Categories
Transit Urban Planning Walking

They call this a “SmartCentre”

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The word “smart,” like many buzzwords, is thrown around a lot, to the point that it has lost meaning. SmartTrack, for instance, might have been a catchy name for a transit plan, but in the end, it didn’t turn out to be all that smart.

There’s also the case of SmartCentres, the retail arm of SmartREIT, a real estate investment trust. SmartCentres are ubiquitous in suburban Canada; the firm owns retail properties in all ten provinces and is Wal-Mart Canada’s largest landlord.

I was recently in St. Catharines, a mid-sized city of 125,000 on the Niagara Peninsula. I’ll have more to say about my visit there in a few upcoming posts.

I was walking from the VIA Rail station, on the west side of Twelve Mile Creek, opposite downtown, towards the new St. Catharines hospital on the city’s western outskirts. My route to the hospital (more on that later) took me through a SmartCentre big-box retail complex at Louth Street and Fourth Avenue. Tenants include Real Canadian Superstore (a large supermarket part of the Loblaws group), Wal-Mart Supercentre, Canadian Tire, Best Buy, and LCBO.


Google map of the big box complex in west St. Catharines

Like most big box centres, the stores are laid out surrounding a large parking lot. Pedestrians are an afterthought – there are few walkways or connections to surrounding sidewalks.

A token measure — a bus stop — is located within the property. The bus stop is on the main driveway, but a considerable distance from the front entrances of Wal-Mart or the supermarket, especially for anyone carrying groceries, using a mobility device and/or with young children. Shopping carts are left next to the bus shelters, and there are no other supermarkets in western St. Catharines. Anyone without a car must either visit Superstore, Walmart, or shop at higher-priced local convenience stores. The property owner is SmartREIT, a real estate investment trust with retail properties in all ten provinces.

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Excerpt from St. Catharines Transit daytime map. Only route 3 serves the big box centre from the south. 

Only one St. Catharines Transit bus route, 3 Pelham Road, serves the SmartCentre stop (evenings and weekends, route 115 replaces route 3), and only from the south. Traditional shopping areas, such as Downtown St. Catharines and the Pen Centre mall, are much better served by local transit. Route 1, which directly connects downtown and the new hospital and serves neighbourhoods to the north, runs nearby, but it doesn’t enter the property.

St. Catharines, once an industrial powerhouse, has struggled with de-industrialization and poverty. The census metropolitan area has the lowest median family income in Ontario; the city also has one of the highest obesity rates. Access to fresh, affordable food, especially for those without automobiles, should be a priority. It’s a shame that the built form isn’t smart enough to help.

Categories
Brampton Transit Walking

The challenge of getting to the bus stop

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It’s time for a rant on suburban transit, and how unnecessarily difficult it can be to get to the nearest bus stop.

Transit has a harder time in the suburbs. Population densities are lower than in neighbourhoods developed before the Second World War. Suburbs are not only built for the car, but they’re laid out with crescents, cul-de-sacs and winding street systems meant to discourage through traffic in residential areas. Backyard fences line arterial roads, safe pedestrian crossings might be a ten or fifteen minute walk down the road. These factors can make it difficult for people living in subdivisions and near busy streets to easily access a nearby bus stop.

Last year, Streetsblog USA asked its readers to vote for the sorriest bus stop in America, and some of the submissions are truly awful. But in the Greater Toronto Area, there are many examples of poorly designed or located bus stops. Intersections like the one at Steeles Avenue West and McMurchy/Malta Avenue in Brampton, which, granted isn’t as bad as the StreetsblogUSA submissions, is just one example of how not to get people out of cars and onto public transit. Some thought into placing bus stops and improving access to local transit is necessary.

I like Brampton Transit and what they’ve been doing over the last decade in my hometown. In 2005, the suburban transit agency began to re-organize its routes into a grid system. There were some hiccups: additional transfers, combined with low frequencies made some trips more difficult, but as ridership improved, so did service levels on key corridors. Schedules were adjusted to improve transfers. Connections to Toronto and Mississauga were improved. My hometown’s bus system was no longer a joke.

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Here’s what Brampton Transit looked like in 1980, marked with meandering routes and one-way loops. The 2015-2016 system map is here [PDF]. 

In September 2010, Brampton Transit introduced its first “Züm” route, 501 Queen, which connects Downtown Brampton with York University. Like the first phase of York Reigon’s Viva and Durham Region’s Pulse, Züm was developed as a specially-branded limited-stop bus service. Züm stops have special shelters, with real-time schedule information, winter heating. And on sections of Queen Street and Steeles Avenue, special “queue jump” lanes allow buses to by-pass cars and trucks waiting at intersections.

Services such as Zum and Viva, which operate mostly in mixed traffic should not be mistaken for “bus rapid transit” such as Ottawa’s Transitway or Bogota’s TransMillenio; “BRT-lite” or “quality bus” are more appropriate terms for these routes. Route 501 Queen operates every 15 minutes or better, seven days a week, into the late evenings. It’s proof that quality transit can be operated in Toronto’s suburbs, and be a success.

Since Route 501 was introduced, three more Züm routes were added: 502 Main, which follows Main and Hurontario Streets as far as the Mississauga City Centre Terminal at Square One, 511 Steeles, and 505 Bovaird. Each of these routes complements an existing local bus route, though the level of service on these other routes are not as high as on Queen Street; Züm service ends sooner in the evenings (though local bus service operates until after midnight) and frequencies are lower.

With the introduction of Züm, and combined with other service increases, Brampton Transit ridership increased by nearly 30 percent in the last five years (2011-2015). This increase is significantly higher than the rate of Brampton’s population growth over the same time period.

In September 2015, the 511 Steeles Züm bus was extended west from Shoppers World to Lisgar GO Station in Mississauga; standard Zum shelters were installed along the corridor, including the intersection of McMurchy/Malta Avenues and Steeles. This intersection is only a few hundred metres from where I grew up. The existing bus stops for local bus routes were relocated to the new shelters, like the one seen below.

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Both bus stops were installed on the east side of the intersection. The trouble is that pedestrian crossings are prohibited on the east side, due to the priority given to motorists at this suburban intersection. Therefore, transit users may have to cross the intersection three times to get to and from their bus; with several rental apartment towers, townhouses, and compact single-family housing, this is not a low-density neighbourhood.

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From a traffic engineering rationale, this traffic arrangement, which has existed for about a decade, makes sense. The majority of traffic is on busy, six-lane Steeles Avenue. From the north, most traffic on McMurchy Avenue turns east (left) onto Steeles, while Malta Avenue is a short stub, serving a small townhouse development on the south side of Steeles Avenue. Eventually, Malta Avenue will continue south, hooking up with another section of the same street. For now, a dormant farm field separates the two streets and awaits development.

To facilitate through traffic on Steeles, the cross streets, McMurchy and Malta, are given only green time equivalent to the minimum pedestrian crossing time. And to facilitate the left turns from McMurchy to Steeles, pedestrians are banned from crossing that side of the street. From the viewpoint of a traffic engineer, this makes sense, but it’s a mindset that ignores the needs of pedestrians and transit customers, and with the re-location of the bus stops, this has become more of a problem. This intersection is owned and maintained by the Region of Peel, not the City of Brampton, as Steeles is a regional road.

There are two options here, and at other places where people must give way to cars:

  1. Allow pedestrians to cross at all four sides of the intersection, ignoring, for a minute, the desire for cars and trucks to move through with minimal disruption; or
  2. Move the bus stops to the west side of the intersection, minimizing the inconvenience for transit riders.

Brampton Transit has done a fine job growing its ridership over the last decade, making it a bit easier to get around Toronto’s second-largest suburb without a car. But situations like these, where pedestrian access can be improved, are low-hanging fruit that would demonstrate that transit users are valued, even in the car-dependent suburbs. The current arrangement is unacceptable. Brampton and Peel Region should do better.

There are plenty of cases elsewhere where there are poorly-located transit stops. One example here in Toronto is the eastbound stop for the TTC’s 42A Cummer bus at McNicoll Avenue at Boxdene Avenue in north Scarborough. There’s no sidewalk on the south side of McNicoll, and Boxdene runs north. Anyone attempting to use this stop is at the mercy of traffic on this busy, four lane road.

Overall, I would like to see more thought put into locating bus stops in general and making sure they’re easily accessible.