Seminal subway lessons from the Toronto transit time tunnel

Instead of funding, premier Leslie Frost arrived at the 1959 ground-breaking ceremony with only an ill-fitting hard hat and a speech warning local politicians not to get too deeply into debt for their University-Bloor-Danforth subway project. (Toronto Telegram fonds ASC07444)

Once upon a time, a much smaller and poorer place called Toronto went ahead and built subways without any funding assistance from Ottawa or Queen’s Park

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star on Feb. 3, 2012. All photos were taken by Toronto Telegram photographer Peter Ward and are published here courtesy of the York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections.


Torontonians have seen countless transit plans in recent years, but even the wildest fantasy versions haven’t considered time travel — and maybe that’s a shame.

If we could all hop a Red Rocket to Nov. 16, 1959, and get off at University Avenue and Edward Street, we could witness an event locals might consider unbelievable. And if planners and politicians were among the time travellers, local transit talk might be more relevant and productive, even before the ride back to 2012.

TTC chairman and former mayor Allan Lamport addressed the gathering on a cold, blustery 1959 day, when a smaller, poorer Toronto demonstrated an independence and self-confidence not seen since. (Toronto Telegram fonds ASC07445)


The guy in the ill-fitting red hard hat operating the steam shovel for the sod-turning ceremony is Leslie Frost, premier since 1949. Mayor Nathan Phillips is among the dignitaries, along with “Big Daddy” Fred Gardiner, the Metro chairman who would prefer that expressways get priority. Allan Lamport, a former mayor who successfully argued that subways would be a better long-term investment, will take a turn with the earth-moving equipment after Frost is done.

Observant guests from the 21st century might note the absence of any giant cheque for the photo-op. And there is no spin-doctor’s slogan on a lectern placard, no printed backdrop screens lauding Queen’s Park for creating jobs or tackling gridlock. Of course, Frost has good reason to not blow his horn: he doesn’t bring a penny to the project. Instead, he delivers only a speech, a stern warning to municipal politicians that they’re on their own, that they’d better not get mired in debt for this $200-million University-Bloor-Danforth subway plan — 25 stations over 16 kilometres.


By now, you know the job got done, and it was accomplished on budget in just six years and three months.

“It was a remarkable feat,” says veteran civil engineer and consultant Ed Levy, who has written a forthcoming book on Toronto’s transportation history. “It took guts to go ahead without provincial funding, especially when you consider this was a much smaller and poorer city, and tunnelling technology was relatively primitive.

“The truth seems unbelievable today, after decades of paralysis and sickening blunders on the rare occasions when Queen’s Park has provided funding.”

In 1959, it had been five years since the original Yonge line from Union to Eglinton had opened (funded largely by fare-box surpluses) and Toronto was eager to get building again, even if the province wouldn’t help.

To figure out how we did it, Levy says several factors must be considered. We were willing to put a surcharge on property taxes, though the towns of Mimico and Long Branch objected. But the biggest factor is almost certainly that “the economics are pretty well guaranteed to work when you put subways in the right places ” — already dense, transit-supportive parts of the city.

“We don’t have a lot of that and, obviously, we can’t build only downtown, but it was madness to stop building subways in old Toronto in the 1960s,” says Levy, whose first engineering job involved plans for shoring up buildings for the University line tunnels.

“Look at cities that have been able to keep expanding; they’ve all built steadily from the middle out. London’s tubes go a long way out, but all go through the core. [And though few tourists may realize it, 55 per cent of London Underground is actually above ground, and when Toronto was good at building subways on time and on budget, we went open trench through low-density areas north of Bloor on the Yonge line, or above ground once the subway rolled into Scarborough at Victoria Park.]

“We might yet be able to make the economics work in the suburbs, but it will take big changes to our whole approach, lots of up-zoning and big increases in the densities of those areas.”

Fifty-five per cent of the tab for the University and Bloor-Danforth lines came from property taxes levied by Metropolitan Toronto, a senior local government abolished in the 1998 amalgamation. The Toronto Transit Commission, which didn’t need taxpayer subsidies for operations until the early 1970s, was profitable enough under its zone-fare system and a primarily urban operations area to pay 45 per cent. Eventually, under Frost’s successor, John Robarts, Queen’s Park guaranteed a $60 million loan, allowing a work speed-up that saw the line from Woodbine to Keele open in 1966 rather than 1969.

Can hiking property taxes make a difference?

The Toronto Board of Trade estimates we’d get only $22 million a year if we raised residential rates 1 per cent, but considering most people in 905 pay at least 25 per cent more in property taxes, it may be an option.

Transit advocate and blogger Steve Munro says one thing working against us now is that all construction costs have risen faster than the rate of inflation. It’s tough to quantify this, but he appears to be correct. The Bank of Canada says $200 million in 1959 is worth roughly $1.6 billion today, and there’s no way we could build those lines and the Greenwood maintenance and storage facility for the latter figure.

“We also used cheaper cut-and-cover box tunnels, rather than the current deep bore approach,” Munro says. “The stations were rudimentary, often with only one exit. It also didn’t hurt that, 40 years earlier, people thought long-term and built that lower deck on the Bloor viaduct, not that anyone would have considered tunnelling under the Don River in the 1960s.”

But Munro, like everyone else interviewed for this article, comes back to the relationship between land use and transit and the need to reconnect mutually supportive forces if we’re ever to make costly infrastructure pay and keep expansion ongoing.

“Some will argue that, ‘You don’t see lots of towers along the original Bloor-Danforth,’” Munro says. “But it worked because transit demand was already well-established for kilometres north and south of the new subway. The street could probably use redevelopment now, but it serves as a great example that effective urban form doesn’t have to include high-rises.”

Transport and energy consultant, author and former city councillor Richard Gilbert made a similar point in a 2006 paper titled “Building Subways Without Subsidies.” In it, he calculated a combined 30,000 to 40,000 jobs and residential units within a square kilometre of each station on the $2.6 billion Spadina-York subway extension would allow it to pay for itself in 35 years.

“You could do all that without going over seven storeys,” he says, adding there has been little development on the Spadina line in 35 years of operation. This extension into York shows few signs of paying back any better. People have to understand that subsidies are a substitute for density, and that’s fine if money is no object,” he says. “We’re making the same mistake again on Eglinton. We’re blasting more than $8 billion at it and the province hasn’t set any performance-based conditions. There’s not a single requirement about density around and above the stations.

“If we don’t fix this, if we don’t put some real effort into figuring out how the public can get back even some of this money, we have no hope of obtaining real value for the $50 billion Metrolinx is supposed to spend on the Big Move.”

Eric Miller, director of the Cities Centre at the University of Toronto, says “we’ve been fooling ourselves for decades” with the idea that development and urbanization will automatically follow subways in places first developed around the car.

“It was always a well-crafted myth that the TTC and others generated,” Miller says. “Building heavy rail is a necessary but not sufficient condition to generate high density in the suburbs. We have to get really serious about ensuring that density, walkability and rich mixes of land uses happen and we can’t waste time.”

In January, TTC vice-chair Peter Milczyn made an encouraging but generally unreported announcement at the city planning and growth management committee meeting. He said he and TTC chair Karen Stintz would work to ensure all future stations had at least some development upstairs from the start. But some see this and initiatives such as Metrolinx’s Mobility Hub concept as mere timid steps in the right direction; that small islands of urbanity in ever-growing seas of car dependence won’t do and that the full costs of sprawl must be identified and recaptured.

John Sewell, former Toronto mayor and author of The Shape of the Suburbs, argues the entire GTA had better come to grips with the urgency because Metrolinx’s investments in the 905 area are even less likely to pay for themselves than the subsidy-driven services we pushed into the older 416 suburbs beginning in the late 1960s.

“The GTA has to compete globally, and we’re guaranteeing ourselves negative real returns on a grand scale,” Sewell says, adding the financial burden will almost certainly further erode long-term political will to properly fund transit, even in places where transit is cost-effective.

“Because of the way we’ve built the outer suburbs, any type of transit we put out there will require massive subsidies for operations,” Sewell says. “That’s the problem with suburban form; sprawl is unsustainable — literally, financially unsustainable. Mississauga is just learning this now.”

Planner Ken Greenberg thinks our slide into bad habits began even before the Bloor-Danforth opened. “One great mistake of that era is that we started detaching land use from infrastructure investment. On Yonge, at St. Clair, Davisville and Eglinton, you have, in effect, little cities. Lots of people live and work near those subway stops. For the most part, such is not the case on the Bloor-Danforth and Spadina. Something was suddenly and fundamentally off kilter and it took Toronto out of the realm of what other cities have been doing consistently.”

Levy and Gilbert also point to other trends that were developing by the late 1960s. “People will be irritated by my saying this, but our transit problems began when the suburbs began dominating at Metro,” Levy says. “Some of it may be coincidence, but the loss of the zone fares and the way Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York developed means subways may never pay for themselves there, and Vaughan is another story altogether. They don’t have the density, but they have the votes.” [The Toronto-East York community council area, 6,348 people per square kilometre, is more than twice as dense as Scarborough and Etobicoke, and 63 per cent denser than North York.]

University of Toronto historian Richard White makes the case that suburbanites did contribute because a building boom in Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York made the Metro tax surcharge particularly lucrative, but he agrees the suburban form in those former boroughs and the end of the zone-fare system made public transit expensive.

Gilbert, former research director at the Centre for Sustainable Transportation, says even the much-pined-for funding formula started in the 1970s by former premier Bill Davis — a 75 per cent subsidy for new infrastructure and 50 per cent toward operating deficits — probably worsened our problems long-term. “Those subsidies obscured the true cost of providing urban transit in suburban places, so it’s no surprise that they keep getting larger. This is a classic case of a perverse subsidy.”

That brings us to planner Pamela Blais, who has spent at least 15 years studying how hidden “perverse” subsidies encourage sprawl much more effectively than planning guidelines and growth boundaries fight it. But the author of Perverse Cities makes clear she would prefer bigger transit subsidies from senior governments because the public service role justifies them.

She says that if we want to get on with building transit infrastructure and delivering good service across the GTA, we must address the fact that the lower the density and the more we segregate land uses, the more expensive it is to deliver all network services, and that includes gas, hydro, mail, sewers, water, and telecommunications.

“When everybody pays the same average price, rather than the marginal cost of service provision, people in the densest areas overpay to subsidize people further out, where they largely don’t pay their fair share. Trying to outlaw sprawl won’t work, but if we properly identify the hidden cross-subsidies and get the pricing signals right, people will make the right decisions,” she says, citing development charges and the market-value assessment approach to property taxes as areas in need of reform.

Paul Bedford was Toronto’s chief planner when the city produced its first official plan after amalgamation, and linking transit and land use was central to that mission. He hopes we can find “consistent leadership over time, so plans don’t keep changing with each municipal election.

“The other key is that the Metrolinx development strategy has to be really bold, not just with planning new infrastructure, but with funding sources for operations and maintenance,” says Bedford, who is still waiting to learn if he will be reappointed to the Metrolinx board. “We need the funding plan this year,” he says, adding he thinks plans for a downtown subway should be moved up the priority list. “We’re at least 30 years behind, and we’re going to be adding the equivalent of Greater Montreal in the next 25 years. Heaven help us if we allow much of it to be car-dependent sprawl.”

But Greenberg points out that sprawl is marching on. “Yes, we’re having trouble getting transit infrastructure built, but our problem is more land use than transportation,” he says. “We’re getting some intensification in a few places, but go to King City or Uxbridge, places like that on the fringes, it’s still ongoing, full, industrial-strength, traditional sprawl. More and more people living in environments where they have no practical choice but to drive everywhere. We have policies intended to fight it, but way too many incentives to continue as is. We’re sucking and blowing at the same time and the illusion is that we’re wealthy enough to afford it.”

Sewell, meanwhile, is skeptical that we can remake the suburbs. “It’s really hard to retrofit any place built for the car, they haven’t been evolving into urban places. If it’s going to work, it’s going to take a lot more than density. We need that real mix of land uses and short blocks. Planners have to keep the pedestrian in mind at all times and we need the financial incentives.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to take a really long time and I don’t know that we have it. Maybe if we took that train back to 1959 we could warn them, but I don’t know if that would help, either.”

In what was viewed as a burying-the-hatchet moment, subway advocate Allan Lamport pins a flower on the lapel of Metro Chairman Fred Gardiner, who wanted spending on expressways to be the priority. The two battled each other throughout the ’50s. (Toronto Telegram fonds ASC07446)

Architectural wankfests and standalone TTC stations

If you’re not bringing subways to your urban areas, you have to bring urbanity to your suburban station catchment areas. Anything else is obscenely wasteful

Hey, this field on Steeles Avenue looks like a great place for a subway station. And when we put one there, lets ensure it's really elaborate, with no irritating reasons for large numbers of people to visit the area on foot. In fact, lets make sure it has two elaborate entrances, with the second one just like the one below. Its hip, downtown facade might disguise its suburban irrelevance.

This column ran in the National Post on February 14, 2011. It’s business as usual with a wasteful approach to stations on the Spadina-York subway extension, but TTC vice-chairman Peter Milczyn made an  encouraging announcement at the January 5, 2012 planning and growth management committee meeting. He said he will push to ensure we never again build such standalone stations. 


Apparently, Steeles West subway station will get a hip, downtown façade. Too bad it won’t get a real, downtown built form, hip or otherwise.

Politicians keep telling us capital and operating funds for transit are scarce, so why do we even consider standalone subway stations, let alone permit the plans and discussions about them to descend into architectural wankfests?

While we blow $857-million on stations for the $2.6-billion Spadina-York extension, many seemingly intelligent Torontonians debate the relative costs of LRTs and subways and puzzle about how some places on this planet make real rapid transit affordable and effective — even profitable on occasion.

Subways can pay for themselves in truly urban settings. We proved that a half-century ago along Yonge and Bloor streets and University and Danforth avenues. Present-day Hong Kong has turned subway building into a profitable business for all concerned.

The key is to understand and act upon the transit-land use relationship and capture the values created by rapid transit. In the 1950s and ’60s, for example, a much smaller and poorer Toronto could build subways without help from Queen’s Park and Ottawa because the existing urban form made passive value capture possible. Tax-base and ridership increases were enough.

But to make subways viable in greenfield environments and suburban areas originally designed for the car, aggressive and directed value capture strategies are needed. If you’re not bringing subways to your urban areas, you have to bring urbanity to your suburban station catchment areas. Japanese railways such as Hankyu and Tokyu pioneered these transit-oriented development models nearly 100 years ago.

In old inner-city Toronto, we had so much early urban success that we tolerated some wasteful standalone stations — though they were small and utilitarian. We should have adjusted the station and vicinity planning demands for our first forays into suburban Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke, but senior governments willingly subsidized the waste. Short-term it appeared to work, but it is one factor that contributed to the erosion of our political will to properly fund transit.

In Hong Kong, MTR Corp. builds and operates the subway system and has been profitable every year since 1979, largely because it’s also a major property developer with latitude. Malcolm Gibson, MTR’s chief of project engineering, told me seven years ago the key is that “tunnels and tracks will always be costly, but stations can be gold mines.”

To make that work, especially in a suburban environment such as the Spadina-York extension, the subway builder (that’s us, the taxpayers of Ontario) must ensure every station is located in the centre of an intense mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly node.

Because the space above the station carries the biggest premium, we must ensure the basic station — platforms, escalators et cetera — are part of the basement/foundation of a major development from the start. If you wait till the line is built and then try to sell air rights or build above a working station, huge amounts of the marginal subway-generated real estate premium is gone forever. Note that the most successful stations in Toronto have almost no footprint at the surface. They’re not monuments to “starchitect” ego.

In a North American context, the chances are beyond remote we’ll ever get subways for free, but it’s realistic to demand that developers pay for our stations. If we can’t do it, we’re putting the stations in the wrong place and/or the land-use nexus potential hasn’t been properly factored into the funding model.

Meanwhile, back in Toronto, as the march of folly continues, we get “hip facades” and irrelevant comments about the Steeles West plan from respected architects, university professors and their students.

Discuss landscaping, oxidized surfaces, the size of the lettering on the station, the latest celebrity gossip and the Maple Leafs if you must, but the one question that matters about Steeles West station is: How many thousands of people will perform daily functions such as living, working, shopping and playing within an easy and pleasant five-minute walk of the turnstiles?

Mentions of the station’s green roof and LED lighting, meanwhile, should make thoughtful environmentalists retch.

Sheppard West station will be a palatial spot for a few people to switch modes of transit. The green roof is a misinterpretation of what green means. And those people the rendering artist had milling about in front of the station: are we supposed to believe that will happen?

Gunn’s broadside is ignored by people guiding the TTC

Veteran transit manager invited back to advise Toronto heading into its budget crunch, but gets the silent treatment from politicians and transit staff

One of the Toronto Transit Commission's new Rocket subway trains and an older T1 model pass each other like ghosts in the night at Davisville station. David Gunn says the fully linked six-car trains will have to be more reliable than ones made up of three two-car units.

This story first appeared July 5, 2011 in The Globe and Mail. Some readers misunderstood  David Gunn’s comments on streetcars (and I’ll take the blame for that). Gunn is in favour of retaining streetcars in Toronto and knows the fleet must be replaced. But he says the buying 70% low-floor vehicles instead of 100% ones would have provided far better value for the money, with better accessibility and lower maintenance costs. 


Veteran transit manager David Gunn had a blunt message for the Toronto Transit Commission when he came at its invitation to provide 2012 budget advice.

“You’re headed for a cliff” and “this plan for a low-floor streetcar subway on Eglinton is insane,” were among the warnings given by Mr. Gunn to TTC staff, chair Karen Stintz and vice-chair Peter Milczyn in closed-door sessions.

Mr. Gunn, who has held top transit jobs in New York, Boston and Washington, as well as at Amtrak, the U.S. passenger rail service, said he is stunned by lack of response to his stern advice, given in May. “There was no reaction, no questions,” he said.

“They’re taking on huge financial and technological risks. There are serious safety implications. I think they’re headed for a cliff while people talk about new uniforms.”

Torontonians may remember Mr. Gunn as the man who got the TTC’s house in order with his emphasis on “state of good repair” after the fatal 1995 subway crash, which happened a few months after he arrived in town. Signal-systems neglect was deemed to be partly to blame and further examination revealed the entire TTC, once praised continent-wide, was imperilled by corner-cutting on maintenance and repair work.

Speaking from the notes he used on his visit, Mr. Gunn has provided Globe and Mail readers with a synopsis of his remarks, largely an analysis of the financial, technological, managerial and safety issues facing the TTC.

MAINTENANCE AND EFFICIENCY: These issues will never be as sexy as expansion announcements and ribbon cutting, but Mr. Gunn emphasized we “should stick with two priorities – state of good repair and improved cost recovery.”

On the former, he says the $4.2-billion in the long-term state-of-good repair budget, a small part of overall capital proposals, likely isn’t enough. “But as I told the commissioners, you better protect that 4.2 like your life depends on it.”

On cost recovery, he points out that in the past decade, the proportion of operating costs covered by fares has slipped to 70 per cent from 84. “It was a conscious decision by the previous commission. You had a 350 per cent rise in the deficit while ridership rose 15 per cent. You’ve got to get the economics back. A lot of the expansion was marginal service (increased frequency on existing routes). You can undo some of that, but it’s politically tough. Give a lower priority to expansion and the bells and whistles. The capital budget is chaotic. There are enough plans on the books to bankrupt the province,” he said.

SHEPPARD: Before he arrived in town this spring, Mr. Gunn made clear he believes the proposed subway extension to Scarborough will be a drain on operating funds, and the idea that the private sector would build it for the city is laughable. But he has another beef: “North-south capacity on Yonge is the TTC’s big problem. So, what are they doing? They’re planning extensions to feed the Yonge line.”

SPADINA: “The subway extension is basically on schedule and on budget, though they may be doing stuff you wouldn’t do if you had a rational commission. The stations and the line are not built to minimize costs because that previous commission (under chair Adam Giambrone) had the visions of grandeur. The stations are grandiose. They’re going to be way more expensive than necessary.”

EGLINTON: “Low-floor streetcars in a tunnel will cost you more than a subway while delivering less. I can’t for the life of me figure out how this decision was made.”
Cost is a big selling point for light rail, but Mr. Gunn said to put it underground requires tunnels bigger than for subways, while low-floor light-rail vehicles cost twice as much as subway cars and have less capacity. “It’s just crazy, it’s insane.” Metrolinx says that the smaller underground stations and reusing the Scarborough RT’s right of way make light rail the more cost-effective option. Mr. Gunn says “that’s such nonsense, but I guess if you can defend mixing the track gauges, you can defend anything.”

MIXING TRACK GAUGES: Claiming it will save money, Metrolinx has decided its rail projects will use North American standard gauge track, which is 60 millimetres narrower than the gauge used for the rest of the system. Mr. Gunn says Metrolinx doesn’t know what it’s talking about. “It won’t save you a nickel. Adding standard-gauge cars means a separate shop for heavy maintenance, and you don’t have the people to do the work. It reduces flexibility. It may seem obscure, but it really matters. It’ll go down in railway lore as one of the dumbest decisions ever.”

STREETCARS: “It makes no sense to replace the current fleet for $1.2-billion (plus $430-million minimum for a new storage and maintenance facility). It might cost $2-billion by the time you’re done. You could buy 200 articulated buses for less than $200-million.

“Maintenance costs will be horrific. There’ll be lots of bugs and they won’t be built like the CLRVs (current streetcars), which easily win all collisions with automobiles.   “Oh, and they’re not accessible. The floor height is about a foot. You won’t be able to load a wheelchair on the street. There will be ramps, but the floor height is going to be about a foot. The ramps will be too steep. I’d cancel the order. They’ll eat you out of house and home.”

ROCKETS: The new subways rolling out this month “will probably be fine trains,” he said, with reservations. “When you go from married pairs [detachable two-car units] to a six-car permanently linked train, reliability needs skyrocket. [A minor problem on one car takes an entire train out of service.] You’ve also got to change your shops and you don’t have interchangeability.” He’s also not sold on the larger capacity argument, fearing that being able to move freely through the train may lead too many people to try exiting at the same doors. “A 10 or 15 second delay from this can have big effects. Let’s see how people really use the trains.”

SIGNALS: Long-term, the TTC is looking to automate subway train control and operations. In anticipation, it’s rebuilding an old signal system while installing a new one. “That’s really pushing it,” Mr. Gunn says. “They don’t have the people and they don’t have a general superintendent knowledgeable in this area who can arbitrate between competing projects. And the signal work will conflict with necessary station and track work. “The best risk on this signal stuff is you lose capacity from a screw-up and work trains get in the way. The worst is an accident. That’s what happened last time (with the fatal crash in 1995).

FRAGMENTATION: “You must fight this fragmentation of authority, I said. There’s Metrolinx and Toronto Transit Infrastructure Ltd., the mayor’s office. If you don’t go through the commission chain of command, you’ll end up with crazy decisions. ”Mr. Gunn, who had to endure the Sheppard subway project while heading the TTC, says he told current chief general manager Gary Webster: “Trust me, the last thing you want is to get tasked with a stupid project. Another thing I said was that if the province wants to take over parts of the TTC, give them the whole thing. The rail and the bus system are one. It’s the most integrated system, probably in the world, certainly the Western world. It’s brilliant.”

LABOUR COSTS: “Despite the rhetoric about trimming fat, (Mayor Rob Ford) struck a rich deal with the police, which will roll into the TTC. He also got the TTC put under essential services, which means you’re going to have a terrible labour settlement. I don’t like strikes, but at least the threat of one forces both sides to get real. “Then there’s absenteeism: It’s about four or five per cent, the equivalent of an extra 400 to 500 employees covering for people calling in sick. That’s at least $30 million, maybe a lot more.”

IMPRESSIONS: “Not that things were pristine in my day, but the system looks dirty. The platforms used to get cleaned, but I was getting on at St. Clair every day for a week and there was this same mud swirl the whole time I was in Toronto. The trains aren’t getting washed either. They look shabby. It’s kinda depressing.”