It is not a practice of mine to respond to challenges, especially those fielded to me through social media. However, when my transit-savvy daughter asked me to step up and ride the buses, I decided to follow through.
Admittedly, I am not a transit rider, and have not been since university. The nature of my job and family responsibilities made transit travel in London impractical. Still, I felt it was important to experience our current system before commenting further, and while nearly one week worth of transit travel hardly qualifies me as an experienced user, it did provide me with a few helpful insights:
- Our transit drivers are caring, courteous professionals who, in my opinion, do a very good job under demanding conditions in a calm, quick and efficient manner.
- A number of passengers openly thanked the driver, which I thought was pretty impressive.
- Travel times to the far ends of the city were relatively smooth (except for the potholes) and on-time.
- The buses were clean, comfortable and enabling, but also quite congested at times, particularly through the downtown core.
- Transferring can be a pain, especially in inclement weather and those with accessibility challenges.
- The new LTC tracking and online tools are informative and easy to use.
- Coverage to the far reaches of the city would be challenging and expensive where such developments are neither pedestrian or transit-friendly.As such, we need to explore new public transportation models to service this need.
- Despite chronic underfunding relative to its peers for years, the LTC is doing a very good job improving London’s intra-city transit experience.
This latter point is particularly telling when one does a comparative analysis with other transit services in Ontario, and sees that London ranks lowest among major cities in the province, in civic contribution. In fact, where transit services in peer municipalities cover an average 53-percent of the operating costs and passenger fares cover 38-percent, it is the exact opposite in London: the London Transit Commission’s (LTC) portion of revenue from the city only amounts to 37-percent, while passengers contribute 52-percent of total operating cost necessary to deliver the service.
In addition to the above findings, I’ve also had the pleasure of reviewing all of Shift BRT’s planning work to date and attended two of their more recent public information sessions. After reviewing the materials and attending the sessions, I can say with some confidence that:
- The Shift BRT team has raised their game considerably since the naming of the Project Manager to her position and the creation of a dedicated project team.
- The detailed plan, communication package and presentation were all quite clear, comprehensive and persuasive.
- The Shift BRT team did an impressive job assembling this massive package in a very compressed period of time.
Now such high praise would normally warrant a full-throated endorsement of such a project.
However, I am still challenged by two fundamental problems with Shift BRT.
First, the true benefit/cost ratio for this project is unknown. The methodology used in the business case comes from Metrolinx, which relies on an array of Toronto-centric social and economic impact benefits to justify the project. It does not focus on the direct revenues/costs attributable to Shift BRT. Furthermore, it contains no source data and no backup detail for the key assumptions that drive the project’s benefits. This makes it impossible to independently validate the plan’s conclusions.
Second, the anticipated taxpayer-funded operating cost subsidy for the LTC system refresh, which is necessary to meet Shift BRT’s objectives, is unknown over the project’s life cycle. Therefore, Londoners have no idea what they will be paying to support this newly integrated transit system over the next 15 years.
The project’s high ridership projections and associated fare box revenues are contrary to every trend in the North American transit market, including London. For example, city councils in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Ottawa have all recently been confronted with the difficult challenge of choosing between raising taxes to cover revenue shortfalls in their transit operations, or reducing services. The latter option is particularly troubling because a service offering, once cut, could lead to further declines in ridership, and thus the need for still more civic subsidies.
Similarly, the London Transit Commission has experienced a 4-percent decline in ridership over the past three years from 23.8 million in 2014 to 22.9 million last year, and well below the 24.5 million forecasted in this year’s budget. This fare box revenue risk is compounded by the cyclical uncertainty associated with the number of development projects needed to pay for the system, and the long-term status of the gas tax.
Therefore, while the most recent work on the Shift BRT plan has been impressive, I still believe that our city is better off tabling the Shift plan for now, and proceeding with a more measured transit investment for the entire system – one that grows withridership rather than in the hopes of it, and builds support for a more catered transit investment in the future.
Better Transit – A More Measured Alternative
Fortunately, London already has such a plan on the shelf – one that the Shift BRT plan emulated. It recommends several comparatively inexpensive transit-friendly measures, allowing the city to:
- Expand service commensurate with new ridership;
- Adjust and adapt London’s car-centric culture to this multi-mode approach;
- Reduce the financial and disruptive risks associated with the current Shift BRT plan;
- Provide flexibility for future modes of transportation; and
- Improve mobility for everyone.
The plan, entitled “Transit Priority Strategy For Bus Rapid Transit Implementation,” (or TPS for short) was prepared in 2012 as a technical paper supporting the Transportation Master Plan. A link to the Plan can be found at https://www.london.ca/residents/Roads-Transportation/Transportation-Planning/Documents/TMP%20Appendix%20D-Transit%20Priority%20Strategy%20for%20BRT.pdf
The TPS, which first recognized the L7 North-South, East-West spines now featured in Shift BRT, proposes a number of modest steps to build ridership and prepare the city for a full BRT approach should demand meet or exceed expectations.
This TPS also recommends that the initial “Pre-BRT” phase be comprised of frequent semi-express service, utilizing existing roadway facilities with transit priority measures to achieve reliable and convenient higher transit capacity services. (This step has since been implemented).
A key element of the TPS is also the development and implementation of transit priority measures that give public transit vehicles priority over general traffic to improve run times and reliability. The range of transit priority measures include improved street utilization, traffic changes and traffic signal control modifications. The use of these types of transit priority measures in the initial phase would enable transit ridership to grow quickly, thus building support for the later implementation of full BRT services if demand warrants it. These types of transit priority measures can also be implemented with less disruption to the existing built urban environment, and at a reduced capital cost.
The TPS also detailed favourable transit recommendations along the 25km-long routes and just over 50 intersections. Some of the recommended related action steps include:
1 Peak Period Traffic Management
- Designating some lanes as “High Occupancy Vehicle lanes” for buses, high occupancy vehicles, taxis, and emergency vehicles during peak periods.
- No left turns on major arteries during peak periods.
- Automated enforcement of bus bay re-entry.
2 Queue Jump Lanes
- Utilize a bus lane and traffic control measures to enable buses to pass through traffic bottlenecks with reduced delay.
3 Traffic Signal Priority
- Active traffic signal priority measures, using technology to detect approaching buses and to adjust the traffic signal control plan in real time to provide priority for buses to move through the intersection.
- Utilizing Smart Bus Systems, Central Transit Control, and transmitters to communicate with signal controllers and all traffic signals, which London has since installed.
Service the Whole City
The original TPS estimated the cost for these system improvements to total $8.4MM in 2012 dollars. I would suggest increasing this budget considerably and explore peak-time semi-express service not just on the designated L7 routes, but along several major arteries throughout the city including: Western/Wharncliffe, Commissioners, Fanshawe, Southdale, Wonderland, Adelaide, Highbury, Hyde Park and Veterans Memorial. The goal would be to support a wider array of potential users, and better connect job-seekers with parts of employee-starved companies and patrons to retailers located throughout our city.
If we are going to commit to a higher transit subsidy as a community, then I believe it is better value to broaden the service for everyone, rather than speed up run times by such a marginal amount for roughly a third of the projected market.
I would also like to see us explore the use of taxi and ride-sharing subsidies to support travel during off-peak times and extend coverage to the airport. If we are looking to expand the use of publicly funded transportation in our city, why not use this subsidy to target and satisfy specific market needs, versus solely relying on a revolving bus network? (a program now successfully underway in the other London) https://citymapper.com/news/1800/introducing-the-citymapper-smartbus.
Finally, if we want to ensure that transit becomes a viable option to all Londoners, we need to continue LTC’s investment in the little things, such as: clean, bright, bus shelters (even temporary ones at temporary stops), clear, paved bus stops, and crosswalks that ensure riders have safe access to and from strategic bus stop locations.
One aspect of the Shift BRT plan that has received a great deal of attention is the plan’s desire to stream buses through the rider-intense campus at Western University. Riders from both post-secondary institutions utilize the system extensively, amount to an estimated 57% of total LTC ridership. While on this note, I feel it is important to point out that the mandatory inclusion of an annual fee to support transit, included in the cost of tuition, may be leading to an overstatement of these numbers.
To my knowledge, Western and the City are still working towards an agreement to permit the routing of Shift BRT buses through the campus. at an unknown cost to both parties. This agreement would include the rebuilding/refurbishment of at least one bridge, and the extension of a pedestrian tunnel.
Alternatively, I would recommend that the buses not traverse campus. Instead, I would propose the City provide express service on both sides of the campus (Western/Wharncliffe & Richmond) and make it the responsibility of Western to help get its students to the express transit stops.
Concurrently, I would work with Western, Fanshawe, the federal government, the provincial government, and the National Research Council’s new automated vehicle research centre to explore the possibility of introducing the first autonomous bus program on a post-secondary campus in Canada. The autonomous bus program would mirror a similar program at universities elsewhere; and provide faculty, staff and students with a safe and convenient intra-campus transit option to move around campus and Western’s affiliated colleges. Such an initiative would have the dual benefit of putting London on the leading edge of autonomous vehicle transportation in Canada, all at a substantially lower cost to the City and its constituents.
Before closing this post, I want to briefly comment on specialized transit service in London. After speaking with frequent specialized transit users, several concerns were conveyed to me about our current service proposition, including: client interaction, reliability, functionality, responsiveness, performance standards and oversight.
I understand that the LTC and the City invest a considerable amount of time in the Accessible Public Transit Service Advisory Committee and the Province of Ontario’s AODA, in effort to understand client needs and improve service levels.
At this point, I do not yet have specific measures to add to this program. However, I do want for us to encourage continued development of London’s accessible public transit capability – including the expansion of specialized transit to meet the growing demand for this service. The clients that depend upon this service want very much to be a fully engaged member of and contributor to our community. They just need accessible options, and I am confident that with a little more attention, many of these challenges can be addressed to the net benefit of our city.
When I began this series, I highlighted the advice that I received from experienced transportation executives who strongly recommended that we take a measured approach to any plan we adopt – one that recognizes you must crawl before you walk, and walk before you run.
This Better Transit plan, while less ambitious than Shift BRT, is also less disruptive, less risky, and much less expensive, yet it achieves the same goals. It also leaves the City with the financial ability to address other equally-pressing community priorities.
This Better Transit plan is inclusive of the whole transit system, respectful of all modes of transportation, and more flexible and more adaptable to evolving technologies in the short and long term.
Finally, this Better Transit plan envisions a system that supports the city’s growth and economic development, rather than lead it. In my view, our growth and development must be driven by: thoughtful planning; a commitment to seek and sow private investment; sound fiscal management; and the meeting of ongoing mobility needs of our citizens.
Our transit system, as well as our whole mobility network, is then there to respond, support and enable all of our citizens to realize their aspirations and make their lives a little bit easier.
Late Tomorrow – The London Moves Price Tag