Elevated rail is faster, more cost effective and that matters

The debate over elevated light rail emerged in the pages of the Toronto Star and Metro News yesterday under two headlines, one stating that while elevated transit was higher and faster, it wasn’t smarter and a second which noted Toronto shuns elevated transit, cites gloom under Gardiner.

The article drove home the point that conflicts often arise between the competing visions of urban planners /architects and transit planners.

This was a point noted a few years ago by Jarrett Walker on his website when he wrote how the plan to build Honolulu's proposed elevated light rail system, mentioned in the Star article, was opposed by a group of architects who wanted it at surface.

It’s worth repeating what Walker wrote:

Everyone is prone to reduce the complexity of urbanism to a problem solvable by their own profession, and risks being dismissive of the expertise of other professions' points of view (click here for example). When a group of architects proposes that a major new transit investment should be made slower and more expensive to operate in order to foster a better streetscape, as is happening in Honolulu, one hopes that they have thought through the urbanist consequences of all the people who'll be in cars instead of on transit because the transit is too slow, infrequent, and unreliable. 

Walker then goes on to explain what slow, infrequent and unreliable mean.

Michael Schabas, the author of the Neptis report, Review of The Big Move sent this letter to the editor of the Toronto Star where he notes that Metrolinx’s own numbers show that an elevated light rail line on the suburban stretch of Eglinton East would attract about three times as many new transit riders as the surface line currently planned:

Tess Kalinowski’s article on the elevated-versus-surface (or underground) transit debate addresses an issue Toronto has been dodging for half a century.

In it, Toronto’s Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmat points to the Gardiner, and the “ugly dark spaces” beneath it, as a reason not to build elevated transit lines.

Unfortunately, this argument is both incorrect and out of date.At $300 million per km, it will never be affordable to extend the subway into the suburbs. Surface rail lines, some of which already have GO commuter services, can be upgraded, but they don’t serve all the places people want to go. Surface light rail has its place, but elevated and automated transit is emerging as the best way to provide a service fast enough in suburban areas to attract people out of their cars, at an affordable price.

It’s a model that has proven successful in Vancouver, Dubai, Paris, London, Copenhagen, and a dozen other cities. No, the lines aren’t invisible, but the slender structures (about one-quarter the width of the Gardiner) arguably enhance the suburban environments through which they run. More importantly, they carry new transit riders to their destination quickly, take cars off the road and reduce congestion.

The Honolulu elevated rail system mentioned in the article runs through an urban corridor that is denser than Eglinton. Elevated transit lines are also much cheaper than subways to operate and maintain.

Metrolinx’s own numbers show that surface light rail, as planned along Eglinton East, Sheppard and Finch, will attract few new riders. These lines will actually make traffic worse, by taking away three lanes on a road that is already congested. Metrolinx data also show that an elevated light rail line on Eglinton East would attract about three times as many new transit riders as the surface line currently planned, delivering a service like a subway at a third of the price, and with a better view for the riders too.

And ultimately, isn’t attracting new riders to transit a way to relieve congestion what transit investment is all about?