Philip Mcleod

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A cautionary note on hybrid hype

REPORT #1,132: A $900 million rapid transit system of half light rail, half fast buses is being recommended for London. The alleged benefits, however, could be dependent on city council’s willingness to tell people where they can live and work in the future. 

Monday, Nov. 31, 2015 – London Ontario

Over the telephone from his London home where he’s happily retired, former London Transit general manager Larry Ducharme makes a crisp, clear point:

“This debate should not be about rapid transit. We need rapid transit. It’s about what kind of rapid transit we need.”


Mr. Ducharme wrote the book on rapid transit for London while he ran what is now regarded as the most efficient public transportation system in Ontario, one that gets by with the smallest per capita subsidy from its host municipality of any major city in Canada.

He first raised the subject with city council as far back as 2006, arguing then London Transit was nearing the breaking point. Its structure needed to be completely reorganized, and the best way to do that was by adding spines of rapid transit, around which the regular service could be grouped.

To sketch out what was required to fix its problem, London Transit developed a long-term growth strategy which recommended “a move to an enhanced ‘nodes and corridor’ design employing a bus rapid transit (BRT) platform along two key corridors which intersect the city. The two key corridors would serve as the spine of the system and would be supported by improved frequency and redefinition of the routing of the existing service to feed the bus rapid transit lines.”

Such a system, Mr. Ducharme wrote in a report to the London Transit Commission in 2013, must recognize “there were a number of fundamental characteristics required for a sustainable transit system: The system must be effective in design; efficient in delivery; customer focused, dependable and affordable.”

Mr. Ducharme’s view of how public transportation should evolve in London was later written into the city’s transportation master plan, a document which sets out how to move people around this growing city over the next 20 years. It is also the document which began the drive toward a rapid transit system.

Today, within the segment of the London population that cares about transportation issues and understands the possibilities, there is strong support for rapid transit, especially given the significant capital costs will be paid either by newcomers – through development charges on new homes and businesses – or by other levels of government.

But that support was gauged when London Transit and city council were considering a fast bus system. Less clear, today, is whether that support migrates in large measure to cover the far more expensive light rail (LRT) alternative.

Yet in the report earlier this month to city council, euphemistically described as an update but really a blatant sales pitch for light rail, the generally perceived support for rapid transit is translated often as light rail. 

Missing too is what you might argue is the most important of the principles Mr. Ducharme enunciated – affordable. Instead, financial considerations are now wrapped into a principle called “ease of implementation and operational viability.”

And the cost has ballooned. Mr. Ducharme estimated a bus rapid transit system would cost $381.5 million, about $300 million of which was for road work. The current estimate, for the hybrid system recommended in the update, is about $900 million. It would be half light rail, half fast buses.

City council proposes to pay $125 million of the cost, the rest to come from provincial and federal coffers.

While no business case is provided for the hybrid system in the update, it does argue confidentially in favour because LRT “can be perceived as a premium service thereby attracting more new riders to transit. . . . LRT stands to transform the image of transit in London in a more pronounced way, encouraging more discretionary riders to use transit over other modes of transportation. . . . From a city building and community building perspective, the permanency of the rail infrastructure associated with the LRT provides an advantage. Residents and businesses perceive an advantage in being close to the LRT, which is attractive to community investment and this can lead to greater demand for residential and business development.”

No evidence is offered for those claims. 

In his report, however, Mr. Ducharme raises a cautionary note: “LRT is often referenced as being a catalyst for reaching appropriate density and economic growth in that it leads to development. One of the hard truths identified (is) that the potential of rapid transit to spur development depends on critical alignments to key development policies and programs respecting land use planning, development, redevelopment, economic development and job growth plans.”

In other words, unless city council is prepared to make some difficult decisions about where people can live and work in the future, the bonus LRT allegedly offers won’t emerge. It is worth noting London councils over the years have not shown much willingness to do this.

Mr. Ducharme maintains a BRT system can also be a city-building catalyst. “Both BRT and LRT can play a role in the development of the corridors they serve, the issue is convincing developers that BRT can be just as positive,” he wrote.  “Successful BRT implementations have overcome this strategy through the use of permanent and attractive transit stations or hubs along the BRT corridor and right of way treatments (permanency).”

He has one further comment council should consider very carefully before a final decision is made. 

“Realized capacity will be dependent upon demand, and without the demand, LRT becomes more expensive to operate,” Mr. Ducharme wrote. “This scenario is evidenced in a review of North American cities with both LRT and bus systems in place indicating that the hourly operating cost for an LRT vehicle is approximately double that of one bus, primarily due to the LRT line operating below capacity, in other words it was found that with few exceptions the cities in question did not have sufficient ridership demand along the corridors to realize the lower capacity cost benefit. 

“It is worth noting that such performance can put the financial stability of the entire transit system at risk.”


# But It Ain't CoolJMAC 2015-11-30 02:17
Mr Ducharme is correct.
But he forgets this is a Council that loves cool trendy stuff.
His rational business case falls on deaf ears with this bunch.
And Larry is condemned because he is well over sixty.
Also not cool.
But we now face lots of public meetings news conferences and meetings in Ottawa and Queens Park where the Mayor will make vacuous sounds bites.
It will kill time and obfuscate that they just aren't getting much done.
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# But It Ain't CoolJMAC 2015-11-30 02:17
Mr Ducharme is correct.
But he forgets this is a Council that loves cool trendy stuff.
His rational business case falls on deaf ears with this bunch.
And Larry is condemned because he is well over sixty.
Also not cool.
But we now face lots of public meetings news conferences and meetings in Ottawa and Queens Park where the Mayor will make vacuous sounds bites.
It will kill time and obfuscate that they just aren't getting much done.
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# MONORAILPete 2015-11-30 02:29
A genuine bonafide, electrified six car MONORAIL!
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# Cautionary note on hybrid hypeTucker 2015-11-30 02:37
My fellow Londoners remember one (1) thing and only one (1) thing.

“Liberal diarrhea swamp” controls ALL of Canada now……kiss your hard earned tax dollars for LRT good bye……….junior and wyneedalton need your hard earned tax dollars pay off WASTE..…and keep their rating above “F”… dumb suckers!

PS: Yes, it’s true your rookies are high on gas!
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# Grandpa Ducharme & Grandpa McLeodRob 2015-11-30 02:51
The best thing that happened to London was when Grandpa Ducharme retired from LTC. He was a slow moving, reactionary leader of our transit system. While other cities much smaller were getting express buses and planning real rapid transit, Larry did nothing. Now we finally have a progressive plan and Grandpa McLeod says we can't afford it, even though the cost will be EXACTLY the same for the hybrid system as a BRT system. I, for one, want to see $900 million invested in London, rather than seeing the same money invested in another city, because if we say no, the money still gets spent somewhere else.
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# Experience ALWAYS comes on top of BS.Tucker 2015-11-30 03:21
It can be hard to see into the future, unless one has experienced listening to constant sunny ways B*** S***.

Much more so when you have greedy, don’t give a dam governments or single brain cell governments create illusions of higher illusions down the road say………we have more important priorities.
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# Good Idea, Bad PlanKC 2015-11-30 03:32
I continue to try and live in this city without owning a car again. It's difficult and inconvenient.
Something people who keep relying on personal vehicles seem to forget is that no one has a right to a driver's licence. Losing it can easily happen for reasons beyond a person's control such as minor health issues. This means that it is in everyone's interest to make sure our transit system is effective.
We need rapid transit. In the meantime, we need a reliable, convenient bus system. London has never had that. This city's transit system is grudging. It treats riders like they are nuisances and their time like it is of no importance.
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# Good Idea, Bad Plan Part TwoKC 2015-11-30 03:34
A rapid transit system that goes no further west than Wonderland Road will do nothing to take cars off the road coming from Hyde Park, Oakridge and Byron. In the other direction, it needs to go to BOTH Fanshawe College AND Argyle Mall to be effective for its citizens.
One of the exercises that has not been done is to ask individuals what their days look like, then run those itineraries through the proposed new system to see if it works for people. It seems like the only sensible thing to do BEFORE spending almost a billion dollars.
Eventually, we will go to a rail system. Let's just get on with it now.
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# Not fair next generation pay for our generation.Tucker 2015-11-30 03:46
KC believe or not, not enough of us to warrant this high cost of travel.
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# Liberal stink.Tucker 2015-11-30 03:54
Oops, KC as for your comment,

“It treats riders like they are nuisances and their time like it is of no importance.”

Just, thank the liberal union attitude………it STINKS!
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# RE: Liberal stink.KC 2015-11-30 05:04
Quoting Tucker:
Oops, KC as for your comment,

“It treats riders like they are nuisances and their time like it is of no importance.”

Just, thank the liberal union attitude………it STINKS!

Gigantic eyeroll in your direction, Tucker. The drivers are not the problem here. They don't write the schedules and make the policy or create the budgets. It's inadequate management decisions that have made the mess that is the LTC.
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# RE: A cautionary note on hybrid hypebill brock 2015-11-30 04:49
Reality sits somewhere in discussion; but not so far. Saying yes to a vision and putting dots on a map being forced to make a decision in 90 days is wrong.
Think about this: You can walk any where on UWO campus in 15 minutes between Western Rd. and Richmond Street. Early reports assumed only 10% of residents would walk to nodes (1km.?); in second circle assumed 10% would bike(?). Will City pay 60 million to expand bridge / alter roads through Western? Will UWO let them through? Do you want to spend 60 million putting a tunnel under Richmond (missing most of Richmond Row)?
Do you want to put rail lines on core streets in downtown and make it harder for thousands of autos to get around? Get around faster; may save 7 minutes in rush hours worth a billion dollars?
Is expenditure geared to forcing people downtown; special service geared to post secondary students (special rate) really the way to go? Rapid on Dundas Street to Highbury Ave. north to Fanshawe or even downtown key to success? Reduction of only 2% auto demand: really?
Start increasing transit bus service and coordinate a realistic approach over needs several years.
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# RE: A cautionary note on hybrid hypebill brock 2015-11-30 05:02
Cautionary note: Given the state of affairs; because politicians are throwing big dollars doesn't justify full speed ahead! Within a few minutes; not batting an eye Council approved the worldly vision rather than zero in on needs. Where is the staff? They are the visionaries; Councillors are the fiscally responsible ones (according to public record). Treasurer is directed to find whatever Council says; not give advise! Seniors safety; affordable housing little by little; death in well known illegal home form a task force. Smiling at the possibility of millions somehow takes away from rationalized thought and solving real need issues.
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# BRT/LRT...Betsy Odegaard 2015-11-30 05:22
Is there currently enough ridership on the proposed LRT corridors to carry the operating costs of such a system? If not, what is their realistic potential for growth?
The choice between BRT and a hybrid system should be based on which has the potential to provide better service for the money invested. I agree with Mr. Ducharme’s fundamentals: the best system will have effective design, efficient delivery and will be dependable, affordable, customer-focuse d.
Your illustration of Richmond Row with walls and a tunnel down the middle does not appeal one bit. Why not take the CPR line underground instead?
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# More BusesRob 2015-11-30 12:05
A savings of 'billions' would happen if the city was to "saturate" certain routes with more buses. Especially the "EXPRESS" buses. The LTC'S definition of 'Express' is a total laugh. Buy a lot more buses; hire qualified operators; utilize the 'white elephant' garage on Wonderland Rd., (which is totally vacant on the second floor)BUT most of all....restruct ure the management. Nothing will change under the current managerial conditions.
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# Because it's 2015Walter 2015-11-30 12:08
All this talk about expanding an old antiquated system. As the world looks towards self driving vehicles, magnetic light rail and alternate fuel solutions we, slow paced Londoners seek to work with what we had in the past. "if it was good enough for Grandpa (no reflection on the comment above)its good enough for you" We need this fresh approach and dance like it's 2015 and not 1999.Light rail can be above the road saving room for drivers, walkers and bike riders. This could be our 'ring road' travelling from Mall to Mall, Western to Fanshawe and LHSC as a service but to common parking/collect ion lots and to downtown. Using the old buses as a fill in throughout the City to take riders to these parking/collect ion lots. Time to move forward, not stuck in neutral.
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# Odd RodRoderic Brawn 2015-11-30 12:08
When I try to ride my bicycle in the City of London I am scared to death. Traffic keeps people from riding. There are too many stop signs.
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# Fact vs FictionWalter 2015-11-30 12:46
Link to a company that has done some factual research. (I have no ties to this company)
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# RE: A cautionary note on hybrid hypeJ. David Scott 2015-11-30 14:12
Pie-in-the-sky unaffordable nonsense. London doesn't now, and won't in the foreseeable future, have the population to support this. It is being promoted by myopic fools dying to spend everyone elses' money. These clowns crow about federal and provincial money being tossed in as well as municipal. News flash...there is only ONE taxpayer.
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# to Walterobserver 2015-12-01 01:57
Are you proposing an elevated rail way? That would be even more expensive. The research you point to is related to specific projects - you can't generalize. Their product is similar to one in Vegas. $5 a ride and rarely used based on my recent experience there (even tho it goes to the Convention Centre, the largest in North America). And finally, why would I drive to a parking lot to get on a transit option? If I am part way to my destination, I stay in the car and park where the employer has provided parking.
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# Guy N.Guy Nicoletti 2015-12-01 17:00
I think this is a case of asking for a nearly one billion package and then when it's rejected, a few hundred million for an all BRT will seem like a bargain. Besides, it wouldn't be out of the question to put tracks down on a dedicated bus lane if the numbers are compelling in the distant future (that is, if self driving cars don't take over the planet in the meantime).
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# retiredpeater 2015-12-02 11:17
i've yet to hear a truly compelling reason for LRT being the system that will save London from itself. i ride the bus quite frequently and other than some poorly thought out routes, it works pretty darn good. The north south and east west "spines" sound logical and agree other filler routes could be just the ticket.
London is not, nor will ever be Toronto, and that's OK, we will grow at our own rate, driven by market forces and population demand. Over planning might be the killer of the golden egg. Lay aside the constant comparison with the other centres surrounding the GTA, and we will progress just fine.
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# Drop the illusion feds will send London billionsLeila Paul 2015-12-02 20:23
Reckless promises made during a campaign will soon fall victim to the reality of huge deficits. Like it or not, Ottawa's white knight's glitter will soon fade as all the promises made will fall under the cold light of rational scrutiny. At least I hope rational people will have a say in the huge borrowing binge the feds plan to dump onto future generations. Imagine borrowing to give that deficit-money away while Canadians live on the streets in hunger.

Maybe, though, this cloud could become one with a silver lining.

If we build light rain trains, and they're empty, London's long-suffering homeless and hungry can use those empty trains for housing. Maybe, we can even turn some of the underused trains into mobile food kitchens. The best housing will go to "refugees" so let's build the light rail tralns as potential methods of mobile kitchens and bedrooms for London's neglected homeless.
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