Sexy public transit, part I

Which proposal looks sexier: a Toronto-wide network of BRTs and LRTs (first map) or the Spadina subway extension (second map)?

POTENTIAL FUTURE BRT/LRT NETWORK (via page 31 of the City of Toronto & the TTC’s Transit City report)

  • Estimated total cost: $1.5 billion (rough estimate)
  • Estimated ridership growth: 80 million new riders by 2016 (conservative estimate)



  • Projected total cost: $2.1 billion
  • Estimated ridership growth: 30 million new riders by 2021

The expensive and inefficient Spadina subway extension doesn’t address the diverse and urgent transportation needs of Toronto, and does little to enhance the quality of life for all Torontonians.However, a massive city-wide BRT/LRT network is a huge step in the right direction.

Imagine a network with lines on:

  • – Kingston (at Lawrence), along Lakeshore Blvd. to The Queensway (at South Kingsway)
  • – Queen St. (from Dufferin to Coxwell. Admittingly, this would be difficult to implement)
  • – King St. (from Dufferin to Queen St. East. This would also be difficult to implement)
  • – Dundas St. West (from Kipling Station into Mississauga)
  • – St. Clair West (from Jane to Yonge)
  • – Eglinton (from Renforth to Kingston)
  • – Lawrence East (from Don Mills to Kingston)
  • – Lawrence West (from Jane to Lawrence West Station)
  • – Sheppard East (from Don Mills to Scarborough Town Centre and then to Markham Road)
  • – Sheppard West (from Allen to Yonge)
  • – Finch Hydro Corridor (although the feasibility of a hydro corridor line is questionable. It should be on Finch Ave. instead)
  • – Jane (from Bloor to Steeles)
  • – from Downsview Station to York University and then to Steeles (staggered configuration)
  • – Yonge (from Finch to Steeles)
  • – Don Mills (from Danforth to Steeles)
  • – McCowan (from Scarborough Town Centre to Sheppard)

1 – It’s the smart choice:

BRT’s and LRT’s are better suited to our current suburban areas because of their densities and design, as opposed to a subway which grossly exceeds current and projected capacity needs. BRT’s and LRT’s will help establish future transit riding patterns and better land use.

2 – Increases efficiency and attractiveness of public transit:

By taking buses and streetcars out of mixed traffic, their speed and reliability is greatly enhanced. This helps public transit become a more attractive alternative to the car.

3 – Cost is relatively low:

(Note: these numbers are for general comparison only, as each specific line would have different construction variables leading to different costs)

  • BRTs are approximately $20 million/km.
  • LRTs are approximately $40 million/km.
  • Subways are approximately $200 million/km.

4 – Relatively short time span for implementation:

  • an LRT/BRT line will take approximately 5 years to build
  • a subway line will take approximately 10 years to build

5 – Helps a large number of people over a large area:

See potential future BRT/LRT network map above.

6 – Addresses a wide-range of interrelated issues:

Economics: job creation, raises property values, increases Toronto’s competitiveness and attractiveness, generates more revenue from increased ridership, addresses the GTA’s estimated loss of $1.8 billion due to congestion

Social issues: less travel time = more personal time, assists in community building, raises civic pride, better mobility, establishes transportation equality, better quality of life in Toronto

Health and the environment: less cars = less smog, less wasted fuel, eases reliance on oil, less driving related stress

Urban planning: the potential for better land use patterns and higher densities along transit lines becomes easier to achieve, less gridlock, stronger public transit with more riders, fulfills some of the ideals of the City’s Official Plan

Psychological issues: addresses the transit dichotomy between the suburbs and the city centre/core. For the suburbs, transit becomes the “smart choice” as opposed to the “last choice”

7 – Addresses current problems:

Inadequate public transit in the inner and outer suburbs, massive gridlock, worsening air quality, long commuting times

8 – Addresses future problems:

Population growth in the GTA estimated to be an additional 3 million people in the next 30 years

The Spadina subway extension does relatively little to enhance transportation in Toronto. The extension is not completely devoid of merit, but its total benefit pales in comparison to a city-wide BRT/LRT network.

The BRT/LRT network makes sense transit wise, cost wise and planning wise. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make sense politically.

The Ontario Provincial government are major supporters of the Spadina subway extension, especially Finance Minister Greg Sorbara. (It must be noted that the Spadina subway extension will stop at the City of Vaughn’s new corporate centre, which just happens to be located in the riding of Vaughn-King-Aurora. Who is the MPP for Vaughn-King-Aurora? You guessed it: Greg Sorbara. He was also affiliated with a development firm that owns many properties near the Vaughn corporate centre. The name of that company: The Sorbara Group)

Mayor David Miller supports the Spadina subway extension, more as a political sop to Sorbara and the Provincial Liberals then as sound transit planning. He’s stated several times that building subways are too expensive, while simultaneously promoting a smaller version of the BRT/LRT network displayed above.

The problem with supporting both projects is that subway construction takes up so much money and time, it threatens to push any serious discussion of a BRT/LRT network (or for that matter the urgent need to buy hundreds of new buses, as well as replace and expand our streetcar fleet) off the table.

If our past experience is any indicator, we are wrong to think that there is enough money to do both projects in the timeframe needed to address massive gridlock, ridership growth, population growth and the quality of life in Toronto.

Unfortunately, many of Toronto’s mainstream and independent media outlets have a defeatist attitude towards public transit, LRT technology in particular. They describe LRT as “uninspiring” and “nothing new”. LRT has never been given a fair chance in Toronto, so if our urban affairs writers don’t seriously discuss all of Toronto’s transit options, then the majority of citizens will continue to think that “improved transit” must mean new subways. True, if you discuss LRT as individual lines, the grand scheme is hard to grasp. That’s why it has to be discussed in terms of a city-wide network in order to galvanize citizens.

Instead of taking David Miller to task for his support of the Spadina subway extension, and challenging him to stand up for all of Toronto, they justify his political pandering to the Provincial government as a trade-off for potential future benefit.

We’ve made too many big-ticket transit mistakes in the last 20 years because of the politicization of transit: building the Scarborough RT, scrapping the Eglinton subway and building the Sheppard subway. Toronto has suffered greatly, in part, due to these terrible mistakes. Building the Spadina subway extension is a continuation of that sad legacy.

Transit advocate Steve Munro says it best:

“David Miller: It’s time you recognized that your constituency is the transit riders of the City of Toronto and started fighting for things that benefit all of us. Indeed, a move away from subway-dominated planning will benefit everyone in the GTA by showing what can be done over a much larger area for far less money. Toronto could lead the way in a transit renaissance, if only the Mayor would actually embrace the role.”

Ask yourself and your elected officials: what is the better way to spend $2 billion? Helping one area of the city, or helping the entire city?

Cartography by Graeme Parry. To view or download larger, more detailed maps please click on the following:

Special thanks to Graeme Parry, James Bow, Steve Munro and Deidre Tyrell for all of their assistance


  1. I think we need to look beyond the election and start to put together a plan of how the people of the city are going to have a voice in the evolution of our transit system.

    Don’t think that your vote is enough. Miller has a proven track record of bad transit policy (and many other policies for that matter) no matter what he is preaching now, and Pifiled is stubbornly committed to subway expansion.

    Articles like this help spread understanding of alternatives to subway expansion and i think there are a lot of people in this city who are now supporting these alternatives. The next step is to start talking about how we are going to affect the political processes so that it gets done. This is this biggest hurdle ahead of us. Our job is not over after we cast our ballots.

    Remember the billion dollar transit decisions we make in the next term are ones that we are going to have to live with for decades.

  2. When thought of in a left-right context, I’m curious to know, aside from politicians scoring political points, why does the right often support subways (i.e. Jane Pitfield, big media) and, the left usually support LRTs (David Miller (not counting the Spadina extension), transit advocates). Is there a standard left-right reason? For example, are subways more appealing to wealthier voters than streetcars?

    Great post btw.

    Note: two of the links to Parry’s site don’t work

  3. This sounds like a good enough idea, my only question is what can really be done? Or how can citizens make change?

    It looks like with either Mayoral Candidate this plan couldn’t or wouldn’t go through, consider the St.Clair Streetcar extension, and then multiply that to a citywide scale. This plan would become hellish politically, even though on it’s surface it’s the best for the city.

    What meetings do citizens need to attend to make change? Who can we tell? I’m sure readers have a significant amount of influence and contacts, what’s the best way of informing them and channeling that influence politically? It has to be easy.

  4. By “affiliated” with the Sorbara Group, what do you mean? I hope you mean that it is the business started by his father, run by his brother. I also hope that you mean that his stake in that company has been put into a blind trust. I also hope you mean that coming from a wealthy family doesn’t automatically disqualify you from public service. Is that what you mean? Remember also that the Greenbelt Act, brought in by Greg Sorbara’s Liberals has only devalued properties held by companies like the Sorbara Group. But it can be argued that it was the right thing to do.

  5. Here, Here.
    I’m all for a grand network of BRT/LRT throughout the city.
    Shame on Greg Sobara, shame on the people of Vaughan, and shame on the administration @ York University for pushing the Spadina Subway Extension with all their political maneuvering.
    They are mortgaging the future of better inner-Toronto transit plans at our expense.

    Let’s face it here:
    a) the people in Vaughan will still drive their fancy cars because everything is so spread out up there. Subways won’t get them from their houses to the closes power centre shopping mall.
    b) the majority of York U. students coming in from York region will still drive their cars. One lousy subway stop from outside the Steeles Ave. border won’t change their minds.
    c) York U. students from within Toronto can surly make due with an improved BRT/LRT from Downsview station rather thna a full subway extension. (Besides, a subway doesn’t help the kids coming from Scarborough or Etobicoke anyways.)
    d) commuters between Vaughan – Downtown Toronto should consider Go Transit. Steve Munroe has stressed on many occasions the need for an improved GO Transit system to bring the 905’s into Toronto. You don’t need a subway for that.

    This is more proof of how Vaughan (the city above Toronto ***cough***snobby***cough***) tries to muscle their political will into the GTA.

  6. Let’s not forget that the Province will put up the money because the subway extension connects two regions. A transit system only within Toronto is not politically salable to the rest of the TO hating province. Maybe some of those LRTs should extend out a little further to get P of Ontario on board.

  7. What the hell is a BRT and an LRT? Please note: jargon is alienating to the general public.N

  8. Nicole = please check my post “What’s the difference b/w a BRT and a BLT?” over at Here is the link:

    My original draft included a primer on transit technology, but as you can see the post got quite long so I had to break it up into 3 parts.

    Michael: look out for “Sexy public transit, part 2” in a few days. It talks about a GTA wide regional network

    Sean: thanks for the heads-up on the faulty links, they should work now. That is an interesting point you made regarding right and left political views of transit technology… It’s hard to really say… I guess that subways are what is generally viewed as “better transit” amongst uninformed citizens. We have no really good examples of LRT in Toronto so it makes it seem as though it is some unproven technology, when in fact it is quite the opposite and in use in many European, Asian and American cities. People hear subways and say “yes! give me that!” People hear LRT and say “huh?” That’s why people like yourself, James Bow, Steve Munro, Gord Perks and Spacing play a vital role in educating people about the potential of LRT… if we could get our mainstream urban writers (C. Hume, J. Gray, E. Drass) to promote it and galvanize our citizens, we might be on to something…

  9. Bravo! This just the sort of meme we need to encourage. Get people thinking in new ways about old problems.

  10. This is, in the main a good analysis however I don’t agree with your dismissal of the hydro corridor idea, it’s only impractical if you are wedded to the idea that LRT looks like the Spadina/Harbourfront configuration. If you look for examplars instead to the Calgary C-train or the San Diego Trolley you see something that could work very well along such a route.

    The issue keeping potential riders off the system today is total trip time, getting the transit vehicles out of the car traffic is only half the solution, if you slow LRT/BRT down with frequent enRoute stops Spadina style that only goes halfway to solving the problem. Instead build surface LRT/BRT off road and use it like a subway, assume most passengers will be connecting from a short ride on local bus service instead of direct walkups and then there’s no reason not to move the line a couple hundred meters to an already open right of way. Of course the other thing you need to do to make it affordable is deal with the pathological fear of level crossings….

  11. Chester –

    The reason I said a BRT/LRT line is questionable in a hydro corridor is that it depends on what type of service you run in it.If you want to run an east-west commuter line with very stops then it might work out. However, if you go down that route, a significant portion of northern Toronto would be without rapid transit.

    I would rather see the line be on Finch Ave. to act as a local rapid transit line. Finch runs through many of Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods and I think a line based near the people would be more beneficial then a commuter line.

    Thanks for your comments

  12. honestly i thinkt aht the spadina extension si gonna be anoth waste of money jsut liekt eh sheepard line. i live in vaughan and right now it does not need a subway yet, so far Viva a BRt system serving all of york region is doing amazing. ALso i’m suprised at how long the TTC and toronto council have pushed back the yonge st. BRT…..this is way way way long over due!!!! why are councillors and the TTc so stupid?, any one know when actual construction is goign to start? and finally, if the city wants to promote more transit users and more LRTs they better get new LRT vechiles, like the ones used in europe, so that they can attract drivers to using public transit, the currently streetcars are just old and very very loud, it’s time for the city and the TTC to move into the 21st century

  13. The BRT on Yonge from Finch to Steeles seems kind of silly. We already have VIVA BRT on Yonge from Finch to Steeles, and well beyond. What we need is system integration.

    Ditto the VIVA BRT serving York and Downsview subway.

  14. What I’d like to know is this: If the BRT/LRT network proposal goes through, what would that mean to the Sheppard subway extension into Scarborough and the SRT?

    I think it would be best for a BRT/LRT network like this, but I feel we mustn’t forget about the subway. In time, a subway may be necessary for certain regions of the city. The prime example that comes to mind is a subway to Pearson. I feel this is needed, to connect the airport to the city.

    That being said, I have one more point. I’m currently a Carleton student in Ottawa. We’re (supposedly) supposed to be building an LRT route. All the contracts are signed, yet it’s being turned into an election issue. This brings me to my point: Whatever is decided on, it needs to be started as soon as possible. To get the maximum benefit of any transit system, it needs to be build immediately.


  15. Disparishun – the Yonge BRT isn’t intended to be a stand-alone route running on Yonge from Finch to Steeles. It’s a set of designated on-street, bus-only lanes onto which all buses using the corridor will be routed (well, all express services at least – not sure if local service will use them). This will include Viva buses. Same for the proposed Downsview BRT that is supposed to be a precursor to the Sorbara Subway.

  16. A very interesting post… but it does leave me with a few questions.

    1. “We’ve made too many big-ticket transit mistakes in the last 20 years because of the politicization of transit: building the Scarborough RT, scrapping the Eglinton subway and building the Sheppard subway.” – What’s the difference between the Scarborough RT and the LRT lines proposed?

    2. How do subways compare to BRT/LRT when it comes to disruption during construction, maintenance + operating costs?

    3. Has anyone ever suggested that the city do any of the following to reduce traffic…

    (a) Partner transit with existing car rental companies like ZipCar and AutoShare… I mean for a LOT of people that use transit… sometimes you just need a car for large furniture purchase at IKEA… how convenient if they made it easy to add car rental hours to your transit pass.

    (b) Remove street parking on major streets and increase the size and number of parking garages vs building new roads.

  17. The Scarborough RT is RT in name only, the elevated track design = higher construction and maintenance costs, so it’s really a subway aside from the being underground part.

  18. Chester –

    I forgot to address what you said about frequent stops slowing down BRTs & LRTs. While that my be true, I think it is something we are going to have to live with to maintain effective local service (especially in the suburbs where stops are often a bit of a walk from residences and jobs already. To remove stops in the suburbs for more speed could have an adverse effect on ridership).

    However, we can increase speed through other measures:

    1: traffic signal priority so that buses and streetcars can extend Green lights and reduce Red lights (Spadina ROW doesn’t have this which partially affects its speed)

    2: paying before loading: alot of time is wasted because riders have to line up and pay the driver one by one. If you add the amount of time (over an entire surface transit trip) the bus/streetcar is not moving because of this I would guess that it would a fair bit. If each stop had some sort of “pay before you enter” system, transit would speed up b/c people can just get on and off quickly, as well as using both front and back doors. Check Curituba, Brazil’s Tubes for an example.

    3: dedicated ROW’s bring reliability to the schedule, which reduces waiting times. As Steve Munro has pointed out, people are much more time conscious when “waiting” for a bus/streetcar then when they are “riding”

  19. not only would the lrt lines be more accessible to everyone, they would be more environmentally responsable as well. think of the energy used to heat and light small streetcars while they’re running versus the energy used to heat and light entire subway stations whether they’re full or not…

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