Philadelphia Looks to Toronto

The Philadelphia Inquirer had an article last Friday about a tour of GTA transit systems by transit officials and planners from their city.

The article is rosier about Toronto than we locals who see its warts up close every day might be, but they were very impressed with what they saw, especially the amount of service and demand. The most important observation comes right at the end:

One of the Toronto priorities that the Philadelphia-area visitors envied was the determination to build higher-density or “intensified” housing and commercial developments around transit hubs to reduce dependence on cars.

One thing “that really impacted me was the sheer size of development within a quarter to half a mile of the Toronto subway stations,” said Andrew Levecchia, senior planner for the Camden County Improvement Authority.

“Thirty thousand to 40,000 people at a transit node. This is what we need. . . . They seem to be more willing to intensify density” than suburban Philadelphia residents, he said.

Shawn McCaney of the William Penn Foundation said the trip was valuable for providing members of the group something to compare SEPTA to.

“SEPTA matches up fairly well against Toronto’s transit system,” McCaney said. “In my opinion, the real dramatic difference is not between the transit systems themselves, but rather how Toronto and the greater Toronto region seems to have much more effectively exploited its transit system as an economic development asset.”

This is a vital message both for the well-established TTC and the would-be transit megasystem, Metrolinx. The TTC is part of Toronto’s success and thrives because Toronto, structurally, is such a different city in its population base. However, the dense, thriving downtown and some of the newer development nodes in suburbia mask fields of low-density development that will always be very hard to serve with transit.

Transit folks in Toronto love hosting visitors because they are so impressed with what we have, but many of their problems with sprawl and the difficulty of attracting riders are our problems too.

11 thoughts on “Philadelphia Looks to Toronto

  1. That Philadelphia article is also mentioned as an argument piece in Seattle.

    Steve: One important point that is often missed in city-to-city comparisons is that some systems carry the capital charges on their operating budget. For example, if we borrow $1-billion to build a subway at 5% interest, then there will be an annual charge of $50-million plus principal repayment on the operating side. In such cases, the farebox recovery rate is much lower than in Toronto where the capital debt appears on other agencies’ books (the City, the Province, the Feds).

    Toronto’s recovery rate would be much worse if capital debt were included on the TTC’s books.


  2. Hopefully this type of high density zoning and construction is planned for the Vaughan extension. I am not too familiar with that area but the few times I have been up there, since moving to T.O. from Vancouver, is that I don’t see any densities that would support a subway presently. I left Ontario in the late ’80s and lived until recently in Vancouver. I was shocked to see how much Mississauga has developed since the 80’s and don’t understand why the Peel region’s population of 1.1 million doesn’t have rapid transit. Sure they have commuter rail, but, that isn’t frequent as the Subway planned for Vaughan will be. If Vaughan’s population grows like Mississauga’s has then this subway will prove to be pure genius in urban planning. If it stays small and low density then this subway extension will be a big waste of money.

    In Vancouver you can almost always tell when you are nearing a Skytrain Station because high-rise, high density condo towers are usually around these areas. It is pretty impresive to see. I see a lot of cranes presently on the Sheppard corridor. It looks like they are using this newest subway to invest in high density condo towers along this corridor- I counted five different cranes between the Bayview and Bessarion stations. This shows me that people are investing in the community mostly because they are supporting this subway.

    I hope that the coming subway extension spurs economic investment and development north of York University as well. All these cranes and construction shows much economic activity is directly related to public transit infrastructure.


  3. Interesting that they’re seeing intensification happening because of transit development here. Some people say that transit has always followed development, and therefore (?) always should. But with intensification now an official policy, historical precedents may no longer apply. The priority, I suggest, is to expand transit access to those areas nearest the core and with the greatest potential for increased density, possibly areas like Rogers Road and the Junction which are relatively close to downtown, ripe for rejuvenation, but kind of awkward to get to on transit. In the short term, it would look like overbuilding, but in the longer term the investment would be repaid in increased density, economic activity and property values.


  4. It is amazing to see areas like Yonge and Eglinton where what could only have once been residential low-rise blocks turned into highrise after highrise and even some office towers thrown in. It is tough now, because when you follow the density, it looks like political favouritism, because the density is usually in areas that are well-served by transit but should be better-served. The only thing we can do with council such as it is is to build these long-shot subway lines and hope to god that the density will follow them. While this has been the case on Sheppard, Vaughan is unlikely because the ‘Corporate Centre’ as its name implies has already been filled in with big box stores and a few hotels. The density is really not in Vaughan, but is slowly coming to Thornhill around Bathurst and Centre streets (2k north of Steeles), an area fairly poorly served by transit because of the structure of the VIVA routes.


  5. Jonathon wrote, “…around Bathurst and Centre streets (2k north of Steeles), an area fairly poorly served by transit because of the structure of the VIVA routes.”

    This is something that will continue for quite sometime if the Yonge subway is extended to Highway 7 because, after all, the mega parking lot at that subway station will be such a short drive away. 😉

    Sarcasm aside, my position for quite sometime has been to extend the subway to Steeles and invest in Phase 3 of VIVA at this time. I have been working on a comparison of LRT and subway construction costs for the LRT Information Page ( and basically for the same cost of building the subway from Steeles to Highway 7, we could build an LRT that is underground for that stretch, then come to the surface and go all the way to Major Mac, PLUS build a second line across Highway 7 for approximately 8-10 km. That would approximately be the stretch of the VIVA purple route between Dufferin/Centre and Highway 7/404.

    Steve: This is an example of the problem we have when people draw lines on maps and make announcements. If rail service to Richmond Hill had been left generic, then putting in LRT rather than subway wouldn’t seem like a “second class” option.


  6. Now, I know that this horse has been pretty well beaten before but my view of both extensions of the YUS is that they are more than I bargained for. While I’ve always advocated having the line serve York U and extending it to Steeles at both ends, anything beyond Steeles is nothing but overkill. Sure, I support going to Steeles at both ends alright but if it were up to me both presently planned extensions would be scaled back to terminate at Steeles at least for the forseeable future.


  7. “The density is really not in Vaughan, but is slowly coming to Thornhill around Bathurst and Centre streets …”

    Btw, there may be a case for LRT line along Bathurst North at some point. That line would serve Promenade Mall (Bathurst / Centre), malls and highrises at Steeles, Drewry, Finch, Sheppard, and perhaps new developments north of Centre. The line can connect to US subway at Downsview or Wilson Stn (it would be even easier to connect to Yonge subway via Finch LRT tracks, but that would cut some serviceable areas, and feed into busier Yonge line instead of the less used US.


  8. Re: LRT vs HRT on Yonge north of Steeles

    The LRT option must be at least considered – with a convenient undeground terminal at Steeles, and same-platform transfer to HRT.

    If Yonge subway is extended to RHC, it will definitely steal many riders from the Richmond Hill GO line, and thus exacebrate the subway overcrowding in the south. That particular GO line tilts east as far as Don Mills before returning to Union, and will only beat the subway by about 5 min: the GO schedule time from Langstaff Stn to Union is 35 min, while the subway will make it in about 40 min. Given that the subway will have a higher frequency, multiple downtown stops, and a better connection at RHC, it will beat GO train for many riders.

    In contrast, if LRT runs up to Steeles, it will connect to GO before it connects to Yonge subway. Moreover, since that LRT will be partly undeground anyway, it can make one stop at RHC and next stop right at Langstaff GO. The HRT subway won’t have two stops that close. We can even have announcements for LRT passengers approaching Langstaff GO from the north, telling them whether their GO train is about to arrive, is delayed, or has already left, so they can adjust their travel plan.


  9. I have to object to SEPTA matching up fairly well against Toronto’s transit system. I have been to Philly and have family there, and the two transit systems are very different. The majority of residents in suburban Philly can not walk to a bus. The ones that can, face buses that best operate every hour, or maybe every half hour in rush hour. But for the vast majority, as I said, they can’t even access a bus if they wanted to.

    SEPTA has an amazing regional rail network. However the system is not used that well considering its size. The Regional Rail network actually carries less people each day then our limited GO TRAIN network does. The reason could be that downtown Philly has not maintained employment growth. The result being, very few suburbanites need to commute into the city anymore.

    SEPTA has a lot of work to do though. The people in charge do not know how to operate the system well. It has a very bad image, and does not get much sympathy from residents.


  10. Michael B – this was exactly my point in my Torontoist comments. In terms of rail assets, SEPTA is awesome. The problem is entirely with the city, the riders/nonriders and the management.


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