The City of Toronto began a series of public meetings yesterday (March 3) to advance the cause of a a new subway line that would relief capacity constraints into downtown. This round focuses on the question of station locations in the segment from the core area east and north to the Danforth Subway.
It is no secret that I have strongly supported the “Downtown Relief Line” (DRL) for a long time, and yet I could not help being disappointed by the structure of studies now underway and the public participation process. There is a sense of a process that is too low-key, that may give the impression of movement while failing to advance the cause.
In this article, I will review the presentation deck being used in these meetings, the questions being asked of participants, and the shortcomings in the advocacy for this new subway line.
The City of Toronto has a project website containing materials related to the Relief Line including a page with project materials such as presentations at the current round of meetings. The existing conditions page includes links to material such as maps of key destinations and the density of population and employment in the study area.
Consultation on station locations breaks the study into three areas: downtown, the east end and The Danforth. There are many policy considerations that might apply to stations, but notable by their absence are two key factors:
- Which sites are “must haves” on any new transit route? These are sites where existing or planned developments are important enough either for the density will bring, or as major future transit nodes, that omitting them from any route would compromise the credibility of a proposed route.
- What are the likely options for DRL extensions to the west and north, and how will selection of a route for the first phase constrain or support future expansion?
The premise of the consultation is that the City wants to know which locations people might prefer as stations, and what criteria should be used to rank choices. However, the most important question — how does a site work as part of the transit network — is avoided because talk of a network would require someone to draw potential lines on a map. Such lines are dangerous — just putting pen to paper has far-reaching implications because the leap from a suggestion to a cast-in-stone “plan” is astoundingly short. However, it is not possible to discuss station locations without some idea of the more likely places a route might actually go, and especially the primary sites it must serve.
Talking only about stations sidesteps the delicate problem of the effect a new route would have on neighbourhoods not just at station sites, but for the connecting links in between. This discussion is supposed to be part of the next consultation round likely in early summer 2015, but its absence here leaves the station sites in limbo without a broader context. One could argue that station selection should be unfettered – where do people want stations without preconditions filtering out many sites – and yet the question ignores the real fact that some locations and the routes they imply simply will not work. Other locations are pretty much faits accomplis because of their importance. Such information would have allowed informed feedback provided that it did not come with the too-typical “public participation” that only asks for rubber stamp approval of a predetermined outcome.
Planning a DRL will be a politically difficult process not just for funding and regional rivalries, but for the complexity of threading a subway structure through a densely-built series of neighbourhoods. This is not the middle of an expressway or a wide arterial. The inevitable debates must be engaged, not avoided.
This section follows the presentation deck in sequence.
Slide 4: The network transit context map shows many routes that form part of the “Feeling Congested” review of transportation plans. A notional route for the DRL is shown here stretching from Dundas West Station southeast via the rail corridor, then east along Queen, northeast to Danforth and Pape and eventually north to Don Mills & Eglinton. The map shows two lines in the Danforth-to-Eglinton segment because another option here is the Don Mills LRT. Also shown is the Waterfront East line including an eventual extension east to Leslie Street.
Slide 5: Several parallel studies are related because their service territories and purposes overlap. These studies are supposed to “inform” each other leading to consolidated recommendations late in 2015. That process really depends on specifics – where exactly will each line run, which travel patterns will it serve – that require much better definition of project options than a list of would-be station sites.
Slide 6: The context for the linked studies is the GO Regional Express Rail (RER) planning, the Scarborough Subway study, and the SmartTrack scheme plus, of course, the Relief Line. (Note the error on the map which includes GO service to Bolton as part of the RER.)
Slide 7: An important quote: “SmartTrack is expected to provide some relief to the Yonge Subway and may delay the need for the Relief Line. This needs to be assessed.” Yes, most definitely,and with a realistic view of the network function SmartTrack is likely to offer given constraints on its service level in the GO corridors. Too much hype from the mayoral campaign painted SmartTrack as a single project to solve all problems to the extent that the Relief line would not merely be deferred but wiped off of the map.
Slide 10: The local network context, the “study area”, embraces the core area from Dundas south to Union Station and a wide swath of the east end from the Don River to Coxwell. One part of the wider context is the question of the future role of the streetcar network with new, larger cars and with the demand effects of anticipated developments in new and existing residential areas. This has not received much attention in the larger context of the transit network, and it has only a small political constituency. Other related projects include the East Bayfront LRT (plus eventual extension into the Port Lands) and the Broadview Avenue extension. Because SmartTrack is very much “flavour of the day”, there are already attempts to downplay the role of the streetcar/LRT network with the false premise that the fine-grained service of a surface transit grid can somehow be replaced by a handful of rapid transit stations. This thinking has even infected the Relief Line study as we will see in a few slides.
Slide 16: Both the City and TTC acknowledge that there are severe constraints at Bloor-Yonge Station. These arise not just from train capacity, but from the ability of the station platforms and circulation systems to handle the projected volume of passengers. The chart shows a current capacity of “26,000” although the line is actually drawn at the “27,000” mark. This reflects 26 trains at 1,000 riders each per hour, the line as it was when served by the T1 car fleet that has now shifted to the Bloor-Danforth line. The new Toronto Rocket (TR) trains and their 10% added capacity are already in place on Yonge, and the actual capacity of the line is just over 28,000 per hour (26 trains at 1,080 riders each). More can be stuffed in on a peak, crush load basis, but the line and stations cannot operate on a sustained basis at higher levels. Saying that there is a 10% future growth is misleading because the capacity is already in place.
Oddly, there is no reference to the expected 7-10% drop in Yonge line demand that will come when the Vaughan extension opens in 2016 or 2017.
A better chart can be found in the “Challenges” section of the website where the formatting is not distorted, and the 26k screenline is placed correctly. The notes below the chart cannot be ignored. Half of the City’s GDP is generated downtown, and one third of all jobs are located there. The pool of office space is growing and at a rate that dwarfs anything happening in the suburbs.
Slide 19 projects a 30% reduction in east to south transfer traffic at Bloor-Yonge and a 12% reduction in line demand south of Bloor
Automatic train control is expected to increase capacity by 25% with reduced headways, the time between trains, down from today’s 140 seconds to about 110 seconds (this is equivalent to a change from 26 to 32.5 trains/hour). That would take the route up to about 35,000 passengers per hour. The range cited in the presentation is 33-38K. Past TTC claims have shown capacities above 40K, but this would require heroic changes to the infrastructure and operations of the Yonge line that would be difficult and very expensive. Similarly, proposals for longer, 7-car trains, are a possibility when the next fleet is ordered in the mid 2020s, but there are physical constraints in many locations throughout the network based on the standard 75-foot x 6-car trainsets that have been used for decades. That would add a potential 10% to line capacity, provided that longer trains were technically and physically possible.
The DRL vs Yonge expansion debate has always been clouded by its focus on the high cost of any new downtown subway, but the cost of retrofitting the YUS to handle larger passenger volumes, and the exposure to greater effects from a single failure in the core area, are never mentioned. A proposed $1-billion expansion of platforms and circulation at Bloor-Yonge is never mentioned as an offset to the cost of the DRL, nor are the extra trains the YUS would need to operate at a higher capacity. To say that this skews the argument against a Relief Line is an understatement.
Slide 16 also claims that “crowding on the King and Queen streetcar [sic] is deteriorating [sic] the quality of transit service”. On Slide 20, we see a claim that a Relief Line could reduce streetcar demand by up to 35%. This is based on a King Street alignment for the Relief Line. This is nonsense on a few counts.
The Queen car to the Beach suffers from two basic problems:
First, there is not enough scheduled service – peak service runs every 5 minutes on a line that once had cars every 2 – and far too many of these cars never reach their destination at Neville Loop. The problem is not one of limited street capacity, but of service level and reliability. This can be fixed tomorrow, and a Relief subway is not required, only the will to operate more and better service.
Second, reduced demand implies that riders who have finally gotten on to a Queen car would choose to transfer to the Relief Line. If we we know anything from the Scarborough debates, it is that riders do not like to transfer, especially if this exposes them to the elements. The trip from south Riverdale to the core is relatively quick because there is little congestion on that part of the route. Any travel time saved on a DRL must be balanced against the extra transfer and wait time, plus access time from a downtown station.
As for the King car, it accumulates a substantial load at stops along its route down Broadview and west (eventually) along King. It does not leave Broadview Station packed with transfer trips from the subway. Moreover, if there is a capacity issue on King, it lies more to the west of the core, an area the Relief Line will not touch in its first stage, if ever.
What seems to be happening here is “mission creep” in an attempt to show how much the Relief Line could do. Such efforts might better be directed at talk of redevelopment on the DRL extensions, notably the benefit of heading north through Thorncliffe Park to Don Mills & Eglinton. Alas, that is outside of the study area and therefore ignored.
Slide 21 places the Relief Line in the context of other transit projects. With a daily 2031 ridership of 178,000, the line would outstrip by far all of the heavy surface routes, as well as the Sheppard Subway and Scarborough LRT. Although not shown here, I suspect that the Scarborough Subway and the eastern leg of SmartTrack would not fare as well as the DRL either.
The remainder of the presentation takes us into the station location issue I have already discussed above.
Advocacy for the Relief Line
The Relief Line has few friends and is beset by numerous accusations that it is somehow a sop to pampered downtowners rather than a much-needed network improvement so that there will actually be capacity for riders into the core from all over Toronto. [Note to commenters: don’t even think of trotting out those arguments again here. You have made your point in other threads, bogus though it is.]
“Relief” is always something for another day, or another proposal such as RER and SmartTrack. What we will almost certainly learn as the Metrolinx studies advance is that there is a limit to the demand the commuter rail network can handle, no matter what colour or logo one puts on the trains. There are physical limitations on individual corridors, and a combined limit on train and passenger volumes at Union Station. The rail corridors can divert traffic particularly from the outer 416 and inner 905 away from the subway lines, but the fundamental problem is that there will be more demand into the core than capacity. The Relief Line cannot be wished away by election rhetoric, and ignoring the eventual need for a new central subway route is folly. Sadly, Toronto Council and Queen’s Park are very good at “folly”.
What is badly needed is real advocacy for the DRL for its potential role in opening up capacity to the core and to areas beyond the core an expanded route can serve. This is an economic development issue that will benefit much of the City, not just a few blocks near King and Bay.
Picking ideal station locations on the first, truly “downtown” stage of the project perpetuates the idea that this is somehow a route to take folks from Riverdale to the business district when the Relief Line’s role should be much greater. Toronto needs to talk about that wider context and build a constituency for the Relief Line beyond Danforth and University Avenues.