Ford Subway Plan Pours Taxpayer Dollars Down a Hole

By Ben Bull
Published January 10, 2011

If Hamilton thinks the HSR is getting left behind, don't look to Toronto for guidance. What's going on with Toronto's transit? First we had Transit City: an intelligent, affordable, LRT-based transit plan. Now we've got, well, Rob Ford.

Transit advocate Gordon Chong presents an erroneous analysis in the Star in his support of Rob Ford's subway based transit plan. By pulling Transit City off the table and opting for suburban based subways instead of street level LRT, Rob Ford is keeping us all stuck in traffic.

Chong kicks off his inch-deep analysis with a curious assertion:

Mayor Rob Ford does indeed have a significant mandate to move ahead on his promise to take as much public transit off the roads as possible.

Says who? Not the people of Toronto. An election is not a referendum. If Mayor Ford had incorporated a tangible, well-thought-out transit platform into his campaign, perhaps this would be a fairer statement. But the only mode of transit Ford favoured during the election was the car. Oh, and a train loaded with gravy.

Wherever possible, transit should be below ground or elevated above it.

I have a better idea. Why not put it, oh, I don't know, on the street? And put cars underground? The one thing I love about streetcars is that you can see the city around you. You don't have to lug your pushchair down fifty steps and stare at a blank wall. You are integrated into the atmosphere of the city.

Transit should be routed in a manner that is practical and takes into account the constraints of the geography and the built environment. And mass transit should always be given priority over single occupancy vehicles (i.e. cars).

If the street is wide enough and there's no viable need for a subway, LRT is the way to go.

...more than 60 years ago the Yonge subway was started, long before there were the requisite ridership levels to technically justify it.

Nobody disputes that you need vision to build transit, but you can't compare suburban transit to the inner city mode. Toronto's downtown - even in the 1950s - served multiple functions and was uniquely poised for growth. As well as a place to live, the downtown provides employment, entertainment, recreational activities and tourist destinations.

And by all urban indicators 60 years ago, the core was positioned for a dramatic expansion in population and demand - an expansion that has since been borne out. As a consequence, downtown transit needs to be built for all-day use and for growth - hence the subway.

The suburbs, on the other hand, feature low-density housing and not a lot else. Employment and recreational destinations are sparse and there is limited opportunity for growth. So why would we over-supply them with transit? To give us another lane of traffic?

Suburban subways, if we build them, will be packed at rush hour and empty the rest of the day. There is simply no value, or logic, to that.

In his efforts to address the funding concerns for Rob Ford's tunnels to nowhere, Chong contends that we can simply 'steal' money from the government to pay our way.

We should "steal" from those latent pots of money identified by the auditor general to build the Sheppard subway to the future.

As if government waste is a way to get more money! I have a news flash for Mr. Chong: There will always be government waste, one example of which is throwing money underground for no other reason that to save a few minutes on a car commute.

More recently, the Star presents an astute analysis of the relative costs of LRT versus subways. Guess what? Subways lose!

Toronto's four provincially funded Transit City light-rail lines would deliver more than twice as much service for every dollar invested than would the subway expansions proposed by Mayor Rob Ford. That's according to a study by the Pembina Institute, a green energy think-tank.

Back to Mr Chong:

The Finch Ave. West LRT should be scrapped in favour of a bus rapid transit service in the Finch hydro corridor using state-of-the-art highway coaches.

So let me get this straight - In Scarborough we need to be transit 'visionaries' and build subways when there is no business case to do so. And yet for riders along the Finch West's OK to take the bus? How so?

The reality, of course, and the reason the Finch folks are bussing it, is that Rob Ford will have spent all the transit cash on his suburban subways. There is no miraculous taxpayer pot to pilfer.

As a result, those of us not served by subways will be left patiently lining up at the bus stop and picking up the slack.

Still, at least all those suburban drivers can get to work a couple of minutes faster - right?

Gordon Chong is the ex-Chair of GO Transit and a former vice-chair of the TTC. He should be qualified to provide an expert an analysis of our transit needs. His one-sided analysis of our transit infrastructure, however, negates the needs of downtown users and pours hard-to-come-by tax dollars, literally, down a hole.

Transit City, meanwhile - a measured, affordable and realistic approach to meeting our future transit needs - is left gathering dust.

If we follow the Rob Ford's subway-centric transit plan, one thing's for sure - we had better get used to being stuck in traffic.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted January 10, 2011 at 11:10:12

Says who? Not the people of Toronto. An election is not a referendum. If Mayor Ford had incorporated a tangible, well-thought-out transit platform into his campaign, perhaps this would be a fairer statement. But the only mode of transit Ford favoured during the election was the car. Oh, and a train loaded with gravy.

Beautifully put.

I wish more people would understand that (especially in a modern world, nobody seems to want to say anything 'on the record'...and then stand by it) being elected is not the same as having something specific confirmed by way of a referendum. Anyone who insists that it is, is either woefully naïve, or a political player.

Thanks for this article.

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By lettie (registered) | Posted January 10, 2011 at 11:12:20

Way to go in TO is subway. Think of future immigration and intensification and in fill in building in the future. All major European cities have huge subway networks and that is exactly what Toronto needs for future growth.

Comment edited by lettie on 2011-01-10 11:12:51

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By Wentworthst (anonymous) | Posted January 10, 2011 at 12:36:17

Haven't been following T.O. transit situation, but wanted to catch-up... Feel the more they say no to LRT, the better it gets for our transit futures. A great read, thanks.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted January 10, 2011 at 12:48:07

I don't think putting subway in all areas of the old "Transit city" plan would make sense.

However, my focus is going to be the Eglington crosstown LRT. This line, as planned in transit city, will travel underground for a significant portion of the route. Underground LRT and underground subway costs are much more comparable than above ground LRT and underground subway.

My understanding is that turning this part of the line into subway instead of LRT would not cost substantially more, and would provide the capacity to carry larger number of passengers.

I think the issue of whether or not the eglington crosstown line should be LRT or subway should perhaps be up for genuine discussion, given my understanding that the marginal cost of upgrading to subways, for most of the route, would not be much, and given the potential greater carrying capacity of a subway. At the very least the planning for the LRT system should involve planning for the "upgrade" to a subway at some point down the road, should ridership warrant. (Always good to plan ahead).

I agree that considering subways instead of LRT on the rest of the proposed lines (Finch for example) is really a non-starter due to the large cost difference in an area where ridership does not warrant a subway.

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By Drake (anonymous) | Posted January 10, 2011 at 13:35:26

Um, when David Miller was reelected in 2006, people at the time were saying that the election was a referendum on whether to build more subways or pursue light-rail. Jane Pitfield was pro-subway. How can the very same people now be critical of Ford's stance? Although subway advocates get nowhere near as much news coverage as light-rail proponents such as Steve Munro, we've been silently grinding our teeth all these years since Transit City was proposed in hopes that someone with enough political clout would come along to stop this. Subways work, they benefit the entire city because one can incorporate a line relatively easy into their daily commute. The Sheppard subway will be a godsend for making crosstown trips north of the 401. I can only hope that in the future they'll extend Sheppard subway even further west and east into Rexdale and Malvern.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted January 10, 2011 at 13:49:22

Ben Bull - Have you ever taken the streetcar or bus in Toronto? The overwhelming majority of commuters are not looking out the window. They are reading texting conversing with fellow passengers, virtually any and every thing other than looking out the window. There is no faster way to commute than subways. The fact that it improves car traffic is just a bonus.

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By joejoe (anonymous) | Posted January 10, 2011 at 14:02:10

@Drake - Elections are not referendums despite what politicians say during or after the campaign. The only way to get an accurate read on what folks want is to have a referendum or a public debate. There has been no real debate around Mr Ford's subway plans. So who knows what people want?

@Mr. Meister - Yes I take the streetcar. I wouldn't presume to write an OpEd without some form of knowledge and expertise. I don't take it frequently however. Those of my friends that do take it regularly complain bitterly about it's pace and lack of frequency etc. While LRT would be less frequent that subways it would be more frequent and reliable than the current streetcar mode. And, of course, it would be quicker to build and less expensive than subways.
As for the experience of riding streetcars, I look out of the windows as do many other folks. Thant's an important feature to me. Regardless, that is only one aspect of it's possible appeal.

I'm not anti-subway. I'm just anti-suburban subway. Mr Ford has failed to present a convincing business case for upgrading the Scarborough LRT to subway.

Thanks for reading.


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By Shempatolla (registered) - website | Posted January 10, 2011 at 14:36:07

As an emergency service worker who works in the core in Toronto and deals with the first pieces of transit city. Namely the St Clair and Roncesvalles Street Car "ugrades". I can tell you they SUCK. by raising the street car beds or conversely on Roncies the loading platforms they have effectively choked the streets and made them impassable for emergency vehicles. It is stupid, ill thought out and actually creates more congestion.

Critics ask where Mr Ford will get the money to build subways. One large component could be the money the TTC spends on maintaining street car routes. Save for a couple east west, north south routes kept for tourism and practical uses, the TTC could eliminate probably 90 % of the street car routes and replace them with buses. A standard street car carries not many more people than a standard bus. It can't turn, pull over, or get out of the way of an emergency vehicle. If there is an automobile accident in front of it. It can't go around it. If one breaks down it ties up traffic sometimes for over an hour until it can be removed. There are too many stops. In the case of a large emergency like a major fire and depending on the route, that entire route is lost for the duration of the event.

Subways, even if they are buried LRT based are the way to go. They move more people, relieve congestion and are better for the environment. Toronto has a subway system. Why they stopped digging and expanding I don't know. It would seem a more prudent use of finances to be continually improving the system you have rather than trying homologate a bunch of different platforms into one system. New York City is STILL adding subway tunnels. Their system is amazing and moves millions of people a day. They budget for x amount of tunnel every year. There is no reason the TTC can't do the same.

Here in Hamilton its a different story. Starting a subway system from scratch is clearly cost prohibitive. LRT makes sense if done correctly. We need to make sure the trains are big enough and move quickly enough between stations. Stations need to be thought out and be fed by other surface transport to effectively funnel people to the trains. But it can work here. I'm actually excited by it and hope I get to see it.

Comment edited by Shempatolla on 2011-01-10 14:56:57

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By lettie (registered) | Posted January 10, 2011 at 18:58:41

Sometimes I think the movers and shakers never travel. Go to London, Madrid, Paris, New York and Montreal... and see how subways move people. Even smaller cities have subways like Bilbao, Dortmund, etc Geez. It is time to be realistic about future growth and needs let alone the present. Cars aren't going to go away either. No matter what transit there is some people will always need cars to get where they need to go. Give people better transit choice. Other countries and cities pay for all this transit, why can't we?

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted January 11, 2011 at 09:51:15

lettie - Because Hamilton is a huge city in terms of area, 1,200 km2 and not so big in terms of population, 600,00. That is the the city and with the amalgamation of Stoney Creek, Ancaster, and the rest, the metropolitan area. Before the latest round of amalgamation Hamilton was not a very dense city and now it is even less so.

You mentioned Dortmund in your post. It is a comparable population to Hamilton but an area of only 280 km2. That area even includes a copious amount of greenspace making the city effectively more dense. The denser a city is the better transit works.

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By Five dollar (anonymous) | Posted February 03, 2011 at 15:45:19

Hamilton should go for a subway rather than LRT. If public transportation is going to increase density in the downtown area, we will need as many car lanes as possible.

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