Surface solutions
As our subway turns 50, eye talks to the best and brightest to talk about how to make the TTC work between now and 2054

To mark the 50th anniversary of Toronto’s subway system this week, eye gathered a panel of transit experts, one of whom happens to also be our mayor, to talk about the state of public transit in Toronto and to imagine what we could do in the next 50 years.

DAVID MILLER is the mayor and the commissioner of the Toronto Transit Commission. During his campaign, he said “transit is not part of the solution, it’s the whole solution.”

GORD PERKS is eye’s Enviro columnist and a campaigner for the Toronto Environmental Alliance. He also serves as spokesman for the Rocket Riders, a transit riders activist group.

It is said that STEVE MUNRO know more about transit than anyone, ever. He was Chair of the Streetcars for Toronto Committee in the 1970s and is currently a member of the Rocket Riders.

The discussion was moderated by eye associate editor, EDWARD KEENAN.

KEENAN: When I talk to regular people, what I hear is that they would like to see a subway line on Queen Street and a subway along Dundas and one along Eglinton and another one along Lawrence and one running out to the airport…. People seem to be dreaming about subways.

PERKS: Fifty years and $100 billion dollars later….

MILLER: I think you need an interconnected system of rapid transit. Right now, we’ve got a hub-and-spoke system. So in both the short and long term, the bus is critical. But we have to be innovative with it and find ways to make it the equivalent of rapid transit. I think there are some places we should expand the subway. And there are places where we can do a pretty good job using the streetcar.

PERKS: One of the places where the vision is there but not spoken out loud is in Toronto’s Official Plan. It calls for rapid, high-volume avenues or transit corridors. Maybe it’s bus lanes, maybe it’s signal priority. But the thing that makes that so interesting is that it’s not just a matter of putting transit on the street, it’s a matter of changing those streets. We’re looking at St. Clair right now, and there’s a wonderful link going on between street beautification and improvement and at the same time improving the transit corridor. These things go hand in hand. One of the interesting little pieces that needs to be pulled out of the whole puzzle is that we’re now looking at communities like Malvern in Scarborough and saying part of the reason there’s a really fractured community is that the services aren’t there. And one of those services is a transit system. If you don’t have a transit system, if you don’t have a street life; you have a city that’s hostile.

MUNRO: The important thing about St. Clair is that it’s had a street life basically since the street has existed. And so enhancing the streetcar service on St. Clair is building on something that’s there. When I think of the slide that’s shown as part of the Official Plan presentation that shows a streetcar sitting eastbound on Eglinton at Kingston Road with sort of medium-rise, built-to-the-lot-line residential blocks lining Eglinton, that’s not the Eglinton I know in Scarborough. In Scarborough, you have strip commercial on all four corners, and that stuff isn’t going to get bulldozed in the next 10 years. So the suburbs have a huge, built infrastructure that is not going to go away and that is totally opposite to what we’re looking for in the Official Plan and is very hostile to pedestrians and, in being hostile to pedestrians, is hostile to transit.

KEENAN: But the suburbs do exist.

MILLER: First of all, you have to start now with the bus. That’s why our Ridership Growth Strategy is important. The buses are going to provide better service and a more reasonable cost, especially for passes. But a longer-run, maybe medium-term goal is that the development has to happen so that you can support rapid transit or something akin to rapid transit. What I’d like to see in the next year or so is a transportation plan that sets out how we’re going to do this. If that means having rapid bus service in the Hydro corridor, then let’s start building it. If it means taking a lane of Eglinton and making it a bus-only road all the way from across the Don Valley east to the border of Toronto, then let’s do that, that’s what we need. What people have said to me during Listening to Toronto is that people is Scarborough who ride buses are desperate for better service. I found people who are commuting who take two buses in Scarborough, the RT and the subway and then take another bus to work somewhere in Etobicoke. That’s not a rational way to get around the city. So we need more links. And in the short term it’s going to come by bus. I personally think we should keep pushing the rapid transit streetcar network and we should have reserved rights of way wherever possible.

MUNRO: We seem to be perfectly happy to talk about subway expansion, such as the Sheppard line, or the York University line as an “investment.” Everybody knows the Sheppard line loses millions of dollars, but it may eventually prove to be a good investment in terms of redeveloping Sheppard Avenue. I don’t understand why we’re willing to do that with subway lines, but we’re not willing to do it with surface transit. We run the absolute minimum surface transit we can get away with. If we’re not willing to make investments in small pieces that we can gradually connect together in a larger network, we are never going to have anything more than those three spokes. Yet we’ve built a subway line that has set new records for low station use.

MILLER: But you build a subway line for 100 years, right? It’s hard to get people’s heads around running an empty bus. Three or four years from now, there’ll be a really successful bus route there. But it’s hard. I think the way we lead is by starting to have the infrastructure that gets people around the city quickly by transit, and a lot of it’s buses. There are some places where we can add a little bit on the subway — I think York University would be a pretty justified subway route for a whole range of reasons.

PERKS: But just put it on the scales. The York University subway: a billion and a half dollars. Call it a 40-year investment, because you’re going to have to keep reinvesting to maintain it. If you take that same billion and a half dollars and imagine buying a fleet of buses that you’re going to have to replace once through that longer term, and you put aside a little extra operating subsidy while that builds up ridership, the same way we talk about doing with subways. You put things on the scales and at the end of the day, for that billion and a half, where do you have more transit ridership? The back of my envelope tells me that even if every single person in Toronto who currently goes to York University by car were to go on the subway, you’d pick up 5,000 or 10,000 new riders a day. I’m convinced that if you spent the same money flooding Scarborough with bus transit, for the same money you’d get 500,000 new riders.

MILLER: Transit is going to work if there’s a lot of it. And there’s not a lot of it in some neighbourhoods because they’ve been built for cars. One way to get around that is by providing excellent service, and that means in some parts of the city having a tolerance for lower ridership, but it also means providing them with something akin to rapid transit. That’s why people like these busways. I think, 50 years from now, if you say we’re going to need rapid transit corridors across the GTA, some of them may well be the rail tracks, how are we going to incorporate those into the system? I don’t have an answer, I’m just throwing out how to draft a 50-year plan, how are we going to use buses rapidly? And how are we going expand the streetcar network? Because rapid transit is right there ready to go if we can produce a way to make it work on the street. And a network is what is required, because if people know there’s a network, and lots of it, they’ll take it rather than drive. That could start with an express bus across the hydro corridor.

MUNRO: The other line which never gets looked at is the Durham [railway] line, that goes from Agincourt down right across parallel to Front Street and out to Mississauga.

MILLER: The railway corridors have to be part of the solution. I think the railways are prepared to listen for the first time in 20 years. To go back to my point, you need a network, and that’s an incredible asset to have a corridor running across the city. And there aren’t very many. There’s the railway corridors and a couple of hydro corridors.

MUNRO: They’re talking about fare integration for the Richmond Hill system, and that is small change compared to what happens if you start thinking of the rail network as another layer of rapid transit. So that the GO train or whatever you want to call it runs every 10 minutes. Imagine what happens if you have 10-minute service on the GO train. Suddenly, you just walk out on the Lakeshore sorridor and the next train comes along.

MILLER: That’s what’s exciting. The GO train could be a suburban-urban service. In between suburban rail and urban subway, but accessible for people like the subway. The problem is we’ve outgrown where there’s good service by a long shot and we haven’t yet come up with a strategy to address the whole region. Part of it is connecting things. And maybe it’s not always a subway, maybe it’s the streetcar, bus, rapid transit, whatever.

PERKS: The other thing to think about is money — how do you set your priorities? My view is, you start with whatever gets you the most riders for your dollars, and that is not providing high-order transit to the 905 area. There are some things you may want to do, where you’ve already got these GO trains sitting there. You may want to dramatically increase their frequency so they stop being rush-hour-only services. But for my money, simply improving the service in the areas where we’ve lost riders over the last decade primarily in the city of Toronto. You’re getting riders at 40 or 50 cents a pop rather than $10 a pop.

KEENAN: Well let’s talk about funding. What about the billion dollars that’s been reported in the newspapers.

MILLER: If what’s rumoured is accurate, it is in fact $667 million from federal and provincial governments over five years. Which is $130 million per year to the city for the TTC. By way of comparison, the TTC capital budget over the next couple of years averages well over $300 million. So, it’s very good news that the federal government will be investing in public transit and sees it as its job. That’s excellent news.

PERKS: Just today we had 17 city councillors out in the subway stations across the city collecting petitions to go the province to return to the fare share deal we had under Bill Davis, David Peterson and Bob Rae. If we’d had that finding formula in place, instead of the $130 million they’re talking about, this year we would have got something on the order of $350 million. So, they’re somewhere between a third and half-way to where we have to be just to get back to the deal we had, a deal that helped transit grow for 20 years before 1999. So we’re not even in the ballpark. And that’s to keep transit at its current levels.

MUNRO: One of the things that we’ve lost in the last 10 years because of funding cutbacks is that we’ve boxed ourselves into a situation where now we’re desperate to find every penny just to keep the lights on. And what happens when you do that, is you stop thinking about what’s going to happen 50 years from now, having to focus on what’s going to happen 10 years from now instead. And when there is a debate, it boils down to which one subway line can we afford to build, rather than what are we going to do with transit overall, how can we change the face of the city if there was a significant improvement overall in transit.

MILLER: Service has been run, in the past few years, to meet funding pressures. The result is that they deliberatley run the streetcars and buses to be incredibly crowded. You can see the results. Operating funding matters just as much. That’s what Steve’s talking about, running the system at a decent level of serivce. You’ve got to have subways, you’ve got to have streetcars, you’ve got to have buses, but you’ve also got to run them. And I think that the political challenge right now is to get the other orders of government to recognize that they have an interest in operating funding as well as capital. We have to find a way to ensure that happens because the challenges won’t be met without that and without maybe some creative thinking about fares as well.

KEENAN: In an ideal world, if the funding we need to implement the plan we’ve just laid out — an integrated network involving the railways, the hydro corridors, the busways, extended streetcar avenues — came through, how do we start now?

MILLER: We start with ridership growth. We start expanding the streetcar system with links, then you start with busways. I think somewhere in there, you do need to look at the subway network. We could do that relatively quickly along the hydro corridors. The first one could go from the Downsview subway to York, because we know there’s a lot of bus traffic. So we do that and that’ll be an easy learning session about what works and and what doesn’t, parts of it have to be on roads, parts of it through the hydro corridor.

PERKS: You do have to look at the planning, but the thing you should do tomorrow — assuming we’re not continuing another decade of destroying the transit system by underfunding it — is you run some of the buses that you have off peak hours. Look at having better discounts on passes. You look at simple things, and this is the beauty of the Ridership Growth Strategy. A plan that says there are some things you can do for less than a dollar a new rider. The risk with the big plans — the Greater Toronto Authority and the Hydro corridors and the subways — the risk with that stuff is we forget the bread and butter, and that’s the lesson we should have learned from the 1990s. We forgot about the basic issues and built a subway instead.

MILLER: Really what we’re talking about is instead of the TTC setting standards for how crowded you can run the bus so that you make a profit, setting standards of service that serve the community.

PERKS: All of this depends on whether senior levels of government are willing to believe in public transit again.

KEENAN: And if they don’t?

PERKS: Then we get 44 councillors out gathering petitions. Toronto without the Yonge subway would have a 50-lane highway running down the middle of it. In other words, it’s Detroit. So whatever it is you value about Toronto, if you want to defend that, you have to become part of a political movement. It’s astonishing to me that the federal government is not as good as George W. Bush on funding public transit.

MILLER: They’re not senior levels of government, they’re other orders of government. But he’s right that it’s in their interests too. Toronto is successful and we fund the other orders of government to some extent. If we’re not successful economically, they’re not going to be successful. So self-interest says they have to do something. And they will. We know they’re making an announcement, the only question is, is it enough? And if it’s not enough, then we’re going to have to get radical. The people of Toronto will demand it.


TTC Timeline
-City of Toronto established.

-Williams Omnibus Bus Line founded by Burt Williams, local cabinetmaker and undertaker. Stagecoaches shuttle passengers along Yonge between St. Lawrence Market and Yorkville for sixpence a ride. Trip takes 10 minutes. Omnibuses are expanded to accommodate 10 passengers as popularity increases.

-Toronto’s first street railway franchise –Toronto Street Railway Company — licensed for operation. Founder Alexander Easton employs crews to lay down track along Yonge and King Sts. from City Hall to St. Lawrence Hall. Easton uses an unusual 4ft. 10-7/8in wide track gauge that the TTC would later claim was used to ensure that steam engines wouldn’t use the tracks, but others claim was selected to improve handling for both streetcars and wagons that also used the tracks. From 1861 to 1891, ridership balloons from 2,000 to 55,000.

-City of Toronto orders the Toronto Street Railway Company to surrender ownership to them, without first providing a purchasing offer. The TSRC responds by removing its streetcars from service. The case goes to arbitration with TSRC eventually settling for $1.4 million buyout. City Hall gets cold feet and instead offers a 30-year franchise to the newly-formed Toronto Railway Company (run by railroad baron and Canadian Northern founder William Mackenzie), which assumes control in September, 1891. Under Mackenzie’s leadership, the TRC maintains the five-cent fare, introduces free transfers and reduced fares for children and students.

-First electric streetcar begins running on Church.

-Final horse-driven streetcar is decommissioned.

– Mackenzie’s railroad empire begins to unravel and the TRC falls on hard times. The City of Toronto buys up acres of land in the surrounding villages and orders the TRC to service them. The cash-strapped TRC refuses, claiming their initial contract only requires them to provide service within the Toronto boundaries as of 1894. The City of Toronto opts to provide streetcar service to its new boroughs itself under the Toronto Civic Railways name. New lines along Danforth, Gerrard E., Bloor W., St. Clair and Lansdowne are built. The TCR craftily adopts the TRC’s 4ft. 10-7/8in track gauge, foreshadowing their eventual takeover of Toronto’s transit system. Travel in Toronto at this point is chaotic, as the City absorbs a number of smaller transit operators when it expands its borders. The newly-acquired transit systems still collect their own fares, meaning that a passenger could pay anywhere from 2 to 15 cents in order to get across town.

-Province of Ontario creates the Toronto Transportation Commission (TTC).

-TRC’s contract expires.
-TTC takes ownership of nine existing transit operations and amalgamates them, installing a single standard fare across all its routes.
-Buses debut on the Humberside route.
-First batch of 575 “Peter Whitt” streetcars (the boxy tan-and-red ones) are introduced into service.

-TTC adds 35 new routes and extends 20 existing ones. 23 suburban routes are added on a cost-per-service basis. Public transit thrives during the war years, and city revenues from gas rationing are diverted into the Toronto subway project.

-Electric trolleys begin operation.

-Electric trolleys are phased out.

-All streetcar service in Toronto is handled by the TTC.
-TTC founds inter-city bus service, Gray Coach Lines.

-Stock market crash results in a loss of 20 per cent of TTC ridership.

-First of 745 Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) streetcars enter service. The cars, with their rounded corners and art-deco design, cars are dubbed “Red Rockets.”

-TTC experiences a record number of passengers during World War II. Women are employed as drivers, conductors and maintenance workers for the first time.

-Electric trolley service resumes.

-Construction on the Yonge subway line begins.

-Public transit is identified by Metro Toronto as an essential service

-Province of Ontario amalgamates Toronto and its twelve suburbs into the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, effective January 1.
-Canada’s first subway begins operation, running along Yonge from Eglinton to Union Station using a fleet of 57-foot-long English-built steel Gloucester cars, painted a bright red.
-Toronto Transportation Committee re-named Toronto Transit Commission and placed under jurisdiction of the newly founded Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto. The TTC becomes Toronto’s sole public transportation provider.

-75-foot-long Canadian-designed aluminum Hawker subway cars are introduced, affectionately dubbed the “steel eel.”

-University subway line opens, running from St. George to Union.
-Last Peter Whitt streetcars are retired from active service.

-Bloor/Danforth subway line opens, running from Keele to Woodbine.

-Bloor/Danforth subway is extended east to Warden and west to Islington.

-TTC introduces senior citizens fares.

-TTC records its final year of operational profit.
-Public opposition to the Spadina Expressway convinces the TTC that streetcars are essential to public transit in Toronto (streetcar routes had been shrinking as the TTC was forced to compete with the popularity of private automobiles).

-Yonge subway line is extended north to York Mills.
-Fare zone system, which required additional fares from riders traveling to and from the suburbs, is eliminated.

-Yonge subway line is extended north again, this time to Finch.

-Exact cash fares are introduced.
-Private contractor using modified vans establishes the Wheel-Trans system.

-Spadina subway line opens, running from St. George to Wilson.

– Canadian Light Rail Vehicles (CLRV) , the current streetcar model, enter service. Maximum capacity (or ‘crush capacity’) is 132 passengers.

-TTC establishes the monthly unlimited-ride Metropass.
-Bloor/Danforth subway is extended east to Kennedy and west to Kipling.

-Scarborough Rapid Transit (SRT), running from Kennedy to McCowan, launches.

-North York Centre subway station opens.
-TTC introduces the Blue Night service network.

-Articulated Light Rail Vehicles (ALRV) enter service. These elongated streetcars with their accordion-like midsection are able to hold a maximum of 205 passengers.
-TTC takes over full operation of Wheel-Trans.
-TTC ridership reaches a record 463.5 million annual customer trips.

-First fleet of clean(er)-burning CNG (compressed natural gas) buses enter service.

-Community bus services for seniors and the disabled are introduced.
-Harbourfront streetcar launches, running from Union Station to Queens Quay/Spadina.
-TTC sells Gray Coach Lines.
-Last of the original Gloucester subway cars are decommissioned.

-Electric trolley service is again discontinued.

-GTA weekly passes, valid on TTC and suburban transit services, are introduced.

-Last remaining original Red Rocket streetcars are retired from active service.
-First fatal subway accident in TTC history occurs in August between Dupont and St. Clair stations. Driver error and failure of safety equipment are cited as causes.

-Downsview, Bloor-Yonge and Union Station become fully-accessible subway stations.
-Lift-equipped buses enter service.
-Spadina line extends service north to Downsview.

-Spadina streetcar line, connecting Spadina station to Union, opens for business July 27 after a 31-year absence.

-First low-floor fully-accessible buses enter service.

-Harbourfront streetcar extends west from Spadina to the Exhibition grounds.

-Sheppard subway opens, connecting Sheppard-Yonge to Don Mills.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on March 25, 2004.