2010 Villain: Subway Fetishism
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2010 Villain: Subway Fetishism

Illustration by Brian McLachlan/Torontoist.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—Toronto’s very best and very worst people, places, and things over the past twelve months. From December 13–17: the Villains! From December 20–24, the Heroes! And, from December 27–30, you can vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

Ponies. When we were eight many of us wanted ponies. Or racecars, or rocket ships to call our own.
We did not get these things, and though that stung at the time, no reasonable person would have expected our parents to procure them for us. Wanting wasn’t a justification for having.
The grown-up version of wanting ponies in our current tranportation-planning climate is subways. The reasons we like subways are clear: subways are sleek, subways are fast, and subways are tidily buried underground. Wait times are (generally) both shorter and more predictable than with surface vehicles, the ride is smoother, and the climate control (a big deal in winter especially) far more effective.
These are all real merits. Our attachment to subways is not frilly and it is not superficial: study after study shows that the more comfortable and appealing a transit option is, the more likely it is to attract riders. And we need more transit riders, desperately. With the city’s population projected to grow by 500,000 over the next twenty years, we need to collectively become far more efficient in our transportation use—there simply isn’t room on the roads for us all to drive.
But liking isn’t a justification for having, either. Setting aside for a moment all the very real (and in our view independently decisive) concerns about available funding, political brinksmanship, and opportunity cost of delaying construction for the several years it will take to get approval for a new approach to transit, is this: subways are the wrong tool for the job. Subways excel at moving very large volumes of people, and are an ideal form of transit for very densely populated areas. But for all that our population is going to grow substantially, we’re not going to increase in density by anything close to the amount needed to make subways an appropriate transit choice. It is simply far more firepower than we require to move the number of people we will have to move.
Building subways in the absence of this density amounts to placing too much weight on our likes, our wishes, our preferences, and perhaps our prejudices, at the expense of everything else—efficiency, frugality, expediency, and the basic equity we should strive for by building transit to serve as many Torontonians as possible. It is inordinately, unjustifiably wasteful to hang on to this attachment—real and legitimate though it may be—when it is for something that is both unnecessary and costs three times as much as the alternative.