The case for delaying Toronto’s subway plans

OPINION: The justification for the Ontario line and other transit plans was a growing army of workers commuting to downtown offices every day. What if they don’t come back after COVID-19?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 08, 2021
Given the uncertainty around the long-term state of Toronto’s downtown, the province should pause its plans for major subways around the city. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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Toronto’s transit ridership hasn’t yet recovered from the pandemic, the Toronto Star reported earlier this week. More ominously still, it’s not clear it ever will. In order for the TTC to get back to 90 per cent of its pre-pandemic ridership, universities and colleges will need to return exclusively to in-class instruction, the office towers downtown will need to be at least 80 per cent of their January 2020 levels, and all restrictions on bars, restaurants, and theatres will need to be gone. That last one, at least, is likely to happen next year, but the other two are harder to predict — and they’re vastly more important for the long-term ridership of the city’s mass-transit system.

Given the profound uncertainty around the long-term state of Toronto’s downtown core, and the enormous costs of getting this kind of decision wrong, the province should at least pause its plans for major subways around the city: the Ontario Line, the Scarborough subway extension, and the Yonge Line North extension. ( Spoiler: it won’t. I don’t have that kind of influence.) 

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The growth of 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 have always been countervailing pressures, and the pandemic has amplified many of them. There are at least three good reasons we should be cautious about assuming that transit ridership in the downtown core will be as robust in the future as it’s been for the past 20 years or so.

The first and most immediate reason transit riders may not come back is that, during the pandemic, a huge number of people bought cars to meet their needs, and they’re not all going to sell their cars when 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’s a safe bet that, after a vehicle has become part of a household budget, purchasers will become long-term car users. They might still own Presto cards to use for the occasional transit trip (a night out where nobody wants to be the designated driver, say), but, at least for the next decade, we should assume there’s been an increase in the number of motorists relative to transit users.

Planners don’t always understand why so many people choose to drive into the core despite plentiful transit options and the stresses of congestion. I often find that mysterious, too.  But drivers did, in huge numbers every day before COVID-19. And it’s notable that, while transit demand is still suppressed all over the GTHA, the region’s highways are much closer to their pre-pandemic levels. We shouldn’t assume that new motorists are going to magically revert to being transit users.

Looking farther out carries its own problems. We should assume, as a planning baseline, that homes in Toronto will not get more affordable. Events earlier this week are a good reminder that our political class is full of cowards on this file, and since they will likely be handily re-elected, Toronto will continue to get less and less affordable, making it harder for anyone who doesn’t already own a home to make a career here. We as citizens can change this with better policies, but absent a sea change in the city’s (and province’s) politics, there’s no reason to assume we’ll break with several decades of history. It's actually more reasonable to assume that housing costs will continue to escalate and that, as they do, they’ll slowly choke off employment as firms start looking for places elsewhere in the province or country or continent where attracting and retaining talent doesn’t incur the penalty of this city’s absurd costs.

Even if they don’t affect overall population growth, Toronto’s high costs will almost certainly change the composition of whoever does settle here: there will be fewer working- and middle-class households and more six-figure families. These are precisely the households that are most able to opt out of transit commutes, because they work remotely or own cars or ride-share or buy homes within walking distance of their workplace.

Remote work is, unsurprisingly, the third reason we should be reassessing our subway plans. We will undoubtedly see some people return to offices downtown — but how many? And, crucially, how often will they all need to be on the subway at the same time during the morning rush hour? Some personal testimony 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 rush hour had subsided. (Question period at Queen’s Park starts at 10:30 a.m.) Remote work doesn’t just mean that workers don’t need to come into the office every day; it also means that, even when they do come into the office, they don’t all need to at the same time — meaning the city’s transit network wouldn’t necessarily need to meet ever-growing rush-hour demand.

All of these forces will outlast COVID-19, and all of them can affect transit demand both independently and in interaction with one another. They exist in our lives right now and are far less theoretical than rosy assumptions that office towers will be back to 100 per cent nine-to-five occupancy in a year’s time. Some of them — like the prevalence of remote work — aren’t really in anybody’s control and will be shaped in part by what large employers decide they need to offer workers in order to retain talent. And yet the province is staking billions of dollars on subway plans that effectively pretend neither the pandemic nor its knock-on effects have happened. 

The costs of delaying these plans even a year so that we can have more clarity about the state of the city would be marginal; the costs of charging ahead with these subways and making a generational mistake would be enormous. The province should pause its subway plans, but it’s safe to say that Premier Doug Ford would sooner drink poison, and the decade of political trauma over the Scarborough subway at Toronto city council means that nobody there wants to upset the fragile political cease-fire that now exists. Having watched some of the trauma in person when Premier Ford was merely Councillor Ford, I’m sympathetic.

It's possible the above is all far too pessimistic. Indeed, as a resident of this city who continually tries to advocate for Toronto to do better in spite of itself, I hope I’m wrong. But make no mistake: billions of dollars are on the line here, and if we get this wrong, there won’t be any refunds — just a huge pile of badly spent money we’ll never get back.

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