Transit Pros Support Eglinton Subway-Surface LRT Plan
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Transit Pros Support Eglinton Subway-Surface LRT Plan

More details on the letter that calls for a return to "sensible" transit planning in Toronto.

Under the umbrella of the Cities Centre at the University of Toronto, a large group of academics, professionals, and concerned citizens has announced its support for the at-grade alignment of the Eglinton LRT’s eastern branch (i.e. keeping it above ground on less congested portions of the route, as originally planned).

The group includes:

  • Eric Miller, director of the Cities Centre
  • Paul Bedford, former chief planner of the City of Toronto and until recently a member of the Metrolinx Board
  • Ken Greenberg, noted consultant and urban planner
  • Richard Soberman, professor and a consultant long associated with transportation planning in Toronto

According to Miller’s group, the Eglinton line should not be in a tunnel east of Leaside (Brentcliffe Road) because there is adequate room for the line on the surface and an LRT can best provide the needed transportation capability on Eglinton; advocating for an underground line is misguided, and no professional endorsement of this option exists. “All subways, all the time” is not the best investment and will not deliver the comprehensive transit needed in Toronto, Miller says.

“Forcing all higher-order transit underground as a matter of principle is a misguided policy. It ensures that most transit expansions become prohibitively expensive and cannot be justified on the basis of the number of people the system will carry. The result is that we end up building much less transit than we need because we spend our precious dollars on artificially expensive underground lines when much more cost-effective at-grade solutions exist. To say that we need to bury all higher-order transit lines because people “like” subways misstates the issue. What people want is reliable, frequent service that takes them where they need to go.”

The group argues for “higher order transit” on the Finch West and Sheppard East corridors, although some of the details are vague—they don’t specify whether Finch should get Light Rail Transit (LRT) or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

As for Sheppard—where the mayor famously wants to build a subway, come what may—the group does not propose a technology or scope for transit expansion, saying only that the district around Consumers Road and Victoria Park needs to be connected to the existing Sheppard subway line. Later in their paper, they talk of an “unjustified Sheppard subway line” without saying what might replace it. During today’s press conference, Paul Bedford clarified that this should be LRT, but the vagueness of the position paper mirrors indecision among many transit thinkers in Toronto.

More broadly, Bedford urged Toronto council to “come together and speak with one voice” on the future of transit. He observed that the role of surface transit is underestimated in Toronto, noting that 60 per cent of TTC passengers ride on surface routes, and that the streetcar network carries far more people every day than GO Transit.

This isn’t just a question of cutting the internal squabbling. At the regional level, Bedford explained that Metrolinx faces $75 billion to build, operate, and maintain their Big Move network over the next 25 years, plus another $25 billion to fund improvements on local transit systems. This is the context for spending and funding decisions by both Toronto and Queen’s Park.

On a wider scale, the group bemoans the state of transit planning in Toronto.

“… in the medium term a comprehensive plan for the Toronto transit network is desperately needed. Ad hoc, one off decisions are no way to build a cost-effective, attractive transit network. Network connectivity and coverage are critical to providing transit services that are maximally useful, as is the thoughtful matching of the supply of services to meet the spatial patterns of current and future travel demand.

The problem is not that we have done too many planning studies, it’s that very little has been implemented from most of these studies and at the same time we have lost sight of the big picture. We need to restore a commitment to long-range network planning (prioritization of funding, integrating land use and transit investment) or we will just continue to muddle through project-by-project, horse-trading our way from one crisis to the next, missing opportunities and wasting time and precious resources.”

Ken Greenberg observed networks in many cities are built from a variety of technologies including subways, LRT, BRT, car shares, cycling, and pedestrian facilities. For him, it is the network as a whole that matters; “subways are not trophies” to be won by competing politicians. And if there is any war in Toronto’s transit planning, it is a “war on common sense” because so much of the network is still devoted to moving cars, not people. Greenberg fears that LRT is portrayed as an intrusion because it gets in the way of cars rather than being explained, in the first place, in terms of its benefit to transit riders and city development.

Using Richard Soberman’s Metropolitan Toronto Transportation Plan Review (MTTPR), a report now almost 40 years old, as a model, Miller’s group is calling for the institution of a new group of planners and academics to:

“… provide to Council the independent, professional, comprehensive plan for its approval that is needed to move beyond the personal preference approach, overly politicized environment in which we currently find ourselves and to provide a sound framework for moving the City’s transportation agenda forward over the longer term.”

Metrolinx would be reduced to being a member in this larger group—a role they are unlikely to take on willingly with Queen’s Park paying so much of any transit plan’s cost.

Many in Toronto who feel that if only transit were taken away from whoever is running it now—the politicians, the bureaucrats, the consultants, the province, the city—all would be well. Miller’s group advocates a collegial approach, but Soberman would go further and remove all politicians from the TTC. That goes over the line from policy into governance, and ignores the fact that all spending, all major land use decisions will and should remain political issues.

Any group of “experts” will have its share of independent thinkers, and Miller will be challenged to keep his team speaking with one voice. Everyone agrees that Eglinton should rise into the daylight where it can, and that the Sheppard subway is a complete waste of money. After that, opinions vary, but in time we will need a new plan agreed to by many if not by all.

Transit planning and technology are hardly big news on a Sunday morning with media preoccupied by the City’s labour dispute and the Super Bowl. For the true believers in Ford’s plan, this is simply one more example of “downtown elites” telling the suburbs what’s good for them. The real audience is the middle block of council who need all the support they can get to challenge the mayor’s position.

Whether advocates of a subway-surface Eglinton plan will carry the day and send a strong message to Queen’s Park remains to be seen. Technical experts may advise, but politicians must decide. Transit debates now are referenda on the mayor’s plans, and on his right and power to control council.