Under Mayor Rob Ford’s well-established transit policy, the vehicle of choice is “Subways! Subways! Subways!” and the funding plan is a literally incredible combination of happy thoughts and private-sector pixie dust. Earlier this year, that thinking led Ford to a bitter showdown with city council, in which his underground scheme was struck down by the power of city council’s reality-based LRT plan.
Now that council has returned for the fall, transit is again dominating the agenda. A report on funding options—waved away by Ford as unnecessary taxes and user fees—seems likely to continue the City Hall antagonisms. But this week, TTC staff revealed to council that we’re in desperate need of—get this—a new subway line known as the “Downtown Relief Line.”
Even better, this proposed subway is supported by virtually all of the mayor’s opponents. So maybe there’s the possibility of a Kumbaya moment for this deeply fractured city council after all. And yet…
There is still the possibility of divisiveness. On the Rob and Doug Ford radio show this weekend, they spoke with TTC CEO Andy Byford, who explained that we need the new route because we can’t squeeze any more passengers onto the existing Yonge line. To his credit, Rob said he’s willing to follow Byford’s lead in considering this a priority. But on the radio, Doug pointed out that he was disappointed to see this proposal taking precedence over a subway on Sheppard, or one on Finch. This echoes the constant refrain of Ford allies that downtown already has subways and doesn’t need more, while poor suburbanites don’t get to have subways because—well, because downtowners are mean, I guess.
There are two really important points to remember in responding to that misguided argument. First of all, subway lines are not gold stars we hand out as signs of approval to the kids we like the best. Subways are an expensive, high-capacity form of transit, and it makes sense to build them in places where there are enough potential riders to justify their cost. Projections on the mayor’s preferred routes of Sheppard and Finch show that even 20 years from now, subways cars would run half-empty and lose hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Meanwhile, ridership on the new proposed line would be high enough right away to make it worthwhile.
Besides, all of our subway lines exist primarily to serve long-distance commuters—that is, people who live outside of downtown and are travelling into it. The people who live near St. Andrew subway station are not the main population using it. If you live at University and King and work downtown, you can easily bike, walk, or take a quick streetcar ride to most places you need to go. And if you do take the subway three blocks up to the Eaton Centre from King, you pay the same $3 fare as someone coming there from Rexdale, which means that your laziness subsidizes the long-distance riders. For very local trips, most people will walk or bike. For short rides, a streetcar or bus that stops every few blocks is ideal. Subways are good for long trips across the city—the kind you take every day if you live far away from where you work or play, as most suburban residents do.
So again: The people most served by the existing subway lines, in general, are people who live outside of downtown. And who would benefit most from this so-called Downtown Relief Line? People now crowded onto the existing lines coming into downtown. People who live in the suburbs. All those North Yorkers currently feeling the squeeze on the Yonge line would have a bit more breathing room. All those Scarborough commuters now watching full trains pass them by at the Bloor interchange would transfer onto a less-crowded line at Pape station. People in Don Mills could take a quick bus trip south to the new line.
Obviously, the thing is not going to be called the Downtown Relief Line once it’s built—that’s a working title, a description of the purpose of the line, which is providing relief to anyone commuting into downtown.
But already, that word seems to be causing some confusing political blowback. So maybe we should start referring to it as the “Suburban Commuter Relief Line.” But then, of course, we could give that name to all of our subway lines.