Whither the Sheppard Subway

Back in the day, cities were a lot denser than they are now. Neighbourhoods had an ecclectic mix of commercial, residential and even industrial uses. Everywhere you went, there were places that people wanted to come to, and people wanted to depart from.

In this setup, public transit could function as a profitable business. Streetcar networks stretched across the cities, taking crowds everywhere they wanted to go. The automobile was a luxury, for the rich and the middle class to escape from the city altogether and see other cities, or just countryside.

Then, after the Second World War, cities became less dense. Everybody wanted a plot of land to call their own. Planners saw terrible things in the mixing of land uses and overreacted, creating vast tracts of single-use land. Public transit had to go further to serve fewer people and became unprofitable. The automobile, the only mode of transportation that could function in this scenario, went from becoming a luxury, to a necessity of life. One wonders how much we have gained by adding $5000 per year to the cost of living of the average household?

But we've fought back. In the 1970s, the City of Toronto rejected the notion that its downtown had to be rebuilt to suburban principles. Torontonians fought against and defeated the Spadina Expressway. Urban planners realized that single-use low density development was eating up resources, and turning parents into chauffeurs. To stop urban sprawl and to limit the smog in our cities, Torontonians demanded a more transit-friendly approach.

During this time, the TTC had been merrily building subways. Even as its ridership crumbled from its 1940 highs, subways proved to be the most effective means of winning riders back. But they too discovered that subways had to be supported by dense, mixed use developments. And as the subway reached most of that development in Toronto by the late 1970s, there was little incentive to continue, especially with subways getting as expensive to build as they were. In the early 1980s, the TTC and the City of Toronto reached a crossroads. They wanted to change the development that was rushing out from the cities; they wanted to entice more people from the automobile. The TTC's aggressive expansion of service was raising ridership levels again, but was subway construction needed anymore?

Twenty-two years later, on November 24, 2002, the Sheppard subway opened. It was a controversial project. "The subway to nowhere", "The Lastman Line", "Mel's Toy Train" -- these are just some of the epithets lobbed at the new line. It's even been called a billion dollar boondoogle, but thankfully not by the Canadian Alliance. The Sheppard subway was expensive to build (final construction costs totalling just over $900 million), featured only four new stations (and one rebuilt one) and it ran under a suburban arterial road, which didn't have the density to support such a line. The TTC anticipated that ridership would be light enough that they need only run four car trains at five minute intervals to meet demand (compared with six car trains operating at two minute intervals on the rest of the network). It's expected to add $8 million to the TTC's annual operating costs and it may be the last piece of subway expansion that we'll see in some time. Was it a mistake to build it?

In this climate, it's hard to be a supporter of the Sheppard subway, but I am. Despite operating near the edge of the city, in what was farmer fields fifty years beforehand, the Sheppard subway is not a new idea. It was first mooted as early as the 1960s, and became a serious proposal in the early 1980s, when the TTC and the City of Toronto were at that crossroads I mentioned. As the suburbs developed, development decentralized, and odd patterns of commuter movement materialized: instead of people living in the suburbs and working downtown, some people lived downtown and worked in the suburbs. Others lived and worked without once heading downtown.

If you live and work in the southern half of Toronto today, or along the central axis between Keele and Bayview, you're within two kilometres of a subway line which can zip you across the city in under an hour, saving you the stress of driving and the trouble of parking. A significant number of people in these areas leave their cars at home and take the TTC. But for those living in the burgeoning suburbs in the northwest and northeast corners of Toronto, you start your trip and end your trip with very long bus rides. Worse, you have the extremely wide and extremely fast (when not congested) Highway 401 running along the top of the city. Under these conditions, is it any surprise that the TTC is losing the battle for the commuters north of Eglinton Avenue?

To redress this back in the early eighties, Toronto planners put their heads together and came up with the Network 2011 proposal, a $2.1 billion plan to put subways under Sheppard and Eglinton Avenues, bringing three quarters of the city within two kilometres of a subway station. The two lines together would compete directly against Highway 401, allowing users to park their cars at the western boundary and zip across the city within an hour. Despite the TTC's initial reluctance to resume subway construction, they came to understand the reasoning. The proposal was put to the provincial government of Bill Davis, but before a decision could be reached, Bill Davis retired. His Conservatives, which had governed the province since 1942 and were excellent supporters of public transit, fell to the upstart Liberals under David Petersen. The Liberals never promised to implement the Network 2011 proposal, and they (perhaps understandibly) were not sure they wanted to be on the hook for the $2.1 billion price tag.

As they waited, as the attempts to build cheaper, high-tech alternatives to tried-and-true subways failed, Toronto continued to sprawl. More people got into their cars. The streets filled up, and the TTC lost market share. When the Liberals were finally willing to back a scaled down version of the plan, the NDP defeated them, and did some hemming and hawing of their own. Finally, in 1994, Premier Bob Rae got the shovels in the ground. Trying to do as much as possible with as little money as possible, he approved construction of portions of the Eglinton and Sheppard subways. The first phase of the Sheppard subway would stop over a kilometre short of its original phase one terminus. Then the NDP government fell, and a hard-right, neo-conservative version of the Tories came to power, cancelled the construction of the Eglinton subway, and got out of public transit funding altogether.

Thus we are left with the "subway to nowhere". But even that is better than nothing.

In theory, the Sheppard subway works best when it runs from North York City Centre to the Scarborough Town Centre. This way, it goes across half of the city, connecting two large employment centres through an area that's a long way from a subway station. It competes directly with the 401, and intercepts thousands of commuters from the northeastern suburbs heading to work in North York, Scarborough or Downtown Toronto. If we really want to be serious about reducing the car-dependency of the northern suburbs and transforming Sheppard Avenue from a suburban traffic sewer into a grand urban avenue, then the Sheppard subway must be completed.

Even half finished, the Sheppard subway is doing considerable good. Riding the Sheppard subway for the first time this past Saturday, I saw respectable loads in all the stations, and there were crowds heading for the mall at the end of the line. Moreover, the subway has sparked millions of dollars of new development along this former traffic-sewer. Condominiums are springing up enroute, and a spike of density has been driven into the heart of suburbia.

It is true that Sheppard is realizing only a fraction of its potential, but the best way to solve that is to complete the line. For just $200 million per year (less than $10 per month per taxpayer in the Greater Toronto Area), the line could be opened to the Scarborough Town Centre by the end of this decade, and Sheppard will drive a spear through the low-density, car-dependent neighbourhoods that surround our transit-friendly urban core.

Subway construction in Toronto should never have stopped, and the Sheppard subway is a good start. We must keep moving forward. In the capitalist system, people will only leave their cars if they have incentive to do so. Imagine the network proposed in the early 80s. Imagine what I proposed in my own subway fantasy. Imagine a driver coming into Toronto on the congested Highway 401. At the edge of the city, he's offered the opportunity to park his car and take the subway the rest of the way. Most of the city is within two kilometres of a subway station. Will he take the alternative? I would.

It will take a lot of time, money and effort to reverse the effects of urban sprawl, but the consequences of not doing this are already showing up in our cities through congested roads and bad air. Two million people are expected to plunk themselves down in the Greater Toronto area between now and 2020. To prevent the region from choking, the City hopes that one million of those people locate themselves south of Steeles Avenue, in denser, transit friendly neighbourhoods. We're going to have to build those neighbourhoods, and one wonders how we'll do that without some heavy transit.

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