The Tyranny of Old Plans

Some months ago, John Sewell gave a series of talks about the origins of suburbia.  Among the fascinating background materials were several maps showing the expressway network in what we now call the GTA and beyond.

Some of these maps are now 70 years old, but they clearly show the precursors of many of the 400 series highways.  Many decisions about future land use and development turned on alignments that Ontario identified and protected years before they were needed.  Long term planning has benefits, but it can also be an invisible hand directing the future.

Three long-lived transportation projects in Toronto come to mind.  All shared two common factors:

  • property development interests played a role in advocacy for these projects, and
  • all of the projects were “too expensive”, but they stayed on the books 

One project is already built albeit in shortened form, one is in early days of construction, and one refuses to die even though it’s little more than a billboard and a perfunctory website.

Sheppard Subway

There are two official reasons for this line:

  • It was deemed essential to transportation needs of downtown North York, and intensification on Sheppard was not to proceed without it.  This was a clever ruse to link development pressure with Mayor Lastman’s dream of Sheppard & Yonge as the centre of the universe.
  • David Peterson wanted to get re-elected.  In the runup to the 1990 election, Peterson announced a “subway in every pot” plan including Sheppard, Spadina/York U, Bloor West to Dixie, Eglinton West, the RT to Malvern and the Waterfront West LRT.  Sheppard was not in this list originally and had been rejected due to cost, but Peterson wanted the entire package to have more heft (if we say we will spend more, it shows more “commitment” to transit in Toronto).

A line nobody except Lastman and his friends really expected would be built got official status as an election goodie. 

Peterson lost the election to Bob Rae and the NDP for whom subway projects meant jobs for an ailing construction industry, never mind any concerns about cost-effectiveness.  Sheppard started along with a bit of Eglinton, but that lasted only to the Mike Harris Years.  Harris wanted to kill Sheppard as well as Eglinton, but backed off to placate the then-anti-Megacity Mel.

“Downtown North York” has developed and despite Sheppard being barely half a line, and as predicted most of the riders go to downtown.  Local bus service on Sheppard from Yonge to Don Mills is a shadow of its former self because there is so little local demand (and the TTC’s lack of a decent minimum service quality policy for this type of area).

Spadina subway

This project was moribund thanks to Mike Harris, but York University’s lobbyist could be seen regularly at TTC meetings making sure his project stayed in view.  Along came the Ridership Growth Strategy as a way of improving surface operations at low cost with a good payback in ridership, but the subway fraternity worried that their projects would be sidelined.  TTC management (and no doubt friends of the Spadina subway extension project) engineered an amendment to RGS in which the TTC embraced the Spadina and Sheppard Subway Extensions as their top priorities.

I asked then Chairman Moscoe why he let this go through, and his answer was, in effect, don’t worry, we will never have the money to build it.  However, the TTC was now officially on record supporting these lines and that vote showed up over and over again as justification for further work on plans.  Queen’s Park, ever so happy to respond to TTC’s official wishes when they happened to support a pet project of the Liberal Party, promptly set up a Trust Fund arrangement so that monies from any government could be sequestered for future use on this project, and this alone.  No raiding the piggy bank for new buses or better service.

The VCC extension crept into sight again thanks to the Liberals.  Civic leaders, wary of offending senior governments, stayed mum assuming that Ottawa would never pay up and the project would just die.

Surprise!  Stephen Harper wants votes in the 905, the line is funded and now we have to build and operate it.  Meanwhile property owners will happily benefit from a transit connection to downtown.

Front Street Extension

Hamish Wilson, an advocate for whom every issue is somehow connected with Front Street, recently wrote to me about Go Transit:

Under-reported and under-appreciated are the possible harm to the GO service from the Front St. Extension and the moving of the Lakeshore West railtracks for the road tunnel under them to just west of Bathurst.  I can’t remember exactly what Gary McNeil said at the Feb. St. Lawrence Centre forum and the record has not, repeat not been available as a podcast, but he seemed to say that the FSE would mess up the GO Lakeshore West service for a year or three.  Since GO brings in 3 of 4 people in that corridor, why are we doing this?

The c. $60M to be spent in moving the railtracks could likely buy about two new trainsets.  If we’d devoted the entire $250M FSE cost to GO transit instead of a road folly and started to build the trainsets, we could have had about 6 new trainsets built by now.  We’ve been waiting for four years for a decision on the request for an Individual EA vs. the Class EA [for the FSE] but we can’t seem to make up our mind as to whether we like transit or more record heat and early smog.  It’s nuts: we wish to build subways to sprawl and big roadways in the core that messes up the effective transit.

My own notes from the St. Lawrence Centre Forum show that McNeil said that the FSE would be “very bad” for GO and would disrupt the Lakeshore service for five years.

Recently, I came across demand estimates for the waterfront road network buried in a report for the East Bayfront LRT at page 15.  With the full buildout of proposed new developments, by 2021 the projected peak hour road volume eastbound at Dufferin Street is 6,900 on the Gardiner and 800 on Front Street.  The Gardiner is still running way over capacity, and the FSE is barely over 50%.  Some of this obviously can change by tuning the model, but I am surprised nobody noticed this projection, flagged it, and buried it from public view.

The premise of the FSE is that we must build it in order to take traffic that would be diverted if the central part of the Gardiner were demolished.  Does anyone still believe we will actually do this?  Suburban councillors are apoplectic at the thought of tearing down the expressway because their constituents will be stuck in traffic when they try to go through or into the old part of the city.  Without their support, this project will not happen.

The FSE/Gardiner teardown strikes me as one of those phony linkages between issues just like our “need” for a Sheppard Subway to handle traffic from new developments in North York.

There may be a rationale for a local road along the bottom of Liberty Village connecting to Front at Bathurst, but we don’t need a quarter-billion dollar project to build it.  Developers may gripe that would-be condo buyers won’t be able to drive straight onto the Gardiner and west to Mississauga or north to Markham.  Sigh.  If they want to work there, let them buy condos there.  We should not be building expensive expressway connections so that out-commuters will line up to buy in a neighbourhood that much more logically is part of downtown. 

Maybe, the FSE is a case where we need to take the line off the map and sometime not too far from now people will stop trying to reserve funding for it.  The Sheppard Subway extension “priority” is now replaced with the Sheppard East LRT in Transit City, and there’s hope that the tyranny of old plans might finally be waning.

Each of these projects was or may be a lost opportunity to change direction, to build what is really needed rather than following an old plan whose time has come and gone.  Please don’t tell me about York U and its subway.  An LRT network running through the university would have done wonders for access to that site at a fraction of the cost.

Will Transit City be another long dormant plan?  Will we have to wait 20 years or more for it to gain the status of manifest destiny?  I hope not, indeed I hope to be riding LRT lines all over the city 20 years from now.

13 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Old Plans

  1. If I recall correctly, at one point David Gunn used a tactic along the lines of “I’m not going to go ahead with Sheppard unless you fund my priorities first.”

    This tactic might be the best hope for the TTC today. After all, the subway extension is what it seems Mr. Sorbara lives and breathes for.

    Steve: When David Gunn was here, he fought and lost an uphill battle against his own staff who were pushing for more subway construction. If he were here today, he would probably be forced to resign for taking a stand against Spadina, and I doubt that the Mayor’s office would lift a finger to prevent it.


  2. When the TTC comes out with its next set of plans, it should clearly mark the priorities of projects, based primarily on benefit/cost ratios.

    Top priority should be cheap methods of improving transit service like signal priority, bus lanes and articulated buses. Next should be the LRT lines proposed in Transit City and the Waterfront West/East EAs, sorted by benefit/cost.

    To this, I would add a LRT line west from Kipling station along Dundas to Mississauga (to be studied in conjunction with Mississauga), a LRT line north from Finch station along Yonge (to be studied in conjunction with York Region), and a LRT line following the Spadina extension.

    Last priority would be subway expansion – the Spadina and Sheppard extensions. Unless there is enough money to build everything else on the TTC’s list of priorities (which there isn’t), no subways should be built.

    Steve: When Transit City was announced, there were deliberately no priorities assigned to the lines. Such an approach would have guaranteed instant rancour among Councillors who would fight for “my line first” rather than looking at the benefit of the network as a whole. The contrast with the 1990 subway plan announcement was striking because rather than a bunch of extensions, we had a network of new routes, and most people instantly saw how they worked to complement each other rather than just competing for funding.

    I agree with the need for study of additional LRT lines into the 905 although there are good arguments for a short extension of the Yonge subway north both for operational reasons (turnbacks and shorter headways) and to get rid of the bus terminal problems at Finch.

    The Sheppard Subway extension is no longer in the plans. It has been replaced by the Sheppard LRT in Transit City.


  3. “It’s nuts: we wish to build subways to sprawl and big roadways in the core that messes up the effective transit.”

    Too true. And property developers largely to blame.

    “Top priority should be cheap methods of improving transit service like signal priority, bus lanes and articulated buses.”

    F**k buses! We shouldn’t be looking to put any more motor vehicles into operation. It’s surprising how little environmental concerns are considered here. Buses may be cheap, in the short run. And who likes to ride buses?

    Steve: While I may not hold buses in the highest regard, they have their place in the transit world. Having said that, they are no match for LRT where demand exists to support that mode. Far too often “busway” is a code word for “road widening”. My all-time favourite was the new “bus only” lane once proposed for, wait for it, Sheppard Avenue, the same street we spent $1-billion putting a subway under. Some days, the road advocates do a very bad job of disguising their true intentions.


  4. My perception, based mostly on newspaper columns about the FSE, is that it’s always been a pet project of Joe Pantalone. The Mayor’s office supports it because Pantalone is the Mayor’s most important political fixer, and many councillors who might otherwise be against it have voted in support of it for the same reason.

    If all the above is true, why is Pantalone such a big supporter of the FSE? Is it pure realpolitik and favours owed, or does he have a more palatable rationale for believing this road is so important?

    Steve: For one thing, Joe Pantalone thinks that the sun rises and sets on the Exhibition Grounds and anything that serves this area gets roughly the same treatment as Mayor Mel gave Yonge & Sheppard. As for property deals in Liberty Village that might be affected by the FSE, I will refrain from commenting.


  5. Hi Steve:-

    I’ve just been reading the recent issue of Mass Transit magazine. They have an intensive BRT review this month. A cursory read shows the irrefutable numbers. Advocates of this mode are asking the question, ‘Why even consider LRT with its far greater implimentation costs’? BRTs can handle anywhere from 3,000 to 36,000 passengers per hour. No you didn’t misread the numbers, I thought I had too.

    Did you know that in Curitaba Brazil, ( the city sited for the high side number) their BRT vehicles can handle (according to Volvo the builder)
    270 passengers each? Jokingly, the Brazilian responsible for the system says, that’s if you’re counting Europeans, for one can fit 300 Brazilians in the same bus. Running these beasts at one per minute gives a capacity of 18,000 per hour per direction. Go to every 30 seconds and you’re into subway numbers. That would be an even tighter squeeze than the private Toronto Railway Company whose white gloved ‘Gentlemen of the Company’ pushed folks onto the cars. Ever wonder why the private company lost favour with us Torontonians in the teens folks?

    I hope that this sardineing of humanity is never ever contemplated in Canada. A new meaning to the word, ‘closeness’ and just think of all of the hydro-carbon energy saved in the winter time for you’d not have to use extra fuel to power heaters! Third world practical? Maybe, but my word, I can’t even fathom riding a bus that could do this and then coming out of it sane at the end of the line.

    Steve: There is a much more basic issue here. Nobody has ever run buses on a 30 second headway that can service stations on a “single track” configuration. If we put BRT on a streetcar line, we are basically talking about taking over the entire street. Parking? Forget it.

    BRT advocates love to cite immense numbers that depend on (a) very large vehicles, (b) tightly packed passengers, (c) stations that have room for a frequent service to actually stop, (d) dedication of a lot of space for the roadway and (e) good weather. I really don’t care how many Brazilians will fit on a bus because it never snows there. Torontonians complain that they have to stand, let alone that they might have to stand closely packed.

    Look at the Finch East bus. It operates every 90 seconds and has traffic jams with itself. Please don’t ask me to believe you can run a 30-second headway.

    Indeed, if we could carry such huge loads on buses, we would never have built either the Spadina or Sheppard subway lines, let alone propose extending them. I am appalled that people will seize on BRT when it suits them, but would be horrified if we actually tried to implement them. Buses aren’t good enough, they would say, and insist on a subway line.


  6. FSE is a complex issue.

    I agree it should never proceed as a stand alone project. BUT, we will eventually have to decide something on the future of the Gardiner (if only because I think there are limits to how long the life of an almost 50-year old elevated highway can be extended), and this will involve some kind of reduction in capacity.

    Part of the issue with the Gardiner is that there is no exit at all between Jamison and Spadina, which forces all the traffic into the central waterfront. My understanding is that the reason for this is in the late 1950s, planners assumed there would be another north-south expressway around Strachan (part of the reason the Gardiner is wider here) on the west side of downtown to address this. The current status quo sort of works because the through traffic on the Gardiner can continue onto the DVP without impediment, but remove this free flow and you would have total traffic chaos.

    FSE is meant to address this longer term issue, one of allowing downtown-bound traffic flows to disperse more efficiently and be better integrated with the urban grid. Any hope that there is of getting buy-in to tear down the Gardiner will certainly hinge on some mitigating measures; some of which should be transit, but some will also require that we not make downtown inaccessible from the west side by car, truck, bus (or anything on rubber wheels).

    This would certainly be damaging to the tenuous commercial real estate market downtown (more so than condos), as it competes with surburban office parks that will increasingly be served by both massive roads and higher order transit (a la VCC).


  7. Curitiba is an extreme case, and not just because Brazilians don’t wear parkas. The street network (and zoning) was designed with the double-articulated express buses in mind. So not only would people complain about being squeezed in, they’d scream about the number of buildings that would have to be bulldozed to accommodate the supporting one-way streets that accompany the main bus avenue.


  8. Nice to have this post, and have the harm to GO from the FSE corroborated and out there – I think McNeil said 3 of 4 people coming into TO in this corridor take GO.

    But may I suggest the discussions about dispersing the cars through the core is akin to re-arranging the exit ramps on the Torontic in that we have not only peak oil but peaked atmosphere, and must start doing transit instead of roads as our OP suggests we do. And as there is a basic limit to what can come into the City with the bottleneck of capacity at the base of High Park, it’s a very logical place to actually start to fully explore transit options to the FSE – and this is now including a quicker-start hybrid of putting some of the King cars on a near-express into the core via the east side of the Weston railtrack corridor onto Front St. and then up and in to the core along Front St. in a ROW.

    Maybe with the upcoming provincial election one of the provincial parties might make an issue of how broken the EA process is when we still await the Environment Minister making a decision about the Class EA appeal for an Individual EA over four years after it was made. They say it’s referred back to the City, and that’s considerate, but at some point, when nothing seems to be happening but worse air quality, isn’t it time to get going?

    In these four years, we could have spent that $250M on GO trains and likely had enough capacity to take away about 6 lanes of car traffic, though GO too is a brittle system.

    But we need to think transit first, and do transit first, not just talk about transit first as policy.


  9. “The Sheppard Subway extension is no longer in the plans. It has been replaced by the Sheppard LRT in Transit City.”

    I think I may have mentioned this in the past before, but I don’t see why an option of converting the existing Sheppard Subway into LRT isn’t explored. The existing line can be brought to grade (at a much steeper grade than what would be required of a subway extension, hence relieving the cost of tunneling under the 404) and then be extended as envisioned in Transit City.

    The cost of stringing catenary and increasing the height of the track bed to accomodate low-level LRVs will be minimal, and then we could avoid the potential Kennedy Station BD/SRT nightmare that exists today at Don Mills Station. Consequently, there would be a true seamless Sheppard Transit Corridor and as a side benefit, it’d free up 16 subway cars for service on the other subway lines.

    Steve: This topic has been discussed before, but I will respond in brief here.

    I would love to see the subway converted to LRT, but given the amount of political ego built into the line, this is unlikely. Also, the stations are built for high-platform cars and would not work with the planned low-floor LRVs we will be running on the Sheppard LRT.

    Any Sheppard LRT extension east from Don Mills would be surface LRT to get across the DVP, although the design of the station interchange has some interesting possibilities that we have debated here earlier.


  10. I think Transit City will end up like the plans you outlined in your original post.

    You mentioned old plans for highways in Toronto. The 404, 401, QEW etc were all in those old plans, but so were Richview, the Spadina expressay, and having a connection to downtown though Scarborough.

    The TTC’s original subway plan was for one under Yonge, and one under Queen. at the time only one of those two got built. Next the had a plan for a subway under Bloor and a subway under Queen. Again, half of it got built.

    IMO Transit City may end up the same. Fancy sounding lines like Eglinton, and lines without space concerns like Don Mills north of Eglinton, will likely be built first. Finch has a good chance as well. Other lines like Malvern where demand is low, or parts of Lakshore, or Jane where roadspace is a worry (no room for LRT, driving, and parking south of St. Clair) may never see the light of day. We could also see LRT in places that this plan does not account for, like Finch East, which has the shortest transit headway in the nation AFAIK at 1:30.

    Steve: I would be astounded if every inch of Transit City were built as proposed and, for example, agree that the south end of Jane has big problems. This line needs to be rethought possibly as a branch off of Eglinton, or off of a line in the Weston corridor (a replacement for the proposed Blue 22). Definitely Finch East is another possible corridor.

    The intent behind Transit City was to get people thinking about networks again with a technology that has a fighting chance of actually getting built, and I think it succeeeded in that.


  11. If the only non-ego constraint to extending the Sheppard Line is the existing infrastructure of high platforms, might it not be feasible to design Sheppard East for high-floor LRVs already in Canadian revenue service? Surely Calgary Transit could be persuaded to send a few Siemens U2 vehicles your way just to show how it’s done. A continuous high-platform design might also eliminate the need for a transfer at Don Mills and make the entire envisaged Transit City system run that much more smoothly.

    Steve: If we get a mix of low and high floor LRVs just in order to recycle the Sheppard Subway tunnel “as is” we will have yet another orphaned fleet that cannot operate on every line in the city. The flexibility of running new low floor cars on any routing with a common platform height outweighs any benefit from changing the floor height just for Sheppard.


  12. I was in Buffalo last summer, and their LRT system has a combination of outdoor street level stops, and in-tunnel high floor platform stops. Their LRT vehicle has steps that fold down for the outdoor stops, and stay put for the up-high stops… certainly something similar could be conceived of in order to make use of the sheppard tunnels… perhaps the default setting could be with the steps down, to make stops in the street portion… and the steps could be pulled up when the vehicle enters the tunnel. Would this be feasible? Would certainly solve the interoperability problem.

    Steve: The problem with this design is that it is a high floor car. We should not be provisioning a new fleet as high floor equipment when the vast majority of Transit City will be running on the surface. Those fold-down steps make the car non-accesible and slow loading.

    Please people, there are more important things to do than converting the Sheppard Subway to LRT.


  13. A whole thread could be (and probably has been) devoted to what to do about the Sheppard stubway.

    Here’s a thought; could it be extended west (and possibly east) above-ground but still with the same rolling stock? After all, sections of ours and other subways do run uncovered. And tunnel construction is big bucks. Not saying this is high priority but just as a way of making it more functional eventually. I know that’s more LRT territory but unfortunately we have to work with Mel’s mistake.

    Steve: No. You would need to take over four lanes of Sheppard Avenue (two for the tracks and two for the platforms at stations), and the stations would be about 350 feet long (4 subway cars plus room for ramps up to the high platforms and other station-related goodies like fare collection). That’s almost the length of 9 buses nose-to-tail.


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