A Response to “Save Our Subways”

For some time, I have stayed away from the “Save Our Subways” dialogue over on UrbanToronto in part because Transit City and related issues are presented as being “Steve Munro’s” plan (there’s even a poll that just went up on that subject), and because there are many comments in the SOS thread that are personal insults, not fair comment, well-informed or otherwise.

Such are the joys of an unmoderated forum.

Some have proposed a public debate, possibly televised, which I flatly reject.  First off, the issues are more complex than can be properly handled in that forum, and it certainly should not turn into a mayoral candidates’ debate on transit.  I do not know any candidate who could debate the details of either commentary.

Second, the lynch mob mentality of some writers on UrbanToronto is utterly inappropriate to “debate”, and this poisons many of the discussions on that site.

Recently I was asked by the authors of the Move Toronto proposal to respond, and this article is an attempt to start that dialogue in a forum where civility occasionally breaks through the diatribes.

To begin with, there are areas where SOS and I agree strongly, notably on the need for the Downtown Relief Line (at least the eastern side of it).  I’ve been advocating this for years at the very least as a high-end LRT line, more recently as a full subway as that technology fits its location in the network better and is well suited to the likely demand.

Where we part company is the premise that we have to give up big chunks of Transit City to pay for the DRL.  This sets up a false dialogue where TC lines are portrayed as overpriced and underperforming, denigrated at least in part to justify redirecting funding to the DRL.  That is an extremely short-sighted tactic and harms the cause of overall transit improvements.  It takes us back to the days of debating which kilometre of subway we will build this year.

I don’t intend to repeat my three long posts about Transit City here, but anyone who has read them knows that I do not slavishly support everything in that plan.  If anything, the lack of movement on some valid criticisms people have raised regarding TC sets up a confrontational dynamic.  Instead, the City/TTC could have been seen as responding to concerns.

Now, with the mayoralty campaign, attacking TC has become a surrogate for attacking the Miller program and the candidacy of Adam Giambrone.  These need to be disentangled if we are to have any sort of sensible debate.

My greatest concern is that whoever is the new mayor, the issues will be so clouded by electoral excess, by positions taken as debating points, as sound bites to attack an opponent, that we won’t be able to sort fact from fiction afterwards.  If, for example, George Smitherman winds up as Mayor, he will need a reasoned program, likely a mixture of some old, some new, not a “throw it all out and start over” policy.  People will have different ideas about what that new program might be, and that’s a valid debate.

Whether Steve Munro is an arch villain (SFX: maniacal laughter) plotting the end of civilized transportation is quite another matter.  To some, I have a vast reach through the political machinery of the GTA, while to others I am irrelevant.  I am not the issue.  Transit is.

These comments are organized roughly in the sequence of the Move Toronto paper (6mb download).  Although variations and alternatives have appeared in other locations, notably threads on the UrbanToronto website, I have not attempted to address these as they are (a) a moving target and (b) not necessarily the formal position of the Save Our Subways group.

I believe that Move Toronto contains many flaws arising from an underlying desire to justify a subway network just as critics of Transit City argue against its focus on LRT.  Among my major concerns are:

  • Subway lines are consistently underpriced.
  • LRT is dismissed as an inferior quality of service with statements more akin to streetcar lines than a true LRT implementation.
  • Having used every penny to build the subway network, Move Toronto proposes a network of BRT lines for the leftover routes. However, this “network” is in fact little more than the addition of traffic signal priority and queue jump lanes (“BRT Light”) on almost all of the BRT “network”.
  • Parts of the BRT network suggest that the authors lack familiarity with the affected neighbourhoods and travel patterns.
  • There is no financial analysis of the life-cycle cost of building and operating routes with subway technology even though demand is unlikely to reach subway levels within the lifetime of some of the infrastructure.

That’s the introductory section.  The full commentary is available as a pdf.

42 thoughts on “A Response to “Save Our Subways”

  1. I’ve just read through the entire commentary. One question that I’ve always wanted to ask was what would cause subway lines to have much higher operating subsidies than LRT, and your answer was the subway crew that works on tunnels, tracks, signals, and other subway infrastructure. But a subway-advocate/anti-LRT-advocate would argue that LRT infrastructure requires maintenance crews as well.

    In the context of maintenance crews and their staff, what causes the higher cost of maintaining subway infrastructure than the LRT infrastructure?

    Does overhead wiring require less maintenance than third rail? Are there equipment in subway that would not be required in LRT (besides the emergency trip)?

    Steve: This is not a direct comparison because subways have heavier (greater load) electrical demands than a surface LRT network given the size of the trains. Therefore the substations, switchgear, feeder systems, etc are built at a larger scale than for LRT. That’s part of the “light” in “LRT”. Third rail itself is probably cheaper to maintain than overhead on an ongoing basis, but more expensive to install, and of course it limits you to alignments that are grade separated, itself capital issue.

    Subway tunnels (and this applies to LRT tunnels too) require many more subsystems including: lighting (normal and emergency), ventillation (normal and fire exhaust), drainage, escalators and elevators, communuications systems (central monitoring of systems, emergency systems), cleaning (garbage removal and ongoing station washing). There are big advantages to running in the middle of a street or down a private surface right-of-way.


  2. We should be looking to cities with the most successful transit systems as an example to lead Toronto. The best rated transit systems are Tokyo and Hong Kong which both have extensive subway systems. One might argue that they are larger cities, while although true, Hong Kong has a population of 7 million (only about 15-20% higher than the GTA). Furthermore, with our climate, underground makes even more sense!

    Steve: Although only slightly higher than the GTA population, Honk Kong is much more densely populated.


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