Toronto’s Transit City Back in Play

» Toronto’s regional transportation authority agrees to move forward with a plan for four new light rail routes. Despite opposition from the mayor.

Canada’s largest city may be experiencing the most intense public transportation-related psychodrama in North America. Five years after Mayor David Miller unveiled his Transit City proposal for a citywide network of light rail lines, two years after Ontario government agreed to fund half of them, and one year after a new mayor announced that “Transit City is Dead,” the project finally appears to be moving forward. A unanimous vote by Toronto regional transportation officials today clears the way for C$8.4 billion in new transit investments between now and 2020.

In the process, conservative Mayor Rob Ford, whose antipathy towards alternative transportation modes verged on the truly anti-urban, has lost his influence. It’s an exciting step for a city that has wavered wildly on transportation issues over the past decade, but which is in true need of better public transit.

Before describing the process by which the city endorsed, then rejected, then came back to approving the Transit City plan, the full extent of the 75-kilometer system proposed for the city should be described. At the heart of the network is the Eglinton Crosstown project, which will run east-west 25 kilometers through the center of the city, offering an alternative to the over-capacity Bloor-Danforth Subway; about half of the alignment will be underground, with the other half above surface. Two other routes — along Finch and Sheppard Avenues — will bring surface light rail lines to suburban arterials. And the Scarborough RT, an automated transit service not unlike the Vancouver SkyTrain (though not automated), will be replaced and extended by a new elevated light rail line. Together, the projects will provide relief for a series of neighborhoods with lower densities than the center of the city.

Construction on the Eglinton project is already underway; the other lines will begin in 2014 and 2015, in time for a systemwide completion by 2020.

What Transit City is not is a project designed to serve the needs of downtown commuters, who will remain served primarily by the same two subway lines first constructed opened in the 1950s and 60s and an aging network of streetcars. Nor will it connect to the airport or along a number of north-south routes proposed in the initial Transit City plan (on the Don Mills, Jane, and Malvern corridors).

Yet the investment plan remains a very significant improvement for Toronto, which now can boast of the continent’s second-largest funded rail transit expansion plan by route miles (after Los Angeles).

In 2007, Mayor Miller took a wild step in announcing that he wanted to bring to fruition a network of eight new light rail corridors along 120 kilometers to serve parts of the city that did not — and like would not, due to density — get new subway service. The Transit City apellation was apt, since what the mayor was proposing was a reorientation of virtually all of the city’s neighborhoods towards new high-capacity rail corridors. It was a dramatic bet, since Mr. Miller did not have the funds to build any of it. By early 2009, though, he had convinced Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to devote C$3 billion to the program, and by summer, all four of the lines that are in the current plans were funded. It was an arrangement only made possible because of considerable political entrepreneurship. Mr. Miller made transit expansion a serious matter by getting a big vision into the minds of the city’s population, and Mr. McGuinty, with the funds, was convinced to pay up. It’s a model other cities could learn from.

By early 2010, after Mr. Miller decided not to run for election, contenders for the mayor’s office began suggesting their opposition to Transit City, noting the fact that light rail would require surface construction* and the removal of car lanes (despite the ample space available on Toronto’s wide arterials). Rocco Rossi, once seen as a front-runner for the position, said he would put a moratorium on light rail project development were he to win. Rob Ford ran an aggressive campaign premised on attracting the support of city residents far from downtown (“suburbanites” in Toronto parlance) in which he proposed eliminating the city’s streetcars, relegating bikes to nature paths, and replacing the light rail plans with subways, which he claimed were more in sync with the city’s mentality. In other words, they were more in sync with the city’s drivers.

As we know, Mr. Ford won. He used his election as evidence that the city’s residents abhorred the idea of building more light rail and announced that he had canceled Transit City immediately. In March of last year, he signed an agreement with the Ontario government that eliminated the Finch light rail line (in favor of the mythical “better bus”), pushed the Eglinton Line fully underground, and promised to build an extension of the Sheppard Subway, rather than a surface light rail line as had been previously proposed. The problems were two-fold: The new transit lines would serve far fewer people than Mr. Miller’s proposal, at a higher cost; and there was no funding for the new Sheppard Subway because of the massive cost increase Mr. Ford subjected to the Eglinton Line because of his insistance that it be placed underground.

By summer 2011, it was clear that the “private partners” Mr. Ford wanted to pay for Sheppard Line were imaginary. The city was thus left with only the Eglinton Line and Scarborough Lines, 43 kilometers of new routes when it had once had 75 kilometers on the books. It was a waste of money and a disappointment for commuters.

These facts were impossible to ignore, and the city council rebelled. In January, Counselor Karen Stintz took charge, essentially dismissing Mr. Ford’s argument in favor of subways. In February and March, the council determined that Mr. Ford had acted without the council’s advice in dismissing Transit City and they returned their support to the previous plan, despite the Mayor’s vocal outrage. Metrolinx, the regional transportation body, released its study of the issue, agreeing with the council, and the body’s governing board action earlier today means that Transit City’s 75 kilometers, most of which will be surface-running light rail, will be built. The Sheppard Avenue line will open in 2018, four years after it was supposed to.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, this sage is not over, thanks to the obstreperous Mr. Ford, who is so devoted to the subway concept and the need to keep trains out of the street that he plans to make subways an election issue once again in the 2014 election, even though construction will have begun on several lines by that point. For the sake of Toronto’s near-term future, one hopes he doesn’t get the opportunity.

Oddly enough, the success of proponents of the light rail scheme in pulling together support for their project has encouraged others to note that the project’s shortcomings — notably its failure to mitigate the congestion on transit lines downtown — will remain struggles for this region after 2020. The redevelopment of Union Station and the improvement of GO commuter rail service, in addition to the demand from the new light rail lines, will overload the subway system. Thus the long sought-after Downtown Relief Line, which would double the Bloor-Danforth line downtown, has been brought up again by official and non-official sources. The paradox of investing in investing in new transit capacity is that more capacity brings more ridership. Yet that is a problem for another generation of leaders to solve.

Examining Toronto’s history, it is difficult to ignore referencing parallels to New Jersey, or Wisconsin, or Florida, where the entry of new conservative governors hostile to the idea of spending public funds on major new rail programs resulted in the cancellation of projects that would have cost those states very little in terms of actual expenditures had they been built. One hopes that, as in Toronto, the need to make rational investments in transportation will become clearer over time.

* This was a significant concern for residents of the city at the time due to the construction mess between 2006 and 2010 caused by the reconstruction of the St. Clair Streetcar to provide it dedicated lanes in its right of way.

43 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Aidan

    There’s a slight and nitpicky inaccuracy in your description of the Scarborough RT: It’s not automated. While it is exactly the same technology as Vancouver’s automated Skytrain (Bombardier Linear-Induction Motor, UTIC Mark I vehicles), the populace at the time was uncomfortable with driverless operation and thus the TTC opted to run them with a driver.

    • Thanks for the point. Noted.

    • Buckeyeman

      Actually, to the best of my knowledge, the RT IS automated or at least semi-automated. Yes there are attendandants but but outside of possibly opening and closing doors,and maybe one or two other small functions, the attendants don’t usually run the trains themselves.

  • Rob

    Another picky correction.There have been a number of small extensions to the subway since the 60′s . And in 2002 the Sheppard line opened ( 5 stations & 5.5 km of track).In 2015 the YUS line extension will open ( 6 stations and 8.6 km of track).The streetcar lines track beds have been upgraded and in 2014 new LRV’s will start entering service.The streetcars now carry some 300,000 per day.In 2015 GO Transit will have a direct train service to the Airport from Union station. The big priority is the DRL which is another story.

    • Nathanael

      GO Transit has been spending quite a lot of money on several things:
      (1) Buying track. This is a very good move as it ensures passenger priority on the tracks shared with freight.
      (2) Grade separations, new signalling, and multi-tracking. Again, to keep freight out of the way of passengers.
      (3) The Airport Rail Link. This was a previous politician’s pet project.

      Side effects of the multi-tracking include wheelchair-accessible stations.

      Unfortunately, GO dumps almost everyone at Union Station. Even with the current ENORMOUS renovations (mostly City funded) it’s going to be overcrowded for pedestrians. There’s some effort being made to better connect GO stations to outlying TTC Subway stations where they’re practically on top of each other, but most of that is unfunded.

      GO has also been extraordinarily resistant both to electrification, and to high-platforming. This is gonna bite them in the ass in 20 years.

      • Tom West

        High-platforming doesn’t buy you any capacity improvements, nor does electrifcation. I think GO has been resistant to elctrification because it would always rather spend the money on new trains or line extensions.

        GO runs trains with (I think) the highest capacity in the world outside of Japan (at 2000 people/train), which results in very large volumes of people being dumped on Union’s narrow platforms.

        The main problem is that very large numbers of people commute to downtown Toronto, and there no place on the existing lines to place another downtown station. (The closest would be on the Richmond Hill line at Queen St, but that wouldn’t be within walking distance of most downtown jobs).

        • High platforms and electrification both reduce the stop penalty, and this does increase capacity. This also lets trains make more frequent stops in the city without losing too much time, leading to better service; this would also let trains make several city center stops, rather than just Union Station. In Toronto as in other cities, the in-city and inner-suburban commuter markets are far larger than the exurban market, but the in-city market is neglected and the inner-suburban ones get less attention than outward extensions and the airport link.

          GO runs trains with normal in-train capacity for their size. The capacity of the lines measured in trains per hour is uninspiring, leading to lower numbers of passengers per hour.

          • Tom West

            I agree about electrifcation reducing stop penalty, and that’s good. However, reducing headways through better signalling will gain you a greater capacity increase than shorter dwell times. GO owns some lines with no lineside signalling (which thus require 30 minute headways), and it is signalling those lines. On those lines which are signalled, the minimum headway is no more four minutes. GO is nowhere near operating at those headways, so electrification would produce no capacity benefits.

            High platforms only redcue dwell times if you have high doors! The doors on GO’s rolling stock are at platform height (or within a few inches of it). There’s no “step” down.

            • Yes, its level boarding that buys the improved transit time, not the height at which level boarding occurs.

            • Nathanael

              Queuing through staircases in bilevels takes a while.

              And the doors on GO’s rolling stock aren’t actually close enough to platform height to allow for level boarding for wheelchairs; without that, wheelchairs cause one hell of a delay.

              Perhaps they’ll fix that, though, it doesn’t require much of a platform height change.

      • Drewski

        As far as I know, they’re planning now for the first phase of electrification. Think it’ll be Lakeshore East and West, and much of the Georgetown corridor. Yes, it’s taken forever to get this far, but neither GO nor TTC has recovered from Mike Harris’ tenure as premier. Yes, the proper investment is going to be in the tens of billions, but there’s no excuse beyond money for not expanding GO to provide all-day, 7-day, electrified service on most existing and proposed rail lines. Harris started Ontario on the path of placing disproportionate share of provincial budget on Greater Toronto Area tax revenues, while withdrawing from operating GO and from the established TTC subsidy.

  • Miles Bader

    I find stories about Toronto transit interesting. It has a general reputation as having “more progressive than usual (for North America)” transit, but I have a friend that often posts pictures of downtown Toronto, and what I see in those pics seems very different.

    From this (admittedly very narrow) viewpoint, it looks like every square inch that’s not being used for retail is being used for parking, and there’s a definite “once-nice city being overwhelmed by cars” vibe going on. It’s kind of sad (but all too common)…

    • Nathanael

      If you look at historical photos of Toronto, what you realize is just how extremely rural it was as late as the 1950s. So the development trajectory isn’t quite what you might think.

      They really have done better than most of the US, particularly in managing to keep their streetcars. That’s not to say they’ve done that well — I think a lot of the success is more due to happenstance and accident than to planning.

      Toronto boomed in such a fashion that bustitution was a lot harder to carry out than it was in most of the US, with the result that it stalled out and new streetcars got purchased. They managed to latch onto the 50s-70s subway fad, then got obsessed with subways to the detriment of later expansion. They managed to start the state-run “commuter rail” thing around the same time Chicago and NY did, but it had an instant boom in ridership which helped encourage quick expansion. The scheme to demolish Union Station came just late enough that the historical preservationists were already organized to stop it. Et cetera.

      I think Toronto’s been kind of lucky to have boomed substantially in the post-1970s period, when politics on public transporation had already started to swing back in the right direction, rather than booming in the 40s-60s and stalling in the 70s, as so many US cities did.

      • 23skidoo

        I don’t know what you mean when you say the city was rural pre-1950. It wasn’t a huge city, but the area that was pre-amalgamation Toronto was fully developed by then. And Toronto did boom post-war just like the American cities. In fact there were ads in the paper urging people to move elsewhere because of the lack of housing. That was the decade in which most of those 1000+ ugly apartment buildings you see in North York were built, and the decade when the Gardiner, DVP and 401 were all built.

        To me, the big differences between Toronto and a comparable US city is that there was no federal freeway funding in Canada, no “white flight”, and no powerless African American neighbourhoods for the city to destroy. If the Spadina Expressway had been 90% paid for by the federal government, and had the added “bonus” of clearing a “slum”, I think it would be there today.

        • Nathanael

          Well, sure, “fully developed”… for certain values of “fully developed”. A lot of that has been, well, redeveloped. The photos of many locations near current subway stops are startling for being one-story, spread-out development, where they’re now large multi-story constructions. This change is similar to many US cities, but most of the US cities lack any form of public transportation in those “upbuilt” areas!

          But I like your analysis of the differences between Toronto and a comparable US city; you’re probably right.

        • Nathanael

          Though when I said “rural” was really thinking of the portion of Toronto outside pre-amalgamation Toronto, which really was rural.

        • Drewski

          Old Toronto was largely built out, yes, but that’s not really the point. There was enough room for suburban shopping centers like Shopper’s World on Danforth, which was roughly the intersection of Toronto, East York, and Scarborough; at the time it was built, there was a large amount of empty land in Scarborough. Toronto never hollowed out, unlike most US cities, and the emerging pattern in suburban development is that newer, outer-suburban housing is routinely at a far higher density than what would be found in Willowdale or Downsview. Or look at the population increases: Mississauga had 463k residents in 1999, today it’s over 700k. That’s a suburb. Brampton was farmland in 1970, today it’s pushing half a million, and this goes on and on across York, Peel and Halton (and to a lesser degree in Durham). No, it’s not like Toronto was Tiny Town, but it went from something between Buffalo and Cleveland in size, to a region whose growth patterns suggest it may be the equal of Chicago in 30 years. Toronto has had far larger challenges than nearly any US city, and it has done a better job, even though it’s unimpressive by European standards.

    • Canadian cities are… odd. They all have that vibe, even Vancouver, my former home. I recall visiting a friend who lives in the “really nice part” of Ottawa and thinking it was junky as all Hell. Across the arterial in front of her place was a large parking lot; across the little dead-end alley was another parking lot. The most prominent building was a giant concrete brutalist thing.

      I think Canadians have a different tolerance for such things; I can’t imagine why else they would not only build such things, but find them “really nice”.

      • 23skidoo

        If the vibe you’re talking about is that many of our cities tend to redevelop every inch of space into something new and bland, I agree. But it’s not happening everywhere. Look at Montreal, where land values are lower and the economy is not quite doing as well.

    • 23skidoo

      If all you’ve ever seen is the office towers part of downtown (roughly the area served by the Yonge and University subways, south of Bloor), I could understand that. But venture outside of that area. Take the 504 streetcar, for example.

  • David in Ottawa

    I’m pretty sure Karen Stintz is a councillor, not a counselor.

  • Ocean Railroader

    Would anyone know if these new light rail lines would link into the existing streetcar lines or act extensions of them. Such as would the existing streetcars be able to go running down them.

    Basicly I view streetcars and Light Rail the same thing in if the streetcars in a lot of cities hadn’t of been ripped up by buses and cars they most likely could have upgraded over the last 50 years into some type of modern light rail or the name light rail would have never been invented. But over all I like the idea of new subways and streetcar lines.

    • Nathanael

      The new lines will not be connected to the existing streetcars. The reason is historical; Toronto streetcars still use a non-standard gauge.

      The Transit City lines are planned to be standard gauge, which saves on costs.

      • NCarlson

        Though there are also a couple of extensions to the legacy streetcar network in coming, and a pretty big one was part of the original Transit City plan though now unfunded and probably tied up in whatever happens with some kind of Downtown Relief Line.

  • Fritz

    Thanks Yonah, I’ve really enjoyed your coverage of Toronto.

  • Buckeyeman

    Oops! You forgot to mention Ohio in your comparison to Toronto. Kasich is probably the worst of all of those Governors. He doesn’t want to fund anything at all with respect to any kind of passenger carrying infrastructure.

    • Nathanael

      Kasich is pretty awful, but only Scott Walker actually managed to *cost the state government extra money* for the purpose of preventing passenger trains. I recently donated to the recall effort…

  • Sylvan

    Just one nitpick, mostly inconsequential: the Bloor-Danforth subway isn’t yet over capacity (it’s close, though — see point #4). The Yonge line is over capacity, and that is the primary reason for the proposed DRL. The Richmond Hill extension also can’t reasonably be built until there is some other north-south route to take the pressure off Yonge south of Eglinton.

  • Tom_Toronto

    Great article on Toronto’s fits and starts transit renaissance. Also worth mentioning that the city is experiencing an unprecedented condo boom, mainly in the core, with close to 50,000 units under construction. Jury’s out on whether this is a “bubble” but it is transforming the city. Part of the demand for these condos is coming from people wanting to live in the core, frustrated by poor commuting options. As one poster above noted, much of our roads and transit was built in the 1950-75 period, meanwhile the urban region has doubled in population, to about 6 million. We may never catch up, unless we can convince the federal government to get into the transit business in a major way. In the meantime people are voting with their feet, and wallets.

  • I had the privilege of being in Toronto recently and explored its transit system and included my observations on my transit blog.

    THE PINK LINE: A Los Angeles Eye View of Toronto Transit

    http://ridethepinkline.blogspot.com/2012/05/los-angeles-eye-view-of-toronto-transit.html

    When I was speaking with locals the general consensus was, “yeah, subways would be great, but there is no viable way to pay for them. And the subway we really need isn’t out in Scarborough, it is the “downtown relief line”.

    Granted, none of the locals I met were either Mayor Ford supporters nor lived in Scarborough.

    • Nathanael

      They do need the ‘downtown relief line’. It’s a massive project, however. I don’t see funding for that coming until Harper’s government is replaced at the federal level, and possibly not even then.

    • Drewski

      Rob Ford screwed himself with his transit hostility, and now citizens are having to pay for their bad choice. As it stands right now, if you live in northeast Scarborough (Malvern, for one example), it’s routine for you to spend two hours getting to downtown by transit. If you were going to work in Markham or Pickering, the commute might not be as long, but you’ll be charged full fare by both transit agencies if you need to transfer from TTC. Commuting from northern Etobicoke (northwest corner of city) is nearly as bad. In these areas, on routes like Sheppard East and Finch West, it’s routine for buses to be so packed–even at 4-minute headways–that you’ll have to wait for the third or fourth bus just to board.

      As expensive as the DRL will be, the good news is that, since it’s planned along Queen, there were station rough-ins provided during construction of the Yonge and University lines. DRL should provide for better use of eastern end of Bloor-Danforth line, since an interchange at Pape would be MUCH easier for eastern commuters. DRL would also allow for better access to Riverdale and even Leslieville. Western terminus of DRL seems to vary, but one way to address this would be to build DRL as component of Transit City 2. Built as light metro, it would allow for connecting Don Mills LRT at eastern terminus, and Jane LRT and existing Long Branch streetcar at western end. In theory, it would be possible to provide for connection to the eastern streetcar lines, so that Kingston Rd service could be expanded to the east, and the Queen car in the Beaches could be directed into the subway.

  • Akiva

    I dont understand why this wont help people get downtown if these routes will connect directly with the Yonge st line?

  • Akiva

    A big mistake Toronto made was not building a 4 track line on Yonge like Ny did for their subways. Their excuses were poor.Ie, not enough room under street and not enough money. Now look yonge st during rush hour, above ground and below.

  • Gil

    Another nitpick, although the way the map is laid out it’d be hard to squeeze it in. Mississauga to the west is also in the midst of building its own BRT/busway with a projected completion date of 2015. The LRT project is still waiting for funding.

    http://www.mississauga.ca/portal/miway/brt

  • Onece it was working relievingly but as the transist lines have increased but with it there is also a great increase in transportation modes with it so it is greatly davasting and relieved to here that BRT will be working soon for us Down town crossover is must to fullfil traffic requirements of traffic..

  • Brent

    A good summary of Toronto’s recent transit follies. A couple of other important points, for our American friends who may not be familiar with the history:

    1) Although Ford took his election win as a mandate to kill Transit City almost immediately upon taking office, his campaign was almost exclusively about “getting rid of the gravy train down at City Hall”. He convinced the majority of residents, tired of the annual drama around budget time, that there was a huge pot of wasted money that could be quickly, easily and painlessly closed off to forever solve the city’s budget woes. He had built up a big reputation in his prior years as a suburban councillor as a huge penny-pincher, constantly railing on colleagues about little expenses. People thought that if he was that passionate about even the little budget savings (e.g., getting rid of sandwiches at council meetings), that the big things would easily follow. (Turns out that they largely didn’t, but that’s another story.)

    He did have a transit (or, more aptly, transportation) policy, but it was more of an afterthought, released as a YouTube video in the middle of the night (and, I seem to recall, rather late in the campaign), only because all the other major candidates had issued major plans of their own. It included completion of the Sheppard subway, but also included replacing all streetcar service with buses, and didn’t include anything on Eglinton.

    2) Unlike American cities, Toronto doesn’t have a “strong mayor” system. The mayor has ways of exerting influence (and Ford was able to use them in the first year or so of his mandate), but ultimately the mayor is only one vote out of 45 councillors. The Memorandum of Understanding cancelling Transit City that Ford signed the day after taking office included a clause stating that it would only come into effect if agreed upon by City Council. Ford (and Metrolinx, to their discredit) ignored that provision for a year, until enough of a groundswell had risen against Ford’s plan (and in support of resurrecting Transit City) that enough councillors were able to band together to outvote Ford and his administration.

    • Nathanael

      American cities have a wide variety of municipal systems. But it’s true that there are a lot with “strong mayor” systems. (I happen to know some with “no mayor” systems, where the city council appoints and dismisses a “city manager”, with no mayor.)

      Toronto has a very extreme form of “weak mayor”. Ford apparently didn’t realize this.

  • Gil

    There’s some renewed interest being spurred by two councillors who chair the TTC and Public Works in having transit expand to all areas of the City:

    http://www.thestar.com/news/transportation/article/1217721–transit-plan-dramatic-onecity-proposal-floated-by-stintz-debaeremaeker

    The key is securing funding from higher levels of government. Both of which are currently not in the position to spend. Although given the scope of the project it could certainly be spun as a job-creation and economic stimulus program if it was ever agreed upon.

    More and more local politician are calling for things like increased taxes to help pay for improvements to transportation infrastrucutre. It is only a matter of time before those calls are taken up by those in higher levels of government.

    The proposal itself seems overly ambitious with several details still to be worked out such as ranking of the projects to see which ones get started first. Others have logisitical problems that need to be ironed out before going any further.

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