Good Reads about Public Transit

Moving the residents of Toronto is a topic that is getting increased attention in the media. Living where we do at the centre of the population influx and the crossroads of the subway, the debate is one of interest to the ABCRA neighbourhood.

The Globe and Mail discusses the benefits of living in dense cities built around good public transit and the TORONTOist has interesting interactive charts to help you compare the costs of subway over LRT. 

Both good reading.  


Photo Credit: bradley.obrien from the Torontoist Flickr Pool


Why we’re better off living in hyperdense cities built around mass transit


Vishaan Chakrabarti is getting into a cab. This is a bit surprising because the architect and academic is a constant transit rider, like most of his neighbours in Manhattan.


“I’m a guy who’s usually in the subway, unless I have a few calls to make,” he admits good-naturedly as a fire truck screams past him. He thinks we should ride the subway, too – his new book, A Country of Cities, argues that “hyperdense” cities built around mass transit, make us more prosperous and happier, too.





Video: London gambles with Chinatown's future




Video: The ugly face of China's urbanization




Video: Marcus Gee on the simplicity (ha!) of transit in Toronto


“We’re better off living in dense urban environments that are centred around mass transit,” he says, after settling on directions with the taxi driver. “In the U.S., they’re the most economically productive environments; they’re the most sustainable environments; and they’re the most socially mobile environments.”

He’s not alone in making such arguments. In the world of urbanism and planning, there’s been a barrage of recent books on similar themes – The End of Suburbia, The Triumph of the City, Cities are Good for You. But Mr. Chakrabarti has written maybe the most useful one, a polemic in favour of city living that makes the stakes clear.

He argues for more development with “hyperdensity” – enough population density to support subway lines. America, he writes, should try to remake itself as a nation with populous, walkable neighbourhoods, rural land and nothing in between. This means building mass quantities of affordable urban housing; funding subways, light rail and high-speed rail, and new schools and public buildings; cutting back tax breaks for home ownership and reducing spending on roads and highways.

Eventually, the typical American would live in “a transit-based, multi-centred” city “similar to contemporary London.” They would be living in a much more sustainable way. They’d have more time to spend with family; they’d be healthier; they’d be happier, living with good transit, work and cultural amenities close by, and no highway driving necessary.

All this could happen with low-rise but dense development on the scale of, say, Montreal’s Plateau district.

It’s a radical vision. Today three-quarters of Americans live in car-oriented suburbs and, according to census data by Queen’s University urban planner David Gordon, about two-thirds of Canadians do, too.

When he appears in Toronto next week, Mr. Chakrabarti will be debating author Robert Bruegmann, whose book Sprawl: A Compact Historyargues for the virtues and the necessities of suburbs – which are still very much here, and growing.

But Mr. Chakrabarti’s arguments reflect a momentous change that is gearing up America and here, too: Economics and culture are pushing more of us to live in places where we can walk and take transit. It took a half-century of change to establish today’s suburbs. Now the change is starting to go the other way, and Mr. Chakrabarti’s book helps us understand where we’ll land in another few decades.

What do cities have to offer, for all the expense and tradeoffs they require? For one thing, economic opportunity. Working with American stats, the numbers are startling: 3 per cent of America’s land mass, basically the cities, generates 85 per cent of its economic activity.

The Chicago region alone (a tiny smudge on the map of the continent) generates more economic activity than most of the U.S. states. This is where jobs, and the opportunities to find better opportunities, lie.

Then there are lifestyle and health questions that make walkable cities more attractive. The old malaise of the city – pollution, the threat of crime, and racial and ethnic tension – “has all but dissipated” in the 21st century, he says. At the same time, life in the car-oriented suburbs is less pleasant than it used to be. Traffic congestion, higher gas prices and an increasing awareness that driving everywhere is bad for you. City dwellers are healthier.

And then there is the desire to live more sustainably. There is no question, as Mr. Chakrabarti says, that the densest cities provide the smallest carbon footprints. City dwellers have smaller footprints than those who live in exurbs or rural areas: They travel shorter distances, live in attached houses or apartments, drive cars less often, walk more.

Mr. Chakrabarti, who is a principal at the brilliant, innovative firm SHoP Architects and teaches real estate at Columbia University, is both idealistic and pragmatic. He’s hoping that public investment and good, innovative urbanism and design could really change the world. And this will require huge political change. “It’s not about every site being New York or Hong Kong,” he says. “People could still choose whether they want to live in suburbs, but we would see more investment from governments that would build on what is already a very strong demographic trend.”

Indeed, his general point of view is strong among young people. “Millennials are showing a stubborn resistance to living in suburbs,” as he puts it. There’s no doubt that this is correct – young Canadians and Americans are less likely to own cars and have driver’s licences. The most valuable city real estate today, according to a recent report from the Brookings Institution, is in places that are walkable.

The conversation is changing. Ken Greenberg, a distinguished Canadian urban designer, points out that on the vanguard, the Vancouver and Toronto condo booms are drawing young people who have radically unconventional attitudes about living space, stuff and getting around. “Among people who live in downtown Toronto, 46 per cent walk to work,” he says. “Not cycle, not take transit … just on foot.” On the other hand, most new development growth is still in car-oriented suburbs.

“It’s like turning a battleship,” says Mr. Greenberg. “It’s a very interesting, volatile time, with both things going on at once. The shift is happening, but we are still producing the old paradigm on autopilot.”

On paper, Canadian governments – especially in Ontario, the capital of sprawl – espouse many of the goals shared by Mr. Chakrabarti and other city partisans. And yet, as Mr. Greenberg argues, “We’re not going to walk away from all that suburban development we created in the last couple of generations.

“From St. John’s to Vancouver, talk to planning directors in all those cities, and they tell you about two things they’re doing simultaneously: one is the in-fill and repopulation of all the centres, and the second thing is, they all have plans for introducing improved transit and intensification along the transit lines in the suburbs.”

Making that work, Mr. Greenberg argues, is the big challenge for the next generation. Before Canadians all become city dwellers, it’s time to recognize that we are a suburban people – and that some new transit would be good for us.

Alex Bozikovic is The Globe and Mail’s architecture columnist. 
The Globe and Mail  Published Friday, Oct. 11 2013, 5:00 PM EDT Last updated Saturday, Oct. 12 2013, 2:27 PM EDT 



Subway vs LRT: You Do the Math on Scarborough Transit


Council will yet again debate whether it's light rail or a subway for Scarborough. We've got some interactive charts, to help you figure out how much each one costs.



Photo by bradley.obrien from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.


Subways are once again on city council’s agenda, part of the ongoing, never-ending debate about the future of Scarborough transit. The City and the province already have a signed agreement to build a seven-stop light rail route; that plan would be fully paid for by Queen’s Park. This past summer, however, TTC Chair Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) and councillor Glenn de Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre)—with some enthusiastic cheerleading from mayor Rob Ford—spearheaded a push to reopen that agreement and build a three-stop subway instead.

The problem: that subway will cost approximately $1.5 billion more than the LRT, and though the federal government recently announced it would kick in $660 million of that money, city council must find the rest. This will mean significant property tax increases—something Rob Ford himself rejects (even though he wants the subway that property tax increase would purchase).

But in fact, the subway may be a lot more than $1.5 billion extra. That’s a baseline projection, assuming that interest rates stay low and there aren’t any cost overruns. If interest rates go up, or the project goes over budget, the impact on the City’s budget could be much greater.

Here is how the numbers stack up…

Construction costs
How much it will take just to build the routes, before we pay for drivers, maintenance, and day-to-day operations:

 Total CostCost to TorontoLength (km)Cost/kmAnnual ridershipCost per riderRush hour ridershipPpl in walking distanceAdditional development chargesSubway$3,560,000,000$910,000,0007.6$468,421,05336,000,000$999,50024,000$165,000,000LRT$1,990,000,000$09.9$201,010,10131,000,000$648,00047,000$0

Cost Overruns and Operating Costs
Here is your chance to really test the math. Using the drop-down menus in the chart here, you can adjust the interest rate if you think borrowing costs might go up, or you can factor in a project overrun if you’re worried about construction costs. You can also add in the operating costs: the drivers and maintenance and day-to-day management that haven’t yet been accounted for. Each time you change an assumption, our calculator will give you new numbers—you can see those changes in the project totals up above.

Total over 30 years[?]Annual costProperty tax increase [?]Annual average property tax increase [?] 4.2% 4.45% 4.70% 4.95% 5.20% 5.45% 5.70% 5.95% 6.20% [?] Borrowing Cost$0$00.00%$0Cost overruns [?] 0% 5% 10% 15% 20% 25% 30% 35% 40% $0$00.00%$0SUBWAY operating cost [?] $0 $30,000,000 $35,000,000 $40,000,000 $0$00.00%$0LRT operating cost [?]N/A$00%$0

Property Taxes
Toronto’s top civil servant is recommending a 1.6% property tax increase over the next three years; at that rate it would take 30 years to pay for the subway—and that’s just for construction costs. Add in any overruns or interest rate increases, and also operating costs (which we pay only if we build a subway, since the province has agreed to pick up the operating costs for an LRT) and property taxes would need to go up more. Based on the choices you made above, here is the property tax impact:

TotalAnnualTotal property tax increaseAnnual average property tax increase [?]Property taxes needed$745,000,000$38,000,0001.60%$38

Debt Levels
How would a subway affect our credit rating? In order to stay in good standing the City has established a debt ceiling of 15%, which means that the City’s debt servicing cost in any given year should never amount to more than 15% of its property tax revenue in that same year. Here is how the debt ratio would be affected by the Scarborough subway:

 201720182019202020212022Without subway12.4%12.07%11.79%11.55%11.37%11.24%With subway13.42%13.09%12.81%12.57%12.39%12.26%

What Could We Build Instead?
Finally, there’s the question of opportunity cost: what we could build instead of a subway for the same amount of money? Here are some other ways we could spend the funds. The total at the very bottom shows the amount the subway would cost, based on all the choices you made above. Click on the alternative projects you’re interested in to see how much you could accomplish with the subway money if you put it to other uses.

Keep in mind: if we skipped the subway all of these alternative projects could be in addition to the LRT, since that would be fully funded by the province.

Alternative ProjectHow Much It Would CostTCHC repairs$751,000,000Lower Don flood protection$600,000,000LRT extension to Malvern$1,260,000,000Jane LRT$630,000,000East Bayfront LRT$300,000,000Repair the Gardiner$505,000,000Buy a $300,000 condo for every homeless person$1,560,000,000Improve the TTC’s state of good repair by 50%$1,250,000,00010 new libraries$85,000,00010 full-service community centres$295,000,000Pan Am Games Athlete’s Village$709,000,00030,000 Platner chairs$75,000,000Amount you have to spend:


If you have any questions on how to use the calculator or how the numbers work, feel free to leave them in the comments and we’ll answer as soon as we can.


How Much Would a Scarborough Subway Really Cost?

Our thanks to Senning Luk and Dmitry Beniaminov for help with the table coding.

CORRECTION: 11:26 AM We originally referred to the City’s debt when writing about the impact on credit ratings when we meant the annual debt servicing cost.