When the subway to Vaughan opened last December, the only thing people talked about was the stations. There are six of them, each more spectacular and beautiful than the next. Designed by some of the world’s leading architects (including the late Will Alsop, known in these parts for the “flying tabletop” at the Ontario College of Art and Design University), they are indeed extraordinary structures. They would attract attention in any context, let alone the unremittingly dreary suburbs north of Toronto.
The problem is that a properly planned subway has no need of stand-alone stations, regardless of how exquisite they may be. Instead, the well-tempered metro is accessed through existing buildings or simple stairwell entrances on the sidewalk. That’s because in cities that have the density required to justify a subway there generally isn’t enough left-over space for above-grade stations. That includes Toronto: think of King, Queen, Dundas, Bloor, Eglinton, St. Andrew, Osgoode, St. Patrick… The list goes on.
There are exceptions, but for the most part, street-level stations are found in underused locations where there’s nothing for the subway to connect with. One of the Vaughan stations — Downsview Park — is in a field. Pioneer Village sits by itself next to a vast industrial lot. Most people will get to it by car. The Sheppard Line is another good example. From Bayview and Bessarion to Leslie and Don Mills, the stations are fitted incongruously into shopping malls, parking lots and sidewalks. Little wonder it is called the “subway to nowhere.”
The point, of course, is that there’s no rationale for building subways along low-density suburban streets such as Sheppard. Typically, the excuse is that these lines are constructed in anticipation of future need, but that’s dubious at best.
As David Gunn, TTC general manager between 1995 and ’99 when the Sheppard line was begun, said at the time, “[If] the city wanted to expand transit, it would be better to do it downtown, easing congestion in the busiest parts of the system.” Furthermore, he added, “[It] made no sense to build an expensive new subway when the existing system was strapped for cash to make basic repairs…”
Even Toronto’s original subway line, which ran north from Union Station to Eglinton, still has stand-alone stations at a few stops, Rosedale, Summerhill and St.Clair among them. Even after more than 60 years in a fast-growing city, these valuable sites remain underused, almost forgotten.
All this points to one thing; transit planning in Toronto is awful, truly and deeply awful.
Transit Is Really Just A Topic To Buy Votes
In recent years, it has been so politicized and polarized that it has lost touch with reality. The de facto planners — municipal and provincial politicians — view transit not as an essential public service but as a way to buy votes. Hence the Sheppard line, the Vaughan extension and the proposed one-stop Scarborough subway. To get a sense of how wrong-headed these lines are, consider the 504 King streetcar; it carries 82,000 passengers daily, more than either the Toronto-York-Spadina Subway Extension (57,000) or Sheppard subway (48,000).
Meanwhile, the Downtown Relief Line, first proposed a century ago, remains a distant hope. Yet that’s where the need is. And unlike other the other lines, the DRL would add mobility to the subway system, not just ridership. It would give passengers a choice of routes, not force them all to use a single route.
Change Is Coming, But Is It Too Late?
That’s why the need to re-examine transit planning has never been so urgent. Even the Eglinton Crosstown line, which has the capacity to transform Toronto, will not be fully integrated into the urban landscape.
When completed in 2020, the line will run 19 kilometres east along Eglinton from Mount Dennis (Weston Road) to Kennedy Rd. But most of its 25 stations will be stand-alone structures. Though the Crosstown will make getting around easier, planners have failed to integrate it with zoning regulations.
The new route will increase real estate values and bring people and business to neighbourhoods along Eglinton. But Toronto planners have responded by leaving existing rules in place for nearly half the length of the line. They will also allow four- to eight-storey buildings as of right for another quarter of Crosstown.
In other words, an important opportunity to coordinate transit and land use policy has been missed. Though the mid-rise regime makes sense in some stretches, other locations — including the stations — are opportunities for mixed-use towers. Still, the need for intensification has been largely squandered. Indeed, in the decade or so since David Miller was mayor, transit planning has proceeded with little apparent thought to the connection between it and density.
The issue made the news in 2016 when a local developer approached Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency building the Eglinton Crosstown, for permission to incorporate the Avenue Rd station in a proposed 15-storey condo. Metrolinx rejected the project because it came so late in the process. City planners turned it down because it was too tall.
“Should Metrolinx have taken another five years to find development partners and compromise the timeline for implementing the LRT?” ex-chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat asked at the time. She was right, but how much smarter (and cheaper) would it have been to do the right thing the first time?
Even more worrisome is that fact that the Crosstown is a subterranean LRT, not a subway. In other words, it probably won’t be able to handle the number of riders it will attract. That won’t become clear until after it opens in 2021, but no one denies the city would have been better served by a subway. The argument against it seems to have been money; LRTs are much cheaper. But given the amount of tunnelling involved in the line, the difference in cost would be due less to the price of construction than that of subway equipment.
Even before the long-overdue Eglinton Crosstown is complete it will be out-of-date and when it finally does it will be overwhelmed.