It's not perfect, but here's to looking at the glass half full.
I was angry and frustrated with the TTC this past week. Several times. Sometimes, I find the weaknesses in the system, which are overwhelmingly due to insufficient funding, get me down.
It’s easy to get worn thin by the slog of a commute. And it’s easy to get worn thinner by the poor decisions the City makes when it comes to transit, the waste of time and money, and the weak justifications of political projects that purport to stand for an “adult conversation.”
Then I arrived at York University’s campus and saw the almost-finished subway station. The new line will be open at the end of this year. Now there’s something to be excited about. Some days the glass is half full.
Before I go on about the many positive things the new subway extension will bring, a few caveats:
I will personally benefit from this extension. My commute will be faster, easier, and more comfortable. I will no longer have to squish myself into the express bus or wait in long lines at the unsheltered university bus stops in blizzards and rainstorms.
Secondly, this extension has been far from a model project. It has experienced serious cost overruns and construction delays, and, worst of all, a worker lost his life on the university’s building site.
Lastly, extending the subway to York University and into Vaughan was not the City’s top transit priority. The Relief Line has been the most urgently needed expansion of the TTC’s heavy rail system for at least 15 years. Instead, we have built the Sheppard Line and now this northwest extension. When they were digging at Sheppard and Don Mills, they should have pointed that tunnel south. Alas.
The good news about the York U extension is that while it isn’t the best project, it is far from the worst. There are many good reasons for the whole city to be excited about the opening of this new part of the subway.
The most prosaic reason to be excited is that it will take a lot of buses off Toronto streets. There will be a new terminal in Vaughan, so hundreds of buses will no longer come below Steeles to drop their charges at York U. Hundreds fewer will also leave from Downsview station, thus reducing traffic in the Sheppard/Dufferin/Finch area.
A new station at Keele and Finch will improve the connection of the densest quarter of the city to the rest of it. I remember John Sewell talking about the new City Plan several years ago on TVO’s The Agenda, and specifically naming Keele and Finch as a wasted major intersection. Facilitating mobility to and from the neighbourhood should see some improvements there.
Transit infrastructure in the northwest corner of the city is inadequate. There is a large population—and especially, a large number of newcomers—who are stuck with too-infrequent, overcrowded buses that run on a too-large grid system. In between the enormous city blocks are winding suburban developments that are inefficient paths for transit routes.
The new station will make a difference. Being able to access the rest of the city at a major hub such as Keele and Finch will open up many work, education, and social opportunities for area residents. When the station is then linked with the forthcoming Finch LRT, it will be transformative.
One of the most exciting things about the new line is its original purpose: it will connect post-secondary institutions serving over 60,000 students to the city and the region above it. York University and Seneca at York share a campus that overwhelmingly serves commuters. Only a few thousand live in campus residence.
On any given day, that campus is the single-largest commuter destination in the city. Improving access to it from both north and south is great for pragmatic reasons alone. The particular purpose of the place, however, is what really matters.
Access to education improves lives. It improves self-knowledge, the capacity to participate in civic life, and employment opportunities. Networks with fellow students are often the foundation of professional and social relationships that last a lifetime. It is hard to overstate the importance of these opportunities for individuals.
More than other institutions, York and Seneca are full of students whose families are new to Canada or often the first in their families to attend post-secondary education. This creates a mini-society on campus that truly represents the region’s diversity in every way: ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, language, social interest, political perspective. The unspoken exchanges alone that happen every day in that place are amazing.
The benefit to society is even larger. Universities are not just places of instruction. They are places of the generation, communication, and exchange of knowledge. They are points of connection for others across the city, country, and around the world; people bring their ideas about everything from germs to marketing to politics to dance, and share what they know.
Universities then disseminate what they learn back out to society—not just in the classroom, but through the media, talks, and other public events. Merely setting foot onto a university campus can make the difference to a student, young or old, who is wondering if it’s possible. Accessibility is critical.
It doesn’t take that long to get up to York from downtown, but it feels like it does. When you can jump on a subway train and arrive directly on campus in 20 minutes or so, you might be more likely to come up for an event some afternoon or evening.
More exchange with and among post-secondary institutions is one of the most fruitful ways we can improve mobility in the Toronto area. The entire city and surrounding region will benefit from it. This subway extension is just the first step of a network that will connect Humber College when the LRT is built.
These are positive, enriching transit developments. They are worth getting excited about. Raise that glass—it’s half full after all.