The Dubious Planning Behind SmartTrack (Part II)

In the first article of this series, I examined a 2011 report about the shifting location of office development in the GTHA. Here I will turn to a follow-up report, A Region in Transition, from January 2013.

These reports provided the underpinning for the SmartTrack campaign proposal from Mayor John Tory. It is important that we understand just where this scheme came from and what it was  intended to accomplish by authors who, in some cases, lent their support to the Tory campaign and the SmartTrack brand.

A Region in Transition

This report shares many of the authors of the New Geography report and mines much of the same territory — where is office development happening, what are the barriers to continued growth in traditional areas, what should be done to improve transportation access to these areas.

As in the first study, there are calls for improved transit, but no specific prescriptions for where this might be built or how it could be funded. This is an important distinction because readers should not presume that SmartTrack was actually proposed by the team behind the New Geography or Transition reports, at least as a group.

The Transition paper states its goals at the outset:

This study tackles the problem of connecting the way people live and work to a new way of planning the Region. In the next 30 years, the GTA is expected to create one million additional jobs, most of which will be housed in buildings that have not yet been built. The quality of life for those one million workers will be dramatically impacted by where those buildings are built and the transit and road improvement decisions we make now. [Page 3]

In a review of Toronto’s current status, the report notes:

But in global terms, Toronto is a relative newcomer to the world stage. London, Paris, New York and Chicago already had populations exceeding one million at the turn of the last century while the Toronto region only reached that size around 1940 but now exceeds six million. New York and Chicago already had mature industrial economies in the 19th century when Toronto was little more than a trading post. [Page 3]

Needless to say, this substantial difference in timing affected the built form of the older cities and the transportation technologies used to deal with large, compact populations. The GTA is largely car-oriented because of the era in which it was developed, one where auto travel was the norm and transit was used mainly by “other people”, except in very dense areas such as Toronto’s core. Even there, the subway was a recent addition, opening on a very small scale in 1954.

As in the New Geography report, the Transitions report points to the disconnect between development policies at the provincial and municipal level, and the actual behaviour of the development industry.

The transition from a manufacturing based economy (typified by industrial lands along the waterfront and some rail corridors, notably Weston) to a service based one (typified by office buildings) presents various problems:

The physical structure of the GTA was established when the focus of the economy was still on manufacturing. The transition from a manufacturing base to a service-based economy took place very rapidly at a time of extraordinary growth. Although downtown Toronto and areas adjacent to the subway evolved to accommodate a philosophy that promoted mixed use development, policies originally established to protect industry were extended to today’s ubiquitous employment lands in the surrounding suburban areas. As a result, although the GTA can claim to have approximately 100M sq ft of office space that benefits from a mixed use environment, virtually all office development in suburban areas over the past 30 years has been in uni-functional office parks outside Toronto, designed and built to accommodate manufacturing. [Page 5]

A related change even for remaining manufacturers was the shift from rail to road as the primary delivery method. Areas that might have been ideal for early 20th century manufacturing were poorly located and served by the highway network, and this forced a shift in a major criterion for site selection. The same roads that handled shipping also brought employees to and from work, at least when they could afford to live nearby and congestion had not throttled the suburbs.

A thread appears in Transitions related to investment in public infrastructure and the direction of growth:

Governments at all levels struggle to finance re-investment in infrastructure and cannot afford to invest in strategies which do not achieve the desired outcomes. Policies implemented in isolation of the needs of employers such as designating growth areas where employers won’t go, building transit into undeveloped areas and taxing behaviour rather than rewarding investment are high risk. The challenge is to develop policies that integrate places of employment into an intensified urban landscape; promote investment in Higher Order Transit capable of connecting people to jobs over greater distances, while at the same time minimizing their need to travel; and incent growth in areas where employers and their employees want to be. [Page 5]

This is more easily said than done because, as the New Geography paper pointed out, the challenges of building a large office block on spec have shifted investments more to buildings that are substantially pre-leased. Outside of the core, the demand for space is not strong enough to sustain multiple concurrent high-density developments at the level needed to make high capacity transit to multiple nodes viable in the short-to-medium term.

Moreover, there is no guarantee that the higher density will evolve into office as opposed to residential space, but the occupants of each building type have very different behaviours. The Sheppard corridor provides a clear example. Although there is a subway, and much high density development was predicated on that subway’s existence, the actual demand on the line is low. Many of the corridor’s residents are attracted not to the transit line, but to the two nearby expressways, the 401 and the DVP.

Another problem with subway lines is that they need extremely high density such as that found in the core to originate subway-level demand in their own corridors rather than with the assistance of surface feeder routes to extend their reach. The Yonge-University-Spadina and Bloor-Danforth routes are cases in point, and the capacity crunch on YUS does not arise from the immediate vicinity of Finch Station, but from the many feeder routes into it and points further south.

Finally, as I discussed with the New Geography report, the concept of directed growth, of explicitly stating where growth will and will not occur, runs contrary to the political mood where ownership of land and the right to build on it are almost synonymous. If the planning doesn’t fit, just change the planning with an exemption, or even just ignore the planners and build what you want aided and abetted both by politicians and by the Ontario Municipal Board.

Any proposal to implement a more restrictive planning model has severe problems with credibility, and may actually be little more than a smokescreen for increased densities in primary development zones that would then be used as a justification for spillover into adjacent areas. We can see this effect already with the almost unstoppable growth in building heights in central Toronto.

The Form of Suburban Office Growth

The Transitions report speaks unfavourably of the development character of suburban office buildings:

Following a long tradition of separating land uses as a means of protecting the functional and economic viability of industrial sites, land use policies require that “employment lands” continue to be laid out with extensive set-backs, landscaping and vehicular circulation patterns suitable for prestige industrial properties, even though the focus of many areas designated as employment lands is to accommodate freestanding office buildings. This tradition began in locations like Consumers Road in the former North York but was subsequently perpetuated in industrial and business/office parks in the 905.

In reality, not only do office uses not need to be physically separated from other uses in order to function effectively, they actually suffer from the kind of protection offered by a uni-functional industrial/office park. Despite the fact that an office building in Meadowvale or Airport Corporate Centre might share many of the same attributes (such as employee density) as an office building in a mixed use zone in downtown Toronto, as a result of protective land use policy, employees in locations such as Airport Corporate Centre are denied easy access to amenities such as restaurants and shopping. This is because distances between buildings (as a result of needing to accommodate large areas of surface parking) create a hostile environment for walking. The combination of low gross employee densities and a functional layout designed for car access in turn frustrates the ability of local authorities to serve employment lands effectively with public transit.

Well-meaning but dated policies have channelled large amounts of GTA office growth and tens of thousands of jobs into former industrial parks in the 905 with few amenities, limited transit connectivity and increasing levels of congestion. This also applies to former industrial parks inside the boundaries of Toronto. In the past 30 years, more than 60 million sq ft of office space has been created in uni-functional office clusters, often developed side by side with industrial properties that generate car and truck traffic of their own – another contributing factor to the issue of congestion on the Region’s principal arterial roads and highways.

The Region’s industrial parks and highway infrastructure were conceived long before the current pattern of office development began to evolve. The likelihood is that the factors which made these industrial areas so attractive in the first place – inexpensive, easily developable land with room for expansion; good highway access and visibility; proximity to an experienced labour force – start to lose their luster in face of crippling congestion, ever longer commutes and shrinking availability of suitable sites. [Pages 10-11]

I quoted this at length because this is the sort of critique of late 20th century development one hears from long-haired, wild-eyed radicals who never venture north of Bloor Street, not from planning professionals who may, in part, be responsible for some of this mess. What’s more, this is not just an outlook requiring a change in the official stance of planners, but a major shift in thinking by politicians, developers and the public about what constitutes a “good” (or at least “better”) built form.

There is a Catch-22, of course. Congestion to serve these office parks, even at their comparatively low gross density today, is already a problem, and the last thing anyone will accept is a directive to “infill” existing areas, or to develop/expand on a much more dense basis. The simple problem is that there is no public transit system, not just a single subway or GO line, but a network of frequent, convenient routes, that can perform the function now provided by individual autos.

In the early days of Metrolinx Big Move plan, provincial policy was to prime support for transit by showing what it could do, by building some big initial projects and saying “Look at this, just imagine if there were more!” Unfortunately, some of those projects remain unfinished years later, and the scope of what might have been has been cut back thanks to economic crises and shifting political goals.

There is a lot of “suburbs” already, and we cannot possibly serve all of them with enhanced transit. Politically, however, can Metrolinx undertake a plan that doesn’t put “a chicken in every pot” but rather concentrates on a few major nodes? Can we, in effect, dictate the “haves” and “have nots” of future suburban transit? This is a particular strain for the area east of Toronto where comparatively little office development coupled with a thinner “wedge” of developed area (thanks to the geography of the lake) make it a less likely candidate for intensification.

The Shift From the Industrial to the Office Economy

The Transitions report includes a history of Toronto’s evolution from an industrial city to one dominated by office functions. This did not happen overnight, but certainly accelerated after WWII.

The first significant economic shifts affecting office work in Toronto took place in the post-war era of the 1950s through the mid-1960s as Ontario benefited from the growth of mining, telecommunications, aerospace and automotive industries. The head offices of major corporations, as well as office functions related to branch plant manufacturing began to grow and move toward “King & Bay.” This was also a period of major public sector investments in infrastructure. When the over-crowding of Yonge Street with streetcars (peak hour ridership exceeded 17,000 in 1947) bound for “King & Bay” became intolerable, the TTC responded by planning the first leg of the City’s subway system. The TTC used surpluses built up during the car-deprived war years to invest in the first subway from Union Station to Eglinton, which opened in 1954. [Page 13]

As an historic note, no, the Yonge carline itself did not carry 17k riders/hour in the peak, but it combined with nearby parallel routes notably on Bay and Church Streets to provide a very strong ready-made demand for the subway.

By 1965, the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Department had a land use plan whose scope extended well into what is now “the 905”. This plan is fascinating in the degree to which it preserves industrial lands around rail corridors and the waterfront, many of which are now brownfields or have redeveloped primarily as residential uses. It is likely that if planners five decades ago said “there will be no factories here, here and here in 2015”, they would have been sent packing and replaced with a more compliant group.

An eagle-eyed reader will also note how few “commercial areas” there are outside of downtown, and the presence of a Queen rapid transit line turning north only to Danforth. This was still a plan based on an industrial Toronto.

The full-on drive to build office space ran out of steam thanks to the recession of the early 1990s.

As the 1980s decade drew to a close, the pace of speculative office development in municipalities outside of Toronto was still on the rise. This led to talk of development freezes in some suburban municipalities as the authorities struggled to provide basic infrastructure. Concerned about the growing dependence on commuting by car, the province and 30 municipalities in the GTA began to work collaboratively on planning policies aimed at channeling growth into more compact forms of development at densities that could be serviced by public transit.

But the pace of development proved to be unsustainable. At the high point of development activity there were no fewer than 30 office buildings being built on a speculative basis. The era of rapid growth and expansion of the Ontario economy – and the manifestation of that growth through the development and occupation of unprecedented amounts of commercial office space – was about to come to an abrupt end.

The province and municipalities may have been “working collaboratively on planning policies” for transit-oriented development, but two decades experience have shown that these were certainly not implemented. The problem is twofold.

First, there is the need to wrestle the development industry to the ground and break their desire to continue building to an “old” model. This can be difficult at the best of times, but patient developers are content to wait out political swings and pounce when a pliant government comes to office. Suddenly “as of right” zoning appears, possibly as a “recession fighting” tactic, and all the fine words about directing the location and form of development evaporate.

Second, there is the need to actually spend some public money to transform the transportation network in support of the new land use policies. We have had many announcements, but little spending, and one might forgive developers (not to mention voters) for being a tad jaundiced about any “new” pronouncements.

By 1992 there was a new vision for the region:

The concept called for the designation of a large number of compact, mixed use centres linked by transit corridors as a means of slowing the spread of the region and creating conditions more conducive to serving large amounts of new development with public transit. Unlike the Growth Plan process, however, the nodes and corridors agreement did little to engage the public so few noticed when the plans failed to materialize.

The unforeseen problem with successful implementation was twofold: first, expectations for the need to accommodate job growth (and therefore the scale of office development available to be channelled into the centres) had been created at a time of unusually rapid growth. The scale of development when it eventually returned was much less than anticipated, and the number of centres (or nodes) designated in the region’s official plans greatly exceeded demand. The second problem was that, in part due to the severity of the 1992 recession, provincial funding for public transit infrastructure improvements did not materialize, which further reduced the likelihood of success. A third factor was that the market needed time to absorb the significant amount of excess space that had been constructed on a speculative basis prior to the recession, mostly in locations outside of Metro with little or no public transit. [Page 18]

The many nodes in the 1992 plan corresponded in large part to the “city centres” of municipalities, many of which no longer exist thanks to amalgamation. This is another instance of the political challenge of “picking favourites”. Imagine if the “dot” in the centre of Scarborough were to disappear from future maps. Even though Scarborough Town Centre is in many ways an artificial construct, treating is as just one more suburban office/condo park would be politically untenable. The same problem will afflict the Metrolinx “Mobility Hub” scheme because, frankly, some of those “hubs” are little more than the chance crossing of two lines on a map. The presence of a junction does not automatically mean that an area is ripe for redevelopment, or even that this should be attempted.

A good example can be found at Bloor and Dundas where the TTC Dundas West Station connects, sort of, with the Bloor GO Station and the future Union-Pearson service. The connection is a tenuous one, and a long-proposed direct link between the two stations is hamstrung by the owner of the Crossways building. Meanwhile, with all of the focus on the two stations, there are large blocks of land north and south of Bloor that might form much more extensive redevelopment packages, but the sentiment in the neighbourhood is hostile to high-density development. (A large condo on the northwest corner was successfully blocked.)

To some extent, a hub must evolve naturally within a neighbourhood because transit actually exists there, not because it looks convenient on a map. Remember also that a transit line does not automatically mean transit demand if the service is inconvenient, or too expensive, or does not go where riders wish to travel.

The Evolution of Office Locations

This section of the report duplicates material from the New Geography paper discussed in my previous article. Here, however, the maps look at growth by era, rather than by the accumulation over half a decade. [See Pages 25ff]

These show not just the shift in location of development, but the slowdown in construction thanks to the 1990s recession. Following that era, growth was very strong in the 905 notably at Don Mills/407, south of the airport, and west along the 401. [See Page 29]

The shift in development of new work locations coupled with the growth of core area housing produced an unexpected result. The thousands of new core dwellers did not all work in (and walk or cycle to) jobs in the downtown towers, but many became “reverse commuters” to the outlying office parks. Without a good transit system to support this travel, they added to the “counter peak” congestion.

This term is almost becoming a misnomer in the sense that the road network is tied in knots inbound and outbound and an observer would be hard-pressed to tell which was the “peak” direction in some locations. Because so many riders travel to and from the core on rapid transit lines, the concept of a peak remains in the total counts of commuters, but from a congestion focus the situation is much different thanks to the lower capacity of road-oriented commuting.

Where Will We Get More Office Space Downtown?

The report echoes the hand-wringing of New Geography in worrying that there will not be sufficient office space to absorb future demand.

The best estimate based on the opinions of industry professionals is that there is potential to construct approximately 12M sq ft. Projecting recent performance forward (i.e. annual increments of 650,000 sq ft), this capacity would only meet the mid-term (20 yrs) needs of the FSS, and makes no provision for demand from other sectors.

Demand for office space in the core is not limited to the FSS, however. On either side of the financial core (which accounts for approximately 40M sq ft of buildings surrounding King and Bay), the Kings (also referred to as the Brick and Beam area) currently house approximately about 90,000 office jobs, many of which largely didn’t exist 15-20 years ago. The net effect on the City’s employment base has largely been neutral however, because office jobs have simply replaced industrial jobs linked to clothing manufacturing enterprises and similar functions. The same buildings have transitioned from housing manufacturing jobs to office based jobs related either to the FSS or to cultural industries and other new enterprises. The conversion of older industrial style buildings now amounts to over 18 million sq ft of office space – a transition that foreshadows future trends. Even though new buildings are not being created in the Kings, the companies located there today are driving job creation.

How many more of these former industrial buildings are left for conversion? According to a recent survey, there is less than 1M sq ft of space left for potential conversion. This takes into account the fact that there is also strong demand to convert industrial buildings to residential condominiums. These buildings are often the place where new industries are incubated; they are relatively inexpensive and cater to all the urban characteristics of the New Economy. Vacancy rates are extremely low and leasing rates are rising, which will severely curb the new supply of this type of space.

This stance is rather odd in a supposedly well-informed report based on information from the real estate industry. The “brick and beam” neighbourhoods are not simply places where trendy old warehouses gain a new life as a character-filled office space, but locations of a growing amount of new development. This occurs both on vacant lots, and in some cases, on recycled sites whose buildings may not be worth salvaging. Some that come to mind are the SAP building on King east, and the soon-to-rise new Globe and Mail offices across the street. The grand daddy of them all is the Unilever site east of the Don River between Eastern Avenue and Lake Shore Boulevard.

The question is one of access. For suburban office parks, access by transit is almost guaranteed to be absent, while for core and near-core properties there is at least a fighting chance for good surface transit, if not a subway or GO station. That, indeed, will be a challenge in the “shoulder” core areas — building more subways downtown is political anathema and, in any event, is ruinously expensive. Any new line will serve limited areas where there are stations, but other developable lands will remain at the mercy of surface transit. This is particularly a challenge in the eastern waterfront where developers who were promised an LRT line are chafing at the limited capabilities of a few infrequent bus routes.

The Problem is Not Just Downtown

Access to suburban office sites is as much a problem, possibly moreso, in the 905 than it is downtown. Capacity for substantially more commuters is relatively easy to add to the core area, but not so simply in the 905 with its dispersed development pattern for jobs and homes.

The focus of most rapid transit solutions in the GTA since 1947 in Toronto has been on the core of the City. Although the Growth Plan and other policies have started the process of shifting the focus of growth away from the core, current infrastructure investment plans continue to allocate resources almost exclusively to the 416. There is an urgent need to create effective transit linkages between 416 and the 905. As residential growth in Toronto continues to outpace employment, an increasingly large percentage of Toronto residents will likely be working in the 905. At the present time, there are few options to reach employment areas in the 905 from Toronto by public transit.

There is a risk that if the Region does not embark on improving connectivity to and between these clusters, the productivity of the Region will continue to erode. Some of the historic clusters in the Region have suffered noticeable stagnation in terms of employment, even in the outlying areas. An example is Mississauga City Centre, which has not attracted a new office building since 1992. This situation may occur in some of the newer, still-growing clusters as well if connectivity problems are not addressed. Historically, transportation infrastructure such as roads, bridges, ports and rail defined where people lived and worked. These investments create opportunities for people to work, start businesses, grow, prosper and conduct trade. It is important that more public attention be focused on providing competitive environments for businesses to compete. [Page 36]

What, for example, would a transit network that really made a difference in transit’s modal share at Mississauga City Centre look like? Is this a question of local transit service within the city, or must it reach well beyond to the commutershed on which the centre depends? How much more attractive must the centre become to restart interest in development there? Even more criticially, is it even possible to resurrect interest in these stagnant locales?

Again, we have to “play favourites” in deciding where transit dollars would be concentrated to reinforce or resurrect existing nodes. If there were already robust transit services throughout the 905, this would be someone easier because many upgrades would be incremental — converting a busy bus corridor to BRT or LRT, for example. Much more must be done if we start almost from scratch to convert an auto-oriented node into a strong, transit-oriented one.

Urban solutions, however, require different approaches. The “build it and they will come” can no longer be the rationale for public investment in laying the backbone for growth. Linking existing clusters and enabling growth to occur where business can thrive is a very different challenge. Shared investment in connecting businesses to where people live is a more complex problem that needs a more complete understanding of the elements of agglomeration.

By adopting a more integrated approach, the public sector can better maximize, coordinate and leverage its policy efforts and investments, which in turn will inspire the private sector to deliver quality developments that meet the needs of the New Economy. [Pages 37-38]

This statement has the feel of a forced confidence, an irony that somehow the private sector will do the right thing even though “build it and they will come” is no longer a viable way to plan. The public sector is forever at the mercy of political forces, including those of property owners who prefer that new services go to their sites first and foremost, whether this makes sense in a regional planning context or not.

As the report noted earlier, there are already too many “centres” to support the growth plans of two decades ago, and the last thing we need to do is add to the mix with even more artificial “hubs”.

London’s Crossrail project is cited as an example of what can be done when the public and private sectors have the impetus for a joint effort and investment. Well, yes, but central London is not the 905, and if anything it is an area where any improvement in transit access will immediately translate to strong demand and increased property value. This is a project at the heart of a region with an overabundance of demand, not one on the fringes where the impetus may be political, not practical.

The Need for a Plan

The Transitions report now arrives at its call for an integrated GTA plan. The section begins with a recitation of the usual figures and projections about population and employment, and reiterates that almost all of the new employment will be in office-type space, not manufacturing.

The case against “business as usual” (a theme carried forward from the Geography report) is straightforward:

Where will the Region’s next half million new jobs be housed, and where will 100M sq. ft. of office space be located? What impact will this have on infrastructure? Building on the conditions that exist in the Region today, a large percentage of the growth will most likely occur where it has for the past 30 years. There is ample room to grow in four static clusters in the 416, but weak demand. There is strong demand but limited capability to grow in Toronto’s financial core and there are few buildings left to renovate in the Kings. Meanwhile, the evidence shows that the 905 is suffering from severe congestion. This could be interpreted as a tipping point where co-ordinated policy balancing and integrating the impact of all three policy tools in the Region, planning, transit and economic development, could prove to be vital. [Page 42.]

Note that as I remarked above, the statement about limited development in the shoulders of the core is incorrect based on actual development proposals and construction at the end of 2014. This has intriguing implications.

As long as one can claim that downtown is “full”, then there is reason to believe alternate centres might become competitive given the right policy encouragement. However, what happens if we keep “finding” space that can come on stream to satisfy the demand for office space within the central 416? Will nodes in the 905 (especially if too many are designated growth centres) suffer the dual problem of competing with a resurgent core and with each other?

The report cautions:

When looking ahead to determine the fortunes of business areas that are currently thriving, the area of Don Mills serves as a cautionary tale. This area enjoyed strong growth from the late 1960s through the next decade. It attracted new tech companies such as IBM, Olivetti, Honeywell and others, that took advantage of the recently completed Don Valley Parkway extension. The cluster was wholly dependent on the attractiveness of one industrial growth spurt and did not possess the characteristics necessary for the creation the economies of agglomeration. Competition from similar clusters with lower costs soon pulled growth north and Don Mills as an employment cluster has not grown since. Don Mills is a prime example of what happens when an area, largely dependent on automobile access and lacking in amenities, loses its appeal as an office cluster based on business type and has little to offer to the next generation of employer. [Pages 42-43]

This is, however, only half of the story. Don Mills may be a faded belle, but what difference is there, other than the era of its buildings, between it and the Two Kings downtown? Today the difference lies in transit access (or the lack of it), but this will change.

First will come the Eglinton Crosstown LRT line. An underground station at Don Mills and Eglinton will serve whatever pops up on this corner. To the northwest is a huge property now housing Celestica and IBM, but up for sale and redevelopment. To the northeast is vacant land owned by the City of Toronto that will host the bus loop for feeder services at the new station. This is an obvious site for integrated development above the transit property.

Later, if the City and Province can break the political deadlock about the “Downtown” Relief line and also cure the TTC of its narrow focus on a route only to the south of Danforth, we could see the plan to operate a new route at least north to Eglinton. Many lands lie along such a route including the Unilever site already mentioned, Gerrard Square, Thorncliffe Park (whose northern half contains much near-vacant land and buildings, and Don Mills/Eglinton itself.

The Transitions report is odd in its selective consideration of which neighbourhoods close to the core might prove worthy of development, and it focuses on Liberty Village (as well as the Airport Commercial Centre). This is the first hint of arguments that will evolve into SmartTrack, but one cannot help wondering about the chicken-egg relationship in the selection of case study sites.

Next the report goes into a long discussion of who builds office space, where and why. This rehashes a lot of what went before in both the Transitions and Geography reports. At the end of this exercise, we are still no closer to learning what a new regional plan might look like, although we know a lot about office buildings.

The question of private sector participation in the financing of public transit, a popular topic among the something-for-nothing set in political circles, gets an airing too.

Most of the conversation in the GTA about private sector involvement in transit financing surrounds financing capital costs and outsourcing capital construction at the expense of the public sector. The assumption of ridership risk has not been part of the conversation with the private sector because it has always been assumed that the private sector will leverage the transit investment and capture its value independently. Unfortunately, this is not always the case as many other factors influence the location of development. Co-investing in the creation of stations and augmenting the operating costs of transit has not been part of the transit finance discussion in the GTA, even though private sector development is critical to ridership and sustainability of transit corridors. If transit is proposed in a location where the private sector takes a portion of the risk then the risk of low ridership resulting from no intensification will be reduced. If the private sector invests even a small proportion of the capital costs then it is very likely that the private sector will be motivated to invest in ways other than direct payment for their investment. To do this they must have the reasonable expectation that they will be able to build employment and multi-residential development in a transit-friendly way where the creation costs and benefits of transit are shared. [Page 49]

There is a fundamental problem with this model and the discussion that follows. Toronto’s existing networks (both GO and subway) show only too well that station locations and developments that generate ridership are not necessarily contiguous. Riders may arrive by feeder routes or by park-and-ride lots, or even by cycling at stations that are, from a development point of view, in the middle of a field. The value of a route, indeed the very need for it, may depend not on the land through which it passes, but on the areas it connects and the routes which expand this through their own catchment areas.

We are not going to pay for the Eglinton Crosstown tunnel with proceeds of development above the stations, some of which will remain in resolutely low density residential neighbourhoods for decades. The problem becomes even more complex in the suburbs where connecting existing office parks may not bring opportunity for new development especially if the lands are among the stranded areas where nothing new has been built for decades. Toronto is growing, but it is not Hong Kong either in sheer size or in the constrained availability of developable land.

Conversely, we could find ourselves again trying to create too many nodes, too much density, to “justify” or pay for new lines when the market may be unwilling to sustain them.

Page 49 shows a map of the six areas in which the majority of growth occurred in the past two decades (1992-2012): the core of Toronto, the “Two Kings” east and west of the core, Markham (DVP/407), the Airport Corporate Centre, Meadowvale and Oakville Sheridan. It is a short hop from this list to SmartTrack, but one that will not be made in the Transitions report.

What is noticeable by its absence is any discussion of the transit needs everywhere else. In effect, the authors have chosen the favoured sites based on existing development patterns, and everyone else takes a back seat including such areas of interest as Vaughan Centre and Scarborough Centre.

Case Studies in the GTA

Airport Corporate Centre

This centre has the advantage of being near many highways, the airport itself, and eventually to Mississauga’s busway. These are all important in that they connect to places other than downtown where many employees may live. However, expressways don’t make good transit routes except for an “express” line haul function to a common terminal. The problem will remain of stitching together a real transit network that can feed the airport.

Another problem at this centre is the confusion and conflation of traffic to the airport proper for flights, and traffic to the airport region as a location of employment. This confusion is at the heart of debates on the value, such as it might be, of a premium fare, business-class airport express train to downtown. Commuters want low fares, frequent service and routes that take them to the front door of their destination (and there are many “front doors” around the airport). Flight customers care less about frequency (within reason) than about being magically transported from the core to the airport with the least interaction with whatever might lie between. Making the airport district a transit hub will be a real challenge, and one that has been obscured by the hoopla surrounding the Union-Pearson express service.

The geography of ACC is deceptive. If Bloor & Yonge is compared to ACC, two things are apparent. The area between Bay and Church is the same as ACC in both length and depth. The amount of office space is similar. If urban amenities such as restaurants, retail and transit were to be added to ACC, the employment intensification potential is triple that of Bloor & Yonge. [Page 53]

This is all very well, but it ignores two basic issues. First, when one leaves the Bay-Bloor-Church area, one does not “fall off the edge of the map”. There are people who represent demand for businesses in the downtown neighbourhoods around Bloor Street whereas at the Airport Corporate Centre, there is nothing, and especially nothing to animate off-hours activity. Second, there is much more to the airport than the Corporate Centre, but this is conveniently ignored. Serving “the airport” must include the jobs directly attached to the site itself, and to nearby employment areas to the east and north.

The discussion of ways the Corporate Centre might redevelop itself [Page 55] is curious in that it reads as if the author had already consigned this district to the “about to stagnate” category.

For transit, the report recommends:

Congestion in the area will only increase without a viable way for employees to get to work. Given the current densities of the buildings in the area and the location of where many of the employees who work in the area live, it is recommended that a plan be drawn up to provide high speed rail connectivity with the surrounding region including downtown Toronto. A transit corridor centred on Matheson Boulevard East from the centre of the node would allow access to the greatest number of office buildings and build on the potential to link directly to the airport and/or the Air Rail link to downtown Toronto, as well as to Mississauga City Centre, and important employment clusters such as Meadowvale. [Page 55]

Dare I mention that the Air Rail link (UPX) will not stop anywhere near the Corporate Centre, and it enters the airport lands from the north, not from the south.

Liberty Village

Liberty Village is presented as a locale with the potential for substantial office space creation and good transit access including two GO stations. One is the existing Exhibition Station on the Lake Shore West corridor, and the other is a proposed site roughly where Parkdale CN and CP stations once stood.

The Parkdale site has several major problems:

  • It lies in a portion of the corridor that is already constrained by the addition of tracks for the UPX.
  • It lies on a curve, a situation not favoured by GO Transit due to problems of aligning car entrances with platform edges.
  • All of the land southeast of the rail corridor between Queen and King has already been developed as residential use (condos), and this is also in progress to the north. There is little property conveniently close to a Parkdale Station for office development.

Another issue here is the question of which service(s) would stop at Parkdale — the UPX, a line with limited capacity and a very high proposed fare, or other GO services in the Weston corridor.

Exhibition Station is at the southern extreme of Liberty Village, and if someone is going to take the trouble to walk that far, they could just as easily continue to the streetcar service nearby at Exhibition Loop.

This is a case where something looks nice on a map, but much better understanding is needed of commuting patterns to the residences and potential office space in this district. Although the area may, on paper, have the capacity for office growth, it is not clear what parts of the transit system could or would support this. For all its problems, the King streetcar is still the spine of the neighbourhood.

Downsview Park

Downsview Park is as straightforward an opportunity as one could ask for. The extended Spadina subway runs right through it with multiple stations serving different parts of the site. Although this may see “office” development, it will be of a low rise form because the airport at Downsview limits elevations of any structures.

Looking Further Afield

Crossrail, London, UK

The Crossrail project is unlike anything contemplated in the GTA. It is huge in scope and cost, but more importantly, the project plays a vital role in adding to the capacity of an already extensive transit network.

Part of the project’s justification lies in the additional commuting capacity it will bring allowing construction of offices that would otherwise be impossible thanks to network capacity limitations. That has a significant value to property owners and to the London economy on a scale that has no equivalent in the GTA.

Even with private sector involvement, the funding comes from three sources:

  • Future farebox revenues (1/3)
  • Business taxes on properties that will benefit to the tune of £150m to £200m annually. To put this in a Toronto context, the operating subsidy to the TTC for 2014 is roughly equal to £235m.
  • National funding which is justified in part through benefits of increased transit capacity producing offsetting savings in future road network costs.

Crossrail will produce many economic opportunities including those associated with strong population growth, but on a corridor that is focussed on what folks in Toronto would call “downtown”. This is a fundamentally different type of investment (not to mention city) than anything in GTA plans.

Tysons Corner, Virginia, USA

This section looks at the antithesis of a dense, congested core area. Tysons Corner was a suburban greenfield development:

Located 12.5km west of Washington D.C.’s CBD, Tysons Corner has rapidly evolved from a rural highway intersection to the quintessential post-war suburban office park. It is now among one of North America’s largest business parks and is the nation’s twelfth largest employment centre. Tysons Corner had sprawling parking, car-oriented design (~160,000 car parking spaces serve ~170,000 jobs and fewer than 5,000 residents).

This is very different from the office parks in suburban Toronto both in scale, and in the total absence of surrounding development. The scheme to transform it was made possible, in part, by a major extension of the Washington DC subway network through Tysons Corner to Dulles Airport. The operative word here is “through”, not nearby as we would have with some of the rail corridor proposals to suburban nodes in the GTA.

Even with the rail line, a scheme to divide the area into “villages” ran into a problem:

One challenge that emerged in the implementation of the Tysons Plan is known as the ‘last mile’ problem. Commuters disembarking at one of the new transit stations need to travel about a mile to access most of the office buildings. In response, an amendment was adopted in June 2010 that revised density targets and increased the focus on developing a new, mixed-use, urban centre comprised of new residential, commercial and office space around and proximate to stations, which is envisioned to function as Fairfax County’s downtown. Addressing this challenge is critical for Tysons Corner to become a Transit Oriented Development, rather than a Transit Adjacent Development, which would have failed to draw people away from the comfort of the car.

That “last mile” problem is critical to the success of schemes to link places like Liberty Village and Markham to rail corridors that do not pass through their centres. If the physical, developed layout does not support that link, or, worse if the main corridor is a few kilometres distant (compare the Markham office cluster at 404/407 to Unionville or Milliken GO stations), we will have “transit adjacent development”.

And so?

We come to the end of the Transition report still without a concrete sense of what solutions the authors have in mind, and a continuing sense that they concentrate on a few nodes that attract their interest (through comparatively recent growth) while dismissing much of the rest of Toronto and the near-905.

In the final article in this series, I will look at a report that, finally, draws a line on the map, although it is not, exactly, the SmartTrack route.

7 thoughts on “The Dubious Planning Behind SmartTrack (Part II)

  1. The Sheppard corridor provides a clear example. Although there is a subway, and much high density development was predicated on that subway’s existence, the actual demand on the line is low. Many of the corridor’s residents are attracted not to the transit line, but to the two nearby expressways, the 401 and the DVP.

    This is misleading. While it is true that the King streetcar carries more people than the Sheppard subway, I think that low ridership is pretty much inevitable when you build a very short subway line. There are a number of other really short subway lines in the world, such as U55 in Berlin, 3bis and 7bis in Paris, the Times Square Shuttle in NYC, the Yellow Line in Chicago, Waterloo & City Line in London, lines 11, 12 and M1 in Moscow, Ramal and Line 11 in Madrid, Line H in Buenos Aires etc. Many of these lines are half built plans like the Sheppard subway or were split off from another line, and all these lines (the ones where I can find ridership numbers on the Internet) have similar or much lower ridership than the Sheppard subway even though some of them run through areas with a much higher population density. Also I am rather astonished by how bad traffic is along Sheppard, on the portion of 401 that runs parallel to Sheppard, along Yonge Street between 401 and Finch and in the surrounding area and suspect many of these people would be using transit if the Sheppard subway were extended and/or other subways were built in Toronto.

    Steve: Er, you seem to have missed my point, and it has nothing to do with the length of the subway. The high densities approved for new condos in the Sheppard corridor were predicated on the idea that most residents would take transit. In fact they drive because the nearby highways go to more places, and specifically to the destinations they wish to reach, than the subway system. A subway to STC would not, for example, address demand to the office parks in Markham, nor trips west to Mississauga.


  2. I found it interesting that the report discounted office development’s role in bringing about walkable areas due to its dependence on surface parking, as there was no market for pay or underground parking in the 905.

    Unlike Tysons Corner where numerous mixed-use office residential towers are going up, there are height limits (hazards) in the Airport Corporate Centre which limit the value of residential (in addition to zoning prohibitions). The report suggests that adding rapid transit and significant retail uses to existing office space, will allow for underground parking, allowing the areas to transform into a walkable urban area, and transit node. Precedent would suggest more modest improvements at best from suburban office commercial areas.

    As to the more pertinent question of where to invest our limited transit dollars, it should not be limited to what works best for the commercial development industry.


  3. Steve said:

    “There is a Catch-22, of course. Congestion to serve these office parks, even at their comparatively low gross density today, is already a problem, and the last thing anyone will accept is a directive to “infill” existing areas, or to develop/expand on a much more dense basis. The simple problem is that there is no public transit system, not just a single subway or GO line, but a network of frequent, convenient routes, that can perform the function now provided by individual autos.”

    This is really the discussion that is missing with regards to Smarttrack. The idea of presenting a single rail line each side as a solution to all that ails Toronto. This mighty river of people that will flow down these tracks and away from all else, does not discuss the streams and creeks by which they will collect. The first and last part of the discussion in transit needs to be the “last mile” (last 400 metres?) issue, as you so frequently note Steve. The beautiful lines pointing towards SmartTracks on their map do not actually deliver riders to the tracks.

    The tracks can deliver people towards the core to where there is a real “last mile” distribution system. This is not true for the other direction, and the plan even if the frequency were to be competitive with subway, would not solve the more basic issue with Toronto’s transit. There must be, quick convenient service, with space on it, that is close enough to the start and end of my journey that I do not get into my car to begin with. Even if the train were to run every 5 minutes not 15, if my bus is not timely and reliable I will not ride the bus to get there, and without high quality bus it is all for naught.

    The solution to Toronto ails, must focus on getting service quality to where people live and work. Yes relief is required for the subway, however, that relief needs to focus on origin destination information, and how that ride will develop. RER makes sense in Stouffville, but it is not a solution to anything but adding service to GO locations in Toronto, and providing more frequent service to the core for Markham riders (a very important need). Markham needs high quality bus service, and a plan to make bus the attractive means and a fast way to deliver riders to its BRT service and have BRT as the major mode of travel to its business core, and to its RER connections. Ditto for Richmond Hill.

    The answer needs to be based on a total network, designed around detailed origin destination information, that is not forced to a single solution. Tory should be a man enough to say SmartTrack is not the solution but a possible option. Let us run the model and see what it brings. I think that will include real service in this corridor, that will build to every 10 minutes, and it will show a real need for something much, much closer to Yonge.


  4. Biggest colossal mistake NO RELIEF FROM SMART TRACK, all riders south of Finch will use the McCowan and Sheppard Subway. Even if you are at Steeles and McCowan, you will travel south and take the McCowan Subway.

    Average Growth Ridership for Smart Track over 3 hours peak period, over 6 station, divided by 3 Yonge Trains = you have made just 7 NEW YONGE LINE PASSENGER SPOTS…… (that’s without the Subway Built). One could easily suggest, because of the Subway, you just relieved 2 Yonge Line Passenger Spots. Smart Track is Smart, without the subway.


  5. The Region in Transition Report said:

    Employees in locations such as Airport Corporate Centre are denied easy access to amenities such as restaurants and shopping. This is because distances between buildings (as a result of needing to accommodate large areas of surface parking) create a hostile environment for walking. The combination of low gross employee densities and a functional layout designed for car access in turn frustrates the ability of local authorities to serve employment lands effectively with public transit.

    Moaz: Indeed, what is happening is the construction of “Food Court/Restaurant Plazas” that allow employees to drive up for breakfast & lunch and after work and possibly run errands on the side. Using their cars to get between there and the office and often between locations. There are 3 of these that I know of in Mississauga, at the Southeast corner of Mississauga Rd & Derry Rd (next to the RBC buildings), off Britannia just east of 2nd Line (serving the Heartland) and a new development under construction now near Eglinton and Orbitor). They are all horrible spaces, buildings moved out to the far corners of a large parking lot, ass-ends facing the street, and the parking lot chock-a-block with cars during the breakfast and lunch runs (with fewer patrons after work or for dinner).

    These are eminently horrible, bare corporate spaces.

    On Mississauga, they are working on their next 5 year plan as part of a long term transition from suburban, multi-centred transit agency to urban grid-based transit agency. Unfortunately the design of transit routes is still based on direct bus connections to those centres, so even the Hurontario LRT will be gerrymandered to serve the proposed Mississauga City Centre loop and the poorly located & poorly designed (at least, transit wise) City Centre Transit Terminal plus Square One GO terminal (GO Transit’s second busiest terminal after Union).

    On redevelopment of suburban office parks, Don Mills will certainly be the test case to see if it can be done successfully. Toronto City Planning may also make attempts to do so in Scarborough with the currently proposed McCowan precinct near the Scarborough Subway terminal. I expect Metrolinx may push for redevelopment around Kennedy subway station as a “mobility hub” once it is no longer the terminus for the subway. Interestingly enough I don’t see any similar plan for Kipling. Maybe we need a 3 stop subway extension to connect a TTC+GO mobility Hub to a greenfield corporate district out here too? Perhaps a subway to the Airport Corporate Centre would release it from its upcoming stagnation in a way that the Transitway could not. It would certainly be easier for MiWay to have buses serving multiple stations (East Mall @ Dundas, Burnhamthorpe @ East or West Mall, Renforth Gateway) than one subway station.

    Malcolm N said: This is really the discussion that is missing with regards to Smarttrack. The idea of presenting a single rail line each side as a solution to all that ails Toronto. This mighty river of people that will flow down these tracks and away from all else, does not discuss the streams and creeks by which they will collect. The first and last part of the discussion in transit needs to be the “last mile” (last 400 metres?) issue, as you so frequently note Steve. The beautiful lines pointing towards SmartTracks on their map do not actually deliver riders to the tracks.

    Moaz: in theory this is what Metrolinx ought to be doing, either by themselves or getting multiple transit agencies together to discuss these services.

    Unfortunately if we look at the example of serving the “Airport plus Airport Area” as a test case Metrolinx has only built the UP Express and done nothing to provide other services. There is no TTC 192A “Corporate+Airport Rocket” and no free shuttle bus service (GO Transit or GTAA) from Malton GO … and no plans to offer these services in the future.

    I can take a few different GO daytime buses from Union-Malton GO for a cost of $6.80 ($7.20 in February 2015) plus a $0.75 co-fare for a MiWay or Brampton Transit bus to go south to the airport but no one is going to promote that. In fact this image posted to Flickr this morning is the first time I have seen anything showcasing transit options to the airport (and area … sort of).

    Cheers, Moaz

    Steve: And that map is, of course, the work of a transit afficionado, not Metrolinx, or so-called regional agency.


  6. Moaz Yusuf Ahmad said:

    “Unfortunately if we look at the example of serving the “Airport plus Airport Area” as a test case Metrolinx has only built the UP Express and done nothing to provide other services. There is no TTC 192A “Corporate+Airport Rocket” and no free shuttle bus service (GO Transit or GTAA) from Malton GO … and no plans to offer these services in the future.”

    That is the thing, without a real distribution network, the transit into the area, except to actually take an airplane or work within the terminals themselves, is nearly useless. The space that then must be consumed for massive parking lots, means perforce that you end up with an area that is not human scale, and does not have services that are accessible by any means but driving. I try to imagine how much more would fit into the Airport Corporate Area, and how much more enjoyable it would be to work in, if we actually doubled the number of offices and thus the number of people entering the area, removed 1/2 the parking and induced the traffic to use transit. That is transformed it to an area with a transit usage similar to that of the core, and used the space so freed up for walkable services and extra office space. This would require a major revisit of land use planning, and that real transit – including the last mile – was present before the transformation could begin.

    Moaz, I agree, that the Don Mills & Eglinton area, with the Cross Town, and Don Mills Subway in place (and ideally a nearby connection to the Richmond Hill GO) would make an excellent test case. Even here however, there will be some local bus required, and to really make it super attractive, the Don Mills LRT should really be built (of course there are much better and more pressing reasons to build it as well). I would argue that the issues surrounding development here are largely due to access issues (lack thereof).

    The issue of course, is whether Toronto and the Province are aware of it or not, this is slowly becoming an issue across the region. Toronto growth will eventually stall just due to a lack of action around transit.


  7. Steve said:

    “This is all very well, but it ignores two basic issues. First, when one leaves the Bay-Bloor-Church area, one does not “fall off the edge of the map”. There are people who represent demand for businesses in the downtown neighbourhoods around Bloor Street whereas at the Airport Corporate Centre, there is nothing, and especially nothing to animate off-hours activity. Second, there is much more to the airport than the Corporate Centre, but this is conveniently ignored. Serving “the airport” must include the jobs directly attached to the site itself, and to nearby employment areas to the east and north.”

    One of the things that concerns me with regards to the discussion surrounding the ACC, and the idea of a Matheson corridor, is that there is also a substantial number of office, in a low density area, on the other side of the 401. If you are talking about walking off the map, there is also the fact that these two areas (across the expressway) feel much more isolated, than the south core used to feel from the north core (when the area between was still empty concrete). Nobody is walking between the areas north and south. Dispersed bus service in the area would have to be very frequent and quick in order to make transit into the area to be attractive using a major corridor, a Matheson corridor would not serve the area north of the 401 well.

    One of the clear things in this area is that it is generally not dense enough to be easily served by a transit corridor and people walking off it. It was designed generally for cars, and this will require some real thinking to fix. The offices off Tomken road, Courtney Park etc, are set up as low density office areas, drive to services, not walk. A bus service would need to actually work through the area, and link back to a major corridor.


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