A Don Mills Subway for Toronto
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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.