The Arrogance of Scarborough Transit Planning Leaves Thousands Behind

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The Arrogance of Scarborough Transit Planning Leaves Thousands Behind

The LRT network would reach 125,000. The one-stop subway reaches a small fraction of that.

It takes vision to build rail transit. That kind of hard infrastructure takes billions of dollars and years of disruption for construction. It takes political will and relationship building with colleagues and communities. 

That’s a lot of work, time and money. So you better know where you’re going. Because once you put down rails, that’s where they’re going to stay.

But how can we know? How far into the future can anyone realistically see?

It’s not a shot in the dark. Building transit helps determine that future and what it looks like.

Part of the skill in transit planning is understanding how a city functions. Planning for major transit infrastructure means recognizing current uses and unmet needs, and anticipating future, as-yet-undefined needs. It means looking at the existing landscape and sifting out what land is truly viable for new development—residential, commercial, recreational, educational, etc.

The Sheppard subway line, which we refuse to learn from, is an object lesson in how a mismatch of transit form and urban form can turn out very poorly.

It’s seems obvious, but one point that gets regularly glossed over in the SSE debate is that a rail connection to the Scarborough Town Centre and Scarborough Civic Centre already exists. How much new development is replacing the RT with a subway going to generate?

The answer is: very little.

One thing a lot of people are saying right now is we don’t have a direct comparison between the original LRT plan and the subway extension to Scarborough Centre. The good news is we do have something close.

In 2015, professors André Sorensen and Paul Hess published a study out of the Cities Lab at the University of Toronto Scarborough comparing the potential of subway and LRT for supporting development in Scarborough. Specifically, they compared the plan for a three-stop subway all the way to Sheppard Avenue with the previously proposed network of three LRT lines from the Transit City plan: 1) along Sheppard, 2) along Eglinton and then up through UTSC to connect with Sheppard, and 3) to replace the current SRT and extend it through Centennial College and into Malvern. They also included the proposed SmartTrack line in their study.

As Sorensen and Hess documented, there are only 83 hectares of “redevelopment area” to work with—and that’s with a three-stop subway.  The current plan is only one stop to Scarborough Centre. The Town Centre and its parking lots aren’t going anywhere.

Even with three stops, they conclude the “extremely poor performance of the proposed Scarborough Subway” makes it the worst option, as well as the most expensive.

The City’s planners have some great ideas to redevelop the area, breaking up the area into smaller blocks that will be more friendly to multimodal streets to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists. I give them full credit for making the most of a bad plan.

But it remains a bad plan that invests little in Scarborough. There is much undeserved hype about an “express” train to Kennedy, and hope that people will be drawn to Scarborough Centre from the rest of Toronto. There is much talk about saving a few minutes on a subway as compared to the SRT, and less about the people whose commutes are longer because of the elimination of current SRT stops or the Centennial students who get nothing.

And the idea that the area will become a new destination for anyone in Etobicoke or North York or downtown is just silly. It is and will continue to be a destination for Scarborough residents, but we aren’t building any transit to make it easier for them to get there.

This is a narrow, short-term vision, and it will only get going when the subway nears completion, which is no earlier than 2026.

The plan for a network of LRT lines is much better. Astonishingly so. Again according to the detailed analysis of Sorensen and Hess, the network would generate 458.2 hectares of redevelopment area, or almost six times what the three-stop subway would.

The Malvern line to replace the SRT alone would have a redevelopment area of 162.5 hectares. It would bring a much larger population (about 40,000 versus 10,000) within 800 metres of a rail transit stop. More jobs, more new development, to help more people.

The LRT network of all three lines would reach a population of 125,000. Twelve times what the three-stop subway would. And, once again, we’re no longer planning to build a three-stop subway that extends to Sheppard. It’s a one-stop subway. So the actual difference is even bigger.

The impact of the LRT network would reach well beyond one corridor. It would extend across broad swaths of Scarborough, which would be able to support the addition of new businesses and expected residential growth for many more years.

The LRT network is proper city building. It’s a long-term investment in an entire region that will pay dividends in many different ways. The SSE plan is embarrassing by comparison, which is why some city councilors opposed (successfully, sadly) directing staff to produce such a comparison. It is mere politicking.

And it’s a crying shame. Toronto is growing too fast, and leaving too many behind in the process, to waste its money on a transit plan without vision.

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