Last week, Ontario Minister of Transportation Steven Del Duca held a press conference at Oakville GO Station to announce that Tim Hortons kiosks will be introduced at four GO stations (Oakville, Clarkson, Ajax, Oshawa) this spring for a one year pilot. While this press event can be considered nonessential, it does mark a limited foray on the part of GO and Metrolinx into providing commercial space at GO stations. In this arena, GO and Metrolinx could be doing so much more.

The model for GO Transit has been relatively consistent since it's founding in 1967: people drive to the GO station, and get on the train to head to Downtown Toronto. This model has seen GO expand to providing over 70,000 parking spaces at its stations. It has also made GO one of the largest property owners in the GTHA, with many suburban stations featuring acres of surface parking lots.

Current split of passenger access to GO stationsCurrent split of passenger access to GO stations, image courtesy of Metrolinx

While GO and Metrolinx have attempted to increase the number of people accessing GO stations via transit, carpooling, and active transportation, in 2015 single occupant drivers made up 62% of all trips to GO stations. Their GO Rail Station Access Plan aims to reduce the relative percentage of people using parking down to between 36% and 38% by 2031. However, given that ridership is projected to increase by 125,000-150,000 per day in the same time period, even this goal requires the addition of thousands of new parking spaces. Put simply, not only is the current model of surface parking and a few parking structures not sustainable for the degree of ridership growth GO is expected to experience, it's also an unwise use of prime real estate.

At many GO stations, we are beginning to see a phenomenon of what we'll call a "donut neighbourhood". It's similar to the concept of a "donut city", but on a smaller scale. In essence, what we are seeing is high density residential (and in some cases commercial) development on private property surrounding station sites, but a sea of parking immediately surrounding the station. There is a vibrant, mixed use community around the periphery of stations, but a hole of asphalt and parked cars in the middle. Given the amount of high density development taking place around stations like Burlington, Pickering, Clarkson, etc, this phenomenon is going to become more and more common in the coming years.

High density residential surrounding a surface parking lot at Brampton GOHigh density residential surrounding a surface parking lot at Brampton GO, image courtesy of Google Streetview

To create a more land-efficient configuration surrounding GO stations, there are three different levels to which GO and Metrolinx can develop, each more "complete" than the previous. Let's start with the first level, which we'll call basic retail. This is retail like coffee shops, grocery stores, dry-cleaning, and liquor stores. These are all types of retail that GO passengers can make use of either at the start or end of their trip, with an added convenience factor of being located at the station. For example, someone could come home from work and pick up a bottle of wine to go with dinner at the LCBO located on the station site.

This type of retail could fit within most of the ground floor of parking structures that are about the same size as what GO is currently building. While this would mean a reduction in parking spaces compared to what GO is building today, ground floor retail in these structures would not only provide passengers with retail options on their way to or from the train, but they would provide GO with a continuous source of income in the form of rent.

The second level would be what we'll call destination retail. This is retail that doesn't cater specifically to commuter needs (ex: the bottle of wine mentioned above), but rather to the larger community. A prime example of this would be retail that is currently located in outlet malls. These stores often require a substantial amount of parking, something GO stations have in abundance. They are also off-peak trip generators, and reach their peak demand on weekends, when the full capacity of GO parking for passenger purposes isn't needed. This type of retail would ensure a more complete utilization of the parking infrastructure built at GO stations.

Parking structure with ground floor retail in Boulder, COParking structure with ground floor retail in Boulder, CO, image courtesy of buildingabetterburb.org

This level would represent a more radical departure from GO's current parking structure construction model though, as these types of retail operations would require far more of the available land area. Under this model, the footprint of GO parking structures would be substantially increased, and the amount of surface parking would be drastically reduced. The retail operations would use almost the entire ground floor of the parking structures, with parking facilities located on the upper floors, which would be accessed via ramps.

This type of arrangement would bring about another significant improvement over the status quo: the separation of pedestrian and vehicle movements. Currently, walking from the GO station entrance back to your car requires either weaving your way through parked cars, or walking up the main vehicle access lane. Neither is a very pedestrian friendly environment, and the latter can be downright dangerous. By confining vehicular movements to the upper levels of the station complex, it creates pedestrian-only pathways through the site, most of which would be lined with retail.

The third level of intensification would transform these retail areas into full communities by adding residential towers above the parking structures. Not only would these residential units increase the viability of the commercial spaces below, they would also create density hubs, in addition to transportation hubs, at GO stations. Given that many GO stations are located in industrial areas (ex: Appleby GO, shown below), these sites could be densified more easily, with the neighbours likely putting up less of a fight during the municipal planning process than if the station were located in a low-rise residential area.

Massing example of Appleby GO's north parking lot, showing retail & residentialMassing example of Appleby GO's north parking lot, showing retail and residential configuration

With the GTHA's housing crisis well documented, this type of residential development could be geared towards millennials working in Downtown Toronto. The proximity to the GO station would offer easy access to the core, and the urban and walkable nature of the development is something many millennials are looking for. Metrolinx could even go so far as to create a property management division, running both the residential and commercial rentals directly, with profits going either towards construction of more units, or into GO's operating budget.

Whatever model is ultimately decided upon, it is clear that the status quo, or even a slightly modified status quo, is not sustainable in the long term if Metrolinx aims to hit its ridership growth targets. A fundamental re-imagining of the largely empty space surrounding GO stations needs to take place, with a dual focus on creating actual communities around stations, and making better economic use of the massive parcels of land GO already owns.

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