One of Toronto's most stubborn myths is the notion that the suburbs never get any rapid transit. You hear it over and over from suburban politicians: downtown folks ride underground on their subways while the good people of the suburbs stand freezing at their lonely bus stops.
That this myth should persist into 2015 is something quite incredible. The biggest subway project under way at the moment, the Toronto-York Spadina subway extension, goes through the suburbs all the way to Vaughan. A second subway extension, approved by city council last year and backed by Mayor John Tory, would take the eastern end of the Bloor-Danforth line into the heart of Scarborough.
Another huge transit line now in the midst of construction, the Eglinton Crosstown, will travel from suburban Black Creek Drive in the west to suburban Kennedy station in the east, making it easier for many in the suburbs to get across town or downtown. Yet another, Mr. Tory's SmartTrack, would sweep through both northwestern and northeastern suburbs into the 905.
Every mayor since amalgamation has pushed suburban mass transit. Mel Lastman got North York its Sheppard subway, defying those who said, correctly as it turned out, that it would have low ridership. David Miller's Transit City plan, now much reduced from its original vision, was designed largely to reach underprivileged suburban communities. Two of its light-rail lines, still on the books to be built, would take commuters along big suburban avenues, Sheppard East and Finch West. Rob Ford pushed (unsuccessfully) to extend the Sheppard subway and, through no merit of his own, ended his term with an agreement on the Scarborough extension.
The combined value of these projects is staggering. The suburbs stand to get many billions' worth of rapid transit lines, from subways to LRTs to the above-ground heavy rail of SmartTrack. Taxpayers across the city are footing the bill, through their provincial and federal taxes – and, in the case of the Scarborough subway, a significant bump in their property taxes.
It wasn't some kind of prejudice against the suburbs that first led authorities to build subways in the central city. That was where the transit demand and the population density justified subways.
It is hard to argue today that downtown gets all the transit goodies. Quite the opposite. Because of the city's new push for the Scarborough subway and SmartTrack, the endlessly awaited downtown relief line has in effect been bumped down the priority list. It should be at the top. With its packed streetcars and densifying condo communities, the populous city centre desperately needs relief.
None of this kept suburban city councillors from standing up at the latest meeting of city council to complain about the raw deal their constituents are getting. The inimitable Giorgio Mammoliti said that the city was favouring the downtown and "doing squat" for the unfortunate people of his northwestern ward.
"The reality is that we've been left out of the equation in the city of Toronto," he said. And: "Why do the poor people in this city have to accept only scraps. They deserve subways just as anyone else does." If he only looked at a map, he might see that both the Toronto-York subway and SmartTrack will swing through the northwest.
The councillor from the ward next to Mr. Mammoliti's, Vincent Crisanti, said that even if SmartTrack would serve his people, "that isn't enough." He wants a subway, too. Downtown has one, he said. North York has one. Heck, even Scarborough is getting one. So what about North Etobicoke? His folks just want to be "treated equally like anyone else in the city of Toronto" and the "only way you do that is by providing them the rapid transit they deserve."
Rob Ford, that master at whipping up suburban resentment, told council he wants the Sheppard subway extended and a Finch subway dug. "People want subways in this city," he said, not for the first time. Subways, subways, subways.
Even Scarborough councillors have the cheek to insist they are being ripped off. "When is Scarborough and the people of Scarborough going to be looked at as equal and not second-class citizens?" demanded Jim Karygiannis, neglecting the fact that if both the Scarborough subway and SmartTrack go ahead, with tracks not far apart in places, then parts of Scarborough may have not too little transit but too much.
The whole debate about which parts of the city are getting what is misguided. It is juvenile to squabble over whether the suburbs or the downtown are taking the greatest transit share.
All parts of the city gain from better rapid transit. SmartTrack, if it ever comes about, would span the city. The downtown relief line would help people get downtown from the suburbs and back. The aim should be to create a comprehensive city-wide network. That would make life better for everyone, in suburbs and downtown both.