Canadian Consulting Engineer

Expert connects SmartTrack’s success to development in GTA

Presentation given to CTBUH meeting shows complex challenges of planning new transit routes to coincide with dense urban development.

March 3, 2015   CCE

A consultant who was instrumental in developing the SmartTrack regional transportation plan for the Greater Toronto Area spoke at a CTBUH Canada meeting on February 25. Iain Dobson spent six years developing the regional express rail plan which helped John Tory become elected as mayor of Toronto last year.

As an organization dedicated to tall buildings (Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat), CBTUH is interested in how transit and transportation could spur high-rise development. Dobson’s company, Strategic Regional Resource Alliance, has studied the issue at length. As the invitation to the event suggested, SmartTrack could become the economic backbone of the Greater Toronto Area, or be relegated “to the dustbin of transit without development.”

Dobson began his presentation to about 40 attendees at the University of Toronto by showing where development has taken place in the region since the first Toronto subway was built in the 1940s. At first intensification gathered around the subway line in the downtown core. But as expressways were developed, the office and commercial developments spread out and today are concentrated in outlying nodes like Mississauga, Scarborough and Markham.

But where will the new development occur that will be needed to sustain a region expected to expand from 6 million to 12 million in the next three decades? That’s the critical question, and it’s complicated.

Dobson, the mayor and other advocates of SmartTrack want to ensure that if the network is built, it will serve the places where people live and work. Otherwise, a city “already choking on its own congestion” will become more clogged with traffic as people continue to depend on their cars to get to and from work.

As proposed, the SmartTrack concept (which just received $1.5 million in city funding for studies), will use existing GO train surface lines along 90% of its route, so the new infrastructure could be built relatively quickly — in seven years. Approximately 53 kilometres long in total with 22 stations, the electric trains would run from the airport area in the northwest, down to Union Station, and northeast to Markham. It would cross municipal boundaries, intersect with the TTC subway system at several points, and by running diagonally would shorten commute times for many Toronto neighbourhoods. It would also offer relief to the downtown crowded Yonge/Bloor intersection. Metrolinx would operate it.

Dobson predicts that to accommodate the growth over the next 30 years, the  Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area will require 100 million square feet of new office space.  To ensure that this development occurs along transit networks, he says we need to establish the right economic and land-use policies. His company’s research on that issue is due to be published in around three weeks after it has undergone peer review.

But, Dobson said, while public policy sets the boundaries, and developers create the infrastructure and design buildings, in the end it’s the market that determines whether development takes place.

And there’s the rub. Because of that dependence on the market, things don’t always go as the planners would like. During the question and answer session, attendees pointed out that the new Sheppard East line, the newest completed link in the TTC subway network, is underused, partly because there is not sufficient density around it. And development around other new subway lines has not materialized as planned, such as at the Vaughan Corporate Centre. Dobson answered that one of the problems is speculative landholders around transit lines. Once a transit project is announced, they are happy to sit and watch the value of their sites rising, but the value rises to a point where it’s no longer economically feasible for developers to actually build. It’s the “Achilles’ heel” of development planning, agreed Dobson.

Dobson also spoke about a study they had done of 18 new transit lines in cities around the world. The ones that were successful and had enough riders to be economically successful were those built to connect places where development was already in place. Those that were not successful were always those built before dense development had been established.

To learn more about SmartTrack, click here.

Updated March 6, 2015, 8.35 a.m.


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