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Toronto's subway system. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto's subway system. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

The Green Highway

A tale of two cities that did mass transit right Add to ...

It is truly pathetic to observe the politicking and back-stabbing that is taking place as Toronto yet again fails to develop its rapid transit system. The city likes to point out that a subway train can transport as many passengers as 900 cars on the road, yet there is never any progress toward expanding the system.

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I like to use the example of Madrid, a city of comparable size to Toronto. Madrid has 293 kilometres of subway lines serving 272 stations. Toronto has 70 kilometres serving 69 stations. By that standard, Toronto should have four times the amount of underground rapid transit as it has now. It doesn’t even have a rapid rail line to the airport. No wonder Toronto roads are jammed.

Well, now I’ve unearthed another example, which should further shame Toronto’s dithering politicians – Lausanne, Switzerland. I stayed in Lausanne while visiting the Geneva auto show. I hadn’t been to Lausanne since 2007 and guess what it has now? A new subway.

Lausanne only has a population of 130,000 with another 200,000 in the suburbs. It is amazing that a little Swiss city can organize and build a subway when Toronto hasn’t had a major new line since the 1960s. I’m not counting the Sheppard subway to nowhere as major.

With typical Swiss efficiency, Lausanne began thinking about a new subway in 2001. It held a referendum on the question in 2002, started building in 2003 and opened the doors in 2008. If you’ve seen Lausanne, you know that the place is built up the side of a mountain and the grade the subway has to climb is substantial. That’s why it went with rubber-tired trains (like Montreal’s), which can climb slopes that are a 12 per cent grade in some places.

The new subway is particularly impressive in that it is fully automated and runs entirely with driverless trains. Let’s see Toronto politicians get that one past the union.

Lausanne’s little trains of three cars each runs silently and smoothly through 14 stations and about eight kilometres of tunnels. The stations are equipped with platform screen doors and a train arrives every three minutes.

Although it’s a small city, the subway will carry 25 million riders a year. It is so convenient and pleasant that everybody uses it.

It has eliminated countless diesel buses that otherwise would be grinding their way up the hills. And because it runs underground, there are no congestion problems and it doesn’t interfere with surface traffic. Maximum speed is 60 km/h and an end-to-end trip takes 18 minutes.

Lausanne is the world’s smallest city with a subway system and the job – from concept to finished product – took only seven years. Madrid has built roughly five kilometres of new subway every year for more than 20 years. Toronto squabbles.

Torontonians are doing away with car ownership because heavy traffic makes city driving so miserable. Toronto traffic is horrible and you can be sure there will be no new expressways built to ease the situation.

Even as Toronto’s population grows and grows, rapid public transit does not. Don’t look to city hall for solutions. Try Madrid. Or Lausanne.

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