The “Queen Street” subway line that ignores Queen Street

Recent media reports of a Queen Street subway line are off the mark.

Queen Street – one of Toronto’s most vibrant avenues and home to what was recently coined one of the “coolest” neighbourhoods in the world – is finally getting a subway. Except most of the subway won’t run along Queen Street, won’t be used by the thousands of people that live along it and won’t service many of the street’s bustling communities and local businesses.

The real winner won’t be the residents of Queen Street’s dozens of large condo buildings and nearby homes, the businesses that dot it from its eastern and western legs or the many visitors from the GTA and world who come to soak up its famous culture and nightlife. The real benefit will accrue to small percentage of the city’s morning commuters travelling from distant parts of the city that will shave a few minutes off their trip to the office.

Toronto’s transit officials are once again talking up, what has in the past been called the Downtown Relief Line (DRL), but has been recently been referred to as the “Queen Street” route in the press.

The “Queen Street” line is, really, anything but. The subway, as it is currently being reported in media outlets, will run along Queen Street for 1.5 kilometres or less. Most of Queen Street’s most vibrant neighbourhoods – including Queen West, Leslieville and Parkdale – won’t be serviced by the new subway. Furthermore, areas such as the fast-growing Liberty Village and King West neighbourhoods – which would have access to a subway line along Queen Street West (or an alternative route along King Street) – won’t benefit from the proposed project.

While city planners and politicians present the new subway as meeting two needs – filling a “transit void” in the downtown core and relieving over-crowding on the Yonge subway line during the peak morning commute – the reality is that the overcrowding issue is already being addressed and the proposed route offers more transit in an area already well-served.

The areas serviced by the proposed subway already have ample access to multiple public transit options.

  • Pape station is currently serviced by the 72 Pape bus, the 25 Don Mills bus and the Bloor-Danforth subway line.
  • The future Gerrard station is currently serviced by 506 streetcar and the 72 Pape bus and in the future could be home to a Smart Track station.
  • The future Sherbourne station is currently serviced by 503 and 504 streetcar routes.

According to a study done by the TTC, ridership on the Yonge subway line is expected to be below capacity in 2031 after the planned upgrades, which include a better signalling system and larger trains. The TTC predicts that ridership on the Yonge subway line into the downtown core during the busiest hour in the morning will grow to around 35,800 riders by 2031, while capacity will increase to 36,000. The Yonge subway line is currently about 10% above capacity during rush hour.

A more recent study done by Metrolinx, the provincial agency in charge of transit planning across the GTA, showed that the move towards more frequent GO Train service will take customers off the TTC’s Yonge subway line. The result will be “about the same demand for the Yonge subway in 2031 as today but with higher capacity.” Metrolinx estimates that the Yonge subway line will operate 11% under capacity if the province moves ahead with its plan for more frequent GO Train service.

The proposed subway would also be an economic drain on the TTC, as it won’t attract a significant number of new customers and – even during the busiest times – will run well below capacity. According to the recent figures from Metrolinx, a subway line running from Pape to the downtown core will carry 10,800 customers during the morning commute – or about one-third of its capacity. Because the new line would be unable to cover much of its operating costs through fares, the TTC would be forced to continue with faster-than-inflation fare increases for all of its customers or lobby the city for a larger subsidy.

Furthermore, because many of the riders will have already been transit customers, they won’t result in a noticeable increase in the percentage of commuters who choose transit over alternative modes of travelling.

Is there an alternative to relieving crowded subway cars during the morning commute? Yes.

In order to combat peak hour congestion, many transit agencies around the world either offer customers a free or discounted ride in off-peak hours or charge customers more to ride during the busiest travel periods. The TTC could being offering differentiated fares in order to shift demand out of the peak travel period and avoid the expense of building an entirely new subway line just to handle overcrowding during a very short period of time.

An analysis by CPI showed that shifting as little as 1.5% of all customers out of the peak morning commute would more than offset overcrowding. Even offering a free ride in off-peak hours would be cheaper than building the DRL and would solve any lingering overcrowding issues.

Brady Yauch is an economist and Executive Director of the Consumer Policy Institute (CPI). You can reach Brady by email at: bradyyauch (at) consumerpolicyinstitute.org or by phone at (416) 964-9223 ext 236

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