The Impossible Journey

I listened with great interest and puzzlement to a story by Mary Wiens of CBC Radio about the daily transit odyssey of a man named Oladipupo — no family name given. Oladipupo describes his gruelling daily two hour journey from Finch and Morningside in Toronto’s extreme northeast corner to Steeles and Islington near its northwest corner and laments the great cost of time and energy that he must endure.

It is well known among Toronto transit planners and enthusiasts that the TTC is not geared to accommodating journeys described by Oladipupo. The system has been designed to funnel riders from all over the city to rapid transit lines — the subway — which all lead towards the downtown core. This system works for the majority of Torontonians but leaves many — like Oladipupo — in the lurch.

Oladipupo describes his journey as taking two hours each way. This can be easily verified using Google Maps which lists his journey as taking 1 hour and 33 minutes — in ideal circumstances — with a total trip length of 31.7km. Couple that time with road congestion, passenger causes delays, and a wait at Finch stations and rounding up this can be interpreted as taking 2 hours.

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Google Maps lists Oladipupo’s daily commute as taking 1 hour and 33 minutes each way.

In her piece Wiens segues and asks Oladipupo to show her SmartTracker. This is where the story begins to fly off the rails.

SmartTracker was a political website created in 2014 by Mayor John Tory’s campaign team to highlight his signature policy item: SmartTrack.

As it was originally sold to the public SmartTrack would run electric trains at “subway frequencies” — commonly interpreted to be five minute intervals — along dedicated track that would run parallel to Metrolinx’s GO Stouffville and Georgetown corridors via Union Station as well as a newly built spur that would run west from Mount Dennis towards the Airport Corporate Centre. All of this, Tory assured Toronto, would only cost $8 billion. The concept was widely panned by transit experts and enthusiasts as being unfeasible.

In the intervening time since Tory won the mayoralty in 2014 he has made significant modifications to his SmartTrack promise as the dual realities of physics and finances have conspired against him as critics had predicted.

Right from the start Tory was forced to face the reality that SmartTrack could not run on its own rails within the existing Metrolinx rights of way because they were not wide enough. Instead Metrolinx began studying the SmartTrack proposal as a supplement to their existing plans for electrified all-day, two-way, fifteen minute frequency rail service known as GO RER.

In 2016 Tory was forced to cut the western spur from Mount Dennis to the Airport Corporate Centre because the land on which he wanted to build it was inconveniently declared surplus and sold four years earlier in 2010. Planners and engineers estimated that the spur alone would cost up to $7.7 billion, eating up nearly all of the amount that the entire SmartTrack proposal was supposed to cost.

Returning to the SmartTracker website, as it was a political tool designed to win an election campaign and is not owned by The City of Toronto, it was never updated to reflect these significant changes.

The way the SmartTracker Website works it that it allow you to select any two predefined points on the existing rapid transit network or on Tory’s SmartTrack proposal and would display a message detailing the journey with and without SmartTrack. Similar to Tory’s signature transit policy the SmarTracker website was plagued with issues and widely panned for unrealistically optimistic assumptions in favour of SmartTrack; it was never meant to be a trip planning tool, it was meant to be a sales tool — some would go so far as to describe it as a con job.

To begin with the SmartTracker website is simply not capable of doing what Wiens describes. It only allows you to select two predefined points and then displays a pre-written canned response. It is not capable of planning an entire trip as is implied in the radio segment.

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There is no option to enter an address or nearest intersection on the SmartTracker website. You can only select predefined points.

In the interests of the benefit of the doubt let us set this issues aside; perhaps Wiens was endeavouring to make the story easy to understand for the morning listener who hasn’t yet had their cup of coffee.

More disturbing, however, is Oladipupo’s description of how with SmartTrack his journey will be reduced to a mere 38 minutes. This is a patently impossible claim.

SmartTrack continues the trend of transit planning geared to reducing travel times of commuters to the downtown core. As you can observe from the map of SmartTrack shown above the line goes in a more-or-less U shape; there is no east-west section along the top of the city, the part of the city that Oladipupo travels through to get to work.
SmartTrack would not benefit Oladipupo.

But let us go ahead and set even this glaring issue aside and see how much time Oladipupo would need if he did want to commute using any of the proposed SmartTrack infrastructure.

The closest that SmartTrack gets to Oladipupo’s starting point of Finch and Morningside is where it crosses Finch between Kennedy and Midland — Finch East station as it is called in Tory’s SmartTrack proposal. Bear in mind that Oladipupo would still need to take the bus to get there but we will ignore that for now. In the west SmartTrack is still shown deviating due west at Mount Dennis to travel along the no longer proposed spur to the Airport Corporate Centre so the closest point available to Oladipupo’s destination is Pioneer Village Station on the still yet to be completed Toronto York Spadina Subway Extension, and just as from his home he would still need to take a bus to complete the last part of his journey. Selecting these two points produces a proposed route south from Finch to the still to be completed Eglinton Crosstown LRT, West along Eglinton to Eglinton West station (soon to be renamed Cedarvale), then north to Pioneer Village station.

Total time: 67 minutes; 29 minutes longer than the 38 minutes Oladipupo said his total journey would take using SmartTrack. And again, we’ve ignored the two necessary bus rides to be able to get to the stations from Oladipupo’s home and work to the stations.

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There is no option to select Finch and Morningside or Steels and Islington on the SmartTracker website. 67 minutes is the travel time from the two closes points.

Right away this time is suspect given that it assumes that the Eglinton Crosstown LRT portion of the trip will take only 28 minutes. The ECLRT is not simply a straight line, it has stations that it needs to stop at as well. This portion of the route would easily take at least 40 minutes, likely more.

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The SmartTracker website assumes that the Eglinton Crosstown LRT does not have any stations where passengers have to get on and get off.

Even overlooking this obvious oversight we must still add in the times for the two buses that we ignored before. We find the 38 minute travel time described before is even less likely now.

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Bus trip from Finch and Morningside would add an additional 17 minutes.

 

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Bus Trip from approximate location of Pioneer Village station to Steeles and Islington would add an additional 10 minutes.

In all we find that using SmartTrack the journey that Oladipupo would take would take 1 hour and 34 minutes even under the already unrealistic and ideal circumstances used in the politically contrived SmartTracker website; 1 minute longer than his current journey. This does not account for waits and transfer points — requiring four transfers as opposed to his current one —and his trip would by 14.4km longer — 46.1km vs 31.7km if he just used the bus.

If we use the more realistic 40 minute figure for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT portion of Oladipupo’s trip, as well as add in 5 minute wait times at every transfer point we find that his travel time is even longer at 2 hour and 6 minutes, a 27% increase in his commute time, not the 40% decrease claimed in the story.

So what would actually result in a reduction in Oladipupo’s commute time?
The Toronto City Planning Office has ranked Toronto transit plans using an evidence based approach to tackle congestion and improve commutes across Toronto known as the Feeling Congested framework.

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Routes identified by the Toronto Planning office that can alleviate congestion and improve transit across Toronto.

If all of these routes were built than Oladipupo could take a bus north to the proposed Steeles LRT/BRT, go due west to Pioneer Village station, then another short bus ride to Islington — a still long 31.2km journey but given that much of the trip would use dedicated rights of way it would take significantly less time.