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4 Hard Truths About Transit

4 Hard Truths About Transit
Reuters

Who says only disastrous news emerges from Toronto these days? A regional advisory panel has released a series of sharp discussion papers meant to enlighten the public about transit in greater Toronto (via Human Transit). The first paper — called "Hard Truths about Transit" [PDF] — offers six key points to inform a "mature" debate on the topic. Now there's a word not heard around those parts in a while.

While two of the points are very local in scope, four represent universal lessons that bear repeating to residents in many large cities around the world. The whole paper is worth a read, but here's a peek at those four in particular.

1. "Subways are not the only good form of transit." There's a tendency to see subways as the optimal form of urban transportation. For sure, an efficient subway system, with the power of moving thousands of people quickly through crowded corridors, can make a great city even greater. At the same time, heavy rail is extremely expensive and only appropriate when levels of existing density demand it.

The Ontario panel reminds metro area residents that an effective transit network depends less on one high-tech mode and more on "matching the technology to the circumstances." For considerably less money, commuter corridors can implement light rail lines almost capable of matching subway ridership (and also capable of making residents happier). Perhaps even more cost-efficient is bus rapid-transit, which can rival light rail when done right and has proven equally (if not more) attractive in terms of economic development.

2. "Transit does not automatically drive development." Hard truth number two picks up where hard truth number one left off. It's become increasingly fashionable to suggest that transit alone can boost the local economy by attracting businesses and retail development. Again, to be sure, public transportation that increases access to a dense area can produce so-called "agglomeration economies" — in other words, they can be worth way more than their cost to a city.

But as the Ontario panel points out, "you cannot just build transit anywhere and hope commercial development will follow." Land use planning, local job growth potential, and other business plans must also be part of the discussion. "Understanding the relationship between transit planning, land use and employment region-wide will cast the debate over transit priorities in a new and constructive light," the report states.

3. The cost of transit is more than construction. Canadian governments, like those in the United States, separate capital costs of constructing public transportation from the operational costs of running it. The Ontario panel argues that this practice can obscure the total investment needed to pay for a new line or system throughout its functional life. As this chart shows, capital costs are in many cases just a fraction (though a sizeable one) of 50-year costs for a mode:

4. Transit users aren't the only ones who benefit from transit. This point is perhaps the panel's most important. The discussion about public transportation often dissolves into an emotional debate about whether or not all city residents should pay for a system used by only some. It's an odd contention, really, since few people also argue that paying for police, hospitals, schools are worthwhile — although not everyone uses these public services, either.

The Ontario panel explains that transit can be the cornerstone of a productive local economy that benefits everyone. Among other thing, transit brings workers closer to jobs, reduces the costly (in many senses of the word) need to own a car, and attracts retail and business revenue that can be reinvested into the city. "These are indirect benefits that will be felt by all of us," says the report.

Stay mature, Toronto.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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