The case of delaying Toronto’s subway plans

Toronto transit transit has not yet recovered from the pandemic, Toronto Star reported earlier in the week. More ominously still, it is not clear it will ever do so. In order for the TTC to return to 90 percent of its pre-pandemic equestrianism, universities and colleges must return exclusively to classroom instruction, the center towers must be at least 80 percent of their January 2020 levels, and all restrictions for bars, restaurants and theaters must be gone. The latter will at least happen next year, but the other two are harder to predict — and they are far more important to the long-term driving of the city’s mass transportation system.

Given the deep uncertainty surrounding the long-term state of Toronto’s downtown core and the enormous cost of getting this kind of decision wrong, the province should at least stop its plans for major subways around the city: Ontario Line, Scarborough subway extension, and Yonge Line North extension. (Spoiler: it does not. I do not have that kind of influence.)

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The growth in Toronto’s downtown core – which the Ontario Line, as much as the city’s other subways, is designed to serve – has been due to a number of global and national trends, but there has always been counterweight pressure and the pandemic has intensified many by them. There are at least three good reasons why we should be careful about assuming that transit riding in the city center will be as robust in the future as it has been for the last 20 years or so.

The first and most immediate reason why transit riders may not return is that during the pandemic, a large number of people bought cars to meet their needs, and they will not all sell their cars once the last child is vaccinated. Cars are incredibly useful and much more flexible than transit, even in the country’s most transit-dependent city. And it is a sure bet that after a vehicle has become part of a household budget, buyers will become long-term car users. They may still own Presto cards for occasional transit travel (an evening where no one wants to be the designated driver, we say), but at least in the next decade we must assume that there has been an increase in the number of motorists in relation for transit users.

Planners do not always understand why so many people choose to drive into the core despite ample transit options and the strain of congestion. I often find that mysterious too. But drivers did so in large numbers every day before COVID-19. And it is noteworthy that while the need for transit is still suppressed across the GTHA, the region’s highways are much closer to their pre-pandemic levels. We should not assume that new drivers will magically return to being transit users.

Looking further carries its own problems. As a planning baseline, we should assume that housing in Toronto is not getting cheaper. Events earlier in the week are a good reminder that our political class is full of cowards in this case, and as they are likely to be re-elected, Toronto will continue to become less and less affordable, making it harder for anyone who does not. already owns a home to make a career here. We as citizens can change this with better policies, but without a sea change in the city’s (and the province’s) policy, there is no reason to assume that we are breaking with decades of history. In fact, it is more reasonable to assume that housing costs will continue to escalate and that, as they do, they will slowly stifle employment as companies begin to look for places elsewhere in the province or country or continent where the attraction and retention of talent does not incur the penalty for the absurd costs of this city.

Although they do not affect overall population growth, Toronto’s high costs will almost certainly change the composition of those who settle here: there will be fewer working and middle-class households and more six-digit families. It is precisely these households that are most able to opt out of transit commuters because they work remotely or own cars or drive-parts or buy homes within walking distance of their workplace.

Remote sensing is not surprisingly the third reason we should reconsider our metro plans. We will undoubtedly see some people return to offices in the city center – but how many? And crucially, how often do they all have to be on the subway at the same time during the morning rush? Some personal testimonies here: well before COVID-19, it was common for me to start my day “remotely” at home and then take the subway to TVO’s offices or to Queen’s Park, well after the morning stroll had ceased. (Question period in Queen’s Park starts at 10:30) Remote work does not just mean that workers do not have to enter the office every day; it also means that even if they enter the office, they do not all need at the same time — which means that the city’s transit network does not necessarily have to meet an ever-increasing demand during rush hour.

All of these forces will survive COVID-19, and all can affect transit needs both independently and in interaction with each other. They exist in our lives right now and are far less theoretical than rosy assumptions that office towers will be back to 100 percent nine-to-five occupancy in a year. Some of them – like the proliferation of teleworking – are not really in anyone’s control and will be shaped in part by what large employers decide they have to offer workers in order to retain talent. And yet, the province is investing billions of dollars in metro plans that effectively pretend neither the pandemic nor its knock-on effects have happened.

The cost of delaying these plans for another year so that we can have more clarity about the state of the city would be marginal; the cost of getting on with these subways and making a generational mistake would be huge. The county should stop its underground plans, but it is safe to say that Prime Minister Doug Ford used to drink poison, and the decade of political trauma over the Scarborough subway in Toronto City Council means no one who wants to disrupt the fragile political ceasefire now exists. After seeing some of the trauma in person when Premier Ford was just Councilman Ford, I’m sympathetic.

It is possible that the above is too pessimistic. As a resident of this city who is constantly trying to advocate for Toronto to do better in spite of itself, I hope I am wrong. But make no mistake: Billions of dollars are at stake here, and if we make a mistake about this, there will be no refund – just a huge pile of badly spent money we will never get back.

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