Toronto·Transit grades

Olivia Chow's transit plan solid, but lacks ambition

Olivia Chow’s transit plan, says former Metrolinx chair Paul Bedford, focuses on improving bus service — "the workhorse of every transit system" — by 10 per cent.

Transit experts wanted to see more from candidate

Olivia Chow said she will take a break before deciding on what's next. 'I do want to contribute,' she told Metro Morning host Matt Galloway Wednesday. 'In what form, I don't know yet.' (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

Olivia Chow’s transit plan, says Paul Bedford, focuses on improving bus service — "the workhorse of every transit system" — by 10 per cent.

"That's important," says Bedford, a former city planner and director of Metrolinx. "That's because 65 per cent of all TTC riders are on the surface."

The second part of Chow’s plan focuses on light rapid transit on Finch and Sheppard Avenues, as well as restoring light rapid transit to Scarborough Town Centre instead of the subway that has been approved by council and the province.

Bedford agreed with Chow that LRT is the better option, with seven LRT stops proposed versus three for the approved subway extension. The LRT would also save a billion dollars. But, said Bedford, after several decades at City Hall, as a planner, and finally as chief city planner, "one thing I've learned — planners advise, council decides."

"I think after a pretty extensive debate about LRT versus subway," said Bedford, "there has to be some respect for a decision being made and moving on."

Another piece of Chow’s transit package is the Downtown Relief Line (DRL), to relieve crowding on the rest of the subway system and on the dangerously overcrowded Yonge line.

Chow has said she will allocate money for an engineering study to establish the route which, for now, is broadly expected to be a line from University Station to Pape Station on the Danforth line.

But Bedford says the reality is that if the DRL is ever built, it needs to go north of the Danforth line and connect to the Eglinton Crosstown.  "It has to form part of a network so people have choices to transfer and move around," said Bedford.

Paul Bedford has spent his career trying to get the TTC moving better. (Paul Bedford)

Bedford also questions the potential of the DRL for intensification or re-development opportunities between Danforth and Union Station. "It's a tunnel going under a very stable, low-density residential neighbourhood." said Bedford.

"There's no way, in my view, that council will demolish houses and put up major developments in the middle of neighbourhoods."

Bedford said Chow also missed the opportunity to make a "courageous action on a bigger scale" with her bus-based transit plan.

"Streetcars are vitally important," said Bedford, in a city where 280,000 people ride the streetcar network every day, far more than ride the entire GO system across the GTA.

I would have to say somewhere between a B and a B-minus.- Paul Bedford

On the King Street route especially, said Bedford, Chow could have transformed the commuting experience overnight with a more bold move.  

One quick thing she could have done immediately, backed by a TTC study, said Bedford, is to prohibit vehicular traffic during rush hour on King. "Load that street up with a train of streetcars," he said, "and you could have a massive improvement overnight on that particular line."

Another step he’s disappointed that Chow didn’t take is to propose a ban on left-hand turns at major intersections instead of allowing "a single driver priority to turn left in front of a huge streetcar."

But Bedford’s biggest objection to Chow’s plan is what he called a lack of ambition.

"They're good ideas, important, useful," said Bedford. But he argued her plan "lacks the scope and the ambition, frankly, to address our current transit problems, but more importantly to address the future."

As a city region, said Bedford, Toronto will have a population the size of New York, suburban New Jersey and Connecticut in another 30 years.

"The kind of transit network you need to serve a region like that and grow the economy is so much more ambitious than what people are thinking of today."

Grading: "I would have to say somewhere between a B and a B-minus."

Eric Miller is a University of Toronto professor and transit expert.

He said he "very much likes" Chow's call for the provision of more surface transit capacity, which he called as important to improving transit service as building new rail lines.

But he agrees Chow's plan needs to be more ambitious. He said she needed a much more aggressive allocation of priority to buses and streetcars so that they actually move through the congestion. "Simply putting more buses on the street will accomplish little if they are stuck in traffic," he said.

"I am less impressed with her rail investment plan, which I think lacks new ideas and is inadequate to the task at hand."

He said Chow's "heart is in the right place" when it comes to transit, but said overall it lacks the vision and boldness that the city's current situation calls for.

Grading: B to B-plus.

Murtaza Haider is an associate professor at Ryerson's Ted Rogers School of Management specializing in transportation management.

He assessed Chow's transit plan as more buses and building the Downtown Relief Line, and said Chow does not identify a financing mechanism and is willing to consider a variety of financing options.

Haider praised Chow's plans to improve the bus service, which he said is the most frequently used transit mode of travel. Hers is the only proposed alternative by any candidate that delivers immediate relief to commuters and is almost certain to be completed in the mayor's first term in office, he said.

Her plan to prioritize construction of a relief line is in agreement with many transport professionals and TTC leadership.

He said he likes how Chow avoids "voodoo economics" and is realistic in her financial outlook by advising voters that transit investments will have to be partially financed by Torontonians.

Chow's plan, however, ignores car-based travel and opportunities to improve signal timings, ramp metering, and congestion pricing, said Haider. He also said her plan leaves out service improvements on the poor performing Yonge-University-Spadina subway line.

Grading: A-minus.

How did the experts grade the plans for the other leading candidates? Read about Doug Ford's plan here and John Tory's plan here.