Editorial: Subway Follies

Transportation infrastructure influences the shape of cities for centuries. The road pattern of ancient Rome still provides settings for a thousand sidewalk cafés, long after most Imperial buildings have crumbled to dust. Yet governments seldom think carefully about how their transit decisions will influence future city form and the quality of experience enjoyed by—or inflicted on—our children and grandchildren. This is evident in Vancouver, where I am a professor of urban design at the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Along part of the city’s Broadway Avenue corridor, current officials insist on building an absurdly expensive ($400-million per kilometre, and rising) subway. Why? Ostensibly because it’s faster, doesn’t conflict with street traffic, and is theoretically capable of moving more people. But other high-capacity surface rail options can be had at less than a fifth of the cost. Toronto also has donned blinders in insisting on an as-yet-unfunded $3.5-billion one-station subway extension of the Bloor-Danforth line. Their choice is especially shocking given an earlier provincial government offer to pay for a high-capacity surface light rail system to serve the same district. Toronto is leaving billions on the table to satisfy its urge for a subway, seemingly compelled by a desire for Very Big Things.

subway, Toronto, Vancouver, LRT
The alluring high-speed underworld. Photo by Aaron Yeoman.

This is sad, because both cities once enjoyed extensive surface rail transportation—systems that served not just one corridor, but many. Both Vancouver and Toronto are examples of North American “streetcar cities,” built largely between 1890 and 1930, when migrant workers flocked to them and electric streetcars that served every arterial in the city. The legacy of this system is all around us. Both cities have a “sense of place” derived from their low-rise linear corridors that are now some of the most attractive and vibrant neighbourhoods. These residential districts have been fertilized by the street railway system that served them. Surface rail provided an even number of customers for each street section, insuring a similar distribution of commercial and then cultural services everywhere. The system induced a perfectly walkable density, with a symbiotic relationship between the customers and streetcars.

So if surface rail works efficiently and afford­ably, then what is the impetus behind such a costly venture as a multi-billion-dollar subway extension? Well, follow the money. Around every station will sprout a forest of high-rise condo towers, both to supply the astronomical need for density needed to both feed and justify the subway, and the development taxes needed to pay for it. Our future cities will boast shimmering necklaces of these towers strung along our rapid transit system. But what of the vast majority of residents who will live far beyond a ten-minute walking distance of the stations? For the cost of one short piece of subway, you could provide high capacity, comfortable, surface rail for an entire city. This more evenly distributed approach would capitalize on the huge investment made in the last century to create these “streetcar cities,” and would reinforce the qualities of the neighbourhoods that we hold dear.

City builders are now faced with a choice: we can construct a few expensive subway lines to serve largely unaffordable tower districts, while outlying neighbourhoods depopulate and their commercial streets decline. Or we can capitalize on what already exists—the above-ground world—with a surface-transportation system that strengthens the existing structure of our cities, and restores urban enclaves that are more walkable, affordable and sustainable.

Which kind of city do we want?