Regional PlanningTransportation/Transit

The Last Mile: Technology can serve it, but the bigger challenge is solving it

By October 28, 2016 No Comments

It’s often called the “last mile” – the relatively short but challenging distance from a commuter’s home or workplace to a major transit hub, such as a subway or GO station. Although this is largely a problem in suburban areas with infrequent bus service, it forces many people to drive their cars all the way to their workplaces or park at a transit station and ride.

All these cars on the road creates problems such as gridlock highway traffic, increased air pollution, higher commuting costs, and overcrowded station parking lots. There’s even more bad news. The last mile problem will only worsen as the GTHA’s population grows by an estimated 3 million over the next 25 years.

The traditional approach to addressing this obstacle is to build more parking. But this is like loosening your belt when you gain weight. It only leads to more crowding and congestion, and GO stations that will likely become even more sprawling and isolated from the communities they serve. Just because parking has been the only way to service GO train stations, it doesn’t mean it’s the optimal or only way to fix this problem.

Photo credit Automobile Italia from flickr


In September, Ryerson University organized a “Meet Up” with transit experts, planners, policy-makers, and the public to think about solutions to the last mile. The event featured eight transportation experts and was moderated by journalist and broadcaster Steve Paikin. (You can watch the archived webcast here.)

Most of the transportation experts on the meet-up panel believed technology would play a large role in solving the last mile for Ontario commuters in the future. And this is already taking place with on-demand mobility services and autonomous vehicles in cities around the world. Currently, the TTC is looking at integrating on-demand vehicles operating in low-density areas as a possible fix for hard-to-serve areas in the GTHA’s suburbs.

But the last mile isn’t something technology alone can solve. The root of the problem is that we live in an autocentric suburban built form which makes walking or cycling to many transit stations dangerous or impossible. The appeal of on-demand technology is that it’s easy to deploy in the stubborn car-oriented infrastructure that already exists. But the bigger challenge is re-imagining and re-designing neighbourhoods to be transit-oriented and accessible to non-drivers.

Photo credit Matthew Campea / True North Media

The good news is that we already have policies and investments in place that could improve the quality of life for thousands of Ontario residents and commuters. The province of Ontario is investing $32 billion in rapid transit infrastructure over the next 15 years, with about half earmarked for “regional express rail” – upgrading the GO network for faster, more frequent service, and adding new stations that can be designed with last mile connectivity and non-car options available to commuters. This investment could also be optimized by better integrating stations into the fabric of the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Ontario is currently reviewing its new “Growth Plan” which calls for more intensification around major transit stations. These transit-oriented developments would place thousands of residents and workplaces within walking and cycling distance of transportation hubs. By having greater densities in communities, there will also be enough ridership to support new local feeder services such as autonomous shuttles, on-demand car-pooling, or bus rapid transit.

Having more complete, compact communities built around transit would also provide more affordable home options for GTHA residents. The gentle intensification that would occur around suburban transit neighbourhoods would be very different from the high-rise towers of downtown Toronto. These “missing middle” homes such as townhouses and midrise buildings would be suitable for a range of family size and incomes. These homes would also be more affordable than single detached homes, and conveniently located near transit and good jobs. Best of all, families living within proximity to transit could get rid of one car and save $10,000 per year.

At this intersection of mobility and housing is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Ontario to solve several challenges caused by the last mile and create desirable, walkable, cycle-friendly communities close to transit. BY addressing the root causes of the last mile it could become the best pleasant part of a person’s daily journey instead of the longest.