Media Releases

U of T Cities Podcast Ep. 2 The Future of Transit

October 16, 2014

Research and startups pushing transit beyond the simple subway-or-streetcar divide

This edition of U of T Cities features researchers and entrepreneurs working to build the future of transit. Reimagine the downtown and beyond with transit policy expert Prof. Eric Miller; Richard Sommer, dean of the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design; and alumnus Taylor Scollon, whose company is crowdfunding an alternative to streetcars. Full story at http://bit.ly/1vAlgy4 .

For more stories on University of Toronto researchers and entrepreneurs transforming cities, entrepreneurship, health, education, community-building and more, visit news.utoronto.ca.

TRANSCRIPT

This is the U of T Cities podcast, brought to you by The University of Toronto. It’s hot, it’s crowded, it stops between stations whenever you’re already running late for an appointment. And yet, we’re told this is the better way. Public transit is of growing importance in this growing city. And deciding on the right way to make it bigger and better is no easy task.

Politics, and economics, and social issues bump up against every possible way Toronto could extend its transit service. The upcoming election’s candidates campaigning for buses, versus subways, versus light rail, versus priority of cars, have had voters enthralled. But it’s time to go farther in thinking about the way we get around.

Later this episode, we’ll hear from Richard Sommer. He’s the Dean of the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at U Of T. And he’ll explain how rethinking the platform and parking lot design you’ll find at most GTA transit hubs could be the key to an integrated city, and a happier life. And the solution may involve hothouse tomatoes.

We’ll also check in with U Of T alumnus Taylor Scollon. He’s behind a quirky startup in Toronto called Line 6. It’s a company that’s crowdfunding private transit on King as a go-around to unpredictable and over-full TTC street cars.

But first, the go-to expert for transit commentary in the city, civil engineering Professor Eric Miller tells us about his one wish for the TTC, and more. This is the U Of T Cities podcast. I’m Brianna Goldberg. In this special four-part miniseries, you’ll hear about the University of Toronto researchers and entrepreneurs pushing boundaries on some of the upcoming election’s most important issues.

Last week I introduced you to our students, alumni, and researchers making the future of traffic. And today we’ll do the same for public transit. For example, Eric Miller– he’s quoted in almost any story you can find about TTC planning, credited as simply, a civil engineer from U Of T. Ever wonder what he actually does to make him such an expert?

Well, I generally work in the area of building computer models to forecast travel demand, to try to predict how people will use the transportation system, particularly in response to policies or investments. So if we want to build a new subway here, versus an LRT there, how will people of the greater Toronto area respond to that. Will they shift modes? Will they shift time of day? Will they take different routes? Will they stop traveling? Will they travel more?

So the next time your subway is stalled between stations and you’re wondering why, Eric Miller has a pretty good answer.

Our problem is that we’ve done so little over the last 25 years or more. We’ve dug ourselves a big hole. You just can’t dig out of that whole in a day. And so this is a multi-decade thing. But the important thing– the progress we could make over the next couple years are actually start moving. The only way 10 years from now we’re going to have a better city and a better transit system, if we start today to do that in a real way.

So yes, it’s going to take a long, long time to get Toronto’s transit system up to the standards it deserves. Miller says there is hope for change soon, relatively soon. But it’s going to happen above ground.

We could be, fairly shortly, getting better service out on the roads. Eglinton is being built. And that’s going to take still, perhaps too long to do. But as it comes on stream, that’s going to help us. The new street cars that are coming on stream will make a difference. I actually think the other thing we need be doing is freeing up both the street cars and buses, so they move faster. That we have to be giving more signal priority to them. That can’t happen overnight.

But over the next couple of years to three years, I think we could be doing better, in terms of moving people on the streets. I think the other thing we could be doing quickly is making commitments to some sensible, longer-term rail investments that we won’t see completed within the next mayor’s term. But we might see in the term beyond that. So in the under-10-year time frame, I think there are things out there that we could be doing. And that sounds like a long time, but that’s better than 15 and 20 years.

But I think what we need in the short-run is again, not just talking about it, but actually doing. Committing to that over the next five to 10 years, we’re going to be doing this. But as I say, I do think within terms of the surface transit, there’s things that could– over a two-year period. So I think we have to be thinking both short-term and long-term, and starting to act on the long-term, even as we’re doing some short-term improvements.

Standing on the street at maybe say, Spadina and Dundas 10 years from now, if the stars align, as you say. What are you hoping the transit situation will look like on streets?

Well, I would hope that we see street cars coming along on, let’s say if they have a 2 and 1/2 minute headway, a street car arrives every 2 and 1/2 minutes. They’re not stuck behind a couple of cars that have one or two people in them. That we don’t have the clogged streets we have right now. I mean right now, particularly I think, on our east-west streets downtown, it is a nightmare. Nobody is moving. The cars aren’t moving, the street cars aren’t moving, because they’re in each other’s way.

And I’m hoping that by 10 years from now we’ve given the priority to the street cars. And they could be a much more attractive, reliable, fast service than they are right now. So that a lot of the cars that we see right there, right now, aren’t there because the people are on the street cars. They will still be full. They will still be busy. There will still be congestion on the streets.

A lively city is, by definition, congested. We’ll never get rid of congestion if the city is successful and vibrant. We will get congestion back to a point where it’s manageable, tolerable, it’s within normal operating parameters. But the balance on, particularly our streets like Queen, and King, and Dundas, Spadina, will be shifted so far more people are walking. Some of them are biking, perhaps. But also that far more of them are able to use transit because the transit is much more attractive than it is right now.

I wanted to ask you about walking. A lot of people who are driving downtown could plausibly be walking to where they’re going. Is that part of the modeling that you’re doing? When you look into the future 10 years, are there more people walking? And how do we get them there?

Walking is very much part of the solution, particularly the downtown area. We have a huge number of people who live and work there. Many of them are already walking, in certain sections. The challenge to the city is to make more neighborhoods walkable. This is what Jennifer Keesmaat’s trying to do along Eglinton Avenue with the Eglinton Connect, is to make that street a much more walkable street, a much more bike-able street.

Bicycling, I think, in the city, is a much bigger challenge in terms of what the right mix is. And particularly, given that a lot of our major streets are fairly narrow. And of course, not everybody can walk and bike. One of our challenges is that– and I think we have to be very careful, I think this is one of the problems we get into with a lot of the debate about transit– is so many people do live in suburban areas, do have very long commutes, at the moment are very captive to cars. So they can even imagine how transit could solve it. And walking/biking is just not–

So far.

Yeah, because it’s just too far. So I think we have be careful to recognize there are different travel markets out there. There are different realities for different people. And we’re trying to find the balance between those various things.

If you could snap your fingers and have one wish come true that would improve transit immediately, what would you change today?

That we have a sensible, long-term, stable funding process for transit. That’s been our number one problem. All the arguments over technology and everything else. We have tied our hands behind our backs because we refuse to have a sensible conversation about paying for transit. We pay for our houses, we pay for food, we pay for our smartphones, we pay for movies.

But somehow transit’s supposed to be provided free to us. It’s a totally nonsensical situation we’ve got ourselves into. We have to start thinking responsibly about paying for the things we need. So that would be my one wish.

That was Eric Miller. He’s a professor of civil engineering and heads up the University of Toronto Transportation Research Institute. To learn more, head to news.utoronto.ca. Later in the podcast, we’ll find out how the first week went for a new business in Toronto that’s providing mass transit along King Street West, privately.

But first, can you imagine a world beyond the parking lot? When the issue of transit comes up, your mind might drift to a packed platform at Yonge and Bloor during morning rush. Or maybe you think of being crushed at the back of an overfull bus inching up Bathurst at 6:00 PM.

I’m Richard Sommer. I’m the Dean of the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design.

He’s been doing some imagining around a very different kind of transit experience– no less common. Transit hubs outside the downtown core are only growing in popularity as Toronto continues to expand. These nodes of connection are becoming more traveled, more important, and because of that, more ready for change. That’s how Dean Summer got to thinking about what are called, huburbs.

“Huburbs” is an idea, but it’s also the name of a book, launched out of research from the Daniels Faculty. And the project came about with help from Metrolinx. That’s the Ontario government agency working to manage and integrate transportation in the GTA and Hamilton area. “Huburbs” takes on the inconvenient and sometimes ugly transit hubs in the outer GTA. It uses argument, and analysis, and very cool visual models to explore the ways these places could be lively and enriching, instead of just a rarely used transit platform surrounded by mega parking lot.

One of the big terms in planning is transit-driven development. But often, there is such a thing as development-driven transit. And “Huburbs” was an attempt to take a different approach, which is to look at all the circumstances that surround different transit stops and hubs. And to create a kind of provisional or intensified city on the bones of existing transit, rather than imagine that whole new forms of transit are going to be built, and that people will come to that. So it’s also a play on the term suburb, which is basically how you create modes of intensity in areas of low-density and low levels of development, where people still need to get around in other ways, besides by car.

The book itself is organized to look at the situation as it exists. And then we looked at a number of potential sites in different parts of the network. Each of which present different opportunities. Some of them are near the water. Some of them are near existing educational institutions.

But what all the approaches we’re looking at shared in common was looking for a value-added program. Whether it be growing food, creation of new kinds of retail opportunities, or the development of educational facilities that would be a catalyst to creating a “there” to these places, which are typically just about transit. Because one of things you would even find in theories of urban development around tourism is, how do you get people to not only move through something, but stay, and actually use it and want to occupy it.

So can a new activity, or program, or use be woven into let’s say, the space between a GO station and a light rail station, such that that activity– whether it be hydroponic tomatoes, or a certain kind of industry, or energy development– could both provide something that would be of interest to the communities that move through them, but also attract other kinds of investments.

What is it that interests you about this type of transit you’re talking about. When most people talk about transit, they’re thinking TTC, they’re thinking downtown. Is it that the suburbs give you more of a canvas to work with?

We always have to be mindful when we describe cities, when we say downtown, suburb. In fact, especially after amalgamation, Toronto is an urbanized territory. And the urbanization goes very far out. So it’s only a certain portion of the downtown that remains from the 19th century that is being intensified at the level that everyone can recognize. The much larger set of places, even the east and the west of the downtown, are developed unevenly.

So the conditions you might find west of the downtown, or certainly going north into some of the suburban areas, are the much larger condition that we have to contend with. We’re lucky in Toronto that previous generations looked at the zoning of the downtown, reinvested in the downtown, and the older parts of the city are taking care of themselves in some ways. There’s still work to do. But it’s areas that are not part of a kind of 19th century mercantile grid, even the waterfront of Toronto.

But certainly everything north of Eglinton that are what I call first-growth cities. So I don’t think it’s that helpful to say that something’s a suburb, and a downtown. It really has to do with a level of maturation of the urban condition. So I think it’s all urbanization. And that what we’re looking at, especially with growth boundaries, is strategies for transformation, and for bringing a degree of investment and complexity to the urban life, in various different kinds of what I call city organisms.

So not all the suburbs are the same. Some of them are actually old towns that grew. Some of them have no town center. The housing stock differs. So I think the difference that a school of architecture, with landscape architects, and urban designers, and our allied friends, and engineering, and even in the health sciences. With them helping us, the difference we bring is we actually look very carefully at the material and physical characteristics of these places, they’re geographies, in ways that people, even transit planners, don’t.

So the size of the grid, the topography, obstacles that certain forms of existing infrastructure, to actually bring communities together. These are things we both know the history of, and can read very carefully in existing places. And we know, for example, things like the planning of boulevards was originally built as a condition, sometimes to divide communities.

So what can happen, unexpectedly, is if you build a light rail, it’s supposed to spur development around it. But it can also divide the two sides of the terrain that exist. So it’s very important to plan things like surface rail and new infrastructure so that it can sponsor integrated growth around it. Because sometimes it can have the reverse effect. Investments don’t always pan out in terms of making a better city.

That was Richard Sommer. He’s an architect and Dean of the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. We’ll hear more from him in the next podcast episode all about building sustainable cities. But for now, you can read more at news.utoronto.ca.

The beauty of crowdsourcing is that it puts power behind new ideas, bold ideas, risky ideas, ideas for businesses that might not otherwise be able to lock down funding and get a start. Especially if that business is taking on a major institution like the TTC. Last week, a startup called Line 6 took its frustration with TTC street cars to the streets. It’s co-founder and U Of T alumus Taylor Scollon was along for the ride.

When people saw the bus, and when people actually took the bus, they were very happy with the experience. Up until then, I don’t think people fully believed it was actually going to happen, until they actually were riding the bus. And I think that’s just because people are so accustomed to doing things a certain way. And this is maybe a little bit outside of that. I don’t think crowdfunding has been done for transit before.

So I think people were pleasantly surprised, I hope. The bus has been on time. We have Wi-Fi. We give out coffee in the morning. People are really happy with the experience. Friday is our last day. We’re just running it for a week. But the response has been so positive that we’re definitely going to resume regular service in the near future. So it’s worked out well, we’re happy with that.

Tell me more about this. Were you working in a different job? Were you looking for a new opportunity? Or was it really just an idea you wanted to bring to life?

I think transit is a really interesting problem, because it’s been done the same way for over a century. But the technology has changed so greatly over that time that it seems like there is going to be changes in how transit operates and the way people move around. And I don’t know what those changes are going to be. But it seems like this is a possible direction.

I have a consulting company with my co-founder on this, and we have another partner, as well. And we work for companies, and non-profits, and all sorts of organizations helping them use technology to solve whatever organizational challenges they have. So this, I think, is an extension of that, that we just decided to take on for ourselves, because it seemed like an interesting project.

And we talk about pain points when we talk about startups a lot. But this is a daily frustration. People get so angry. It really puts you in a mood when you’re on your way to your job, or you’re on your way to school. So did you get a sense from them of what this will change, what this could change for them?

Yeah, they’re saying I get to work and I’m happy. And I’m ready to start the day. And I haven’t been jammed into a street car, or sitting in traffic for an hour. So I think it does improve people’s quality of life. And that’s the best thing to hear. What attracted me to work on this problem is that it is an actual problem for a lot of people.

A lot of startups are focused on things that are either not really problems, or problems for a very narrow slice of the population. It tends to be upper middle class people who use technology a lot. But I think the promise of technology is that it can improve the quality of life of everyone. So if we can bring that to bear on the problem of transit, then I think that’s our goal.

So you mentioned that you’re working as part of a consultancy, and that your background is in philosophy. So has that informed what you end up doing in your life now?

Yeah, I think philosophy is actually a really useful thing to study, which is maybe not how it seems at the time, to philosophy students. But the habits that it gets you into of thinking about problems beyond the superficial level, and looking at something, and saying well, why is it this way, and does it need to be this way, and could it be done a better way, is really applicable to almost anything you do in life. It gives you good creative skills and critical thinking skills. I think philosophy students perform better than all other majors on LSATs for that reason. So I would say it’s definitely helpful, yeah.

So what’s your hope for Line 6, or any other iteration of this, in the next year? And will it still exist in five years? What do you see, moving down the future?

Well, it will definitely exist a year from now, and I hope it will exist five years from now. Our next step is to bring this to other neighborhoods in the city. So we have public voting on the website right now, ridelinesix.com. And eventually, I see this as a network that connects all parts of the city together. So you can take a Line 6 route from Scarborough to Etobicoke, and experience the same comfortable and on-time commute. And do it on a daily basis, because it’s an affordable service.

That was Taylor Scollon, co-founder of a very new startup called Line 6. He and his team launched their business all on their own. But you can learn more about the University of Toronto’s startup accelerators, courses, programs, all geared to helping entrepreneurs develop their business at news.utoronto.ca.

For example, Vote Compass is a startup that developed with help from a U Of T program called the Creative Destruction Lab. It’s headed up by alumnus Clifton van der Linden. Vote Compass is an online resource that helps users learn more about which candidate aligns with their values. They have a special edition set up for Toronto’s mayoral election. You may want to check that out. You can find out more at news.utoronto.ca.

From a local startup turning its TTC beef into a business concept. To GTA transit hubs dressed with extra gardens, and stores, and schools. And even a sneak peek into the budgetary wishes of one of Toronto’s leading transit experts. It’s clear that public transportation in Toronto is evolving, regardless of the policy coming out of City Hall.

We at the U Of T Cities podcast were pleased to bring you these stories in the second episode of our series. To find the previous episode, packed with interviews about artificially intelligent traffic lights, human electric hybrid pod vehicles, and the first of its kind class putting election research into the hands of undergrads, just head over to news.utoronto.ca. That’s also where you can find more on U Of T research that’s transforming cities, entrepreneurship, health, education, and more.

We’d love to hear from you with questions or ideas for future episodes. You can Tweet us @UOfTNews. Or send an email at uoftnews@utoronto.ca.

Next time on the U Of T Cities podcast, we’ll be talking about building sustainable cities, in all the many ways that could mean. Today’s show featured music made available on the free music archive from Daytripper 13, Jazzafari, and Cosmic Analog Ensemble. You can find their work and more at freemusicarchive.org. This program was produced by me, Brianna Goldberg, with help from U Of T News Editor, Jennifer Lanthier. Thanks for listening.