Scarborough subway is the Maginot Line of Toronto transit

Mayor Tory has prevented another debate about the Scarborough subway.  Council has agreed to stop talking about it.

Yet the papers are full of questions and discussion about alternatives.  A few Councillors, led by Josh Matlow, are demanding to know more about the net cost of switching to Tory’s new transit scheme.  Imagine that!  Maybe the discussion won’t end because the Mayor wishes it.

Tory compels the City Manager to dodge questions about how much it will cost to undo the light rapid transit plan approved by Council and funded by the Province in 2009.  Incredibly, Pennachetti refuses even to reveal where these cancellation costs are buried in the 2015 capital budget.

What’s an ordinary person to make of this secrecy and suppression?  Tory doesn’t question the validity of the transit debates that occurred when Ford tore the Transit City plan apart and stomped all over the agreed LRT option for Scarborough.  “Subways, subways, subways,” was a good enough argument to overturn years of expert planning during that round of Council debate.  Nor did Tory poo-poo the amateur transit planning and debate that occurred during the Mayoral campaign last year, which, he takes pains to remind us, he won.

Why then, is an informed debate, less constructive than the ad hoccery that went on for the past three years?  If evidence based planning went out the window when Rob Ford entered the Mayor’s office, why won’t Tory let it back in the door?  His victory resulted in large measure from the differences between him and the Ford brothers.  It makes no sense for him to taint his entire term by adhering to the Ford method of decision making on something as critical as transit.  Councillors have the right to compare options and costs, and Tory should be leading them to the best outcome instead of thwarting the process.

Transit planning is a highly technical pursuit, blending the dark arts of economics, demographics, engineering, finance, and politics.  It also requires, not incidentally, a deep knowledge of transit solutions around the world.  Regular folk can’t see behind the diagrams and slogans that politicians use to sell them on new building schemes.  We can make rational choices once the options are clear, based on common sense and self-interest, but we – citizens, Councillors, and Mayors – aren’t qualified to shape those options.

During the 2014 municipal election, outgoing Mayor Ford and the provincial Liberals invited the public to toss out transit plans that had been a decade in the making.  Instead, they offered a scheme for Scarborough that served fewer people, in fewer places, at much greater cost.  The people of Scarborough were led to believe that they would be so much better served by a subway than an LRT line that they should pay twice as much and wait twice as long for it.

Suddenly everyone became an authority on transit infrastructure.  All the mayoral candidates got out their foolscap and sharpies, creating visual aids to hold up during debates.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, the message voters got was that decades of planning by experts could be undone by anyone with an opinion, a pulpit, and a diagram.

It didn’t matter that these graphic schemes hadn’t been studied to estimate cost or technical feasibility.  In places, their maps were inaccurate and misspelled.  The impression left on voters was that their next Mayor, like their last one, could contradict the TTC, Metrolinx, and the previous Council, by simply drawing something different.  The financing problem would be passed onto the province, the feds, and the private sector.  Voters were told not to concern themselves with trivialities like cost and value until after the election.

By chance, I’ve had the misfortune to spend a lot of time on transit in Scarborough lately.  Firsthand experience of the existing system has made the news from City Hall more tangible to me.  When columnists comment on the Mayor’s intransigence, or on Council’s acrobatic flips on transit, it feels remote and unreal until you endure the daily misery of transit in Scarborough.Ford proudly ignored the fundamentals of transit planning.  The people of Scarborough can be forgiven for trusting their Mayor’s judgement.   His successor can’t be.  Tory is perpetuating the effects of Ford’s ignorance and bad judgement.

Last Sunday night I made one of many TTC trips to Providence Health Centre, at Warden and St. Clair.  It was miserably cold and snowy, which is why couldn’t ride my bike.  The TTC takes over an hour from my home on King Street East, but I can do it in 45 minutes by bike.

By Scarborough’s standards, the hospital is close to Warden subway station, but as a downtowner, nothing in Scarborough seems near to anything else.  The distance between anywhere you might live, anywhere you might work, and anything you might need, is too great for most people to walk.  It takes too long, groceries are too heavy, small children and seniors get tired, pedestrian crossings are dangerous, and the weather can be make everything more difficult, as it did on this night.

In truth, it’s not quite a kilometre from the hospital doors to the above ground “subway” platform, which is an easy 10 – 15 minute stroll in good weather.  Remarkably, however, 100 metres of that, the length of a football field, is inside the cold, vast, dirty, echoing, and mostly empty station itself.  It’s an absurdly large facility that serves a thinly populated area, requiring a far flung network of buses to funnel in enough people to make it appear to be useful.

As I slogged through the snow from the hospital, and descended steps to the unplowed sidewalk leading east to the station, I fell in behind a woman who didn’t hear or see me coming because of her thickly padded, fur trimmed parka.  She shrieked in surprise as I overtook her in the dark.

It’s a completely isolated, windswept, stretch of sidewalk, falling away to a wooded ravine on one side, and a high speed, multilane road on the other.  It’s utterly desolate – a place to be avoided by women at night.  I apologized and walked ahead.

She laughed at her own nervousness and followed in my tracks along the narrow path in the snow.  We talked all the way to the station and then on the train as far as my stop.  I learned that she makes that walk every night after her shift as a care worker in the residential wing of the hospital.  Then she takes the Yonge line north and buses from there to her apartment beyond Steeles Avenue

She lives there because it’s cheap and close to her other job.  She spends her days looking after someone else’s baby in their home, and her nights looking after someone else’s mother at the hospital.  And she spends more than two hours of every working day on transit.  By my calculation, she’s travelling at an average speed of less than 20 km/hr., assuming she’s lucky with connections, delays, and cancellations.  As rapid transit goes, this isn’t very rapid.  I half joked that a bike would be faster.

I asked her how she felt about Mayor Tory’s transit plans.  She shrugged.  She’d stopped paying attention to the ever-shifting schemes of the past five years.

I told her about the 2009, Council-approved, Provincially-funded, LRT plan that had been killed by Ford and is now being buried by Tory.  She misunderstood and thought it was still on the drawing board.  “That would be great!” she said.  When I corrected her, she shrugged again, “Oh, too bad.”

I explained that the system would be substantially complete by now if not for sabotage by Mayor Ford, along with opportunistic city councillors and desperate provincial Liberals.  She was less interested in the reasons for killing the LRT than in the resulting delay, which I estimated was 7-10 years for the subway that would replace it.  But if something, anything, could actually improve the current system, and it turned out to be a subway, that would be good, from her perspective.

I transferred to the 504 streetcar and got home 20 minutes later.  She continued on her way and has probably forgotten the conversation by now.  Which stands to reason, given the incomprehensible disconnect between talk and action on transit.  There’s no reason for people in Scarborough to listen anymore.  The details apparently don’t matter to the politicians.  Plans are made but not followed.  Promises go unfulfilled.  She’s not stupid.

I’m thinking about her, the Scarborough subway debate, and Warden station right now.  The Mayor’s transit master plan includes not only the misconceived Scarborough subway, it also relies on private sector investment along new subway corridors.

It seems stupid to think about building more stations like Warden when you observe the tremendous waste of money, space, and time locked up in this misplaced piece of infrastructure.  How many kilometres of high speed surface rail and how many conveniently placed stops could have been built instead, and how many wasted person-years could have been saved for riders, if Toronto had invested in something other than this?  This is the TTC’s version of the Maginot Line; huge, exorbitant, and immoveable, based on a strategy from another place and time.  It became obsolete as fast as its concrete hardened.

And where’s the real estate development that’s supposed to bloom in the desert around the new subway stations?  Where in the fertile garden of John Tory’s mind will the new buildings sprout from?  He’s asking us to share his faith that it will occur along the new subway extension, so where is it along the old subway route?  Go look for this growth around Warden station.  It hasn’t happened yet, and according to all accepted population density and demand studies, it’s not expected to occur elsewhere along the proposed Scarborough subway line.

It’s not that there weren’t low density housing developments or strip malls built “near” Warden station over the past 46 years.  There were, for what that’s worth.  The problem is that there was never enough development to rationalize operating a subway there, much less to underwrite the capital investment required for its construction in the first place.

The perception of distance pertains here too.  Things are actually farther apart in a low density jurisdiction like Scarborough.  This graphic (below), advertising real estate “just steps from the subway,”  in one of the housing developments nearest to the Warden station, refers to a property at 60 Fairfax Crescent, which is in fact 1.1 kilometres from the station.  At an average three foot stride, that works out to 1,203 steps from the subway, or 2,406 steps per trip.  I guess anything is “steps away” if you have no choice other than to buy a car or wait for a bus in the windswept wasteland surrounding the station.

But the premise of the Scarborough subway boondoggle is that Scarberians shouldn’t have to settle for a lower standard of service than downtowners get, irrespective of population densities, system efficiencies, or costs.  Ford introduced this argument, and Councillor De Baermaeker, a strident Scarborough advocate, uses it to stimulate feelings of inferiority whenever he can’t answer a substantive question about the relative merit of subways vs. LRT’s.  Without subways, so the argument goes, his constituents are second class citizens.

The argument confuses the mode of transit with the quality of service from a rider’s perspective.  It fails to consider is that the distance and time required to reach the subway system adds to the duration of every trip, so fewer stops means a reduction in service quality relative to the planned LRT system, in which more stops means quicker access for more people.  In effect, politicians are making Scarberians feel better by allowing them to choose even worse service.

Unfortunately, Scarberians are already accustomed to a lower level of service, so it was easy to gloss over the subway drawbacks.  Downtowners are used to finding subway stops every few blocks or every few hundred metres apart.  In contrast, the average distance between stops on the Danforth subway, east of Victoria Park, is 2.4 kilometres.

So the people Ford polled to kill the LRT in Scarborough last spring were doubly misled.  Not only were they deceived about how fast and how convenient the LRT would have been, they were also conditioned to accept the substandard subway service they’ve endureded since 1968.  By adding only three stops in an extension of the existing system, Ford and Tory, De Baermaeker, and others, are actually perpetuating the injustice they profess to correct.

The LRT system, agreed on in 2009, is already funded.  The Ford/Tory subway scheme is not.  Torontonians will be paying the 10-digit cost for decades if Council kills the LRT plan in favour of the subway.  If that isn’t enough for a rethink, surely the inequities of service should tip Council support toward the LRT system and away from the Scarborough subway plan.  At the very least, it provides reasonable grounds for releasing the information Councillor Matlow has sought.

When I look around the dim, filthy, frosty above ground platform, and the scattered, shivering riders at Warden station, I wonder whether they understand how much past investments in subways are costing them now, and what today’s investment in subways will cost them in the future.  It’s not just the money, it’s the stress, lost family and work time, and impediments to education and employment, that make the Scarborough subway an unaffordable injustice.

The better way is to reach the most people with the best service available for the lowest possible cost.  Council is about to achieve the opposite by invoking closure on debate last week.  For people like me, this will translate into incrementally higher taxes.  For people like the woman I met last week, it will mean years of needless suffering as well.

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