Battling over transit systems in Toronto

For the last three years the City of Toronto has been battling over new transportation technologies. On the one side the Mayor and some of his supporters have argued for new subways. On the other are council members who support light rail transit (LRT) and a plan put in place by the previous municipal administration. Unfortunately the debate has been heated and highly political with little regard for the facts.

Toronto’s public transit system, consisting of a mix of subways, buses, streetcars, and one 6 km intermediate capacity rail line powered by linear induction motors. Everyone agrees that Toronto needs more public transit. For a while it seemed that City Council had agreed on a subway-based model, though the support of many councillors was weak. However, at least one mayoral candidate now says that, if elected, he will scrap this plan and revert to an LRT-based plan.

The public part of the Toronto debate has obfuscated some of the key facts:

  • there is little doubt that subways are in many ways a preferred approach to public transit where passenger volumes justify.
  • subways are many times more expensive than LRT on a per km basis.
  • subways normally take much longer to build than LRT.
  • subways can carry more passengers over longer distances than LRT but stations are often further apart than LRT stops, meaning that more walking or transfers from buses are needed.

In short, if people need transit now, to overcome congested buses, subways, and streetcars, the LRT provides a quicker and cheaper solution, meaning more transit for the money spent.

Some of the politicians promoting subways seem to think that someone other than the user or the taxpayer will pay for them (business?) and they often seem to confuse, perhaps deliberately, streetcars, which do cause traffic congestion, and LRTs, which can be synchronized with traffic control to minimize additional congestion.

The result of the ongoing debate, now extended at least until October’s municipal election, is that little progress is being made on new transit for Toronto. Transit users and potential users will be the casualties, at least in the short term.

Transit planning is important to business. People use transit to get to work. Congestion, both on transit systems and on roads, saps the energy of employees and reduces their productivity. Transit systems cost a lot of money, much of which comes from business taxes. Traffic congestion reduces the productivity of delivery systems and parking tickets cost business big dollars.

Last July the Toronto Board of Trade, the largest multi-sector voice for business in Toronto, said the following about transit:

Politics trumps progress. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen over the decades, this begets delayed projects and higher costs. Meanwhile our transportation network falls further and further behind the needs of our residents and our economy. There must be a better way.

Hopefully Toronto voters will get the message next October.

The Toronto Board of Trade statement on transit is at


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