Toronto’s transit network would, in an ideal world, funnel people from their disparate homes to larger, shared vehicles and from transit hubs to their disparate workplaces. The challenge in this system is getting people from their homes or destinations to stations. At present, many rapid transit stations are swarmed by parking spaces and the inconvenience of getting there prompts commuters to simply drive to work.
This “last mile” problem was the focus of a meet-up organized by the Ryerson City Building Institute on Tuesday night. Over the course of an hour-long discussion moderated by Steve Paikin, the eight invited participants discussed the source of this problem and how transit policies might be adjusted to better address these last and first-mile concerns.
“It’s really about land use and density,” said Mississauga Transit director of Transit Geoff Marinoff. “To get someone from their home to station, they don’t want a neighbourhood tour.” In a neighbourhood that is not designed with transit mind, such unpopular detours are necessary for buses to connect residents with stations. That inefficiency can turn riders off using public transit for the entirety of their journey. If anything, an alternative neighbourhood in which areas aren’t covered is worse.
Part of the problem planners face is that commuters are not always looking to travel straight to and from work. BlancLink’s director of strategic partnerships Kevin McLaughlin pointed out that commutes are complicated by the need to pick up groceries or complete other errands. This dynamic makes it harder for transit solutions to supplant a reliance on cars, which can accommodate this flexible routing.
“If we’re going to change, we’ll have to give up some independence and freedom,” Marinoff added. “That’ll be an inconvenience.
That inconvenience, however, may become a necessary part of life as the Greater Toronto Area’s space and transport situation worsens. Toronto, warned Urban Strategies’ Joe Berridge, is “undoubtedly hitting a tipping point. The congestion problem is going to reach absolute jam freeze soon.” A similar note was struck by Metrolinx’s director of regional planning, Antoine Belaieff. “More and more we’re running out of land,” he said. There may be a demand for additional parking spaces, but the agency doesn’t always have anywhere to put them.
Solving this problem may require different ideas of what transport looks like. “A lot of the solutions are going to involve another vehicle that looks more like a car than a bus,” Berridge said. New technologies and smaller vehicles offer opportunities to customize routes to get passengers from their homes to major transit arteries. This is not an entirely new idea for transit authorities. York Region Transit’s Ann-Marie Carroll pointed out that her service had experimented with on-demand routes and discovered that they were signs of last mile problems.
“The challenge is getting people in those areas to a transit hub," Carroll said.
Many of the event’s participants suggested that these challenges are most likely to be addressed in an environment that allows for experimentation. “The key,” McLaughlin said, “is we need to try these things, see what works, and maybe loosen up a bit.” He proposed an experiment wherein King Street would be closed to car traffic between Bathurst and Parliament streets to see how that would affect commuters.
This call for experimentation was accompanied by doubts about the government’s role in managing the area’s transportation infrastructure. “My biggest concern,” Ryerson professor Murtaza Haider said in reference to Toronto Mayor John Tory’s transit plans, “is good money being thrown at bad transit.” Later, he noted that more efficient modes of transit like bus rapid transit don’t get built because “there is a sense that if you get a rail transit station, you get reelected.”
Changing the region’s transit infrastructure, however, is a long-term process. A number of regional plans are seeking to address it, but awkward last miles remain the reality on the ground. As audience member Chris Drew noted in a question to the panel, large parking lots surrounding GO stations discourage walk-in riding. It is, perhaps for this reason, that Marinoff’s call to “charge for parking” received the night’s largest round of applause. The problems of transit and parking go together when thinking about the Greater Toronto Area’s future, but different elements exist in different timeframes.
The Ryerson City Building Institute's event is unlikely to be the final word on this subject. We will keep you updated as the Greater Toronto Area's last mile problem continues to be addressed. Want to share your thoughts? Leave a comment in the space below this page, or join the conversations in our Transportation and Infrastructure Forum.