Why Transit?


I don’t usually reply to comments with posts, but I got a good series of questions to my last post and I’m still on my personal challenge to write a post a day for the month of February. So, rather than reply in post, I thought I’d create a new post out of my response to questions raised by commentator William:

Actually James, you are labelled as anti-subway because of the Steve connection as that man would like nothing more than little trams running up and down all streets in this city and because of his obvious disdain for the car (obviously since he doesn’t drive) I do think that you are pro-transit but here’s what I do not get. All this talk about Sheppard being a joke - (actually if you compare it to the B-D line it is the same as going from Yonge to Woodbine) Why has no one mentioned the joke of a subway in our northwest quadrant. No one has considered whether or not Finch West people will benefit from this brand new rapid way to get downtown and no one has talked about what a colossal waste of money (IMO) that this line extremely long new subway to nowhere is. Even the most conservative will admit that this new line will carry far less than even the Eglinton line would yet no one, no newspaper is talking about the benefits (or not) of this subway. You do not even mention it here in your article.


I do not think burying Eglinton east of VP is a good idea at all. My point is that I don’t think this part of Eglinton rates an LRT either.

Well, first of all, I respectfully disagree with your assessment of Steve Munro having a disdain for the car. I know Steve and Steve knows me, and I am a car owner. Steve has never held that against me. And if I recall correctly, Steve has shown a skepticism of various measures that could reduce car congestion through more punitive measures such as road tolls and congestion taxes. He’s not opposed to these measures outright, but he notes that, say, putting tolls on the DVP or the Gardiner, while it may create a revenue stream that could be applied to the TTC, could have the counterproductive effect of shoving car traffic onto parallel roads, increasing congestion. He has also said, why should car owners be solely responsible for paying for transit improvements? Again, if I recall correctly, he has suggested a region-wide sales tax might be a more effective option. This provides a broader tax base, and also taxes all of the people who would benefit from such spending.

I tend to align with Steve regarding his viewpoints in transit activism, even though I am a car owner. I love to drive. I love the freedom of mobility it confers. However, I do not like how our cities have evolved over the past few decades so that the luxury of driving a car is less of a luxury and more of a necessity. If I’m forced to own a car by reason of how our neighbourhoods are built, how much freedom does this represent? So I have a strong interest in seeing our cities transform so that other options are more viable. We have spent the past fifty years building our cities as though the car is king, and by serving the needs of the automobile, we have hampered the needs of the pedestrian, and damaged those elements which make cities worth driving to in the first place.

Now, you ask why the Finch West bus should get an LRT when it has a ridership of 38,100 passengers per weekday (2010 numbers), or why the Eglinton West bus should get an LRT when it has a ridership of just 41,600 passengers per weekday. The Yonge subway has a ridership in the hundreds of thousands, as does the Bloor-Danforth subway. The numbers carried by Finch West or Eglinton West are comparable to the numbers carried by the Sheppard subway, and most everybody agrees that it is operating way below its capacity, strongly suggesting that the billion dollars we spent on it have been somewhat, shall we say, overspent.

So we can agree that building Sheppard as a subway was probably a mistake. For the same amount of money, we could have built a much longer LRT along the avenue, and it would have had the capability of carrying the loads the Sheppard subway now carries (whether or not the Sheppard LRT would carry the same loads is a matter of debate, but I believe that with sufficient frequencies and signal priority, it would, and it would further enhance Sheppard’s urbanization).

But if we’re going to question whether Sheppard, Finch or Eglinton deserve expanded transit service and private rights-of-way at all, when buses are handling the current loads, well… a similar argument can be applied to all transit full stop. Why should we have any buses or streetcars at all serving any street whatsoever in our cities? Nowhere in North America is public transit a profitable venture. It cannot support itself. Therefore, by the definition of the marketplace, public transit has failed. Why should we support failure? Why not just shutter the subway doors and scrap all the transit vehicles and save ourselves the subsidies?

Except that many people rely on public transit. Sometimes they are physically unable to drive a car, and taking transit away from them seriously degrades their quality of life. And we simply do not have enough space on our publicly funded roads in the centre of our cities to handle the cars that would use them if transit were no longer an alternative. Expanding the roads to make the room means removing the destinations that make the city a place that people want to drive to.

Public transit is a social service, and it is also a relief valve for our road network. It is a critical part of our public mobility and should be considered part and parcel with the funds that we pay to maintain and expand our road network. GO Transit has never made a profit in its existence, but it has saved Ontario taxpayers billions of dollars in money spent on expressways we didn’t need to build and road work we didn’t need to undertake.

It goes without saying that once we’ve committed to maintaining a basic public transportation system, we should tailor that system to meet the needs its users place upon it most effectively. Higher order transit should be installed where needed. Lower order transit should be installed to serve higher-order transit where demand doesn’t quite warrant it, and lower (and cheaper) order transit still should be used to act as the capillaries of the system.

We can agree that the Sheppard subway was the grafting of a major artery onto a street which did not have sufficient demand to warrant it. But it is worth pointing out that the ridership numbers of the old Sheppard East bus, not to mention the Eglinton West, Eglinton East and Finch West buses all have or had loads comparable to those carried by the King and Spadina streetcars downtown.

Streetcars carry more passengers per vehicle than buses. They accelerate faster than buses. It makes sense to operate streetcars in situations where bus routes are operating at or beyond capacity. Spadina has a private right-of-way protecting its streetcars from competing automobile traffic. King does not. King is also operating close to its design capacity. It’s still way below what it would have to carry to match the Yonge or Bloor-Danforth subways, but there isn’t much more the TTC can do to increase the capacity of the line, except to try and separate it, somewhat, from the surrounding automobile traffic — which, incidentally, it outnumbers on a passenger-by-passenger basis.

So one could argue that while Eglinton and Finch do not have the numbers to justify a conversion to a full subway (or a fully-underground LRT system), they do have the numbers which call for upgraded service beyond what the buses can provide. Maybe bus rapid transit could provide it on Finch. On Eglinton, however, you have the issue of the narrow and congested street between Keele and Laird. A busway won’t function well on the surface. And if you’re going to take anything underground, a tunnel handling electrified rail is far easier to keep free of carbon monoxide and exhaust fumes than one handling bus traffic.

For me, the question of whether to serve a street with public transit, and the form that public transit should take is a sliding scale. If you agree that a street should have some form of public transit whatsoever, then we need to ask what’s the most efficient form it can take. What capacity is needed? How much can we afford to spend? An LRT that is underground where it has to be and on the surface where it can be is significantly less expensive than an all underground LRT or a full-fledged subway.

Other factors also have an impact. Let’s look back at the numbers again. The Eglinton West bus carries 41,600 passengers per weekday. The Eglinton East bus carries a lower but still respectable number in the 30,000 range. The Finch West bus is also above 30,000. If those numbers are too low to justify conversion to full subway, are they still too low to justify conversion to LRT?

Consider that the Bloor streetcar, on the eve of its replacement by the Bloor-Danforth subway, was scheduled with 84 two-car trains during the morning rush hour. It had a crush capacity of 8,000 passengers per hour during its heaviest periods. That’s well above what the King streetcar handles today, but it’s still well below what the Yonge and Bloor-Danforth subways carried after they were built. Even Sheppard, while it is still operating well below capacity, is carrying far more now than it did when buses plied the route.

An LRT investment in Eglinton and Finch will certainly increase the ridership of those routes. So too would a subway. Remember my earlier point: I have an interest in seeing our cities transform so they are more pedestrian and transit friendly. Public transit investment has the potential to transform these routes into denser urban avenues, which I believe will enhance the overall livability of Toronto. I have an interest in a similar transformation of Waterloo Region, which is why I back their plan for an LRT corridor up its central axis.

I acknowledge that the transformative impact of subway construction has been oversold — Sheppard has been transformed, but by an investment that was far more costly than it needed to be. Light Rail, if implemented correctly, has the potential to be similarly transformative, but at far lower cost.

Further Random Thoughts

  • As I understand it, the special city council meeting that Karen Stintz is calling will reaffirm a 2009 Memorandum of Understanding that calls for the construction of an LRT on Sheppard East, beneath and on Eglinton, and on Finch West. This is not my preferred solution. Steve Munro himself said that Transit City wasn’t perfect and that the debate over the Ford transit plan had the potential to offer a real discussion on what should actually be built and where. This could have been, he argued, an opportunity to create a compromise that addressed some of the flaws of Transit City. Stintz’s initial proposal called for the surface-subway LRT for Eglinton, a busway along Finch West and Finch East, and an extension of the Sheppard Subway to Victoria Park (which would have enabled Ford to save face, and made the line more useful).

    Unfortunately, the opportunity appears to have been squandered, again by Ford, who has accepted no compromise. It’s his way or the highway. His way is the Memorandum of Understanding that he unilaterally negotiated with McGuinty soon after taking office (which McGuinty now wants placed to a vote before city council). That leaves the “highway”, which is the older Memorandum of Understanding, which is what Metrolinx was building towards before Ford was elected.

    If Stintz and her majority of councillors vote against Ford’s plan and reaffirm city council’s support for the 2009 Memorandum of Understanding, maybe there will be still time for tweaks. You’ve expressed concern about how a Finch West LRT will do once the Finch West station on the Spadina subway extension opens up; well, it’s worth noting that the Metrolinx plan is to open the section from Finch West station west as the first phase, and build the Keele-to-Yonge section later. If indeed rider patterns favour the Spadina run downtown over travelling over to Yonge, perhaps resources on the Keele-to-Yonge section could be diverted elsewhere. Either way, those heading to Finch West station would see a substantial improvement.

  • Another advantage that Eglinton has which makes it a good candidate for LRT is that it is a major street with high ridership that stretches right across the City of Toronto. Unlike Finch, it doesn’t have the Sheppard subway as a nearby competitor. Building the Eglinton LRT creates a core infrastructure which could be built out from along other streets. Jane has sufficient ridership to justify higher-order transit, but the stretch south of Eglinton is too narrow for LRT to be feasible. But a Jane LRT that ties into the underground Eglinton LRT, on the other hand, might work. The same goes for Don Mills, especially as it may make sense to build the Downtown Relief subway (once it is finally built) beyond Pape station to the Don Mills intersection. End the Don Mills LRT at Eglinton to create a major transportation node, connect the Downtown Relief Line here, and avoid the messy questions of how to get the Don Mills LRT to the Bloor-Danforth subway and beyond.

  • Finally, your comment “Why has no one mentioned the joke of a subway in our northwest quadrant. No one has considered whether or not Finch West people will benefit from this brand new rapid way to get downtown” suggests that you see the Finch West LRT as comparable to a Finch West subway either in terms of intensity of infrastructure, or cost. It’s not. You can see this comparing the cost of the Sheppard East LRT to the proposed Sheppard subway. Extending the Sheppard subway to operate from Downsview to the Scarborough Town Centre is estimated to cost $4.7 billion (or $3.7 billion if you go with Metrolinx’s numbers, although Steve Munro suggests you be careful in doing so). The cost of building the Sheppard East LRT from Don Mills to the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus — at least the same length — was only $1 billion. A Finch West LRT would be far better matched in terms of capacity and cost to what is needed on the route than Ford’s all-underground Eglinton LRT would be on Eglinton.

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