The Secret Sheppard Subway Report

On February 15, 2012, the Star’s Royson James wrote about a TTC report prepared in March 2011 for Mayor Rob Ford on the Sheppard Subway.  The article included a photo of the report’s summary.

Royson James graciously provided me with a copy of the document, and it is available here for those who want to see the whole thing.  I suspect that it is only part of an even larger report because this material only covers one big question: why are the assumptions from the Network 2011 study done back in 1986 no longer valid?  There is no discussion of construction costs, project financing, or any comparison of alternative schemes.

2011.03 Transit Technology Summary and Background

2011.03 Transit Technology Table

Note:  These files were prepared by scanning the copy I received, which itself was a previous generation copy including a lot of marginalia.  The text was imported into and formatted as a new Word document with approximately the same layout (and typography) as the original.  This allowed it to be “printed” in PDF format (the files linked above) rather than a much larger set of images of the scanned sheets.

The report contains a few rather intriguing comments that won’t sound new to regular readers of this site, but which raise questions about the planning assumptions underneath decades of work by the TTC, City Planning and other agencies.

Planners and politicians make grand statements about how policies, official plans and zoning will focus development in locations and patterns of their choice.  In practice, this does not actually happen because the best intentions are inevitably diluted by political reality.  Developers build where there is a real market, not where a plan tells them they should build.  Jobs move around in complete ignorance of city, regional and provincial goals.  Do you own some land that doesn’t fit the plan?  Just sit on it until a friendly government comes to power and get a brand new, as-of-right zoning upgrade.

The idea that transit will shape development is demonstrably false because so many parts of the city with subway stations have not, in fact, developed at all.  This may be due to neighbourhood pressure, or to a policy of preserving the “old” parts of the city because that character has a value greater than massive redevelopment.  A neighbourhood may simply not be ready for development, or may have the wrong character.

This is particularly striking for residential development where local amenities and the “feel” of a neighbourhood are more important than with an industrial/commercial/office development.  People may work in office towers surrounded by pedestrian-hostile roads and parking, but they want to go home to something friendlier.

Because the market for commercial real estate and the jobs it brings has shifted to the 905, much of the development in nodes originally intended for employment has been residential.  This completely changes the transit demand pattern.  Instead of many commuters travelling “in” to a few nodes, we have residential areas that spawn outward trips all over the GTAH.  Subway plans presumed the concentrated trip making that nodes full of employees would create, and these have not materialized.

We are now seeing this pattern even in downtown Toronto with the growth of the condo market.  Many residents live and work downtown, but a considerable number are “reverse commutes” out to the 905, trips for which both the local and regional systems are very badly equipped.

The idea of “downtown North York” or “downtown Scarborough” has simply not materialized in the form expected three decades ago.  Actual employment levels at these two centres are about 1/3 (North York) or 1/5 (Scarborough) of the 1986 projections.  This should be a lesson for today’s planners and politicians who think they can forecast and direct future growth patterns with the aid of a few maps and regulations.

The employment growth projected back in 1986 for “Metropolitan Toronto” (now the City of Toronto) was a rise from 1.23-million to 1.9m.  In fact, employment grew only to 1.30m by 2011 with the lion’s share of the jobs going instead to the 905.  With the absence of strong nodes for new jobs, there was little chance of improving the modal split to whatever commercial development did occur.  Combining lower than predicted growth and a failure to achieve the projected transit modal split leaves us with demand projections that are completely meaningless.

Far too often, there is a political imperative to make the future look better than it might be, or at least to do a proper sensitivity analysis, a “what if” scenario for conditions that don’t match what we would like to see.  Any subway financing scheme that depends on future ridership must answer basic questions:  will those riders actually arrive, and will land development occur in a manner that will generate trips the subway will serve?

We have already seen development in the Sheppard corridor, but it is unclear whether this attracts buyers because it is near the 401 and DVP (and thus to a wide set of GTA destinations), or because it is near the subway.  That development is generating many car trips because, for most destinations, auto travel is the only real option.  The market share for transit at the North York and Scarborough centres is barely half what was projected in 1986, and the compound effect of much lower employment means that transit demand to these centres is a trivial fraction of what Network 2011 was intended to serve.

One item caught my eye in the section of “Public’s travel patterns and behaviour”.  Not only were the employment and mode share values used to model demand considerably above what actually happened, assumptions were  made about the way the Sheppard subway would get its passengers.  Regional and local bus services would be gerrymandered to force riders onto the Sheppard line (at least in the model), but riders actually preferred to go to Finch Station where there was a chance of getting a comfortable spot on a train.

Another assumption in the demand model was that the cost of driving would rise substantially both through higher gas prices and the cost of parking.  Neither of these materialized, although based on typical motoring behaviour, without a very  good network of transit alternatives, the pricing of auto trips does not discourage much travel.

This begs a vital question for all regional planning — can we trust the models?  What assumptions went into the model for our new transit  network, and have these been tested against actual patterns of development and of the regional economy?

The projected demands on new transit lines made back in 1986 were substantially higher than today’s expectations:

  • The Sheppard subway was expected to have 15,400 peak riders by 2011, but the actual number on the existing line is 4,500.  The projected peak demand for the full line in 2011 is now 6-10,000.
  • The Eglinton subway was expected to have 17,600 peak riders by 2011, but the LRT projection is now reduced to 5,200 (based on having the central section underground).
  • The Downtown Relief line was projected to have 11,700 peak riders by 2011, and the demand projection today is 12,000.  This is no surprise given that the DRL would serve a demand that actually existed 25 years ago, rather than a notional demand in a regional plan.

In previous articles, I have discussed the matter of the TTC’s Capital Budget and the mounting cost of simply keeping the subway system running.  Nothing lasts forever, and many systems are wearing out.  We are now on the third major generation of vehicles, there are problems everywhere with station finishes and equipment, water penetration and damage is an ongoing headache, and the signal system must be completely replaced.  Contrary to statements by some subway advocates, subways do not last for 100 years without major investments in rehabilitation.

Back in 1986, the TTC had not yet reached the point where the subway had started to wear out.  The oldest line (Yonge from Eglinton to Union) was only 32 years old, and much of its first generation equipment was still functional.  The TTC now knows that the subway system has an ongoing cost of $230m operating (routine maintenance) and $275m capital (major systems replacement) every year.  Looked at another way, simply maintaining the subway system consumes about 1/6 of the annual operating budget, and a substantial slice of the non-expansion related capital budget.

There is a large backlog of needed capital repairs with a shortfall of $2.3-billion in the 10-year capital budget thanks to provincial cutbacks in capital funding.  Building more subway lines will only add to this set of maintenance costs a few decades in the future.

Finally, we have a bit of creative history writing.  Why, the TTC asks, was LRT not embraced as an option back in 1986?  They claim that at the time it was a poorly understood mode with only limited use, particularly in North America.  What we now think of as “modern” LRT had not yet evolved.  This statement ignores the LRT renaissance in Europe and suggests that despite new LRT systems in North America (notably Edmonton’s and Calgary’s), it was too soon for the TTC to embrace the mode.

I will not dwell on the fact that the Scarborough ICTS system was brand new, and the idea that an “intermediate capacity” system between buses and subways already might exist was simply not in accord with provincial policy.

In fact, the TTC’s love for LRT is a very recent phenomenon.  When the Ridership Growth Strategy was first proposed in 2003 for “short term” service improvements, TTC subway planners were terrified that their pet projects had fallen off of the map.  The RGS was hastily amended to include a commitment to the Spadina and Sheppard extensions, and this move has been cited ever since as “proof” that the TTC supports the Sheppard line.  It would be another four years before the Transit City scheme was launched.

LRT was well-established around the world before the Transit City plan was announced, but it took a major rethink of Toronto’s transit network at the political level, combined with the economic constraints against subway building, for LRT to get the consideration it deserved.  Transit City was not perfect, but it got Toronto thinking about what might be built.

This report is a year old, and its existence shows that the pro-subway forces in Toronto, notably in the Mayor’s office, did not want an informed, public discussion of subway plans to occur.  Observations about the changing growth patterns in Toronto raise important questions about the future role of transit, indeed of the ability of transit to serve the region as we have actually built it.  Far too much effort is concentrated on the subway-vs-LRT battle in a few corridors when the real challenge lies “out there” in the growing and very car-oriented 905.