Toronto’s transit plans still don’t make any sense

It’s been a decade since Rob Ford thundered into the mayor’s office with his mantra of “subways, subways, subways.” In all that time, we still haven’t figured out what subways are for
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jan 28, 2020
A real plan to deal with the city’s growth would see lots of larger trains barrelling through the downtown core and smaller train sets serving the suburbs. (Melissa Tait/CP)

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March 2020 will mark a decade since the late Rob Ford announced his bid to become mayor of Toronto. Rob (brother of the current premier, Doug, in case you didn’t know) was a loose cannon in more ways than one, but, for now, let’s focus on his impact on Toronto transit planning: in contrast with his predecessor, David Miller, who supported a network of light-rail lines around and across Toronto, Mayor Ford supported subways.

Ford’s reasons for supporting subways were not, shall we say, solidly grounded in evidence. The root of his policy preference was always suburban resentment: equal parts “LRTs take up road space that properly belongs to motorists” and “if snooty downtowners get subways, then we deserve them, too.” But, in the end both, Kathleen Wynne and John Tory — and, needless to say, Rob’s brother Doug — either lacked the integrity to challenge him or simply agreed with him on the merits, so here we are: it’s 2020, and we still live in Rob Ford’s world. Subways, subways, subways, it is.

On tonight’s episode of TVO’s Political Blind Date, you’ll see arguments for and against subways rehashed between councillors Jim Karygiannis and Anthony Perruzza. Early on, Karygiannis (currently fighting to retain his council seat in the face of alleged campaign-finance fraud) says that his ward has “60 towers coming” in proposed developments and needs the subway to handle the coming crush of people. This is the closest Toronto politics comes to an actual evidence-based argument for subways: the city is growing rapidly, and we can’t move all those people by car, so we need to build the kind of high-capacity transit that can accommodate that growth.

Of course, this is a subway made of straw, and it doesn’t take much huffing or puffing to blow it down: “Toronto” is growing at a decent clip, but only a fraction of that growth is happening along the Sheppard East corridor where Karygiannis would like a subway. According to the city’s numbers, about 25,000 new homes are currently being proposed for the Sheppard East and Agincourt plan areas. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s less than the 26,500 units proposed for King and Spadina alone, or the 142,000 units proposed for the downtown as a whole.

No doubt, subway-boosters would say that just proves we also need a downtown relief-line subway (now renamed the Ontario Line by the premier’s office). But, if anything, the heavy hand of Queen’s Park has made matters even more confused. Seemingly wanting to prove that it can get something — anything —  in any way like a subway built in a reasonable time frame, the province has signalled that it wants to avoid tunnelling underground as much as possible and use different, smaller train sets than the TTC currently does. This has already bought them a political battle in the city’s downtown east end, where residents fairly wonder why they will have to live with an elevated train while those in the premier’s neighbourhood will get a buried LRT extension.

But, even if we set aside local complaints, we’re still faced with serious questions about the Ontario Line. Why is the government looking at smaller train sets with less capacity to serve the densest, most rapidly growing part of the city? Why is it talking about full-freight subways in a part of the city where neither the population growth nor the actual transit ridership would justify the expense? A real plan to deal with the city’s growth — one that focuses on areas where that growth is actually happening — would do the reverse: see lots of larger trains barrelling through the downtown core and smaller train sets serving the suburbs. Of course, this wouldn’t ease suburban resentment, so it won’t be considered.

Suppose, for argument’s sake, that the last 20 years of development in the city can’t serve as a guide to where that growth will happen in the future. It’s possible — if unlikely — that the city’s inner suburbs will see an explosion of growth, perhaps as residents and businesses look for lower costs outside the downtown core. But, even in that scenario, the Ontario Line is confusing: the current plan has it going no farther north than Eglinton (where it would meet the Eglinton Crosstown, currently under construction). But that effectively means that most of the lands it would travel through would be either unsuitable for redevelopment (ravines and protected neighbourhoods) or in the already-dense downtown.

A real plan to accommodate growth in the suburbs would have pushed the relief line north of Eglinton all the way to Sheppard; indeed, this was part of Metrolinx’s long-term planning for the relief line before the Ford government threw out all that work. It would still be reasonable to do this, but costs would probably force the government to trade away the western stub planned to run to Ontario Place. And, since the government wants to redevelop Ontario Place (into what, we still don’t know), the Ontario Line has to be part of that.

Making those kinds of compromises and trade-offs would require a government — and, if we’re honest, an electorate — that actually had a serious idea about what it wants subways to do in and for the provincial capital, instead of just treating them as a birthright. Ten years into a lengthy, painful argument about these things, it’s clear that we still haven’t thought this through.

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