A Question of Density, Indeed

My thanks to Greg Mckhool for reminding me that I needed to write something about this:

There is a misleading comment in the Dr. Gridlock column of today’s (Apr. 3) Globe and Mail by the TTC’s Tom Middlebrook that needs to be highlighted.

He tries to justify extending the subway to Vaughan’s “field of dreams” by saying that Toronto’s downtown didn’t look like it does today when the Yonge subway was built.  Technically that’s true, but there certainly was a downtown there, and transit ridership along Yonge was substantial. He should know better…

You can find Jeff Gray’s column (Dr. Gridlock) here.

Tom Middlebrook is one of those TTC engineers who is so nice, so presentable, and so wrong about some of the things he says.  We’ve crossed paths before.

On the subject of the Spadina Subway extension and why they didn’t look at LRT this time around:  This was only an “update” to an already approved EA (for the Yonge-Spadina loop), and since technology wasn’t on the table, there was no justification for looking at alternatives.  [That’s a paraphrase of the official story that I got from Middlebrook when the Spadina EA was just getting started.]

Exactly the problem.  The Yonge-Spadina loop is something of a joke as a subway anyhow, but the obvious point here is that if it’s a loop you want, you’re not going to look at anything else but a subway.  The idea that there might be an alternative way to design the network wasn’t even on the table then, and it was precluded in the current study.

Middlebrook (and many others) would do well to go back to the EA for the Sheppard Subway project.

“This analysis determined that with ridership under 15,000 per hour, LRT was the least expensive rail mode.  However, for ridership above 15,000 per hour, HRT (subway) solutions are most cost-effective taking into account capital and operating costs.  While an LRT would be less expensive to construct than a subway for the corridor, it would be much more expensive to operate at the ridership level anticipated.”  [emphasis added] 

The rationale for a subway on Sheppard was that demand was projected to grow to over 13,000 by 2011, and an LRT line would be stretched to handle this.  We will just ignore the fact that this demand projection assumed no change in the GO Rail network and dumped all of the emerging demand from Agincourt and points north on the Sheppard line because it had nowhere else to assign those trips.  Moreover, if you’re looking at a subway network, you won’t entertain the idea of building a second, parallel route on, say, Steeles Avenue once the original line on Sheppard gets too busy.

Middlebrook’s undoing comes in attempting to equate the wilds of Vaughan with downtown Toronto.  He says “It’s certainly not what you would call downtown Toronto, but before we put the subway there, downtown Toronto wasn’t in the form that it is now either.”  Maybe someone left poor Tom out on a storm-lashed heath up there in Vaughan and he’s a bit addled.

The combined capacity of streetcar services into the core area before the Yonge line opened was well over 10,000 passengers per hour.  The core was an established employment centre, and it’s that demand that led to the subway, not the other way around.  The TTC would like to think that they built the city, but it didn’t work that way.  Yes, the subway allowed for more growth, but (continuing the agricultural metaphor) that field was already ripe for harvest.

Let’s assume that Vaughan manages to build something attractive, worthwhile, of at least medium density and not just a corporate office park and a bunch of big-box outlets.  People will come to this from far and wide, not just from the south.  If the goal is to stimulate growth of a residential and commercial node in Vaughan that is not totally car dependent, wouldn’t it make sense to build a network of lines feeding into it rather than waiting a decade for one subway?

Tom Middlebrook’s job is to sell the subway, to spin the story so that no matter what, the subway looks like the obvious choice.

I can wait.  In a few years, we’ll be wondering when the Federal money to build this and other transit extravaganzas is going to arrive.  Someone will realize that we could leave the Feds out of it, or make do with less money from every level of government and plan something we can afford.  Then, maybe, just maybe, the TTC will stop figuring out ways to stack the deck against LRT and commuter rail networks.

We might even build a line to Vaughan, but my guess is that the cars will get there first, not transit.