Earlier this week Urban Toronto posted an article outlining the missed opportunity for the urbanization of GO Transit's parking lots. While GO and Metrolinx have outlined their goals for modifying the way passengers access GO's stations, there has yet to be a cohesive solution announced that will actually turn these goals into reality.
One of the biggest issues yet to be fully addressed is the issue of first mile/last mile solutions. Put simply, first mile/last mile (commonly referred to as simply 'last mile') refers to the first or last leg of the trip between the transit station and home or work. This is particularly an issue in the suburban context, as much of the suburban built form is geared towards the automobile, which generally makes efficient transit service or walking/cycling difficult. It is this lack of end-to-end transit solution that forces so many passengers to drive to and park at their nearest GO station.
There are generally considered to be three types of 'alternative' access modes: transit, walking, and cycling. For simplicity sake, walking and cycling are generally grouped together under the banner of 'active transportation', as they involve physical activity. While efficient and effective local transit connections is a key component of alternative access, this article will be primarily focused on active transportation.
Until the advent of efficient truck-based goods shipment, industrial and commercial access to rail lines was a key requirement for many businesses. The legacy of this requirement is that many of the land uses surrounding today's GO stations are industrial in nature. While this did provide GO with the ability to buy large swaths of land for the purpose of building parking lots, it also meant that many GO stations were located a fair distance away from the residents that would actually use the station.
This presents a challenge from a walkability perspective on three fronts. The first, as mentioned above, is proximity. The second is that much of the industrial built form surrounding the stations is either unwelcoming or downright hostile to pedestrians. Large lots and fenced in properties provide few opportunities for cut-through paths to shorten trips, and the walking routes that are provided are far less than ideal. In the image above, you can see on the right that the GO parking lot is fenced in, preventing pedestrians from cutting through it in order to shorten walking times.
The third is that due to the industrial nature of the areas, the road infrastructure has been primarily built to cater to large commercial vehicles, and pedestrian movements are either ignored completely or are considered an afterthought, leading to unsafe sidewalks (or lack thereof), or unsafe road crossings.
In order to encourage more walking to GO stations, potential walking routes from adjacent neighbourhoods to the GO stations need to be identified, and the infrastructure along these routes needs to be upgraded in order to ensure that at a minimum these routes are safe for pedestrians to use. Consideration should also be given to determining pedestrian desire lines, even if they do not correspond to vehicular travel patterns for the same origin-destination pairing.
For example, Burlington GO is located approximately 500 m east of Brant St, and 1500 m west of Guelph Line. Due to the QEW only 400 m to the north, there are no pedestrian or vehicular crossings of the QEW between those two arterials. A pedestrian from the residential area directly across from the station on north of the QEW would in effect need to make a 1.5 km trip, including a detour to Brant St and back (approximately 12 minutes of walking time), for a trip that would otherwise only be 500 m long. These types of pedestrian obstacles need to be addressed if Metrolinx is going to meet its target of 12-14% of all passengers arriving via walking by 2031.
Many of the issues raised surrounding pedestrian accessibility and comfort also apply to cyclists. However, while they may share many of the same issues, there are several that are unique to cyclists.
The first is infrastructure. While pedestrian infrastructure, such as sidewalks, is almost a pre-requisite in most urban or suburban environments, bicycle lanes are far from it. The lack of this infrastructure requires cyclists wishing to access a GO station to either cycle on the sidewalk, which is technically illegal, or to share a lane with motorists, which is dangerous for the cyclist and aggravating for the motorist. Also, given that many GO stations are located within industrial areas as previously mentioned, large transport and other commercial trucks are also an issue.
The second is safety of property. Unlike drivers who can leave their car at the GO station with little worry of it being stolen, or pedestrians who leave nothing at all behind at the station, cyclists have the additional worry of having their bicycle stolen after it's been locked up. Bringing their bicycle with them is also many times not an option, as GO prohibits bicycles on trains during peak hours. GO has attempted to address this concern by offering reserved bicycle parking and bike lockers, but those are only available at select stations.
Increasing the amount of dedicated cycling infrastructure and expanding secure storage to more stations will help Metrolinx meet its goal of having 2-4% of passengers arriving via bicycle by 2031. However, one of the biggest options that Metrolinx to date is not actively considering (no pun intended), is bike sharing.
While bike sharing services have been introduced in both Toronto and Hamilton, they are operated through quasi-independent yet quasi-municipal agencies, with their own registration requirements and payment options. These registration requirements often set a barrier to entry that is above what many people are willing to consider. There is the potential for Metrolinx to create its own bike share service with the specific goal of providing easier cycling access to GO stations.
The idea is that Metrolinx-owned bike share stations would be installed at key locations within a 1 to 2 km radius of select GO stations, and would provide passengers with active transportation access to those stations. All bike share stations would be Presto enabled, with a simple tap allowing any Presto user to rent a bike. Using Presto lowers the barrier to entry, allowing more occasional cyclists to also take advantage of the system. Using Presto also removes the inter-agency barrier that currently exists. A heavy user of SoBi in Hamilton currently has no access to Bike Share Toronto bicycles should they decide to take a weekend trip to Toronto, or vice versa.
If a user were to tap out a bike at a station 1 km away from the GO station, they would be charged a flat fee for unlimited 2-hour use, much in the same way a transit fare works. Once they return the bicycle to the bike share station at the GO station, and then tap onto the GO train, their use of that bicycle would be either free or nearly free, much like the way co-fare agreements between GO Transit and local transit agencies (except the TTC) work today. If no local or GO Transit connection was made, the initial fare that was charged would apply. This type of service would all but eliminate the worry over people's property being stolen, as their worry for the bicycle would end once it has been re-docked at the station.
The goal of this service wouldn't be so much to break even, but rather to offer an active transportation alternative to driving to the GO station. When you consider that the average parking space in a GO parking structure costs over $39,000 to build (yes, that's per space), and maintenance costs of $100 per space per year for surface and $200 per space per year in parking structures, the expense of operating a bike share system should not be seen as an additional expense, but rather as an alternative expense.
As a relatively dense (and getting denser) community in southern Mississauga with a vibrant small-town feel commercial strip along Lakeshore Road, Port Credit would be the ideal pilot location for a Metrolinx-operated bike share program. From the Port Credit GO station to the closest point along Lakeshore Road (at Helene Street) is a 4 minute walk, while walking to the Credit River via Lakeshore Road would be a 10 minute walk.
By installing bike share stations at Lakeshore & Helene, and Lakeshore at the Credit, those travel times can be reduced to 1 minute and 3 minutes respectively. By installing stations at select locations throughout the neighbourhood, this bike share system would ensure that virtually the entire Port Credit neighbourhood would be within a 5 minute cycle of the GO station. The GO station site will have increased significance in the coming years, as the Hurontario LRT will terminate there when it opens in 2022, providing an additional rapid transit connection. This model has the potential to be expanded to other GO station sites as well, including more prototypically suburban sites.
You can join the discussion on active transportation by visiting our associated forum thread, or by leaving a comment below.