Canadian Consulting Engineer

Waiting For The Train …

January 1, 2008
By Bronwen Parsons

It's two o'clock in the afternoon, and already traffic on the Don Valley Parkway outside my office window is inching to a crawl. Within a couple of hours, there will be a string of stationary red tail...

It’s two o’clock in the afternoon, and already traffic on the Don Valley Parkway outside my office window is inching to a crawl. Within a couple of hours, there will be a string of stationary red tail lights as far as the eye can see, and traffic in the opposite direction will be just as thick.

Over to the northwest, a single CN rail track emerges from the woodlands that remain along the valley. The line winds almost directly downtown and yet it’s rare to see a train. The track sits there, unused, for hours at a time.

Canada’s underused and under developed passenger rail system goes hand in hand with our overused and clogged urban highways. Everybody knows that we need to get more people onto trains and buses if we are going to ease the gridlock that is plaguing large cities from coast to coast. Everyone knows we need to build and improve on our public transportation infrastructure.

There are some good signs. Last year, the Montreal Metro opened an extended line to Laval (see pp. 20-26). Cities including Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto all have extensions to their subway or light rapid transit systems under way. The federal, provincial and municipal governments are promising billions more dollars over the next few years. One commentator, Joe Mihevc, vice chair of the Toronto Transit Commission, has called this funding “a sea change in public policy,” following a decade of “begging by transit authorities for simple state of good repair funding.”

There’s a lot of ground to make up. Metrolinx, the new transportation authority for the Greater Toronto Area, has noted that in the last two decades the only major addition to the region’s transit system was the 5-kilometre Sheppard subway. By contrast, in the decades between 1960 and 1980, construction of new commuter railways and rapid transit in the GTA averaged 135 kilometres every decade.

And let’s be realistic. Canada is a country of sprawling geography, a land increasingly characterized by subdivisions, big box shopping centres and drive-through eateries. Persuading people in the suburbs to leave their cars behind and take transit is not going to be easy. The best service these dispersed populations could hope for would mean a long trudge over icy roads or under the beating sun to reach a bus stop on an exposed, wind-blasted highway. There they might have to wait for half an hour or more. Given this kind of discomfort, the only reason anyone would choose to take public transit is either because they can’t afford a car, or because they have a serious commitment to the environment.

One promising idea the transportation planners have come up with that could seduce people in the outlying suburbs and small towns to take transit is “Mobility Hubs.” A variation of the “Park n’ Ride” concept, these intermodal centres would see commuters take their cars (or bikes, or taxis) to a local station, park, and hop onto a rapid transit connection to another hub. Existing railway lines like the one I see from my window should be pressed into service as part of the network. With many more, and faster, trains we might be talking business. The mobility hubs would be “diverse centres of human activity,” with shops, gymnasiums, cafes and other amenities to make the transit experience a little less torturous.


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