Queen Street LRT? Please, No.

I like LRT’s. Sleek, Modern, Attractive, Urban, Cool.  I also like the Lamborghini Centenario LP 770-4, doesn’t mean I think its a good idea to buy one.

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First of all, let’s start debunking myths about LRTs in Brampton. Then we can talk turkey about whether not Queen Street should get its own LRT.

Is LRT coming to Brampton?

Much was made at the time, and since, about Brampton “rejecting the LRT.”  But yes, yes, yes, Brampton is getting the LRT.  Shopper’s World is located at Steeles and Main. A corner well within the Brampton City Limits.

Our Main Street ridership is approximately 7,000 riders a day. They go south on Main in the morning, and they come north on Main in the evening.

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So yes, the LRT is coming to Brampton, and it’s going to be awesome. It will get people to Square One in a hurry so they can stop having to go to Bramalea City Centre, or worse, Shopper’s World (gah!!!).  It’s going to be great.

Did Council reject the LRT running to Downtown Brampton?

No, they did not.  The LRT is still free to run to Downtown Brampton. What council said was, to get from Shopper’s World to Downtown Brampton, the HMLRT will have to avoid that section of Main Street that runs directly through two, two, Special Policy Areas that focus on flood mitigation, nature conservation, historic conservation and ‘Thousand Year Storm’ water management.  The LRT can still run to the GO station, in fact, that is the explicit goal of the alternative routes. The LRT will run to Downtown Brampton, it will just get there by avoiding the Special Policy Areas.

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Photo Credit to the Citizens for a Better Brampton website, used without permission, with my apologies. 

What is this about a Special Policy Area?

Not always discussed out in the open during the LRT debate: Downtown Brampton is situated in a flood zone. A big one. And the province, via the the Ministry of Municipal Affairs (MMA) and Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), have designated the Downtown as a Special Policy Area (SPA), basically, to ensure to make sure we don’t flood ourselves into oblivion for the sake of a shiny skyscraper.

*Yes, the “Ministry of Municipal Affairs” may sound familiar, as that was Mayor Jeffrey’s ministry when she was a cabinet minister. So let’s be clear, our mayor knows and has always known all about the Special Policy Area. We will just let the definition of irony percolate in the back of our minds as we go along. 

The Downtown Special Policy Area in fact limits the number residents in Downtown Brampton to 1,100 residential units and 174,000 square meters of non-residential development.  Remember those numbers, we’re coming back to them in a minute. You can read more about the Special Policy Area here: Downtown SPA   All proposals for Downtown have to worry about these constraints, from a condo tower, to a sports arena. A lot of planning goes into what can and can’t fit within those constraints.  A one story, 100,000 square meter indoor market would be great, but it would eat up most of the commercial allotment.

Given the potential that an LRT has to attract intensification, and given that the area between Nanwood and Wellington is expensive housing stock with little potential for redevelopment, what council decided to do was route the HMLRT along a route that offered land redevelopment potential, and still end up coming into the Downtown, albeit from either the East or the West.  This will maximize the ability to attract redevelopment, but travelling the majority of the distance outside the SPA. And now, they are studying which route would be the best for the City. Had City Staff taken the direction to remove Main from the list of routes in any of the previous number of times it was given to them, we would be years ahead of where we are today.

At what cost? Well, these alternative routes will add up to (but likely would not exceed) a shocking 8 kms of track length the HMLRT route. At a running speed that can go as fast as 80km/hr, that will add anywhere up to 6 to 8 minutes of travel time from the Brampton GO Station to Steeles. And I know what you are thinking: Unacceptable! I mean, if you live on Kennedy Road, the Main Street LRT stops were going to be more than an 8 minute walk away, so it’s a real time saver for them! But really, how dare we take 8 minutes of our time to improve transit service to roads like Kennedy Road or McLaughlin (double gah and grodie!!)?

Having said that, I am personally a big fan of Kennedy Road for redevelopment. The stretch between Steeles and Queen is full of land, a lot of it vacant or under-used, high density housing, high schools, commercial areas, industrial employment areas, connections to Mississauga and the Powerade Centre, the list goes on. I certainly think there is a better chance that the old Chuck E. Cheese Mall will be redeveloped than will the Bill Davis estate house. Maybe that’s just me.

Did we need an LRT to begin with?

Frankly, no. The province is wrong to want to build the LRT into Brampton. It is wrong to want to build it north of Square One at all, really.

The only reason they are building it north of Square One is because there is no room for a vehicle depot anywhere else but the lands beside the 407. They are building it there because they have to. LRT’s need vehicle depots to park in and be serviced. Other than needing a depot, the north end of Mississauga and Brampton have this in common: they doesn’t have the population density to support an LRT. And but for the depot having to go somewhere, we wouldn’t be getting one.

How can I say we can’t support an LRT? Where do I get off? I don’t say it. The Ministry of Transportation says it (right here: MTO Transit guidelines), along with the University of McMaster which sets an even higher threshold (read about it here).  What the guidelines tell us is that to support an LRT, an area needs a density of residents and or jobs adding up to 160 people or jobs per hectare (or more, if you listen to McMaster, stupid nerds).

Remember the Special Policy Area document, above? The one that limits the density of Downtown Brampton?  It’s a really important law, and I’ll walk through the specifics of the math in a moment, but under the SPA, not only do we not have the density to support an LRT now, without changing the SPA, legally, literally, mathematically,  we  actually never will.

The Math Behind the Impossible

Below, you will see the gap we have to fill. As of 2015, Downtown Brampton had 34 People per hectare plus 18.6 Jobs per hectare; a grand total of  52.6 people and jobs per hectare out of the 160 needed to justify an LRT.   About 1/3rd. That’s like having about 1/3 of the money you need to buy a candy bar.  It’s nice, but no candy bar for you.

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Downtown Brampton, as measured by Metrolinx, is 200 hectares. So we need to achieve at least 32,000 residents or jobs in the Downtown area.

Assuming an average of 2.5 people per residential unit, that’s 12,800 units. A building like the Park Place tower on Queen Street has 218 units. Let’s assume, on average, that we can replicate that building’s unit yield.  We need 57 buildings that average out to 218 units per building to exist in Downtown Brampton.  Currently, we have less than 15, most of which are a fraction of the size needed to sustain the 218 average, so we need at least 32 more Condominium Towers at least as large as the Park Place building.

Or let’s be generous and assume we maintain the same 34% jobs-to-residents ratio we have now. That means we can replace 1/3 of those condos with jobs instead. It’s easy to achieve 11,315 jobs in Downtown Brampton right? After all, as of 2015, there were already 3,700 jobs in Downtown Brampton, so we only have to create a little more than twice as many new jobs as already exist in the area. Well with 7,000 or more new residential units going in, we got this! Why wait till 2031, a whole 15 years, when we can just decide that those jobs are going to exist now? Come on madam mayor! What are you waiting for? 

It’s simply incredible to believe this will happen, especially when there is legislation which specifically limits our population density.  We need approximately 7,000 new units plus 11,000 new jobs.  The Special Planning Area limits us to 1,100 units.

Let that sink in. The math is pretty straightforward on this one.  We are only allowed to build 1/7th of the number of units we would need to reach the population density needed to meet the transit planning criteria.  That’s a lot of bunkbeds.

And what kills me, is that our Mayor, the former Minister for Municipal Affairs and Housing, knows the mathematically impossibility of achieving these targets, all the while grandstanding about how she is the champion of the HMLRT and how Brampton is going to suffer by only running the HMLRT to Steeles instead of driving it like a stake through the heart of the SPA. She knows it impossible, and she always has. But I guess admitting its impossible doesn’t garner many votes, does it?

Isn’t LRT less expensive than Buses? Shouldn’t we build it anyway?

From a certain perspective, LRT’s are cheaper, but, you have to understand that perspective and what it means.  In order for LRT to be cheaper, you have to rely on the Cost Per Passenger Mile measure. And in that respect, LRT are cheaper than buses under a particular set of circumstances. Those circumstances are, first and foremost, when the LRT is full of people.  If the LRT is at capacity, and when that capacity is more than a BRT system could handle, then yes, per passenger mile, it is less expensive.

Author Christopher MacKecnie (see article) outlines the math behind the cost effectiveness of LRT over BRT systems very effectively:

“What this means is that assuming passenger load remains constant, a light rail train that has three-car consists operating every ten minutes would need to be replaced by standard buses operating almost every two minutes (six light rail trains per hour = 27.5 standard buses per hour).  If there is enough demand along a corridor to operate buses every two minutes, then a light rail train would have lower operating costs than buses.”  HOW OFTEN DO LIGHT RAIL LINES OPERATE? Unfortunately, with few exceptions – including almost none of the cities shown in the accompanying table – American cities do not have bus corridors that have sufficient demand to operate buses every two minutes.  Instead, cities are choosing to operate their light rail lines as often or more often than existing bus service. Replacing a bus route operating every 15 minutes with even a two-car light rail train operating every 15 minutes is the equivalent of increasing corridor capacity by three hundred percent (a two-car light rail train is the equivalent of three standard buses). While ridership is likely to increase due to the introduction of trains, it is unlikely to increase by three hundred percent”

LIGHT RAIL VERSUS BUS COSTS FOR FIFTEEN AMERICAN CITIES WITH BOTH

Light Rail vs Bus
  Cities
City Bus Cost Light Rail Cost
Dallas $122.38 $451.33
Salt Lake $118.24 $124.01
Denver $102.76 $170.18
Sacramento $119.51 $232.00
Los Angeles $127.28 $391.43
Portland, OR $134.39 $187.55
Minneapolis $123.64 $183.82
Phoenix $102.82 $180.35
Baltimore $163.96 $246.73
Philadelphia $141.34 $166.26
Boston $142.96 $216.45
San Diego $84.61 $137.67
Cleveland $126.12 $292.31
Buffalo $114.23 $280.97
Mean $121.87 $232.82
Max $163.96 $451.33
Min $84.61 $124.01
Median $122.38 $216.45
SD $19.50 $90.89

 

In not one city was the LRT system less expensive than the BRT system. 

What does this mean for Queen Street Higher Order Transit? It means that the Ministry of Transportation is correct in its approach. Having the population density to sustain an LRT means you have a chance at running full trains on a schedule that a BRT system couldn’t handle (the every 2 minute scenario).  Simply put, when you have the numbers, you will achieve the lower cost per passenger mile.

Now, I recognize that “more expensive” doesn’t mean “not justified.” A Volkswagen Beetle is less expensive than a 7 seater cargo van, but if you have 7 passengers, guess what? And in a city, if you have to run a bus every 2 minutes, of course you are looking at an LRT scenario. But until you have the capacity to fill the ridership? BRT is less expensive, even if, per one particular statistical figure, it is more expensive; there is more than one statistic to consider though.

The other survey to absorb is this one, authored by Steer Davies Gleave (a name you may recognize from their work in the HMLRT) BRT vs LRT Case Study  What they conclude, in studying a town in France, is that BRT was in fact the mode of choice, was less expensive and more effective.

Yes, of course, each town/city is different, no one is arguing otherwise. But then again, we can add this to the list of 15 American Cities above, where the results were consistent with the Steer Davies Gleave case study. So far, we are at 16-0.

And that starts to mean something when you add it to the MTO’s policy paper and the Special Policy Area papers considerations about Downtown Brampton.  We don’t have the density to actually achieve the minimal cost per passenger per mile threshold that justifies an LRT over a BRT.

Think of this way, if you drive to the concert alone, you are paying for gas and parking $20. If you pick up three friends, all four of you are paying the same $20 for gas and parking, only now, each of you is only paying $5. If you can get 40 people to go, now you can split the cost of renting a bus, which is in my example more than $20, but probably less than $200, the cost for 10 cars ~ 10 gas fill ups, 10 parking spots. You can achieve economies of scale with enough people, but 8 people don’t rent a bus just because it would be cheaper for 40 people to rent a bus. The marginal costs and total costs don’t work that way, and you can’t confuse your statistics in that manner.

We also pause to point out that all the current cost benefit ratio calculations are based on current diesel technology. This is being changed sooner rather than later with Brampton bringing in pilot rapid charge technology projects. Electric buses will have more passenger room, offer a better ride, cleaner air, quieter operation, and help achieve the ridership capacities for BRT achieved in other jurisdictions.

What does this all mean for a Queen Street LRT?

Well for one, Downtown Brampton still doesn’t have, and legally cannot achieve, an adequate population count to justify an LRT.  If we want a Queen Street LRT, we really need the area around the Bramalea City Centre to intensify, because it can’t happen in Downtown Brampton.

The problem with this Bramalea City Centre plan is twofold. The first problem being that seemingly, no one is listening to the Brampton Bruin when he says that the Civic Centre is The Best Place to build the new Ryerson campus. It is incredibly short sighted not to realize that a mall alone cannot trigger the intensification needed to build up this area. The Square One area has the City Hall, Sheridan College, YMCA, etc. etc. etc. The Bramalea City Centre has a retirement home, Region of Peel, Police Station, but it needs more.

The other problem to tackle is that Queen Street is a lot longer than the 200 hectares of Downtown Brampton.  Even building high rise condos, that new population influx is going to be spread out thinly between here and Vaughan. Density is as much about bodies as it is about space. To build a population density of 160 people and jobs per hectare around the City Centre is likely possible, from the space planning and conservation point of view, but how far away from the City Centre can you get and still maintain that level of density? Towards Downtown Brampton along Queen Street, sure, that’s easy. But travelling east? Most of that land was developed as low density in the 70’s. It’s really not until Torbram or even Airport Road that you get back into re-developable land. That’s a large stretch of land.

Another significant issue, as touched upon before, is there are no LRT yards along Queen Street, and it would be illogically expensive to build a second one, especially in the context of how much less expensive it would be to connect to the HuLRT line and let that yard do double duty. Without an alternative route to connect HuLRT to Queen, I am not optimistic there is any hope of life for a Queen Street LRT. Especially considering the perception that Metrolinx is not willing to build on an alternative route. Soooo …. this is awkward.

When Steer Davies Gleave first studied Queen Street for a possible LRT, it determined it didn’t justify an LRT; this despite the fact that Queen Street transit ridership levels are much greater than Main Street transit ridership levels. The line is too long with too many conservation lands in the middle; the expanse between us and Vaughan is a huge cost hurdle, and the distance between BCC and Dowtown too short with no rail yard in between.

So if we can’t justify it with population density, we can’t justify the cost of building it, we can’t justify the cost of running it, we can’t explain how the tech for buses won’t solve some of our bus problems, well, we can’t justify building an LRT on Queen, can we?

I like LRT’s. The one that runs around the Queen’s Quay and up Spadina is quiet, attractive and smooth. I am not a fan of the overhead wiring grid, but that’s a minor thing in places where the other factors suggest an LRT is justified. But in Brampton, I maintain the Province is wrong to be building the LRT north of Square One at all (but I get that they the need to addreess the practical needs of the system).  So, if the Province refuses to build an alternate route, the LRT will likely never run north of Steeles in our lifetime (A good thing, based on the cash it would hemorrhage without full ridership) and without the rail yard connection, we can’t have a Queen Street LRT either.

In summary, I regret that we likely not expand upon the HuLRT in the next few decades, in as much as I regret not taking that sweet Lambo for a spin on a hot summer day.  Instead, when it comes to Queen Street, I support a grade-and-lane separated BRT all the way to Vaughan. If we build smart, and we’ll have enough money left over to build a Dixie Road BRT too, and as we grow, we can upgrade the infrastructure. But until then, we have to build wisely and with a degree of fiscal responsibility.

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