What Should We Do Now? “A Grand Plan” Revisited

After that long post on the TTC’s capital budget woes, I promised that I would write a “what should we do now” post.  Here it is.

There are some hard truths that everyone needs to accept about our present situation:

  • We are in a very deep hole on funding day-to-day operations, let alone any system expansion or improvement.
  • The expected tripartite funding scheme between Toronto, Queen’s Park and Ottawa does not exist and is unlikely to materialize soon.  Even if it does, it will be subject to the whims of the government of the day.
  • The planning and implementation lead times for almost anything are so long that they will, at best, produce real change near the end of the next term of the city and provincial governments.
  • Current planning remains project-oriented rather than system-oriented with schemes advanced by separate agencies and governments that take little account of alternatives in other jurisdictions.  Funding constraints compound this problem because people talk only about “their” problem, not the region as a whole.
  • Current funding levels are inadequate at both the city and provincial levels.  Both governments talk a good line about transit, but when it comes to paying for it, we’re lucky to keep just the money we have today.  We cannot change the quality of transit service without major new spending and sustained programs to fund better transit.

Before writing this, I went back to my original “Grand Plan” document from March 2006 (click here).  There are small changes I might make, but that would divert attention from the larger issue.  Whether a line goes down street “X” or street “Y” is far less important than considering everything in a network context and looking at all available alternatives.  This document deserves a thorough review and response by anyone who claims that they hope to “do something” about our transit problems.

Recently, the Star ran a long article about transit woes.  I don’t agree with absolutely everything they said, but the bullet “No More Subways” really caught my eye.  For the Star, long a booster of expensive rapid transit schemes, to publish such an article shows a huge change in attitudes about transit priorities.

Meanwhile, the TTC’s approach to alternatives analysis for subway schemes goes roughly like this.  Shortly after the invention of the wheel, an environmental assessment was conducted and approved for a subway line to the middle of nowhere.  Any suggestions that this might not be a valid proposal today are worthless and will be ignored.

This attitude makes the concept of “alternatives” meaningless.

We have just gone through the exercise of building a new Official Plan where development and transportation fundamentally differ from our old thinking.  However, decades-old “approved” transit plans are still alive and will go ahead whether they make sense today or not.  This is nonsensical, and the TTC’s reliance on old plans is counterproductive.

At the political level, subway plans are alive and well:

  • The Spadina/York/VCC extension remains alive despite its $2-billion pricetag and the dubious status of federal funding.
  • Scarborough Community Council reluctantly accepted an RT upgrade provided that they get (a) an extension north to Finch and (b) an extended Sheppard subway.
  • Etobicoke Community Council is now rumbling about a westward extension of the Bloor subway.

What we do not see in any of this is planning based on the following assumptions:

  • No new subways will be built, or they will be considered only as a last resort.
  • Regional travel (outer 416 and 905) to the core should be handled by substantially improved GO rail service.
  • Ridership justifications for lines such as the expanded SRT and the Spadina subway need to account for riding that can be shifted to the GO network.
  • We need detailed plans for a network of LRT lines in Scarborough, Etobicoke/Mississauge and the York University area so that we can see what the alternative to subway/RT extensions really looks like.

If we persist in planning for tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s “solutions”, we won’t get anywhere.

If we talk transit but cut funding, we will slowly kill off what we now have and will fail the objectives of our Official Plan.

An investment in transit has benefits far exceeding the cost of business-as-usual.  We need plans that address all of our transit needs, and we need to commit spending now to the future of our transit system.

10 thoughts on “What Should We Do Now? “A Grand Plan” Revisited

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more about the absense of considering real alternatives to subways.  Ironically we’re back where we were in the 60s when an “all or nothing” mentality lead planners to insist there were no other alternatives to monstrous urban highways…and we know where that led.

    I used to work in transit policy for the province.  With regard to the Spadina subway, even though it seemed obvious that a surface based light rail system to York and Vaughan should be assessed from a cost-benefit perspective, we understood there was no point in even recommending this.  Someone was looking for a legacy and a glorified streetcar was not it.

    So I guess we’ll get a $2 billion white elephant that 98% of Torontonians will never even set foot on.  I bet we could hand out cab chits at Downsview station through 2075 for less money.


  2. Despite the fact that a subway is not necessarily needed right now, i have no doubt that in a few years York U will definately need it.

    That leaves it to the remaining KM’s to VCC.  Well I might be a little biased living at Highway 7 & Weston Rd, but the subway will benefit in a way that you’ll never think of.

    VCC is right now nothing mostly, except for 3-4 new hotels in anticipation of the new corporate center.  The wal-mart there definately goes against the area’s plans but only the future can tell.  However, all the other new buildings are more dense then the usual Vaughan style.

    Currently Route 77 from Brampton (my former city) goes all the way down highway 7 to Finch Subway
    Station.  That journey will be cut in half and go only up to the new subway station at Jane.  MANY buses in the area will redirect to this station with no doubt about it.

    I believe in a balance of car/bus.  Use a little of both — cars for long travel, bus for short.  The people of Vaughan however don’t share this at all, but many of them however do travel all the way to Downsview currently to get the subway.  That means despite anything else, a subway is attractive to these people.

    Adding all these factors together I think this subway line will definately be better then the Sheppard subway to nowhere.  This ends at VCC which will be something very nice in 10-15 years.

    Steve: I’m not disputing your analysis nor am I opposed to better transit in the York U/Vaughan corridor.  However, for the same money we can get a much larger LRT network that would provide substantially better transit not just as a feeder to a north-south subway line, but also for travel within York Region. 


  3. I agree on that but in this specific scenerio it is obviously better to continue the subway to York Region rather then creating an LRT from Downsview and Northerly.  I love LRT and i really want to see more of them.  Especially in my former hometown of Scarborough.  But It clearly makes sense to extend the YUS line as a Subway since YORK U can support a subway with its volumes.

    Steve:  Actually, York U will not support a subway.  The projected volumes are way below the criteria for subway service, and that’s allowing for the riding that will feed into the line from buses and commuter parking north of the University.  This info is in the TTC’s own Environmental Assessment for the subway line.

    So York U to VCC LRT?  That’s a major hardship and definitely unattractive no doubt for a person to switch LRT to subway just for 2 kms.  Also VCC would be the final destination practically forever unless Vaughan Mills/Canada’s Wonderland somehow justifies a subway extension.

    Steve:  I agree that a 2km LRT line doesn’t make sense, but neither does a $2-billion subway extension.

    The Future of York Region is Highway 7 (Avenue 7 in Vaughan Corporate Center) so if a subway can reach Highway 7, then an East-West LRT can materalize much faster because of the excellent north-south connection to Toronto.

    Steve:  People will have to transfer from a feeder route to the subway somewhere, be it at Downsview or Steeles or VCC.  The advantage of an LRT network is that it can provide a direct link to the subway terminal as a bus route would, but with better service quality and capacity.

    Again, not to mention benefits to the City of Brampton … which will never be closer to a subway then this.

    LRT is the answer in York Region EXCEPT for the North South Spadina Connection … And I would also suggest Young Subway be eventually extended to Highway 7 … The East-West Backbone.

    It’s Pricy but its also attractive … but what needs to be done in the GTA is some kind of ad campaign teaching the average person what an LRT is.

    Streetcar in Designated Right-Of-Way just isnt attractive, and you probably agree with that.

    Steve:  Yes I do.  I am thinking of a post explaining how streetcars or buses in a reserved lane are not the same thing as LRT or BRT respectively.


  4. So if the biggest University in Ontario, York U, cannot justify a subway line, then what can?  Currently I see TTC Express Routes, Regular Routes, YRT Routes, and VIVA Lines packed with students during rush hours.

    Off-Peak maybe right however, but with a subway it is most probable that new dense residential units would rise in the York U Lands somewhere.

    Steve:  The issue here is where the students come from to York, and where residents in new high density buildings will work.  Most of the buses that funnel into the York campus do not originate in areas served by the subway.  At best, the subway may cause them to be rerouted (say to the VCC terminal) and this forced transfer will limit the time saving of the subway.  People who would live in new developments will work all over the place, not necessarily downtown.

    In addition, the first land to be developed on the campus is to have low-density housing.

    Also, whenever I do ride VIVA Orange to Downsview, it’s very hard to see exactly what alignment would work best to serve the most amount of people and be efficient from York U to Downsview.

    Dufferin + Hydro Corridor would be the fastest but it would not really carry much people other then largely York U to Subway Travellers.  Keele + Sheppard would be a nightmare and hard to build an LRT through that route.

    Since i believe that a major roadway needs minimum 4 lanes (2 each way) always, to put an LRT down any of the routes would be widening the road by 2 extra lanes to necessitate the LRT line.  In that case, if Ridership goes above expectation and justifies a subway sooner then necessary, wouldn’t that only make the initial costs a big waste of money?  For a line that will eventually be a subway, might as well make it one right now.  However, a BRT “could” work with a few queue jump lines and such.

    Steve:  A few points here.  Keele is already to be widened for the BRT operation from Downsview to York U.  The right-of-way for many suburban arterials has room left over for centre lanes although there will be impacts from the loss of continuous left turns.

    As for demand growing eventually to require a subway, the question is what is the origin of the growth.  Is it due to native, local growth in the immediate neighbourhood of the LRT line, or is it the effect of funneling demand into a terminal as we do now at Downsview or Finch?  The advantage of LRT (or BRT for that matter) is that we don’t have to build just one of them, but can handle growing demand on parallel corridors where improved transit service can stay close to the origins and destinations it serves.

    Travellers going downtown belong on a good, frequent service on GO rail, not on the subway.  If the “growth” on a local line is really driven by reagional demand, the answer is not to convert LRT to subway, but to ensure that there is a good parallel service for the long-haul trips.

    I’m not pretending this is easy or painless, but we have a chance to change the way we think about providing capacity.

    The Steeles to VCC Portion doesn’t have to cost so much, every time i checked, there is NOTHING but fields of empty on the west side of Jane St which means that it can itially be built as a open ended subway section and be tunneled from 407 to #7 only.  Even still, it doesn’t cost 1 billion for the Vaughan Portion.

    I dont see what the big problem is with brining it into 905 region.  Correct me, but isn’t York Region going to pay the bulk of the cost, if not all for the Vaughan Portion?  I know long term operating costs will be on the TTC but initial construction costs shouldn’t be THAT much of problem.

    Steve:  The cost estimate for the Vaughan portion is $650-million to be split three ways between York Region, Queen’s Park and Ottawa.  That last third is in doubt right now as the Tories cut back on funding for municipal projects.  The recent decision to use the federal surplus to pay down debt, and the claim that this revenue stream is not expected to last forever, show us that Ottawa is not intending to fund new long-term capital spending programs.  As for the operating costs, they are not trivial and somebody has to pay for them.  We are still paying the extra subsidy needed to run the Sheppard Subway, and this diverts funds (several million per year) from service for other parts of the city.

    BTW, thanks for replying all my comments, it is greatly appriciated.

    Steve:  You’re welcome.


  5. Most comments noted, but a few need to be addressed.

    GO Transit Trains … I used to live within 2 KM of the new Mount Pleasent GO Station a few months ago before moving.  Despite the hefty $230 and the 50 min ride to Downtown Toronto, it was smooth and definately heavily used, being the Georgetown Corridor.

    Western Vaughan is COMPLETELY DEVOID of Train Service Period.  An Opportunity does exist to make a new GO Line with the tracks that exist around Islington & Highway 7 … The Only other rail tracks is East of Keele which has one station at Rutherford.

    Do You expect anyone from Western Vaughan to travel that far and in some cases, NORTH to go South?  Makes no sense, thats why MANY just drive to Downsview Station right now.

    Steve:  There are a few issues here.  First off, we should not assume the existing level of service or routes as a point of comparison.  If we can do so-called alternatives assessments for multi-billion dollar subway lines, surely we can also look at what alternatives might be available and appropriate for other modes.

    Second, motorists drive out of their way all of the time to use expressways rather than local roads.  The question is the total trip time.

    Third, the scheme I advocate involves not just stopping an LRT at VCC, but running east and west from there with branches of the same line.  Someone in western Vaughan would have a continuous ride east and then south to downsview on the LRT line.  Note that “LRT” in this context does not stop at every lamppost and will attain speeds well above the existing streetcar system.

    I believe that we have to look at an LRT network for York Region that is part of any scheme so that there are trunk routes in the 905 on which to build good transit service.  Viva is a start, but only a start, and after all, a future phase of Viva is supposed to be based on LRT, not buses.

    As for GO, the issue here is that people who want to go to the core area should be on commuter rail services, not on the subway.  Every time we attract more long-haul riders to the subway, we eat up capacity that is needed in the central area.  The subway downtown is filling up again, and by the time a Spadina line actually opens, there will be serious problems on both Yonge and Bloor at the current rate of growth.

    GO Transit is great.  I want to see it become all-day on the Georgetown Corridor (up to Mount Pleasent or Brampton) and possibly electrified on Lakeshore & Georgetown Corridor for more frequency).

    However, unless a new rail line is built by expropriation through the suburbs, its not going to happen … So that is why this subway is instead required.

    Lastly, VCC by the time the subway is finished will be a gigantic employment destination in a location that is unbeatable in every way. 400 & 407 NE Corner, Subway to Union, etc.

    That means the subway travel will definately becoming 2 directional with many toronto workers heading up to VCC in order to work.

    Every other office complex in 905 mostly is the car-orientated office parks, but VCC, if you check the plans, is planned to be a pedestrian-friendly and transit friendly Corporate Center/Downtown.

    I think you just might be underestimating the size in density and employment that this center will carry…and since there will be no residential, subway makes it all the more important.

    Steve:  I agree with much that you say, except that I feel we can serve VCC and York Region far better, sooner and cheaper with an LRT network rather than putting all our eggs in the subway basket.

    Thanks for reading my long comments, this has been a very good discussion.

    Steve:  You’re welcome. 


  6. I agree with you Steve. I also think that places like Brampton, Woodbridge, Markham, Mississauga will be best served by good, real regional rail, with Diesel MU trains running every 15-30 minutes (hourly 10-car trains serving giant parking lots doesn’t cut it). This should also be a partial solution to providing better transit than subways to places like the Airport, Weston, parts of Scarborough (such as Agincourt and Guildwood).

    Building regional rail would be relatively inexpensive (adding an extra track here or there, more grade separations when needed), especially compared to the enormous costs involved in subway construction. LRT and quality bus/BRT (there’s a difference here, Viva is more a quality bus service than real BRT) can fill in the gaps where the rail corridors don’t go.

    Subway really belongs in places where demand is constant and capacity needed. Eglinton may soon meet this criteria, as would a downtown relief line. I don’t see York (but I see some of the merits, such as improving connections to passengers along Steeles and Finch), or especially Vaughan meeting this standard.


  7. I have not yet had the chance to fully follow the thread of these comments but two things stand out:

    Firstly: A long time ago boys and girls, most politicians thought in terms of big expensive expressways.  Over time, expressways became politically undesirable so politicians took the giant leap from massive expensive expressways to massive expensive subways.  Don’t be too hard on them, boys and girls.  They had the courage to make this giant leap without ever pondering the question of what public transit was all about.  That took guts (though not brains) so be kind to them boys and girls.

    Secondly: A good article on the difference between real LRT and centre reservation is long overdue.  We are lucky to still have our street network and reserved rights of way can be efficient and attractive but the full potential of the streetcar is nowhere near being exhausted.  Modern LRT systems show us this as did the old interubans.  Streetcars can run anywhere!

    Go to it Steve!

    Steve:  Yes, I have been hearing this exhortation from many quarters recently.


  8. Further to what I said above, we are now into a municipal election campaign.  Public transit will be a major issue (and not every city can make this claim).  So now we have to separate the men from the boys.

    The men will talk about streetcars in some form or other and maybe even regional rail (Go Transit) though that is really in the hands of the province.

    The boys will talk subways.

    I confess to what must be an obvious bias which looks upon busways as perhaps a necessary (and, I hope, temporary) evil.  Buses are best used as feeders and on less populated routes.

    Steve:  It is also vital to distinguish between buses a la GO Transit which runs, mostly, interurban coaches with limited stops, and city type buses which run with standees and operate on routes with a lot of on/off traffic.  The design of a busway for a GO type operation is much different than, say, a busway on Finch West where you need to make space for stations and passing lanes.


  9. One option I have not heard discussed for the York University busway is the possibility of building the roadway to streetcar standards, including tracks.  At any point in time LRT operation could be implemented by simply adding overhead.  This would of course take a change in the current agreements.

    Steve:  York U would have a heart attack if they thought the busway was going to be permanent!  Also, the busway is not designed for extension to the north and is intended to support an express service from Downsview to York U.  If we are going to build something in this corridor, it needs to serve more than the university.


  10. GO transit needs to think outside of there ‘Union-centred-universe’.  I live in Whitby and I’m currently commuting to Newmarket.  I know that these are far extremes of the GTA, but I think this is a problem many people encouter when commuting from suburb to suburb.  Residents of the 905 have efficient service to Union station, 45 minutes from my house in Whitby to Union station, via feeder bus service and express GO trains.  However, travelling anywhere other than Union station is virtually impossible with GO.

    IBI Group did a transportation study, I believe for the Toronto Board of Commerce, that recommended, among other projects, a Cross-GTA-LRT line.  This line would start at the Pickering GO station, travel north via the Rouge Park, then west along the Finch-Hydro Corridor, then take some sort of alignment along the 401 to the 403, and eventually terminate at the Oakville GO station.  Given proper co-ordination riders could have efficient connections to GO trains at the Oakville GO station, Etobicoke North GO station, a future GO station on the Bolton line, Old Cummer GO station, and the Pickering GO station, as well as have subway connections at Finch station and a station on the possible Spadina line extension.  The line would service the centres of Pickering, North York centre, Mississauga, and Oakville, as well as the Zoo, York University, Pearson International, and the U of T Mississauga Campus.

    This line would take congestion off of the 401 and the 407 because it an efficient alternative for commuters not destined to downtown, for whom there is no other alternative.

    Steve:  At the risk of sounding off about a favourite subject, this is an excellent example of the capabilities of LRT.  It doesn’t need a dedicated right-of-way to the extent of a subway, it has performance characteristics more like urban transit than diesel-hauled commuter rail, and it would be easy to integrate with other lines either as branches or as part of a unified network.  The main concern with any of this is that if a line follows an expressway corridor, it is very difficult to access for riders without a transfer station and good feeder bus service.  This is essential.


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