Off the rails, Part 1: How Toronto transit became such a mess

ANALYSIS: The city’s population keeps growing, but its transit system hasn’t been able to keep up. What went wrong for the TTC — and can it ever be the better way again?
By Matt Gurney - Published on May 29, 2019
Rush-hour commuters wait for a TTC subway train at Bloor-Yonge Station, in downtown Toronto. (Graeme Roy/CP)

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This is Part 1 of a three-part series on public transit in Toronto. Click here to read Part 2.

A writer learns to watch for useful coincidences. A few weeks ago, shortly after this project was approved by my editor, but before I’d done a single interview, I was riding home on a Toronto Transit Commission subway, heading north up Yonge Street. My destination was Eglinton Station, where I’d catch a bus that would take me to within a short walk of my home. Just shy of the station, the train came to a stop. We waited.

And waited. And waited.

After perhaps three or four minutes, with no explanation ever having been offered, we resumed our journey north to the station. The train was crowded, and a good number of passengers got off at Eglinton. We all trundled upstairs to the bus bay, where we encountered a scene of nominally controlled chaos. There were huge lines at every bus-loading area. TTC officials in reflective vests were attempting to keep things organized. The throng was mostly calm, but you could see that tempers were beginning to run hot. Deciding that it was a pleasant enough night and that my footwear was suitably comfortable, I walked the 40 minutes home. I knew a TTC disaster when I saw one.

It’s easy to reflexively bash Toronto’s transit system. As a former talk-radio host, I can assure you that it’s a perennial listener-pleaser (if you ever need callers to fill a segment, just ask to hear about their transit woes). It has also become a political hot button: competing transit plans routinely play a role in municipal and provincial elections. What to build and in what order — not to mention how to pay for it all — are disputed by every candidate and party leader hoping to connect with voters in the city.

A funny thing keeps happening, though: elections come and go, politicians are elected and serve out their terms, the city and its sprawling suburbs keep growing — but precious little transit ever seems to get built.

Over the next few days, TVO.org will examine why that is, take stock of the current situation, and ask whether Premier Doug Ford’s plan has a realistic shot at getting built on time and on budget. Before answering those questions, though, I first had to settle another one: How far back should we look?

The TTC was created in 1920 through an act of the provincial legislature. The next year, it absorbed a series of privately operated streetcar systems in order to offer citywide service. The city’s first subway — the stretch of what is now Line 1 that runs along Yonge Street from Union Station to Eglinton Avenue — opened in 1954. But this history seemed a bit too remote to help me understand the problems of today.

A more recent episode that many point to as the moment when things went off the rails (pun acknowledged) happened in 2010, when then-mayor Rob Ford decided to cancel the planned “Transit City” project. Announced in 2007 by Ford’s predecessor, David Miller, it would have established seven light-rail-transit lines in areas where transit demand was nearing or had surpassed what could be effectively supplied by buses. (Parts of the plan have since been revived under different names.)

I was working as a journalist when Transit City was cancelled, and I was also a non-daily but regular user of the TTC. The notion that the pre-2010 period was some golden age of Toronto transit is simply untrue. Archived news stories from the time back that up: James Cowan, reporting on the Transit City proposal for the National Post, noted that the city had been long considering expansion and had spent at least five years planning some of the proposed routes. A CBC News article from the eve of the project’s original announcement noted that the TTC was “facing incredible growth pressure” and was looking for ways to “quickly expand.” This week, I checked to see whether I’d been writing about this issue at the time, and it turns out I had been. In 2010, after a survey ranked Toronto’s commute as the worst in North America, I wrote in the Post, “It’s not hard to diagnose the problem — the population of the Toronto area has exploded over the last two generations whilst transportation infrastructure has crawled along on those rare occasions it has expanded at all.”

Cancelling Transit City was arguably a mistake — but there wouldn’t have been all this pent-up demand and eagerness if, prior to 2007, the system had been expanding to meet public expectations. I began to wonder: When was the last time Toronto transit was being managed well?

Adam Giambrone was the chair of the TTC in 2007, when Transit City was announced. He’s currently serving as general manager of the Saudi Arabia Transit Company. When I reached him by phone last week, he said that there had been a sense of urgency in 2007 to get transit built because the city hadn’t been building much infrastructure for decades. “We stopped building — dramatically stopped — in the 1970s, except for a few little starts and stops. We stopped for 20 or 30 years. The city continued to grow. It's really hard to catch up, realistically, and there was a huge demand for better transit in the city.”

What happened in the 1970s was, to put it mildly, complicated. But a quick peek at the city’s population figures tells the tale. Between 1971 and 1981, the city barely grew, increasing in population from 2,089,729, to only 2,137,295 — that’s less than 50,000 in a decade. Today, Toronto is growing by roughly 35,000 a year.

But the suburban areas around the city grew by 400,000 people during that same time. People were still moving to the Toronto area and starting families here: they were just doing it in the suburbs, which expanded dramatically. That meant that, for a brief period, the city had sufficient transit. The system wasn’t perfect, but it was suited to the city’s size — and the size didn’t change for a decade. Toronto was able to coast on what it had built.

“The system was a decent size for what was there,” explained Steve Munro, an author, columnist, and transit analyst in Toronto. “This was when there were still farms north of Steeles Avenue” — now the city’s northern border. In the 1970s and ’80s, while the Toronto area’s population was growing everywhere except in the city of Toronto, Munro explained, the region’s need for new transit capacity was handled by GO Transit, the provincial agency that connects downtown Toronto to the suburbs with buses and trains. So, although the TTC was building little new capacity, Munro said, GO “provided lots of new capacity … outside the 416.”

The problem, of course, is that Toronto eventually began growing again. The growth was modest in the early 1980s but picked up steam and has kept up since. Toronto should have begun building out its capacity in the ’80s — the ’90s at the very latest — as population growth ate away at whatever reserve capacity existed in the system. But in the early ’90s, a recession hit, and two things happened at once.

The first: budgets were slashed everywhere, including at the TTC. In 1995, the Progressive Conservatives were elected under Mike Harris, and, as part of their budget cuts, a planned new subway line on Eglinton Avenue — on which construction had already begun — was cancelled and the excavation work filled in. Existing service levels and maintenance efforts were also cut. And, as Toronto shed jobs, the TTC shed riders. Passenger volumes dropped 20 per cent over the course of the 1990s. This compounded the TTC’s financial problems, as the commission has always depended on passenger fares for the overwhelming percentage of its revenue. This set up a vicious downward spiral: lower ridership forced cuts to service, which discouraged ridership, and so on. Not only did the TTC not expand — it atrophied.

The story above is somewhat simplified, of course. There was some construction of new transit infrastructure in Toronto during this period. The Scarborough RT opened in 1985, and the Harris government, though it cancelled the Eglinton West line, did proceed with the Sheppard subway, which opened in 2002. But even these “successes,” Munro noted, were in suburban areas. Politicians eager for suburban votes, he explained, saw more value in adding transit in low-density areas than in building transit where it was actually needed.

This is why Toronto now has a short, little-used subway in North York and a new line into York Region near York University but is nowhere close to building the desperately needed relief line into downtown — a project that has been recognized as a priority for literally generations.

When will we get it? Stay tuned for Part 2.

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