North America

The Café Train — A Transit Idea as Crazy as Shaq on Ice

A train is sort of like Shaquille O’Neal on ice skates. It can be extremely efficient, but it is not good at starting, stopping, or making sharp turns.  And you really do not want it to crash into anything.

If Shaq were to be given those ice skates, you would want him to skate in one of two types of ways. One type would be to give Shaq an empty, straight rink: he could then skate quickly without having to stop or turn. The other would be to have Shaq skate extremely slowly: that way he could share a rink with others without risking a fatal crash, and it would also be much easier for him to start, stop, or turn without too spending too much of his energy or risking a crash.

In our transit system, we tend to value speed, so we opt for the former method over the latter. We spend lots of money to build subways, so that our trains can get their own empty rinks to skate on, with stops spread far apart (relative to busses/streetcars) and enough room for wide turns.

However while speed is likely to remain a top priority, it is also likely to become less important than it has been until now, relative to other concerns like cost, comfort, capacity, and cleanness. The need for speed reflected the fact that people were in a rush, because people had jobs and kids. Going forward, though, technological and demographic changes seem to indicate this will not be the case so much. Demographically, barring a dramatic change in immigration, Canada will very soon have many more pensioners and fewer children than it has today. (Look at our population pyramid and you will see this is the case). Technologically, meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly easy to get some work done while sitting on a train; plus, of course, there is the possibility that automation and/or outsourcing will cause unemployment and/or leisure time to rise.

In theory, the simplest way to increase the capacity of a train is to make it easy for people to sit on the train’s roof. This would also dovetail well with the idea of having the train travel extremely slowly, in order to maximize efficiency and safety in a busy, intersection-filled urban area without the need to construct a subway. The idea would be for the train to serve as a sort of portable café for people to work or relax in while they travel, complete with a rooftop patio. The seats on the roof could, perhaps, have optional retractable covers, to keep out wind, noise, and bad weather.

But this still leaves you with the challenge of how to make turns, if the road is not wide enough to allow a long train to do so. This could be addressed either by using light rail instead of heavy rail, or by having the train descend into a tunnel to make its turn. (Although in that case, everybody would have to get off the roof for the tunnel portion). Or by having rail lines with no sharp turns (for e.g. the Eglinton Crosstown, or a train using the extremely long Queen Street streetcar line).

queen streetcar route.jpg

Also in theory, the cheapest way to build a subway is to build a train with as narrow a diameter as posible. This would also dovetail well with the sitting-on-the-roof idea, as it is easier to get on and off a low roof than a high roof. (Though again, passengers would have to get off the roof before the train enters the subway tunnel). The problem here, though, is how to get passengers  to and from their seats within a train with a narrow diameter and low roof.

The solution to this problem could (again, in theory) be autonomously-moving chairs, which move passengers in and out of the train. Such chairs would also dovetail well will with a train system that mixes an above-ground, extremely slow section with a typically fast subway section. The autonomous chairs could bunch together to fit more passengers in during the fast subway portion, but then spread apart to give people much more room to work or relax during the extremely slow above-ground section. Space could be freed up by perhaps having some chairs autonomous move onto the rooftop ‘patio’ during this section, and lock in to grooves within the rooftop.

For Toronto, given the high cost of tunneling downtown (because of downtown’s closer-to-surface bedrock, utility barriers, underground building barriers, and busy street traffic to disrupt during station construction), the extremely slow above ground portion of the train system could run across downtown Toronto, using existing streetcar tracks on Roncessvalles and on King (the turn from Roncessvalles to Kind is a very wide one, so this could be possible without needing a subway). It could then enter into a subway tunnel by King and Broadview, and head north as a typically fast subway (albeit with a narrow diameter) all the way to Sheppard and Don Mills. It would thereby run the entire “Relief Line” route, just in a much crazier (and just maybe, in a much more efficient and cheap) way than those who want to build a conventional subway here imagine.

Alternatively, you could have a stacked version of this system: in one direction it would be a subway at high speeds, in the other direction it would be a surface train at extremely slow speeds (but with trains bunched much more closely together), and with people sitting on the roof. An advantage of this system could be that you could use existing surface streetcar tracks to have two surface lanes going in the same direction, so that you are less likely to have a delay that would cause the subway tunnel lane to go under-utilized. Plus, by reversing direction midday, you could have the subway section run downtown in the morning and uptown in the evening.

Alternatively, you could have no subway section, and run the entire line as an extremely slow, cafe train. If you were to do this, you might also have the option of building trains (or streetcars, if you want to do sharp turns without a tunnel) with twice the width of normal trains (they could run west on Queen and east on King, for example). This would give you a much more spacious interior for a slow, comfortable ride, and a rooftop patio that is much wider too. A wider rooftop patio would be especially useful if you were to use trains of normal height rather than low-roof trains. If people are going to be sitting on roofs that are high up, they may want a wider roof so that they don’t have to be so close to the edge. Having a system of this kind, with no subway, also means that you don’t have to worry so much that the tunnel will run underutilized: this means you could have the extremely slow train line share its road lanes with cyclists or with cars.

It also means that, instead of rooftop seating, you could simply have double-decker trains. If there are height barriers preventing these — as in most urban settings there would be — you could use low-roof double-decker trains and autonomous chairs to get passengers in and out.

Better yet, we could just do this:

North America

Time-Sharing Toronto Transit

Fighting for bike lanes, pedestrian spaces, HOV/bus lanes, and right-of-way streetcar lanes is difficult in Toronto. Much of Toronto’s population is suburban, and much of Toronto’s tax revenues are controlled by an Ontario government that is partially influenced by Ontario’s largest industry, car manufacturing.

Still, most of this fight has focused only on how to share road space. In my opinion, what we should be pursuing instead is a plan to share road-use time, in order to reflect the fact that the needs of Toronto — especially as it relates to bike lanes — are very different in summer than in winter. The political compromise we should be pursuing should be to make Toronto a great city for transit, cycling, and pedestrians during the warmer, brighter half of the year, while allowing cars to continue to be the dominant form of transportation during the colder, darker half of the year.

In the winter, most people do not want to bike, fewer people want to walk to transit stops or wait at outdoor transit stops, and more people want to have street parking so they do not have to walk far to get to and from their parked cars. This will only become true as Baby Boomers get older, as the risk of their slipping and falling on ice becomes more significant. In summer, on the other hand, more people want to bike, people do not mind walking further to and from their parking spot as much, and people do not mind walking to or waiting at a transit stop as much either.

In summer there are also more tourists in the city, who want to use transit (or taxis), and walk or bike. Summer tourism is likely to increase in the future as technology makes it easier for people to travel more, given that many other cities in North America (and the world) are unbearably hot in summer, and given Toronto’s proximity to the lakeside cottages and camping sites of the Canadian Shield.

There are also smog issues during the summer, which could be reduced by using cars less often.

But, you might ask, if we give over most of our road space to transit, cycling, and pedestrians during the good-weather half of the year, what will we do with all of our cars? And woudn’t we have way too few busses and streetcars to facilitate this huge seasonal increase in transit ridership? (And if we buy more busses and streetcars in order to solve this problem, wouldn’t they then be underused during the car-dominated colder half of the year?)

The solution to this problem may, at least in part, be a seasonal form of car-sharing. Torontonians could have the option to make a profit by doing one of the following things:

—not own a car

—renting their car to an Uber driver (or a service like Uber) during the warmer half of the year, so that it could be used as an UberPool vehicle in an HOV lane shared with ttc busses

— renting their car to Car2Go (or a service like Car2Go) during the warmer half of the year, in order to help people travel the first-mile/last mile to and from transit stations

—using their car in cottage country. Or, renting their car to a service like Car2Go in cottage country, so that people could take the train or bus to get to and from cottage country, so that we reduce the economically and environmentally damaging practice of clogging up the highways to Muskoka with cars every weekend

—rent the cars to towns in Northern Canada during the warmer half of the year, since the seasonal changes that Toronto experiences are nothing compared to those Northern Canada does

maybe, partner with US Sunbelt cities. If they do a reverse version of the seasonal system we do (in other words, if they become transit, cycling, and pedestrian friendly in the winter, when they have great weather, but then go back to being car-friendly in the summer when their weather is way too hot) then Torontonians could perhaps save money by sharing a car with a Southerner, with the Torontonian using the car in winter and the Southerner using the car in summer

Of course, most people won’t rent out their car like this for half the year. But as long as some do, it should be sufficient, given how much more utility can be gotten out of a single car when used as an Uber/UberPool/Car2Go type of vehicle, as compared to when used as a conventional car that mainly sits idle all day and night.

So, instead of fighting for transit-only/cycling/pedestrian/carpool lanes, we should advocate for transit/cycling/pedestrian/carpool seasons. 

North America

Light Rail and Autonomous Vehicles in Toronto

Light rail systems are often a Goldilocks-style compromise between the flexibility of automobiles and the efficiency of trains. The problem is, nobody likes Goldilocks.

If, for instance, Doug Ford is elected premier of Ontario this spring, it is not unlikely that he will cancel the Hamilton, Hurontario, and Sheppard LRTs, leaving only the Eglinton Crosstown and Finch West projects that are already underway. And Toronto’s mayor and city council already voted last year in favour of the suburban Scarborough Subway Extension, over an alternative plan to build that line as an LRT and then use the money saved to help fund an Eglinton East LRT.

On the autonomous vehicles front, meanwhile, a number of significant barriers to entry remain. These include: LIDAR (still very expensive, and still struggles with snow); LIABILITY; the fact that people already own conventional cars; the fact that autonomous cars (even electric ones) still cause traffic and environmental harm; and the risk of autonomous vehicles being used in a terrorist attack (for e.g. if driverless cars are common, a single bombmaker might be able to load numerous vehicles with explosives, and detonate all of them simultaneously at a crowded urban location). And of course there may also be a societal hesistancy to adopt widespread driverless cars.

Because of these barriers, it seems plausible that the partial use of autonomous vehicles will occur before they become fully adopted. Consider, for example, two potential partial usages: autonomous parking lots, and autonomous overnight cargo deliveries. Both of these may not be subject to the barriers listed above:

—LIDAR may not be a challenge for autonomous parking lots, as within a relatively small, mapped area equipped with sensors (the parking lot), cars could drive autonomously without LIDAR. Overnight delivery vehicles might also be able to run without LIDAR, as they could drive at a very slow speed, and stick to running a relatively small number of high-demand routes
—Liability may not be a challenge either, as the parking lot could have no pedestrians or human drivers in it, and its cars could drive at slow speeds. Overnight delivery vehicles could also drive at slow speeds.
—the fact that people already own conventional cars is not a barrier to overnight cargo deliveries, and may not be a barrier to parking lots either. Some companies are even attempting to develop vehicles that can, in effect, tow a conventional car autonomously to and from parking spots
—the fact that autonomous cars still cause traffic and environmental harm may not be a barrier: autonomous parking lots can reduce traffic and pollution if they are located at (for example) train stations, thereby making it more convenient for suburbanites to use transit. And overnight deliveries might cause fewer diesel trucks getting stuck in daytime traffic jams, which create air pollution and other costs
—restricting autonomous vehicles mainly to limited areas like special parking lots, or special times like very late at night, could make it much more difficult for them to be used in a major terror attack (whether a car-bomb/truck-bomb attack or driving a vehicle into pedestrians, involving multiple vehicles simultaneously) as it would then remain suspicious for a driverless truck to be loitering in a crowded urban area
—special autonomous parking lots, and perhaps also overnight autonomous cargo deliveries, are much less likely to be subject to a societal hesitancy towards their adoption

LRTs in particular may benefit from autonomous parking lots and/or autonomous overnight delivery vehicles. Autonomous parking lots may promote transit usage in general, if the parking lots were located at transit stations. But perhaps LRT would benefit from them more than heavy rail would, as the flexibility of LRT relative to heavy rail could allow LRTs to directly access more of these parking lots.

For overnight cargo deliveries, LRTs could be the ideal vehicle to be used autonomously. LRTs are electric and therefore relatively quiet, and being quiet is crucial for overnight usage in cities. Also, electricity prices are cheaper at night than they are in the day (particularly in Ontario, given that the province’s nuclear and wind power cannot shut off at night). And, of course, they are much cleaner than non-electric (or even electric) trucks. In addition, an LRT, unlike heavy rail, could more often travel directly into a building or parking lot to load/unload its cargo.

One main problem that has prevented cargo light rail in the past (outside of a few exceptions, for example in Dresden where a cargo tram has run) has been that trains have less surface friction than wheeled vehicles, so it is difficult for an LRT carrying a heavy amount of cargo to accelerate and decelerate constantly in cities in order to stop for red lights, passenger stops, and — if the LRT is not operating in its own separated lane — cars. At night, however, there are far fewer cars or passenger LRT stops, and green light-red light cycles could be made to run for far longer lengths of time in order to minimize the number of times an LRT has to stop.

With autonomous vehicles, then, LRTs may no longer be only a compromise between heavy rail and autonomobiles, but instead might excel at complementing autonomous parking lots, or being used autonomously to deliver cargo.

What does this mean for Toronto? Well, as mentioned earlier, it is possible that all but the Eglinton Crosstown and Finch West LRT plans may be cancelled as a result of the coming election. The Eglinton and Finch LRTs, as it turns out, have something in common that could be relevant to this discussion: they are next to the city’s two major hydro corridors, the Finch Corridor and the Gatineau Corridor. These corridors could be used as autonomous parking lot systems that are directly accessible to passengers using the LRTs, as well as accessible to passengers using other corridor-adjacent transit stations like Finch Station and Kennedy Station. They would also be accessible to cyclists using the bicycle paths that already exists within these two hydro corridors.

hydro corridor map

Finch Station Parking Lot

If you look at Finch subway station (map above, picture below), you will see that it already has a large parking lot, 1.3 km long and 90 metres wide, within the Finch hydro corridor to both its west and its east. I propose that this lot be extended much longer, to reach north of the Finch West LRT, as an autonomated parking lot corridor. This corridor would mostly remain separate from road traffic and pedestrians, though not entirely separate: it would have to cross north-south streets, and would also have to use bridges on Finch in order to cross topographical barriers like G Ross Lord Park. But that would still be much less of a challenge than a widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles. The Finch corridor is about 210 metres north of Finch in most places, and in some places (such as west of Jane, or west of Bathurst, or between Dufferin and Keele) it widens to connect to Finch Avenue directly.

finch station parking lot.png

Finch Subway Station (Yonge and Finch)

The Gatineau Corridor, meanwhile, intersects with the Eglinton Crosstown just west of Victoria Park, and also (via the narrower Scarborough RT corridor; see bottom image below) at the Crosstown’s terminus station, Kennedy Station (which is also a station on the Bloor-Danforth subway, Scarborough RT, and Stoufville GO train). If the Eginton East LRT extension to the Crosstown is built, its terminus would also be by the Gatineau corridor, at U of T Scarborough campus.

Where Eglinton Crosstown and East LRTs meet hydro corridor.png

Above: 3 Locations Where Gatineau Corridor Meets Eglinton (or Eglinton East) LRT; Below: Kennedy Station

Kennedy Station .png

The corridor could be relatively quiet, since the cars parking in it could travel slowly. It would not be an eyesore; or at least, not more of an eyesore than the hydro towers are themselves. It would also, ideally, be “parking lot neutral”; in other words, by creating more parking on the hydro corridor, it would allow you to convert some existing parking lots elsewhere into buildings/parks/etc. It would promote an increase in transit ridership. And the corridor could also be used, seasonally, as a “bicycling highway” that would be usefully located next to the autonomous parking lot. This could be acheived by simply having a portion of the hydro corridor’s lanes be designated for cycling instead of parking during the warmer months of the year. This could be a transit option that both the suburban, car-driving Ford Nation and the latte-drinking downtown bicycle-lovers could enjoy.

North America

The Double Double LRT – Make Hamilton Great Again

In 1870, Hamilton had a population half as large as Toronto’s. If it were to have kept that up, Hamilton would today be the 3rd largest Canadian city. The Bulldogs might be competing for the Stanley Cup right now.

Toronto-Hamilton-Buffalo Populations

But, Hamilton has been held back by two processes. One was the move from water transport to land transport. Hamilton’s main advantage was its port, which is still by far the busiest among Canadian ports in the St Lawrence/Great Lakes network. But in the modern era dominated by land transportation, Hamilton has been limited when compared to Toronto, as it is somewhat blocked in by the Hamilton Harbour or Niagara Escarpment (or, more distantly, by Lake Erie) on all sides.

Hamilton port

The other was the move move away from manufacturing, and towards service-oriented metropolises. This too has held back Hamilton relative to Toronto, as Hamilton’s port (and its position between Lake Ontario and Erie, near the Welland Canal) had made it a manufacturing leader.

But things may be changing again:

  1. Many services that cities like Toronto specialize in may face outsourcing or automation
  2. As industry continues to automate, it may allow some “re-shoring” to high-wage countries like Canada. (And, if services are automated or outsourced, wages may fall in countries like Canada, relative to other countries)
  3. If fuel prices (or pollution concerns) increase, it may lead water transportation (for cargo) or re-shoring manufacturing to become more important
  4. If machines remain unable to compete with the dexterity of human hands, manufacturing may need to remain located in cities, with human workers operating alongside machines
  5. E-commerce and automated warehousing may free up some urban commercial real estate for industry

In other words, it is becoming increasingly possible to imagine that mid-sized port cities like Hamilton, and large service cities like Toronto, will both reindustrialize to a certain degree going forward.

Indeed, cities in Ontario may be particularly well-suited for (partially) automated industry. Ontario has the highest disparity between surplus overnight power (generated by nuclear plants and wind farms, which cannot turn off at night) and relatively expensive daytime power. This disparity automated factories might be able to take advantage of, as machines can run overnight.

What follows is a joint transportation plan for both Hamilton and Toronto, aimed at transporting people during the day and transporting cargo during the day and night, while maximizing fuel-efficiency in both cases.

The Double-Double

Cargo is heavy, and so requires a lot of energy to transport. Luckily, as mentioned above, Ontario has a lot of surplus nighttime electricity (especially on windy nights). Overnight is also the best time to transport cargo, because there is no traffic on the roads and because green light-red light cycles can last far longer than they can during the day. This is important for transporting cargo in a fuel-efficient manner, as the weight of the cargo means that acceleration and deceleration requires a lot of fuel. Being able to drive at a constant speed without having to constantly stop and start because of traffic jams or red lights is a big benefit. Today overnight transport is held back because it is expensive to pay workers to drive vehicles, or to load and unload vehicles, overnight. But if machines are doing the driving and loading/unloading, that could change.

Electric vehicles are ideal for overnight transportation, not only because of Ontario’s surplus overnight electricity, but also because electric vehicles are quiet — and being quiet is obviously very important overnight. But electric trucks are simply not efficient enough. Light rail would be better.

Overnight transportation can help solve one of the main challenge faced by light rail/streetcars: namely, the fact that are less efficient at accelerating and decelerating than wheeled vehicles are (because there is less surface friction for rail than road), so having to stop and start constantly because of traffic and red lights makes light rail/streetcars much less efficient than they would be at night when there is no traffic and far longer green lights. This is particularly true of longer, heavier LRTs that would otherwise be more efficient, for example those that will be used by the Eglinton Crosstown (which will be able to handle three of the new long Toronto LRT vehicles strung together to create a really long LRT train). Longer LRTs are also slower at turning; overnight, however, they could turn slowly without causing a traffic jam of cars waiting behind them.

Cargo LRTs could also capitalize on one of light rail’s main advantages over heavy rail: flexibility. LRT tracks can branch off of the main route to travel directly into an industrial building, in order to be directly loaded or unloaded. a

But what about the daytime? How do you maximize light rail efficiency when a vehicle in the daytime would have to stop constantly for red lights, or stop to drop off/pick up passengers, or stop (if it is forced to share a lane with cars) because of traffic jams? Toronto’s answer to this question has been the Eglinton Crosstown tunnel. But Hamilton obviously cannot afford a subway like the Crosstown. It’s possible that even Hamilton’s surface LRT plan will soon be cancelled by Doug Ford.

In theory, there are two ways to maximize LRT fuel-efficiency. One is an express method: allow an LRT to run quickly in its own lane (not shared with cars), and have as few red lights and pickup/drop-off spots for passengers as possible. This is obviously difficult to do in a downtown setting in the daytime, without a Crosstown-like tunnel. Moreover, unless you have two lanes in each direction, to allow an express LRT to overtake a non-express LRT, the lack of pickup/dropoff spots on the express LRT would mean that the LRT might be less accessible and cost-efficient.

The other method would be to have the LRT travel as slowly as possible, in order to reduce the amount of fuel need to constantly accelerate and decelerate, and allow it to share its lane with cars. But here too, while fuel-efficiency might be maximized, travelling at a slow speed might also reduce cost-efficiency, since it would carry many fewer passengers per hour than a faster service.

The solution to these daytime challenges (if there is one), would seem to me to be to do the following: have two parallel LRT lines on the same street, one a Really Fast Lane and the other a Really Slow Lane.

The Really Fast Lane would run express in the middle lanes of the street, and would not have to share its lane with cars. It would make all of its passenger pick-up/drop-off stops in the Really Slow Line, so that trains in the fast lane would be able to minimize their stops by running express routes. (Overnight, having two lanes would also allow for one of the lanes to be used for loading/unloading cargo, without causing backups).

The Really Slow Lane, on the other hand, would overcome its slowness problem by doing the following: share its lane with cyclists, with cars, and allow cars using the Really Slow Lane to drive autonomously. By driving at really slow speeds, you can allow for autonomous driving without having to pay for LIDAR (and LIDAR has challenges with snow anyway) and with a reduced chance that fatal accidents involving autonomously-driving vehicles will occur, and you can allow cyclists and cars to share the same lane safely and comfortably. As such, you can potentially make a slow lane not only more fuel-efficient than a normal lane, but also cost-efficient.

So, that’s the basic idea behind the Hamilton Double-Double: one Really Fast Lane, for express LRTs carrying passengers or cargo, and one Really Slow Lane, shared by LRTs travelling slowly, fast-lane LRTs making stops to pickup/droppoff passengers or (at night) cargo, cyclists, cars, and autonomous (/advanced cruise control) cars.

For downtown Toronto, however, where the density of red lights and passenger stops is so high that even a Double-Double would not be able to maximize fuel-efficiency (let alone cost-efficiency), since the fast lane would still have to stop too much, while the slow line would be too crowded by traffic, a somewhat different plan could work: a plan more similar to the Crosstown.

Okay, this idea is pretty crazy, I admit, but here it goes:

The problem with subway tunnels in downtown Toronto has been one of expense: they would (unlike the Crosstown) have to tunnel through bedrock, and avoid a lot of underground utility lines and nearby buildings that exist. But what if, instead of having one subway lane in each direction, you only have one lane? What if, on Queen Street, you have 2 surface LRT lanes (one really slow lane and one really fast lane), and one underground lane (travelling in the opposite direction as the surface lanes)? Not only would you have half as much tunnelling as a conventional subway, and more easily avoid underground utilities and buildings, but you would also then have room underground to create turning lanes, so that the underground LRT could branch off to go directly into nearby buildings for the loading/unloading of cargo overnight. So long as the two surface lanes were fast enough to prevent the tunnel lane from being underutilized, maybe this could work….?

Finally, a last crazy idea: connect the LRT systems of Hamilton and Toronto, by having LRTs that can drive directly on and off ships travelling between the Hamilton port and Toronto Port Lands.

North America

North Side, South Side: Real Estate in the Greater Golden Horseshoe 

Toronto-Hamilton-Buffalo Populations

The horseshoe-shaped region that includes Toronto and Buffalo is one of North America’s most populous, with more than 10 million inhabitants.The Horseshoe’s northern half extends roughly 100 km from Oshawa in the east to Burlington in the west, and 50 km from downtown Toronto north to Newmarket. The Horseshoe’s southern half is also close to 100 km in length, from Hamilton in the west to Lockport in the east. It is 50 km from the St Catharines-Niagara area south to Buffalo.

Greater Golden Horseshoe .png

Golden Horseshoe in North America.png

In order for us to analyze real estate in this region, we first need to discuss three basic differences between the Horsehoe’s northern and southern halves: political, geographical, and historical differences.


The political distinction is the most obvious of these. Whereas the northern half is entirely within Canada, the southern half is split between a Canadian side and an American side. The Canadian side of the southern half is home to roughly 1 million people, of whom 550,000 live in Hamilton. The American side is home to 1.2 million people, most of whom live in the suburbs of Buffalo. The international border runs directly through the Niagara-Buffalo urban area, making it by far the most populous urban area shared by the two countries with the exception of Detroit-Windsor:

US-Canada border cities.png

US-Canada Border Cities


us-can 50


There is also a geographic difference between the Horseshoe’s northern and southern halves. Namely, it is that the Horseshoe’s southern cities are characterized by their relationship to water and to wind:

  1. Hamilton’s significance comes historically from the city’s harbour, which is by far the largest in the western half of Lake Ontario. The harbour facilitated shipments of bulk goods, helping Hamilton to become Canada’s Steeltown. It continues to host Canada’s largest Great Lakes port.

    Hamilton port


  2.  The St Catharines-Niagara urban region, which is the 12th most populous in Canada, derives its significance from two water features. One is Niagara Falls, which draws both tourists and hydropower. The other is the Welland Canal, which connects Lake Ontario to the other Great Lakes via a series of locks, bypassing the Falls. Niagara Falls was the site of the world’s first major hydroelectric station, built in 1895. It continues to generate more power than any single dam in the United States. The Welland Canal was first built in the 1820’s, and is a key link in the St Lawrence Seaway shipping route that was opened in the mid-twentieth century.

    Welland Canal

  3. Upstate New York was shaped by a canal too: the Erie Canal. The canal is the main reason why Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse were able to grow as cities despite the heavy snowfall they receive (they are, by some estimates,  the three snowiest major cities in the world, outside of cities in Quebec, Newfoundland, or Japan). In the present day the canal is used primarily (but not entirely) by pleasure-craft. However during its heydey in the nineteenth century it was one of the most economically significant waterways in North America.

erie canals.png

snowiest cities.png

Average Snowfall; Source: Current Results

Snow in upstate New York comes mainly from winter winds blowing atop the relatively warm water of the Great Lakes. Because of these wind patterns, Buffalo actually receives twice as much snow per year on average than does Toronto. Indeed Buffalo gets more snow than any of Canada’s 18 most populous cities (a lot more snow, in most cases), with the exception of Quebec City.

Buffalo and Rochester are located in the middle of a “snowbelt”, which extends from Cleveland’s eastern suburbs all the way to the Adirondack Mountains east of Lake Ontario. The only other snowbelt cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants are Sudbury, Barrie, Syracuse, and Grand Rapids.


While Hamilton lies outside of any snowbelts (it gets the same amount of snow as Toronto, on average), it too is impacted by wind, being hit by among the most windstorms of any Canadian city:

windiest cities


Today, the Greater Toronto Area has an estimated 6.4 million inhabitants. The southern side of the Horseshoe (Hamilton + the Niagara Region + the Greater Buffalo Area) has just half that, 3.2 million.

A little over a century ago these positions were reversed. Back in the late nineteenth century Buffalo’s population was more than twice as large as Toronto’s. In 1900 Buffalo was the eighth largest city in the US, and the fourth largest without an ocean port. Even Hamilton was not much smaller than Toronto in those days:

Toronto-Hamilton-Buffalo Populations.png

Relative population sizes; Toronto = 100

There are a number of reasons for this historic reversal, but they all have to do with the price of energy:

  1. Oil
  2. Automobiles
  3. Air Conditioning

oil prices historical.png

Cheap oil in the twentieth and late nineteenth centuries, and the technological advances of automobiles and air conditioning that cheap energy helped to make feasible, resulted in the decline of Buffalo and Hamilton relative to Toronto.

-Home air conditioning began to become widespread in the middle of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, it led many Americans to move from cities like Buffalo to the Sunbelt. An estimated 28 percent of Americans lived in the Sunbelt in 1950; 40 percent did in 2000.

-For Sunbelt cities in the arid American Southwest, cheap energy was also necessary to ensure freshwater supplies, given the energy-water nexus. And for cities in the western half of the United States in general, cheap energy was needed to facilitate long-distance intercity transportation.

-Cheap oil also allowed land transportation — trains and automobiles — to supplant water transportation. Water transportation is far more energy-efficient than any other type of transportation, but it is also slow and inconvenient. With land transportation becoming dominant during the twentieth century, the importance of cities which were based around water transportation declined. Buffalo and Hamilton were two such cities.

-Buffalo and Hamilton were also not ideally suited to land transportation. For the Niagara peninsula, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie serve as transportation barriers for cars, trucks, and trains; so too does the Niagara Escarpment, which divides the peninsula (and Hamilton) into upper and lower segments. For Buffalo, lake-effect snow also frequently serves as a severe transportation barrier.

Toronto, in contrast, has been able to use automobiles and low energy prices to expand  approximately 50 km deep into its GTA suburbs to the east, west, and north. Because it is a Canadian city, Toronto has also not had to worry as much about people moving south to the Sunbelt, as Buffalo has.


Speculating About The Future

Since we do not know what future energy prices will be, prudence suggests that we should prepare for the worst: high prices. Indeed, it seems far from implausible that high prices will become a reality, whether because of carbon pricing or because of a diminishing supply of “conventional” oil. Even in spite of the current shale oil boom in the US, few people have predicted a repeat of the low prices of the 1990s or the 1880-1970 era.

If energy prices do become high, the Golden Horseshoe may look more like it did in the late nineteenth century. Just like how cheap energy allowed the Greater Toronto Area to grow relative to Buffalo and Hamilton, so might expensive energy allow Buffalo and Hamilton to grow relative to the GTA. Similarly, what growth the GTA does experience in an energy-expensive world would be likelier to occur mainly within the City of Toronto, rather than in the GTA’s sprawling suburbs as has occured in recent decades.

At the same time, we can also expect technology to have an effect on the region. In the last century new technologies like automobiles and air conditioners had the largest impact. But how will today’s new technologies – digital technologies – impact the Golden Horseshoe?

One impact of digital technology is likely to be that computers and machines will allow more work to be outsourced or automated. As such, people’s leisure time will increase faster than will their disposable income. From a transportation perspective, this will probably benefit water transportation, which is the cheapest but also the slowest form of transportation. Only someone with a limited budget and a lot of free time would find travelling by water useful; especially if they are trying to avoid carbon emissions.

In particular, water-based shortcuts could become popular. It is just 47 km from St Catharines to downtown Toronto by water, but 113 km by road. Given that ferries are already more energy-efficient than automobiles or even trains on a km-by-km basis, having such a significant shortcut could be highly useful. Buffalo is in a somewhat similar position: it is 93 km from Buffalo to downtown Toronto as the crow flies, but 161 km by road.

Greater Golden Horseshoe

Technology could also make intermodal transportation more convenient. For example, one lesson of the failed Toronto-Rochester ferry was the importance of the “first-mile/last-mile” challenge. Because downtown Rochester is over a dozen kilometres inland from its ferry port, and because downtown Toronto did not have good transit ties to its own ferry port in the Portlands, the ferry was not very useful. The ferry had to reserve most of its space for cars rather than for passengers, so that passengers could drive to and from its ports. The cars also accounted for most of the weight on the ferry, reducing the ferry’s energy efficiency.

With new technologies, however, such as car-sharing services or even self-driving cars, the challenge of getting to and from the ferry port could be eliminated. The ferry would no longer need to be a car-ferry.

More leisure time could also help cities like St Catharines, Welland, Niagara Falls, and Buffalo. It is difficult for cars to cross the Welland Canal because, given the large ships that use the canal on a frequent basis, the only bridges allowed over the canal are lift-bridges. Traffic backups frequently ensue when the lift-bridges are raised. This is why urban development in St Catharines, Welland, and Port Colborne has been mostly limited to only the western side of the canal.
Welland Canal

If people have more free time, however, they may not mind waiting as long — particularly if their car is driving autonomously while they are waiting. A similar thing is true for waiting in a long line of vehicles to cross the US-Canada border.

Autonomous vehicles could be useful in other ways as well.  In areas where human drivers face difficulty or delay, such robots could be highly useful. For example in upstate New York’s snowbelt, cars and trucks with high-tech safety features could be a game-changer for transportation during the winter.

So too could autonomous snowplows. Snowplow drivers are expensive to employ, given that it takes a long time to plow snow and given that they are often hired to work in the wee hours of the night. Autonomous snow cleaners could also help a lot in hard-to-reach places where snow can be very damaging: on rooftops.

Autonomous trucks could also help Buffalo and the Niagara Region by making it cheaper to cross the US-Canada border, where currently it is often expensive to pay truck drivers to wait in long, slow border lines.

Autonomous cargo ships could benefit this region too. They could allow for smaller vessels to be used on the Great Lakes at times when they would otherwise not be employed, such as at night during the winter. They could help save on labour costs for ships traversing the Welland Canal, which because of its locks takes around 10 hours to cross despite being just 43 km in length. They could also save on labour costs on the Erie Canal, which takes over a week from Buffalo to New York City and cannot be used by very large ships.

Finally, cargo shipping on the Great Lakes and their canal systems could be used more because of autonomous machines loading and unloading containers, thereby saving on labour costs and so perhaps allowing intermodal transportation to become competitive even for relatively short-distance water shipping.



If a world of high energy prices and even higher technology does come into being, it might have three major effects on the Golden Horseshoe. First, it would be likely to cause the Horseshoe’s southern half to grow more quickly than its northern half. Second, it would be likely to cause the City of Toronto to grow more quickly than its surrounding suburbs. And third, it would be likely to cause Toronto to become more connected to the Niagara-Buffalo region, via Lake Ontario’s shortcuts.


















North America

Autonomous Cars, Semi-Autonomous Cars, and Toronto’s Railways to Nowhere

The City of Toronto has two “railways to nowhere”: the Sheppard subway and the Richmond Hill GO train.

The Sheppard Subway 

The Sheppard subway is 5.5 km long, has five stations, and connects to only one other rail line, the Yonge line. By comparison, the Yonge-University subway will soon be 38.8 km long (when the Vaughn extension begins operation), will have 38 stations, and will connect to many other rail lines, including the Bloor-Danforth subway, the Sheppard subway, 7 GO train lines (all at Union), and eventually also the Eglinton Crosstown.

The Bloor-Danforth subway is 26.2 km long, has 31 stations, and has connections with other rail lines at stations like Dundas West (the Union-Pearson Express train and the Kitchener GO train), Main Street (the Stoufville GO train and Lakeshore East GO train) and Kennedy (the Scarborough RT*, Stoufville GO train, Eglinton, and, if the City’s current transit plans are realized, the Scarborough subway tunnel).

TTC ridership.png

The Richmond Hill GO Train

Before the start of this year, the Richmond Hill GO train line was 34 km long and had five stations, three of which were located within the City of Toronto. With an extension to a new station, Gormley Station, having been opened in 2017, the line is now 42 km long, with six stations—but still only three in the City of Toronto. In contrast, the other six GO lines are between 50-103 km long (for an average of 69.6), have between 9-13 stations (for an average of 11.2), and have between 2-6 stations within Toronto (an average of 4).

go train ridership.png

Read more: Toronto Crow’s Advantage   (…apologies for some of the pictures being blurry and links being broken, I’ll try to fix them soon)

North America

Talking Trade With Trudeau and Trump

NAFTA stands for the North American Free Trade Act, but President Trump does not. After campaigning on a promise to repeal the Act, then adapting his position to that of merely supporting the Act’s renegotiation, Trump recently announced that he would no longer tolerate the status quo arrangement for American imports of dairy and forestry products originating from Canada.

Proposing, on April 24, to add a 24-percent tariff on US imports of Canadian softwood lumber, Trump kept up the pressure on Canada the following day, tweeting “Canada has made business for our dairy farmers in Wisconsin and other border states very difficult. We will not stand for this. Watch!”.

Watch! indeed: the value of the Loonie fell sharply the week of the tweet, as investors worried how Canada will fare when it comes to the broader renegotiation of NAFTA Trump continues to promise.

Trump’s targeting of Canada in this way is not likely to have been random. Nor was it entirely economic in its intention. Rather, Trump brought up the issue in order to prove his anti-NAFTA bona fides to his political base, yet in a way that manages to avoid the hairier subjects associated with NAFTA’s other signatory, Mexico, such as immigration, racism, or The Wall.

Trump has admittedly been careful to direct attention to goods of lesser importance, like dairy products and softwood lumber, rather than to Canada’s key exports of oil (from Alberta) and auto parts (from Ontario). Still, he has been far tougher on Canada—at least in his rhetoric—than has any other recent president. To use a Trumpian phrase: Canada has now been put on notice.

Obviously, this may worry Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. Elected with a rare majority government in 2015, Trudeau’s “political honeymoon” now finally seems to be nearing its end. The NAFTA/Trump issue was just one of four indications of this to occur this spring. The other indications were the election of a new federal opposition leader, Conservative Andrew Scheer, on May 28; the expectation of an NDP-Green minority government forming following an election in British Columbia in May; and the continuing decline in oil prices that has occured thus far in 2017.

Of these, the price of oil is likely the most troubling sign for the Canadian economy, and by extension for the approval ratings of Trudeau. West Texas Intermediate crude oil prices crashed in mid-2015, hitting lows of 26 dollars a barrel in February 2016 but staying mostly within a range of 40-55 dollars since then. They began 2017 at 54 dollars, and remained there until mid-April. However in recent weeks they have fallen again, so that as of this writing (June 21) they are at just 43 dollars a barrel. The Western Canadian Select oil price, which is the price that Canadian oil tends to sell at, is barely over 30 dollars. This does not bode well for the Canadian economy.

The biggest political news in Canada, meanwhile, has been the victory of the new Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer. Scheer narrowly (and quite unexpectedly) defeated Quebec MP Maxime Bernier at the Conservative Party convention, and so will now replace the party’s interim leader Rosa Ambrose as Canada’s leader of the opposition.

The impact of Scheer’s victory is likely to be twofold. First, Trudeau now finally has to face a real political opponent in parliament, rather than a mere interim leader as he has faced until now. This may draw some media attention away from political narratives created by Trudeau, instead giving his Conservative opponents some more air time. Indeed, Trudeau may now no longer be the only golden boy in Ottawa. Scheer is just 38, seven years younger than Trudeau.

The second impact of Scheer’s victory is that, unlike Trudeau, Scheer is not from Quebec. Bernier, who had been expected to beat Scheer, would have been the first Conservative leader from Quebec since Brian Mulroney, who was Prime Minister from 1984 (the year Trudeau’s father left office) until 1993.

In every election since then, the Conservatives have trailed behind the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc Quebecois in Quebec. This is not a trivial fact: Quebec is home to 23 percent of Canada’s population, and tends to vote for home-grown politicians. Given that Quebec has tended to be anti-Conservative, and western Canada pro-Conservative, Scheer’s victory over Bernier could mean that the next national election in Canada will be decided in Ontario. This fact could influence Trudeau and the Liberals during NAFTA negotiations, given that Ontario depends far more on trade with the United States than do any of the other Canadian provinces (apart from New Brunswick).

The month of May also saw a shakeup in Canadian politics at the provincial level. In British Columbia, the third largest of Canada’s ten provinces, the incumbent Liberal government failed by just one seat to hold on to a majority government. The NDP and Green parties have now announced that they plan to form a minority government in BC instead. This announcement has already had consequences for Trudeau, as the new provincial government is not expected to support the planned expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to BC’s coast.

Indeed the BC election, which was held on May 9, just a few weeks before Kinder Morgan held what it had expected to be the fourth largest IPO in Toronto Stock Exchange history, caused Kinder Morgan’s stock to plunge. If Alberta cannot export its fossil fuels to world markets via BC, then it will probably remain more dependent on sending them to refineries in the United States. Obviously this would be likely to reduce Canada’s leverage in any trade negotiations with the US.

If and when these negotiations do occur, it is difficult to know what the details of any new NAFTA agreement will be. Canada is obviously at a disadvantage relative to the US when it comes to trade negotiations. Not only is the Canadian economy much smaller than that of the US, and more dependent on trade with the US than the US is dependent on trade with Canada, but Canadian politics are also—contrary to popular wisdom—more internally divided than those of the US.

To give only one relevant example of this, there is the division between Canada’s provinces in to the extent to which they depend on US trade. The value of Ontario’s trade with the US is equal to an estimated 49 percent of Ontario’s GDP. In contrast, in Canada’s other major provinces — Quebec, BC, and Alberta — trade with the US accounts for just 23, 16, and 31 percent of GDP.

With these figures varying so widely, it could be difficult for Trudeau to present a unified front during negotiations. On the other hand, the political interests of the US are global in scope, so the US cannot afford to spend as much of its political capital haggling with Canada as Canada can afford to devote to haggling with the US. Thus it is always difficult to know which country holds the more leverage in the Canadian-American relationship.

What is obvious, though, is the importance of the relationship. Canada may appear small when compared to its southern neighbour, but it is the tenth largest economy in the world, and has growth prospects that out-rival most other wealthy economies. The US and Canada have the second largest trading relationship in the world, trailing only (for now) trade between the US and China.

Now that they are both finally settled into office, it will be fascinating to watch how these two countries’ utterly different leaders, Trudeau and Trump, will steward and steer this relationship going forward.