The future of public transit in Toronto is often framed as subways vs. glorified street cars. The announcement by the Ontario government that it will replace the obsolete above-ground Scarborough rapid transit line with a subway is vindication for mayor Rob Ford and his pro-subway stance.
More than that, it is proof that building subways in most areas of Toronto, and other major cities, makes far more sense than any other type of mass transit.
Politicians spending money on major infrastructure projects like subways is akin to the decision any shopper must make: buy the less expensive product that will not last long, or pay more for something versatile that will last much longer.
Most users of rapid transit prefer subways for their speed, capacity and reliability. But more than that subways provide the kind of economic boost and long-term potential that is unmatched by light rapid transit. The drawback of subways is that they are frightfully expensive to build.
However, subways shape cities, while other forms of public transit merely adapt to the existing urban area. Consider the last subway line built in Toronto. The Sheppard subway completed a decade ago was the child of the then mayor who pushed it through against opposition from nearly everyone, and ridicule from transportation planners. That line, running parallel to Highway 401, Canada’s busiest highway, was called a subway to nowhere that meandered through a suburban stretch of strip malls in northern Toronto.
Over the past decade, and especially since the condominium boom in Toronto in the past few years, Sheppard Avenue along the subway line has been transformed like no other street in Canada. High rise developments now surround each subway station, and more are built each week. Warehouses and low-rise residential areas along the route have been redeveloped into high density neighbourhoods. Developers market the convenience of subway access as a key feature of condominium and office towers.
The Sheppard subway line, nearly desolate for its first few years, is now increasingly crowded and more so each year. During rush hours the cars are standing room only.
Toronto is North America’s fourth largest city in terms of population, behind only Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles. The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is growing extraordinarily quickly. Now at more than six million people, it will swell to nine million over the next two decades largely because of immigration. As a consequence, an additional three million people will have to be moved from place A to place B each day.
The Greater Golden Horseshoe, which encompasses Toronto and areas within an easy commute, accounts for a quarter of Canada’s population. The region is also the financial capital of Canada.
Some Toronto residents bemoan the many high rise towers being built. But that is the future of the GTA. Further suburban sprawl is constrained by rising prices of gasoline, limited land, congested highways and the environmental damage caused by low density housing located kilometers from employment and other amenities.
Small European cities, with populations of one to three million can manage well with light rapid transit. Their populations are stable, and in some cases in decline. Large metropolitan areas like New York, Paris, London and Seoul invariably have subway systems with hundreds of stations, compared to Toronto’s 69 stations.
Surprisingly, politicians in Ontario have done the right thing in Scarborough, even daring to ignore transportation planners. The replacement of the ageing rapid transit line with a subway will boost redevelopment and increase housing densities. Scarborough will at last shed some of its post-Second World War suburban heritage. Parts of it will be redeveloped to correspond to its current and future role and location in the GTA.
Even better, extending the existing Sheppard line (as mayor Ford proposes) to link with the new Scarborough line will create a subway route beside Highway 401. Commuters in Toronto's sprawling hinterland may find that hopping on the subway in Scarborough sometimes makes more sense that crawling along congested highways to reach destinations in Toronto.
Building subways into the suburbs, rather than light rapid rail, reflects the confidence that in decades to come Toronto will continue to be the economic powerhouse of Canada, and a dominant global city. Sure it costs more, but doesn’t the better product always?
Thomas Klassen is a professor of political science at York University. He is a former urban planner.