Which Is Better for a City, Subways or Surface Transport?

CC BY 2.0. Andy Burgess/Flickr

There is a never ending debate going on in Toronto about whether to build a three-stop subway in the former suburb of Scarborough, or whether to build a seven-stop LRT (Light Rapid Transit) system. Mayor Rob Ford, who hates transit because it gets in the way of his Escalade, says “People want subways, folks... subways, subways. They don’t want these damn streetcars blocking up our city!” Somehow he struck fear into the hearts of suburban councillors who are convinced that World Class Cities have subways and that LRT is somehow second-rate, and right now the subway, which costs twice as much and serves half as many people, is the approved system.

comparing subways

© The Grid

One factor in the choice is the projected demand: which system will have bigger ridership? In the Globe and Mail, Oliver Moore writes a thoughtful article that looks at the math, the calculations of how many people are going to be riding the subway and concludes that it's complicated, and nobody really knows. It is also clear that nobody really cares; Subway booster Glen de Baeremaeker simply says "All Toronto residents should have access to a good healthy vibrant transit system."

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But what exactly is a healthy vibrant system? Through the entire article, it becomes clear that nobody is actually questioning what transit is actually supposed to do. They appear to think of it only as a big pipe that takes people downtown, when it is in fact much more than that.

It should be about city building, not city emptying.

TOD report


As urban cycling and planning advocate Mikael Colville-Andersen notes, "We don't advocate shoving citizens underground. We want them on street level on foot, on bicycle and in trams." Because when people are underground they don't see what is going on around them, what is happening at grade, what new store or restaurant opened because there was now transit that could bring customers. Subways are for long distance travel, for getting people out of Scarborough; what you want is to build a vibrant community along the streets of Scarborough. You want the 10,000 students of the local college to hop on the LRT to go shopping locally, instead of passing them by. You want development, retail, apartments and street life to develop between transit stops instead of just on top of them. But to do that, you have to make them closer together; as the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy noted in their study of Transit Oriented Development,

The maximum recommended distance to the nearest high-capacity transit station for a transit- oriented development is defined as 1 kilometre, a 15- to 20- minute walk. Moreover, by building at higher densities closer to the transit station, a development can maximize the number of people and services that can easily be reached by a short walking distance.


You don't build a city by taking people off the streets and sticking them underground, but by thinking of the bigger picture:

Transit Oriented Development implies high quality, thoughtful planning and design of land use and built forms to support, facilitate and prioritize not only the use of transit, but the most basic modes of transport, walking and cycling.

Oliver Moore describes how subway supporters defend their positions:

In recent interviews, two of the biggest subway supporters on council played down the importance of ridership, suggesting that momentum and doing the right thing in Scarborough are more important.

Doing the right thing for Scarborough is not pumping people downtown a few seconds faster. It is getting the largest number of people from place to place within Scarborough, for setting up the best conditions for transit oriented development, and for letting people see what is going on around them instead of being dumped into an expensive pipe.