Last week, the Toronto Region Board of Trade released Next Stop: Building Universal Transit Access, its third transportation report in a four-part series. The report examines the challenges cities face in addressing the “first and last mile” of trips by transit, while enabling what the Board is calling "anywhere-to-anywhere + anytime travel."

In a news release, the Board's president and chief executive officer, Jan De Silva, said, "As the fastest-growing urban region in North America, innovative and seamless public transit solutions remain integral to the Toronto region’s economic success. The bottom line is that we must continue striving to build transportation systems across the Toronto region to ensure we are not only catching up with our global competitors but also accommodating the influx of 100,000 new residents that arrive every year.”

This map illustrates the frequency of transit services in the Toronto Region before the COVID-19 pandemic. Image, Toronto and Region Board of Trade

The Board’s research estimates that congestion and gridlock cost the Toronto region’s economy $6 billion every single year in lost productivity — a figure that it expects to grow to $15 billion by 2031. Congestion, the report explains, also makes travelling to jobs more difficult for workers, disrupts supply chains, and slows down essential business deliveries.

In Next Stop, the Board makes numerous recommendations to strengthen public transit in the region – particularly a clear region-wide, 10-minute frequency service standard on all major routes.

To provide attractive service and facilitate car-free accessibility to the entire region, the report's author, Jonathan English, PhD, Director of Policy (Transportation) at the Board, explains that, vehicles along major transit routes must operate frequently enough that riders can “turn up and go.” That means making sure that everyone near an arterial transit route in the region knows that a transit vehicle will arrive at a nearby stop every ten minutes, from about 6 AM until 10 PM every day. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s discussion paper on a Greater Golden Horseshoe transportation plan proposes this level of service, and the Board recommends that governments put into place investments and supports to make this proposal a reality.

The report says that more frequent services would also reduce the need for precisely timed schedules, since riders will never have to wait long for the next vehicle. Though higher frequencies require an up-front cost, a case study of Brampton Transit shows that a larger number of passengers aboard transit vehicles can greatly help cover the extra expenditure over the medium term. In much of the region, English claims, this will require little or no change or more spending. All routes in Toronto already meet the standard, though some, like the streetcar routes through downtown Toronto, could benefit from even more service. Main routes in much of the region beyond the City of Toronto, the report says, would only require a small service increase to meet the standard. Some of the cost of these improvements could be covered, as Durham Region Transit recently demonstrated, by shifting infrequent and lightly used fixed bus routes to different mobility options, like on-demand transit. According to the report, "This is a valuable investment in the region’s future that maximizes the value of the billions in infrastructure investment that is now underway."

Durham Region Transit recently established an On-Demand system to replace conventional transit service along many routes. Image, Toronto and Region Board of Trade

The report urges municipalities across the region to explore new approaches to expanding mobility. This includes using on-demand transit that is supported by technology, especially where high-frequency service is not possible. It points out that operating a 12-metre (40-foot) bus every ten minutes is simply not feasible in many parts of the region. For example, homes in some neighbourhoods are an unreasonable walk from a major arterial road, in some cases because of road network design. This is the case even in some dense parts of the region. There are also small settlements distant from major urban centres.

In these cases, digitally enabled on-demand service can make transit equally accessible at all times, without unreasonable expense, so that all parts of the region receive a standard level of mobility. On-demand vehicles can take riders to and from rail stations or the nearest frequent bus route, and technology can make sure that riders can book seamless journeys, by automatically booking the on-demand vehicle so that it arrives right on time to pick them up from their bus or train. On-demand and other flexible services can also help to identify significant travel patterns that conventional transit service isn't serving well. Innovative approaches allow transit agencies to provide service more quickly — even as soon as neighbourhoods are built. This is essential because, when people move to a new home, they establish their patterns of travel. If they get used to driving for years, convincing them to start using transit when attractive service is finally available will be very difficult.

Another recommendation is to prioritize small infrastructure improvements across the
region. These improvements include

  • boosting transit integration across agencies and between modes;

  • better co-ordinating fares, schedules and services so that transfers are seamless; and

  • developing a comprehensive plan to identify and prioritize infrastructure improvements by the number of minutes riders save during their journeys.

A York Region Transit bus pulls into a vivastation along the Viva bus rapid transit system. Image, Toronto and Region Board of Trade

One of many such key infrastructure investments is installing transit-priority lanes. English writes that cities across the globe are increasingly turning to dedicated transit lanes as a means of improving the reliability of local transit in congested cities. Studies often find that installing these lanes reduce total travel time by 15 percent or more and benefit service reliability even more greatly.

Toronto’s King Street transit priority corridor decreased travel times in the afternoon peak period by as much as 20 percent. The improved reliability and trip times led to 16 percent growth in daily weekday ridership. Metrolinx and other area transit agencies have ambitious plans to roll out a comprehensive network of bus rapid transit (BRT) services on major corridors.

A low-cost example of transit-priority lane is the bus lanes on Don Mills Road in Toronto. A higher-end example of BRT is York Region Transit's Viva system. Viva corridors have dedicated lanes in the centre of the street, with curbs separating them from general traffic lanes. Stops have substantial shelters and electronic information screens. Another example, Mississauga’s Transitway, has its own corridor, in most locations separated by bridges from cross traffic and with substantial stations resembling rail transit stations.

By allowing buses to ‘hold’ green lights, transit signal priority, or TSP, helps increase the speed and reliability of surface transit service. Studies have found 10 percent speed benefits and as much as 50 percent reliability benefits when transit agencies or municipalities apply TSP at delay-prone intersections. The technology can be especially useful on unreliable services: allowing late buses priority at key intersections can help them recover their schedules and prevent vehicle bunching.

Especially in more car-oriented parts of the region, planners must follow the lead of other cities across to improve access to transit through street design. Calming traffic, installing bus shelters, and making sure the pedestrian network connects to transit stops , the report explains, all will be important to the success of local transit improvements.

Many agencies in the region have been upgrading transit stops on major routes with more attractive and comfortable infrastructure for riders, including public information on the system’s status and next trips. These stops also help advertise the transit service in a way that is highly visible to motorists. Partnering with the developers of nearby projects could provide even higher quality waiting areas for riders at busy stops. Developments could offer an indoor waiting area beside the stop, including real-time public information and, potentially, food and retail services.

An enhanced transit stop on a Brampton Transit Zum bus rapid transit route. Image, Toronto and Region Board of Trade

Other recommendations include improving innovation and rolling out new transportation modes. For example, the Board urges transit agencies to take advantage of new technologies that enable more effective planning and better integration with other modes. Specific solutions include data-sharing with other transit providers and integrating public and private operators such as micro-transit, bike share and ride-sharing programs.

“A fast and efficient regional transit system is effectively useless if it doesn’t get you from your home to where you want to go,” said English.

The report also singles out Brampton. Brampton Transit experienced a 160 per cent spike in transit ridership over a 10-year period from 2009-2019 because it expanded its service levels, leading to frequent all-day bus routes on major roads.

“Leaders across the Toronto region must look to public transit success stories like that of Brampton: a city that recently benefitted from the largest increase in transit ridership of any municipality in North America,” noted English. “There is no reason why that sort of achievement cannot be replicated in other municipalities through major investments and smart policy," he said.

You can read the complete report here (.pdf).

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In December 2020, the Board released the first of its four-part series proposing ways to improve transit in the Toronto Region: Erasing The Invisible Line, Integrating Toronto Region's Transit Networks.

In March, it released its second report in the series, Getting on the Right Track: Connecting Communities with Regional Rail.

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