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When does a 5-kilometre trek take 40 minutes? On the TTC

It takes Janet Fitzsimmons 40 minutes on the TTC to get to work, which is only about five kilometres away.

adrian veczan The Globe and Mail

Toronto may bill its transit system as "the better way," but for many who do the city's less glamorous work - the ones for whom public transit might be called "the only way" - it's inconvenient and often ineffectual. Subways are too far away; ditto for streetcars; buses few and far between.

Talk of the Toronto Transit Commission at mayoral debates over the summer focused on big-ticket projects and the argument over building subways versus streetcars and other light-rail options.

But the majority of TTC users ride buses. As the TTC rolls out a series of "service improvements" to some surface routes this week, a new study of the city's employment and public-transit patterns finds the system is failing to serve those who need it most.

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The report, published by the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, argues it's time for the city to put the streetcars-versus-subways debate aside and get on with the buses.

The better way? Don't get Janet Fitzimmons started.

The East Scarborough resident lives less than five kilometres from her work in the Kingston Road-Galloway Road area. But the bus ride takes a good 40 minutes - once the Lawrence Avenue bus comes, if it isn't full. If the weather's nice, her commute is faster by foot.

"But I'm lucky: I'm able-bodied and healthy." And, she adds, "my commute isn't bad for Scarborough." A colleague of hers takes three buses to traverse what's barely a seven-kilometre direct trek.

This week, the TTC says it is improving service on 30 bus and streetcar routes. That improves frequency of service on existing routes, but what Ms. Fitzimmons wants to see are entire new routes - community buses that focus on neighbourhoods instead of going cross town.

Her experience reflects the report on demographics and transit published as a civic election discussion paper last week by the Martin institute. Researchers divided Torontonians into a "creative class" of those who are paid to think or solve problems, a "service class" of those paid to perform routine work and a "working class" of skilled trades and machinery operators.

The homes and workplaces of those groups, derived from Statistics Canada data, were then mapped onto the city's census tracts (which correspond to neighbourhoods contain between 2,500 and 8,000 residents). Then the researchers created a formula to measure the intensity of transit service for each census tract.

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The results show a transit system that carries the creative class - 45 per cent of whom work within 500 metres of a subway line. Among the "service class" that number drops to 31 per cent. And among the census tracts with the lowest level of transit service, most are dominated by the homes and workplaces of the service class.

And the people affected most by the vast swaths of transit "desert" are overwhelmingly the city's service class - the 45 per cent of Torontonians that make up the plurality of the city's population. They earn less, on average, than the oft-discussed, downtown-centred "creative class" and are less likely to be able to afford a commute by car. But overwhelmingly, the places they are commuting to and from score poorly when it comes to availability and frequency of service.

The solution to the city's "transit deserts," say the report's authors, is not a massive new network of subways or fancy, European-style light-rail transit.

The solution is buses: Local, frequent routes that take people where they need to go. And can be implemented in months or years, not decades.

"There needs to be discussion of other modes of transit," says Patrick Adler, a researcher with the Martin Prosperity Institute. "Bus is the only mode of transit that has any hope of more rapidly connecting people with the whole geography of workplaces in Toronto, and to this point there's just been a discussion of subways."

Buses are not sexy. The lumbering vehicles rarely figure prominently in high-profile strategies to fix Toronto's Better Way. And they've been largely overlooked in the mayoral race.

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But 60 per cent of the TTC's riders use them. And they're being tried in cities from Bogota - whose bus-rapid-transit system helped revolutionize the way the city moves - to Ottawa, whose OC Transpo is far more comprehensive than Toronto's bus network.

The TTC recognizes this, says chair Adam Giambrone: Last year, when Transit City's subway expansions and light-rail network were big news, the TTC came out with a transit city bus plan. But there was no money for that plan in this year's budget. Mr. Giambrone talks about finding money for it next year.

"As creaky as it is," says University of Toronto transportation engineer Eric Miller, "the TTC still does a pretty good job most days of getting people in and out of the downtown. And that's really what it was designed to do."

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