Open letter to Londoners on rapid transit

Dear Londoners,

I’m growing increasingly worried that politics may paralyze our progress in building a better city.

I’m a strong believer in “politics in full sentences,” as Mayors Don Iveson and Naheed Nenshi would say, so I’m going to try my best to explain, in detail, why I now support London’s bus rapid transit plan, despite not supporting it initially and advocating strongly for light rail, the tunnel and an underground station at Oxford and Richmond, all of which have been dropped from the original plan over time.

Over the past 3.5 years, along with my colleagues, I’ve attended a lot of rapid transit meetings and read more than 8,500 pages of reports on rapid transit. This is an attempt to share some of what I’ve learned in those 8,500 pages in 8,500 words.

Here’s the TL;DR version:

  1. The reliability of our current transit system, with buses running in mixed traffic, is not great. And it’s certainly not good enough to encourage a mode shift towards transit.
  2. High quality transit service that provides more choice, freedom and reliability, with rapid transit as the spine, is essential to achieving the more affordable, compact city envisioned in the London Plan.
  3. The ridership forecasts for rapid transit and the broader transit system are reasonable. Even if we don’t achieve the full ridership, the project still has a positive benefit-cost ratio.
  4. Different Londoners need different kinds of transportation infrastructure. Rapid transit is what many Londoners who live in the primary transit area, now and in the future, need to get around the city reliably and affordably.
  5. BRT running in dedicated lanes along these four corridors is the best possible transit system we can build by 2028.
  6. This is a very affordable transit project. And the time to start building it is now.

What Are We Trying To Achieve?

Let’s start with the main objective: what are we trying to achieve?

We’re aiming to make the lives of people who take transit better by making the busiest parts of our transit system more reliable and more frequent and reducing the time it takes to travel on transit between major employers and destinations like malls, our university and college campuses, our hospitals, attractions like Victoria Park and Budweiser Gardens, and neighbourhoods like downtown, White Oaks, Blackfriars, Old North, Old East Village, and SoHo. Let’s be clear about this, because it’s important: this is a transit project and the primary beneficiaries of it will be people who take transit.

From the census, we know that 15,825 Londoners count on the current transit system as their primary means of getting to work every day — roughly 9.2% of all commuters to work. Thousands of students and folks who are retired or otherwise not working also rely on transit to get themselves to school, to medical appointments, to run errands, to pick up and drop off their kids, etc. On an average day, Londoners take 62,700 rides on transit, making our transit system the fifth busiest in the province, trailing only Toronto, Ottawa, Metrolinx (Go Transit) and Mississauga, with 22.9 million rides per year.

What else do we know about current transit riders? The Voice of the Customer survey, which is a random survey of riders conducted on London Transit buses, provides some insights:

  • 93% of riders had annual income of $50,000 or less.
  • 68% had annual income of $25,000 or less.
  • 48% were aged 18–24 years.
  • 5% were under 18 years old.
  • 4% were at least 65 years old.
  • 56% were women and 44% were men.

And what do these riders think about the current state of London Transit? That the buses aren’t on time. Only 52% of riders said that the bus usually runs on time, which, as it turns out, matches up fairly closely to the on-time performance as measured by London Transit’s automatic vehicle location system (AVL). The average on-time performance of all routes during the month of the survey was 71%. Keeping in mind that a bus arriving within 5 minutes of a time point is considered on-time, and that busy routes are below the average — for example, routes 2 (63%), 102 (55%), 6 (62%), 106 (50%), 90 (54%) and 91 (59%) are some of the least reliable routes during the weekday peak period — the perception of riders is very close to actual performance.

At the outset, let me say: these reliability numbers are no fault of London Transit operators. They are doing a great job getting Londoners safely to their destinations. But they are operating in mixed traffic.

The Real World Impact of Unreliability

What does this unreliability mean in the real world for transit riders?

Jane — Working at Western

Consider a person, let’s call her Jane, who travels from Old East Village to Western University to start work at 8:30am — a trip that should take 34 minutes on the Route 2, plus time walking to and from stops and waiting at the bus stop. Because the Route 2 runs every 10 minutes at this time of day, Jane has two options, according to the scheduled service. She can take a bus that 1) leaves at 7:48am and arrives at 8:18am; or 2) leaves at 7:58am and arrives at 8:28am. Since the Route 2 is more than 5 minutes late 37% of time, Jane can’t rely on the 7:58am bus. So she has to take the 7:48am bus instead. That means leaving her house and her family at 7:42am instead of 7:52am, 48 minutes before her shift starts. That’s ten minutes of family time every weekday, 50 minutes every week, given up because of the unreliability of our current transit system. And that’s on a route with the highest frequency of service currently available.

Jay — First job, working in retail

Consider a teenager, let’s call him Jay, who is working his first part-time job at Masonville Mall and lives near Tecumseh Ave & Wharncliffe Rd. His shift starts at 4:30, after school lets out at South Collegiate, so he has a couple of options after walking home: 1) depart at 3:40pm and arrive at 4:18pm, taking the Route 12 to downtown with a transfer to the Route 90 (38 mins) or 2) depart at 3:31pm and arrive at 4:03pm, taking the Route 15 downtown with a transfer to the 90 (32 mins). Unfortunately, the reliability of those routes, running in mixed traffic at that time of day is not great: Route 12 (62%), Route 15 (67%) and Route 90 (54%). Right now, Jay’s best option is to take the 15/90 trip, which means leaving his house 9 minutes earlier than the 12/90 trip, almost an hour before his shift starts.

Navdeep — Student at Western

Consider a student, Navdeep, who lives near Kipps Lane and Adelaide St and studies business at Western University. To make it from home to class for 2:30pm, he only has one option riding the Route 32, which runs every 30 mins: departing at 1:51pm and arriving at 2:05pm. The next bus wouldn’t get him to campus until 2:35pm, and that’s only in the 70% of cases when it is running on-time. So he needs to leave his apartment 40 minutes before class starts.

Lois — Retired, car-free senior

Consider a retired senior, Lois, who lives in an apartment building on Proudfoot Lane. She’s given up driving to avoid the costs of car ownership now that she’s living on a fixed income. She volunteers as an auxiliary in the gift shop at University Hospital once a week. Right now, to make it for her shift at 8:30am, she has two options: 1) taking the Route 33 at 7:50am and walking 900m from Alumni Hall, which gets her to University Hospital for 8:15am or 2) transferring to the Route 31, which includes a ten minute wait and gets her there by 8:20am. On a blustery winter day, she may rather wait for the transfer! Either way, she needs to leave her apartment 45 minutes before her volunteer shift starts.

Shereen —living downtown, driving to work at General Dynamics

Consider a mid-career engineer, Shereen, who lives downtown in a condo building on King St. She works at General Dynamics and usually drives to work, but she walks and takes transit for other trips. Driving to work for 8:00am would typically take her 12–28 mins, meaning she leaves around 7:25am. Taking transit, she has just one option: catching the Route 20, which runs every 30 mins, at 7:03am, waiting for 9 minutes to transfer to the Route 36 at Fanshawe College at 7:35am and arriving at work at 7:39am. But that trip only works when she makes the transfer. With the Route 20 running within 5 minutes of schedule only 63% of the time during peak periods, she can’t really rely on making the connection. And the next Route 36 doesn’t arrive at Fanshawe College until 8:05.

How Does Rapid Transit Make Life Better?

Let’s look at how implementation of rapid transit, along with related improvements to local transit in order to connect with the higher frequency rapid transit routes, changes the experience of taking transit for these folks.

Jane — Working at Western

When rapid transit is implemented on the North-East route at a five minute frequency, Jane will have twice as many departure options and her trip will be more reliable, faster and direct. Her total travel time, including walking to and from bus stops, will be reduced by 9 minutes (32% shorter). She can catch a bus at 8:00am and be at work reliably by 8:23am. That means leaving her home and her family at 7:53am instead of 7:42am, giving her back 11 minutes of family time every workday. That’s 45 hours of family time in a year.

Jay — First job, working in retail

When rapid transit is implemented on Richmond St, there will also be improvements to service along Wharncliffe Rd and Western Rd, which is being widened to four lanes. One of those improvements will be a new Route 93 express bus that connects White Oaks Mall and Masonville along Wharncliffe/Platt’s/Western, running every 15 minutes and connecting to the RT station at Wharncliffe and Riverside. That will mean Jay has a direct connection to Masonville Mall and no longer has to go out of his way to transfer downtown. His shorter, more direct trip will be 9 minutes faster overall (28% shorter) and he will be able to leave his house closer to 4pm.

Navdeep — Student at Western

Since the Route 32 connects to rapid transit on Richmond St, its frequency will be doubled to a bus every 15 minutes. Even though his travel time on the bus increases by 2 minutes (11% longer) because of a different route to campus, that means Navdeep will have twice as many options and can leave his apartment 25 minutes before class rather than 40 minutes before, freeing up 15 minutes.

Lois — Retired, car-free senior

When rapid transit is implemented, there will be improvements to local service as well. The frequency of the Route 33 will increase to every 10 minutes, which will give Lois more departure choices. She will still have the option of walking or transferring, but now her transfer would be to rapid transit, her transfer wait time would be ~5 minutes rather than ~10 minutes, and she would be waiting where there’s a heated, enclosed rapid transit station. Her total trip would take 21 minutes rather than 30 minutes (30% shorter) and she can easily leave her apartment ten minutes later.

Shereen — living downtown, driving to work at General Dynamics

When rapid transit is implemented, Shereen’s transit trip would be on a rapid transit route along King St. She can walk to the central transit hub, where buses will be departing for Fanshawe College every 5 minutes. So instead of once choice of departure times, she now has several. The frequency of the Route 36, since it connects to rapid transit at Fanshawe College, will be doubled to a bus every 15 mins, so she also has more options for the second part of her trip as well. Total travel time, including a 6 minute transfer waiting at a rapid transit station at Fanshawe College, is reduced by 11% to 32 mins, down from 36 minutes, and more departure options mean she can leave for work at as late as 7:20am, which is close to her departure time when driving now. If she decides to sell her compact car, buy a transit pass, walk and take occasional Checker Limos instead, she could spend the ~$5,900 she saves every year on other goods and services — which could be good news for businesses within walking distance of her apartment or rapid transit stations! — or save it.

These few examples illustrate how the experience of taking transit will improve with the introduction of rapid transit. Transit riders will have more choices and freedom because of improved frequency. They will have more reliable service because of dedicated lanes. They will have shorter waits for transfers (because of higher frequencies) at more comfortable rapid transit stations. Combined, these changes make transit much better for people who are riding transit now and more appealing to folks who may choose to switch to transit in the future.

Who Cares About Saving A Few Minutes?

Everyone does. Time is our most precious, scarce resource. That’s one of the reasons people speed when they are driving, even though they know it is more risky for themselves and other people and it will only get them to their destination seconds or minutes earlier. It’s why people roll through stop signs, saving themselves only a few seconds. It’s why building an underpass on Adelaide St, to avoid delays caused by freight trains, is so popular, despite its budget of $59,900,000. It’s one of the reasons so many people choose to drive rather than take transit, bike or walk. And it’s one of the reasons that folks who used to take transit start driving instead.

Indeed, the desire for shorter travel times is why it’s not surprising that 129,435 Londoners are choosing to drive to work every day. Although owning a car is very expensive — the Canadian Automobile Association estimates the total annual cost of owning and operating a compact car is $7,869.24 — in London these days, it is usually faster than other travel options and it provides a lot of flexibility, comfort and independence. And that’s what most people like about driving. They enjoy the flexibility and independence so much that they are willing to pay the high costs of owning a car and to endure the minor annoyance of searching for parking spots and the stresses of driving during rush hour and interacting with other drivers in the city.

Taking transit is much cheaper than owning an additional vehicle — that’s one of the reasons I take the bus myself. But because the most of the direct costs are borne by car owners, we don’t often consider them in total. Think about those 129,435 Londoners who are driving themselves to work. If they are all driving compact cars (and they aren’t!), then the annual cost of car ownership for these folks is $1,018,555,079.40. That’s over a billion dollars every year, and it doesn’t include the external costs drivers don’t pay directly, like the cost of building and maintaining the road network, the cost of land for “free” parking spaces, the external environmental impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, and so on. Just to put the cost of land for surface parking in perspective, we have roughly 1,623 hectares of land dedicated to surface parking in London. If that land is worth $50,000 / acre, on average, then the total value of land dedicated to surface parking lots is ~$200 million.

If direct costs were the only factor influencing mode choice, more people would choose transit. But it’s not. People place a lot of value on their time and their independence. Some folks live or work in places where there is no transit service. But for those Londoners who will live and work close to the rapid transit corridors (40% of London’s forecasted population in 2034 and 65% of London’s forecasted jobs in 2034), we must make transit more like driving in terms of travel time and reliability if we expect them to choose transit.

I’m Not Going To Take Bus Rapid Transit. Where Is This New Ridership Going To Come From?

The opportunity for people to switch modes is significant. Two-thirds of all afternoon peak auto trips start in one of the rapid transit corridors and half of those trips also end in a rapid transit corridor (see the rapid transit business case, page 15). That’s 33% of all afternoon peak auto trips starting and ending within a rapid transit corridor. If just 1 in 20 of these folks who are currently commuting by car within the rapid transit corridors decide to switch to rapid transit, that would increase daily ridership by ~2,000 people, each making at least a trip to and from work— which translates to an annual ridership increase of ~924,000 (+4%). And that’s based on our existing population.

We shouldn’t forget about new people who will move here or be born here in the future. Rapid transit is critical infrastructure to support the intensification target of the London Plan. If we want to build inward and upward, we must provide the high quality transit service needed to support these transit-oriented developments.

The London Plan intensification target is 45%, which means that 45% of all new housing units should be built within the existing built area boundary of the city. Policy 90(3) of the London Plan sets out an additional target that 75% of this intensification should occur within the primary transit area, which is the area bounded by Wonderland Rd in the West, Fanshawe Park in the North, Highbury Ave in the East and Southdale and Bradley in the South. The four transit villages are located at the edges of the primary transit area and the rapid transit villages and rapid transit corridors have been designated in the London Plan for higher density forms of development. In recent history, 65% of intensification has occurred in the primary transit area.

The opportunity for ridership growth from newly-constructed housing is significant —the dual targets of 45% intensification and 75% within the primary transit area mean that 33.75% of new housing units should be created in the primary transit area. What does that mean in terms of forecasted new housing units in the primary transit area? Watson & Associates estimates that the number of households in London in 2036 will be 206,700, up from 163,300 in 2016 (an increase of 43,400 households; see page 100 of the report). Applying a 33.75% share to these newly-created households, we can expect 14,647 new households in the primary transit area by 2036. If 25% of the ~32,000 people who will live in these households choose to take transit, which is a reasonable estimate considering that much of these new housing units within the primary transit area will be transit-oriented development, that could increase daily ridership by 8,055 riders — roughly 5.2 million additional rides annually (+22.8%).

I know this seems like a lot of growth. But consider some of the opportunities along the rapid transit corridors. Let’s start in the East with the psychiatric hospital lands, which are primarily owned by the Province of Ontario, the Government of Canada (DND lands), the Salvation Army and a private landowner. The secondary plan for the area envisions a mixed use development over the 180 acres of land, including transit-oriented mid-rise and high-rise residential, lower density residential, student residences, office space, parkland and adaptively re-used heritage buildings. Considering the land use designations applied in the secondary plan, there is potential for more than 3,500 new residential units in the area. There will be three rapid transit stations serving this new transit village: one at Dundas and Highbury, one mid-block on Highbury and one at Oxford and Highbury.

Heading West towards Old East Village, the McCormick area secondary plan envisions re-development of the industrial area surrounding the old McCormick factory into a mix of residential, commercial and light industrial uses. This vision is already starting to be realized with the re-zoning of the McCormick factory lands for a mix of low density and high density residential, in the neighbourhood of 400 new units. Council has also approved up to $2.5 million in brownfield incentives to cover part of the costs of rehabilitating the site, work that is underway now. There will be a rapid transit station directly in front of this new residential development at McCormick Blvd on Dundas St. The major redevelopment of 100 Kellogg Lane as The Factory is also close to this future rapid transit station. Heading over to the next rapid transit station at Dundas and Ontario, there is the planned $140 million casino / hotel expansion at the Western Fair and a proposed 480-unit, two tower building at 809 Dundas St. Of course, the newest Medallion building at King & Lyle, just steps away from a future rapid transit station at King and Adelaide, is renting this year and has 299 units.

Heading South, there’s the Old Victoria Hospital lands secondary plan, which envisions residential re-development of the old hospital lands, involving a mix of adaptive re-use of heritage buildings and new higher density residential. Medallion Corporation, which bought the first phase of lands from the city, is proposing to adaptively re-use the heritage Colborne Building and to construct two apartment towers of 19- and 23-storeys on a common podium of 3–8 storeys, for a total of 620 residential units. This proposed new development would be walking distance to a rapid transit station at Wellington and South St. The full secondary plan envisions even more residential as the rest of the area transitions from the old hospital use to residential.

That’s 5,300+ potential residential units in just a few proposed or approved developments and secondary plans along just two of the four rapid transit corridors. Redevelopment of the West transit village at Oxford and Wonderland — for example, the mall on the Southeast corner —is possible, and there is a large residential subdivision planned for the North side of Oxford St between Cherryhill Mall and Proudfoot Lane. Eventual redevelopment of the transit villages at Masonville and White Oaks, as envisioned in the London Plan, is also possible.

Since this is really, really important, I’ll repeat it: the integration of land use and mobility planning is fundamental to the London Plan. Rapid transit and intensification as envisioned in the London Plan are mutually supportive and mutually reinforcing. If we don’t provide high quality rapid transit to support future intensification, we won’t realize that level of intensification. And if we don’t achieve our intensification targets, our rapid transit system won’t deliver as many benefits.

The opportunity to switch modes for non-commuting trips is also significant, as we are facing an unusual demographic shift over the next 20–25 years, where the population of super seniors in Middlesex County— folks over the age of 80 — is forecasted to increase from 20,910 in 2016 to 36,866 in 2030 and to 59,744 in 2041. Why is this significant? Because super seniors don’t drive at the same rate as younger seniors do. In fact, as folks age, the proportion who drive as their main form of transportation drops significantly, often in response to changes in their health, income levels or housing choices. This is true for both men and women, although the rate of driving is higher for men, dropping from 83.7% for men 53.3% for women (aged 65–74 years) to 31.7% for men and 8.8% for women (aged 90 years and older). If we apply the rates of driving as the main form of transportation to the number of forecasted super seniors above 80 years of age, we should expect 20,698 non-driving super seniors in Middlesex County in 2030 and 34,548 in 2041, up from the 12,003 we have today. That’s a 187% increase in the number of non-driving super seniors in Middlesex County by 2041, at least 83% of whom will likely live in London, with the rest in neighbouring municipalities. If only one quarter of these folks, who are currently driving as their main mode of transportation, start taking transit, that would mean 7,168 new riders and a potential increase in annual ridership of 1.5 million (+6.7%), conservatively assuming an average of 18 trips per month per person. These future non-driving super seniors deserve a reliable, comfortable transit system that they can use to get around the city.

Above, I’ve outlined three examples that I hope help to illustrate some of the potential sources of ridership growth. These are simple estimates of potential ridership growth based on forecasts of travel patterns, population and new housing growth and demographic trends. Keep in mind that these groups are not mutually exclusive.

  • 1 in 20 auto commuters with origins and destinations in the rapid transit corridors switching to transit (+4%)
  • 1 in 4 people living in new housing units built in the primary transit area choosing transit as their main mode of travel (+22.8%)
  • 1 in 4 non-driving super seniors taking transit (+6.7%)

We don’t know for sure how many people will choose to take transit in the future, but we can make informed estimates. Fortunately, we’ve hired a team of private sector experts to help our transit planning staff and transportation planning staff to forecast ridership, and their methodologies are rigorous.

There are two ridership estimates relevant to rapid transit. One is from the business case for rapid transit: 31,300,174 rides per year in 2035; and one is from the London Transit Commission’s rapid transit integration strategy: 33,240,703 rides per year. The higher ridership estimate from the LTC includes changes to the local transit service that were not included in the rapid transit business case. The two estimates have also been made with different methodologies by different consulting firms. You can read about the ridership forecasting by IBI and WSP in the Rapid Transit Master Plan, Appendix B: Travel Demand Forecasts and you can read about the London Transit Commission forecast, prepared by Dillon Consulting, on pages 36–42 of the LTC rapid transit integration strategy.

These ridership estimates are key to the business case for rapid transit. Like all forecasts, they are difficult to make. But we have two different forecasts, prepared by different consulting firms, reviewed by London Transit Commission staff, city staff and provincial officials at the Ministry of Transportation, using best practices for transit ridership forecasting. These are the same ridership forecasting methodologies informing every major transit project in Ontario. And when I think through whether the assumptions used in the forecast are reasonable, I believe they are. In fact, I believe the assumptions are on the conservative side. For one thing, the business case ridership forecast is based on 40% intensification, not 45%, which is the provincially-approved target in the London Plan. It also uses population growth and housing demand projections that do not incorporate the potential impacts of high-speed rail between London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph, Pearson Airport and Toronto, to which the Province of Ontario has committed $11 billion in its most recent budget.

But what if ridership growth is lower than the forecast in the business case? The business case includes sensitivity analysis for ridership and other major factors influencing the business case for rapid transit (see page 42). If ridership is 5% lower than forecasted, then the benefit-cost ratio goes from 1.18 to 1.14, a reduction of 0.04. If it’s 5% higher than forecasted, then the benefit-cost ratio increases from 1.18 to 1.21, a difference of 0.03. So we’re likely looking at a positive benefit-cost ratio for the whole project, even if we miss the ridership forecast by as much as 15%. That’s a reasonable margin of safety.

Even If The Ridership Numbers Pan Out, The Project Is Just Too Expensive. We Can’t Afford It!

Actually, we can’t afford to not build rapid transit. This is one of the reasons I support the current rapid transit plan, and why I believe it’s important we build it as quickly as we can and with as much provincial and federal money as possible.

Remember the Rethink London background papers? In the “Building a Mixed Use, Compact City” paper there’s a section on the differences in the capital and operating costs over 50 years of growing our city in three different scenarios: compact, where we stay within the existing urban growth boundary; hybrid, where we have slightly more greenfield development; and spread, where we have significant residential development on what is now prime agricultural land. For the compact scenario: $1.5 billion in capital costs + $452 million in operating costs. For hybrid: $2.2 billion in capital + $886 million in operating. For spread: $4.2 billion in capital + $2.17 billion in operating. See pages 39–40.

The long-term differences between these three growth scenarios is huge. We want to keep the capital costs of growth, which are largely paid through development charges, low to make new housing units more affordable. We want to keep operating costs low to keep property taxes affordable. That’s why building the more compact city envisioned in the London Plan is a fiscally conservative approach to growing our city. And it’s why rapid transit is so important from a long-term fiscal sustainability perspective.

Building rapid transit helps to keep down the costs of growth. Rather than widening roads to build more lanes carrying mixed traffic, we’re widening to add 27.4 lane-kms of dedicated bus lanes and converting 19.6 lane-kms of mixed traffic lanes to dedicated bus lanes. Dedicated bus lanes can carry 2.5 times as many people per hour as a lane of mixed auto and bus traffic can. These higher capacity lanes allow us to accommodate population and employment growth in the core area of the city — remember that 33.75% of new housing units in the primary transit area? — by using our road space more efficiently and cost-effectively. And, unlike road widenings for mixed traffic, 74% of the capital costs are covered by provincial and federal funding sources rather than only local sources of financing. In the 2014 Transportation Development Charges Master background study, this point is made very clearly on page 16:

The implementation of the RT system is cost-effective for the DC because it leverages senior government funding and expands road capacity more effectively. Alternatively, if the RT system is not implemented, these and potentially other road widenings would be required at 100% Growth funding.

The truth is that we can barely afford to keep the road network we’ve built so far, which consists of ~3,700 lane-km of roads, ~1500 km of sidewalks, 101 bridges, other structures and traffic signals, in good condition. Why? Because we have a lot of lane-kms of roads for the population that pays to maintain them. A good way to understand this problem is to look at the lane-kms per 1,000 residents and the percent of paved roads in good or very good condition. Here’s some examples from the Municipal Benchmarking Network of Canada data for lane-kms per 1,000 residents: Toronto (5.27), London (9.56), Windsor (11.38), Hamilton (11.76), Ottawa (12.74) and Winnipeg (13.36). And here’s the percent of paved roads in good or very good condition for the same cities: Toronto (77%), London (57%), Windsor (52.5%), Hamilton (68.7%), Ottawa (19.2%), and Winnipeg (53.5%). Generally, the more lane-kms per 1,000 residents, the worse the condition of the road network (Ottawa is a bit of a special case, with a huge geography spanning different urban and rural environments).

The condition of our existing road network in London is not great, as measured by the “infrastructure gap.” The replacement value of our roads and structures — bridges, for the most part — was $1,832,115,000 in 2012, the base year for the 2013 State of Infrastructure Report. That’s $1.8 billion. The associated infrastructure gap for roads and structures was $26,705,000 in 2012, which is 1.5% of the replacement value. That’s not a big problem. The big problem is the forecasted growth in the infrastructure gap for roads and structures to $236,165,000 in 2022 (12.8%). What this means is that, as of 2013, our planned spending on lifecycle capital works was insufficient to keep up with the expected deterioration of roads and structures over their lifecycle. If left unaddressed, it will mean that more of our roads are in poor or very poor condition. The State of Infrastructure Report describes what this will mean: “risks are higher that poor road condition will lead to increased potholes, vehicle damage, slower speeds, longer commute times, greater gas consumption, etc.” Since 2013, we’ve increased the 10-year lifecycle capital budget for transportation from $276 million to $404 million (increase of 46.4%), which has helped to reduce the forecasted infrastructure gap to $202 million in 2026 (a reduction of 25.5%). The strategic business case in support of the infrastructure gap, passed in the 2016–2019 multi-year budget, and the council surplus policy, which directs 25% of operating surpluses to the capital infrastructure gap reserve fund, have helped to close this gap. But it remains a long-term financial pressure on future property tax rates.

We simply cannot afford to keep building our transportation network as we have in the past. We must build a more cost-effective, fiscally-sustainable transportation network, and rapid transit is the foundation of that network.

Smart Moves: the 2030 Transportation Master Plan

I’ve heard from a lot of residents, especially in the suburbs, who don’t see how they would personally benefit from rapid transit. That’s understandable. People travel in different ways, largely depending on what kind of neighbourhood they live in and and what kind of transportation options are available to them. Because people travel differently, they don’t equally benefit from all transportation projects. For example, someone who lives and works in East London may not drive very often on the recently widened Hyde Park Rd. But the folks who live, work and shop in West London certainly do. Someone who lives in Byron probably won’t walk on the sidewalk that was just built on the South side of Huron St, East of Taylor St. But the folks in that neighbourhood use it regularly. Drivers over the Quebec St bridge don’t use the cycling lanes; the cyclists do. And so on. But we’re building a better city and a better transportation network for everyone, so we need to provide transportation infrastructure for everyone, planned in an integrated way.

That’s why we have a transportation master plan that articulates a long-term plan for improvements to the transportation network and a cycling master plan (approved in Sept 2016).

Started in 2009 and passed in June 2012, the transportation master plan informs the transportation growth projects that are included in the 2014 development charges transportation master plan, which covers 2014–2033. There are 58 major roadworks projects included in that plan (shown on the map below), the total cost of which is estimated at $648,395,190. This does not include rapid transit. The non-growth or property tax portion of these major projects is $86,652,300. There are also 17 two-lane arterial upgrades in the plan, the cost of which is estimated at $97,594,750. The non-growth portion of these two-lane arterial upgrades is $11,447,490.

So that’s the 20-year plan for growth of the road network in London, which is in addition to rapid transit. Over $750 million in road widenings, intersection improvements, optimizations and arterial upgrades, mostly in the suburban areas of the city. Let’s total up the non-growth portions of these projects: $86,652,300 for the major roadworks plus $11,447,490 for the two-lane arterials equals $98,099,970. That’s almost $100 million in property taxes for these projects. The total length of these projects is roughly 100 km, so we’re looking at a property tax expenditure of $980,997 per km.

Map showing major transportation roadworks in 2014–2033 transportation master plan.

Let’s compare that to rapid transit. The total budget is $500 million, of which $130 million will be covered by development charges and property taxes. The current split between development charges and property taxes is $118 in development charges and $12 million in property taxes (see page 64 of the staff report to Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee). The rapid transit network is 24 km, so we’re looking at a property tax expenditure of $500,000 per km, and that’s including the capital costs of vehicles, maintenance facility, etc.

$500,000 per km for rapid transit or $980,997 per km for these other transportation growth projects— which is the more fiscally conservative option for city council and the property taxpayers of London?

Rapid Transit Is What People Who Live In The Core Need

Rapid transit is the transportation infrastructure that folks who live, work and shop in the primary transit area need now and will need in the future. Consider the percentage of people in different neighbourhoods who commute to work on transit now. In suburban areas that are lower density residential and not very transit-supportive, it’s low — in some neighbourhoods, it’s zero. In the urban core, where housing types are more transit-supportive and transit is better, it’s higher — as high as 68% and with many areas between 20%–40% (basically, the dark green areas). This variability isn’t surprising, as it follows patterns in existing transit service coverage, housing types, tenure (renting vs. owning) and income.

Take a look at this map showing the percentage of households who are renting in London.

% of households that are renting (2016 Census)

And now, this one, showing the percentage of Londoners who are commuting to work on transit.

Share of people taking transit to work (2016 Census). This does not include non-work trips like post-secondary students going to school or people who are retired.

What this transit to work map shows is how different people benefit from different transportation infrastructure projects. And many of the people who live in the green areas now or will live in the green areas in the future will directly benefit from rapid transit and related improvements to local transit service. Many of the people who live in the purple areas will indirectly benefit from rapid transit — for example, from reduced congestion from other people switching to transit — but if they are drivers they will be also be directly benefiting from the $750 million in other transportation growth projects included in the transportation master plan.

Providing people who don’t own or drive cars with the freedom to travel reliably, conveniently and affordably around the city is crucial in building a better city for everyone. We should support projects that directly benefit other people, not because of the indirect benefits to ourselves, but because of the direct benefits to them. That’s what living together in community requires of us.

This Is One Of The Most Affordable Transit Projects In Canada

We talk about rapid transit like it is one huge project. But really, it’s a series of fairly straightforward road widenings, utility relocations, bridge work and road construction projects, not that different from any of the other major roadworks in the transportation master plan (plus the stations, vehicles, maintenance facility and so on).

But as one big project, just how big and expensive is it compared to other transit projects? It turns out, as shown in the table below, it’s one of the most affordable transit projects in the country. See the Google sheet for details.

Biggest transit projects in Canada as of May 2018. Source: Top 100 Projects.

Look at the massive investments Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Montreal and Edmonton are making. These are all bigger cities with higher transit ridership than London’s, but the cost per km of these projects is remarkable. For the cost of less than one km of the Scarborough subway extension, we could pay for London’s entire 24-km, 38-station rapid transit network. An important takeaway: it’s cheaper to build rapid transit earlier in the life of a city, before the land acquisition costs, capital costs and disruption from construction increase as the city grows. Another important takeaway: these are the kind of numbers the provincial government and federal government are considering when deciding which transit projects to fund.

Transit projects are more affordable in mid-size cities. York Region has spent $1.5 billion on its BRT, Hamilton is planning to spend $1 billion on its LRT and Waterloo has spent $818 million on its LRT. These are all cities with lower existing transit ridership than London. Our rapid transit is a bargain, in comparison, costing just $21 million per km. A bargain.

We’ve Put A Lot of Time Into Planning This Project. Now Is The Time To Start Building It

The environmental assessment process for rapid transit kicked off in February 2015 — I can still remember Hazel McCallion admonishing us not to make the same mistake Mississauga did: “It’ll cost you twice as much later!” — but the idea started much earlier. Public meetings on the transportation master plan, of which BRT was a part, started in October 2009. Almost nine years later, we’re concluding the planning process in 2018. Construction will take an additional eight years, starting in 2020, so it will have taken 19 years to go from initial planning to a fully operational bus rapid transit system. Four different councils will have been involved in the project (see below for a brief overview of council decision-making and public engagement in the project).

The time to build rapid transit is now. Transit riders need a more reliable transit system, and they need it now. We have a significant number of infrastructure works that need to proceed in the core area of the city, and they need to happen soon and to be coordinated with rapid transit in order to reduce the overall costs. If we want to realize the vision of the London Plan of a more compact, affordable city, we need to focus intensification in the primary transit area and the rapid transit corridors — and we need rapid transit to do that.

One of the major benefits of rapid transit, which is broadly shared by Londoners, is the short-term economic stimulus from the construction projects. The business case estimates 4,389 person-years of employment during the construction of rapid transit (construction, engineering, etc) and 225 person-years of employment in the longer-term (mostly transit operators). This is a huge economic impact that will be felt not just in London but in the surrounding region of Southwestern Ontario. Just think of all the folks who are working for companies that are members of the London Heavy Construction Association. Building rapid transit will mean years of work for people in the construction business, and the majority of those folks will spend that money in London or Southwestern Ontario. I don’t know about you, but I think our local economy would benefit from that kind of economic stimulus. And the sooner, the better!

The federal and provincial governments recognize the economic impact of infrastructure investment, both in the short-term and the long-term. Here are the objectives of the integrated bilateral agreement on infrastructure between the federal government and the provincial government:

1. increase the rate of economic growth in an inclusive and sustainable way;
2. improve environmental quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase resiliency of communities;
3. improve mobility in Canadian communities;
4. make Canadian communities more inclusive and accessible;
5. manage infrastructure in a more sustainable way.

The federal government is also particularly interested in community employment benefits, and will be incorporating a reporting framework on community employment benefits into its agreement with Ontario.

If we’re going to meet the 2028 deadline for the federal infrastructure program, and be able to report on the community employment benefits of this infrastructure spending, we’d better start in 2020!

Timeline of council decision-making and public consultation on rapid transit

  1. Transportation Master Plan: passed at civic works committee on 19 June 2012; passed by council on 26 June 2012, with Henderson and Van Meerbergen voting against and D. Brown recused on a few clauses. The transportation master plan started in Oct 2009 and included a series of public engagement sessions and advisory group meetings over three years to develop and refine the plan. “Taking Transit to the Next Level,” which included BRT, was the second of five “Smart Moves” in the plan.
  2. Bus rapid transit strategy: passed unanimously at civic works committee on 7 Oct 2013, with Fontana, M. Brown, Van Meerbergen, Orser, Usher and White in favour; passed at council unanimously on 22 Oct 2013. At this meeting, council directed civic administration to initiate the environmental assessment and to seek funding from the provincial and federal governments.
  3. 23 Jun 2014: 2014 development charges bylaw approved by SPPC, which includes the municipal portion of BRT. 24 June 2014: DC bylaw approved by council. The DC bylaw was not appealed.
  4. Appointment of IBI as consulting engineers for the rapid transit corridors environmental assessment: passed unanimously at civic works committee on 21 July 2014; passed unanimously at council on 29 July 2014.
  5. First public information centre as part of the Shift rapid transit environmental assessment on 4 Feb 2015, featuring Hazel McCallion (watch a video of her speech), Michael Roschlau, President of the Canadian Urban Transit Association, and Jeff Casello, professor of planning and civil engineering at University of Waterloo.
  6. 28 May 2015: second public information centre.
  7. Council directs civic administration to participate in the provincial Moving Ontario Forward consultations and to pursue opportunities for funding rapid transit in London. Passed unanimously at civic works committee on 2 June 2015 and passed unanimously at council on 10 June 2015.
  8. Consultant surveyors appointed for the North-East and South-West rapid transit corridors. Unanimously approved at civic works committee on 24 Aug 2015 and unanimously approved by council on 1 Sep 2015.
  9. LRT / BRT hybrid approved as the preliminary preferred option for rapid transit in the environmental assessment process. Passed unanimously at Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee on 9 Nov 2015. Three votes occur: first, to proceed with light rail transit on both corridors, which fails with only four votes in favour (Salih, Morgan, Helmer and Turner); second, to proceed with only BRT on both corridors, which fails with only two votes in favour (van Holst and Usher); and finally, the vote to proceed with the hybrid LRT/BRT, which passes unanimously 15–0. All three options that were voted on included a tunnel along Richmond St and an underground station at Oxford and Richmond. The base BRT option, which did not include a tunnel, was not voted on. At this meeting, council also unanimously directed civic administration to incorporate the preliminary routes in the draft London Plan as the basis for final public feedback on the draft and directed civic administration to work with Western University to identify a preferred route through the campus area.
  10. 2 Dec 2015: third public meeting.
  11. 2016 Shift business case: Report to Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee, recommending switching from the preliminary preferred option of LRT/BRT hybrid to BRT on both corridors, is released in late April, in advance of the 5 May 2016 SPPC meeting. At council on 3 May 2016, an emergent motion to schedule an additional public participation meeting to hear from Londoners about the change in direction, made by Mo Salih and myself, fails on a 7–7 tie. At the 5 May 2016 SPPC meeting, that decision was reconsidered and the original motion to schedule an additional meeting passed unanimously.
  12. 2016 Shift business case: a public participation meeting is held on 26 May 2016. At the meeting, SPPC votes 10–5 in favour of adopting the BRT only option, with a tunnel. In favour: M. Brown, M. van Holst, B. Armstrong, M. Cassidy, P. Squire, J. Morgan, P. Hubert, A. Hopkins, H.L. Usher, T. Park (10). Opposed: M. Salih, J. Helmer, V. Ridley, S. Turner, J. Zaifman (5). A subsequent motion to amend in order to proceed with the LRT/BRT hybrid network instead was ruled contrary by the chair and a challenge of the chair’s ruling was defeated 11–4. At this meeting, the preliminary financial model for rapid transit (both LRT/BRT and BRT only) was received (see page 29 of the agenda package). The committee recommendation passed at council on 31 May 2016, with Salih, Helmer and Ridley opposed, but an amendment to add an additional clause stating that council supports rapid transit passed unanimously.
  13. London Plan: unanimously approved by planning and environment committee on 13 June 2016; unanimously approved by council on 23 June 2016; approved by the Minister of Municipal Affairs on 28 Dec 2016. The London Plan process started in May 2012 with the launch of ReThink London and included a first draft in May 2014, a second draft in June 2015 and the version presented to planning and environment committee in June 2016. Along the way, thousands of Londoners were engaged in the process. Rapid transit corridors similar to those included in the final rapid transit business case are included in the London Plan.
  14. 23 Feb 2017: fourth public information centre. It’s at this meeting that the “Down Shift” group opposed to rapid transit appears.
  15. 9 Mar 2017: rapid transit implementation working group recommendation to look at alternatives routings east-west downtown, the Wharncliffe routing northbound, alternatives to the tunnel on Richmond St and to schedule a public participation meeting. Passed by council on 4 Apr 2017, 9–2. Public participation meeting scheduled for 3 May 2017 at Budweiser Gardens.
  16. 3 May 2017: ~1,000 people attend a public participation meeting at Budweiser Gardens.
  17. 15 May 2017: the corridors and tunnel are debated at Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee. There are several votes: couplet on King and Queen’s passes 13–2; using Richmond St as the northern corridor passes 10–4 with one recused; proceeding at-grade rather than with a tunnel on Richmond passes 9–5 with one recused; the West corridor on Wharncliffe/Oxford passes 13–2; the East corridor passes 12–3; South corridor passes 9–3 with three recused. Council passed SPPC’s recommendations on 16 May 2017.
  18. 24 July 2017: consideration of the Rapid Transit Master Plan and revised business case at Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee, incorporating the changes made in May (principally the removal of the tunnel from Richmond St). Most parts of the recommendation pass 12–1, which includes approving the business case and submitting it to the federal and provincial governments. Approval of the RTMP executive summary is voted on separately and passes 10–2 with one recused.
  19. 9–14 Dec 2017: fifth public information centre (several different days and locations) followed by an encore public information centre on 24 Jan 2018.
  20. 23 Apr 2018: draft environmental project report considered at Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee. After a lengthy presentation and questions and answers about the report, committee decides to refer the report to the SPPC meeting on 7 May 2018. This recommendation is passed at council on 24 Apr 2018.