Background: Extending transit to Toronto’s suburbs

Transit City is the latest attempt to extend higher-order urban transit to Toronto's post-1945 suburbs.

In the 1970s, it was recognized that traffic volumes would be too low to justify extending the subway beyond the terminals at Kennedy in the east and Kipling in the west. A less expensive, but equally high-quality technology was required. GO was already beginning to develop a rail system that would serve radial peak commuters, but planners saw the need, notably in the 1975 Metropolitan Toronto Transportation Plan Review, for a network that would link suburban nodes, providing a faster service than buses travelling in mixed traffic on arterial streets. MTTPR envisaged light rail transit (LRT) lines, essentially streetcars running mostly on exclusive rights of way. Toronto already had the largest streetcar system in North America, and some sections of the Long Branch (route 501) line had LRT characteristics.

Around 1980, TTC began construction of an LRT line from the subway terminal at Kennedy Station, running north and east to the new shopping mall at Scarborough Centre. A further extension to Malvern was planned.

But even then, labour costs were recognized as a serious impediment to reliable, frequent, and affordable service. The Province decided that the solution was Automated Light Rapid Transit (ALRT), and invested about $100 million developing this technology at the UTDC research centre in Kingston. The plan was to build it for Ontario cities, but also to export it around the world.[1] In 1982, TTC agreed to use ALRT for the Scarborough RT.[2]

TTC opened the Scarborough RT in 1985. Although it uses the same technology as the driverless Vancouver system, TTC insisted on crewing trains with a driver, although in normal operation the driver's only function is to operate the doors at stations. With much higher operating costs, TTC operates the line with 5-minute headways, whereas Vancouver operates more frequent trains as little as 100 seconds apart. TTC managers say that Toronto passengers would not have "accepted" driverless operation,[3] although this seems not to have been a problem in Vancouver, and is not a problem in London, Dubai, Singapore, New York, or Paris, all of which have automated driverless metros on at least part of their networks.

Traffic on the Scarborough has grown gradually and the line now carries about 40,000 passengers on a typical weekday.[4] Plans to extend the line to Malvern were never implemented. The line is now showing signs of deferred maintenance. Trains are very noisy, much noisier than cars of similar design and age running in Vancouver, and service disruptions are common. TTC officials insist that safety is not being compromised.[5]

In 1993, the NDP provincial government decided to build two new east-west subway lines, and construction began on both Eglinton and Sheppard. Underground alignments were adopted on both routes, and TTC decided to build them for operation with conventional subway trains. The Eglinton scheme was cancelled in 1995 by the Conservative government. The Sheppard scheme survived in a shortened form: only the stage from Yonge to Don Mills Road was built. It opened in 2002, with five stations on the 5.5-km route. Weekday ridership is about 50,000.[6] The capital cost was just under $1 billion, or $200 million per km.[7] Trains are operated conventionally, as on the rest of the subway, with two employees on every train.

In 2007, the City of Toronto and TTC issued the "Transit City" plan. This envisaged a network of no fewer than seven LRT lines, mostly on the surface running in semi-exclusive street medians.[8] This followed TTC's experience with developing new LRT routes on Spadina Avenue and Queen's Quay, and upgrading the St Clair West route. Having failed to find the funds to finish either the Scarborough RT or Sheppard subways, TTC was now reverting to a cheaper technology. It seems the idea was to spread rail more cheaply, and more widely, so it would get support from all parts of Toronto.

Transit City was also associated from the start with the City's "Avenues" program, a vision of transforming suburban arterials into more "urban" environments, lined with medium-rise buildings and shopping, and more conducive to use by pedestrians and cyclists.

Figure 12: This illustration from the TTC's original Transit City report of March 21, 2007, shows a rather idealized (European-style) outcome in a historic setting that emphasizes urban design rather than transit efficiency. [9]

Although the schemes together will cost billions of dollars, and contracts are already being signed, there seems to have been very little evaluation of the economic or financial impacts. TTC staff produced an 18-page report, really just a memorandum,[10] called "Evaluation and comparison of routes," which simply lists the proposed schemes, giving their length, capital cost, and annual ridership. There is no mention of alternative routes or modes. There is no estimate of economic benefits. There is no information about operating costs or revenues. While the report breaks riders down into "Existing" and "New - Projected 2021" it is not clear whether these number represent riders that are new because of the scheme, or merely underlying growth; probably they include a bit of both. Background tables list potential populations and specific traffic generators that will be served, but no information was published on whether the impact would be worth the costs.

Metrolinx subsequently completed a Benefits Case Analysis for the Eglinton-Crosstown scheme, but did not release it until we requested it under the Freedom of Information Act. TTC planners have not provided any further information, stating that Eglinton-Crosstown is now a Metrolinx project.

Metrolinx also prepared a Benefits Case Analysis in 2009 for the Sheppard-Finch projects, considering different configurations for linking them into a single line across Toronto. Option 1 was a single scheme: two separate lines, one from Yonge along Finch to Humber college, and a second from Don Mills station to Meadowvale Road. Both lines are now to be substantially shorter; however, Metrolinx has not published an updated Benefits Case Analysis. Logically, the two lines would be evaluated separately, as they are now independent projects.

Metrolinx prepared a Benefits Case Analysis for Scarborough Rapid Transit in 2009[11] (although it was not released until later), but the original proposal has now been superseded by more recent plans for Scarborough transit.

The Transit City schemes attracted political support very quickly, and Metrolinx included them in The Big Move. Four of Metrolinx's "Big 5" schemes are in fact Transit City schemes.[12] Transit City materials are liberally illustrated with photographs of trams running on tree-lined avenues. But they are short on hard facts and figures about cost, ridership and benefits.

Figure 13: The four "Transit City" LRT schemes included in Metrolinx's "Big 5"[13]

Figure 14 presents data from Metrolinx's BCAs for the Eglinton Crosstown scheme, and the combined Sheppard-Finch schemes. Note that while the Eglinton Crosstown BCA gives estimates of ridership and benefits from the GGH model, the Sheppard-Finch BCA gives estimates only of total benefits and does not disclose the total or incremental daily or annual ridership. This important information would have been helpful in evaluating the scheme.

Sheppard Finch Option 1

Eglinton Crosstown Weston Rd - Kennedy

Infrastructure Capital Cost $m NPV

$ -1,807

$ -3,345

Operating Costs (incremental) $m NPV

$ -93

$ 417


$ -1,900

$ -2,928

Total daily riders 2023



New riders 2021


New daily riders 2023



Incremental revenues $m NPV

$ 60

$ 101


$ -1,840

$ -2,827

Road user benefits $m NPV

$ 103

Passenger Benefits $m NPV

$ 810

Passenger and road user time savings $m NPV

$ 570

$ 913


$ 630

$ 1,014


$ -1,270

$ -1,914




Figure 14: Transit City LRT Schemes (Metrolinx BCA data)

The Eglinton BCA shows the scheme has a Benefit:Cost ratio of 0.35. In other words, government will be paying about $5 billion to get benefits for transit riders and road users worth about $2 billion (including bus operating cost savings).

There are some inconsistencies in the data presented in the Eglinton Crosstown BCA. Ridership seems to be very high: about 350,000 per day and more than double the TTC forecast and three times existing bus ridership. Yet incremental revenues are very small, implying less than 10,000 new riders per day. Operating costs seem optimistic; the figures suggest that savings from operating fewer bus-km would not only entirely offset all costs of operating the LRT, but also provide a substantial surplus.

In the next sections, we will review the assumptions underlying Transit City and evaluate the Metrolinx figures.

[1] The author was employed by UTDC 1981-1986, first on the Vancouver Skytrain project and then in business development.
[2] The province also gave its backing to extending the line into a regional network, with "GO-ALRT" lines into downtown as envisaged by MTTPR, and a line along the power line corridor north of Finch to link Scarborough with North York and Pearson Airport. The lines would use faster cars, capable of 120 km/h running, to offer journey times competitive with driving on Highway 401. However in 1985, after preparatory work, the government changed and the incoming Liberal government decided instead to concentrate on extending the GO rail system using conventional bi-level equipment.
[3] From discussion with a senior TTC manager.
[5] Email correspondence with a senior TTC manager, after a very noisy ride on the RT.
[7] According to Edward J. Levy, "When the time came to build Phase One [of the Sheppard subway] during the late 1990s...the decision was made to reduce the length of the project from Victoria Park Avenue to Don Mills Road, likely because the original proposal would have incurred a total capital cost in excess of the $1 billion estimated and agreed to by all parties. This expenditure would have been "politically awkward," to say the least, considering that the provincial administration favoured austerity in so many other realms." Rapid Transit in Toronto: A Century of Plans, Progress, Politics and Paralysis,
[10] See TTC Report of November 14, 2007, Transit City Light Rail Plan - Evaluation and Comparison of Routes.