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Tory's Toronto

Metro's Matt Elliott, formerly of Ford For Toronto, keeps the light shining on Mayor John Tory's city hall.

Sheppard subway is a costly cautionary tale Toronto risks repeating

This week Metro launched Toronto on Track, an interactive look at who is - and who isn’t — being served by transit in this city. It’s a very cool project that provides new perspectives on transit planning across Toronto.

Take, for example, the political hot potato that is the Sheppard subway — a subject that Metro’s Luke Simcoe explored yesterday.

There are two ways to look at the short line along Sheppard. The first is to look only at population density around some of the stations. By that measure, it might be possible to call the subway a mild success. Density in some areas — around Don Mills Station, especially — has increased as condos have popped up near the subway line. At a reported 10,182 people per square kilometre, the density around Don Mills is downright respectable for a subway corridor.

At a glance, it’s a stat that could start to justify the simplistic “build it and they will come” approach to rapid transit. Maybe the solution to our endless transit debates is to just throw down some subways and wait for condos to show up.

But then we get to the rest of the data.

Despite any increased density, the majority of people living along Sheppard still use their car to get to work. Even at Don Mills, the station with the highest density along the line, more people drive to work than use transit.

And then there’s the cost. Daily ridership on Sheppard is below that of both the Spadina and King streetcars, but the subway comes with a higher daily operating cost. Each day the city effectively takes public money — either from the tax base or from elsewhere in the transit system — and uses it to subsidize the subway's continued existence of the Sheppard subway.

The size of that subsidy is hard to pin down. In Simcoe’s article, new TTC chair Josh Colle estimates the cost at $10 per rider, while Coun. John Filion figures it might be just as costly to "run taxis" along the route to pick up riders. Either way, it's not cheap.

All of this should serve as a cautionary tale. The Sheppard subway was enormously expensive to build and remains enormously expensive to operate. Any gains in population density don’t really begin to justify those costs.

But the lesson isn’t that we should think twice before building transit. It’s that we should think twice before overbuilding transit.

Had Sheppard been built as a mostly above ground light rapid transit or bus rapid transit line in the first place, today the route would still have more than enough capacity to carry the ridership at a lower operating cost. And with proper zoning and an updated planning framework, improved transit would still have had the potential to spur development. After all, many of the city's denser areas were developed along nothing but simple streetcar lines.

The problem with the subway-or-bust approach is that it skips right past interim modes like LRT and presents the most expensive type of urban transit as the universal solution. It’s the equivalent of suggesting the only solution to poverty is to give every homeless person a lakefront mansion. Yes, you’ve provided a solution, but it’s an expensive and inflexible solution that doesn’t scale.

But here's the sad part. Despite all this evidence, many local politicians — at all levels — haven't learned anything from the Sheppard experience.

Even now, we still end up in debates about subway lines and extensions that don’t meet ridership projections set by experts. We’re building a subway in Scarborough for no apparent reason other than to bolster egos. Mayor John Tory has a transit plan that will put an underground heavy rail line along Eglinton West but no one is entirely sure how or why. And politicians continue to agitate for goofy random subway projects all over the place, costs and ridership be damned.

It’s a remarkable thing. Toronto has a costly cautionary tale that our politicians can literally ride on, but too many of them are unwilling to learn its lessons.

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