Has Transit Short-Changed Toronto?

Toronto’s election campaign has produced two real stinkers in the Mayoralty race.  Rob Ford wants a few subway extensions, elimination of streetcars and everyone else left to buses.  Rocco Rossi would sell Toronto Hydro, use the supposed proceeds to build subways, and last but not least, extend the Spadina Expressway via a tunnel to downtown.

I will not waste space on critiques of these plans.  The proposition that subways will solve every problem has been discussed at length here and doesn’t need yet another round.  The idea of an expressway tunnel is so outlandish, so contrary to four decades of city planning, so much an attack on the City of Toronto, so unworthy of one who would be Mayor, that it deserves only contempt.

However, these ideas come from somewhere.  “Out there” the pollsters must say there is a gold mine of resentment by those who drive, and by those who would drive given half a chance.  That translates to support for anyone who wants all transit plans to take a back seat to right-thinking, road-oriented policies.  How, in a city that considers itself a progressive, pro-transit 21st century metropolis, is this possible?

The origins lie decades ago, even before the Spadina Expressway was stopped by then Premier Davis.

In 1966, the TTC network was much smaller, the east-west Bloor-Danforth subway had just opened from Keele to Woodbine and extensions to Islington and Warden would follow in 1968.  The TTC contemplated suburban transit and proposed a ring line using streetcars (what we now call LRT) northeast into Scarborough, then across the Finch hydro corridor, and finally south and west to meet the western subway terminal.  The line included a branch to the airport.

Meanwhile, Queen’s Park, enamoured of high-tech transit, fell into an oft-seen trap of Canadian politics — policy exists to serve industrial development, and plans are gerrymandered to serve industrial/manufacturing aims before the actual needs of the province or city.  This always starts out with the best of intentions, but can do great damage when the product falls short if its hype.

Such was the case with the original scheme for magnetic levitation urban transit and a variation on “personal rapid transit”, probably the most expensive taxi system imaginable.

Leaving aside the debates on maglev, GO Urban and what eventually became the RT technology, there was one basic problem.  The momentum to build into the still-empty suburbs was lost, and the perceived cost of new transit skyrocketed.

By 1990, frustration with the inactivity on transit expansion culminated in an announcement by then Premier Peterson of suburban subway extensions plus the Waterfront West LRT.  The Sheppard subway was added to the mix at the last minute to bump the total spending numbers, a vital part of a pre-election campaign.

Peterson lost to Bob Rae, and the NDP government inherited this plan.  Facing a recession in the construction industry, the last thing the NDP wanted was talk of scaling back expensive transit construction or replacing it with a less-costly alternative.  All we actually built was a tiny chunk of tunnel on Eglinton and the beginning of the Sheppard Subway.

The Rae government begat the Harris regime and an almost complete withdrawal of Queen’s Park from transit funding from which Toronto has never recovered.  The TTC slashed service across the board, and particularly hard-hit was the streetcar system. It gained two new lines (Spadina and Harbourfront), but not, on a permanent basis, the extra cars needed to operate them.  For a time, system riding was down, and a smaller fleet was all the TTC needed.  However, this compromised the TTC’s ability to add service in peak periods.  Streetcar lines that once boasted frequent service all day turned into nightmares of overcrowding and unreliability.

The scheduled AM peak service shows a nearly 20% the decline in service on the streetcar route network.  The numbers below are for the routes that existed in 1981 (all current routes except Harbourfront and Spadina).

  • February 1981:  239 standard-sized cars
  • November 1990:  217 cars of which 34 were ALRVs (75-foot cars) for an equivalent capacity of 234 “standard” cars
  • September 2010:  169 cars of which 38 are ALRVs for an equivalent capacity of 188 “standard” cars.  If the 504 were running to Dundas West Station, this number would rise to about 194.

Streetcars became synonymous with bad transit service just as the city began to reverse the trend to suburban living. The many new downtown and near-downtown condos show there’s a market for in-town living, but the new residents must put up with poor transit service, not the greatest advertisement for life without a car.

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