The cold hard truth about Toronto's transport network

Photo: Getty

With a population of 2.8 million, projected to grow to 7 million by 2050, Toronto is Canada’s most populated city. While its cultural, social and financial cachet skyrockets, one thing may soon hold it back – it’s public transport system.

Academic Caren Levy argued in 2013 that the ability to access transport reflects the “right to participate” in the life of the city – not just to exist in it, but to partake fully of what it offers, for work, leisure and education. Toronto’s public transport system has struggled to keep up with the growth of the city, and the demands that places on its infrastructure.

Ridership has dropped in recent years because of concerns over expense, comfort and even practicality – the stress that the transit system is under has rendered it inefficient and time-consuming. Add in the fact that a highway runs right through the centre of the city and that most of the public transport converges downtown, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Scholars, community organisers and local politicians have long since called for an expansion of public transport. In 2010, during a local election, concerned citizens residing around poorly serviced areas began the self-explanatory “Subways! Subways! Subways!” campaign, and the projected population growth of the greater Toronto area has led the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to promise extensions of the Metrorail subway system, although there has been controversy about whether the extension will reach the right places.

The city's transport woes have much to do with how public transport system was set up in 1849. The first bus routes started taking passengers between Yorkville and St.Lawrence Market, which are located in the centre of the city. Toronto has expanded outwards from there, and so too did Toronto’s transit network, which has led to the current concentration of the most transport links downtown, often around the most wealthy areas.

There are three main components to Toronto’s public transport system (not including the GO trains for suburban travellers that link into the city centre).

The primary system is the subway, which is structured around Line 1 (Yonge-University) that runs in a U, and Line 2 (Bloor-Danforth), which intersects the U at the centre of the city. Other, more recent additions include Line 3 & Line 4, both of which cover specific parts in the north and east of the city that were previously only covered by infrequent bus services. A cursory glance at the subway map transposed on to Toronto shows the lack of coverage in certain areas of the city - meaning that if you don’t live directly on a subway line, you have to get buses to your nearest stop.

The lack of coverage outside downtown Toronto and a few very specific pockets of the city has led to the establishment of the GO trains that take commuters directly from specific suburbs in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) to various central subway stations, but the bus coverage to get to these stations outside of the city proper is even more inferior than within the city centre itself.

The buses come every twenty or so minutes, and are often the only way of getting to a subway station, particularly some that are further out. The result is that during rush hour, they can be jam-packed, leading people (and sometimes children) to wait in freezing temperatures for the next one in the hope of more space. Some of the most recent figures from the TTC highlight that only 68.1 per cent of buses arrive on time. These issues are often exacerbated by traffic congestion on the roads in and out of the city.

Perhaps one of the most confusing parts of Toronto’s transport system is that streetcars comprise a significant part of it – Toronto’s streetcar system is the busiest and geographically, largest, light rail system in North America. While it sounds like a good idea – after all, this is a region with major transport problems – the streetcar runs on the same roads as the cars, meaning it has to stop for red lights, and around 50 per cent of streetcars are late. There’s even a very busy intersection downtown where a streetcar driver has to get out and manually change the tracks because other streetcars run on it.

A study in 2017 found that a monthly transit pass in Toronto, known as a PRESTO card, is among the most expensive in the world at  $150 (£88.40), despite the fact that Toronto’s public transport leaves so much to be desired. A student card is not that much cheaper at $130. And despite recent population growth, Toronto does not operate a zoning system like most other major metropolises – which means that a ride between two stops anywhere on the line will set you back the same amount - $3 for adults, and $2 for concessions.

These shortcomings when the city is growing so rapidly have made transport a hot topic at local elections, not least because it exacerbates a problem with income inequality which is already among the worst anywhere in North America. A comprehensive report from the Martin Prosperity Institute points out that the fractured nature of Toronto’s public transport might as well have generated different towns with differing standards of living.

Another report from the City Institute in York University in 2015 echoed this sentiment, emphasising that the “capillaries” of public transport in Toronto are left to waste away even if they do have some coverage, while prime spaces benefit from continued investment. These capillaries can be found away from downtown and wealthier areas, and instead run throughout the “inner suburbs”. A series of maps, from J.D. Hulchanski’s income polarisation study, clearly demonstrates that transportation systems don’t really cover the areas that might rely on it the most.

As a city lauded for its diversity, you would hope that Toronto’s public transport system would be geared up to cope with the dynamic between immigrants and public transit – not least the simple fact that immigrants tend to be the most prominent users of public transport the world over. In reality, much of Toronto’s immigrant population, comprising significant numbers of service and low-wage workers, live in those underserved inner suburbs, referred to in policy documents as Neighborhood Improvement Areas. These spaces without service have created what is now referred to as “transit deserts”, which can have long-term effects on the health and employment prospects of people living in those areas, as a Toronto Star article demonstrated. These issues have been left to fester, and worsen, for many years, without much actual resolution.

All of this is meant to be tackled by the “Big Move” plan run by Ontario’s transport agency, Metrolinx, which aims to expand the regional transport system – adding 1,200 km of rapid transport in the area with a view to completely changing how public transport is structured. Yet groups representing disgruntled communters like Fair Riders and TTC Riders are not convinced it will solve the structural issues, and concerned it will instead simply distribute them further outwards. Given the troubles Toronto has long faced creating a transport system that works for all its residents, it is unsurprising they remain skeptical that the city’s problems - and the ones yet to come - will be solved by current thinking.


“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.

You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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