The Queen Street Subway Debate

I have been truly astounded that the post on the new streetcar plan has turned into a pitched battle between the pro and anti LRT/subway forces on this blog.  Frankly I am getting a little tired of it because, after all, this is my blog and I happen to believe that LRT is going to rule the day.

This will happen for three reasons:

  • We cannot afford a subway network,
  • We do not need a subway network, and
  • We must not put off transit improvement in the vain hope that someday the tooth fairy will give us the money to build one.

All of the pro and anti subway comments have been edited into this separate thread and I am closing the debate on this issue.  Several comments that were sitting in moderation are included here.

If you want to talk about the streetcar plan, fine, I will continue adding to that thread and commenting on it.  If you want to tell me how the manifest destiny of downtown Toronto is to have a network of new subway lines, please start your own blog.

on 09 Feb 2007 at 10:13 pm Tom B said …

Steve, I think you should do a piece on the whole issue of ROWs in the downtown core. I think many people believe this is some sort of solution to downtown transit service issues. The point, which you well know, is that ROWs on streets such as Queen or College/Gerrard is a non starter. The experience with St Clair is that it’s barely a starter on wider roads where ther is at least the possibility of implementing it and maintain a flow of traffic for cars.

I don’t want to sound like an advocate for unlikely solutions but the only way of delivering higher order transit downtown is going underground. I just think that people need to understand this with all the subterfuge coming out of all the various government sources of transit advocacy. Adding more streetcars in mixed traffic might create more seats, but not more speed, which I believe is the only thing that will get people out of their cars.

Steve: It is fascinating that this comment came in at roughly the same time as another one advocating getting rid of cars on Queen Street and turning it into a transit mall, but still putting the transit service in a subway. [See following comment]

Transit service downtown, and more generally in neighbourhoods that do not have large, point developments, must not be buried underground. There is some sort of myth about subways that assumes they are good for neighbourhoods. In fact, unless you put the stops very close together, the opposite is true. Indeed, even on Bloor-Danforth, it took some neighbourhoods decades to recover from the loss of the surface, pedestrian oriented transit system.

If the TTC were going to build an east-west subway downtown, there would be one line, and it would be on Queen. Too bad that a lot of people live on King, that’s their tough luck. Or Dundas too, for that matter. The stops would be no closer than one per kilometer, and this means that there would be a stop at Yonge, University, Bathurst, Shaw/Ossington, Dufferin, Lansdowne and Roncesvalles. To the east, there would be one stop between Yonge and Broadview, and a few between Broadview and the Beach.

Service on parallel routes would almost certainly suffer (as if Dundas is anything to cheer about today), and the possibility for increased transit coverage and attractiveness in the old city would be lost forever.

A line across Queen would be difficult and expensive to build because so many buildings are close to the street, and there are many services to relocate. Station construction would be a particular challenge. The whole thing would cost at least $2.5-billion. All this to replace a streetcar line and get it out of the way of motorists.

Yes, I feel that the issue of rights-of-way is overstated as an alternative to adequate service, but the solution is not to be found in subways.

on 09 Feb 2007 at 11:37 pm Tyler said …

Have there been any studies done on the possibility of making Queen Street car free – meaning, that it would be for streetcars, bicycles and delivery vehicles only? This thought crosses my mind each time I am along the street. It could create a very unique and pedestrian friendly atmosphere in the heart of the city. I don’t know the implications it would have on businesses or the surrounding streets, though.

I grew up in Minneapolis where the downtown corridor (Nicollet Avenue Mall – click here ) is for buses, taxies, and bicycles only. It is a very neat street to walk down. While it lacks a bit of green space, it is one of many things that makes downtown Minneapolis interesting to go to.

Having recently moved here about 6 months ago, it also seems that a subway running along Queen and could be very advantagous for the city as it grows more dense in the core.

Steve: Please see remarks in another post about the folly of a subway on Queen Street.

on 10 Feb 2007 at 12:41 am Aaron Williams said …

Hi Steve

I happened upon your site about a year ago and have checked in regularly ever since. I think it’s great and keep up the good work.

One thing puzzles me, and an earlier post on this topic inspired me. You are clearly for improvements to transit in Toronto, yet you are against subways downtown. All great cities (Paris, London, NYC) have extensive subways crisscrossing downtown with, at least in NY’s case, express and local service, even 24 hours a day.

Clearly, a subway along Queen street would be a roaring success right out of the gate, because it would offer speedy, reliable service from the western and eastern core, into downtown, and all along the route, combining the riders on, say, the King, Queen, and Dundas cars. It would provide more connection points for new streetcar lines. Although expensive, stations don’t have to be a kilometre apart, and a subway downtown would free up streetcars to deliver higher order transit in the near burbs. This is a win/win for DT and the burbs. Yes, there may be longer walks to the nearest subway station, but a lot of people would gladly accept this knowing that, once they arrive at the station, a subway train is no more than 5 mins away. Transit riders want speed and reliability.

Thanks and all the best,
Aaron Williams

Steve: I think it must be the phases of the moon — all of the “put a subway on Queen” comments have been flooding in during the past 24 hours.

Comparisons with London, Paris, New York and other similar cities are inappropriate because the population densities there are much higher, and have been much higher than Toronto for a century. The core of the subway networks in all three cities was built before automobile traffic ruled the day, and even in a modern setting, car travel is simply not an option given the limited supply of parking.

Queen Street is not Fifth Avenue. It is not lined with towers, and indeed it has the feel of a village, not a Manhattan. That’s part of its charm be it on Queen West on in The Beach.

Subway lines depend for their demand on suburban feeders. Indeed the Bloor Streetcar, and the subway that replaced it, had feeder bus routes all along its length. As the line extended into Etobicoke and Scarborough, an even greater proportion of load did not arrive from immediately near the stations. On Queen Street, there is very limited opportunity for feeding the line for the simple reason that nobody lives in Lake Ontario. The one potential source of demand is in southern Etobicoke, but even that will never reach Bloor Subway levels because it can only draw from the band roughly from the QEW to the lake.

Yes, transit riders want speed and reliability. We will never give subway service levels on the surface, but at some point I have to ask whether spending billions on a subway line is the best way to go in the overall context of transit underfunding. If that sort of money is on the table, there are at least three other projects in line before a Queen Street subway (Spadina, Sheppard, Scarborough), and would-be riders will be dead and buried before something actually opens on Queen.

If we keep telling people that the only way to improve transit is to build subways, what actually will happen is that we will do nothing, and service will continue to deteriorate. We need to start taking stronger pro-transit stance within the infrastructure we have. Small things like actually giving priority to the Spadina car at key intersections like Lake Shore where it can languish for two minutes. I am always astounded at the amount of money people are willing to spend to avoid inconvenience to motorists.

on 10 Feb 2007 at 1:02 am Andrew MacKinnon said …

At some point in the future, we will have no choice but to build a subway under Queen. I don’t think it is justified yet, but eventually it will be necessary. Like with Yonge and Bloor streets, there always comes a point when demand is so high that you have no choice but to build a subway underground, regardless of the removal of intermediate stations. I don’t think that the conversion to subway is as detrimental to business as you suggest. Furthermore, it is almost certain that there would be more stations than you suggest would be built – at the very least, Spadina and Parliament would get stops.

Steve: See my reply to other comments. “Eventually” is a very long time in the future, and we must not stop trying to improve service today on the grounds that two decades from now we might get a subway.

on 10 Feb 2007 at 1:05 am Mimmo Briganti said …

Who says the stops on a Queen subway line couldn’t be as closely spaced as those on BD? I don’t see how Bloor suffered, and I lived there. There were fears about Danforth in the 60s, but those proved to be unwarranted. With the automatic entraces in place on BD – Emerson, Lansdowne, Dufferin, Delaware, Ossington, Christie, Markham, Bathurst, Walmer, Spadina, Bedford, St. George, Bay, Bellair, Cumberland, Yonge … you’re never more than a 5 minute walk to a station entrance. How is that bad for Queen if each station had two entrances?

You folks are too close to the problem — you have to take a step back and look at it from the perspective of the general public, not transit advocates. A Queen line would do the core a whole world of good, including King and Dundas. The general public doesn’t give a hoot about buses or streetcars. They are perceived as slow, and always will be.

Steve: The point I have been trying to make is that nobody is actually going to build a subway line with closely spaced stops like the original B-D line, and we will get the worst of both worlds — a North Yonge or Sheppard line for station spacing within neighbourhoods that have developed around transit at local stops.

One important note about auxiliary entrances: they tend to be inaccessible because they get the absolute minimum of escalators and elevators. For many riders they don’t really exist as options.

on 10 Feb 2007 at 1:39 am P. Ouimet-Storrs said …

Thought Tyler might like to know that Minneapolis is about to let auto traffic back into Nicollet transit mall. Same for Granville Street in Downtown Vancouver. Transit malls are big time failures.

on 10 Feb 2007 at 11:05 am

David Cavlovic said …

Please people. Enough talk about subways under Queen (and DON’T confuse it with the issue of PARTLY burying an LRT line in a downtown core). Subways are and should be non-starters : too expensive, old technology that does not have nearly the flexibility of LRT. Stop looking at subways as sexy panaceas to urban transit.

Here’s a simple, even naive, solution : stop driving cars. Provide more surface transit to replace those cars. If Europe can do it, why can’t we? Go ahead. Raise gas prices to their real values. My God, SOMETHING has to be done to stop the car dependency and the related “lets build a subway to bury public transit users so the car drivers don’t have to put up with them and their ugly proletarian vehicles”.

End of rant.

Steve: It’s good to hear from the pro-LRT folks now and then too. Glad you’re still alive out there.

on 10 Feb 2007 at 11:13 am Mimmo Briganti said …

All subway construction in recent years has been in the suburbs, so of course the stops were widely spaced. I don’t think the same would apply to a dense corridor like Queen.

Steve: The spacing is as much a function of cost as of suburban form. Don’t forget that Bessarion Station only exists because someone had the bright idea it might be useful someday. There was a big fight about keeping it in the plan.

Even with the planned high rises on the Canadian Tire lands, I expect that it will continue to set records for low usage. Stations cost a lot to build, especially on the size needed for subway trains (as compared to shorter LRT trains).

A ROW on Queen’s surface is impossible due to the narrow road, so any real improvement there will only happen by going underground. Scrap Spadina, build Queen (or King).

Steve: Hell will freeze over before our political masters choose a Queen subway over the many suburban proposals on the drawing boards.

I’m moving back downtown in a few months, and I chose to be on Bloor specifically for the subway. People said to me … “why not St. Clair, College, or Queen?”.

I said to them … what for?! So I can wait outside and freeze for a streetcar? Look how long the Queen car takes to get downtown from Etobicoke … forever!

on 10 Feb 2007 at 1:32 pm John F Bromley said …

I agree that a subway line on Queen is not the answer. There are far cheaper methods of clearing a right of way for transit, at least during off hours (for example enforce no stopping/no parking bans – the cost of enforcement personnel to be hired for that specific purpose in congested areas is slightly under the billions subways cost).

Some European cities ban cars on some roads for certain times of the day. Queen St, for example, could have transit, taxi, bike and emergency access only, say from Church to Spadina or wherever it’s worst, for the 8 AM – 7 PM or thereabouts period. Allow delivery trucks a window of opportunity – businesses can cope if they know specific times can be used) – say 9.30-11.30 Monday-Friday.

Richmond-Adelaide can (if stopping/parking were not only banned but ENFORCED, which is 90% of the problem on those streets) handle the traffic that might otherwise use Queen. Certain sections of King and Dundas could be similarly treated. The lines of taxis on King west of Bay and to a lesser extent, on Wellington west of Bay, contribute more to delays than anything else there.

Most European cities, even those without wide boulevards and/or separate reservations downtown, handle their streetcar traffic by giving it a clear shot through the central area. Cars can be made to go elsewhere, if there’s free roadspace.

Of course you need to find a politician who has a spine (if you find one, call a news conference) rather than a penchant for rhetoric.

on 10 Feb 2007 at 2:38 pm David Cavlovic said …

I agree totally with John F. Bromley, the man who wrote the definitive book on the TTC, even if it is over 30 years out of date (hint, hint, John : any chance of an updated version?) Not only do we need to find a politician with a spine, but also with a cerebral cortex who can remind us what the Europeans already know : driving is a privilege and not a right.

on 10 Feb 2007 at 3:01 pm Matt said …

Seems to me that the problem isn’t really the central stretch of Queen — there’s probably enough transit and road capacity to handle all the trips that start and end east of High Park and west of the Don River. But Queen is also used as a commuter route for riders and drivers from further west and east, and congestion is the result.

Not an easy problem, since the two groups have opposite needs. Frequent stops are essential for the locals and for the vital small-retail strip along Queen; long-distance riders would be better served by wide stop spacings until they reached the central core. (Right now, the trip from the Beach or Etobicoke is a leisurely one, even in light traffic.) And this isn’t just a matter of convenience: to reduce long-distance car trips using Queen, there have to be speedier transit alternatives.

Will the Waterfront LRT plans offer faster-than-501 service to downtown? Or do you see this as part of GO Transit’s mandate, if only they could offer higher frequency service on the Lakeshore line?

Steve: You have hit a vital point here: the downtown streetcar lines primarily serve local demand, not long-haul riders. The Long Branch folks are an exception, and even out there, there’s is considerable need for close stop spacing. The Bloor line is a very different animal and cannot be directly compared to Queen.

on 10 Feb 2007 at 5:41 pm Bryan A said …

I’m interested in why everyone is convinced that ROW’s o college / dundas / queen / king are non-starters?

All those roads are 2 lanes per direction for a lot or all of their length and most have parking somewhere along them.

Why can we not eliminate parking throughout their length, and use that extra road space for individual vehicles, while building some sort of ROW for the streetcars.

Steve: Any attempt to eliminate parking will doom the proposal. Merchants get very upset about this sort of thing. Also, depending on the degree of isolation of the right-of-way, having a single traffic lane makes it impossible to pass anything. This plays havoc with deliveries, people stopping to get out of cars, etc.

on 10 Feb 2007 at 6:46 pm Dave Fisher said …

From an old-fashioned engineering perspective, subways are lots of fun to design and build (if not fun, they at least make for interesting design projects – personally, as an engineering student, I’d love to design a subway). In the old days this, coupled with political will and far cheaper construction costs, would get us a subway line. The historic subways that everyone likes to refer to (London, Paris, New York, even Yonge) were largely constructed in a time that did not know about minimum wage, worker safety laws, fire codes, or environmental impact mitigation. And these cities did not know sprawl.

However, in our age of enlightenment, we rightly expect nothing less than a detailed analysis of major projects, including all alternatives, and whether or not things always work out that way, it is what we strive for as engineers and as a society. So if an engineer were to look at the Queen St. corridor with the exclusive goal of moving people from A to B at top speed, with absolutely no other considerations, he or she might well choose to build a subway. But there’s a lot more to transport engineering than that.

First of all, as much as we’d like to change this, money is a major factor in any project. And even if we did have billions of dollars to play with, it would be the responsibility of the TTC to spend that money in as cost effective a manner as possible. Sure we could put a subway under Queen (or to Highway Seven) if the money was there, but a rational analysis would point out that those billions could easily be used to enhance service across the entire network, rather than in just one corridor. This follows into my next point.

Networks. The experienced engineer knows that not all of the travellers on Queen have their origins and destinations on Queen – it is simply a conduit to get downtown, or crosstown, or wherever. When you build a system of one or two conduits, like the Yonge and Spadina lines, you will eventually end up with crowding. But when you give people a few options, they will naturally choose the one that is most convenient for them, even if it doesn’t travel underground at 80 km/h. If you take a look at an origin-destination map for travellers on the Yonge line, you may be surprised to see that many people travel pretty far to get to the subway, and many then branch off and travel far from the subway once they get downtown. Now I am not disputing the usefulness of the Yonge subway, but for the sake of an easy example, if we were to do it all over again we would be wise ask ourselves whether we could achieve greater overall ridership and balance of passengers if we had a mix of exclusive high-capacity tram lanes and mixed-traffic streetcars down all of Yonge, Avenue, Spadina, Bathurst, Don Mills and Dufferin, with Eglinton and St. Clair to connect the routes crosswise. So instead of having two very high capacity subway lines which most people don’t live anywhere near, we would have a number of parallel routes which a) puts the majority of commuters within 5 minutes of reliable transit, boosting ridership immensely and b) contributes to the intensification and economic development of multiples streets, rather than just Yonge.

Which brings me to my last, Jane Jacobs inspired point: neighbourhood building. Today’s Sheppard/Vaughan-esque subways do nothing to enhance the quality and safety of neighbourhoods, for a multitude of reasons. Number one is station separation and accessibility. Please believe me, from someone who is studying such things as a career: ANY NEW SUBWAY BUILT IN TORONTO WILL HAVE STATIONS SPACED AT LEAST AS FAR APART AS THOSE ON SHEPPARD. The issues: Toronto’s geology, labour, land expropriation costs, and elevated station material costs (steel, tiles, copper electric wire). I can go into more detail for you some other time. Compare this with LRT/Trams, which can be deployed on multiple parallel routes for the same cost as one short subway with bunched up condo/office towers at stations with wasteland in between. Trams encourage streets lined with shops and medium density residential (ie. Queen). They allow people to get on and off to do their errands/shopping. They allow for the vast majority of people, even those living in detached homes on sidestreets, to be within a 5-minute walk of reliable transit. Heck, they even give riders something more interesting than a tunnel wall to look at during their commutes, and subsequently provide the constant “eyes on the street” (a Jane Jacobs term) that help keep communities safe. On-street LRT gives you the kind of citywide transit web that we will never, ever be able to achieve in Toronto if we just stick to building subways. It even has the flexibility to go undeground when the need arises, and stay on-street everywhere else.

The point I’m trying to make with all of this is not that subways are necessarily bad – they, combined with heavy rail such as GO trains, are undoubtedly good at taking people long distances quickly. But not everybody is travelling from highway seven to Front and University, and we need to meet the demands that exist within Toronto and within the suburbs before we start to dig expensive subway lines. Create a transit network that people can use in their communities every day, protect the rights of way for future expansion, and one day you will find that that expansion is actually warranted.

on 10 Feb 2007 at 6:58 pm Leo Gonzalez said …

I have mixed feelings about a subway on Queen. It’s hard to argue that a Downtown Relief Line (Don Mills, Overlea, Pape, Queen, and then up Dufferin or Jane) wouldn’t be a roaring success. The problem is that Eglinton would also do well with a subway from Keele to Leaside, and the Sheppard line could also use a two stop extension to VP, and we could also use a rail link to the airport, and so on.

In short, Steve’s absolutely right folks. We’ll never get the kind of money required to build underground, so let’s get started on surface improvements and LRTs and leave the subway construction until we reach the point where we have no choice (like Yonge in the 50’s and BD in the 60’s). I don’t think we’re at the point yet where any surface route has the kind of ridership that Yonge and BD had 60 years ago, so it’s tough to justify any subway construction.

on 11 Feb 2007 at 4:11 am P. Ouimet-Storrs said …

Hate to burst Dave Fisher’s bubble – LRT is not some magical path to the promised (transit) land. It is one of the technologies we can play with within the context of higher-order transit and shaping transit-oriented land use, but it is by no means THE ONLY solution.

Stay in school Dave: the real world is not a black and white place like you think. You’d be disappointed to know that there are lots and lots of people in Toronto who would wrestle you to the ground for even suggesting to put up more “ugly” wires and “noisy” tracks for those “vibrating” LRTs in their backyard along every major arterial in the city. Want to give people an excuse to raise hell?

Steve: The TTC is finally going to do a proper study of vibrations and noise alongside various generations of its trackbed. Some of the opposition to the Waterfront streetcars is coming from people whose local experience is the track on Queen’s Quay dating from 1990. This track is very noisy because it was built before the new, rubber-lined structure that is the TTC standard. Just compare the noise of track on Spadina south of King with that north of King or anywhere else with new track.

As for ugly wires, talk to Hydro first, then come complaining to me about streetcar overhead.

On February 10, jj wrote …

The only way Queen could be built today is if the stations were spaced closely together and ran out to the suburbs. Most likely resembling this…

Danforth/Victoria Park, Gerrard (PATH-like walking transfer to Danforth GO), Kingston (LRT to Eglinton), Fallingbrook, Neville Park, Beech, Kew Gardens, Woodbine, Coxwell, Greenwood, Jones, Carlaw, Broadview, River, Parliament, Jarvis, St Lawrence dip, Yonge, Osgoode, John, Spadi