This is Not the Way to Fix Toronto's Transit

Results and not ideology should guide transportation policy.

Large city officials have been lobbying for a major program of federal transit subsidies for years. The push will likely intensify after the federal election.

A principal resource in this campaign will likely be the Toronto Board of Trade’s third annual Scorecard on Prosperity, which finds Toronto’s transportation system to be among the worst in the world, ranking 19th out of 23 metropolitan areas. Other metropolitan areas also ranked poorly, such as Montreal at 12th, Calgary at 13th and Vancouver at 21st.

However, a deeper look yields difficulties with the Board of Trade report.

Automobiles dominate travel in all but two of the metropolitan areas (Hong Kong and Tokyo). Yet, only two of 11 indicators involve automobiles. Eight relate to non-automobile modes such as transit (one deals with freight). The Board of Trade comparisons are skewed because they give disproportionate weight to modes that are relatively minor in metropolitan mobility.

However, the greatest difficulty with the Scorecard is the implied belief greater reliance on transit is preferable. In fact, transit is slower than cars for the majority of trips. Travel time needs to decrease to encourage metropolitan economic growth, as research at the University of Paris indicates. There is probably no more important transportation indicator regarding the economy.

A Globe and Mail article rightly expresses particular concern that Toronto’s round-trip average work trip time ranks last at 80 minutes per day. However, at least two of the metropolitan areas had longer work trip travel times. The average work trip travel time in the Tokyo metropolitan area was 96 minutes in 2003 (the latest data available), according to the Japan Statistics Bureau. The Board of Trade failed to find a number for Hong Kong, which the government reported at 92 minutes in 2002. Yet, these travel time laggards rank first and second in the Board of Trade rankings.

It should be a source of embarrassment that Dallas-Fort Worth, a bane of urban planners and with less than half the Toronto density, should have a work trip travel time one-third less and one-fifth less, respectively, than Calgary and Vancouver, the highest ranked Canadian metropolitan areas.

It’s worse than that. Among all of the large American metropolitan areas, in or out of The Scorecard on Prosperity, all but New York have better work trip travel times.

Except in the romantic minds of planners, little of the present car travel demand can be replaced by transit. Further, in virtually all of the metropolitan areas ranking above Toronto, the trajectory has been toward cars, so that the present figures are less favourable to transit than they would have been a decade or two ago.

For transport to make the greatest possible contribution to economic growth and job creation, the transport system must provide quick mobility throughout the entire labour market (metropolitan area). Transit-favouring ideology will not do.

The problem is evident. The $8 billion just committed by Mayor Rob Ford and Premier Dalton McGuinty to build an Eglinton subway should be used to reduce travel times as much as possible.

A huge expenditure on a single street will not do that.

So long as ideology trumps reality, Toronto’s calcified traffic will put it at a competitive disadvantage. The focus should be on results — the time it takes to get to work, rather than on means — whether the trip is by car or transit.

Wendell Cox writes here as a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg and is a regular contributor to This piece also appeared in the Toronto Sun.

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New Solutions For New Demands

If this were the 1950s, Cox’s prescriptions might make sense, but not now. Demographic and economic trends (aging population, rising fuel prices, increasing urbanization, increasing health and environmental concerns, growing consumer preferences for smart growth home locations) are changing transport demands, requiring new solutions. Per capita VMT has been flat in North America since about 2003, and traffic volumes have declined in areas such as downtown Vancouver that emphasize alternative modes. For evidence see, The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be at .

Although transit carries a minority of total travel it plays a critical role in an efficient urban transport system. On congested urban corridors transit often carries 20-70% of person travel, and transit service improvements are often the cheapest way to improve mobility for both transit travelers and motorists (see Smart Congestion Reductions at ). High quality transit has leverage effects by encouraging more compact land use development and allowing households to reduce their vehicle ownership, so each passenger-mile of rail transit travel tends to reduce 2 to 7 automobile miles of travel on average. For evidence see, Evaluating Public Transit Benefits and Costs at .

Described differently, motorists can drive from most origins to most destinations with reasonable speed and convenience, except under urban-peak conditions; the transport problems facing cities (traffic and parking congestion, inadequate mobility for non-drivers, the high costs to consumers of driving, accident risk, pollution emissions) are exacerbated by increased vehicle travel and reduced by shifts to public transit. As a result, public transit improvements tend to provide the greatest net benefits, considering all impacts.

It is true that transit often takes longer than automobile commutes but Cox exaggerates the significance. Surveys indicate that many travelers willingly accept longer transit commutes if they are convenient, comfortable, and affordable (frequent service, comfortable seat, nice waiting areas, low fares, etc.) because travelers can relax or work and save money. The additional time required for transit travel consists primarily of walking, which provides health benefits and reduces the need to devote special time to exercise (see ). Although commute times tend to be longer in transit-oriented cities, total travel times and transport costs tends to be higher in automobile-dependent areas because more dispersed destinations require more driving for errands.

This is not to deny the value of increasing transit speeds, both rail and bus, through grade separation and faster loading systems, and increasing affordable housing options in transit-oriented communities to reduce commute distances.

There is good theoretical and empirical evidence that investments in high quality public transit provide greater economic development benefits than roadway expansions. High quality transit supports agglomeration efficiencies, reduces fuel expenditures (money spent on fuel provides much less regional employment or business activity than most other consumer expenditures), and provides other resource savings (road and parking facility costs, traffic safety, reduced pollution, etc.). This helps explain why per capita economic productivity (measured as GDP) declines with per capita vehicle travel and roadway supply, but increases with per capita transit ridership and density. For evidence see figures 8-11 in, Are Vehicle Travel Reduction Targets Justified? at .

Mr. Cox seems to misunderstand the Eglinton subway costs. The original proposal was for surface light-rail transit but Mayor Ford insisted it be a subway to avoid automobile traffic delays. The high project cost should therefore be assigned to automobile not transit transport.

Todd Litman is founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (, an independent research organization dedicated to developing innovative solutions to transport problems.