Despite a new long-term plan, Metrolinx is still playing catch-up

OPINION: To get more people taking transit, Metrolinx needs more than just rails and concrete — it needs to fill seats
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Sep 18, 2017
A sustainable transit vision should focus on getting commuters out from behind the wheel. (Stephen C. Host/CP)

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The good news is that if Metrolinx has its way, getting around the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area isn’t going to get a lot harder.

“We’ve put reins on things that, in the early 2000s, were at risk of running wild,” Metrolinx’s chief planning officer, Leslie Woo, told TVO earlier this month. “It could have been a lot worse.”

It’s not, perhaps, the most ringing endorsement of the agency’s work so far. But there’s a grim truth to the fact that prior governments let transit investment in the region dwindle (it arguably didn’t even become a priority for the Liberals until after their re-election in 2007) while economic and population growth sent homes and jobs moving ever-outward, giving the GTHA a deep hole to dig out of.

We’re still digging and will be for a while yet: the draft regional transit plan that Metrolinx released last week, which includes such long-needed projects as Toronto’s Relief Line subway, is still largely about catching up with the region’s growth to date and not, as an optimist might hope, about getting ahead of it.

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A presentation made to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario last month showed that the regional transit planning agency expects that in 2031, roughly the same fraction of regional trips will be taken by transit as by car or “active” modes like walking and cycling. Given how much the region’s population is expected to grow, that represents substantial overall ridership growth — millions of new riders. But auto traffic is also expected to grow substantially between now and then.

Woo acknowledges that even in 2031, the large majority of trips in the region will still be made by car, despite the completion (if, ahem, neither bad luck nor politics intervenes) of large projects like the Eglinton Crosstown or the transformation of GO rail services into two-way, all-day frequent rail service known as GO Rapid Express Rail, or GO RER

The one part of the region where this won’t be the case is where it already isn’t: downtown Toronto. The core of the city is an aberration: people are more likely to take transit or walk or cycle than to take their cars to work. Everywhere else — including in the rest of Toronto — cars dominate.

So is the answer, then, for the rest of the region to become more like Toronto?

“I think that’s the aspiration,” Woo says. “Toronto’s unique. I don’t think Mississauga will have the scale of Toronto. But Mississauga can do way better, has way more potential in terms of capturing active transportation.” The same is true of other major cities around the GTHA.

“We know from our own data that people arriving at our GO stations are travelling short distances, but they’re driving there because the local transit isn’t there or because the communities aren’t walkable,” Woo adds.

This isn’t news to local councils in the communities around Toronto. The local plan for Mississauga’s Port Credit targeted an area around the local GO Train station for growth, while Vaughan is planning for a “new downtown” near the subway extension that will be opening later this year. Promoting development around major transit stations is a start, but challenging the primacy of the automobile in the GTA’s suburbs is going to take more than that.

Making the most out of Metrolinx’s investments — those projects laid out in its recently released long-term plan — is going to mean more than just building them. It’s going to mean taking active measures to actually fill those seats, preferably in ways that de-emphasize driving.

Metrolinx, of course, has a spotty record on this: it’s become the largest single operator of free parking lots in the region, offering 70,000 spaces at 63 stations. That means we have a transit operator effectively giving a subsidy to motorists — one paid for by non-drivers through their fares and by taxpayers through Metrolinx’s annual funding from the province. The decision to switch to paid parking  (as the TTC did with its commuter lots) will be made, if it ever is, at the political level and not by Metrolinx.

In the meantime, Woo says Metrolinx will be looking to meet its ridership goals through programs encouraging more non-car travel. They could involve supporting better local transit, bike use (Metrolinx announced more bike lockers at its GO stations this week), and other measures that will be faster and cheaper than billion-dollar projects.

“We’re trying to push against the inordinately wonderful convenience of cars to give people options for things like walking, cycling, car-sharing,” Woo says. “We haven’t yet, in this region, really done that.”

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