Monday, November 01, 2010

Can subways build a transit city?

Rob Ford, Toronto's incoming mayor, was elected on a platform that called for subway construction instead of light rail construction. From the people I have spoken to, many are concerned about the future of Transit City, David Miller's initiative to build a series of light rail lines across Toronto. While there are many good reasons to forge ahead with Miller’s plan, what if we could build these proposed lines as subways. Are we still building Transit City?

Transit City became synonymous with light rail transit, but in many ways, the modal choice was the means to an ends. For transit city, the end goal was to add capacity and reliability to locally-oriented transit and to support constant strings of mid-rise development along Toronto's avenues. In essence, the true goal of Transit City was to transform suburban arteries into more vibrant, successful streets where people can live, work, play and shop. It was a project to urbanize the suburbs and attract investment by making these lands just as attractive for development as the downtown core. If subways can build a transit city, then these are the standards by which a subway plan must be measured.

Local Service

The first goal of Transit City was to improve local service, and the definition of local service in this case is the ability to walk from the station to any destination along the corridor. If a destination is too far to reasonably walk to from the station then local service is not being provided and a parallel bus route will have to be introduced to serve the stops in between stations. To best illustrate this concept, consider the Yonge Street subway. South of Wellesley St, the stations are spaced between 400 and 600 metres apart. This means that every destination along this stretch of Yonge is within 300 metres of a station in either direction (a 3 minute walk, and less if the station has multiple exits). As such, there is no need for a bus to serve the destinations in between stops. Compare this to the stretch between Eglinton and York Mills, where the stations are spaced every 2 kilometres apart. This means that some destinations along this stretch of Yonge are 1000 metres - a 10 minute walk - from a station. As such, the 97 YONGE bus is needed to serve these destinations.

As a general thumb, a 4-5 minute walk (about 400 to 500 metres distance) to the closest station ensures that local service goals are being met. While I'm sure most people are capable of walking ten minutes, we also must consider the needs of people with limited mobility and people carrying parcels or groceries if we want people to be able to live car free lifestyles. This means that stations spaced any further apart than 1 km are not really serving the local need. A subway line with stations 1 kilometre apart or less is technically feasible since the downtown stations are as close at 400 metres apart. It is also logical because of the way the major arteries are laid out. The major streets outside of the downtown core largely follow a kilometre-based grid, so placing a station at each major artery and placing a minor station mid-block, where necessary, will ensure that local travel is maintained. Based on all of this, it is quite clear that subways can improve local transit service if designed more like the original Bloor-Danforth or Yonge lines and less like the Yonge extension north of Eglinton.

Development Potential

In addition to improving local transit service along Toronto's suburban corridors, a goal of Transit City was to guide development and revitalization along the arteries. A typical suburban artery in Toronto is lined with one- or two-storey retail strip malls separated from the street by parking lots. This kind of development was built to accommodate the car and discourages walking by forcing people to walk through the parking lot. Some of these strip malls are financially successful, but because they sit on what could be prime real estate the land is under-performing from a planning perspective. Transit City hoped to use enhanced transit service to make these lands more desirable and to encourage redevelopment. Ideally, the resulting buildings would be mid-rise, scaled to fit the width of the street and tapered to make them more compatible with the neighbourhood. The buildings would front onto the street to make for a much more pleasant environment to walk in. This City of Toronto sketch makes these goals much easier to visualize:
Source: City of Toronto Avenues and Mid-Rise Buildings Study
Most importantly, this kind of redevelopment potential would be encouraged along the entire length of the street, not just immediately around the stations.

A developer's job is to make money by taking land, adding value to it, and re-selling it. Like a merchant or a chef or a consultant, the developer's expenses are the raw materials (land) and the cost of adding value to it (planning, construction, marketing and operating costs). Revenues come in the form of sales; either actual sales or rental fees. Assuming the cost of adding value remains constant, a rational economic actor acting rationally will try and acquire the land at the lowest price possible, build as many units as he can get approval for, and sell them at the highest price the buyer will be willing to pay - resulting in a nice healthy profit. But, if the land increases in price (all other costs remaining constant), then the developer will have to construct more units in order to make a profit on the site. Consider this example. If the site costs $2 million to buy and develop, 4 units at $500,000 would have to be built to break even. If a transit line was present, the land would be more valuable because it would be more attractive. This might increase the costs to develop to $4 million, meaning 8 units at $500,000 would need to be sold. If the zoning regulations prevent the developer from building those extra 4 units, he will either have to sell them for $1 million each, fight the zoning regulations or walk away.

Subways make land more attractive to developers than light rail does because people perceive them to be better, so it is quite likely that land adjacent to a subway line will demand a higher purchase price than land close to an LRT line. Depending on the specific performa of the building, this might make the difference between a developer being able to construct make a mid-rise building work or forcing him to consider another solution. If the finances do not work, he may be able to successfully fight the zoning restrictions on the basis of it being unfeasible for anyone to develop the land. This is just a land development theory, but it has morphed into a belief that LRT construction will result in mid-rise development while subways construction will result in high-rise development. However, I don't think the relationship is that simple. There are lovely mid-rise buildings on Yonge Street near Summerhill Station, and plenty of high-rise buildings near Fort York along the LRT line. Much of Bloor and Danforth remains low and mid-rise despite the subway being constructed in 1966, and there are also mid-rise and high-rise buildings going up in places where no higher-order transit has ever been proposed. Clearly, something else is at play.

I believe that the zoning and planning powers available to municipalities, combined with overall economic conditions are much more likely to influence the type of building that will be built on any given lot. In addition to that, there are many cases where developers have owned the land that the strip mall sits on for decades and have been waiting for the right time to sell. In these cases they are mostly immune from the climbing land values. It's nearly impossible to predict what kind of development a subway line will encourage in the free market, as it is also nearly impossible to predict what kind of development a LRT line will encourage in the free market. At the end of the day, a city's zoning tools will likely make all the difference between building a transit city or not.

The other development goal of Transit City was to encourage a consistent string of development along the entire corridor and not just development clustered around the stations. A variation on the urban myth I described earlier claims that LRT lines will cause a constant string of development along the corridor, while subways will result in development clustered around the stations. Like all myths, there is a bit of truth here. However, the truth lies in the station spacing and not in the transit technology. The land value uplift is most pronounced around the stations and becomes less and less as distance from the stations decreases. If the distance from one station to the next is quite long, areas in between the stations may not see any land value uplift at all - and with less uplift comes less incentive for redevelopment. In fact, if the transit line eliminates most local transit along the street, land values could go down.

This effect can be seen on Sheppard, where the long gap between Yonge and Bayview has been slower to redevelop than the shorter gaps between Bayview, Bessarion and Leslie. However, I believe that development along this stretch has only been delayed. We are seeing high-density redevelopment in places where no rapid transit has ever been proposed, so it’s only a matter of time until this stretch of Sheppard urbanizes. Either way, since building a transit city means placing subway stations about the same distance apart as Bayview, Bessarion and Leslie, stagnant development in between stations should not be an issue.

Cost, Capacity and Speed

Since subways can meet the local transit service goals and complement the development objectives that formed the basis of outgoing Mayor David Miller’s initiative, I believe that building subways instead of LRT lines can still build a transit city. But, we still have to consider the cost and the capacity of a subway plan. A subway would offer 20% faster travel times than a light rail line (30 km/h average vs 25 km/h average, depending on the street characteristics), and a subway line can carry 275% more passengers than an LRT line (30,000 passenger per hour vs 8,000 passengers per hour). But, these enhancements come at a cost premium - possibly three times as much to build a subway over an LRT. Are these added benefits worth it?

For speed, let’s compare the 5 km trip from Kennedy and Sheppard to Don Mills and Sheppard - the first portion of subway likely to open if we go ahead with Mr. Ford’s plan. This trip would take about 13 minutes by LRT and 10 minutes by subway. If we scaled up this trip to the 40 km from Pickering Town Line to Brampton’s city limits, the travel times would be about 102 minutes versus 80 minutes, respectively. Is it worth it to spend three times the money for a 20% improvement that will really only make much of a difference at extremely long distances? I say no, for the reason I alluded to in the previous sentence and because upgrading and integrating GO Transit’s train and bus network is a better investment for serving passenger making long trips.

When it comes to capacity, we have to consider the ridership of today, natural ridership growth, and ridership growth due to development. It’s easy to want to build as much capacity as possible, but again, these capacity improvement come at a price. To decide if the price is worth paying, we have to look at the projected numbers. For Sheppard, the official prediction is 3,000 people per hour (measured at the peak of morning rush hour in highest travelled direction, at the highest point of demand) after including the effect of ridership growth due to development over 30 years. Subways are known to attract more riders due to their appeal, but the estimates say that this would only add 2,000 people per hour. With a design capacity of 8,000 people per hour for LRT, it is very difficult to justify spending three times as much when the capacity isn’t needed - unless we’re willing to approve much higher densities along the corridor than previously envisioned.


Even if Toronto doesn’t build Transit City, it is still possible to build a transit city with correctly designed subways. We can still provide local service along subway corridors, and we can still encourage the kind of redevelopment that we desire - the only barrier is money. Rob Ford’s transit plan called for taking the Sheppard subway east to Scarborough Town Centre and then south to Kennedy instead of building the approved Transit City lines. The rationale for this was that it would mean no additional spending from either the province or the city. Analysis of the money involved shows that this rationale is flawed, but a more important point is highlighted - we will only be able to build one subway line with the money earmarked for three LRT lines.

I’m going to give Mr. Ford the benefit of the doubt and assume that he would have proposed multiple subway lines across the city if the province had committed more money to Transit City. Unfortunately, the money available to us does not appear to be growing and waiting for it to grow only leaves us worse off than we were before. From a political perspective, multiple transit lines will earn a politician more support than a single transit line in one corner of the city. From a planning perspective, multiple transit lines improves conditions city-wide.

The incoming mayor has stated many times that he believes that residents want subways and not streetcars, but one has to look a bit deeper into that statement before embarking on revisions to our rapid transit plans. Subways represent fast, high-capacity trains that come every few minutes and aren’t delayed by traffic congestion. Every LRT line planned under the Transit City brand meets this definition, but without a showcase project it’s very difficult to convince the public that it is a viable solution and is distinct from the downtown streetcar lines. A demonstration project in Toronto is needed, and I’m confident that the success of that project will start a LRT renaissance in the GTA. If we really want subways in the narrow definition of the word, adding an Overground component to mainline railways could be a good alternative. If we’re going to consider upgrading the Transit City lines, we must make sure that every corners of the city can benefit from improved mobility - not just those heading to or from a single corridor.

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