How I could support a Sheppard subway extension (but not Rob Ford’s version)

While I attending Earl Haig Secondary School in the early 1990s, the construction of subway lines suddenly became a fascinating interest to me. There was a debate raging at the local level about whether residents would support North York mayor Mel Lastman’s dream of a Sheppard subway line — which would be built about 1km away from my childhood home. At the same time,  a new station was being added to the Yonge line — North York Centre — two blocks away from my high school.

Fast forward a decade: I was working as the art director of The Hockey News and the magazine’s office had just moved from Yonge and College and into the Nestlé building at Yonge and Sheppard. By this time, I was reverse commuting, taking transit from Little Italy up to “downtown North York.” The Sheppard line had been under construction for 2 years and was another year from opening. On the first day the line opened, I took a ride to Don Mills and back. I got out and examined the art on each platform and the architecture of the stations.

At that point, I had spent 10 years listening to my grandparents (active residents association members), neighbours, and local politicians talk about how great the subway was going to be for the area. Sadly, I was underwhelmed. And after another 10 years of watching the subway in operation — mostly as a public space advocate and civic commentator — I still feel that the Sheppard line has failed to meet much of the potential that was promised to residents.

Which brings me to Rob Ford’s promise from the 2010 election. It seems, come hell or high water, he wants to build an extension east from Don Mills station out to Scarborough Town Centre. This may be the only promise he made during the election that he seems willing to keep.

While I would never argue that this part of the Sheppard line should’ve been built when the line was initially constructed, building the extension is certainly not a front-burning transit issue. And the way Ford wants to fund its construction — through development fees and the private sector — is about as misguided and as it gets. The report by Ford’s own advisor Gordon Chong pretty much shoots down the funding model and the TTC’s general manager Gary Webster (and I suspect many of the transit authority’s brain trust) seems to be balking at the need to extend the line any further.

And if you want to look at this extension from the angle of “running a business” — a phrase we’ve heard the mayor trot out at every possible opportunity — the data clearly supports there is no business case to be made. The ridership numbers at non-connecting stations on the Sheppard line — Bayview, Bessarion, and Leslie — all fall within the 10 most under-performing stations in the TTC (Bayview is 10th at 8,196 riders a day; Leslie is 6th at 5,614; Bessarion is the second worst station at 2,588 riders day). The best business option was building the affordable Transit City, but that idea is moot for the time being.

So, with a funding model that seems dead in the water and a business case that is next to non-existent, is there anyway that the mayor could convince me that building a Sheppard extension is a good idea? Maybe. But it wouldn’t be the extension that the mayor has envisioned.

If Ford is hell-bent on using money to build a Sheppard subway it should be to go west, not east: connect the Yonge-Sheppard station to Downsview station. This stretch of 4.5km would connect the University line to the Yonge line, as well as the new University-Spadina extension that is currently being built up into Vaughan.

This kind of connection provides the TTC with all kinds of options. When southbound trains leave from the Vaughan Centre and reach Downsview, trains could alternate between going south or going east along the Sheppard line. This would transform the Sheppard line from being a 5.5km stubway into an integrated 20km east-west line. And it would finally give the Sheppard line a reason for its own existence.

The residents along Sheppard East were sold a bag of bad goods by Ford in the last election. Sadly, their votes were attached to a promise that cannot be delivered by the City, TTC, or the private sector, nor is there any real business or density justification for investing billions of dollars in this corridor.

This reality should make Sheppard East residents wonder what is motivating Ford to build this line. It doesn’t seem to be the best option for riders since an extension would just ferry them into the already overcrowded Yonge line or into the dilapidated Scarborough RT (as well as decrease local bus service along the corridor); If there are not enough riders to support the line with fares, then taxpayers and TTC riders will be subsidizing the line for decades to come; And if the line cannot divert thousands of drivers into the subway system then it doesn’t help the vehicle traffic above ground.

The Ford administration has been making poor decision after poor decision when it comes to public transit and transportation policies. If they somehow manage to cobble together funds for to build a bad subway extension, they could at least waste the money in smarter ways.

photo by Sam Javanrouh


  1. Well said. I wish they’d look at the problem of the congestion at Yonge/Bloor and how dangerous it is at times. Instead we get millions wasted.

  2. Unfortunately we are going to continue to experience frustration with transit expansion as long as planning is complicated by political influence. Although it is necessary for the city Councillors and MPPs to be able to communicate the transit needs and concerns of their constituents the master plan should not be beholden to individual mayors or premiers. I had great hopes for Metrolinx, but their ability to influence transit expansion and development within Toronto is limited at this time.

  3. I’m am sure most people in Toronto would want to have a Heavy Rail Subway going under an arterial road near where you live, work, go to school, and shop.

    Most people would also like to own a Rolls Royce and live in a McMasion on an acre of land as well. What you want and need are two different things, and what you can afford to get is what drives them.

    With Transit City, we could afford to provide light rail rapid transit to most corners of Toronto, With Ford’s plan, only the very lucky will get anything that will serve them.

    Before any Sheppard Heavy Rail Subway is built, I would prefer to see the results of the TTC’s study into the Downtown Relief Line, before I build any other Heavy Rail Subway anywhere.

  4. WK: I agree 100%. I think LRT in the appropriate areas is the way to go for both the suburbs and downtown. Heavily used bus routes should be either upgraded to light rail or have their own ROW/busway.

    Just to be clear, I was suggesting that if this is the route Ford takes (since I don’t expect them to even look at LRT while he is in office) he better make the right decision on Sheppard. I think the most pressing subway study is downtown (DRL).

    But I

  5. It’s an interesting idea that I’ve heard talked of before. It’s worth noting that connecting the stations at Downsview would be very difficult or impossible, unless you have a Spadina station like mile long walking transfer. It would be much easier to make the connection at the future Sheppard West station.

  6. Sheppard Avenue West in that stretch is extremely low density. More than half of it is the don valley!

    It will be another waste of money. This ain’t connect-the-dots.

  7. Luke: I’d only suspect there’d be one station at Bathurst between the Downsview and Yonge-Sheppard. And you’re right about the low-density, but I do believe it is connect the dots (if the Fords choose to fund Sheppard).

    As I said in the comment above, Sheppard is in no way my choice of what to spend transit dollars on. But if it does go towards Sheppard we should try to push to make the money have the biggest bang for its buck.

  8. It’s been discussed on Steve Munro’s blog before (with the variant of sending subways between STC and VCC to serve the…umm…burgeoning demand).

    The Sheppard stations would have to be expanded to six-car length, and you’d have to run six-car trains if you want to run them down Spadina and around downtown. There’s extra cost.

    The crossing of the Don river between Yonge and Bathurst will not be easy. You’ll be running the subway over the ski runs in Earl Bales.

  9. If the only choice is between Sheppard East and Sheppard West then I agree…Sheppard West is the better choice.

    In the grand scheme of things, both options are quite far down the list of TTC expansions that I’d like to see. In fact, I’d rather extend the Yonge Line before extending Sheppard.

  10. The interlining idea probably wouldn’t work from an operational standpoint (discussed here for the TTC’s interlining attempt of the YUS and BD lines in the mid-1960s: but it would provide another option for people coming from the east to get downtown via normal transfer, relieving pressure the Yonge line.

  11. “You’ll be running the subway over the ski runs in Earl Bales.”
    Imagine being the only city in the world with a subway to the ski slopes ;^)
    But seriously, the DRL is a far higher priority, and would cover its operational costs from the day it opened.

  12. Sapporo, Japan has a subway to the slopes (downhill, x-country, ski jump).

  13. I made this a while ago along similar lines, still valid:

    There is no question that if you are going to be a bully and force through a Sheppard line, it should be run west and turned into a branch of Y-U-S – make that, Y-U-S-S:

    As a stubway, Sheppard is idiotic.  Let’s say the line runs east, is successful, and now the trains are 90% full.  So this nearly full load of passengers will now get off at Yonge to try and get on a train that has maybe 15% free space?  Do the math.

    However, as a seamless branch of a trunk line, Sheppard would make at least some sense and the near circle-line nature of the resulting loop around the core would be a bonus.  

    Operationally a puzzle to solve, yes, but overall logic demands running the line west and tying it into the existing trunk.

  14. I’m willing to bet you dollars to donuts that none of the commentators live here in Scarborough. 25% of Toronto’s population do. Transit is abhorrent and has been for decades.There is no East West transit line that allow people to move across the top of the city by anything other than auto. The 401 is the most heavily travelled expressway anywhere in North America and is absolute hell most of the day. Why you downtowners are so concerned with a situation that doesn’t impact you and keep asking for enhanced services in the old City when you already have all 3 levels of transit is beyond me. You talk about self centred focus. For your information Mr. Blackett, there are only 4 stations on the whole system that have sufficient walk in traffic to justify a subway so what’s your point. It has been shown time and time again that the ridership issue is nothing but a “red herring”. The other factor that nobody seems to take into consideration is that the current Sheppard stubway was always designed to run all the way to Scarborough Town. The only reason that usage is not higher is that the development that would have occurred as a result of the subway has not happened because Harris killed the fundamental enabler. Build the subway and the intensification will come.

  15. What a load of hogwash. The reason usage isn’t higher is because North York Centre and STC are still a fraction of the size of downtown even after decades of hope and dreaming. The only way for ridership to ever grow to fill more than a few buses is for a downtown equivalent to sprout up at one of those places. (YES I had a good laugh too) You’re making a lot of false assumptions about the O-D patterns of those using the 401 and if you want to talk abhorrent to Scarborough, why not talk about how Rob Ford’s subway fantasy has screwed Malvern yet again…

  16. @Patrick. Fortunately Scarborough will be getting a west-east metro line in the form of the Eglinton-Scarborough route. Even if the Sheppard line was completed in full, the ES line would still be a better crosstown route since it goes out to Jane rather than Yonge or Dufferin.

    If you wanted a coherent west-east line across the top of the city, or at least Scarborough, then you should be mad as hell that Ford canceled the fully funded and fully planned light rail line. I’ll be the first to admit that the Sheppard East route had some serious problems, but it would have made far more sense to fix these problems rather than kill it outright.

    Finally, downtown may have three levels of transit service, but one look at the overcrowding on these services clearly shows that it is still not enough. The overcrowding on cross-downtown streetcar lines and the high volumes of passengers transferring on to southbound trains at Yonge and St. George is proof that we need a west-east through downtown and to connect to the Bloor-Danforth line and beyond.

    Somewhat ironic, but rapid-transit metros tend to be most competitive as an alternative to urban arterials than highways. At least outside of rush hour. Relief for the 401 would be best served by improving the bus or constructing a new commuter railway along the corridor itself. Fortunately, the long term plans include a commuter busway along the 407 which should create some relief for those travelling across the north end of the region.

  17. yeah, so the ford sheppard subway extension includes expansion to downsview in the west and to scarblow town centre in the east.  march 31, 2011 revised agreement with the province shows this.

  18. As already was mentioned, the interlining of a west extension to Sheppard with the YSSE to VCC would require finishing the full six-car lengths of the platforms on Sheppard. What would have been better would be to have built the extension to Vaughan as an extension of Sheppard instead of YUS. While the extra 4 km of the Sheppard line would be costly, a small savings on the Downsview to Vaughan line would be realized by building the stations with completed sections for four car trains like Sheppard is now. The ridership on that part of the line can be easily met by a four car train for a very long time into the future. Alas, this is now moot.

  19. @ patrick, I’ve taken various buses to and from the transit hub of STC. Given most people in Scarborough taking transit across town have to go there first, its a pretty good spot to judge transit potential for crosstown routes.

    Like much of the TTC, destinations for riders at STC are wide spread and very local. Most riders get off of buses and get on others to go within Scarborough. What focus there is for where people go is on the downtown and on the colleges and universities.

    There is little if no demand @ STC to go west within the city north of Bloor. Most people taking buses out of STC on the two rockets, get off before it gets to Warden. And those buses are not full or at a frequency that comes close to supporting a subway. Very very few people travel on to Yonge from STC that way. There is some pickup of Yonge line destinations starting at Warden but maybe about 20-30 a bus every 4 minutes (counting the Sheppard West buses). In essence, if there was demand to go to Yonge along Sheppard, there would be much more demand on the Sheppard stubway now.

    There are more people from STC going to the Eglinton SRT station and going along there but still most of that traffic is local and not to Yonge. Maybe people are taking the Danforth to Bloor and going north but its not that many and not enough to support a subway line along Sheppard.

    And I’d like to think that the citizens of Scarborough would go for a wall of condos along Sheppard from Vic Park to Warden, but I have my doubts.

    The LRT made much more financial sense but Ford is against that so what can we do but judge the proposal on its own merits.

  20. @Patrick “Build the subway and the intensification will come.” This rarely occurs except over a very long period of time…East danforth is a perfect example of this…. very little intensification has occurred along Danforth east. Subways are for commuting and less for local transit. I guess the downtowners speak to this topic so often because we are the most knowledgeable on the topic of what works and what doesn’t because we have the transit we do. We are not just focused on our needs otherwise we wouldn’t have an opinion. We all have to move around the city for various reasons…better transit, fitting to the needs of each region serves us all better.

  21. @Patrick Sherman

    Hey…I live in Scarborough and like I said above, I don’t support Sheppard being extended.

    So do I get the dollars or the donuts?

  22. If you want to build a subway based on development, it’s almost impossible to do it in an area like Sheppard East which is already largely developed. Development in that corridor will be towers clustered at subway stops with probable vocal opposition from homeowners in adjoining neighbourhoods who were (wrongly) promised by Mel they would not have to have skyscrapers just because they were getting a subway.

    By contrast the West Don Lands was a blank slate where whole precincts could be planned and constructed. There’s not many places in Toronto where something like that could be attempted, but if the sitting tenant could be invited to relocate there’s a huge chunk of land just west of Downsview Station…

  23. Patrick,

    I live in Scarborough and I completely disagree with you. Every single study about the Sheppard Subway has shown that it will not bring enough ridership to justify it’s costs, even when extended.

    Suppose I did not care about the absurd cost this subway would have, the planned LRT lines would have served me better than the mythical Rob Ford gravy train would have. And I find it disheartening that many other people in the same position as me can’t seem to get over their subway fixation. 

    Until city council stops letting that bullheaded buffoon throw his weight around, then Sheppard East will be left with nothing more than over crowed buses stuck in traffic, and drivers will be stuck behind those buses. Not to mention that the city will be stuck with a bill for a few hundred million dollars to purchase the buses that were to have been off set by the Transit City lines.

  24. Matt – the westward extension you are talking about is part of Fords “plan”. But it too has some serious problems – the difficult landscape being one. It’s not the best solution.

  25. One myth I’d like to see disappear is the myth that everyone using an extended Sheppard subway will fill up the Yonge line and make it impossible to get on. Most people who are travelling east-west across the north part of Toronto drive, and the 85/190 buses are not a good indicator of potential ridership. Highway 401 is the busiest expressway in North America and the traffic is horrible. The vast majority of those people are not going anywhere near downtown; most jobs are in the suburbs nowadays, and the alternatives to driving here are severely inadequate. The Sheppard subway extension is not cheap, and I don’t want it to come at the expense of other projects, or for it to be funded by pie-in-the-sky real estate deals that will never happen, but it is badly needed and it will be busy. Most of its users will be using feeder buses of course (like every other subway) and a much smaller percentage of its users will be going downtown than at present. I am skeptical that LRT was really adequate here because the transfer at Don Mills would turn people off (and just encourage suburb-to-suburb commuters to keep taking the 401), because LRT is slow, and because LRT is low capacity (its maximum capacity is a fraction of the maximum capacity of the 401). By the way, this plan is not bad for Malvern if the proposed Scarborough RT extension to Malvern, which was supposed to cross Sheppard at Markham Rd and would connect to the Sheppard subway at STC, is ever built.

  26. @ Andrew

    The current traffic on the lines is a pretty good indicator of what current transit users want and where they go.

    As for where the jobs are, yes the suburbs have many places to work, but transit to and from them, especially in the 905, is not easy to navigate. You ever try to get from Fairview Mall to a workplace out in Etobicoke? Its not easy. Unfortunately, even with an expanded Sheppard subway, its still quicker and easier to drive.

    That, and is there any proof that a subway line actually takes people out of cars? We would think so, but I’ve yet to see anything proving it happens. If anything, traffic on Sheppard along the current stubway route has gotten worse since it opened.

  27. As far as long-term transit planning goes, there is a good deal of validation in recognizing the importance of Shepaprd as a higher-order route. This does not mean it requires a subway extension at this time, but it is a logical east-west route that somewhat mimmicks the 401, seems ripe for intensification and could potentially get some people out of their cars. Not that it was the route that should have been built 10 years ago either, but reflecting that it has been built and that it was stumped, I do get the frustration with this little subway to nowhere. So I do agree with Matt in the sense that if this route HAS to be bulit that a larger priority be put on the western expansion to Downsivew at it would better allow for network connectivity and the possibility of interlining of services. In fact, a Downsview to Victoria Park (slightly east of the current Don Mills terminus) route is all that would be needed at subway-levels for the very long-term, especially in light of the coming Eglinton Crosstown which is better suited to serve Scarborough Centre.

    The elephant in the room though isn’t only Rob Ford’s inability at math, but also in his ability to look at what an extended Sheppard would do… dump even more people on an at-capacity Yonge line. I suspect he won’t discuss the “Downtown Relief Line” as he would view it as a downtown-centric project, but despite the name it’s actually the one project (if fully built) would relieve vast swaths of the entire system, service transit-starved dense neighbourhoods, while also allowing for suburban expansion (as the existing lines wouldn’t just dump people on Yonge). Robbie can’t see to second base though. He simply wants to fulfill an election promise for what’s left of Ford Nation along Sheppard.

    This isn’t about transit, it’s about politics. But then transit and politics have been one-in-the-same in T.O. since the 1970s, they just don’t usually come with this disastrous of a consequence.

  28. @Andrew, I agree with a lot with what you said and you made some excellent observations, but there are also some flaws with your analysis. LRT is NOT slow when executed properly – which Transit City wasn’t. Ideally, LRT would have similar stop spacing to what a subway would be, about a kilometer. Transit City would be about half of that or less, stop spacing ideal for local transit. This is why I think of TC more as a tramway (high capacity local service) than a light rail rapid transit solution.

    With that said, you made some excellent points about travel patterns and how an extra transfer at Don Mills could reduce the line’s potential and appeal. I believe the best way to fix the Sheppard line would be to cut about half the stops, and modify the subway to turn it into a light rail tunnel to allow a seamless route between Yonge/Downsview and Scarborough.

  29. Andrew, it’s not correct that “subways should go where the highways are” . There’s no highway anywhere near the Yonge or Bloor subways. The Spadina subway on the other hand is smack in the middle of the Allan “Road”, yet there are tons of cars still using the Allan, and that’s one of the less busy portions of the subway system.

  30. @Jack Rhodes: I agree that a Sheppard subway extension will not eliminate traffic congestion on Sheppard or the 401 (probably far from it), but at least it will provide an alternative to those roads and it ought to prevent traffic congestion from getting even worse than it is already. The traffic on the 401 is awful and I think that if the subway were convenient for more people then more people would use it. The stubway isn’t very useful for most people because it stops at Don Mills.

    The Sheppard subway extension won’t unfortunately help with your example of travelling from Fairview Mall or Etobicoke because it isn’t proposed to go west of Downsview. Extending the Eglinton line to the airport would help a lot of with crosstown commutes to Etobicoke (or Mississauga) though.

  31. I used to live in “the bucket” of midtown, south of St. Clair, north of Bloor, in-between the YUS stations.  It was the most transit-convenience I could ever hope to know in Toronto.  Recreating this with lines on Sheppard and Eglinton would put many people within 2-4 kms of rapid transit.

    I agree unanimously with others who’ve stated that the DRL should be the only priority subway on the table, Toronto had a grid, a network of rapid/local services planned under Miller, may we regain the wisdom of rapid, sufficient-capacity transit to all corners of the city someday soon.

  32. A few points I’d like to suggest:
    1. The whole region including Toronto needs a transit policy that specifies minimum services levels based on population/job densities along with travel flows. That way we don’t have half-empty subways in one area and people packed in like sardines in buses in another. Transit planning is just as complex as rocket science and it needs careful planning.

    2. I’d like to see a study of building a LRT line along Sheppard from Downsview all the way out to the Toronto Zoo and have it go underground along the current Sheppard stubway line. Basically replace the Sheppard Stubway with an LRT line and extend it. I know the optics aren’t good for people who live by the stubway now but service level-wise they won’t notice a difference.

    3. I don’t think there will be a huge boom in development along Sheppard with a subway since there are vacant lots now next to subway stations along the Bloor-Danforth line

    3. The congestions issues along the 401 were suppose to be fixed by the 407 but obviously that didn’t work. How about an electric Express Rail line (like the Berlin S-Train) along the Finch hydro corridor and also one along the Scarborough hydro corridor via Thorncliff park and then along the Dupont railway?

    4. Most of the car trips in Toronto are trips of about 10km so how about expanding the GO Train service. There is a Richmond Hill line that has limited runs up the Don Valley

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