Building 21st Century Transit Systems For Canadian Cities

Policy Series 241
Published on March 12, 2024


In the 1950s, nearly everyone in the transit industry, including executives in both private companies and public agencies, agreed that rail transit was obsolete and most streetcar and other rail lines should be replaced with buses. The only exceptions were rapid transit lines that operated above or below street level, allowing them to move masses of people without contributing to congestion. But even these lines made sense only where they already existed; while a few cities, including Toronto, built new rapid transit systems, many were expensive and failed to reverse the steady growth of automotive travel.

Despite this one-time consensus, eight Canadian cities have recently built or are building rail transit lines, and most of them are planning even more. These lines have been expensive, often suffered major cost overruns, and the transportation they provided was no better than could have been done with buses at a far lower cost. While some did increase ridership, in many if not most cases bus ridership was already increasing before the rail lines opened. If the funds required to build one rail transit line had instead been spent on improving bus transit throughout an urban area, it would have done much more for transportation and transit riders.

A close look at these rail projects reveals that they are premised on an archaic view of cities and transportation technologies. Rail transit made sense in 1910, when most urban jobs were in downtowns, residential densities were high, auto ownership rates were low, and buses were still primitive. All those conditions changed in the next two decades: Henry Ford’s development of moving assembly lines in 1913 led most jobs to move out of downtowns and many residents to buy cars and move to low-density suburbs. Meanwhile, buses that were less expensive than rail transit to both buy and operate, per seat kilometer, were first produced in 1927.

Today, downtowns are only one of many economic centers in a typical 21st-century urban area, and not always the most important one. Modern urban areas need transit systems that can serve people traveling throughout the regions, not just to downtowns. Moreover, economic centers grow and shrink over time, requiring transportation systems that are flexible and nimble. Rail transit cannot do this job as it takes too long and costs too much to open new lines.

Instead, transit agencies should rely on buses.

Download the full report on PDF here:FC-PS242_RailTransit_MR1524_F1 (52 pages)


Randal O’Toole, the Antiplanner, is a policy analyst with nearly 50 years of experience reviewing transportation and land-use plans and the author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.

Watch Randal O’Toole on Leaders on the Frontier here.

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