Bus, train, streetcar, LRV… what’s the flavour this week?

19 November 2011 Ideas

The oohing and ahhing over Toronto’s new LRVs (for God’s sake, don’t call them streetcars!) has got me thinking about how we tend to market public transportation.

Having spent time in both Waterloo and Hamilton during their respective campaigns for rapid transit, I can attest that much of the debate about sustainable transit initiatives revolves around the vehicles themselves. Sure, there are small differences in comfort or aesthetics, but when it comes down to it, there isn’t always a substantive difference between rail or bus vehicles in terms of efficacy or environmental impact.

Yes, buses emit exhaust. But so does every GO and VIA train (they’re all diesel powered - at least for now). And while electric trains and LRVs don’t generate greenhouse gases, they do weigh heavily on the electricity grid. Which is why it annoys me to hear people speaking about LRT as a “zero-emission” transportation solution.

But I digress. My point is that modal choice shouldn’t matter nearly as much as planners and urban enthusiasts make it out to be. It’s wrongheaded to make a type of vehicle the standard-bearer of sustainable transportation. There’s a grain of truth to the claim that LRT advocates are blinded by their desire for fancy toys.

It’s highly contextual. Right now, for example, there is a big push for all-day GO Train service to downtown Hamilton. The current bus runs every 20 minutes to Toronto and arrives in under an hour. While a train seems like the “better” transit solution, it would have to stop in Burlington, Oakville, Mississauga … and would take significantly longer to get to Union Station. In this case, the express bus is the best possible transit solution for getting to Toronto. It’s fast, convenient, and predictable. Even if all-day train service were to come, it would serve a totally different purpose than the current bus.

Don’t get me wrong, there are cases where rail handily trumps bus. But that decision should be made on substantive merits, such as capacity, projected ridership growth, peak frequency ability, construction impacts, development potential, and capital and operating costs.

Without a well-planned, convenient transit system behind them, these new TTC vehicles are no more than fashionable accessories. And, to paraphrase one of my favourite urban theorists, fashionable things tend to fall out of fashion.

Sam Nabi

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