Transit City: rapid transit for all of Toronto

Arguments against Transit City that I’ve heard to date fall into one of two categories. There’s the opponents who prefer subways because they provide higher capacity, and there’s those who say that light rail takes road space from automobiles and makes it more difficult to drive. There are also some who are opposed to any spending on public transit, but thankfully not many.

Those who argue that the the higher cost of subways is justified because of the increased capacity have a valid point. Subways do carry more people and they do move at a higher overall speed. Published estimates for a subway along Sheppard Avenue East suggest a subway would provide capacity for 10,000 people per hour, versus 3,500 per hour for the Sheppard East LRT as planned.

As part of the consultation process for Transit City, planners evaluated the potential ridership along Sheppard for both subway and surface light rail. They project long-term ridership of 3,000 per hour for LRT, 5,000 for subway. However, they also found that the extra 2,000 riders on the subway would be existing riders changing their current route, not new riders who catalyze new development. Whether subway or surface rail, rapid transit along Sheppard attracts the same level of ridership in the long term, and the subway would be drastically under-utilized.

There are also many arguments that building surface light rail takes away driving lanes from vehicle traffic. This is true in some places. The Sheppard East LRT plans show the capacity of current 6-lane roads as 5,300 people per hour (3,300 vehicles), most of them private vehicle drivers. With surface rail taking up one lane in each direction, the vehicle capacity is somewhat reduced (to 2,000 vehicles), but the overall people capacity increases to 7,600 people per hour, almost a 50% increase in people-moving capacity. In places where roads currently have only two lanes in each direction, roads will be widened to accommodate the 4+2 lane configuration.

Reallocation of some road space for transit does have the effect of making commuting by car less convenient. If there are any Transit City supporters out there who believe otherwise, they are lying to themselves. But that is part of the idea of Transit City: making suburban rapid transit an attractive alternative to driving. Toronto has no more room for private vehicle infrastructure (freeways, parking lots, etc.) and any transportation plan that looks beyond the next 10 years or so is going to have to deal with the harsh reality that, very soon, there’s going to be no more space to put more cars. Toronto already ranked dead last in a survey of major cities’ commute times worldwide. It’s going to be vital to the development of the city to convince some people to choose not to drive.

While subways provide additional capacity, experts forecast that the future demand won’t reach the level necessary to support it. Therefore, the additional expense of building a subway versus building surface light rail along the same route provides no incremental benefit to transit riders, to developers or to the city, but the difference in cost – experts suggest subways would cost three to five times more than LRT to build and operate – represents a substantial subsidy for potential transit users to continue to drive. That money, potentially billions of dollars, is money that could be much better spent on other projects, like our substantial state-of-good-repair deficit, or Rob Ford’s plan to realign many city streets to conform to the overall grid, projects which would be of far greater benefit to gridlocked drivers.

The added expense of subways may be justified in some areas, like the central Eglinton corridor where the density may grow to be sufficient in the foreseeable future, but in other areas surface light rail is simply the better option as part of the city’s transportation plan. Many more people will benefit from Transit City than will be inconvenienced. And the bill to taxpayers will be far less.

Numbers in this article are published in the City of Toronto’s Sheppard East LRT Open House Display Panels (June 2010) and Sheppard East LRT Project Overview (August 2010).

About Greg Burrell

Greg is an accountant, cyclist and political observer living in Toronto, Canada with too many cats.
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