These cities have great, but sometimes strange, transit ideas. Which ones can Toronto steal?
In the first instalment of an occasional series looking at the best city-building in the world, urban transportation reporter Oliver Moore explores how global metropolises are changing the way people move
There's a powerfully parochial impulse that planners and urbanists say they encounter regularly: Bring forward a great idea, demonstrate a place where it's being done, and there will be politicians quick to say some variant of "That wouldn't work in our city."
This knee-jerk reaction against change is a dangerous move, one that can hold back urban centres even as they play greater roles in their national economies and compete around the world for talent and business. There are lots of good ideas out there – with transportation, in particular, offering a deep well to draw from – and some of them could work in Toronto.
Driverless trains have spread gradually around the world, including Paris, Barcelona and many parts of Asia. Earlier this year a report by Britain's Network Rail found that automating trains – thereby allowing them to run more closely together – would save hundreds of millions of pounds per year.
So far, Toronto has shied away from this technological shift. Even the Scarborough RT line, designed to be operated without a human operator, is staffed to this day. Most subway trains have a two-person crew.
Change is coming, though. The city's Sheppard subway line has moved to one-person operation, doing away with the guard position, and the other lines are expected to follow suit. The Yonge-University-Spadina line is rolling out Automatic Train Control, which reduces the hands-on role of the operator, and the Bloor-Danforth line will eventually adopt the same system.
Officially, the Toronto Transit Commission won't talk about going fully driverless, though these changes lay a psychological foundation for such a shift. Insiders predict that if the downtown relief line ever gets built it will be driverless.
Although staff costs are traditionally the biggest part of a transit agency's operating budget, such a switch wouldn't immediately save money, as employees relieved of command on the train would probably be assigned elsewhere within the system. But attrition would gradually reduce costs. And the trains would operate more precisely.
Heated bike lanes and sidewalks
Critics of spending on active transportation – the human-powered kind – often point to Toronto's weather, saying the infrastructure would go largely unused for several months each year. The argument has less power this year, as the city comes off a spotty winter, but there's no doubt snow can impede cycling and walking.
Toronto plows some sidewalks (though rarely in the core, where people walk most) and has made efforts to clear bike lanes, but other cities are going much further.
Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, uses thermal power to prevent snow from accumulating on some bike lanes. Similarly, in the cycling-friendly Netherlands, the province of Utrecht and the town of Zutphen have looked into heating bike lanes. The cost was tentatively pegged at $27,000 to $54,000 per kilometre, which could be seen as steep, but advocates say it is trivial compared with the cost of larger infrastructure projects. And a spokesperson for the Dutch Cycling Union says it could prevent thousands of cyclist collisions.
Reykjavik also heats some of its sidewalks, an idea adopted in municipalities as diverse as Oslo, the northern Japanese city of Sapporo and Oak Park, Ill. Montreal is about to kick off a pilot project to install heaters along a 670-metre stretch of Sainte-Catherine Street. The project could be expanded to 2.2 kilometres and has been tentatively priced at $26-million.
Many cities – including Toronto – set higher street parking charges in more desirable areas and during times of high demand. This is why it's often free to leave your car in a quiet part of town on a Sunday but relatively costly to park downtown during rush hour. It sounds like basic supply and demand, but the pricing often seems arbitrary and is resented by drivers as a money grab.
So what if the pricing were designed explicitly to manage supply? San Francisco decided to experiment with this approach in its central business district and in five neighbourhoods, with the goal of securing free spots on every block. The goal was 60– to 80-per-cent parking occupancy, and prices were adjusted every few months based on usage. If there was too much demand, the price went up. Too little and it went down.
Early results showed it was working. The average time spent looking for a parking spot was cut almost in half, from 11 1/2 minutes to six. The average price of parking dropped – though there were places and times where it went up – and so did the number of parking tickets.
Overall parking revenues went up 3 per cent. The amount of sales tax generated in the areas being tested also went up, compared with the rest of the city. It wasn't immediately clear why, but one possibility is that the sense that parking would be less of a hassle made these areas more attractive.
Mobility as a service
Why does a traveller need different memberships or payment systems to use taxis and transit, parking and car-sharing? For that matter, why can't these be interwoven so people can switch seamlessly from one to another?
In Toronto – where the Presto transit card doesn't even allow someone to sign out a bike – this seems like blue-sky dreaming. But it's not as implausible as it sounds.
A few jurisdictions are beginning to test what's known as "mobility as a service." In a nutshell, this links up various transportation options, using algorithms to propose the most efficient way to make the trip. People can buy certain packages of services or pay as they go.
Helsinki is at the forefront of this concept – part of its efforts to make private auto use unnecessary in the city centre by 2025. The plan has users paying the equivalent of about $360 a month to access everything from rental cars to transit and bike-sharing. An app will determine how best to stitch the trip together, making the necessary bookings, reservations or ticket purchases along the way.
Denver included a plan with similar elements in a "smart city" competition for federal funding. And another early adopter is Birmingham, the second-biggest municipality in Britain. It plans to start a mobility as a service trial with 500 users this year, based the same app Helsinki will use.
Curbs on car use
An oft-heard complaint in and around Toronto is that transit is too expensive. "I might as well drive" goes the thinking. But maybe it's not that transit is too pricey – maybe driving is too cheap.
This notion could be a tough sell for people who cheered when the Ontario government shot down Toronto Mayor John Tory's plan to put tolls on two local highways, but the evidence from elsewhere backs it up: If you want to encourage the use of transit, discouraging access to cars helps – especially if doing so raises money that can be used to fund transit.
For instance, to buy a car in Singapore, residents have to bid for a Certificate of Entitlement that could run upwards of $50,000. Then, to register the vehicle, drivers pay between 100 and 180 per cent of its market value. There are also a number of other charges, making car ownership prohibitive for most. But the government is determined to keep a leash on the number of private cars and has invested enormous sums in one of the best transit systems in the world.
Many other places restrict auto use in less financially punitive ways. Cities such as Athens and Sao Paulo allow only vehicles with certain licence plates to use the roads on certain days. The result? Inconvenience on the days one can't drive, but much less traffic on the days one can.
A large stretch of King Street across central Toronto is restricted access during rush hour, to help speed up transit. But you wouldn't know it: Drivers use the space freely and tickets are rarely issued. The city has effectively acknowledged defeat by saying the road – home to the city's busiest streetcar line – needs to be redesigned completely to minimize car travel. The idea is that King Street's 65,000 daily transit riders should not be unduly slowed by the roughly 20,000 other vehicles using the road.
The revamp of King will also give it better walking amenities, which are themselves an excellent city-building idea. But what if there was a cheaper way to achieve the specific goal of keeping cars out of the way on streetcar routes? There is.
A number of cities in South Korea are using cameras mounted on their buses to record people who block lanes, primarily by parking, who can then be sent a ticket – a system emulated by San Francisco and London. The TTC is already considering using cameras to catch drivers who put passengers at risk by speeding past open streetcar doors. Modifying such a system also to catch drivers who block transit vehicles seems simple enough.
Gas taxes were once seen as a cost-effective way to price driving. They were much cheaper to implement than toll booths and put a cost on all car use, not just driving done on certain roads.
But transportation experts have long been sounding the alarm about relying on gas taxes. The worry is that, as a source of revenue, they are increasingly unreliable. Cars are becoming more fuel-efficient – especially with hybrids and electric vehicles forming a small but growing part of the total fleet – and there is evidence that younger people are driving less.
To counter a looming revenue drop, many jurisdictions are looking anew at tolling. The most bold are considering tolls to put a price on all driving.
A transportation committee comprised of London politicians recently suggested that the British capital drop its congestion charge for the city centre in favour of "dynamic pricing" across the city. This holds the promise of adjusting the price by location and time of day to manage traffic as efficiently as possible. People who can adjust their travel patterns would be able to save money, and their absence would speed up the trips of those who can't.
And in Oregon, a pilot program that charges a fee for all driving, regardless of the road, was authorized in 2015 by the state legislature. In the experiment, which has been capped at 5,000 vehicles, drivers are charged 1.5 cents per mile but have their corresponding gas tax rebated.
A better bus shelter
In one of the many rounds of debate over the Scarborough subway extension, as proponents of the more expensive underground option bemoaned the indignity of waiting in the cold for a surface-level LRT, one transit insider said privately, "Why don't we just build heated shelters?"
Toronto has stayed largely low-tech with its bus and streetcar shelters, while other cities have made theirs comfortable and even informative.
Winnipeg, Regina and Fort McMurray, Alta., are among the cities that offer heated bus shelters. While Dubai, faced with the opposite problem, has experimented with air-conditioned ones.
But Singapore is leading the pack with an experiment that The Atlantic's urbanist website City Lab said may be "the world's best bus stop." The prototype features utilitarian features such as bicycle parking, free WiFi, a way to charge mobile phones and information about bus schedules and journey planning. But there are also perks such as the option to download e-books. There's even a rooftop garden and a swing. The idea is to "make waiting fun."
No matter what ends up getting built in Scarborough, the much larger number of people who ride surface transit across Toronto might want a bit of fun.
Would a person dressed as a zebra catch your eye in the way a crossing guard would not? How about a mime? Or a man in the mask and cape of a Mexican lucha libre wrestler? Running across such characters is a real possibility for drivers in parts of Latin America, where there's a touch of theatricality in road safety efforts.
The zebras – whose costumes were chosen because stripes painted on the road are called zebra crossings in many countries – have been operating in Bolivia since 2001. Similar campaigns have sprung up in Mexico, Peru, Argentina and Colombia under the banner "zebras without borders." Also in Colombia, former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus hired hundreds of mimes to shame aggressive drivers. The wrestler is more of a guerrilla effort, though: a political scientist in Mexico City whose alter ego goes by the name Peatonito (Little Pedestrian) and who theatrically pushes back at cars that intrude into walking space.
Under current law, citizens can't direct traffic in Toronto. But with highly paid police officers having to fill in because of crossing guard shortages – and the city coming off its deadliest year for pedestrians in more than a decade – perhaps it's time for a rethink.
Removing parking minimums
North American cities have long demanded that developers provide a certain amount of parking with their projects. The logic seemed self-evident: the users of a new building would not put additional pressure on existing street parking.
But this approach has downsides. By demanding parking spaces, cities have pushed up development costs and have forced all users, whether they drive or not, to pay for these spaces. And by providing so much parking, the value (and cost) of commercial or street parking has been pushed down, which encourages people to drive more.
"Off-street parking requirements are a fertility drug for cars," Donald Shoup writes in The High Cost of Free Parking, in which he also explains the largely arbitrary way cities devised their parking minimums in the first place.
Cities are starting to take heed. A number have changed their minimums to reflect neighbourhood realities, including access to transit. Late last year Buffalo passed an ordinance that did away entirely with its minimums. "Now we can be more efficient with land because we're not dedicating more space than is needed for parking," an official told the Buffalo News.
In Toronto, the minimums are flexible, with developers able to negotiate them down in return for concessions. But they remain in place and they remain the norm, with the city boasting only one downtown condo development without on-site parking.
Slides, flying cars and more
Walk down 25 stairs or slide down with a nice long whoosh? The Overvecht train station in the Dutch city of Utrecht offers the option. As part of a station refurbishment, crews installed a slide alongside two flights of stairs. Dubbed the "transfer accelerator," it's billed as a faster way for passengers to get where they're going. Not sure how the TTC's lawyers would react to this one.
Flying cars have become a bit of a joke in transportation circles – always just around the corner. But the transportation agency in Dubai believes they've arrived. The city hopes to launch an aerial taxi service this summer, with aircraft that will fly themselves and an app that will allow passengers to input their destinations. The taxis reportedly have a range of 50 kilometres and can carry up to 100 kilograms.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit agency in San Francisco is experimenting with reducing the number of seats on some trains – the math being that removing seven seats makes room for 14 people to stand. In Toronto, where a former TTC chair derided an attempt to have seats only around the walls of a subway as akin to turning it into a "cattle car," this could prove unpopular. But the prospect of being able to get on transit more easily during the commuter rush might make it acceptable.
Amid plans to spend more than $1-billion nationally on bicycle infrastructure, Norway's capital is making it easier for people to buy electric-assist bicycles. The idea is that having a motor to help riders over the city's hills will lead more people to choose two wheels over four. Oslo will cover 20 per cent of the cost of an e-bike and 25 per cent of the cost of an electric cargo bike.
From vintage streetcars to a Neo-Gothic outdoor elevator, Lisbon has its share of classic transportation. But the city also allows a remarkable range of vehicles, both old and new, to ply its narrow roads. Visitors may spot tuk-tuks, sporty three-wheelers for tours, a more rugged version of a golf cart and micro electric cars. The vehicles would not work for everyone, but they take up much less space on the road than a regular car.
OLIVER MOORE ON TRANSPORTATION: MORE FROM THE GLOBE