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Toronto Better bus service a faster – and cheaper – way to ease Toronto congestion, chief planner says

TTC buses on Finch Avenue.

Jim Ross for The Globe and Mail/jim ross The Globe and Mail

Forget the "loser-cruiser" of old.

Bus service can be sped up and improved – and perhaps given its own lane – as another way to tackle congestion that is holding back Toronto, the city's chief planner argued Tuesday.

Jennifer Keesmaat said that this can lead to great improvements for a fraction the cost of long-debated bigger transit projects. And they can be brought to fruition before shovels go into the ground on proposed work such as the Scarborough subway extension or the downtown relief line.

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"If you operate your buses really effectively and you build a little bit of infrastructure around your buses … so every major street on the grid has service, high-frequency service, it means you're always within a five to ten minute walk of a high-speed bus, anywhere in the city," the planner told reporters after a speech to the Toronto Region Board of Trade.

In an address on big ideas for the next five years, she told the audience that her department is working with the Toronto Transit Commission on a surface priority network. There were scant details in the speech and she offered few more to reporters, saying it was too early in the process to talk about specific routes. She did say, though, that dedicated lanes for buses are being considered.

"If we take the conversation back to the spot where it needs to be, which is improving transit service and reducing congestion, and we have data and analysis that demonstrate that very quickly we can improve service and we can reduce congestion, I think that's what everyone in this city wants," Ms. Keesmaat said when asked how the idea of car-free lanes might go over at City Hall.

She presented improved bus service as a way that Toronto, which is decades behind on transit infrastructure building, can complement slower and more expensive projects. Preliminary recommendations will go to the planning and growth management committee in June. A "hard recommendation" on all of the priority projects is to come in January of next year.

At its most complex, improved bus service involves physically separated lanes of the sort laid on Highway 7, along with heated waiting areas and payment on the platform to speed boarding. Although more expensive, this model can later be converted to light-rail with less hassle. Simpler versions of express buses can include dedicated lanes and traffic signal priority.

Ways to speed buses have been implemented around the world, with cities recognizing that these vehicles can move large quantities of people if they are removed from traffic. New York, Bogota and Los Angeles have all moved in this direction.

Ms. Keesmaat said this is one reason drivers in L.A. face less congestion and shorter commutes than in Toronto.

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"Ten years ago they implemented bus rapid transit and they transformed how people move in the city."

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