The cold hard truth about Toronto's transport network

Photo: Getty

With a population of 2.8 million, projected to grow to 7 million by 2050, Toronto is Canada’s most populated city. While its cultural, social and financial cachet skyrockets, one thing may soon hold it back – it’s public transport system.

Academic Caren Levy argued in 2013 that the ability to access transport reflects the “right to participate” in the life of the city – not just to exist in it, but to partake fully of what it offers, for work, leisure and education. Toronto’s public transport system has struggled to keep up with the growth of the city, and the demands that places on its infrastructure.

Ridership has dropped in recent years because of concerns over expense, comfort and even practicality – the stress that the transit system is under has rendered it inefficient and time-consuming. Add in the fact that a highway runs right through the centre of the city and that most of the public transport converges downtown, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Scholars, community organisers and local politicians have long since called for an expansion of public transport. In 2010, during a local election, concerned citizens residing around poorly serviced areas began the self-explanatory “Subways! Subways! Subways!” campaign, and the projected population growth of the greater Toronto area has led the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to promise extensions of the Metrorail subway system, although there has been controversy about whether the extension will reach the right places.

The city's transport woes have much to do with how public transport system was set up in 1849. The first bus routes started taking passengers between Yorkville and St.Lawrence Market, which are located in the centre of the city. Toronto has expanded outwards from there, and so too did Toronto’s transit network, which has led to the current concentration of the most transport links downtown, often around the most wealthy areas.

There are three main components to Toronto’s public transport system (not including the GO trains for suburban travellers that link into the city centre).

The primary system is the subway, which is structured around Line 1 (Yonge-University) that runs in a U, and Line 2 (Bloor-Danforth), which intersects the U at the centre of the city. Other, more recent additions include Line 3 & Line 4, both of which cover specific parts in the north and east of the city that were previously only covered by infrequent bus services. A cursory glance at the subway map transposed on to Toronto shows the lack of coverage in certain areas of the city - meaning that if you don’t live directly on a subway line, you have to get buses to your nearest stop.

The lack of coverage outside downtown Toronto and a few very specific pockets of the city has led to the establishment of the GO trains that take commuters directly from specific suburbs in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) to various central subway stations, but the bus coverage to get to these stations outside of the city proper is even more inferior than within the city centre itself.

The buses come every twenty or so minutes, and are often the only way of getting to a subway station, particularly some that are further out. The result is that during rush hour, they can be jam-packed, leading people (and sometimes children) to wait in freezing temperatures for the next one in the hope of more space. Some of the most recent figures from the TTC highlight that only 68.1 per cent of buses arrive on time. These issues are often exacerbated by traffic congestion on the roads in and out of the city.


Perhaps one of the most confusing parts of Toronto’s transport system is that streetcars comprise a significant part of it – Toronto’s streetcar system is the busiest and geographically, largest, light rail system in North America. While it sounds like a good idea – after all, this is a region with major transport problems – the streetcar runs on the same roads as the cars, meaning it has to stop for red lights, and around 50 per cent of streetcars are late. There’s even a very busy intersection downtown where a streetcar driver has to get out and manually change the tracks because other streetcars run on it.

A study in 2017 found that a monthly transit pass in Toronto, known as a PRESTO card, is among the most expensive in the world at  $150 (£88.40), despite the fact that Toronto’s public transport leaves so much to be desired. A student card is not that much cheaper at $130. And despite recent population growth, Toronto does not operate a zoning system like most other major metropolises – which means that a ride between two stops anywhere on the line will set you back the same amount - $3 for adults, and $2 for concessions.

These shortcomings when the city is growing so rapidly have made transport a hot topic at local elections, not least because it exacerbates a problem with income inequality which is already among the worst anywhere in North America. A comprehensive report from the Martin Prosperity Institute points out that the fractured nature of Toronto’s public transport might as well have generated different towns with differing standards of living.

Another report from the City Institute in York University in 2015 echoed this sentiment, emphasising that the “capillaries” of public transport in Toronto are left to waste away even if they do have some coverage, while prime spaces benefit from continued investment. These capillaries can be found away from downtown and wealthier areas, and instead run throughout the “inner suburbs”. A series of maps, from J.D. Hulchanski’s income polarisation study, clearly demonstrates that transportation systems don’t really cover the areas that might rely on it the most.

As a city lauded for its diversity, you would hope that Toronto’s public transport system would be geared up to cope with the dynamic between immigrants and public transit – not least the simple fact that immigrants tend to be the most prominent users of public transport the world over. In reality, much of Toronto’s immigrant population, comprising significant numbers of service and low-wage workers, live in those underserved inner suburbs, referred to in policy documents as Neighborhood Improvement Areas. These spaces without service have created what is now referred to as “transit deserts”, which can have long-term effects on the health and employment prospects of people living in those areas, as a Toronto Star article demonstrated. These issues have been left to fester, and worsen, for many years, without much actual resolution.

All of this is meant to be tackled by the “Big Move” plan run by Ontario’s transport agency, Metrolinx, which aims to expand the regional transport system – adding 1,200 km of rapid transport in the area with a view to completely changing how public transport is structured. Yet groups representing disgruntled communters like Fair Riders and TTC Riders are not convinced it will solve the structural issues, and concerned it will instead simply distribute them further outwards. Given the troubles Toronto has long faced creating a transport system that works for all its residents, it is unsurprising they remain skeptical that the city’s problems - and the ones yet to come - will be solved by current thinking.

 
 
 
 

Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.


There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).