Two Kilometers a Year

We hear a lot from subway advocates about the need for an ongoing project to expand the subway system.  Leaving aside the question of how we will pay for it, what would we actually see for our efforts?

The building rate proposed is two km/year.  If we were going to build west from Yonge Street and we started today, it would be late 2010 before we reached Jane Street, late 2014 to reach the western boundary of the city, somewhere like the airport for example.  Every penny we could scrounge would go into that line, and by 2015 we would still have big transit problems in most of the city.  This assumes we start tomorrow, and we all know that nothing will happen for at least two years while we debate where the line will go, design it and get EA approval.

If we are serious about expanding the transit network in a meaningful timeframe, we have two choices:

  • build much more than two km/year and be prepared to pay for it, or
  • use something other than subways to expand transit capacity, and build lots of that.

Mayoral hopefuls and other subway advocates need to be honest about the costs and benefits of their plans.  The two km rate was once floated by Rick Ducharme, back when we actually thought that would cost $200-million or so.  The Sheppard Subway, our most recent project, was 6 km long and cost us almost $1-billion not including the vehicles that were purchased separately.  Even allowing for the huge expense of the junction at Yonge Street, $200-million hasn’t bought two km of subway for a long time.

I will return to the issues involved in building LRT in a future post and will incorporate many of the comments that are stacked up in feedbacks from various readers that have accumulated in my inbox.

17 thoughts on “Two Kilometers a Year

  1. Call me naïve, but, how come in the early heady days of building streetcar lines, it took practically no time to actually build one?  Aside from environmental studies, which obviously were not done in those days, what is really slowing up the process?  Why has it become harder to lay down track?

    Steve:  One big delay is that it takes years just to get to the point someone has drawn a line on a map saying “someday, we may build something here”.  This exercise causes huge fights especially if people think that only one line will ever be built.

    Next we have the problem that the TTC and City do a very poor job of explaining why what they propose is a really good idea, and instead we have the sort of confrontations that arose on St. Clair.

    Finally you get to start construction, only to discover that one of the utilities hasn’t scheduled their work to suit your plans, and you have to defer everything (this is actually happening on St. Clair).


  2. $1 billion / 6 km * 2 km = $333 million

    Not exactly pocket change, but not pure la-la-land either. I would prefer more streetcar lines for now, though. $333 million would buy a decent amount of streetcar track, vehicles, and operators.


  3. Why don’t we just face the fact that there is no solution to our transit problems?  Suburban design and the enormous cost of subway construction pretty much did us in.  The car is here to stay.  If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em I always say.

    Steve:  Over the next three decades, a lot of what we now call “the suburbs” will be rebuilt as all of those malls and parking lots prove far more valuable as housing sites.  This is the premise of the Official Plan, and we have to think of the transit network needed to serve that density of population.  Doing it with cars is impossible.

    Out in the 905, it’s much more challenging because it is much newer and the opportunities to increase density are few and far between.  Indeed there is a lot of resistance to intensification in the 905, although it is starting to happen in the older areas.


  4. $333 million/year certainly goes farther if you’re building LRTs or streetcar routes, but let’s not forget that Eglinton is perhaps the street with the greatest need for some form of rapid transit in this city.  Unfortunately, Eglinton can’t accomodate street-level rapid transit between Don Mills and Keele; it would have to be underground.

    If we wait for the city to work out a transit funding agreement with the province or Ottawa, we’ll be waiting a long time before anything happens (if it ever does).  The city needs to take control here, and committing to building 2km of subway per year is a great way to do it, because it’s small enough that we could actually afford it.  We should commit to building an LRT on Eglinton E and W, and an LRT subway or heavy rail subway under central Eglinton.  Imagine how much more accesible our city would be with a true rapid transit line for the entire Eglinton corridor, from Mississauga to Kingston Rd…

    Steve:  I happen to agree with you.  One important thing to note is that an LRT subway should not be as expensive because the stations will be smaller.  This may be offset by having more of them than would be likely with a full-blown subway. 

    Actually, you don’t need to go underground until the top of the hill west of Leslie (at Brentcliffe) rather than at Don Mills.  This would save 3km of subway tunnel through an area where there is plenty of roadspace and no traffic congestion.  Don Mills Station would probably be underground to connect with a similar line on Don Mills itself. 


  5. Miller just announced his transit vision; it’s all been said before, etc., but at least he’s not making completely impossible plans like Pitfield.

    One question about the Don Mills light rail plan (notice he didn’t say streetcar), what route would it take when it hits the Don Valley just north of O’Connor: go into the valley, down to the West Donlands development; or onto O’Connor and Broadview?

    One would think it would have to go into the valley as old plans once called for, no, especially if it’s going to be light rail rather than streetcar.  I’m not getting my hopes up of seing it built, of course, just curious about routing.

    Steve:  The routing south of Eglinton is quite a challenge and shows quite well how predisposition to one mode or another can colour the planning exercise.  In the Don Mills studies to date, the assumption has been a busway either to Castle Frank Station or into downtown via Bayview and/or the DVP.  If, on the other hand, we assume a rail mode and don’t try to use the transit project to underpin a road scheme (as Jane Pitfield has done with Redway Road), then the options change.

    It will be difficult getting across the Don River no matter how we do it.  The question is whether we will attempt to connect with the Bloor subway or not.  This has a huge impact on the usefulness of the line.  Some of the bus schemes do not connect with the BD line because they run on roads down in the valley.  Also, connecting at Castle Frank is dodgy because the Bloor line is quite full at that point during the peak period despite what some may say.  I live at Broadview Station and get to see people left on the platform all the time.

    Another issue is whether to go straight down the Don Mills alignment putting us roughly in line with, say, Donlands at O’Connor, or swinging west through Thorncliffe Park so that we can serve the huge population there.  It’s a complex problem, and I only hope that the studies now in progress will look at a good range of alternatives.

    Finally, people living north of the 401 shouldn’t be using this line to get downtown.  That’s what the Sheppard Subway or GO Transit are for.


  6. Steve

    Did you see David Miller interviewed last night?  I don’t have the direct quote but the gist was that the St. Clair ROW was equivalent service to subway.  I know he wants to get Mihevc elected but that’s no excuse for comparing the zero increase in capacity the ROW will bring if TTC step back the number of cars/hour with a 4/6 car subway.

    At least candidates should give the public facts rather than saying things that make them feel better but they will later find out were untrue.

    Steve:  I didn’t see the interview, but heard it reported later.  A basic problem here is that we will never duplicate the speed and capacity of a subway with anything on the surface, but there are tradeoffs:

    Can we justify a subway for the demand that exists now and in the potential future?
    What will be the impact of the much wider stop spacing a subway brings?  For example, a subway on St. Clair would have stops probably at Yonge, Avenue Road (but don’t count on it), St. Clair West (doubling for Bathurst), Oakwood, Dufferin, Lansdowne, Keele.  For anyone living in between, it would be a long walk.
    How much are we prepared to interfere with other uses of the road in order to improve transit reliability and provide for future capacity growth?  If we can’t even get true transit priority at traffic lights, there’s not much hope.
    How much of the change in perception of transit on St. Clair would be due to frequent, reliable service in place of what we had pre construction?

    To be fair to David Miller, I believe that he was talking in the context of a network of lines criss-crossing the city providing faster service on many major routes.


  7. Indeed, a city growing at the rate Toronto is should be building at least 2km of subway per year, yet also greatly increasing surface transit in all areas of the city.  In a sense I agree with both Miller and Pitfield.  Of course, Miller is being more honest about funding realities, but we also shouldn’t be defeatist and think that this current arrangement will never change either.

    Steve:  The problem we have is that everyone wants to spend megabucks on subways and then cries poor when we ask for surface improvements.  The result is that all we get is one subway a decade or so, and declining service everywhere else.


  8. A lot of “subways” in Germany, for example, are really glorified underground streetcars/LRTs.  I think this should be the focus: surface based light rail that would occassionally go underground in densely built up areas or where roads are too narrow for dedicted ROWs.  Queen street is a good example.  Miller’s Don Mills line is another (above ground north of the Leaside bridge, underground south).

    Smaller light rail cars could also likely be squeezed into one large tunnel, obviating the need to drill two, as with subways.  Short of finishing the Sheppard subway and extensions to the B-D, Spadina and Yonge lines (not much beyond the Toronto boundaries), I don’t see the need to build any new subways.  Where can you find a corridor in Toronto that would require the 30,000 people/hour capacity??


  9. Until the motorist complains LOUDLY, nothing will ever happen. The strange thing is you don’t hear them complaining at all — not even for more roads.

    Just look at the traffic volumes on the 407 now vs. 1998. If that road hadn’t been built, congestion would be even worse than what it is now.

    So the argument that subway construction is overkill (in favor of LRT) is not valid. Sheppard was a bad idea, but it doesn’t mean that other routes would be equally bad.


  10. I posted in another thread how impressed I was with LRT implementations in St. Louis, Calgary, Edmonton, and San Francisco. Since that time, I have had the chance to try out the system in Dallas and this week I am trying out the system in Melbourne.

    No doubt about it: LRT is the way to go if you are serious about getting the most transit bang for the taxpayers’ buck.


  11. Both your post and the comments that follow bring up a number of interesting points.

    It’s widely accepted that Toronto’s transit problems are due to a chronic lack of funding, lack of transit-oriented development, and politicization of the Commission.  And while I can’t say that I disagree with any of these points, I think that there is a bit more to it than that.

    As you rightly put it, Torontonians (and in turn, politicians of all stripes) tend to drool over subway expansions while simultaneously jeering at the thought of surface transit.  It is almost universally accepted that we hate streetcars and buses because they’re slow and unpredictable, and yet any mention of giving theses vehicles the right of way is generally met with skepticism, if not outright opposition.

    We engineers and transit pundits know the essence of the TTC’s surface woes; we also understand the tenets of good transit planning.  But Torontonians do not know what we know, and the TTC/City seem only to feed the public’s misconceptions.

    People do not know that a CLRV can travel at up to 80 km/h – all they see is big, heavy streetcars inching through/”blocking” traffic and waiting for red lights.  They don’t understand why buses get short-turned – all they understand is that they’re going to have to get off the bus and wait for the next one.  They’ve never had to appreciate just how hard headway control can be in mixed traffic, so when they see a packed bus show up with two empty ones trailing behind, they always assume that it’s because of mismanagement.

    So can you blame them?  Not really – they’re making conclusions that seem logical, and they’re responding to what they’ve always been told about how traffic works (i.e.. more road space=less traffic, streetcars=outdated and slow, etc.).  And as we all know, the politicians are wont to satisfy the voters’ demands rather than try to explain things in a reasonable way.  And it pains me every time I hear them blather on about their transit plans, because the lack of engineering & economic rationale always seems to blatant to us.

    So what are we to do?  I’d start by taking the approach that any private-sector entity would do in a situation like this: re-brand.  In other words, pay special attention to the manner in which transit plans are presented to the people.  Official Plans, maps and engineering drawings mean nothing to the average citizen (or councillor, in some cases).  

    What they need is a true explanation, a depiction, of what a total transit system, including LRT would be like. Otherwise, when people are faced with the prospect of surface LRT in their neighbourhood, they’re just going to think of CLRVs, ugly streetcar wires, and traffic impediments.

    Steve:  Originally, the Official Plan was going to have specifics in it about transit plans, but this was blocked by the TTC brass who felt that to show this would pre-empt their role as network planners. 


  12. The problem with the current perception of streetcars in Toronto is that they are slow and unreliable. We should show them a modern, fast, and wheelchair accessible light rail transit system like those in Europe. First of all, we should get over our obsession with building extremely frequent stops. Most modern LRTs have stops every 500m or so; this is a very reasonable walking distance (no more than about 3 minutes/250m to the closest stop) and frankly, anything more just causes slowdowns. If the Spadina streetcar were built like this, there would be stops every 2-3 blocks, rather than every 1 block. Secondly, we should implement decent traffic signal priority; it is currently poor or nonexistent. Finally, we should use large vehicles and relatively long headways (3-5 minutes), so that traffic signal priority can work properly.

    The best example of an LRT which I have seen is the new two-line LRT in Lyon, France. Similar systems exist in Portland, San Diego and many European cities. By using large articulated vehicles with 3-5 minute headways, a station spacing of 500m, and effective traffic signal priority (trams almost never see a red light), that system rivals the city’s older subway lines while costing much less to build. We should show pictures of systems like this to the public as an example of how a new LRT would operate. It is a shame that the St. Clair and Spadina lines are not being upgraded to this standard.

    The prime candidates for such a line would be Eglinton, Jane, Finch and Don Mills. If such a line is sufficiently long and it does not use existing trackage, it even could use its own fleet (built to more modern standards) as long as the existing fleet can access and use its tracks to access maintenance facilities. Finally, if it is necessary to build long underground tunnels, the TTC should not corners, but rather design the system so that it can be upgraded to subway standards in the future.


  13. Mimmo Briganti said, “Just look at the traffic volumes on the 407 now vs. 1998. If that road hadn’t been built, congestion would be even worse than what it is now.”

    This is not entirely true. The existence of the 407 has caused many people to move to York Region becasue it allows them to convently get where they are going. They will continue to move there until the 407 is filled up. If they 407 hadn’t been built many would have moved into the already developed areas of the GTA increasing population density and transit usage.

    This is why building freeways don’t work. It encourages poeple of move further out until the freeway is full and a new one has to be built.


  14. Here’s one so simple, and so understandable, that it just might work: create dedicated LRTs running down the middle of every 400-series highway in Toronto.  Put 407-style transit-priced tolls for cars on all of them, to help pay for it.  And let suburbanites take the LRT up the DVP and 404, across the 407…

    Nah, I’m dreaming.

    Steve:  The one big problem with transit in expressway corridors is that it is very difficult for people to use it.  The stations are sitting out in the middle of interchanges, and there is often little high-density development immediately nearby to generate traffic.  All of the loading is dependent on feeder services.  This type of line can work if properly designed from the outset (not a retrofit to an existing road), but it still will tend to serve regional rather than local demand.  This sort of thing might be worthwhile as part of the GO network, although reserved lanes for GO buses might be just as effective, and simplify the transfer problem.


  15. That Argument is not entirely true.  People were moving to North regardless anyways using congested roads like Highway 7 and so on.  People in North Richmond Hill, Aurora and Newmarket have no E-W Highway but they live there.  With the High Tolls on 407, it is more of a rush hour freeway then an all purpose freeway.

    Without it, it wouldnt change anything. Just more traffic…

    People Want Large Homes, Quiet Areas, Low Crime, Space…The Current Suburb isn’t perfect and needs some change but it can never be avoided.  I personally can’t even think of living in downtown or anywhere near it.  I’m more of a former Toronto Suburban person which has good TTC Transit but yet openess and quietness (somewhat)…but if all that is going to dense up soon, that won’t be very nice…

    Suburbs will never die.  But they can be remodelled so that transit is balanced well with car without its current heavy dominance.


  16. Andrew MacKinnon’s comments are really sharp. Maybe what’s really needed is an upgrade of one streetcar line (which line?) to totally modern LRT standards. If the stop frequency on the St. Clair line (for instance) were reduced so that the LRVs could really start to pick up some speed, people might start thinking of streetcars differently.

    Given the low funding situation, grand plans are inappropriate: probably the best thing to do is “opportunistic” planning, such as was done with the St. Clair streetcar line. When something needs to be replaced, take the opportunity to revise it to be the best it can be, including small extensions if they reap significant benefits.

    There’s something wrong with the subway extension costs. Suppose that:

    the subway extension was built largely at grade, with the exception of the transition from the existing line, or any specific area where a private funder offered to pay for the costs of putting it underground (York University?);
    The needed at-grade space was simply taken out of existing road lanes (usually in the center), with fencing, turning the road used into two “frontage roads” around a rail line;
    cross streets were largely cut off on either side, with four-quadrant-gate-controlled grade crossings for the really major streets;
    Streets for which bridges were deemed necessary due to high traffic had the bridges paid for by the City out of non-transit funds.

    In other words, rail gets ground space priority; roads have to build around it. Rather than vice versa. These are the circumstances under which most of the great rail lines were constructed.

    What would the costs look like then? I know that the major costs of a new line are in civil engineering, specifically bridges and tunnels. So I’ve taken them out.

    I suppose the problem is that NIMBYism would render this nearly impossible politically. 😦 But it’s a way of getting full subway performance, including the economies of scale, at a fraction of the cost.

    Steve: The idea of York University actually paying for any of the subway construction is highly amusing. I have sat through many TTC meetings where York has had senior staff present, and their attitude seems to be that the world owes York a subway line.

    I agree that the TTC puts lines underground, especially in deep bore tunnel, far too quickly for reasonable economies. On Sheppard, this was definitely NIMBYism, but on the proposed East Mall line it really doesn’t make sense. Running parallel to a railway, it is obvious that nearby roads already have to go under the railway line and the question is how much adjustment is needed, if any, for them to go under a parallel subway bridge.


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