This article continues an earlier series by Jonathan English that examined transit issues in the GTA, including the Cityrail proposal, which sought to promote the idea of using the GO corridors to expand rapid transit throughout the region. 

The first CityRail article introduced the concept of CityRail as a plan for regional rail in Toronto, in particular the need to consider the modernization of surface rail corridors as an integrated package with a rapid transit end goal, rather than as a series of piecemeal upgrades. The second article examined the impact of CityRail on Union Station, and explained that far less infrastructure investment is necessary to upgrade the station for regional rail than has commonly been claimed. The third article examined the ease with which high-frequency CityRail rapid transit service could be accommodated on existing rail corridors with limited new physical infrastructure beyond electrification and modern signalling. 

Three Approaches to Suburban Transit: Washington, San Francisco Bay, and Toronto

North American cities were transformed by the arrival of suburbanization and the automobile. Postwar rapid transit development was forced to cope with this new reality. Built in metropolitan areas of comparable size, Washington’s Metro, San Francisco’s BART, and Toronto’s subway took very different approaches, and were met with starkly differing levels of success. BART decided to embrace the automobile, building many of its lines in highway medians and surrounding its stations with large parking fields and garages. Washington chose to promote development around many of its stations, including suburban business centres like Rosslyn, in order to generate walk-in traffic. The planning of the Metro went hand-in-hand with land-use planning, which sought to build high-density 'urban villages' in the suburbs and direct suburban office development to the areas around stations. Toronto’s subway, by contrast, supplements traffic from adjacent development with a frequent and extensive network of buses to feed its stations, dramatically increasing their catchment area while still providing pedestrian- and development-friendly stations that aren’t swimming in a sea of parking. 

Relying on the American Public Transit Association for U.S. figures and the TTC for Toronto (unlinked trips for easy comparison, 2008 figures are most recent directly comparable statistics), we can see the different results quite clearly: 

  • San Francisco BART: 366,200 riders per day, 2,192 daily riders per km. 
  • Washington Metro: 950,300 riders per day, 5,554 daily riders per km. 
  • Toronto subway and RT: 1,176,000 riders per day, 16,800 daily riders per km. 

Washington’s combination of park-and-ride with intensive transit-oriented development at many of its suburban stations is clearly more successful than the Bay Area’s almost exclusively auto-oriented model. It has been remarkably successful at directing development to station neighbourhoods. Both systems make extensive use of highway rights-of-way, but Metro leaves the highway much more frequently to serve the heart of suburban business districts, while BART tends to stick rigidly to highway medians outside the urban core of San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley. Several studies have been written comparing the different approaches of BART and Metro, but none have included the Toronto model: a suburban rapid transit system as backbone embedded within a dense network of high-quality bus service. Almost all of Toronto’s major suburban bus routes operate every ten minutes or better until the late evening. The same cannot be said for Washington or San Francisco suburbs, where buses routinely stop at the dinner hour and run every hour or less on weekends. A good suburban bus network greatly extends the catchment area of a subway station, which is critical in a relatively low-density area. They can also move far more people than any park-and-ride lots could bring. Even better, ridership generated by feeding the subway can justify frequent bus service that is also used for local intra-suburban trips.

El Cerrito del Norte, a BART station, image: Google Maps

Bethesda, a Washington Metro station, image: Google Maps

York Mills, a Toronto subway station, image: Google Maps

The difference between the systems is also illustrated by the ridership at a typical suburban station. El Cerrito del Norte is located in the suburbs of the San Francisco East Bay and is surrounded by large parking lots and garages. Its average weekday ridership is 7,633 (Source). Bethesda station on the Washington Metro is located at the heart of a dense, urban office and residential neighbourhood. Its average weekday ridership is 10,765 (Source). Though it is largely surrounded by forest, a golf course, and estate homes, York Mills has a ridership of 27,260 (Source), largely due to its connecting bus routes. In fact, York Mills is busier than all but two stations on the entire Metro network. A station with significant high-density residential and employment nearby will have a higher ridership than one surrounded by parking, but truly busy stations in the suburbs need frequent connecting buses.

In much of the rest of North America, governments spend billions on rapid transit infrastructure but are unwilling to spend a few million per year on providing decent connecting bus service to feed its stations. Operational improvements are less glamorous than ribbon cuttings for new subway or light rail lines, but they're just as valuable.

Despite Toronto’s far smaller rapid transit network, it transports more people than Washington Metro and far more than BART. By providing high-frequency bus service seamlessly connecting to its subway stations, the TTC is able to extend their catchment area far beyond the 500-800 metres that keeps appearing in recent planning reports. This is why subways can and do serve far more people than those living in the immediate vicinity of stations. The failure to apply this feeder bus model in the 905 is the reason for its far lower transit ridership. With rapid transit level service on the regional rail corridors, fed with free transfers to high-frequency bus service like in the Toronto suburbs, it would be possible to extend the City of Toronto's admirable transit mode share performance to the region as a whole.

The Toronto model of high-quality bus service feeding rapid transit stations is clearly the most successful approach to providing transit in a suburban area and is worthy of emulation both in the GTA and across North America.

The series will continue with an examination of fare integration and of common myths about transit in the GTA.