COVID-19 has exposed many inequities in our city and put an enormous strain on municipal infrastructure. Transit has been impacted tremendously. For many thousands, including many workers on the front lines of the fight against the pandemic, public transit is the best and only affordable option to get around. More busses are needed to adequately meet this need while allowing riders to be safely distanced. On busy bus routes, including local bus lines on Steeles Avenue, Finch Avenue, and Sheppard Avenue, this remains a big issue.
As with so many COVID-19 related issues, these challenges to transit aren’t new. Under the best of circumstances, these bus routes are often overcrowded, and because busses deal with congested arterial roads, riding them can be often unpleasant and unreliable.
There are many reasons why better bus service can have a positive impact on our city. Transit can more equitably connect residents in all parts of the city with jobs and economic opportunity. More reliable service can encourage people to rely less on cars, decreasing overall levels of traffic on our streets. Transit is also a far more efficient mode of transit, making it a much more environmentally friendly option in the fight against global climate change.
Since 2018, the City of Toronto along with the TTC, has been working on a Surface Transit Network Plan to improve bus service on key routes and develop a better network. Tools to achieve this goal may include reserved bus lanes, intersections, and signal improvements or improvements at transit stops. Factors in selecting routes for improvement include the current volume of riders, equity, connections to higher orders of transit like subways, population growth, and ease of implementation. Improvements would be made between 2023 and 2031.
In July, the TTC board called for an acceleration of this plan, a call that many have since echoed, both to improve service and address issues related to COVID-19 spacing. The City’s Office of Rebuild and Recovery also recommended accelerating priority bus lanes in their recent report to Council.
But should we be moving forward as quickly as possible without seeing all of the data? To date, the focus has been almost exclusively on bus service levels, without also considering the impact on overall traffic and congestion. Detailed traffic modelling is needed to ensure that no unintended consequences come with these transit improvements.
Finch Avenue East, where a bus-only lane was proposed for acceleration this past summer, represents 4 of 6 lanes crossing the East Don River over the 4 km between Sheppard and Steeles. To what extent would reducing lane capacity by a third have an impact on traffic congestion? If significant, to what extent would modelling anticipate more cars diverting onto collector, or even local roads? If the data says yes, then there are serious safety issues that come into play for local neighbourhoods.
Outside of the box thinking is certainly needed to improve transit service and reliability. Perhaps traffic modelling would further support this approach. But it should not be rushed at the expense of public consultation or full examination of the data. Let’s follow the numbers and make sure we get this right.