south, were built.

Interestingly, in 1992 patronage on the Perth rail system was 7 million, which is about where rail patronage in Auckland is today. By 1997 this had grown to 30 million, and in 2009/2010 this stands at 56 million and growing.

Brisbane’s patronage is 65.1 million passengers for its rail system, which is only just in front, despite Brisbane having almost double the number of stations, rapid population growth, and buying new trains that are identical to the ones being run on the Perth system. Comparison with Adelaide, which didn’t do any major upgrades and still runs diesel trains, over the same time period, showed more or less stagnant patronage. The basic service frequencies in both Adelaide and Brisbane are 30 minutes off-peak, all day, which is locally regarded as horrible, and bus connections leave much to be desired.

A crisis can be transforming, and cause a sudden change in both public policy and on-the-ground outcomes. The crisis facilitated dramatic changes to Perth’s rail system, and now it has come full circle, with high rail patronage for a city and network of its size and probably the nation’s best train service frequency, with trains every 15 minutes in the off-peak, all day and weekend to all stations. Linked to a feeder bus system, passengers are collected from bus stops in their street and then transfer to trains for the trip to the CBD. It doesn’t seem credible to say that a rail system cannot serve ‘dispersed trips’.

In each case there was a political process. You’d have to say the transport planners really didn’t want this. They always said, “anything a train can do, a bus can do better and cheaper.

And they are wrong.

And the reality is, we have shown that over and over again. But many of the transport planners still say it. They have a fetish about flexibility.
In reality what you need is speed and capacity.

– Peter Newman

While Brisbane looks to copy London, Paris, Tokyo and Berlin, where we really should be looking at is in our own backyard! Places like Perth where buses feed rail and Melbourne where orbital bus rapid transit (BRT) has been a success show that even with cities spread out like ours, good public transport is possible.

LRT: Why Brisbane missed the tram

Brisbane has experienced the failure of LRT proposals three times over, and since this time two further LRT proposals (former premier Peter Beattie’s Smart Cities proposal and The Greens’ Light Rail plan for Brisbane) have appeared. It seems the issue of LRT will just not go away.

This blog recently came across this paper which explores why Brisbane’s three serious LRT proposals all failed. Written by Peter Turner of the engineering consultancy firm Parsons Brinkerhoff, it surprisingly identifies a range of non-technical issues a reasons why the three LRT proposals for Brisbane failed.

For any LRT proposal to succeed in Brisbane, all the following things must all align:

  • The proposal must be simple, and have “common sense” about it
  • Funding must be secured
  • Community groups and the community must support it
  • Stakeholder groups must have genuine consultation (i.e. Property Council)
  • It must serve demand
  • At least for the initial stages, it should not run on the busway or require busway conversion

A stable and committed partnership between State and Council levels of government, particularly the support of the Lord Mayor of Brisbane is absolutely critical.

This blog therefore believes that the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle is a helpful guidance. This means 1 or 2 LRT lines, serving areas that have the best chance of high patronage: The New Farm-CBD-West End corridor. This corridor has proven high patronage: BUZ 199 carried about 3.4 million passengers in 2009 and now runs every 5 minutes in peak hour,  the CityGlider has carried 1 million passengers to date and runs every 5 minutes in peak hour, and the New Farm-CBD-Fairfield 196 bus carried 1 million in 2009 and runs every 15 minutes for most of the off-peak.

The inclusion of West End and New Farm cannot be stressed enough. The later light rail proposals such as BrizTram, were compromised because they had the “profitable high-patronage bits”, such as West End, The University of Queensland and New Farm cut off. West End is ideal because of the large amount of industrial land that can be converted over to sustainable transit-oriented development, particularly along Montague Road.

Further issues such as proposals to run heritage trams (and use non-standard voltage to allow this to happen) and potential tram-train operation over the QR heavy rail network only served to further cloud and complicate the LRT proposals. This blog therefore favours the use of standard equipment, heritage services not be run on it and no interface with the QR heavy rail system. Excessive tunneling and bridge works should probably be avoided too as it will easily price the proposal out of existence.

The argument that “a light rail system is not a council responsibility” is sometimes advanced. The Gold Coast City Council however has set a precedent against this, by contributing $120 million of its own money. By spreading the cost burden over different levels of government it becomes possible to pay for the system. The private sector (developers along the route) may also be another source of funds if LRT is to happen in Brisbane.

Funding breakdown for the Gold Coast Light Rail project, stage 1:

  • Commonwealth Government – $365 million
  • Queensland Government – $464 million
  • Gold Coast City Council – $120 million

The Gold Coast Rapid Transit website is here:

One Cent Light Rail

We are often told the Light Rail costs too much and would be too big a cost burden.

It’s strange then to walk around Brisbane and see multi-billion dollar road projects in construction or newly in operation. But for today, we look at Hillsborough county*, Tampa Bay, Florida where they face a proposition in November for a one cent in the dollar sales tax (capped at $50) to fund light rail and complimentary transit improvements. Tampa Bay is a bit like the Gold Coast. And for them, it comes down to:

  • Jobs
  • Urban renewal
  • Attracting business
  • A good way for the community to get around

Businesses need to get their employees to work on time, and need to find a workforce. And that workforce will probably want to live in a city with a good quality of life, amenities and services.This is where good transit comes into the picture.

Nobody wants to live in a city where living and commuting is an ordeal, affordable houses are at far-flung places on the city fringe, everything is far and hard to get to, rising petrol prices and ever longer commutes eat your wages, family and leisure time, and public transport options are poor.

Many US Light Rail systems were funded with the help of voter-approved taxes where the community voted to tax itself so the project got built and operating. It’s a pity this ballot approach isn’t done in Australia because a direct ballot would unambiguously and firmly reveal what the people want and were willing to pay for.

Light Rail may cost more, but one must also remember that while you are paying more buck, you are also getting more bang. Light Rail stimulates development, strengthens communities and can increase property values. It’s also cheaper, faster to install and more flexible than a metro.

Let’s look at some ways to help pay for Light rail:

  • Developers can pitch in to help pay for the system
  • Higher property values means increased revenue because rates are calculated from property values
  • There are more people to collect rates from because more people will move into the area to live next to the light rail line

Newer track technologies such as “cut and paste” track could also significantly lower the start-up costs and installation time for Light Rail. The whole life-cycle cost, not just start-up costs, should be taken into account.  To use an analogy, we all are familiar with buying the cheap printer that turns out be hugely expensive to run because the ink to keep it running is sold at high prices. The Gold Coast Light Rail project found that when comparing LRT with BRT the costs were roughly similar over the life-cycle.

Interestingly, Hillsborough county does not seem to have suffered from the “Bus vs Light Rail” debate, and actually their plan includes many complimentary Bus Rapid Transit lines as well. This is a very sound approach. One sometimes gets the feeling in Brisbane that there is a “the answer is more bus, now what was the question again?” approach; When we really should be looking at how Brisbane’s transit is going to move forward to the next stage, especially on the heavily loaded routes.

At one cent in the dollar for good transit, it sounds like a good deal.

The Ballot measure that will allow residents to tax themselves to help fund Light Rail, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), bikeways and some road improvements. Image used with kind permission of Moving Hillsborough Forward. Click for URL.

* A county can be thought of as like a local government or council area.

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