Monday, February 27, 2012

February 2012 GO Transit Zone Map

GO Transit has a fairly opaque pricing scheme. Although the system is based on fare zones, they never tell you how the fare zones work. When you pay, do you pay according to the number of zones that you pass through? Or do you pay by distance between the zones? If you have a monthly pass between two locations, do you also get free travel on GO within those zones that are between those two locations? What happens if there are two routes between two locations, possibly using different zones? Maybe your fare pays for travel in one central zone plus all nearby zones up to a certain distance? Can you tack on an additional zone onto your travel at lower cost?

Fare zone systems can get pretty complicated, so I understand that, for normal people, GO only provides a little online web page where they can enter a source and destination and have GO spit out a total fare. But for the curious, how does the system actually work? For individual bus stops, GO does tell you their fare zone, but I couldn't find a map of all the fare zones on the GO web page. Apparently, even in the GO Transit bylaws discussing the cost of travel, it simply lists a bunch of destinations and then lists the fares for travelling between different pairs of destinations.

So, in an effort to get some insight into how the GO fare zone system worked, I decided to generate a fare zone map for GO. First, I went to the GO website and downloaded the list of stations, their GPS coordinates, and  their fare zones. Then, I put them into the data into a Voronoi diagram generator with the latitude and longitude simply used directly as x and y coordinates. I used Shane O'Sullivan's rewrite of Steven Fortune's original Voronoi code--I needed extra precision though, so I had to use a search and replace to change all the "float"s to "double"s. From there, I took the Voronoi diagram, did a Mercator projection, generated an SVG diagram, overlayed it on an OpenStreetMap map, and I was done.

Data, imagery and map information provided by MapQuest,
Open Street Map and contributors, CC-BY-SA.

My use of Voronoi to generate the diagram obviously has some problems. GO does not provide ferry service, so the zones do not actually extend into Lake Ontario like the diagram shows. There might be zones missing because there are no stops there. Zone 60 ended up being split into two parts because there wasn't a station between Richmond Hill and Vaughan to force the zone to merge together.

Unfortunately, the fare zone map didn't provide me much additional insight into how the fare zone system of GO might work. The zones seem to be irregularly sized, so I think that maybe the GO fare zone system may be more ad hoc with no particular attempt made to let riders buy arbitrary travel in certain zones (i.e. it's optimized for a commuter travel pattern where a commuter always takes the same journey between two locations every day). Oh well.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Eglinton Subway: the Nuclear Option

Eight billion dollars! Eight billion dollars so that people in Scarborough can ride the subway to Eglinton? Are you kidding me? People want to go downtown. They don't want to go to Eglinton. Why are we adding half an hour to everyone's daily commute? Every single day, the amount of time wasted over all those people will be measured in YEARS. We're going to spend $8 billion dollars to build a vast transportation system for moving people some place that they don't want to go?

This is the worst kind of government waste. It's pure ego-driven excess. Times are tight, yet the politicians somehow think it's ok to waste taxpayer dollars on some pie-in-the-sky dream? This gravy train has got to stop.


I thought the small-time transit politics in Ottawa were bad, but in Toronto, they're even worse. Right now, in Toronto, they're debating whether to spend $8 billion for a subway on Eglinton or $6.5 billion for a subway/light-rail combination. The debates are heated. The politics are nasty. And it's all pointless because both plans are a colossal waste of money.

The sad reality is that the smaller the government, the smaller the politicians. At the federal level, we get our best and brightest politicians. At the provincial level, we get some medium-level politicians. At the local level, no one votes and no one cares, so we end up with what's leftover: the least-experienced small-town politicians in the country. Yet somehow we're entrusting this lowest level of government with the decision on what to do with the biggest consruction mega-project in Canada?

This $8 billion dollars isn't local money either. It's provincial money. From Ottawa to Thunder Bay, Windsor to North Bay, we're all going to be paying higher taxes so that the local politicians in Toronto can strut around like peacocks boasting how they built a subway.

This is provincial money that's being spent, and it's time that the more experienced and more accountable politicians at the provincial level impose some provincial level-headedness on how our money will be spent.

The Case Against Subways

Trains and subways are shiny little toys, and politicians love spending money building them. The problem with trains and subways is that they are almost always a waste of money. They're always over-designed and over-built, and usually the same transit results could have been achieved using much cheaper technology.

Which mode of public transportation is the fastest? The bus.

Which mode of public transportation comes most often? The bus.

Which mode of public transportation is the cheapest to build? The bus.

So why exactly are we spending $8 billion dollars on a subway? Because they're nice? We're spending $8 billion dollars for "nice?" No politician who understands transit would propose building a subway. If you want immediate improvements in transit for the least amount of money, you always go for buses. There are a few limited situations where it makes sense to build subways and light-rail. But 99 times out of 100, if a politician is trying to build something involving trains, then they're wasting your money.

Politicians generally don't use public transit, so their only experiences with public transit are often only from when they're a tourist in foreign country or from the times of their youth. The systems they've used tend to be old and out-dated. Public transit technology has evolved and improved tremendously over the last few decades. You cannot use 1960s transit experiences to guide the building of transit networks in 2010s.

A modern subway is designed to move hundreds of thousands of people per day. This is the size of a medium to large Canadian city. Unless you need to move an entire city's worth of people from one location to another, you do NOT build a subway. Unless the entire population of Scarborough suddenly decided to give up their cars and ride the subway to Eglinton every day, it would not be worthwhile building a modern subway between those two locations. The current ridership on the Eglinton bus is around 50 thousand per day. Notice that 50 thousand is nowhere near the 500 thousand number you want for a subway. The technology for buses and streetcars have advanced to the point where they can be stretched to handle ridership below the hundred thousand range at a fraction of the cost of building a subway.

Many of these subway proponents try to justify a subway by claiming that decades from now, the city will grow to a size where a subway would make sense. This is pure wishful thinking. Toronto already has a backlog of necessary transit improvements that we need done now. But instead of spending money on fixing those problems, we're going to spend money to fix a problem that may or may not happen 50 years in the future? How does that make sense? Do these proponents have some deep insight into the transit needs of Torontonians? The sad fact of the matter is that most subway proponents are car drivers who have never ridden public transit before, and certainly wouldn't use the subway after it has been built either.

The reality is that we live in the age of the car. In the 50s and 60s, Canada was poorer and cars were more expensive, so people rode more transit. The public transit system was actually profitable! Construction was also cheaper back then, so building subways was very affordable. Cities were designed for people riding around in public transit and walking everywhere. But we're richer now, cars are cheaper, and we've redesigned our cities around the car. The city is more spread out, and most people get around by driving. The government does have a responsibility to provide adequate transportation for those who are unable to drive, but the idea that we're going back to days when everyone rides transit everywhere is a pipe dream. If you own a car, and you don't need to go downtown during rush hour, then it never makes sense for you to use public transit. Building extravagant transit mega-projects in the hope of encouraging these car drivers to use transit is just a waste of money. We do need transit, and we should spend money to build a better transit system. But subways are definitely inappropriate for a modern day transit system.

California, you may be surprised to hear, is the birthplace of the anti-tax movement. Despite their reputation for high taxes, Californians were the first to become fed up with their tax dollars being wasted by government, so they held a referendum and banned tax increases. Do you know something else they did in California? They banned subways. They became fed up with their tax dollars being wasted on costly and unnecessary subway projects, so they held a referendum and banned their tax dollars from being spent in subways in LA. A similar policy would definitely be appropriate for Toronto.

The Nuclear Option

With all the bickering in Toronto about whether to build a subway or subway/LRT-combination, or about whether the mayor's decision to build a subway was even legal, now would be an appropriate time for the premier to make use of the nuclear option: he should cancel the subway.

In this time of fiscal austerity, we can ill afford to squander $8 billion dollars on an unneeded subway. For $8 billion dollars, we could run the TTC at no cost to the city for 10 years. Mr. McGuinty knows that the subway is a waste of money, which is why he was so reluctant to fund it in the first place. With a report coming in February on all the massive government cutbacks needed to balance the budget, he has the political cover necessary to kill it. In fact, he doesn't even need to do it himself. He could simply let Metrolinx kill it for him, allowing him to avoid any possible political repercussions

Afterward, he should then impose some restrictions on the funding of new transit projects in Ontario, so that mayors stop wasting taxpayer money on these ridiculous transit plans.

Transit Funding Restrictions

There is a well-known story about a university that built many new buildings with grassy fields between them. The university had to build paved walkways over the grass between the buildings, but it couldn't decide where to put them. Should the walkways go along the sides of the buildings? Or maybe all the paths should meet at a single point in the middle of the field? In the end, the university had a brilliant idea. They planted the grass but didn't build any walkways. Over the next year, students walked over the grass, wearing it down, and making dirt paths through the grass. At the end of the year, the university simply paved over the dirt paths, so that the paths followed the natural movements of the students.

The Ontario government should impose transit funding restrictions to require this sort of thinking on transit development. Instead of expensive grand schemes for redesigning the transit movement of Ontarians, we should have incremental, modest improvements that serve a proven need.

In particular, no funding should be given to light-rail projects unless an existing bus bus transit line with high ridership has proven the need for one. And no funding should be given to new subways unless a light-rail line with high ridership has proven the need for one.

Even with these restrictions, it is inevitable that some unnecessary and poorly conceived projects will be built. To limit the amount of taxpayer damage that result from misguided projects, there should also be a billion dollar limit on individual transit projects. Some may argue that this limit prevents the building of larger, transformative transit projects. I would argue that that is a good thing and that if a city has a good long-term transit plan, then there's no reason a large project can't be broken into smaller incremental parts.

Soothing the Pain

Canceling the subway will make a lot of people angry, so the Premier would have to offer some alternative projects as a compromise. Following the grand government tradition, these alternatives projects can be promised, but never actually built. To keep the Eglinton people happy, a billion dollars of bus tunnel will be built through the most heavily trafficked portions of Eglinton. To please the transit advocates, one of the Queen or King streetcar lines should be buried through parts of downtown. The left will think of it as a down-payment on a downtown relief line while the right will be happy that they eliminated a streetcar. The Scarborough people will get an electrified GO-train line to downtown, possibly with a spur line to Scarborough Town Centre so that it can form a proper transit hub. The Etobicoke people are already getting an airport GO-train, and it should be modified to serve their needs better. As for actual transit users, the people we're actually supposed to be helping, they'll get funding for bus rapid transit, lots and lots of it.