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Toronto Urban Sprawl Compared to Other Cities

Memph

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Most American light rail systems exist within an underdeveloped transit framework. It's not like in Toronto where there are high frequency bus routes that will provide transfer ridership to light rail lines, and where they will feed into very highly used heavy rail. They are mostly hub-and-spoke systems surrounded by relatively low densities and often don't have bus routes feeding into them, or if they do, they're lightly used.

Even Calgary's LRT which on the surface might not seem that different from say, Dallas', has certain properties to help it out. For example, Calgary's CBD is basically the same size as Dallas', despite having about 1/5th of the metro area population. In both cases, the LRT mainly serves the CBD, since other job centres are scattered about the metro area, and more accessible by car. Transit use isn't just about transit accessibility but auto accessibility too, CBDs have better transit, but also worse congestion and expensive parking pushing people away from driving. Also while Calgary's LRT mostly serves commuters that live in post-WWII single family subdivisions, the lot sizes are relatively small, resulting in densities almost twice as high as with Dallas.

So potential downtown bound commuters near an LRT stop in Calgary are around 6-10 more numerous than near an LRT stop in Dallas [4-5x higher proportion of jobs in CBD] x [almost 2x higher residential densities].

Although Calgary is one of the most centralized Canadian cities and Dallas one of the least centralized American ones, Canadian cities on a whole are still significantly more centralized and about 2x more dense. There's also less of a stigma around using transit, and more government prioritization in investing in a complete transit system that includes buses, rather than just one or two token light rail lines (US cities might actually have more rail transit than Canadian ones on average).

The approach in US cities is different, since their mindset is "people aren't taking transit, what can we do to encourage them to take it", while in Canada, the mindset is much more "people are taking transit and it's overcrowded, what can we do to increase capacity". If you read news articles and planning reports from both countries, the difference in emphasis is quite obvious. I think that's largely because US government policies have encouraged sprawl much more, with lower density limits, highway building programs, tax incentives for suburban development that hurt their downtowns, as well as white flight and urban decline. You also see differences in the mindset with infill, in the US it's still about how to attract infill in many cities* while in Toronto it's more about where to allow the development to take place and how to manage it in terms of any new infrastructure that's needed, and how to make it fit in with the surroundings.

That's why I wouldn't model the approach in Toronto based on what has worked in the US, because in many ways those American cities are decades behind us. Certainly, anything that can be done to improve the efficiency of our existing bus and streetcar system should be done, because even with new rail projects, those are still going to be moving a very big chunk of Torontonians and there's several dozen routes with daily ridership in the tens of thousands, more than we can ever hope to replace with light rail. However, those are still only going to be one part of the solution.

GO train ridership in Toronto is growing very rapidly, as the outer suburbs continue to take in much of the population growth when it comes to white collar workers above the age of 35 or so, and the majority of white collar job growth is occurring downtown, which cannot handle more car commuters, so it's inevitable that they're going to want to use commuter rail. So adding more trains, more stops, electrifying, maybe even adding an extra line or two, is quite justifiable. The DRL is of course important, and once that's built, other subway expansion projects would also be justified IMO (ex Yonge North, DRL-West).

I think LRT projects can be justified too. It depends how Toronto grows in the future, and how much efficiency we can get out of the bus system, but I think a few lines are justified. The problem is that successive governments keep changing their minds on what to do which results in awkward solutions. Like Sheppard West probably should have been all LRT rather than subway, and the urgency for an LRT going past Kennedy Station at least partly depends on whether a Scarborough Subway gets built and what happens with the GO lines.

*A few cities like San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Boston, Washington and Los Angeles have enough demand for real estate that it's basically zone it and they will come as with Toronto. Most light rail networks are in second and third tier cities though, where demand is softer, especially outside of downtown and one or two gentrified near-core neighbourhoods.
 

Memph

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Back then, the ridership projections of Don Mills supported LRT, and it was logical given the ROW available.

It was only after Metrolinx released their Yonge North Relief Study that we learned both that Don Mills had subway level ridership potential, and that only Don Mills subway would provide relief to Yonge from the east.

In hindsight, it was pretty obvious how much bus ridership would be the intercepted via Relief Line North. Not sure why it took so long for that to become self-evident.
Yeah, I think it's very important to take into account how rail expansion projects fit in to the greater network.

A few years ago, I looked on google maps to see what it recommended for the fastest transit route to Yonge & Bloor from various points in the east end of the city, to see which neighbourhoods fell into which routes catchment areas when it comes to Sheppard Subway vs Scarborough RT vs Danforth Subway.


Since the Sheppard Subway and Scarborough RT are quite short, that means that if you take an intercepting bus route to transfer onto them, you'll have to transfer a second time onto the Yonge or Danforth Subway after just 1-2 stops, so it's not really worth it. Instead, google recommends that you take the bus directly to the Yonge or Danforth lines. It's only the people living within walking distance of the Sheppard Subway that are recommended to use it, hence the much smaller catchment area (in red) compared to the Danforth Subway (light blue).

With the Scarborough RT, it's even worse (in black). South of Ellesmere, even people within walking distance of the RT are often recommended to just take the Kennedy or Midland bus down to Kennedy Station. It's only further north that it makes sense to board the RT, once you can take it for more than 1-2 stops before transferring again. Buses along Brimley and McCowan also curve West to take riders directly to Kennedy or Warden Station. Scarborough Station doesn't just get twice as much ridership as the other RT stations combined because of the mall and condos, but also because it actually makes sense to take the RT if you live in those areas and in some parts of Malvern and Morningside too.

If you do the same experiment, but with the Financial District as the final destination rather than Bloor-Yonge, the catchment area of the Scarborough RT and Sheppard RT shrinks even further, as google recommends taking GO bus or GO rail lines.

A Scarborough extension probably could have drawn decent ridership from the Lawrence East buses however, thanks to the elimination of the transfer at Kennedy, and many bus routes would likely have been reconfigured a bit to feed into subway stations at Lawrence, or Ellesmere.

Similarly, the DRL would also intercept and redirect a tonne of transit users, to a significantly greater degree than even a Scarborough subway extension would have. Streetcar riders from East Toronto, subway riders from the Danforth line, buses from East York, the Eglinton East LRT, and even extending it to Sheppard would drawn a lot of riders as they would rather take the East-West routes to the DRL than N-S buses to the Danforth line or Yonge or Sheppard lines. I can easily see it getting 20k+ boardings at all stations. Past Sheppard you'd probably get significantly diminishing returns as those areas can be better served by upgrades in the GO rail and bus system when it comes to regional transit, and TTC buses should be able to handle the remaining local transit needs.
 

W. K. Lis

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Why your sprawling, low-density suburb may be costing your local government money

From link.

Despite its desirability to many, suburbs cost, and not only to residents in terms of more expensive transport costs, but also to local authorities, according to new research from Christopher Goodman. By studying 30 years of data covering public spending on metropolitan counties, he finds that compact developments are less costly in terms of public services, while denser developments cost more. Spreading development out, he argues, drives up the cost of providing services, despite fewer being needed to service a relatively smaller population.

Even with the recent resurgence of urban living, the United States is a country of suburbs. There is plenty of debate about the full extent of this suburbanization, but some of it is clearly sprawl. Sprawl has an even more complicated definition, lending itself to a “I know it when I see it” interpretation. My working definition is excessive suburbanization; development that likely wouldn’t have taken place if developers and/or residents had to internalize the costs they impose on society. But does this kind of development induce higher spending on the part of local governments than it otherwise would have? In general, the answer is yes; however, it is complicated.

What are some of the reasons that normal suburbanization might turn to urban sprawl? In general, there are three reasons. First, developers may fail to consider the social value of open space. This leads an overzealous conversion of land from open space (like agricultural land) to residential or commercial uses. Second, individuals may fail to consider the social cost of their commuting patterns leading to housing being built far from employment centers. Finally, developers may fail to consider all the public costs of their developments. This last reason is the connection to local government spending. It has been suggested that it is costlier to provide public services in areas of sprawl because this type of development pattern fails to capitalize on economies of scale, often fails to optimize the location of costly capital facilities and leads to duplicative service delivery. More compact development patterns can help to contain these costs.

Densification, one potential remedy for sprawl, comes with its own potential impacts on local government spending. There could be economies of density whereby public costs are lowered because development and people are clustered closer together. There is another possibility, however. Because of physical proximity, providing public services could become more expensive; a concept referred to as “urban harshness.” The general logic is that dense urban areas require more “stuff,” traffic lights, police officers, teachers, than less dense areas to provide a similar level of public services. It is somewhat unclear which of these two views of sprawling (or not) development will impact public spending.
I examine this relationship between urban development and public spending in metropolitan counties areas in the United States from 1982 to 2012. I examine sprawl in two dimensions: horizontally and vertically. To measure the horizontal aspect, I use the USDA National Resource Inventory data to calculate the percentage of a county that is considered urban. In general, if small or very large percentages are found, that is an indication of more compact development. In the vertical dimension, I use population plus jobs density (population plus jobs divided by urban land). The idea for this is that urban or suburban areas exist for multiple uses. Some purely residential, some purely commercial, and others a mixed of the two. Only measuring one aspect gives a false sense of density, especially as it relates to public finance. Those office towers that are largely empty at night still require public services.

In general, I find that more compact development (think mixed-use medium rises) is less costly to provide public services; however, more dense development (think skyscraper offices and apartments) is more costly to provide public services. The relative size of the effects are not equivalent. More compact development has significantly more potential to reduce public spending than any associated increase in density could offset. In the average county area, if density increased from the 25th percentile to the 50th percentile, per capita expenditures would increase by $5.26. If the percentage of developed land was reduced from the 50th percentile to the 25th percentile in the average county, per capita expenditures would decline by $60.86. This finding suggests that if development patterns were to shift to more dense and compact development, there will be a reduction in public spending on average.

Moreover, some spending categories are more affected by development patterns than others. Education, police, fire, libraries, sewerage, and solid waste management would all see likely reductions in per capita expenditures if development was more compact. This shouldn’t be too surprising as all these services require traversing space or efficiently locating a building. In the case of education or libraries, it can be difficult to efficiently locate facilities when students or residents are spread out. For the others, spacing development far apart means needing more “stuff” to effectively provide public services; more police cars, fire trucks, miles os sewer lines, or garbage trucks.

So what?

My results suggest that more compact and dense development can pay dividends in lowering public expenditures. The key policy question is how to achieve that. Effectively designed impact fees that internalize the social costs of sprawl on developers (and are likely passed along to new homeowners) are one mechanism. However, our ability to do this effectively appears somewhat lacking. Statewide growth management or local urban containment policies may be a mechanism to reduce growth on the urban fringe and thereby reduce expenditures. Promoting infill development is another mechanism to stem growth on the urban fringe. All of this is to say that there are policy options to reduce sprawl and, to the extent those policies are successful, a secondary effect is a likely reduction in local public spending.

 

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