Why a Subway Makes More Sense for Scarborough Than an LRT

07/15/2013 04:04 EDT | Updated 09/14/2013 05:12 EDT
This post originally appeared on Shireen Jeejeebhoy's political blog at talk talk talk.

Suddenly, the picture changes.

For years, we're going to get an LRT (light rail transit) to replace the dinky toy SRT (Scarborough rapid transit). Don't fight it. Don't delay it. It's going to happen. We in Toronto cannot get a subway because the upper governments won't fund it. Therefore LRTs are superior, goes the learned helplessness thinking. And then Metrolinx issues an ultimatum, Rob Ford gets off his never-going-to-raise-taxes mantra and supports this Scarborough subway (which I'd written was his opportunity to grab), the province murmurs they're open to putting the funds toward a subway instead, and Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty - he of the former Ontario government that threw Toronto into transit chaos - makes noises about making federal infrastructure funds available.

The opposition to subways grows louder.

Awhile ago, James Bow asked me to take a look at Steve Munro's blog post on the LRT-versus-subway conflict for Scarborough. In it, Munro asks what he calls "delicate questions."

1. LRT versus subway costs.

According to Munro, quoting TTC Chair Karen Stintz's OneCity Transit Plan, the LRT would cost $1.8 billion, the subway $2.3 billion. According to a CBC story on July 13, City Manager Joe Pennachetti reported on July 12 that the LRT would be $1.1 billion and the subway $2.3 billion. I've never seen an estimate go down before!  Up to now, the province has been waving around that $1.8 billion figure. Regardless, the LRT is cheaper than a subway. But one has to ask: what is it you want to achieve? Do you want to simply relieve today's congestion in 10 years? Or do you want to build a public transit backbone that will handle increasing ridership over the next several decades? The latter will always cost more. Other major cities, like London, New York, Paris, know this yet have built their public transit networks around a subway backbone, not LRTs that truncate at subway terminuses. Paris so sees the value of subways that it's adding four new lines and extending two. 200 kilometers, 57 stations, in just over 12 years! Meanwhile, we don't have a proper subway backbone; we don't have the courage to extend one subway line; and we're not even building a badly needed new one, presently called the DRL for downtown relief line. We also construct much slower. Is the Spadina extension done yet? When did it start, again? 11 years for six stations versus Paris's 57 in 12.

2. Fleet

According to Munro, the TTC has a surfeit of subway cars. This is important, for subway or LRT cars are not cheap. That means stocking a new subway line will be less expensive. That's a plus.

3. Stations

Munro writes that a subway extension will add three stations only. Although Metrolinx's map of the LRT is unclear, the LRT will have six stations. One would think double the stations, double the ridership. And in all the reportage of the LRT versus subway, people say and reporters write that the LRT will serve more people.

Not quite.

The population near the LRT will be greater than near the proposed subway line. But the actual number of people served - real people who will use the SRT replacement - is higher with a subway than an LRT. Annually, 36 to 38.9 million people on a subway, but only 31 million people on an LRT, as per Munro's post.

And isn't that the ultimate goal? To get as many people as possible out of their cars and onto the TTC? Yet even with the advantage of having more stations, the LRT will attract fewer riders onto the TTC.

The reason for the higher ridership numbers for the subway option is partly because of the eradication of the Kennedy transfer point, something I've been advocating for if we truly want to connect Scarborough to the rest of Toronto and if we want to encourage as many people as possible to use public transit to get into and out of Scarborough.

I recently  became so aggravated riding the Queen streetcar that I shot a video. In this case, the cause was that the Queen car was being diverted onto King, which is a busier and slower route, then onto the Spadina right-of-way, which is like an LRT. Usually, surface routes aggravate me because of the unpredictable wait times. Despite TTC CEO Andy Byford's customer service improvements, it is actually taking longer to get around town by TTC. I had to build in thirty minutes between appointments. When I'm lucky I get chill time; when I'm not, I mayn't be late for my next appointment.

The system is creaking under the weight of too many riders and too congested roads. Many suggest LRTs are as good as subways because they will have their own right-of-way. But as you can see in my video above, the Spadina streetcar has its own right-of-way, one that doesn't work because the city is stalling on implementing traffic light prioritization. I am sure I remember that this line did have prioritization, and I remember a time when the city's traffic light system was much better co-ordinated. But the tech has grown old, and the city has not upgraded it. Subways are immune to such problems. And they will happen again because that's the way politics works.

If we are concerned only with how much we spend on capital costs today, then obviously the LRT makes sense to replace the SRT. But if we are more concerned with the purpose of public transit - to get people out of cars, to serve more people, to stimulate development so that people will move here with their jobs and consumption habits -- then the subway will achieve that better than an LRT. And not just one subway. But that's a post for another day, for when Torontonians can once again imagine the city with a world-leading system like we used to have.