Toronto: The Subway we Actually Built

Did you know we built a subway last year? It connects downtown with pieces of the city that have never before seen rapid transit service. It passes under main streets and mainline railroads. I'm not talking about Eglinton Avenue, or any part of Scarborough. No, we built a subway to the airport. But just don't call it that.

When it comes to infrastructure, I get asked an awful lot what I would do, given my obvious interest. Everyone has a wish list, but when money is scarce and time is running out often the most important decisions you can make are the ones that concern the stuff you already have. Case and point, the so-called Union-Pearson Express. Numerous provincial governments have mounted an obsessive pursuit to link Pearson Airport with downtown Toronto, despite the fact that only 1% of airport travelers and workers even want to go there. It should come as no surprise, then, that the UP Express carries about as many people daily as a single GO train.

Actually, slightly less.

What got lost in all of these discussions is that the corridor whose fait accompli this had become is not empty. It has been earmarked for frequent intra-city train service, high speed inter-city train service, a bike path and a subway. Well, at least we built one of those things...

Transportation is a fascinating thing, really. What I find the most interesting is that it changes over time. People don't want to go to the same places they did a hundred years ago, and they likely won't want to go to the same places they do now, in a hundred years. So why are we so interested in building infrastructure that serves a singular purpose? A train to the airport; a subway to Scarborough. 

What we really need back in our lexicon is the word through.

I love Amsterdam for a lot of reasons, but high on the list is that their urban planning is divine. Your first instinct might be to complain that we aren't enough like London, or Paris. But London's tube is labyrinthine and Paris' metro is actually incredibly small. Dense, but small. More importantly, they also built subways to their airports. Schiphol airport, in Amsterdam, is not connected to the local subway network. It is, however, connected to the regional train network. It is a major hub on the train network, from which you can access almost every single city and town in Holland.

That's because trains don't go to Schiphol Airport. They go through it.

The worst thing about those London and Paris comparisons is that Toronto can never be London or Paris in the way you want it to when you make them. On the other hand, Toronto can be Amsterdam. Not in most ways, but in this specific one. Lets see how:

This map shows what I would call regional rapid transit in and around Pearson Airport, as it is likely to look in about 5-10 years after the current wave of construction finishes. The black line is the airport express train, the dark green lines are frequent GO train services and the light green lines are GO transit's frequent bus rapid transit services, largely traveling Highway 407. The two large black circles are Pearson Airport and Union Station- the busiest transportation hubs in all of Canada by a wide margin. The subway network is shown in heavy, but pale red lines. Though frequent, it just isn't that useful in this context.

It seems logical, then, to connect the two. But Union Station isn't popular because it connects to the airport. It's popular because you can get there from all corners of the greater Toronto area. Likewise, Pearson Airport isn't busy because it connects to Union, its busy because it connects to almost every major city in the world. It would be naive to assume that all those people, from all those places, just want to go downtown. 

Do you notice how, despite being in the middle of a whole lot of connections, Pearson Airport only has one?

If you were trying to get there from literally anywhere other than Union Station via something resembling rapid transit, it would be extremely difficult.

It stands to reason, then, that a line through Pearson Airport would be busier than a line to the airport. Unfortunately, there aren't any lines that go through the airport, but Pearson already has an inter-terminal train that connects the two terminal buildings to a massive parking garage across the road. This could simply be extended about 1km north to the mainline railroad (where the dark green train already runs,) making the entire airport train problem moot.

It could even follow the railroad to the nearest station, where it connects to the growing, massively frequent bus rapid transit service. See how one new connection creates so many more? Direct-to-downtown train service is still available, and the tracks leading downtown that were taken up by the lightly-used airport train can now be used to run even more frequent regional train service, or maybe a local-stopping subway too.

See what we just did there?

But what if we kept thinking that way? No one has ever fully explained to me why subways seem to take whatever path they like, meandering through the city from destination to destination, but regional trains and buses are bound by highways and railroads that haven't adapted to the cities they pass through. Look at the light green bus network- it follows the provincial highway system and completely misses the airport trying to serve the outer suburbs. It then splits up and duplicates most of the train services, because neither network is very well co-ordinated. The buses try to follow local streets and highways to get to train stations that often eschew both for the historic centres of railroad towns that no longer exist.

The worst part really is that neither train tracks nor highways are where people want to be- their virtue is that they already exist.

Take another leap with me- what if all of those lines around the airport are avoiding it simply because there is no good route through it? What if we fixed that problem?

The result is a beautifully streamlined system, where you can get from Pearson Airport, and from Union Station, to almost anywhere in the greater Toronto area with just a few simple, frequent services. Not unlike Amsterdam, where Central Station and Schiphol Airport are both massive railway hubs connected by innumerable through services, and not a single purpose-run airport express. I've been cautiously optimistic about the airport train because even though the current product is conceptually silly, for lack of a better word, the infrastructure is sound. We built a lot of really useful things (like tunnels and tracks,) and maybe one day we'll actually put them to good use.