In discussions on traffic in downtown Toronto, suburbanites from the 905 area code (outer suburbs) are a common scapegoat, but are they really the ones causing most of the traffic and congestion?
According to an article from earlier this year, maybe not. Use of transit by 905ers to commute to jobs downtown has increased significantly from 55% in 1986 to 74% in 2011, with the increase being driven by GO Transit which operates a commuter rail and bus network. This means 905 suburbanites are now taking transit to workplaces in downtown Toronto at an equal rate to residents of Toronto proper.
However, most 905ers don't work in Downtown Toronto, but in other suburbs or in more outlying and auto-oriented parts of Toronto proper, which is probably why the mode share for all commute trips (and not just downtown commutes) for 905ers is dominated by driving. In Brampton, Toronto's second largest suburb, and home to over 500,000 residents, only 4% of workers work in Downtown Toronto, and no suburb has more than 12% of their workers commuting to downtown.
As a result, there are fewer people driving downtown for work from Peel Region suburbs, home to 1.3 million residents, than from the area described as "North of Downtown", mostly streetcar suburbs between Bloor and the 401, and home to less than 200,000 residents. There's more people driving to work to downtown Toronto from Downtown Toronto than from the entirety of Durham Region, home to about 600,000 people, mostly because a much larger percentage of Downtowners work in Downtown than the percentage of Durham residents. Car mode share for Downtown-Downtown commutes is 7%, compared to 19% for Durham-Downtown commutes. Very low car mode share for such short Downtown-Downtown trips should be expected, although the amount of downtown traffic per trip created by Downtown residents is still significant because auto mode share is significantly higher for commutes to jobs outside downtown.
Despite being home to less than half of the Greater Toronto Area's population, the city of Toronto accounts for 2/3 of people who drive to downtown for work, because most downtown workers live in Toronto, not the 905 suburbs.
What's the significance of this? It seems to suggest most people don't choose to take transit vs the car for ideological reasons, but based on what's most practical. For residents along the Lakeshore East and Lakeshore West GO train lines especially, service into downtown is fast, reliable, comfortable and increasingly frequent, especially during rush-hour. Meanwhile driving is unreliable since congestion levels vary from one day to the next, and so it can be quite slow, and downtown parking is expensive. If auto mode share of <20% can be achieved for commuters from Oakville, Pickering, and other Lakeshore East/West communities, it can probably also be brought below 20% for communities along the other lines if service is improved.
It's also significant because it suggests that the greatest potential for reducing downtown traffic is not by improving transit for the 905 suburbs, but for residents of Toronto proper. There are parts of the city from which it's difficult to get to downtown using the TTC. Toronto proper is poorly served by GO transit, but improved service on the GO rail corridors could fill many of the gaps in the TTC network. GO transit is significantly faster than the subway and operates on more corridors than the subway. Toronto has about half as many GO stations per capita as the suburbs, despite being denser, having a better network of potential feeder buses/streetcars, and having a higher proportion of residents heading to destinations along GO train lines (most notably, downtown). There are probably about a dozen locations within Toronto where new stations would be justified.
There is also the question of cost. GO transit fares do depend loosely on distance, but the cost per km is still much higher for shorter trips than for long trips. Even for the shortest trips, GO transit fares are at least $5 and do not allow any transfers within GO or to the TTC. Meanwhile, a $3 TTC ticket allows unlimited transfers within the TTC. Toronto lacks the space for large commuter parking lots and garages at much of its stations, so taking the TTC to GO stations should be encouraged, but TTC riders don't get their $3 TTC fare discounted when using GO while drivers can park for free where parking exists (mainly in the suburbs).
Frequencies are sometimes not that great either. Although peak frequencies get to 15-20min on some lines, other lines have lower frequencies, only every 45min for the Richmond Hill line. Service is also limited to peak hours and peak direction on all but the Lakeshore Lines. GO bus provides fast though infrequent off-peak service between downtown and the suburbs, moving people faster than the subway, but does not serve the non-downtown parts of the city.
The idea of regional express rail could provide significant transit improvements to not just the more poorly served suburbs but to Toronto proper too. Electrification would allow for more frequent service, and additional stations without increasing travel times.
The next post will look at statistics at the ward level, to see which parts of Toronto have high car ownership and auto use, and which parts don't.
*It's worth noting that suburbanites driving to and parking at the train station and then riding the train still count as having taken transit to downtown, since most of the length of their trip was by transit, even though they also drove. One difference with GO transit compared to the Toronto subway is that a significant portion of users get to the stations by car, and most of the rest by transit, whereas most subway users get to the station by bus or sometimes streetcar or walking, and rarely by car.