Why the numbers don’t add up for the Sheppard subway extension.
People prefer subways. Mayor Rob Ford says it, over and over, and few disagree: Before he was unceremoniously sacked for his alleged anti-subway bias, former TTC general manager Gary Webster told city council that subways attract more riders than any other form of transit. Polls this year have shown support for subways winning by margins as high as 20 per cent when the question is put as a simple, context-free subway vs. LRT choice.
I am among those who prefer subways. I have been a vocal supporter of the Transit City LRT plans, but my heart belongs to the underground. There have even been times of weakness when I have secretly hoped Rob Ford or some other bull-headed politician would steamroll his opponents in the debate about transit—including my own voice—because then at least we would have the new subway lines.
“Dream big dreams, Toronto,” I think. “Just build the effin’ things and damn the consequences!”
But I don’t entertain that voice for long. It’s a childish voice that would also tell me to bet half a year’s salary on a single spin of the roulette wheel or to empty the kids’ education accounts to take a cool vacation. It’s the part of me that wants to believe there are no factors involved in making a good decision beyond my own desires. That is the mayor of Toronto’s voice.
There are costs involved. There are considerations of what is appropriate and practical. These are factors that adults weigh when making decisions, and factors that a grown-up city weighs when deciding how to build.
Let’s consider those costs: Subways move about 25 per cent faster and are capable of carrying about one-third more people, but they cost three or four times as much to build. Tunnelling underground and building and maintaining stations are radically more expensive than just putting tracks and platforms on the street, as the illustration below shows.
Accurate operating cost differences aren’t available, but subways are far more expensive to run due to the stations, which need to be staffed, lit and (in some cases) heated, and served by escalators and elevators. And the construction expenditure differences alone are astronomical. We have $8.4 billion from the province in hand, which will cover all of the costs of the proposed LRT lines. The total price tag of building subway lines to run the entire length of the same proposed Transit City phase-one plan would be in the neighbourhood of $20 billion. To cover the difference—over, say, 10 years—we’d need to raise money equivalent to a 75 per cent property tax hike. Then to cover the operating losses of these lines, we’d likely need between half a billion to a billion dollars a year in new revenue, permanently—an amount equivalent to a 50-per-cent property tax increase or a one to two-per-cent Toronto sales tax.
That’s a problem for subway advocates. A recent Angus Reid poll, for example, showed that 57 per cent of Torontonians are opposed to any new taxes to fund subway construction. The mayor has suggested developers will pay higher fees to build on subway lines; developers have said they would not.
What are the differences between subways and LRT?
Click here for a close-up view of the infographic below
Those higher costs would be justified, of course (and the required operating subsidy would be lower) if we expected those subways to be filled with riders every day once they were up and running. Most advocates of Transit City are not anti-subway on principle: most, in fact, support the construction of a downtown relief line that would take pressure off the Yonge subway line and serve passengers on the crowded King and Queen streetcar lines (which currently carry more than 100,000 passengers per day).
But on Sheppard, the current five-station subway line operates at one-sixth of its capacity during peak times, and the projected expansion might bring peak ridership a generation from now to between 6,000 and 10,000 passengers—one-fifth to one-third capacity. The TTC’s projections up to 2050 show projected ridership on all the routes under discussion still easily handled by LRT lines. A subway is just way more vehicle than the number of riders who would use those lines need.
Which brings us, of course, to the prospect of “building for the future,” as advocates of the subway say. Scarborough will get more densely populated if we build a subway, they argue. But to justify a subway, planning experts figure density along the Sheppard corridor would need to roughly double. That’s a staggering number. You cannot simply double the number of people in Scarborough by approving a bunch of high-rise towers on the main streets near the subway lines. We’re talking about razing entire subdivisions of ranch-style bungalows and replacing them with rows of townhouses.
The people who live along Sheppard may want a subway line, but it’s doubtful they want to see their neighbourhoods transformed into downtown-style urban grids to justify it. Those same residents have consistently opposed construction of highrises in their neighbourhoods, and routinely oppose—and ﬁght at the Ontario Municipal Board—the severing of lots to build smaller homes.
So we’re left with the one argument Rob Ford and his allies keep making: Those residents of neglected areas like Scarborough and Finch West deserve subways. Wealthier downtown residents have subway stations at their doorsteps and yet they want to tell the residents of Malvern and Rexdale that they only rate a “lesser” vehicle.
And while suburban-urban resentments can be overblown for political purposes, these arguments have emotional resonance. If the voting patterns in the last election mean anything, they mean that the residents farthest away from the city core, who include some of our poorest citizens and our most recent immigrants, feel left out of the city as it has developed over the past decade.
The physical manifestation of that alienation is the subway map: Those neighbourhoods on the edge are the worst served by rapid transit. Bringing those communities into the physical subway network that speeds us around the city would be a giant leap to connecting Toronto psychologically.
Perhaps, oddly, that is the biggest reason I prefer LRT lines over subways to serve the suburbs. Even if we had $20 billion instead of $8.4 billion, I would suggest spending it on extending the network of LRT lines further. If they’re built right, LRT lines are fast and reliable. And we can build them more quickly—and in greater numbers—than we can build subway lines. Estimates show that the Transit City LRT project will attract about 125 million rides per year, while Ford’s subway plan would attract only 60 million. That is, for less money, we can serve about twice as many residents of the inner suburbs, and have the lines up and running a decade sooner. We don’t need to blow the bank giving people along one stretch of Scarborough oversized vehicles that will run half-empty for generations while people in Rexdale make do with overcrowded buses. We can connect the residents of all of our most underserved neighbourhoods into the rapid transit network within a few years.
So, yeah, there’s a place in my gut that dreams about subways. But simple math says we can only provide them to a very few people, and even then it would cost us all dearly. The part of my gut that says all Toronto’s residents deserve to have access to fast, reliable transit service that will connect us together as a city, as soon as possible, tells me we can do it with LRTs. And that’s not a dream, it’s a fantastic reality well within our grasp.
MORE SUBWAY STATS