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).

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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: https://nerdist.com/the-first-cat-cafe-train-is-carloads-of-cuteness/

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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. 

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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).

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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).

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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)

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On Politics and the Weather…and Bike Lanes, in Toronto

I tend to agree with those who say that the ideal city would have both right-of-way transit lines and separated bike lanes on every major street. But I also recognize that this is not politically viable. Too many suburban voters are against it. Urbanites have enough clout to get bike lanes or transit, but not necessarily both.

For this reason, I think it would be best to advocate for transit only, leaving the issue of bike lanes to the side until the transit fight is won. Bike lanes are great too of course, but not nearly as useful as transit can be.

However, I also recognize that even this is not politically viable. There are too many bike enthusiasts who will not delay their push for better bike lanes. For these bike enthusiasts and transit advocates to present a unified front in their negotiations with suburbanites, they must first reach a compromise among themselves.

The compromise could be this: a hybrid transit/bike lane, which changes functions depending on the weather.

It would work something like as follows. On days when the weather is expected to stay within a range of, say, 0-30 degrees celcius, and not rain too much, cyclists will get to have a separated bike lane that is so wide that it will actually have two bike lanes within it: a passing lane and a slower lane. On these days, Toronto would become ideally the most bike-friendly city in North America.

However on days when the weather is expected to be too cold, hot, or rainy, bicylists will not be allowed to bike on major roads at all. Instead, the bike lanes would be used as a right-of-way bus lane.

Of course, there would be winners and losers in this plan, as in any political solution. The losers would be ultraenthusiastic cyclists, the people who love to brag about how they bike to work even in January.

The winners would be everybody else.

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On Numerology and Public Transit

The number 12 has played a key role in human culture, showing up in places as diverse as the hours of the day, the tribes of Israel, the disciples of Christ, the jury of your peers, the major gods of Olympus, the inches in a foot, the Chinese Zodiac, the Latin Zodiac, or the egg-carton.

One reason for this is that 12 is divisible in three different ways: by 12 and 1, by 6 and 2, and by 4 and 3. Not until 18 (another significant number, in both Hinduism and Judaism) is a number again divisible in three ways. This is also the root of 13’s bad luck: it’s a prime number, divisible only by itself and one. 13 throws off 12’s groove.

Numerology and Public Transit? 

As in the case of the clock, calendar, and egg-carton, 12’s divisibility could perhaps be put to practical use in public transit.

Imagine for a moment that a road were to have three different bus lanes in each direction. In one of the directions, busses on one of the lanes would make stops every 200 metres, on another lane every 400 metres, and on the third lane every 1200 metres.  In the other direction, busses on one lane would make stops every 300 metres, on the second lane every 600 metres, and on the third lane every 2400.

The result of this would be that busses on all six bus lanes would arrive at the same place every 2400 metres. In addition, busses on the 200 metre and 400 metre lanes would arrive at the same place every 400 metres, and busses on the 200,300, and 600 metre lanes would all arrive at the same place every 600 metres. Five of the six lanes — the 200, 300, 400, 600, and 1200 — would all arrive at the same place every 1200 metres. Lots of opportunities for passengers to transfer easily from one lane to another might therefore be created by such a transit system.  Ideally, this would make the system both efficient and useful.

Of course, you’ve probably already spotted the problem with this plan: roads aren’t wide enough for six transit lanes!

In order to have a transit-by-the-dozen plan like this, you would need either narrower vehicles or wider roads.

In the case of wider roads, the solution is obvious: use highways. The challenge then, however, would be how to get the passengers to and from those highways. This may not be viable today — or at least, not politically viable — but it could perhaps become so with the advent of autonomous or semi-autonomous cars.  Autonomous vehicles could take passengers to and from transit stops located in or adjacent to the highways.

The same might be said of narrower vehicles. Narrow, one-seater autonomous or semi-autonomous cars might allow main streets to create six narrow lanes — three in each direction — to be used for a transit system. Not only would the vehicles themselves be narrow, but they may also require less space between lanes.

But, if anywhere, it is probably on highways, not ordinary roads, where such a plan might actually have potential. Highways are so wide that, rather than have six transit lanes in total, it could be possible to have twelve: a 200, 300, 400, 600, 1200, and 2400 in each direction.  You could  even name the lanes after the Zodiac.  You could then give a tourist directions like “take the Taurus for three stops, then swich to the Gemini.”

Alternatively, you could use only one lane in each direction, but still have different busses using the lanes stop 200,300, 400, 600, 1200, or 2400 metres apart. This would make the system possible on normal roads, with normal sized vehicles, rather than only on wide highways or with narrow autonomous cars.

This is all enormously speculative of course. I don’t expect to see it happen, and am not sure it would even be desirable.

I guess we’ll have to consult an astrologer to find out.

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A Bazaar Alternative to The Scarborough Subway

If the transportation of the future is to be autonomous cars — or even just semi-autonomous cars — then it makes sense to build transit bazaars: locations that your car could drop you off at, where you could then find a carpool, minibus, bus, or train to take you on to your final destination. As in any good market, a transit bazaar will work best when it has a lot of “liquidity”. In other words, when it is both very large and easily accessible.

In Toronto, the obvious place to put such a transit bazaar is by the intersection of the 401 and DVP. This intersection, of Toronto’s main north-south and east-west expressways, is enormous, and it is also only one kilometre away from the Sheppard Subway’s Don Mills Station.

DVP-401 Intersection

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Downtown put Uptown

Part of downtown Toronto, cut-and-pasted onto the 401-DVP intersection

With that in mind, here is a 4-step proposal for an alternative to the City of Toronto’s current plan to extend the Bloor-Danforth subway to Scarborough Town Centre:

1. Build a major Transit Bazaar immediately northeast of the intersection (the other areas surrounding the intersection are residential neighbourhoods); extend the Sheppard Subway tunnel 1 km to reach a new subway station under the bazaar.

401 dvp

2. Build vertical (semi-)autonomous parking lots in the “urban archipelago” lands that are located within and immediately surrounding the intersection’s highway cloverleafs. These parking lots will be able to serve far more cars than any traditional vertical parking lot could: with no humans in them, they will be able to fill nearly every cubic metre of their volume with cars.

3. Extend the Sheppard subway 6.3 km to Scarborough Town Centre — but, rather than in a tunnel, extend it as a one-stop surface railway that would travel along two of the middle lanes of the 401 Highway.  This is  in lieu of, not in addition to, the current one-stop, 6.2 km subway extension plan that is set to go from Kennedy Subway Station to Scarborough Town Centre.

4. Build a 12 km cable-car directly above the Highway 401:

Scarborough Cable Car.png

The cable-car’s 7 stops, from west to east, will be: the DVP’s Transit Bazaar (with a new subway station beneath it), Warden (where the north-south Warden hydro corridor and the northwest-southeast Shropshire corridor meet), Kennedy (which will be halfway between the Agincourt GO Station and the current SRT/potential future LRT stations of Ellesmere and Midland), Scarborough Town Centre (the halfway point of the cable-car line), Centennial College, Rouge Valley Hospital, and U of T Scarborough.

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A zoomed-in view of the cable-cars eastern stations

The cable-car will increase the transit capacity of the 401 (a place where it won’t be an eyesore, as it might be if you were to put it above an ordinary street), and will also help connect people to the Transit Bazaar and the Scarborough Town Centre “Surface Subway” station.

Why This Wouldn’t Have Made Sense in the Past, But Might Now 

In the past, this would have made little sense, as a result of the “first-mile/last-mile” problem. People do not want to live or work next to superhighways like they do next to subways, so most people using the train or cable-car would not be within walking distance of it.

In addition, building a decent train station in the middle of a highway is expensive, so it would not be affordable to have many stations—as a result, very few people would be within walking distance of it. (Cable-cars don’t have this second problem, since their stations wouldn’t need to be in the middle of the highway. This is one reason why the combination of the highway surface rail and highway cable-car could work well). As a result, such trains or cable-cars weren’t a good idea.

Toronto does, of course, have a few kilometres of surface rail in the middle of highways, namely on the Allen Expressway. However the Allen is much narrower than the 401 is, and runs in a shallow trench that made building subway stations like Glencairn and Lawrence West not too expensive. But even these stations have not been among the best at fostering urban development in the neighbourhoods around them.

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Lawrence West Station

Going forward, in contrast, while subways are obviously likely to remain worthwhile for a  long time yet — downtown Toronto should definitely build a new subway line, for example — surface rail’s “first-mile/last-mile” challenge is likely to be overcome, or at least greatly reduced, by technologies such as parking apps, transit apps, ride-sharing, car-sharing, semi-autonomous cars, and eventually (and especially) fully autonomous cars. As such, building a train that needs no tunnelling, and a cable-car that needs no road space, could be a great move.

Certainly it would be better than the 6.2 km one-stop tunnel to Scarborough Town Centre that is the city’s current plan (voted for by 27 of Toronto’s 43 city councillors). Almost anything would be better than that.

 

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The Witching Hour: How To Fix Traffic in 3 Easy Steps, Without Resorting To Autonomous Cars

 

1. Allow autonomous cars during “the Witching Hour”: from 4 am-5 am. They can drive slowly in order to be safe and quiet; say, at no more than 10 km per hour when in residential neighbourhoods. Even at these slow speeds, this will allow car-sharing  cars to be delivered to peoples’ homes for use the following morning. (In fact, the cars themselves do not even necessarily need to have an autonomous capability. They could instead just hitch a ride on top of slow-moving road roombas). In the case of electric cars, this will also allow them to drive themselves to and from battery-charing stations at night, when electricity tends to be cheap and road-traffic sparse.

2. On main streets, have both an express LRT lane — with stops very far apart from one another — and a non-express bus lane. On narrower streets, have the non-express busses share a lane with regular car traffic.

3. Next to many of the LRT stops, as well as next to train stations, construct “take a car, leave a car” vertical parking lots. These will be “valet” lots: you drive a car-sharing car to the lot’s entrance, then get out of the car and have it drive itself (or be carried by a road roomba) into the lot to park. This will not only save drivers time in parking, but will also allow the lot to hold far more cars than any traditional vertical parking lot could, since without humans it can have much shorter ceilings, more tightly winding ramps to get cars up or down floors, and many more parking spots per floor. It will allow easy pick-up or drop-off of car-sharing cars. Along with the Witching Hour, this will overcome the “first mile-last mile” problems that otherwise tend to limit public transit’s effectiveness and appeal.

…So, there you have it. Three easy steps! With the Witching Hour, and car-sharing, and vertical parking lots, we can finally help to get rid of our cities’ spooky traffic problems.

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