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The “Last Mile” can’t be the “Least Mile”

When planning transportation networks it’s easy to reduce entire communities, cities and regions into singular points. When we say a train goes from ‘Toronto’ to ‘Montreal’, we sometimes forget that it is only going from a specific point in Toronto (Union Station) to a particular point in Montreal (Gare Centrale).

The truth is the vast majority of trips will not be going from station to station or downtown to downtown. Even if we concentrate dwellings and offices near stations (which is a noble goal), most people will need some other means of transportation for getting to and traveling from high-speed rail stations.

If we want our rail system to be relevant to more people, we need to think about the entire journey, from doorstep to doorstep. Here is how intercity rail planners can take last-mile trips seriously and maximize ridership.

Place your stations carefully

How can we maximize the accessibility and relevance of our intercity rail system?

Adapted from the engineering mantra “the best part is no part”, we should apply the philosophy “the best trip is no trip” when thinking about how people will travel to and from stations. The ideal last-mile trip is a walk. This means placing stations carefully, near the greatest number of destinations, in the middle of communities and not at their peripheries. For example, in our study of high-speed rail, Barrhaven Station was moved to a more central location so that many people could actually walk to their final destination.

Barrhaven Station Relocation
Barrhaven Station Relocation

Build around your stations

Expanding on the principle “the best trip is no trip”, we can maximize the utility of our rail system by building new offices and residences near stations, instead of parking lots. This development could help pay for the cost of building the system as has been done in many countries around the world

Don’t Sleep on Cycling

If people are going to have to travel some distance to your stations, it makes sense for them to take advantage of the most energy-efficient form of transportation ever invented. The gold-standard for bike-rail integration is the Netherlands where 40% of rail passengers travel to and from stations by bike. The Dutch were able to achieve this thanks to excellent cycling infrastructure, ample secure bike parking and an affordable bike share system. The useful range of cycling can be further amplified with the advent of e-bikes, making even long trips fast and convenient.

Skeptics may bring up our harsh winters as an impediment to cycling, however, that hasn’t stopped Montreal’s bike share system from posting record numbers and profitability. Integrating cycling into intercity rail will take a concerted and coordinated effort, however, the health and environmental benefits should make it well worth the investment.

Serve the Suburbs

Since not everybody will be travelling from downtown to downtown, it is essential that there be train stations in suburban locations. This means passengers travelling to suburban locations won’t need to make lengthy, back-tracking journeys. In Build it Right, we recommend multiple stations within each of the major metropolitan areas to serve this purpose. Ideally, these stations should be placed near existing regional centres, existing major transit routes and their surroundings should be redeveloped with new residences and offices.

Improve Transit Connections

Good transit connections to train stations are essential. They extend the relevance of a transit station from serving a neighbourhood to serving an entire city or region. If good transit connections do not already exist, then these must be implemented. In medium-sized cities, this will mean improving bus service to stations. In large cities, this may mean extending rapid transit lines to intercity rail stations. For example, we recommend that the Montreal REM be extended to both Ste. Anne-de-Bellevue and Dorval stations in order to provide this connectivity.

Transportation planners, transit agency executives and political leaders need to remember that people’s journeys don’t end where their project ends nor at the limits of their jurisdiction. For passenger rail to truly be a compelling option in this country it is essential that we adopt an integrated approach that takes into account the passenger’s experience from door-to-door. This means close cooperation and coordination between agencies and disciplines. If we want most people to travel by intercity rail, the ‘last mile’ cannot be treated as the ‘least mile’

If you want to learn more about how high-speed rail can become a reality in Canada, please check out Build It Right - A Study on High-Frequency Rail/High-Speed Rail in Canada.

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