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Jonathan English is a Toronto-based PhD candidate in urban planning at Columbia University.

In discussions about the recipe for transit success, the key ingredient is always land use. Is there enough density? Is it walkable?

Certainly, these elements are very important. But the assumption that land use must be perfect for transit to succeed has led to fatalism about the fate of transit in neighbourhoods built around the car. Climate change is an imminent crisis. We need a way to get people out of their cars faster than we can rebuild the suburbs where most people live. Fortunately, Canadian cities such as Toronto are a model of successful transit in seemingly unlikely environments.

Transit fatalism has meant governments have rarely deigned to provide decent transit service in suburbs. The problem is common sense, although often overlooked: Demand will never materialize without decent service. People can’t take a train or bus trip that doesn’t exist. Governments are reluctant to improve service when existing ridership is poor. But it will stay poor forever if the service is never improved.

Toronto’s transit is unquestionably imperfect – all riders have endured unreliable schedules and overcrowded vehicles, and many routes still aren’t as fast or frequent as they should be – but it is still leaps and bounds above transit in most American cities. In the early 1960s, Metropolitan Toronto’s political leadership and the Toronto Transit Commission made the conscious decision to provide a grid of frequent bus service in the new suburbs as they were built.

This was in stark contrast to nearly every American city at that time, where new cul-de-sacs had little or no transit service at all. Today, buses along the city of Toronto’s major suburban streets are scheduled every 10 minutes or more until late at night.

By contrast, even in a relatively transit-friendly metropolitan area such as New York, the Long Island suburbs (population: nearly three million) have only two routes that run daily every half-hour until midnight – a minimal standard. Most routes run hourly or worse, and many stop around 6 p.m. and don’t run on weekends. That’s not a service that anyone with a choice would use, but it describes the majority of routes in U.S. cities.

Toronto, Montreal and the far denser five boroughs of New York have by far the highest transit ridership per capita in North America. While many people ride transit in downtown Boston or San Francisco, ridership is modest in their suburbs. In Toronto’s suburbs, some of the bus routes are among the busiest on the continent – more than 40,000 riders a day, exceeding all but a few in Brooklyn and Manhattan. (The busiest bus corridor is the one on Broadway in Vancouver, which makes a strong case for its planned subway.)

There are established formulas for transit service that deem many parts of suburban Toronto too low-density to support more than one bus an hour. When I speak to U.S. audiences and show them pictures of Finch Avenue in Toronto, they all say that they’d expect it to have hourly service. And yet, Finch has peak scheduled service every 90 seconds – better than every five minutes off-peak – and those buses are packed. It performs better financially than even busy downtown streetcar routes. These formulas shape policy in countless cities, including in Canada, and they need to be revised in light of Canadian experience.

Even though the TTC provides far more frequent bus service than any American transit operator, the ensuing crowds mean that the TTC is far less subsidized than any other major transit agency in North America. About 70 per cent of its costs are covered by fares, compared with 47 per cent in New York and only 30 per cent in Boston.

Frequent bus service makes connections possible, as Australian scholar Paul Mees has observed, so people can transfer from one bus to another for cross-suburban trips without having to worry about waiting forever if they miss the connection.

Frequent bus service also helps us get far better value for the subways that we build. Toronto has a fairly small subway system compared with many peer cities, but it’s by far the busiest per kilometre (along with Montreal) in North America.

Why? Because instead of relying on people having to drive to limited parking lots or to walk to stations, the catchment area of stations can be much larger because people arrive by bus. Take Warden Station, for example. It’s surrounded by forest and low-density housing – about the least clement transit environment imaginable. Yet, it has 39,980 riders a day because people can easily transfer to and from a frequent feeder bus, compared with about 18,000 at Bethesda in suburban Washington, which is surrounded by dense offices and condos but has poorer bus connections.

Toronto is no transit utopia, as we all know. It’s shocking that many of these bus routes, which are among the busiest on the continent, don’t have any meaningful transit priority, let alone their own lanes. Worse, the transit success story doesn’t extend past the City of Toronto boundary into the 905 region, even in similarly dense neighbourhoods.

York Region Transit is spending $2-billion on bus rapid transit infrastructure, but some BRT routes are only every 20 minutes – and other routes are as infrequent as in U.S. cities. There are rays of hope, however: Brampton has recently emulated the Toronto model by implementing a grid of bus routes that run frequently all day. The upshot? A greater than 40-per-cent increase in per-capita ridership from 2009 to 2014.

Across North America, there has been a revival in the respect for the humble bus as a means of moving thousands of people quietly and relatively cheaply. It doesn’t require billions in spending or years of construction to provide a frequent bus service.

Toronto is a model that has much to offer for rethinking how to make the bus work as effective transit that people use. It shows how to make transit work for the cities we have today and not the imagined cities of the future.

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