Review of the Big Move: Continuing the conversation

I am delighted that my 2013 Review of the Big Move has got people talking. What began as an economic analysis has become a conversation, as Metrolinx, transit stakeholders, and politicians start to dig into the details of how to get the region moving.

Even those who take issue with specific parts of the Review seem to agree that things need to change. Metrolinx needs to exert leadership to achieve its stated goals. GO needs to be developed into a regional express network. New 905 lines are needed to help suburbanites switch to transit.

However, some participants in the conversation take a more negative view. "We've always done it this way." "Riders won't pay for better service." "Transit workers can't change how they do their jobs." "Blame the politicians." "Transit always needs subsidies; it is wrong to pay for it from fares." And so on.

A case in point is the critique of the Review posted recently on Steve Munro's blog. I am impressed that Munro has taken the time and trouble to go through the report in such detail. We agree that without some significant changes, Metrolinx will not achieve its goals through the Big Move. He also agrees with my analysis about the urgent need for an expanded GO network. However, I do need to address some of his criticisms of the Review, because they reflect the kind of thinking that is holding us back from delivering better transit in the Toronto region.

If I were to sum up our differences, I would put it this way. Steve Munro looks at Toronto's transit system and draws on his extensive knowledge of its history and institutions to explain why it is the way it is. Few people understand the city's current system, with all its flaws, better than Steve, although his role as advisor on the Transit City proposals may have coloured his views somewhat.

I, however, look at what the transit system for the entire Toronto region could be, drawing on best practices in city-regions around the world, and ask: what will it take to get there? I use quantitative analysis, based on empirical evidence, to test alternatives and to see what will get the region as a whole the best transit system for the lowest cost.

The Review I wrote included financial and economic analysis of many schemes and options. This was the first time that anyone had done a standardized cost-benefit analysis of the main proposals in the Big Move. Steve's response includes some numbers, but no economic analysis to support his claims. Steve is entitled to his opinions, but it is not acceptable for him to assert, as he does, that the Neptis report is "riddled with errors" unless he can back up that assertion with a rigorous analysis of his own.[1]

I would like to lay to rest the impression Steve has that I see ALRT (Automated Light Rapid Transit) as the solution to every problem. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Sure, I worked on the Vancouver Skytrain about 32 years ago, and I am proud of my involvement in that project. I also worked on the London Docklands Light Railway (also an ALRT line, although nobody in London calls it that) and the system in Honolulu now under construction. But I have also helped create and improve more conventional LRT schemes, of the type Steve advocates, in Birmingham, Nottingham, and Newcastle, as well as regional express rail, high-speed rail and subway (metro) lines, and have operated bus and intercity rail services in several cities. I advocate whatever mode is best for a particular place, taking account of demand, available routes, environmental issues, development opportunities, operating costs, and other factors. I have no particular preference for any one method of getting from A to B.

I am all in favour of LRT - where it works. But when Metrolinx's own Benefits Case Analyses show that most of the LRT projects proposed for the Toronto region have costs about twice the benefits and will attract few new riders, then it is time to consider alternatives.

Furthermore, I part company with those who insist that transit must always be heavily subsidized by senior levels of government. These are the naysayers who insist that fare structures can never be touched; that operating and labour costs can never be reduced; that the capital costs of projects cannot be lowered - for example, by omitting expensive stations in thinly populated areas, apparently because those stations serve a political purpose of some sort.

Transit lovers in Toronto have been calling for higher subsidies for years, and that strategy has not provided the desired results. So it's time to think about how we can use the money we have (including the welcome new provincial funding) and get the most out of it, including revenues we can then plough back into the system.

And where are those revenues to come from? I show in my report that frequent all-day GO services will more than pay for themselves from the farebox. The trains and tracks are mostly already there, and many train crews only drive a few hours each day while being paid for a full 8-hour shift, so the costs are relatively low. The 30% traffic growth that GO unlocked when it went to half-hourly trains on the Lakeshore route shows that the market is large.

Transit operators can also get more revenue from existing services, not simply by raising fares, but also sometimes by lowering them. I am a strong believer in smart pricing and fare integration, because I have seen them work. Fares in London, where I live, are both higher and lower than they are in Toronto. What you pay depends when you travel, how far you travel, what modes you use, and how often you travel. Transport for London has shown how this can be done, raising both revenues and ridership. I see no reason why Toronto cannot do something similar. TTC already covers 80% of its operating costs with a very crude flat fare structure. Smart pricing could boost farebox recovery well above 100%. This is not mere optimism on my part; it is a conclusion based on international evidence. My own train company in England doubled passenger numbers over 10 years, while reducing average fares and increasing cost recovery from 70% to 100% (including capital charges). The extra money can pay for better services and new investment.

I realize that after years of inaction and broken promises, many people in the Toronto region are inclined to be cynical about further transit proposals. I cannot blame them. But new funding has been promised, an investment in regional express rail that has the potential to transform the Toronto region's transportation system. Now is the time to focus on what can be achieved, and make sure the opportunity is not wasted on projects that will not deliver.

I look forward to continuing the conversation. In future briefs, I will respond in more detail to some other comments by Steve Munro.

Michael Schabas
[1] In fact, he located two genuine errors, which I have already acknowledged: a calculating error, now corrected, and a historical fact. Neither affects the analysis or the overall conclusions.