Revisiting the North York Relief Line

It seems every councillor has their pet transit project now, and none is more blatant than Councillor Pasternak’s push for a “North York Relief Line” that would “close the loop” by extending the Sheppard Line to Downsview Station (soon to be renamed Sheppard West, for maximum confusion). City Council just formally requested that Metrolinx include the extension in its “Next Wave” of projects to be built by 2031 with new taxes it is about to start collecting – but Metrolinx has been pretty clear that the Next Wave projects are not up for discussion. The demand has faced massive ridicule, only some of which is deserved. Let’s deal with the obvious untruths.

Sheppard_Yonge_Westward

It’s not a North York Relief Line. North York does not need “relief” on its subway system in the sense that we associate with the choked-up segments of the system downtown. The system north of Sheppard generally has capacity available, especially on the Sheppard and Allen Rd segments. People whose destinations are on the Yonge line are unlikely to take a train 4km out of their way and back just to make room for people getting on further south.

Where there is crowding in North York it’s on the Yonge line south of Sheppard. When I lived at Yonge and York Mills, I routinely could not get on the trains during the morning rush hour. These North Yorkers would most benefit from a parallel subway line east of Yonge St that would intercept downtown-bound trips before they got to Yonge, and by improved GO Transit service through North York (ie, at Old Cummer and Oriole Stations). The DRL will provide some relief to North York by diverting some traffic from Yonge, although in order for it to have maximum impact, it needs to get north of Eglinton. Hence, if we’re going to build 4km of subway to relieve North York, it seems the obvious place to do so is an extension of the yet-to-be-built DRL north of Eglinton.

It also won’t “close the loop” – there’s no loop to speak of, it’s just a set of intersecting lines. At this point, the only way to close the loop of the Yonge-University-Spadina line is to run a service through Vaughan, which would be madness. It’s unclear that anyone is attracted to subway service simply because it runs in loop shapes on a map.
I grew up right by Downsview Station and frequently took the Sheppard bus (or similar service) between Downsview and Sheppard Stations. Between Sheppard and the York University Rocket service, busses are frequent and the trip can take as little as ten minutes. A subway would beat that, but not by a significant amount, and a parallel bus service would still be necessary for local stops.

Still, Pasternak is correct that there’s a gap in the current plans for crosstown service in the northern part of the city. The Finch LRT will terminate at Keele, the Sheppard Subway runs only between Yonge and Don Mills, and then the Sheppard LRT takes over to Meadowvale. But does the gap between branches of the YUS need to be filled? And if so, with what?

Originally, a Subway was planned to continue along Sheppard West, but that was replaced in the Transit City plan with an LRT along Finch West. It would be silly to build both, so which is the better option?

map_Finch_West

All the improvements to transit in the city’s east and west ends will change the way people use transit in Toronto. Services like the YUS extension could reorient where people in the northwest of the city travel, diverting some of their trips away from Yonge St. Conversely, improvements to travel in the east end could increase ridership on the Sheppard Subway. It’ll be worth looking at what actually happens to ridership and travel patterns when these projects open between 2016-2021.

Both projects have their merits. The Sheppard Subway is shorter and could probably be built with less disruption since it’ll likely only have one station at Bathurst (originally proposed stations at Senlac and Faywood were later dropped from the plan, although if the area is upzoned, they could possibly improve the proposal). The Sheppard Subway could potentially be interlined with the YUS extension to provide a one-seat ride from Don Mills to York University, and the connection to the Finch LRT for those travelling further west. (The TTC has long been opposed to interlining because of the botch job of the Yonge/University/Bloor interlining in the 1960s, but the culture could change.) The Sheppard subway would, by design, provide faster service for people travelling across the region, rather than those travelling to specific destinations along the route. We also have a surfeit of subway cars now, so we likely wouldn’t have to purchase new vehicles to run on the line. And if the system is interlined with YUS, that could actually help TTC operations by facilitating car moves from Wilson Yard to the Yonge line (the TTC has suggested as much in the past, insofar as it could forestall the need to build a new storage yard north of the city on Yonge).

The Finch LRT would be longer, might have disruption at the street level, and does also include some underground portions (exiting Keele Station, and between Bathurst and Yonge), which will drive up costs on this portion of the line. We’d also likely need to buy more vehicles, although there will already be a storage yard for them. Riders travelling further east would have to transfer on the Yonge Line for two stops to the Sheppard Subway (or take the Finch East bus). The Finch LRT would be slower and have more stops, providing better local service.

There are more people living along the Finch corridor now, and ridership on the Finch bus is currently higher than the equivalents along Sheppard (CAVEAT: those numbers don’t specify the parts of the routes being discussed or include overlapping routes). It’s unlikely Finch riders would be diverted to a Sheppard West subway, but it’s possible that the ridership patterns will change significantly when the new infrastructure comes online. It’s possible that ridership on the Finch West bus could drop significantly once the subway opens, and it’s possible the Sheppard East subway could see significantly more riders once the Sheppard LRT opens (to say nothing of York Region’s new VIVA BRTs). Ultimately, the question hinges on which is shows more ridership growth potential: local trips or crosstown trips?

Neither option is or ought to be the top priority for spending on transit infrastructure, with so many other neighbourhoods crying out for investment now. What we ought to do is keep both options open, and investigate how transit needs have evolved in North York after the new subway and LRT are built. It’s likely that both options will cost about the same amount of money, but we won’t know which will give us the best bang for the buck until we know what the city’s transit needs have evolved into ten years from now.

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