Friday, December 10, 2010

Transport: Only the Downtown Relief Line

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Canada's largest city now has a mayor that intends to cancel the light rail-based Transit City plan and instead build a much smaller distance of subways. Never mind the politics involved, which have already started to become intense, or the philosophy of subways versus light rail, on which my position is essentially the same as Steve Munro's, not the mayor's--for the sake of argument, let's accept that we're going to build subways. The ones everyone is talking about are not the subways that should be built--Toronto should start with the Downtown Relief Line, which nobody is talking about.

While the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) has not specified its plans for subway expansion in the Rob Ford era (and rightfully should have some time to come up with them), the basic outline does not seem to be in much dispute. The Shepherd subway--yes, the one that was designated for shutdown in the political theater of a TTC funding crisis not long ago--is to be "completed," probably to a connection with the Spadina subway at Downsview in the west, and probably to Scarborough Town Centre in the east. Instead of replacing the Scarborough Rapid Transit line with light rail, as currently planned, it would be replaced with an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway.

The problem with this expansion--and with Transit City, for that matter--and more importantly, the currently under-construction expansion of the Spadina subway into Vaughn and the proposed Yonge subway expansion into Richmond Hill, is that they funnel even more people than today onto the north-south subways through the downtown core. A visit to the platforms at Bloor and Yonge at rush hour will make it very obvious that the Yonge portion of the subway is at capacity. The University portion is only modestly better--it is not unusual for northbound trains in the afternoon rush hour to be crush-loaded after Osgoode station and leave people on crowded platforms at St. Patrick, Queen's Park, and Museum before reaching the transfer point at St. George. The least bit of a service disruption and either of these lines resembles Tokyo. They can't handle more people.

There is a solution to this problem, the long-proposed Downtown Relief Line. The line would provide an east-west underground route through the downtown core, likely under King Street but perhaps under Front or Queen, that would turn north on either side of downtown and head up to meet the Bloor-Danforth subway, probably at Dundas West in the west and Pape in the east. A fair portion of the riders of the Bloor-Danforth subway line that currently have to transfer to the Yonge or University subways to reach the downtown core could instead transfer to this line, freeing up capacity on the two existing lines. With effectively four routes out of downtown instead of two, additional traffic on the two existing lines could be accommodated.

Per kilometer, the Downtown Relief Line would undoubtedly cost more than the Shepherd Line or the Scarborough extensions. But, it would clearly carry a lot more people, and would actually open the useful possibilities for transit expansion in the rest of the city, as there would be capacity where many transit patrons are headed--the dense downtown core. With the Downtown Relief Line in place, a Scarborough extension of the Bloor-Danforth line, for example, might actually create a more attractive option to commuters (who might not be crushed loaded after their transfer at Yonge station) and thus make more sense.

Yet, nobody is talking about the Downtown Relief Line. Not former mayor David Miller or most Transit City advocates (Steve Munro himself rather regularly does point it out) nor the subway advocates like Rob Ford. The political scene is so focused outside the pre-1998 "old" city of Toronto that one of the key problems in the system, with serious consequences for the attractiveness of transit as an option to average people, is being completely overlooked.

I can get behind some new subway construction in Toronto--but only if it starts with the Downtown Relief Line.

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