Thursday, March 29, 2012

The zombie Sheppard subway must die: A rant

I ride transit to work. And like every Toronto transit rider, I have an opinion. Here it is.

Council has spoken: the Sheppard subway is a failure. It's costly and underused. It's not worth extending, even if it could be done for free. Now, east of Don Mills Road, Sheppard will be served by LRT; outside of the mayor's fever dreams, the Sheppard Subway will never be extended beyond its 5.5 km, five-stop stubby existence. It's dead.

But not really: council committed the key horror movie mistake of not finishing the job. After all that rhetoric of how terrible the Sheppard subway is, how short and pointless, how worthless it would be to extend (all good points!) ... it's still on the map. People are still going to ride it for the foreseeable future. The Sheppard LRT plan sets its undead, poorly designed, unexpandable failure in concrete for our childrens' children to admire.

This zombie subway will haunt every discussion about transit in the north end from now until kingdom come. Any time rapid transit north of Eglinton gets discussed, some bright-eyed person will ask, "Well, wouldn't it be better just to extend the Sheppard subway?" And then we get to have the very same knife fight about transit over and over, like that time Kelsey Grammer was on Star Trek.

There's only one solution: the zombie Sheppard subway must die.

How does that happen? We cut out its heart: convert the subway so that the LRT can use it. One seamless trip from the current subway tunnels, on to the surface and into the east end.

Do this and everything becomes possible. West of Yonge Street, the LRT can come back to the surface -- cheaply -- for seamless connections to Downsview and beyond. On the existing subway line, it's the status quo: fast, underground transit with no serious loss in capacity. And we can finally achieve the dream of an affordable rapid transit network that connects the whole city. A thousand flowers will bloom and the lion will lay down with the lamb.

To get there, we'll have to spend some money: Royson James cites a TTC study that conversion would cost $800 million. This is (probably) the price for a full conversion to low-floor LRT cars (which would take lots of work, including lowering the subway platforms to track level); many commentators think that more creative solutions could be found for less money.

But let's say $800 million is the number: it's a small price to pay to kill a bad design dead. Mediocrity in transit is corrosive. You need look no farther than the current streetcar system, and its antiquated operating practices that virtually no other system in the world uses, to see why proper system design is important -- and worth spending money to do right the first time. Whatever form the system takes now, it is not unlikely that we will be using it that way for the rest of our lives. There is no fixing it later.

And think about this. The current plan calls for an underground transfer at Don Mills station, at the same level as the subway. This would be a complex and expensive job, comparable to building a new underground station; for a ballpark cost, let's say $100 million. We don't need this fancy transfer if the Sheppard line is all-LRT -- just the tunnel up to street level, which would be built either way. Plus, the current plan calls for a connection between the Spadina and Yonge subways along Finch, terminating at Yonge. Why not connect them with the Sheppard LRT -- a continuous transit line from Downsview all the way into Scarborough? You could still extend it further west if you wanted -- and the connection along Sheppard is some 2 km shorter than the one on Finch. That saves another $100 million or so. Would you look at that -- I just found $200 million for the LRT conversion. You're welcome, Toronto.

We'll never get a better chance to do this. I'll get the pitchforks and torches.

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