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Subways to suburbs: Are we dreaming up transit riders?

The Spadina Subway extension to York University and the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre is scheduled to open on December 17, 2017. The new stations are impressive works of art. Local residents and businesses are excited to finally have the subway come to Vaughan.   

The justifiably proud professionals who oversaw the construction of the new subway extension are suggesting that the ridership on the 8.6-km extension will attract over 26 million riders each year. Are these new transit riders or are these riders diverting from other transit modes? We don’t know yet.   It will, however, be very interesting to see what happens after the line has been operational for six months.

Given that the Spadina-University line is already approaching its peak hour capacity as trains approach the Downtown (where half of all AM peak period GTA transit riders are heading), accommodating several million more riders, in case they do show up, will be a challenge.

The reported TTC transit weekday peak period average subway train loads for May 2013 indicate that peak demands on the Vaughan-Union section of the Yonge-University subway line south of St. George Station are already comparable to those on the Finch-Union section south of Bloor Station during the peak half hour at 1,199 and 1,239 respectively.  Based on observed peak subway loads, the capacity of a single subway train today is about 1,200 riders during peak hour in the peak direction while the TTC’s “nominal capacity for the peak half-hour” is 1,000 passengers per train.

The 26 million annual riders projected for the new six station subway extension implies a net increase in subway ridership of approximately 14 million per year.  This annual figure translates into an increase of more than 3,500 riders travelling south of St. George Station in the critical AM peak hour.   How does one accommodate this increase in ridership when the TTC only has room for an extra 1,000 or so riders in the peak hour at this location?

Given the observed subway loads south of Bloor there is little room to accommodate the increase in ridership projected for the Spadina subway extension.  But here is the real rub. Available travel survey data reveal that 75 percent of the current AM peak work trips from Vaughan/King to the downtown core are already using public transit. Since most southbound commuters are already on transit, where will the new riders come from? Will the subway extension end up cannibalizing bus and GO transit riders, with little, if any, net increase in transit ridership?

In considering the role and ridership potential of the new subway extension a few additional factors should be considered:

  • Metrolinx, the provincial transit planning agency for the Greater Toronto Area, is in the process of upgrading the Barrie GO line to Regional Express Rail which will improve the frequency and capacity of the GO line. The RER will be serving the same downtown destined travel markets in Vaughan and York Region that the subway will but with faster trip times.
  • In 2011, only 2,500 peak period automobile trips from Vaughan and King were destined to Downtown Toronto (known as Planning District 1 in the planning community). Many of these trips were made by persons who drive other family members, need their cars for work or have other reasons for not taking transit. In short, most are auto-captives.
  • Looking at the longer term ridership potential, further development in Vaughan is rather limited. Why? Places to Grow, the provincial act, restricts new development in environmentally sensitive lands.

Equally relevant to this discussion is the work done by Professor Steven Farber at the University of Toronto. Here is what he had to say about transit accessibility in the region.

“What we found is that the Eglinton Crosstown has the largest impact on increasing accessibility – which really makes sense,” says Farber. “Any line that cuts through the middle of the city from end to end is going to have a very very large impact on increasing accessibility.”

He says the Scarborough transit expansion will greatly benefit those who live along the proposed lines, but “will do almost nothing for people who are just offsite.”

“Really what we should be thinking about is how we’re going to fund more widespread transit expansion throughout the suburbs and especially try to hit neighbourhoods where bringing transit will improve the quality of life and participation levels of people living there,” says Farber.

He says the best way to do so is by improving existing bus routes.  

A map created by Steven Farber, Jeff Allen and Maria Grandez shows the number of jobs reachable by public transit within a 45 minute trip from each neighbourhood in the GTA

Why then are the planning authorities spending scarce public funds on developing redundant transit capacity and ignoring building transit where it is badly needed, i.e., the Downtown Relief Line to ease the burden on the Bloor-Danforth and Yonge-University (south of Bloor) subway lines?

At the end of the day, starting December 2017, we will have a new experiment in place. We will learn how many more net new riders we can attract by extending the subway to York Region. Lessons learnt here will foretell the fate of planned extensions of the Bloor-Danforth Subway line to Scarborough Centre and the Yonge line to Richmond Hill.

David Crowley is a Toronto-based planner with more than four decades of experience in transport planning.

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