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.”