Clean, affordable light rail also delivers economic lift

Shades of the Broadway LRT/metro debate. It seems the metro lobby is hard at it to derail Toronto’s LRT plans, just like how the metro/SkyTrain lobby is trying to do the same in Vancouver.
Added to the metro/SkyTrain debate is that our friends South of the boarder are trying reinvent light rail into light-metro, a transit mode made obsolete by light rail decades ago! Today, transit is not built to move people, oh no, transit is build to influence land use, which is an excuse to gold-plate transit projects, which vastly increases the cost of providing ‘rail’ transit while at the same time offering no real proof that the added expenditure actually increases ridership.
What has been forgotten with the mad rush to build with hugely expensive metro’s (yes automatic transit systems are metro), is the wants and wishes of the transit customer. What studies have shown what the transit customer wants is that the ‘transit‘ is on the pavement; affordable to use; comfortable; a seamless or no-transfer trip; and a timely journey. The transit customer doesn’t want underground or elevated transit (for many reasons); expensive fares (which come with more expensive metro); standing; and transferring to complete ones journey. As for a timely journey, the transit customer wants a reasonably fast journey, comparable with one using a car.
Recent comments from the metro/SkyTrain lobby claim that the faster commercial speed of SkyTrain, itself attracts customers to our transit system. In short, the answer is no. What attracts the transit customer to transit, is a combination of many things, including safety, the ambiance of the transit system, ease of ticketing, speed of the complete transit journey (door to door), a seamless or no transfer journey, etc.
Modern light rail has proven to provide all of the above, which is why it is the most popular public transit mode in the world; LRT works. So when others try to morph LRT into another mode, especially a mode inferior to LRT, it should give one pause for concern. Why should we squander billions of dollars trying to reinvent the wheel, or building gold-plated light-metro, when that money would have been better spent on providing much more needed transit; transit that the customer actually wants.
In the 21st century, transit is seen as a product and if the transit ‘customer‘ doesn’t like the product, he/she will not buy.

Brussels' light rail system uses Bombardier equipment on segregated lanes. Greg Gormick argues that light rail transit lines in Europe and the United States have revived cities and reducted pollution and traffic congestion.

From the

Clean, affordable light rail also delivers economic lift

Critics of Toronto’s Transit City plan ignore the evidence in many European cities

Greg Gormick

In the ideal world, an informed public debate over the TTC’s $10 billion Transit City light rail transit (LRT) plan would hone it into a scheme fully responsive to the needs of transit users and residents who live along the line.

Instead, Transit City is being lambasted by a cadre of critics who hope to derail it, but without really knowing anything about LRT.

To be fair, the various parties involved in Transit City have done a deplorable job explaining LRT to the plan’s opponents.

As a result, the average Torontonian has no idea of social, environmental and economic benefits of this cost-effective form of rail transit.

In the Toronto context, the first thing that needs to be understood is that LRT and streetcars are not the same beasts. They are related, but there are massive differences between these two approaches to urban transportation.

LRT is a postwar European development that grew out of the conventional streetcar. As Western Europe got back on its feet after World War II, rising car ownership gradually chewed into transit ridership. Some cities followed the North American example and abandoned their streetcars. But many others embarked on evolutionary programs to build on the streetcar’s strength as an intermediate-capacity technology filling the gap between high-capacity subways and lower-capacity buses.

The result was a series of technological and operational advances that included:

  • Larger and faster rolling stock with higher capacity and labour productivity.
  • Better track to provide a smoother and quieter ride.
  • Wider spacing of stations or car stops, leading to reduced travel times.
  • Innovative fare collection systems for faster passenger loading and unloading.
  • Pre-emptive, transit-priority signalling at intersections.
  • Separated rights-of-way to minimize conflicts with automobiles.

But European LRT also involved much more than just tracks and rolling stock. There, urban planners embraced the concept of transit-oriented land-use development, using fast, frequent and convenient rail transit services as a means of controlling outer suburban development and making the inner cities more accessible, vibrant and appealing.

European cities also used LRT as an opportunity to totally re-engineer and improve their streets for all users under a concept known as lateral segregation. Each user — transit rider, motorist, cyclist and pedestrian — is assigned a portion of a street and each is segregated from the other in order to accommodate their varying requirements. Every element of the street is re-engineered accordingly: traffic lanes, parking, taxi stands, traffic management systems, cycling lanes, sidewalks, street lighting and all aspects of the “street furniture.”

The total effect is one of calming the street while also invigorating it economically and socially. LRT now plays a major role in both large and medium-sized European cities. More than 30 cities that abandoned their streetcars — including Paris, London and Barcelona — have built new LRT lines since the late 1970s and others are hopping aboard.

The success of European LRT was not lost on planners and politicians in some North American cities that abandoned their traditional streetcar systems and paid the price for it in traffic gridlock, unacceptable levels of air pollution and rampant suburban sprawl. In 1978, Edmonton inaugurated North America’s first all-new LRT with service-proven German equipment and designs. The LRT concept has spread to 22 other North American cities and more than 30 additional systems are now under construction or in planning.

When properly implemented — as it has been in cities as diverse as Dallas, San Diego and Portland, Ore., — LRT has delivered exactly what its advocates predicted. It has sparked a transit revival, luring commuters out of their cars and reducing emissions. It has acted as an economic catalyst, encouraging compact, transit-oriented development. And it has revived deteriorated residential and commercial neighbourhoods, generating considerable on-street activity and boosting property values.

To believe that the opposite will be the result with LRT on streets such as Sheppard, Eglinton and Finch flies in the face of worldwide experience. These main thoroughfares are probably better suited to LRT than many of those in U.S. cities, where it has proved its value as a fast, clean and affordable form of transit that boosts livability.

Some Torontonians maintain that we should be building subways instead of LRT. But subways cost about four times as much per kilometre and they are financially sustainable only where there are huge volumes of passengers ready to ride them on opening day. That is not the case in Toronto on the lines proposed for LRT.

Change is always frightening. But to allow an uninformed fear of the city-changing benefits of LRT to kill Transit City would doom Toronto to more car dependency, congestion, pollution and economic stagnation.

Other cities with which we compete for residents, jobs and investment are embracing LRT as one means to improve their social, environmental and economic attractiveness. Can we afford not to? I think not.

Greg Gormick is the Canadian contributing editor of the rail and transit trade magazine Railway Age. He wrote the TTC’s 2004 consulting report, The Streetcar Renaissance: Its Background and Benefits.


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3 Responses to “Clean, affordable light rail also delivers economic lift”

  1. Justin Bernard Says:

    You do not have to worry about the subway lobbyists in Toronto. There is a growing grassroots effort in Toronto to push the premier to reinstate funding for LRT, and we are working to educate citizens why LRT can work. We Torontonians still remember the follies of the Sheppard Subway to a mall, and the subway is being extended to a field, and a Wal-Mart. Yes, a Wal-mart.

  2. David Says:

    That’s great news Justin.

    Across the mountains in Edmonton they are going to add new stops to their existing LRT. The “speed” coalition here in Vancouver will be aghast to hear that some of those stops will be going in between existing ones. Yes you read that right. Edmonton is deliberately slowing down their LRT because the resulting system will provide better service and do a better job of shaping development along the line.

  3. affordable modern furniture Says:

    Yeah it is right that having a Clean, affordable light rail also delivers economic lift” and it really helps us.

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