Toronto by public transportation — from Point A to anywhere

Our open-source Toronto Transit Explorer shows how long it takes to reach any part of the city by taking public transit, cycling, or walking.

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One of the hallmarks of a great urban neighborhood is connectivity to other parts of the city via public transportation. We tend to think about this access in terms of specific trips: taking the subway downtown to work or riding the streetcar across town to meet a friend. But it’s also helpful to think of all the places we might go on transit — to see our options as part of a system that enables people to get around without a car.

That’s why the engineers at Sidewalk Labs are excited to share a prototype called the Toronto Transit Explorer. Unlike traditional navigation tools, which show how to get from Point A to Point B, the Toronto Transit Explorer shows how long it takes to get from Point A to anywhere in the city using several modes of public transit (bus, streetcar, subway, and commuter rail), as well as wheelchair-accessible transit, bike-share, cycling, or walking. You can also use it to compare different modes from the same starting point.

Built on top of an open-source transportation router called R5, the Toronto Transit Explorer uses public data feeds from 13 transit agencies throughout the Greater Toronto Area to determine travel times, service schedules, and wheelchair accessibility. It pulls data from Toronto’s Open Data Catalogue to generate bike-share trips, provides the option to combine bike-share and transit trips, and calculates personal bike rides depending on your choice of speed (from 10 to 30 kilometers per hour).

In keeping with our belief that Sidewalk Toronto should embrace open digital infrastructure, we have open-sourced the front-end visualization (here) and have published our R5 fork on Github (here). We hope researchers, civic hackers, and local developers will build on the tool — or create something entirely new. We also know this prototype is far from perfect (more on that below) and urge Toronto’s civic-tech and urbanist communities to help us improve and refine it.

Let’s take a closer look at what it can do.

Explore Access and Compare Modes

The Toronto Transit Explorer isn’t meant to replace your everyday commuter app, but you can use it to, well, explore new ways of traveling the city. Let’s first look at access to the whole city via all modes of public transit from a given point. Just set the pin or type in a starting address. Here’s a look at 307 Lake Shore Boulevard East, where Sidewalk Toronto will open a new office and innovation pavilion this summer:

Areas in blue are quicker to access by transit from 307 Lake Shore Boulevard East; the lighter the color, the longer the trip.

The map indicates travel times by color. Areas in dark blue are quickest to reach by transit; as the blue gets lighter, the trips get longer, with white areas representing more than an hour of travel. (You can also hover over a destination to see estimated travel times.) In this case, we see that 307 Lake Shore has pretty good access to downtown by transit, but that it’s a lot tougher to reach western parts of the city like York or Etobicoke.

Toronto Transit Explorer also lets you extend the traditional transit network to include bike-share, an increasingly popular mode that navigation apps often leave out. (Our spinoff company, Coord, is tackling the challenge of data integration for 68 bike-share systems, including Toronto’s.) The explorer even lets you combine bike-share and transit into one integrated option — riding bike-share to or from a transit stop or station.

Let’s compare modes (click the plus sign in the menu) to see what parts of the city are faster to reach from 307 Lake Shore by bike-share (green) and transit (blue). While not a huge surprise, the map confirms just how convenient and fast bike-share can be for trips in the urban core, with transit providing better access as you move outward:

Areas in green are quicker to access by bike-share from 307 Lake Shore, with those in blue quicker by transit. Areas in yellow are equally fast by either mode.

Finally, Toronto Transit Explorer can compare how long it takes to make the same trip using different modes. You can choose a destination by clicking on the map. Let’s consider a trip from 307 Lake Shore to Evergreen Brick Works. By transit alone, that trip could take nearly 45 minutes, but if you ride a bike, you can get there in half the time:

Riding a bicycle from 307 Lake Shore to Evergreen Brick Works is much faster than taking transit. In fact, most of the downtown core is more accessible by bike (green).

Opportunities for Improvement

We’re releasing this early prototype of Toronto Transit Explorer knowing that the best way to improve a tool is through open collaboration.

A few native Toronto testers have pointed out to us that some travel times seem optimistic. That’s because the Toronto Transit Explorer relies on scheduled transit data, not real-time data, which means it can’t fully account for delays like buses waiting in traffic or trains dwelling longer than usual at a station. (If you’re interested in building a real-time feed into our router, email us!) The tool also taps transit feeds from a weekday schedule, so it doesn’t capture any weekend or holiday service reductions.

A general limitation is that while public transit feeds have transformed how people navigate cities, they sometimes reflect outdated, incomplete, or inconsistent information. For example, wheelchair accessibility data is particularly hard to keep updated, given the potential for elevator closures in some stations (a frequent problem in New York). Transit data feeds also don’t reflect other factors that obstruct wheelchair access, such as street closures or broken sidewalks.

We shared the Toronto Transit Explorer with an accessibility advocate and University of Toronto grad student in planning named Igor Samardzic, who explored a trip from U of T campus to High Park that required wheelchair accessibility. Igor found that the tool correctly knew that the Spadina subway station is accessible. But the tool didn’t seem to recognize that the newer streetcars along Spadina are also accessible — instead suggesting that travelers use a wheelchair to get back to campus from the subway:

In Igor’s test route requiring wheelchair accessibility, the explorer suggesting using a wheelchair to reach campus from the Spadina subway station, when the 501 streetcar would have been faster if the tool had recognized that it’s accessible.

One more opportunity worth noting is the lack of a driving option. That’s actually a feature of the tool: we wanted to focus on how much of the city is accessible to people without having to own a car. But it can be helpful for planners, advocates, and mobility entrepreneurs to see how transit travel times stack up to driving, as part of an ongoing effort to close the gap.

Exploring the Future

Over time, our engineering team is planning to build in some future scenarios to see how changes to transit infrastructure in Toronto might impact access to the city. With our NYC Transit Explorer, for example, we created an “L train” toggle that shows how transit access will change when this vital subway line shuts down in Manhattan next year. For Toronto, we hope to demonstrate how transit access from Quayside can expand if we worked with the city to extend streetcar service to Queens Quay East — as proposed in our initial vision response for Sidewalk Toronto.

As with our OldTO prototype, the Toronto Transit Explorer helps us develop the type of open digital infrastructure we believe can help support Sidewalk Toronto. A complete community must have many safe and reliable travel options, and the ability to organize and analyze transportation services — and explore the potential for new ones to come — is a necessary part of providing convenient, affordable alternatives to driving and parking.

We look forward to seeing what people build on top of Toronto Transit Explorer. To toss out one idea, we can imagine a program that helps two friends who live in different neighborhoods find a restaurant (or theatre or park…) that’s halfway between them by transit or bike. We also want to hear from you about what parts we can improve, so please don’t hesitate to reach out through the tool’s feedback form.

So explore! And let us know what you’re discovering via email or socialmedia. We are getting to know Toronto better each day, and there’s no better way to get to know a city than by riding public transit.

A special thanks goes to the other members of the project team: Matt Breuer, Douwe Osinga, Sebastián Soto, Dan Vanderkam, and Alison Yard Medland.

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May 4, 2018