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Bayview Station on the Sheppard subway line.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

On a June day in 1986, Toronto reached a major decision on its transit future. The top priority, councillors voted, was a new subway line through the sparse suburbia of Sheppard Avenue from Yonge Street to Victoria Park.

The rationale for the project was that better transit would spread the construction of offices and apartment buildings around the city. Suburbanites along the line would get new development in their neighbourhoods; downtowners would get a break from the pressures of ever-increasing density.

After numerous delays, the subway finally saw the light of day on Nov. 22, 2002.

A decade on, the line is far from achieving what politicians envisioned all those years ago. Ridership on a typical weekday is less than on the King streetcar. The line stretches only 5.5 kilometres, too short to be useful for most travellers. And it hasn't stopped downtown from becoming ever more dense, or reduced crowding on inner-city transit.

A billion-dollar piece of infrastructure in a cash-strapped city, the Sheppard subway is a showpiece for what happens when politics trump planning, and when transit is built primarily in an attempt to develop real estate.

The line does have its champions. Mel Lastman, who fought hard for the subway as mayor of North York, says it was the only way to achieve his ambition of creating an urban core amid the subdivisions he once governed.

"We had to make it happen," he says, describing the changes it brought to that stretch of Sheppard Avenue. "It's a whole downtown there, it's a whole life there for people, at any time, during the day or night. It's a busy, busy place and it's becoming a real, thriving downtown."

While Sheppard's critics often put the decision to build the line entirely at the feet of suburbanites such as Mr. Lastman, the push for the subway actually came from a wide array of politicians, including some inner-city councillors and an NDP provincial government.

After the 1986 vote at Metro council, the pre-amalgamation body with authority over the TTC, the project sat on the back burner awaiting funds. The money came in 1993, when Bob Rae's administration at Queen's Park announced a suburb-focused transit expansion plan. It included a Sheppard line that would end at Don Mills, and three other subways.

When Mike Harris's Progressive Conservatives ousted the New Democrats the next year, they cancelled most of the lines, but spared Sheppard.

By that time, some councillors were arguing the whole thing was a waste of money. David Gunn, the TTC's top civil servant at the time, felt the same way. It made no sense to build an expensive new subway when the existing system was strapped for cash to make basic repairs, he said. And if the city wanted to expand transit, it would be better to do it downtown, easing congestion in the busiest parts of the system.

"If you look at what's really needed for the TTC, if you're going to do a proper job of planning transit, the most important thing is to take some pressure off the Yonge Street line," he says. "That line is at capacity and was close to it even then."

Joe Pantalone, the now-retired west-end councillor, was a steadfast Sheppard supporter. He frames his backing as a matter of civic equity: the suburbs deserve good transit, along with the development it brings. Plus, by 1996, Sheppard was the only line Queen's Park would help finance.

Throughout this time, politicians paid little heed to light-rail transit, an innovation that could have saved fistfuls of money. By the 1980s, relatively inexpensive LRTs were zipping along in Edmonton and Calgary at average speeds faster than Toronto's subway, but the nation's largest city did not seem to notice.

In the years since, the Sheppard experience pushed the city to look at light rail, which forms the backbone of the TTC's current expansion plans.

"The expectation of [Sheppard] clearly has not been met, because the ridership is a fraction of what it was supposed to have been by now," Mr. Pantalone says. "That, in a way, has provided a lesson ... that subway construction in areas where there is not the capacity to support it really doesn't make any sense."

Despite the criticisms, the subway has begun to transform some pockets along its route. Residential towers cluster around the intersection of Sheppard and Bayview avenues. Urbane new shops line the streets.

"It's great to have that foot traffic going into the subway in the morning," says Michael Smith, 26, standing behind the counter of Bread-Stuff, a recently opened bakery that serves organic, fair trade coffee. "It's been very steady."

At Burger Hut, a holdout from a previous era in the neighbourhood, John Kambouris, 65, says the area has become more diverse in the past decade.

"There's more hustle, more people, more activity," he says, looking across the street to a spot next to Bessarion station, where condos are planned to rise on a former warehouse site. "It's a totally different look."

The line itself is well-designed, with roomy stations and convenient entrances for walk-on traffic. Downtown, meanwhile, commuters stand several rows deep on platforms at Yonge-Bloor station at rush hour, or wait at stops as crammed-full streetcars pass them by.

It's a strange contrast, and it's hard to find another city that has anything quite like Sheppard.

One comparator is the green line of the Los Angeles Metro, says Jarrett Walker, a transportation consultant and author of the book Human Transit. Nicknamed the "train from nowhere to nowhere," it runs down the middle of a suburban expressway. In LA's case, at least, the line stretches 32 kilometres, connecting with numerous points on the grid. And as a surface LRT, it has more extension potential than Toronto's so-called "stubway."

"Moral of the story: If you're going to build bizarre things for political reasons, do them cheaply enough that later you can either abandon them or expand them to be long enough to be useful," Mr. Walker says. "Sheppard's technology makes it both expensive to abandon and expensive to extend; that's the trap."

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