ON: A Tale of Two Transit Cities; Costly Subways Leave too Many Toronto Commuters Stranded

This is a tale of two cities — the two different urban realities created by transit planning decisions made during the 1990s and their impact on the lives of real people today. I work in one kind of city and my husband works in another.

Last year, when I rented an office near Sheppard and Bayview, I found I had almost door-to-door subway service to carry me from our home at Yonge and Eglinton to my destination near the Bayview station. However, when he got a job last year in northeastern Scarborough, near Sheppard Avenue and Markham Road, he had to buy a car to get to work. The auto industry profited and our family budget plummeted.

Thus, both our lives have been directly affected by the political decision to build six kilometres of subway on Sheppard (between Yonge and Don Mills) instead of 36 kilometres of light rail transit (LRT) service, which could have been created for the same cost. With the latter option, we could have had service from Yonge all the way to Morningside Avenue in the far east end, as well as a branch going down to the Scarborough Town Centre.

If LRT had been chosen, my husband could spend his morning commute reading his favourite book, gliding past the rush hour traffic. Instead, his current alternatives are either a long ride standing on a crowded diesel bus that jostles in and out of traffic, or navigating rush hour in his car, while having the privilege of paying for a car loan, car insurance, and endless car repairs. I, on the other hand, enjoy my swift, smooth subway service to the Bayview station, having been given first-class rapid transit, while he has none.

In using the Bayview station, however, I notice that (outside of rush hour) the place is largely empty of passengers. It is a huge, underground palace at least five storeys deep, served by four elevators and four pairs of escalators, each about two storeys high. The station is also very wide - a massive expanse of marble spanning the six lanes of Bayview Avenue overhead. The next station to the east is Bessarion, another empty palace during the day.

However, if we go in the other direction, we find there is no station between Yonge Street and Bayview Avenue - a distance of two kilometres. Thus, most of the people who live and work on that stretch of Sheppard have no access to the subway running below them.

On the original Yonge and Bloor lines, the stations are spaced, on average, about 500 metres apart, even less in the downtown core. Thus, these lines provide for both longer-distance urban trips as well as easy access to all the destinations along the way. Because so many people board at almost every stop, there is ample revenue to pay the cost of maintaining all of these stations.

However, since those first two lines were built, the trend has been to skimp on the number of stations (witness the two-kilometre gaps between the Eglinton, Lawrence and York Mills stations). Decision-makers have begun thinking of urban rapid transit as if it were regional service, with all priority given to covering long distances at high speeds. This is the equivalent of putting GO Transit underground. Would that be cost-effective?

Which brings us to the subject of cost: Cash fares have now risen to $3 per ride. Could there be any connection between these escalating fares and the high costs of operating those underused palaces on the Sheppard subway?

When a subway line is built in a low-density area, passenger revenues will not pay the operating costs and there will be a significant operating deficit, which affects the economics of the entire system. In contrast, a light rail line requires few buildings, with simple transit shelters sufficing at most of the stops, thus allowing stops to be placed economically wherever they are needed.

The financial viability of a transit operation is measured in terms of both "cost-effectiveness" - total operating costs per passenger kilometre - and the "fare box ratio" - the percentage of system costs paid for by the passengers. These are indicators by which transit systems stand or fall - measures never considered when plans were made to build the current Sheppard subway.

With city council's decision to appoint a special expert panel to examine the case for rapid transit expansion on Sheppard east of Don Mills (its report due at the end of March) the time has come for a full cost-accounting of the Sheppard operation. For example:

What is the annual operating cost of a typical subway station?

What is the construction cost of a typical subway station?

How many kilometres of LRT could we get for the price of one subway station?

What are the projected passenger volumes under different growth scenarios along that corridor?

What are the projected operating deficits of subway versus light rail?

For people who live or work in the east end of Scarborough (such as my husband), these are not idle questions. The most alarming prospect is that TTC staff now feel in danger of losing their jobs if they give factual, professional answers to these questions.

Joell Vanderwagen is an urban planner who specializes in public education about transit systems and transit-supportive planning.

Copyright 2012 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

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