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A Don Mills Subway for Toronto

A proposal for improving transit in a city that desperately needs it.

View A Don Mills Subway Proposal in a larger mapdon mills subway legend

Toronto should have a subway line that runs from Front and Spadina to Eglinton and Don Mills. Formerly known as the “Downtown Relief Line,” it should instead be called the “Don Mills Subway,” and there should be no pretensions about it being some sort of self-indulgent present for downtown—nor about it stopping at Danforth.

In the map above is a proposal for what, roughly, this Don Mills Subway might look like.

Drawing subway lines on maps, especially for the DRL, has been a cottage industry among transit advocates and city watchers for several years, and everyone has their preferences. This proposed alignment is not intended to be definitive (although parts of it are locked down to allow for specific connections to existing infrastructure, and to take into account physical constraints on the route’s placement). Other alignments would be possible in places. The goal here is not to delve into that discussion in excruciating detail, but to show, through its key elements, what a new line could achieve.

Simply, the Don Mills line needs advocacy and a good indication of what it might look like to counter the “downtown has enough subways” drivel dished out by Mayor Rob Ford. This is part of that counter-narrative.

The Rationale

Central Toronto is indisputably the centre of development in its region. In a recent report called “How Does the City Grow?” [PDF], Toronto’s planning department summarized the location of developments proposed between 2008 and 2012. Roughly 40% of all commercial and residential development was proposed for downtown and the central waterfront.

toronto growth

Commercial space means jobs, and jobs mean commuters. Some of these will come from local travel—people who live a walk, a bike ride, or a short streetcar journey from downtown. But many will come from further away in Toronto and beyond the city.

The subway system is jammed with riders. Pent-up demand fills GO Transit’s trains as quickly as they can be added to the schedule. Toronto plans subway extensions to Vaughan, Richmond Hill, and northern Scarborough, and more frequent subway service in five years or so. GO plans to add more trips and all-day service on routes that now see only a few weekday commuter trains.

Big though these plans may be, they will barely keep up with the demand for transit service—a demand now growing at three per cent annually on the TTC, and five per cent on GO.

Our current transit expansion plans focus on the regions beyond Toronto, and even the Scarborough Subway will draw some of its demand from Markham. What’s missing from the network is additional capacity linking the core to the “inner suburbs,” those areas within the City of Toronto itself that require a lengthy commute to downtown.

The Downtown Relief Line: A Very Short History

Decades ago, Metropolitan Toronto Council faced a choice between a Downtown Relief Line (DRL) and the Sheppard Subway. Councillors from then-rising suburbs dreamed that their city centres would be future hubs of growth and transit. They formed a coalition with downtowners who mistakenly thought that growth could be forced outward by strangling transit capacity downtown. Sheppard got the nod, and the DRL studies went back on the shelf.

In the short term, Toronto was lucky because the recession of the early 1990s drove down transit demand by 20 per cent. Projected growth that would have overwhelmed the subway was replaced by enough surplus capacity to absorb years of demand through the following decade. Now that surplus has vanished, as changing development patterns bring more jobs and residents to the core.

Transit plans for Toronto could fill a book. Indeed, they have—with Ed Levy’s online book Rapid Transit in Toronto. Levy ends with a proposal for a “Regional Relief Line” from downtown to the Don Mills corridor, an idea that has existed in various forms for over 50 years.

The most commonly presented version of a “relief line” is a short link from the Danforth Subway at Pape Station to Union Station in the core. Such a line would, at best, only relieve the crunch at Bloor-Yonge Station by diverting some Danforth Subway riders to an alternate route. However, there would be no relief for the Yonge line north of Bloor Station, which is already overcrowded.

Any new subway capacity that runs only south from Bloor misses an essential problem: riders’ starting points, and resulting transit demands, have shifted north.

Rob Ford scoffs at the idea of building the DRL, saying that downtown has enough lines already. This entirely misses a new subway’s purpose. More jobs are located downtown—a result of the very economic strength for which Ford claims credit. That strength cannot endure if people cannot get to work, if the core is both priced out of the reach of would-be residents and impossible to access by transit.

Toronto needs a much bolder vision of new transit capacity that runs into the downtown core.

Photo by Tony Lea from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by Tony Lea from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

What’s In a Name?

Once upon a time, the TTC planned for a Queen Subway that would continue north, running up from Danforth to Don Mills and Eglinton. This chunk was lopped off the route decades ago, relegated to the status of a “future extension,” back when the pressure on subway capacity was mostly south of Bloor Street. In this truncated state, and with the moniker of “Downtown Relief,” this line gave the appearance of being a tiny squib on the gigantic map of Toronto’s transit projects, and a very expensive squib at that.

Given this context, and with seemingly ample subway capacity downtown, it was an easy project to ignore. Worse still, the line did almost nothing for the suburbs and could easily be painted as an express route for privileged east-enders to get downtown. Much of the area it would cover was either low-rise residential or abandoned industrial property—not fertile ground for a subway line.

And then there was that name: Downtown Relief. Sexy? No.

The most important change we must make in our conversations about this project involves its scope. From day one, the line must be planned to run, not merely to Danforth, but to at least Eglinton and Don Mills, from a downtown terminal at Front and Spadina.

The Don Mills Subway

What would this line provide?

  • A connection to the Eglinton Crosstown LRT
  • A connection with the Danforth Subway Line
  • A connection with the streetcar on Cherry that will, eventually, link to the eastern waterfront
  • Connections with the Yonge-University subway at King and St. Andrew stations
  • A connection with a proposed satellite GO terminal at Spadina and Front

And what parts of the city would it serve?

  • Potential development sites at Don Mills and Eglinton
  • Flemingdon Park and Thorncliffe Park
  • The East York residential district
  • Riverdale and Leslieville at Gerrard and at Queen
  • Planned redevelopment of the Lever Brothers (Great Gulf) site at Broadview and Eastern
  • The Distillery and Canary Districts
  • The St. Lawrence neighbourhood

This is not a trivial list, and these locations already have population density or can easily be served with short surface feeder trips.

And the name? No, not “Line 8″—a moniker the TTC’s new numbering scheme might yield. Name the line based on where it goes and where it might be further extended: “Don Mills.”

What’s Next?

A transit network capacity study [PDF]—a joint effort by Metrolinx, TTC, the City of Toronto, and York Region—is already underway. This will look at many options for handling growing regional demand as a network, and not on a piecemeal basis. The fate of the Don Mills Subway depends in great measure on just what is studied. If the line is modelled as a stub from downtown to Danforth, its potential will be limited, along with its political attractiveness. If the section north of Danforth is seen as a second phase, the lead time to get anything studied, approved, funded, and built could doom the line to ending short at “phase one” and missing its potential.

Part of the “relief” capacity will come from additional rapid transit, part from improved GO services in the northern corridors, and part from the shifting of demand onto GO from TTC through more attractive joint fares. No one “solution” will do the whole job.

Metrolinx plans three rounds of public meetings to consider a long list of options, then a short list, and then to issue final recommendations. Reviews by its board of directors would occur between each round, and again at the end of the process late in 2014. The outcome of this study will feed into The Big Move, the existing, broader regional transit plan, which is being revised for 2016.

Support for a new downtown subway at the TTC and Toronto city council ranges from enthusiastic to lukewarm, depending on who is speaking. Some hedge and suggest that alternative network changes and upgrades might be enough to avoid the huge cost of this project. Others insist that this is absolutely the next subway line to build, and that preliminary work should be underway long before the planned 2023 opening of the Scarborough subway extension.

Mayor Ford has declared his priorities with Sheppard and Finch as the next subway projects; this does not bode well.

The Don Mills Subway would not be a simple undertaking. It would involve tunnelling through the heart of downtown, bridging or tunnelling under the Don at three locations, and covering roughly 14 kilometres end-to-end. The price tag in current dollars would be over $4 billion, and definitely go over $5 billion, including inflation, by the time of actual construction.

That’s neither cheap nor easy. But it is vital to the future of Toronto’s transit network.

To learn more about individual stations and the route alignment head to Steve Munro’s blog for some technical background on this proposal.


  • OgtheDim


  • James Bow

    Hear, here!

  • andrew97

    Should have been built 20 years ago.

  • mjennings

    It would be much smarter to build this instead of the Scarborough Subway.

    • Jacob

      We’ve already established that “smarter” doesn’t mean a thing in City Hall.

      • ACMEsalesrep

        In _this_ City Hall, you mean. The last one had a far better grip on transit, and negotiated a deal to have it paid for.

  • Steveinto

    ” mistakenly thought that growth could be forced outward by strangling transit capacity downtown.”

    Decades of ass back thinking with plenty of evidence it was wrong. lessons have not been learned. Truly pathetic!!

  • MeganPatterson

    I totally live in this area, and so totally agreed. I think the congestion on the 25 bus at rush hour more than justifies it. Even when I lived up near Don Mills station, it was usually faster to take the bus all the way down to Pape and the Bloor/Danforth line than it was to take the subway.

  • bobloblawbloblawblah

    “Mayor Ford has declared his priorities with Sheppard and Finch as the next subway projects; this does not bode well.”

    There’s a pretty good chance we’ll be shut of the Brothers Dimm this time next year and the discussion around transit won’t be so polluted by ill informed arguments and resentment(well, one hopes). That discussion really has to start talking about building the network and not just extending what we have in order to buy votes. Building a Don Mills to downtown line would be a great leap forward.Let’s hope some of the people at council and those running for Mayor start to address this.

  • OgtheDim

    I was somewhat taken aback by the amount of people from Scarborough who think they will get better service from a BD extension then from a full Don Mills Subway. They seem to think that if its on their doorstep, its obviously better, even if that on their doorstep service means they have to wait and wait and wait for an empty car at Bloor.

    Personally, I’d prefer both, if we have to. But, the misinformation out there is legion.

  • torontothegreat

    I travel that route every day and have not had a problem in 3 years. I find the university line to be much less busy than the yonge line and I’ve never had to wait for another train at this station.

  • Sean_Marshall

    The most you ever have to wait at St. Clair West in the morning is for one train. Since half the trains in the AM peak short turn there, St. Clair West commuters can choose which seat they want on those empty southbound trains. The trains north of there get crowded at Yorkdale and are packed by the time they stop at Eglinton West.

    • wklis

      With the additional Rocket trains being added, the TTC could have ended the short turn morning trains at St. Clair West. However, the Rob Ford TTC budget has prevented that. After all, Rob does not take public transit nor does he come to work at city hall before 9 AM, so it no problem for him.

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    “Maybe if we take ‘Downtown’ out of the name, people will finally support a plan that’s had no traction for decades.”

    • ACMEsalesrep

      Or maybe we’ll just convince suburbanites and the candidates who pander to them to stop reflexively opposing it on political grounds.

    • Functionalist

      That is a good idea. Downtowners haven’t pushed for the line in large numbers. In the 1980s and early 1990s, some even opposed it because they thought it would mean more tower development that was destroying large blocks of the old city. Nowadays, it’s still irrelevant to many downtowners who walk, bike, use streetcars and take cabs rather than taking the subway 10 km every day. I think the greatest support is in the former city of Toronto outside of the downtown core, and in the suburban areas closer to the old city of Toronto like Don Mills itself.

  • Matt ScareVee

    The western half of the YUS is not the problem. Once I head north from St.George on my morning commute I can spread myself accross 5 seats (not that I would).

    • tyrannosaurus_rek

      On occasion when I had to go south from St George I often found it easier and faster to go north one stop and switch to the southbound train. It beat standing on the stairs waiting for two or three trains to pass until I could get aboard.

  • Marc

    I have to agree with the below St Clair West is fine. St Clair on the other hand…

  • Jason Paris

    Not to discount this, as I know it to be true, but the University-Spadina line does sort of act already as a Don Mills line for the west. There would be a good long-term reasoning to extend the Don Mills up to Dundas West (and perhaps beyond), but the numbers don’t support it, or at least nearly to the degree that they are on the east.

  • Jason Paris

    “Don Mills” as a name works for me and for marketing purposes too. Hopefully Mayoral candidates (other than The Mayor) rally around a single name such as this.

  • Jason Paris

    Steve, I notice the termination of the Don Mills Line on the Eglinton-Crosstown is named “Don Mills.” Would you then be proposing to change the name of the current Don Mills Station on the Sheppard line to perhaps Fairview? I’ve always been in favour of that myself.

  • Jason Paris

    For Downtown Relief Line, I mean Don Mills Line discussion and advocasy, consider joining this group…!/groups/downtownreliefline/

  • edward

    A great start: the only thing wrong with this vision is it does not go far enough. The Don Mills – Weston subway should go from Don Mills Station to Eglinton, then follow the route described here, and then from Front & Spadina NW to meet the Crosstown again near Weston – Keele/Jane. Let’s plan big.

    • MER1978

      They could and should convert the UP express into an electrified rapid line before we come anywhere near opening the Don Mills subway.

      • tomwest

        That would very little to solve the Yonge line’s crowding issues…

        • MER1978

          Why are people west of spadina getting onto the yonge part of the line?

          • tomwest

            Exactly! The UPEx-rapid-transit project should be assessed on its own merits, not portrayed as a way to solve the Yonge line’s problems.

  • Buck Bokai

    Tell Ford and his friends that this eliminates the need for a King streetcar east of Spadina and they’ll jump right on.

  • ACMEsalesrep

    Liberty Village, in particular, could be served with existing GO service. The city and the province need to find a way to harmonize fares between the TTC and GO (and the surrounding municipalities, for that matter) to make this practical to end users.

  • Daver

    why would you stop at Spadina and Front? Go all the way to Exhibition place! You know, the place that attracts millions of people per year and is currently under-served by public transit…

  • ShabbaRich

    I was always under the impression that the Millwood bridge was built to accomodate a future subway. It has that unusual undercarrriage that resembles the Bloor viaduct. Wouldn’t it save a lot of money to use it for the Don Mills Subway rather than dig under the Don?

    • Steve Munro

      No, this bridge was not built for subways. It had extra steel in it for a proposed streetcar line north from Pape and Danforth, but when the bridge was widened to 6 lanes, the extra strength was used up. In any event, at this crossing, it would be a bridge not a tunnel.

  • GeronimoVBM

    If you extend it to Sheppard, will that not qualify as a subway for the suburbs for the mayor?

  • J. Lee

    It should reach Sheppard & Don Mills, but that’s not going to happen. I’ll be surprised if we get the phase 1 done (Pape-Spadina South)

    • Scrappysmith

      More likely if its LRT from Sheppard & Don Mills to Pape like in Transit City!

      • J. Lee

        Even with DRL up to Eglinton, DRL study shows that Yonge subway will be still crowded south of Bloor (at 87% capacity with ATC). People would take Yonge subway over Don Mills LRT, we need to stretch the relief line as far as we can.

        • Scrappysmith

          I’d understood the Don Mills LRT would be connected with the DRL at Bloor!
          If your suggesting riders will be so averse to LRT that they’ll travel to the Yonge Line I’m more than surprised. The 20-30 min ride over a straight run to Bloor then downtown would be faster & much more financeable than A Subway DRL Loop to Eglinton wouldn’t it?

          • J. Lee

            DRL up to Danforth would not provide the relief Yonge subway needs. Problems with Don Mills LRT; The demand exceeds the capacity, longer travel time due to the closer spacing between stops, and the cost won’t competitive – both LRT and subway require a new bridge to cross Don Valley & have to go underground between Danforth and Eglinton.

  • Alex

    This would be tremendous for reducing congestion on the Eglington buses going to and from the Yonge line’s Eglington station.

  • chris

    end it at the island airport

  • bobloblawbloblawblah

    Of all transit systems in North America the TTC has the dubious honour of being the least underfunded system. The money that goes into the fare box covers some of the operating costs with the rest made up by the city. A good portion of it’s budget is for system and rolling stock upkeep. Political interference over the past 4 decades hasn’t helped any(Sheppard subway, Scarborough SRT, recent Scarby LRT vs subway debate, Ford’s attempt to kill Transit City and all LRT).

    • tyrannosaurus_rek

      Least underfunded?

      • bobloblawbloblawblah


        Got that backwards…..was thinking the transit system with the least government funding. Shoud’ve been “most underfunded”. Very awkward phrasing. Oh, well.

  • glenn_storey

    i like it . how much does it cost?

    • OgtheDim

      “The price tag in current dollars would be over $4 billion, and
      definitely go over $5 billion, including inflation, by the time of
      actual construction.”

      • glenn_storey

        sure. how much will it REALLY cost?
        edit. because if the 3 stop scarborough stubway is well over a billion, there’s no possible way this 14 [i think] stop subway can be built for less than 1o billion $.

        • OgtheDim

          Knock yourself out…..speculate on speculation based on TTC estimates.

          Reality is always more then thought.

    • Steve Munro

      The line is 14km long and at current construction prices that’s $4.2b. Yes there will be inflation and we have a valley to cross three times, not to mention a section of line through the core (although it’s not very long relative to the whole line). The station spacing is about 1km and the $300m/km price is based on that. The cost of the line in Scarborough is a function of the length and that it is all underground in deep bore tunnel, not the station count.

    • wklis

      It’ll be a bigger and better service for the dollar spent than the B-D extension.

  • Lee Zamparo

    Let’s hope this gains traction down at city hall.

    • wklis

      Oh, there’s something else other than about the Rob Ford video these days?

  • Scrappysmith

    I thought part of Transit City included a Don Mill’s LRT to Pape Station? Wouldn’t the Subway extension from the Danforth to Eglinton draw funds from the goal of increasing rapid transit for “Inner Suburban Regions” or “Priority Neighborhoods” targeted in Transit City!
    The LRT Routes in Transit City don’t seem to be on anyone’s agenda anymore with having lost the LRT Route running through these neighborhoods in Scarborough. (Hoping the Prov insists on two more Priority Neighborhood stops on the Scarborough Stubway.

    • Mark Dowling

      The Don Mills LRT to Pape Station was always a bit ropey as it assumed passage down Pape Avenue. With Celestica/Science Centre at the north end a DM subway should do decent counterpeak/offpeak business, plus allowing extra developments on the massive car parks in that area, and there’s always the possibility of a GO station on the CP rail line one day.

      • Scrappysmith

        I’d always assumed it would have to be underground, as a LRT still cheaper I’d have thought?

        My understanding was it would reach Sheppard?

  • Functionalist

    It’s true that the east end is more urgent, but transit isn’t that good in the west end either. The city would really benefit from building the branch through the west end, as well.

  • Toronto My Way

    Relieving the Yonge-University-Spadina line is better served by extending this Don Mills subway north of Eglinton up to Fairview Mall to connect with the Sheppard Subway/Scarborough LRT. That way, riders who are heading right downtown needn’t get on Yonge train at Sheppard Stn; of course, the number of people who would be going either north on Yonge or south to York Mills or Lawrence are much fewer and those going to Eglinton or thereabouts may also use Don Mills down to Eglinton Crosstown. In other words, more route choice distributes ridership and eases congestion along all routes.

  • Tiggernation

    Downtown should follow King or Queen, if it isn’t going to connect to Union.