Disappearing GO-TTC fare discount a major blow to regional transit in Toronto

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Earlier this week, transit riders learned that the fare discount for connecting between GO Transit and the TTC would soon come to an end.

The provincial Liberal government introduced the discounted double fare in 2017. It reduced the cost of a trip taken on both GO and TTC by $1.50 if the fare was paid on a Presto fare card. For many years, there were discounted transfers between GO and suburban transit agencies, but this was the first time such a discount was offered to TTC passengers.

The Liberals also planned discounts for transferring between suburban bus systems such as York Region Transit and Miway, subsidies that would have been covered by the provincial carbon pricing scheme. This would have reduced the impact of another fare barrier. (A short bus trip across Steeles Avenue costs nearly $7.)

When the Doug Ford-led Progressive Conservative government was elected, the provincial climate change plan was scrapped, along with those planned fare changes. Now, the province will not renew the $18.5 million annual subsidy for linked GO-TTC fares, though it did introduce free fares for children on GO Transit.

This will especially affect commuters to York University, who previously enjoyed a one-seat ride to the heart of the campus on YRT and GO buses. When the subway extension opened, YRT retreated to terminals north of Steeles Avenue, forcing a transfer to the subway or a long walk across six lanes of traffic and campus parking lots. GO Transit, too, moved to a new terminal at Highway 407, two subway stops from campus. While GO commuters at least saved $3.00 a day with the discounted double fare, YRT commuters got nothing. (Of all the suburban agencies, only Brampton Transit continues to serve the campus.)

This is also a blow to what’s left of SmartTrack, Mayor John Tory’s signature transit plan that was once pitched as “London-style surface rail.” At first, SmartTrack was a 53-kilometre heavy-rail line, mostly piggybacking on existing GO Transit corridors, but including a problematic western branch to the Airport Corporate Centre in Mississauga, all on an integrated TTC fare. Eventually SmartTrack just consisted of more frequent, electric GO service, along with additional station stops and fare integration. This was much more realistic, but it distracted from other needs such as the Relief Line and GO’s own RER regional rail plan.

Lower GO fares for short trips and the TTC-GO fare discount were all part of this scaled-back version; as late as last year, Tory called additional fare integration a “critical component” of his pitch. Eliminating the fare discounts is yet another blow to SmartTrack.

As Jonathan English points out in Urban Toronto, the GO rail network represents “tremendous infrastructure that could greatly improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Torontonians.” But it lies “letting it lie mostly dormant because we won’t make the comparatively small operating funding investments required to improve the service and make the fares fair.”

The $18.5 million annual cost is a small price to pay for improving transit accessibility and utilization of our existing corridors. Increasing that annual subsidy to reduce the cost of transfers between the TTC , York Region, Brampton, and Mississauga would, too be a worthwhile investment.

Sadly, the current provincial government does not see the value in promoting fairer fare systems, nor regional transit in general. In response to budget cuts, Metrolinx reduced or eliminated service on five GO bus routes last month, and more may be to come. While there may be enthusiasm for building a new “Ontario Line” and a subway extension to Richmond Hill, there’s little regard for the actual transit rider.

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Ontario’s new ride: ION LRT opens in Kitchener-Waterloo

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On June 21, 2019, Ontario’s first modern light rail transit (LRT) system opened to the public. The launch of ION in Kitchener-Waterloo represents an important milestone for both the region and for the province as a whole: additional light rail systems in Ottawa and Toronto will open in the next few years, while other systems are planned for Hamilton and Mississauga-Brampton.

There are several things that make ION particularly remarkable.

Kitchener-Waterloo’s population is much smaller than other cities that have adopted rail transit in Canada and the United States. In 2016, the combined population of the cities of Kitchener and Waterloo was less than 350,000, making Kitchener-Waterloo the smallest urban area in North America to boast such a system (Waterloo Region, which also includes the City of Cambridge and three rural townships, has a population of nearly 550,000). Kitchener and Waterloo were connected by streetcar until 1946, then by a trolley bus until 1973. Kitchener Transit, then Grand River Transit (GRT) continued to serve the two cities.

Despite the small population, LRT makes sense here, as many of the region’s trip generators line up along a single corridor, including Downtown Kitchener, Uptown Waterloo, the University of Waterloo, several high schools, and the main hospital. It is also within walking distance of Wilfrid Laurier University. ION is also fully integrated with the connecting bus system, which was re-organized in conjunction with the opening of the new LRT to provide more direct routing and better connect with the rail service.

By operating on dedicated corridors and alongside regular traffic, the ION route also demonstrates the flexibility unique to light rail systems. Where it runs on private rights of way, crossings are protected by railway-style lights, bells, and gates. Where it operates in reserved lanes at street level, there are dedicated signals and transit priority at most intersections. This isn’t just a streetcar.

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ION LRT route map, from the GRT website

Torontonians may be forgiven for confusing LRT with traditional streetcars; ION uses Bombardier-built light rail vehicles similar to Toronto’s new low-floor streetcars, and the TTC has marketed streetcars on Spadina Avenue, Queen’s Quay, and St. Clair Avenue as “streetcar rapid transit” before. The difference, though, is that ION LRT stops are spaced further apart than local streetcar stops in Toronto, they take advantage of signal priority, and they partially run off-street.

LRT, of course, fills a wide spectrum. At its slowest and simplest is the typical streetcar, such as Toronto’s legacy street railway, or some of the new streetcars being built in the United States, such as Detroit’s QLine or the Atlanta Streetcar. Streetcars in private right-of-ways, such as on Spadina or St. Clair Avenues in Toronto, provide additional reliability and speed. On the other end are metro-style LRT systems completely separated from traffic, often featuring tunnels or elevated structures. Ottawa’s Confederation Line, once it finally opens, will be an example of LRT built to the highest standards. The Ctrain in Calgary comes close to this standard as well, though trains are forced to crawl through downtown on a congested Seventh Avenue transit mall.

I had the opportunity to ride ION twice in the opening week: the first time, on Monday June 24 (on the way home from a weekend in Stratford) and again with a few friends on Saturday June 29. Trains were consistently packed; GRT reported that over 73,000 passengers rode the LRT during opening weekend.

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ION train at Charles and Benson Streets, wrapping around Oktoberfest headquarters

Operations were not yet perfected. On Saturday June 29, there were noticeable gaps in service, with workers doing switch repairs at the northern terminal at Conestoga Mall. This caused long waits at the northern end of the line. The automatic train control system was disabled, reducing speeds along sections of track where operators had to operate by line-of-sight.

The schedules could also be a little faster, with reduced station dwell times. Trains must also crawl through tight corners in Downtown Kitchener, Uptown Waterloo, and at Haywood Avenue. But it was nice to see transit priority working: trains ran through many intersections without having to stop, and speeds were impressive (up to 70 kilometres per hour) on the off-road sections of track.

1-IMG_2199ION train on Duke Street in Downtown Kitchener

Along the entire corridor, travel times have improved only slightly over the old express bus, the Route 200 iXpress. Between Conestoga and Fairview Park terminals, the scheduled bus time ranged from 45 to 59 minutes, depending on the time of day. The LRT has a consistent 43-minute scheduled travel time between the two terminals. But it still promises to be more reliable.

The greatest improvements in travel time are between University of Waterloo and Conestoga Mall, Uptown Waterloo, and Downtown Kitchener, where travel times have been reduced by 5-7 minutes.

A promised second phase will extend ION LRT south to Cambridge. For now, an express bus serves the planned corridor.

There is certainly room for improvement,  though these at least can be made slowly and incrementally. Hopefully, as passengers and drivers get more used to LRT operations, travel times can be tightened up a bit. But the system will be successful if it attracts more riders (without turning away existing passengers with overcrowding or longer travel times due to transfers from buses), and encourages higher-density, transit-oriented development along the route.

I will return to Kitchener-Waterloo later this summer once ION is “broken in” and the novelty wears out. Offering free fares during the opening week was a nice way to encourage residents to check out the new service, but overcrowding and inexperience were problems.

I am hopeful that ION helps to change local attitudes towards light rail and encourages other mid-sized cities and suburban municipalities to follow Waterloo Region’s example.

1-IMG_2391-001ION train approaching Fairway Terminal. The speed limit on this section of track is 70 km/h.

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Biking off to Buffalo

IMG_6241Tondawanda Rail Trail

Back on Victoria Day weekend, I biked down to Toronto’s Union Station, loaded by wheels onto a GO train, and headed for Niagara. I have biked through Niagara before, and it is a very pleasant place for cycling, with many paved paths, quiet roads, and paved shoulders and bike lanes along many busier roads. Charming towns such as Niagara-on-the-Lake and Port Colborne offer many places for cyclists to eat, drink, and stay. If you haven’t yet done so, GO Transit’s bike train is worth checking out this year.

It is also possible to cross the border by bike as well, where there are many great bike routes and parks worth exploring. On my last trip, this is exactly what I did.

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GO Transit’s bike train at Union Station

Officially, cyclists may cross at three of the four bridges over the Niagara River. To the north, cyclists may cross at the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge, which connects Ontario Highway 405 with Interstate 190. However, cyclists must cross with traffic (there’s no sidewalk, and pedestrians are prohibited), an unappealing option.

The Rainbow Bridge allows both pedestrians and cyclists, though cyclists can not use the sidewalk (which offers great view of the nearby falls),but must also ride with traffic. But the Rainbow Bridge prohibits trucks; it is easy to access from city streets in both Niagara Falls, Ontario, and Niagara Falls, New York.

The Peace Bridge, at the end of the Queen Elizabeth Way in Fort Erie, also permits pedestrians and cyclists, though cyclists must walk their bikes on the sidewalk. A multi-year rehabilitation project closed the sidewalk, but work was recently completed and the sidewalk will open shortly. In the meantime, the Peace Bridge offers a shuttle van (I called on July 1 2019 to confirm its operation, the representative I spoke to advises to call the Peace Bridge office to request a pick up). The Peace Bridge’s website offers detailed instructions on how to access the crossing on both sides.

The Peace Bridge is free to pedestrians and cyclists in both directions, though cyclists on the Rainbow Bridge are charged $1 (US or Canadian) to travel to Canada.

I chose to take the Rainbow Bridge both ways. It being a long weekend, I had to wait in traffic both ways, but at least the views are decent, and it’s a flat bridge deck.

IMG_6166Crossing the Rainbow Bridge by bike means waiting in traffic…

IMG_6169…though at least the view is nice

Once across in Niagara Falls, New York, it is easy to access Niagara Falls State Park, which offers great views of the Falls, and is free to enter (though there are charges for parking and for accessing the viewing tower and lower gorge trails). Cyclists are asked to dismount and walk in sections of the park, though it is a reasonable request due to the crowds.

I then biked along the Niagara Scenic Parkway upriver towards Tondawanda. The parkway was formerly named the Robert Moses State Parkway, but it has since been tamed to improve pedestrian and cycling facilities along the Niagara River, with the road closed completely at the Rainbow Bridge, and narrowed elsewhere. I doubt the Power Broker would have approved.

1-IMG_1624.JPGAbandoned section of the Robert Moses State Parkway under the Rainbow Bridge

South of Tonawanda, I chose to follow a new rail trail that followed an old interurban line that connected Buffalo with Tonawanda and Niagara Falls. The International Railway Company once operated a large network of street railways in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, as well as rural lines leading as far as Hamburg and Lockport. It also once operated a tourist trolley along both sides of the Niagara River tourist trolley along both sides of the Niagara River, making it a truly international operation. Interurban service ended in 1937, while the last streetcars ran in 1950.

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Tonawanda Rail Trail guide sign

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, the public successor to the IRC, retained ownership of the Tonawanda corridor, planning a spur line of the new Buffalo Metro LRT. But local opposition and a lack of funds derailed those plans; happily, it is now a wonderful trail with safe, signalized crossings at every major cross street.

Once in Buffalo, there are many bike lanes, and lower levels of traffic. Not once was I honked at or felt threatened by motorists. The city is mostly flat, and there are many neighbourhoods and landmarks worth checking out, with great restaurants, bars, and breweries. There are many hotels and bed and breakfasts in Downtown Buffalo and in the Allentown area.

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Bike Lanes on tree-lined Richmond Avenue

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Symphony Circle, one of many traffic circles as part of Fredrick Law Olmsted’s parkway system developed for Buffalo

Visiting Buffalo on a Sunday/Monday of a Canadian long weekend also meant being in town on normal working day on Monday, where commercial and institutional buildings are open to the public. The view from the observation deck at Buffalo City Hall is fantastic, while the Council Chamber is an art deco masterpiece.

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I had lunch in the Ellicott Square Building, which, when completed in 1896, was the largest office building in the world. The building was designed by Charles Atwood of Chicago’s D.H. Burham & Company, and its interior courtyard is spectacular. Several food vendors operate weekdays.

1-IMG_1570-001Courtyard, Ellicott Square Building

Buffalo is an attractive cycling destination because a back-up option exists. The NFTA buses are all equipped with bike racks; the Route 40 bus runs direct from Downtown Buffalo to Downtown Niagara Falls, New York. The Monday was cool, wet, and windy, and I was tired (I later found out I was coming down with a bad cold), so I opted to spend the extra time cycling around downtown and the Erie Canal Harbour area and take advantage of the bus service back.

The GO Niagara bike train operates every weekend until Labour Day, and again during Canadian Thanksgiving Weekend. The Buffalo-Niagara region has a lot to offer cyclists, and it is worth your consideration.

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How the QEW made way for Ontario’s transportation innovation

IMG_1263.JPGQueen Elizabeth Way looking east towards Dixie Road in Mississauga

Eighty years ago, the Queen Elizabeth Way was officially dedicated by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (for whom it was named). The QEW, which connected Toronto with Hamilton and Niagara Falls, was not only Canada’s first superhighway, it was also the longest divided highway in North America. When it opened on June 7, 1939, it featured such innovations as continuous lighting, extensive landscaping, and Canada’s first cloverleaf interchange.

But the QEW was not built to modern freeway standards. Despite boasting interchanges and traffic circles, it also had many signalized intersections, private driveways, as well as two lift bridges. As traffic increased after the Second World War, the QEW became known as a notorious “death trap.” Luckily, safety innovations developed by Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation and its predecessors have since made Ontario’s highways among the safest on the continent. Interestingly, the QEW is also indirectly responsible for the creation of one of North America’s most successful commuter rail systems.

I wrote more on the history of the QEW and Ontario’s record of highway safety innovation for TVO.

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Punkeydoodle’s Corners and the world’s highest numbered address

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Last weekend, I went for a ride in Waterloo Region, particularly in Wilmot Township, to the west of Kitchener-Waterloo. Despite some deceptively difficult hills and a strong headwind going back east, it was a very pleasant ride. Outside of Toronto, motorists seem to be quite courteous towards cyclists, with most giving me plenty of room. It helped too that many of Waterloo Region’s rural roads have paved shoulders.

I made several stops along the way, including Castle Kilbride in Baden, a wonderfully preserved Victorian home. It was built by the Livingston family, who made their fortune in flax and linseed oil. The house, a national historic site, is now a museum operated by Wilmot Township.

Castle Kilbride.JPGCastle Kilbride

I biked as far west as the interestingly named hamlet of Punkeydoodle’s Corners, located at the point where Waterloo Region, Perth County, and Oxford County meet.

Though the origin of the crossroads’ name is not known for sure, the most common theory is that a local innkeeper on the old Huron Road (an early colonization road that connected Guelph with Goderich on Lake Huron) like to sing “Yankee Doodle,” but it sounded more like “Punkey Doodle” to his patrons. The hamlet is now bypassed by Highways 7 and 8, and local business migrated to nearby New Hamburg, located on the railway.

The Punkeydoodle’s Corners signs are commonly stolen, and one of the signs was obviously missing when I visited. But there’s one more claim to fame: the world’s highest street address number: 986039 Oxford-Perth Road.

986039.jpg986039 Oxford-Perth Road, a private residence with what is probably the highest numbered address in the world. Road markers for Oxford County Road 24 and Perth County Road 101 are in the background. 

In many parts of Ontario, rural addresses have a six-digit number, often known as 911 or fire numbers. In Dufferin County, for example, the first two digits refer to the road itself, with each rural road assigned an unique number. Each road is then broken down into sections, represented by the third digit. The last three digits indicate the distance — in decametres — from the beginning of the road section to the property’s entrance, with even numbers on the west or south side of the road.

Before 911 numbers were introduced, addresses might only consist of a family or business name, rural route number and the name of the village or town with the nearest post office, or by the property’s lot and concession numbers.

For example, 795112 3rd Line East, Mono, is the address of Mono Cliffs Provincial Park. The number 79, an odd number, has been assigned to the 3rd Line East of Hurontario Street (which runs north-south), while the third digit, 5, represents the section of 3rd Line East north of Mono Centre Road. The entrance to the park is 1.12 kilometres north of Mono Centre Road, on the west side of the road.

This system allows emergency responders to pinpoint an address quickly and accurately. This is especially important in rural areas, where emergency personnel may be volunteers arriving in their own vehicles. In many parts of southern Ontario, rural roads may simply go by a name, or they may also have a highway or county road number, or still be known by their concession or line numbers. Urban areas, like Orangeville and Shelburne in Dufferin County, have their own numbering systems, separate from the rural 911 addresses.

Each county may have a slightly different system, but they all have the same purpose. 986039 Oxford-Perth Road just happens to be in the far southeast corner of Perth County, hence its high number. The lowest address numbers in rural Perth County can be found in the northwest corner, near Molesworth.

It’s worth noting that not all rural areas developed similar numbering systems. In Toronto and York Region, road addresses are based on their origin point. For east-west streets that cross Yonge Street, street numbers start on other side. For example, Yonge Street’s numbering starts at 1 Yonge Street, the Toronto Star Building, and ends at 21137 Yonge Street, where it unceremoniously disappears into the Holland Marsh. 

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The future of Downtown Brampton

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Metrolinx-owned houses on Railroad Street, Brampton

Over the last three years, I have been following developments in Downtown Brampton, especially lands surrounding the Brampton GO Station. In April 2016, Metrolinx, the provincial agency responsible for GO Transit, began buying properties in the northwest corner of Brampton’s downtown core, including twelve houses and two low-rise office buildings. The land assembly was for a new surface parking lot, an odd choice for a transit agency that was otherwise interested in promoting compatible land use and transit connections in designated urban centres.

It was later revealed that Metrolinx, Ryerson University, and the City of Brampton were working on a new downtown satellite campus, with the main academic building to be constructed on part of the GO parking lot, north of the rail corridor. While the construction of more surface parking in a downtown core was still a bad idea, at least there was a reason behind the land assembly. The new Ryerson site would make use of other city resources, such as the Rose Theatre and the planned Centre for Innovation (CFI). The CFI would include academic space and a central library, to be built on city-owned land south of the GO station and bus terminal.

university mapPrevious plans for Downtown Brampton, including the Centre for Innovation and the Ryerson campus on the GO Transit lot. Replacement parking would be built on land assembled south of the rail corridor. 

In October, the newly elected Conservative government cancelled provincial funding for Brampton’s Ryerson campus, as well as other suburban satellite universities planned in Markham and Milton. While Brampton and Ryerson decided to continue working on a scaled-back development including a new centre for cybersecurity, a new plan was developed for downtown revitalization. Details are available in the May 15, 2019 Committee of Council agenda.

Here’s a simplified summary of the new plan:

  • The CFI will now be built on the north side of Nelson Street West, between Main Street and George Street, on the site of the existing downtown bus terminal, a 6-story office building constructed in 1989, and an older two-storey commercial block. The office building, though only thirty years old, is reported to be in poor condition. The new 15,700 square metre (170,000 square feet) CFI will include the central library, education space, event space, and retail. It may also include additional floors for offices.
  • The bus terminal will be expanded, as the existing facility is too small to accommodate GO and Brampton Transit buses. There will also be room for a new third track through Downtown Brampton, essential for frequent two-way GO service between Toronto, Brampton, and Kitchener.
  • The City of Brampton will likely build a temporary terminal on the south side of Nelson Street to accommodate the demolition of the existing structures and the construction of the CFI and terminal. This land, also owned by the city, is currently occupied by a surface lot and an old commercial building that was originally a Loblaws store. Retail tenants are being evicted from all of the above properties.
  • The city is also interested in using the two office buildings purchased by Metrolinx for short-term academic and administrative purposes as the new CFI is being built.
  • The houses on Nelson, Elizabeth and Railroad Streets acquired by Metrolinx will still be torn down, but without the imminent construction of the Ryerson building, a new parking lot is no longer planned. It is possible that the block will see transit-oriented development in the long term.

IMG_6155-001Vacated office buildings at George and Nelson Streets that may see new life under the city’s new plans

The map below illustrates the revised downtown plans.

It remains a shame that Metrolinx decided to buy up a whole city block and displace dozens of residents (among the properties it acquired were two heritage houses and a rooming house), especially now that the Brampton Ryerson campus is being scaled back. But the city desperately needs a central library, and happily, Ryerson remains interested in partnering with Brampton. It’s good to see that transit expansion, including a larger bus terminal and GO rail expansion, are part of the plans.

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Mind the gap: as Waterloo’s light rail line opens, other connections close

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ION LRT service will finally commence Friday June 21

Early in 2019, I had the opportunity to take a trip on Wroute, a new service that connected Guelph, Kitchener, and Burlington. Wroute was an interesting concept, a privately-operated option with characteristics of a bus service, a taxi company, and ride-hailing app. With a fleet of Tesla Model X electric SUVs, Wroute tried to fill a gap left by GO Transit and other intercity transportation operators in the Guelph-Kitchener/Waterloo-Hamilton Triangle. Unfortunately, Wroute ended operations on Thursday May 2.

As I wrote in my article for TVO, fares were too high for a regular commuter, costing $20 for a single ride between Guelph and Kitchener, and $28 between Guelph and Aldershot, more than double the equivalent GO Transit fares.

IMG_8407-001Wroute Testla at Guelph Central Station, January 2019

When Waterloo Region celebrates the opening of the ION LRT on June 21, the bus system in Kitchener-Waterloo will be restructured to better connect with the corridor. Despite the improvements within Waterloo Region, links are still needed to surrounding communities. Hamilton and Guelph remain largely disconnected. With a growing employment base in Kitchener-Waterloo, as well large university and college campuses in all four city-regions, filling the gap is more important than ever.

Hopefully this will come done soon.

 

 

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