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.

 
 
 
 

A warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.