SmartTrack can only buy us time; we still need a DRL or whatever you want to call it

After letting four thoroughly jammed trains pass on Nov. 24, 2014, late in the afternoon, I ditched the politeness and squeezed aboard one. The day began with having to let two jammed trains go at Coxwell, and we left large crowds on nearly every platform west to Yonge.

After letting four thoroughly jammed trains pass on Nov. 24, 2014, late in the afternoon, I ditched the politeness and squeezed aboard one. The day began with having to let two jammed trains go at Coxwell, and we left large crowds on nearly every platform west to Yonge.

After Tweeting and FB-posting about horror-show subway crowding yesterday, I was asked why I hadn’t written a recent blog posting on the need for a new subway line through Toronto’s core, and whether John Tory‘s SmartTrack plan will be enough.

The fact is, this op-ed piece for the Toronto Star done back in July pretty much covers it.



The Death and Life of a Great Canadian Street

Danforth and Woodbine, looking west on Sept. 16, 2014, 98 year and 51 weeks after the photo below right, Woodbine and Danforth has changed plenty. And after about 60 years in decline, the area is getting new investment and is clearly on the way back.

Danforth and Woodbine, looking west on Sept. 16, 2014, 98 years and 51 weeks after the photo below right. After about 60 years in decline, the area and this intersection are getting new investment and they are clearly on the way back.

Urbanist Jane Jacobs may never have written about the East Danforth, but after a few long walks on a Toronto strip that was in decline for much of the latter 20th century, she developed firm views on what is needed for revitalization.

Danforth and Woodbine looking west, Sept. 22, 1915, with the new streetcar tracks and actual paving. (City of Toronto Archives photo)

Danforth and Woodbine looking west, Sept. 22, 1915, with the new streetcar tracks and actual paving. (City of Toronto Archives photo)


When the writing wasn’t going smoothly, Jane Jacobs would take a long walk. During one stretch of gorgeous fall weather in the early 1980s, with writer’s block delaying progress on Cities and The Wealth of Nations, the renowned author of books on urbanism, economics and ethics visited the Danforth “three or four times … the whole strip from Broadview to Victoria Park,” with several detours to the nearby rail corridor and the surrounding streets.

She never wrote about those Danforth jaunts but she spoke with me about the area in 2004 and 2005, while I was both writing Toronto features for The Globe and Mail, and working with people attempting to start a neighbourhood group (prior to the eventual and  successful establishment of the Danforth East Community Association).

Watercolour of Jane Jacobs by Hilary Forrest

Watercolour of Jane Jacobs by Hilary Forrest

Though she was nearly 90, Jacobs’s memory was excellent. I was raised in the east end and live in the immediate area. I walk a lot, too. She visited a few times – decades earlier – yet what she said helped open my eyes.

In one discussion, she bristled and became animated when I mentioned the usual received wisdom, that the East Danforth’s seemingly mysterious decline in the second half of the 20th century was likely a result of transportation changes, most notably the replacement of streetcar service with the Bloor-Danforth subway in 1966 to Woodbine, and 1968 farther east. It is an enduring theory, given legs within weeks of the subway’s opening as media latched onto attempts by the area’s “business men’s association” and locals to restore some form of street-based local transit, either streetcars or buses, that would run parallel to the subway using existing, frequently spaced stops. The group produced a 15,000-signature petition (huge numbers for a small area in the pre-social media days), but the pleas were ignored at the Toronto Transit Commission.

Jacobs said far too much weight had been given to the arrival of the subway, and called it a ‘lazy man’s theory.’ She agreed that underground subway stations – spaced much farther apart than the old streetcar stops – sped the processes that were sucking life off the street (better planning for second station entrances could have helped a bit, in her view). But she argued that commercial strips of blue-collar neighbourhoods had gone into similar declines during the same era, “all over Toronto, the continent, even the planet – and almost none of these other strips would have had new subways.”

Commercial streets, an essential component of urbanism for millennia, had, in effect, been deemed obsolete in theory and practice, and the ramifications were both far-reaching and subtle.

The larger transportation-related factors in her view were that car ownership was soaring in the post-World War II era, and that people were suddenly traveling farther to shop – to malls and bigger stores where parking was easier. People also became increasingly less likely to leave home on foot, and whole neighbourhoods and cities suffered as a result.

“Transportation matters to the discussion, to be sure,” she said. “But if you’re serious about revitalizing this street, you’ll focus on broader changes to the overall local economy, and you’ll look for adjustments to form that will naturally attract pedestrians for day-in day-out reasons.”

Among the things that first struck Jacobs on her walks, especially east of Pape where the nature of the street changes suddenly, was the near complete lack of Victorian or Edwardian buildings. She also found a sudden increase in the lengths of the blocks (see No. 2 in her seminal list of conditions for generating diversity).


Jane Jacobs’s four conditions to generate diversity and vibrant city streets, from the The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Page 150:

  1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two.  These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.
  2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
  3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce.  This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
  4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there.  This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.


She advised me to compare the block lengths east and west of Pape on a map. “Better still, walk and time them if you have the opportunity,” she said.

It turns out that most blocks on both the north and south sides of Danforth west of Pape, the much livelier Greektown neighbourhood, are no more than 100 metres and can be walked in a minute or less. Many to the east take two minutes or more. When we touched on this in a subsequent discussion she said I’d probably remember for the rest of my life that blocks in the liveliest places in cities all over the world will tend to be well under two minutes in length at my pace (see for yourself, no matter where you live or where you’re visiting). “Two-hundred and fifty or 300 feet is ideal in most cases.” (That’s 76 to 91 metres.)

But Condition No. 1 on her list, The East Danforth’s mix of primary uses, would in her view matter most to people puzzling over how to reinvigorate the area (the emphasis on the word primary was hers).  She felt strongly that if redevelopments merely added residential condos with retail on the ground floor, we wouldn’t be adding the type of mixed use that could have a major regenerative effect.  We might merely be adding to the number of empty stores, she said. And she warned that many “seemingly enlightened planners still tend to have a superficial understanding of what mixed primary use really means.”

Jacobs suggested I go to the Central Reference Library and use city directories and old maps as an introduction to the timeline of Danforth East’s development. Correctly, as it turned out, she told me to expect that the area was first developed largely in the 1920s, a point she said meant this was in fact a hybrid, not the pure streetcar suburb that some academics would label it. Private cars would have been a factor from the beginning, certainly east of Pape, even if the area had still developed largely around a main street on which streetcars arrived in 1915. She told me to look for evidence the area developed with a significant amount of employment, mostly industrial and most of it likely focused on the rail corridor to the south.

And it was there.

Prior to the area’s initial development, but well into the 20th century, lands on both sides of the East Danforth were largely operating as market gardens, providing fresh produce to the nearby city. Farming operations got larger farther north, toward the Taylor Creek valley, with several dairy operations in what was the Township of (and later the Borough of) East York, amalgamated into Toronto in 1998. Most of the area immediately north of Danforth had been Church of England reserves, known as the Glebe and usually leased to farmers. South of the Danforth (east of Greenwood and over to the town of East Toronto at Main Street), was known as Upper Midway, part of the Midway area annexed to the city in 1909. It was very rural compared with the main parts of Midway, south of the tracks, and it appeared as a virtual blank on maps as late as 1907.

Jacobs asked me to come up with a plausible explanation for the delay in development until after World War I, especially since areas farther from established Toronto had developed sooner (around the Grand Trunk/Canadian National station and yards at Main Street). I’m open to arguments, but it seems probable that the biggest delaying factor was that, east of Pape, five creeks crossed the Danforth (a.k.a. The Second Concession and later The King’s Highway No. 5). The railway tracks had also established themselves as a barrier. Though the tracks had brought the Town of East Toronto to life, the corridor barrier itself would increasingly become a drag on the area in the later 20th century, especially as it got closer to the Danforth heading east and as industry that once provided jobs in the area moved out to the suburbs.

Though the Danforth (originally the Don and Danforth Plank Road) had opened in 1851, the imposition of a concession grid, forced the street to follow a predetermined straight line, despite ravines and marshy areas that would not have been apparent in the kingdom’s Colonial Office in the 1790s. The road’s path was set decades before surveyors arrived. The Danforth was a nightmare to maintain (a job left largely to the farmers who used it and paid tolls — a source of protests and legal disputes). The rickety wooden bridges often got washed out. And even when they weren’t, travelers to the city still had to get to down to Queen, Gerrard or Winchester streets to cross the Don Valley.

Rickety wooden bridges on the east Danforth often washed out in storms. City of Toronto Archives photo

Rickety wooden bridges on the east Danforth often washed out in storms. City of Toronto Archives photo

Even though streetcar service and proper paving came to the East Danforth in 1915, development didn’t happen until a housing shortage after the Great War and the opening of the Prince Edward Viaduct in 1919. Something that also held up residential development in the immediate Coxwell-Danforth area was a stench from the Harris abattoir and rendering plant, which was eventually driven away in the early 1920s (and though this is also a clear instance where employment and residential don’t work in close proximity, even the Harris plant attracted a small enclave of residents using kit housing just southwest of Danforth and Coxwell).

In the city directories, Jacobs suggested I look for trends related to the stores that sprang up: Aside from the fact that many merchants lived upstairs from their businesses, the most stunning thing was the lack of turnover. Vacancies were listed when buildings were new in the 1920s, but were almost non-existent again until the late 1950s. There was very little turnover among businesses through the Great Depression, 1940s and early ’50s, indicating a healthy local business environment despite great challenges facing the global macro-economies. Even when Woolworth moved from east of Woodbine to snuggle up next to department store rival Kresge in 1942, displaced shops found ways to stick around — some at Woolworth’s old site.

The variety of shops, especially close to Woodbine was remarkable. Though supermarkets in the 1950s were much smaller with limited offerings, there were nine of the Loblaws, A&P and Dominion variety from Greenwood to just east of Woodbine), as well as butchers, bakers and produce shops. There were also many clothing and shoe stores, and the three movie theatres would have contributed to sidewalk life in the evenings.

These were all things Jacobs expected me to find, and she said it was important to note that the turnover and vacancies started appearing well before any subway construction began, even if locals didn’t really pay attention to the strip’s decline till later. Some feared the subway would bring over-development, yet the opposite happened, and many are still astonished by the lack of development more than 50 years after the subway opened.

There is also a strong likelihood that plans for an extension of the Gardiner Expressway into Scarborough, through the neighbourhoods straddling the railway tracks, hung over the local real estate market in the 1960s and ’70s. Hundreds of homes were to be expropriated just for the interchange at Woodbine, not far south of the Danforth.

The Ford of Canada main assembly plant became Shopper's World mall after the company moved operations to Oakville. The loss of jobs and the shift of stores from the street were "a double whammy" for the neighbourhood.

The main Ford of Canada assembly plant became Shopper’s World mall after the company moved operations to Oakville in the 1950s. The loss of jobs and the shift of stores from the street were “a double whammy” for the neighbourhood. PHOTO COURTESY FORD OF CANADA

As for industry and employment, there wasn’t so much right on the Danforth itself, though it’s worth noting that Canada Bread had its main Toronto plant just east of Greenwood (and the folks at the Linsmore Tavern said the plant workers kept them very busy on breaks and shift changes). Ford of Canada, before moving to Oakville in the 1950s, had its main operations at what, in 1962, became the Shopper’s World Mall, west of Victoria Park, right by the eastern loop of the streetcar line on a small strip where East York actually reached down to the Danforth.

Jacobs called the loss of that employment and the fact that some Danforth stores moved to the mall in the early 1960s a “double whammy” for the strip. Car dealerships and the TTC streetcar barns at Coxwell (now only partly used, and mostly as parking for subway staff) also brought lots of workers to the neighbourhood or provided jobs that local residents could walk to. And, of course, lots of people working in the area provided essential daily business for local shops and restaurants. Along the rail corridor, less than a half-kilometre to the south, were major industrial enterprises, including a John Wood plant on Hanson Street, the largest source of hot water tanks in Canada from the 1920s on. Service Station Supply was an assembly plant for gas pumps and hydraulic lifts. There was a factory producing stoves, washers, ‘ice boxes’ and fridges. There were many light industrial operations as well as quarries and brickyards on either side of Greenwood.  Major suppliers of coal, lumber and other building materials were located all along the tracks from Greenwood to east of Main, where the CNR shops and freight yards began.

Jacobs wanted me to see that, while many preferred to drive out from of our neighbourhood the noise and trucks that increasingly accompanied industry, the shift to an overwhelmingly residential area quietly undercut essential facets of the local economy, including the shops and restaurants on the Danforth. The loss of industry meant the rail corridor bordering the southern parts of the neighbourhood shifted from attracting much economic activity to the East Danforth to being a barrier and a drag on the area, a hindrance to walkability and connectivity.

Late in the 20th century, even though household sizes got smaller, in pure residential terms the neighbourhood actually got denser because housing was built on former industrial land. But the mix of primary uses – usually residential and employment, with a few specialty shops or large theatres that can draw people from other parts of town – was getting badly depleted.

Looking forward, she said: “Residential density itself won’t be enough of an answer if you really want to create or recreate a vibrant neighbourhood,” she said, adding that residential density by itself, especially if it becomes high-rise, high-density could be a big problem if we don’t pay attention to all the generators of diversity.

On that count, she said the options are limited. There might be small gains to be had by breaking up some long blocks, but the new passageways or streets would almost certainly never penetrate more than a block or two into the surrounding neighbourhoods. Creating a deep inventory of buildings of different ages is a long-term organic process; the key would be to ensure that the 1915 TTC barns and much of the 1920s buildings be saved (likely not a problem with the fragmented ownership and often shallow lots). Density increases, especially right on the Danforth would be helpful, but we might need less than many think, especially if significant employment is included.

“There’s opportunity in bringing employment to sites at the subway stations,” she said (and she agreed that the TTC lands and some north-side parking at Coxwell and the Valumart parking lot at Woodbine are probably our only significant options for bringing mid-rise office buildings into the local mix. (Our discussion didn’t consider areas as far east as Main Square and Shopper’s World, but clearly, there’s redevelpment potential there).

The five-acre TTC lands at Danforth and Coxwell were used as a bus garage when Jane Jacobs studied the strip. These days much of the site is used, ironically, to provide free parking to transit workers.

The five-acre TTC lands at Coxwell were used as a bus garage when Jane Jacobs studied the strip. These days much of the site is used, ironically, to provide free parking to transit workers. Shockingly for many, it’s larger than the Honest Ed’s site set for redevelopment.

She added that we were lucky to be approaching things at this time (she was speaking in 2004) because much of the GTA’s employment gains are likely to be in office work, and that even just a few mid-rise office buildings near the stations might bring enough workers to help “rebalance the local economy.”

Though she died in early 2006, Jacobs lived long enough to see a resurgence of life  downtown when usage restrictions were lifted on “The Kings,” and when a new wave of residential development was able to complement the dense employment zones, allowing secondary-use shops and services to come back in the core. She saw it as encouraging.

Returning employment to the Danforth area could, in her view, have a similar effect (though on a much smaller scale) by getting more people out onto the sidewalks for different reasons at different times of the day, helping lots of small shops and restaurants to “get over the hump … it often takes just a handful of extra customers a day to make a difference in small-scale retail.”

She emphasized that year-round walkability relies heavily on people having regular economic reasons to be out on the local sidewalks. “You won’t get industry again, and few would tolerate it, but office work and some new residential density right on the Danforth could be great for the city and your area.” She felt the Avenues focus in the city’s Official Plan could be life-giving for the East Danforth.

She also noted that the Danforth has spare subway capacity in what transportation people call the ‘contra-flow,’ – half-full trains going in the opposite direction of the main rush-hour crowds. She called that “untapped potential.” She remembered surface parking near some of the subway stations and called that  “a waste of potential.”

“This may come as a surprise to you,” she said, “but part of the area’s empty-store problem is that there’s too much retail space for the current size and makeup of the local economy. Most of that retail is going to be secondary-use stuff.”

Demand for the retail space on a strip such as the Danforth, in her view, was very much a reflection of the health and diversity (or lack thereof) in the wider local economy. It’s almost certain that she would have been a huge supporter of DECA’s pop-up shop program. She  said: “Vacant storefronts certainly feed vicious cycles of decline, but if you’re smart, long-term, you’ll view them (and street crime) as mere symptoms of bigger problems.”

Anyway, it’s a gorgeous September day and signs of new life have been popping up on the East Danforth for nearly a decade now. Even though the writer’s block isn’t necessarily holding me back, I think I’ll go for a walk.


Stephen Wickens is a journalist and a former board member of Danforth East Community Association. At present he leads DECA’s Visioning committee. Much of the material gathered from talks with Jane Jacobs (directly and indirectly) forms the basis of an annual Jane’s Walk, ‘The Death and Life of Upper Midway.’


Adham Fisher helps put Toronto on the subway map and brings smiles to town

Mary Marshall, having her picture taken by and with Adham Fisher, was one of dozens TTC riders delighted to meet the minor celebrity from Leicester, England.


As meltdowns go, this was a fair display of British self-restraint.

The anguished shout rattled some folks on the Kennedy station platform and there was a peevish toss of the backpack. But if you’ve seen just a flash of the intensity Adham Fisher brings to a subway challenge, you too would have expected more.

Misled by a malfunctioning electronic sign, Fisher and I boarded a train on the north side of the island platform, only to hear door-closing chimes from the other side. The resulting four-minute delay killed any hope of breaking his day-old record for visiting all 69 of Toronto’s rapid transit stations — two hours, 46 minutes and one second.

Fisher appeared inconsolable and I kept silent, like I do when a ball shanked into a pond ruins a round for a golfing buddy. But 10 minutes and five stations later, the Leicester native was apologetic and back to poking fun at himself.

Adham Fisher takes lots of notes and pictures on his subway challenges.

“Most people would rightfully consider me absurd for losing my temper,” says Fisher, 27, who has garnered media attention with attempts to set records for speed-riding the subway systems of New York, London, Paris, Madrid, Chicago and Toronto. “I’ve been known to stew for days over a mistake like that.”

Others might consider Fisher’s interests and his subway obsession absurd altogether.  Among the places he wants to visit most in Canada is something called “the quadripoint“, where the borders of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories meet. Fisher, who makes his living arranging European camping trips for Formula 1 auto racing fans, says he has no interest in sports. He also says doesn’t read much, though he is involved in a music project and had hoped to have a forthcoming album out in time for his North American trip.
But odd or not, here’s a good man who has not only found what he likes to do, he does it. And as long as he can run between trains without crashing into people, he won’t be doing anyone any harm. Having spent a few hours talking with him, I can say he seems worthy of the goodwill this city has shown.
Only the “Tube Challenge” in London and the “Subway Challenge” in New York are recognized by Guinness World Records, but that doesn’t diminish Fisher’s commitment to setting the standard for Toronto’s relatively puny system.
Planning a challenge attempt involves research on the layouts of stations where he’ll switch vehicles. He keeps detailed notes telling him which doors to exit so he can be closest to the stairs. He needs to know the schedules of connecting services and, on this day, a key variable will be the bus options for getting from Don Mills station to the Scarborough Town Centre.
Before setting out, he takes a pee. “I don’t drink coffee and I can get by without much fluids,” he says at Downsview staion, before we ride all the way round to Finch.
En route, he must shoot pictures of every station and record to the second when the doors close at each. He also needs witness statements, one of which was provided by Celia Foster in the long tunnel between Eglinton West and St. Clair West.
“There are strict rules and regulations,” he says.
At Don Mills station, Fisher is concerned by the amount of time lost waiting for a 190 Rocket bus that will take us to Scarborough Town Centre. But he has a plan to buy time once we get to STC and runs like madman to McCowan station rather than go upstairs with me for an eastbound RT.
“I missed by about five seconds,” Fisher says, when my train pulls in and finds him waiting on the platform. If he’d caught that RT, there’s a good chance he’d have been three subway trains earlier and might not have made the fateful blunder at Kennedy.
“There was a knock-on effect with the wait for a bus at Don Mills,” he says, estimating that cost eight minutes. “If I’d made it at McCowan, I would have been in good shape. That’s probably where I lost it, not at Kennedy.”
In the end, at Kipling, we stepped onto the platform 11 minutes and 31 seconds off the pace, but still under three hours. Compare that with the nearly 23-hour commitment needed to conquer the Big Apple’s system.
But this would be Fisher’s last shot at the TTC for now. He’s off to subway-free Winnipeg to visit a friend before going to Chicago in hopes of reclaiming his mark for the CTA system.
Over candy bars at Kipling, he says he has been emailing with the people who broke his Chicago record. “I’m hoping we can have a shindig when I get there,” he adds.
Then we take a leisurely ride back through town, and more Torontonians, including TTC employees, continue to smile and point or come up and introduce themselves and wish good luck to this minor celebrity, who was front page of the previous day’s Metro and on Global TV’s morning show.
“I’m quite overwhelmed by the reception here in Toronto,” says Fisher, who professes not to be disappointed by the TTC’s subway. “Yes, the system does seem quite small for a city this size, but I’m just glad you have one.”

Us, too. And we’re glad you took to the time to visit.

TTC employees John Taylor and Steve Wilson were among those who greeted Adham Fisher and wished him luck on his subway challenge.

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)

Ready or not, it’s Cho time in the Sheppard LRT-subway debate


Toronto’s desperate for brilliance on the transit file.

And if we get more than a flash of it for Sheppard Avenue in coming years, we may be indebted to an immigration officer who visited Seoul in 1965. Such are the wonderful chains of events available when looking back over longer lives – not that we’re calling Raymond Cho old.

Without that bureaucrat, Cho wouldn’t have been talked into coming to Canada. And, without Cho, the next phase of this interminable and painful Sheppard debate would almost certainly be more of the same. But after more than 20 years on council, Cho’s suddenly a rookie TTC commissioner. His background is in social work. He has a master’s, a PhD and a sense of humour.

He also has a big problem.

Cho represents Ward 42, Toronto’s northeast corner, and it’s the likely plight of his constituents that best highlights a gaping hole in the discussion.

Even with a new light-rail line — the recommendation of an “expert” panel that reviewed a narrow menu of options for council — transit will be messy for voters in Cho’s ward.

Consider a Ward 42 resident attending York University or Humber College, or working on Finch West or at Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. The trek might start with a walk to a stop and a wait for the Neilson, Morningside or Progress bus to get to the new line.

LRT would provide service to Don Mills station and another transfer point, this time for a five-stop subway ride to Yonge. From there, it could be two more stations on a northbound train to pick up the Finch West bus for a ride over to another LRT starting at Keele. Or it might make sense at Sheppard-Yonge station to grab a bus to Downsview, before transferring to a northbound Spadina train to York or Vaughan or the Finch LRT.

Round-trip, that’s up to 12 transfers, and studies have found transit riders’ wait-time perceptions are often out by a factor of three.

Apparently, since the March 5 council meeting, we’re back heeding transit experts, and experts say minimizing transfers is a key to public transit’s competitiveness with private cars.

Respected transit people — including David Gunn, Richard Soberman and Ed Levy — made this point at a 2008 symposium put on by the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario. None of those who spoke is anti-LRT or pro-subway, but all felt Transit City, which council seems eager to re-embrace, had big flaws, starting with Sheppard-Finch corridor disconnects. They indicated that if we put LRT lines on Sheppard east and Finch west, we better find a way to make them one, even if it means converting the Sheppard subway to light-rail.

TTC planners may have listened because, for a brief period, Transit City was augmented to link the lines via Don Mills Road and Finch East, though that solution isolates the Sheppard stub, wasting a billion sunk-cost dollars.

Cho didn’t ask for this mess, but then it wasn’t his idea to move to Canada. His brother was the would-be immigrant, but brought Raymond along as an interpreter. That’s when the Canadian official persuaded Cho to apply, setting in motion the events that have landed him on the Sheppard hot seat.

Cho offers a thoughtful “hmmm,” when it’s pointed out that, simultaneously, we talk of seamless Metrolinx-led transit across the GTA while preparing to lock into a series of time-wasting hurdles for east-west travel within the city. “The question is a very valid one,” Cho says when asked what he’ll tell constituents. “This is one area I’ll take a very close look at.”

Of course, at council, Cho must endure lobbying from pro-subway and pro-LRT zealots. It will test his claim to have risen above the left-right rift that has deprived Toronto of sanity since amalgamation. But Cho must know something about resolve, growing up in Japanese-occupied Korea, losing his dad in a cholera epidemic and, as a teen, keeping out of the line of fire in the Korean War. And though Canada wasn’t welcoming when he arrived, he became a great immigration success story.

“I remember asking, why did I come to this stupid country?” he says, recalling racial intolerance and long shifts as a dishwasher, waiter, miner and janitor. “At one point, I even picked worms. It was hard, but it was a great education, much more valuable than my doctoral degree. I learned to listen. I learned how to talk to anyone.”

He says by the early 1970s, once he’d brought his fiancé from South Korea and settled in Toronto, he fell in love with Canada.

“I knew this was my country.”

Now, at 75, does he have the energy for such a baptismal firefight in the unfamiliar transit portfolio?

“C’mon, compared to Hazel McCallion, I’m a teenager,” he says.

Councillor Cho has since announced he will support the panel’s LRT recommendation. No word yet on what he’s telling his constituents.

Good luck, Andy Byford. Your new job is laden with potential pitfalls

                                                                                                                                                                     Gary Webster, left, talks with interim successor Andy Byford before the special TTC meeting that led to the switch. Even if bad things happened under Webster, his dismissal without just cause was a mistake, damaging Toronto’s reputation as a place for good transit people to work.

Nearly everything about the way the TTC is structured and governed must change if good advice, wise planning and quality transit at a reasonable price are to be priorities. Otherwise, Andy Byford will go the way of his predecessors.

Good luck Andy Byford!

Next to crime and trauma scene cleanup specialist, leading the Toronto Transit Commission is the worst job in your new home city.

The fact that your three most recent predecessors were forced out by politicians barely scratches the surface of what’s wrong with this gig. If you are the man for the job and if you dig deep, you’re sure to conclude that starting points must be a new relationship with elected officials, a new corporate culture and a total restructuring, including a spun-off entity that fosters commercial integration of transit and land-use.

Customer service panels, town halls and the addition of citizen commissioners can only diddle with the symptoms of a decades-long decline.

Yes, it was petty and counterproductive for those five commissioners to axe Gary Webster, but you’re surely smart enough to see through the political posturing, even if many seemingly intelligent Torontonians swallowed whole. You must have seen similar backstabbing and disingenuousness while working in Australia and the U.K.

TTC managers have been pressured to tailor advice for political purposes going back at least to the 1970s, when we somehow chose to maroon stations of the Spadina subway in the median of an expressway.

Good but powerless experts foresaw woes of the Scarborough RT well before it was built. And those who felt in 1989 that we should cut our losses and scrap that line were effectively silenced.

Pressure to manufacture a case for the Sheppard subway and play down the urgency of a long-proposed line through the downtown core, beginning 30 years ago, will cast a shadow over many debates you’ll have to lead.

In fact, there’s a good case to be made that all pending plans for Eglinton, Sheppard, Finch or a northerly extension of the Yonge subway are trouble if the so-called Downtown Relief Line can’t jump the queue. (Little-known fact: tiny, cramped Yonge-Bloor station sees more daily passenger movements than Pearson airport and Union Station combined).

Of course, politics also played a big role in the rush to create the Transit City plan in March 2007, and to sell it to the public ever since. There are people still shaking their heads over a decision by one TTC manager to attend and appear prominently at the launch of Adam Giambrone’s brief run for the mayoralty.

The latest census shows Toronto has 2.615 million transportation experts. But, while many realize transit is a problem of organized complexity, most seem to prefer simplistic debate — black or white, left or right, subway or light rail. This suits our ideologically riven council members who want us to shut off our brains and pick sides. It’s also essential to mainstream media, which increasingly cater only to those with short attention spans.

But it doesn’t help anybody make wise decisions.

Compounding the mess, Andy, is that Toronto wasn’t big when the car became king. The pre-amalgamated cities of Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough have about half the density of old inner Toronto, and the gap isn’t closing. Those outer areas were designed for cars and drivers, but are now populated by people who need transit. Alas, the built form makes quality cost-efficient service delivery tough.

Our long-standing assumption that pushing subways into suburbs would automatically drive urbanization turned out to be bunk. However, attempts to get the TTC to seriously consider how to adapt and adopt creative funding models and aggressive value-capture tools, like those used in the Far East, have been met with disinterest at best (while still a city councillor in 2003, David Miller got the TTC to agree to report on transit development corporation models like the one in Hong Kong, but despite repeated requests over years, the TTC has been unable to produce evidence that it did any work on the project).

Even the mayor’s office, which purports to favour private-sector involvement, had the most interesting parts of Gordon Chong’s report on subway financing chopped before publication (make sure your copy is an early uncorrected proof containing Chapter 7, “Other Value Capture: Revenue Generation Options”).

If we truly believe transit spending is an investment, returns on the investment have to start becoming a priority. If we do that, it forces intelligent debate on the real relative costs of subways and light rail. We’re likely to still conclude LRT is the way to go in many cases, but the debate will have been honest.

Sorry if you probably know all this, but talk with your vice-chair, Peter Milczyn; he seems increasingly attuned to the possibilities and the shortcomings of our previous model.

Make sure you thank your predecessor for eventually standing up and opposing the loony idea of burying light rail under Eglinton East, but you might ask him where was he on the possibly-as-wasteful design and funding models for the ongoing Spadina-York subway extension. Deep-bore tunnels through low- and no-density areas and grandiose standalone stations make this project far more costly than it needed to be up front, while hindering the long-term development processes that can help it pay back.

Yes, some bad things happened under Webster, but overall he was just the latest fall guy for a dysfunctional organization.

For years, one of Toronto’s most revered and entertaining transit experts has been saying, off the record and only partly in gest: “The fastest way to find yourself unemployed in this town is to speak the truth.”

Some part of that wisdom will always be true.

You’ll have to choose your battles, even in your interim role. But unless you get extremely wise help to start radically altering the rules of the game, you’re guaranteed to lose – as is Toronto, again.